Is The Bible True?

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There is a fundamentalist anxiety that I hold in great sympathy. My sympathy is driven by the fact that I lived for many years under the burden of that very anxiety. It is the hidden fear that possibly, despite all faith exercised in the opposite direction, the Bible may not, in fact, be true. A great deal of energy is spent in maintaining the integrity of the dike that withstands this anxiety.

I grew in the shadow of Bob Jones University, one of the most prominent bastions of American fundamentalism. The ideas of that university permeate not only the students who study there, but in many ways the surrounding culture of Christianity in the area. The fear is pointed towards Darwin and any possibility of his evolutionary theory. It drives biology students at the university to reach strange conclusions, regardless of the science. I was taught at age ten by a biology student from Bob Jones, in a Baptist summer camp, that blacks were simply biological inferior to whites based on false information that he shared with a group of young, impressionable kids. Perhaps his biology was not the product of his university classes. But it was as baseless as much of the science that was done there.

The same fear drives the concern for the Flood of Noah and the age of the planet (not to mention any possible hint of evolutionary science). Thus the earth must be young, the flood must be literal (with perhaps a still existing Ark on Mt. Ararat). Science has an answer that it must prove, rather than a question to be answered. The agenda of such fundamentalist science is set by the need to refute anything that possibly undermines a peculiar view of Scripture. One flaw and the entire house of cards comes tumbling down.

It makes for bad science and even worse Biblical interpretation.

I am no friend of liberal Biblical studies. I suffered under such oppression for a number of years and can say that fundamentalism also has a liberal form. I was punished (intellectually) for believing all of the articles of the Nicene Creed as much as a Darwinist would suffer at Bob Jones. But that is its own story.

The history of literalism is a checkered affair. Some of the early fathers leaned in a literalist direction for many parts of Scripture, though leaving room for other, more symbolic approaches, where appropriate. The great battles over the historical literalism of Scripture arose in the 18th and 18th centuries in Europe and America (battles over certain scientific matters versus literalism began even earlier).

Part of the tragedy in these battles was that the battlefield itself was a fairly newly-defined area and failed to take into account the full history of Biblical interpretation. For a young believer in the midst of America’s own intellectual religious wars in the late 20th century – my question was whether the choices presented were the only choices available.

I should preface my remaining remarks with the simple affirmation: I believe the Bible is true.

Having said that, I must add that the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man. The Scriptures bear witness to Him and are thus “true” as a true witness to the God/Man Jesus Christ.

As others have noted, the Scriptures are true as they are accepted and understood by the Church that received them. They are Scripture as recognized by the Church and cannot be removed from the Church only to turn them against the Church. They are unique writings, and must be read in a unique way. That way is found in the liturgies of the Church and the commentaries of the Fathers.

It is also true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth. Read any other way, the books are interesting, but they will not be read in a manner that has been received by the Orthodox Christian Church.

Of course, the historical method (whether literal or historical critical) represents only two possibly ways of reading the text of Scripture. There are assumptions behind both that are problematic from an Orthodox perspective. For many, the notion of “salvation history” has become so dominant that they cannot think about history in any manner other than that which they have been taught. I can think of a number of problems:

First – the traditional modern view (whether fundamentalist or otherwise) of history, is a matter of chronology. It sees a beginning at some point in the past and a progression to some point in the future. This same chain of events is generally viewed as reality, or the ground of reality, and championed above all other things. God acts in history, they will argue, but history is somehow the reality with which God has to deal.

This is highly problematic for an Orthodox theological understanding. Not only does Scripture treat history as quite relative (Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, He is also the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth”), it in fact makes history subject to the end of things – making history simply one aspect of lived eschatology.

Thus time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.

By the same token, Holy Scripture is a Divine account of reality, not itself explained by chronology nor subject to historical validation, but subject to the Truth as it is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus the New Testament is Scripture, though the writings of Josephus or Tacitus are mere history.

There is a nervousness that runs through the body fundamentalist when phrases such as “mere history” are uttered. It is a nervousness that is born of the attempts of liberal modernists to dismiss as “myth and fiction” what are seen as events essential to our salvation in Christ. No one who is a believer could treat such anxiety with anything but sympathy. In many ways, with the tools at hand, conservatives in Western Christianity have fought a valiant fight to defend the faith against a serious contender. But that fight does not justify every argument advanced by fundamentalism. Orthodoxy offers a different approach.

