Can We Take the Bible Literally?”
on 2 Timothy 3:16 and Selected Texts
on March 13 & 14, 2010
David J. Claassen
2010 by David J. Claassen
best-selling book of all time, as you probably know, is the Bible.
No book is quoted more than the Bible. Yet once you move beyond the
walls of a church or connect with people beyond a circle of Christian
friends, you'll find that the Bible isn’t always held in the
highest regard — high regard, yes, but not always the highest
ask, “How do you know the Bible's true?” or “How can you take
the Bible literally?” The insinuation of such questions is that
the Bible is great literature — maybe even a great religious book —
but you can take it too
seriously! In the final analysis such people argue that it's a great
book, but not a perfect one.
well-meaning Christians try to argue the point by saying, “I
believe that the Bible is the Word of God because it says it is.”
Of course this doesn’t ring true to a skeptic — and frankly, it
shouldn't ring true to any thinking person, including a Christian.
It's a circular argument: “I know the Bible's true.” “How?”
“Because it says it is.”
would I respond to a person who says, “How do you know the Bible's
true? It was written by men. There's stuff in the Bible about
stoning people who worship a different god. And why do you follow
the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament but not the laws that
forbid eating pork or fish without scales?” What follows is some
of what I would say to such a person.
Reliability of the Bible
begin by asking whether the person believed that Jesus was a good
teacher. Usually people believe that He was. A friend of mine
who’s a Muslim and a retired doctor believes that; he told me so.
Jesus' teachings, His travels, and some of the things He did are
recorded in four documents that are included in the Bible. They're
called gospels. I'd respect a person's opinion that they aren’t
perfect and without error (which I've come to believe); I wouldn't
expect him to believe that. What I would argue, however, is that
they’re reliable documents. No one has proven them wrong — any
of them — in any way.
four were written within a lifetime of Jesus' life here on Earth.
Most scholars believe that the gospel of John was the last gospel to
be written — probably around 90 AD, 60 years after the events it
records. In fact, a fragment of the gospel of John containing
portions of John 18:31-33 and 37-38 has been found in Egypt. Experts
date this fragment at 130 AD; that's only a hundred years after the
events it records. It's old enough to be a copy of the original!
have many people in our church around 80 years of age; they remember
events 60 years ago, including World War 2, having participated in
them. Contrary to popular belief, the gospels were not
written centuries later. They were written by contemporaries of
Jesus, and two of the four writers (Matthew and John) were two of His
original twelve disciples.
the gospel writer Luke's intention for writing his account of Jesus.
It was really a document originally intended for one person: a Greek
named Theophilus. “Many
have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been
fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who
from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from
the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account
for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the
certainty of the things you have been taught.”
gospel writer John concluded his account of Jesus' teachings and life
in much the same manner that Luke began his gospel. John wrote,
did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples,
which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you
may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by
believing you may have life in his name.”
(John 20:30-31) A little later John wrote about himself, “This
is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them
down. We know that his testimony is true.”
gospel writers intended their accounts of Jesus' teachings and life
to be accurate. No one has ever come up with a reason to question
the reliability of what they recorded. What did they say about how
Jesus viewed the “Bible” of His day, which we know as the Old
tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the
smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means
disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
(Matthew 5:18) Jesus saw the Holy Scriptures as being God's perfect
word, right down to each letter of each sentence. Jesus Himself
quoted Old Testament Scripture when He was tempted in the wilderness
for forty days. He faced three major temptations, and each time He
faced it by saying, “It
is written: . . .”
and then quoting a passage (Matthew 4:4,7,10). He saw it as
His arrest Jesus indicated that it had to happen the way it was
happening because Scripture had prophesied it. “But
this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be
another occasion Jesus stated, “.
. . the Scripture cannot be broken — . . .”
(John 10:35) Jesus saw the Holy Scriptures of His day, which we know
as our Old Testament, as the inspired, completely trustworthy, and
authoritative Word of God.
about the New Testament? Obviously it wasn't yet written when Jesus
was here on Earth. The role of a disciple was to listen, learn, and
commit to memory, the teachings of the one they followed. It's clear
by the teachings Jesus gave His disciples that He intended them to
pass them on; they weren't just for them.
said that His disciples would have the help of the Holy Spirit of God
to expand God's truth: “But
when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all
truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he
hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory
to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”
(John 16:13) This includes the gospel accounts, as we've already
mentioned, but it also includes the remainder of what we know as the
New Testament: the historical book of Acts, all the letters
(epistles), and the book of Revelation by the apostle John. In fact,
in one of his letters in the New Testament the apostle Peter referred
to Paul's letters as Scripture! “Bear
in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear
brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He
writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these
matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to
understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do
the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
(2 Peter 3:15-16)
taught that the Old Testament, His own words, and the words and
teachings yet to be written about Him were true, authoritative words.
They're Scripture from God!
the Various Types of Scripture
of the problem people have with respecting the Bible as God's
trustworthy Word is that they fail to see that the Bible is made of
various styles of literature and that the books were written in
various times and places. Unless you understand the style, or genre,
of a specific book of the Bible, and the context of the time and
place it was written, you can't really grasp what it's saying.
Bible contains history (Genesis through Esther), wisdom literature
(Job through Song of Songs), prophets (Isaiah through Malachi),
gospels (Matthew through John), history (book of Acts), letters
(Romans through Jude), and the apocalyptic (book of Revelation).
Each genre is different.
instance, within the wisdom literature you have the book of Proverbs.
A proverb is a generalized statement of something that’s usually
true, though not necessarily in every case. For instance, we say,
“Haste makes waste.” We've all experienced times when we hurried
and it was a disaster, but not every time. This is good to remember
when you’re reading the book of Proverbs. They're a general
principle, not a promise. For instance, one proverb states, “Train
a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn
(Proverbs 22:6) This is a proverb, not a promise. Sometimes a child
who was raised well will rebel, may get into drugs, and might even
die — but generally, it's a principle that holds true. Not
realizing what a proverb is and isn't might lead someone to say,
“See, it's wrong! I know a kid . . . .”
psalms are poetry; what’s written is from the heart. The various
psalmists poured out their deepest feelings, doubts, and expressions
of anger. That's why a psalmist prayed to God about his enemies,
the teeth in their mouths, O God; . . .”
(Psalm 58:6) That verse doesn't give us the right to punch someone
in the mouth! That psalm isn’t teaching us how to treat our
enemies; it’s teaching how to pray honestly to God!
Old Testament laws must also be understood in context. People wonder
why we obey the Ten Commandments but don't follow the law to execute
someone who worships a different god, as Exodus 22:20 states:
sacrifices to any god other than the Lord must be destroyed.” It
must be understood that there are different kinds of law in the Old
Testament — mainly three kinds.
are ethical or moral laws that always are true, and that we’re
supposed to obey today. They reflect God's holy nature and the fact
that we’re supposed to be like Him.
are also ritual laws that applied to the people of Israel under the
old covenant, but that no longer apply under the new covenant through
Christ. For instance, the eating of unclean animals was prohibited
then, but it isn’t now. Jesus stated, “Don't
you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him
gospel writer Mark then added his editorial comment: “(In
saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean.')”
were also civil laws. The nation of Israel was a theocracy: God was
their king. Just as today a U.S. citizen can't threaten the
President of the United States, under a theocracy slandering or
cursing God was a capital offense.
to understand the genre and context of a portion of Scripture can
lead to all kinds of misunderstandings. Ironically, the very people
who criticize us for taking the Bible “literally” often take it
literally themselves, without considering good principles of
interpretation — and then they’re confused and end up doubting
its reliability and truthfulness.
seems reasonable that the great God of the universe, who created
humans in His own image, would have no trouble giving us a written
account of His actions and words, His thoughts and His heart's
desires. A careful study of and reflection on the Bible can easily
lead to the deep conviction that God has spoken! The apostle Paul
scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking,
correcting and training in righteousness.”
(2 Timothy 3:16)
God has spoken, we should listen and respond! I want to read and
hear what He has to say to me, and with His gracious help carry out
His intentions for me. You, too?