I recognize a nervousness that occurs among many conservatives if “truth” is approached in any manner other than literal. Liberals have played games with words for so many years that believers are rightly wary of word-games. On the other hand, for theological accuracy, it is necessary to speak of truth and its character in Christian revelation. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth. This is not to say that He is the Truth as compared to some external criterion of truth, but rather that He Himself is the criterion and definition of what is true. Things are true and false only as they are compared to Him. He may be compared to nothing else.

By that token, it is problematic to define “truth” by some particular standard of “historicity.” I understand the importance of saying, “This is really true,” and would never want to deny such a thing. The tomb on Pascha was empty, Christ is truly raised from the dead by every standard and then transcending every standard. His resurrection is the true ground of all reality.

Having said that, it must also be said that the Scriptures are true (as Scriptures) only inasmuch as they reveal Christ as the risen Lord and what that means for all creation. The witness of the Church is that these writings do precisely that and are thus Scripture. But it is the resurrection of Christ that undergirds the Scriptures and not vice versa. The disciples did not understand the Scriptures until they understood the risen Lord. And this remains the case.

Thus the import of Noah’s flood is to be found in Holy Baptism and not the other way around. Creation as shared in the first chapter of Genesis is an unfolding of the Paschal mystery and it is from that mystery that it derives its value. I could multiply such examples. When this principle is forgotten, Christians find themselves arguing over points of geology or archaeology and not over the triumphant resurrection of Christ. If Christ is risen from the dead, everything else becomes moot. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then all Christian statements become moot.

Christ is risen from the dead.

What can we say to these things? The Scriptures are true because Christ is risen from the dead and this is their message. The faith of the Orthodox is that all things find their beginning and their end – their meaning and their fulfillment in the Pascha of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the good news. What other good news could there be?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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109 responses to “Is The Bible True?”

  1. zoe Avatar
    zoe

    Father Stephen, God bless.

    I just like to share my limited experience of knowing Christ and I hope and pray that it is helpful to seekers of the Truth that is Jesus Christ.

    On how can we be sure that we know Christ?
    Please read the whole chapter of the First Epistle of John Chapter 2.

    1John 2: 3 reads: “And hereby we do know that we know Him, If we keep His commandments.”

    The following is not a very good analogy nevertheless, this is the best I can do to try to explain my understanding of knowing Christ:

    When I buy a product from the store that needs to be assembled; the assembly instructions do not make any sense to me until I start reading and following the instructions one step at a time. My brain cannot process
    the whole serries of instructions by reading all at one time then doing the
    instructions later. The same is true with my experience in knowing Christ.
    It is not until I actually started obeying His (instructions) commandments that I begin to know Him. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that if I persevere to follow Jesus Christ’s commandments, most of my questions
    about the mysteries of God will be answered along the way in God’s own time and in His own way (not mine). I believe that reading and studying the Bible alone will not reveal to us the fullness of Christ. I have read the Bible off and on for more than half my lifetime and it is just now that
    I’m beginning to see the light. The experience of how we come to know Christ will be different for each person but the experience of having or knowing Christ in our daily lives will be the same.

  2. David Avatar
    David

    Despite my slightly over-confident tone in my last few posts there is a gap in my thinking on this and a sort of itch at the back of my mind that I should speak with more humility.

    I think part of the problem is that by being a little vague I hope to avoid saying something necessarily heterodox. You ask what is “knowledge” or “knowing”. While it is fair to ask, I have no answer for you except to admit my weakness.

    When I say things like, “If you know a rock, you know Christ (at least in a limited way) because Christ created the rock.” Such a statement isn’t really explainable. I don’t know how it works. I don’t know in what way you know Christ by knowing a rock. Never the less I am convinced of the Truth of this. (In this same way, the Bible is True.)

    I am also convinced that Father Stephen (and the Church tradition that he relates) is correct in saying that without a guide, a framework, an Apostolic teaching preserved within the Church, even the scriptures themselves are easily twisted into falsehood. It seems a very little point to extend that reasoning to all of Creation.

    All the knowable facts are there. However, they are easily jumbled into meaninglessness without the guidance of the Church. So you “know” things but do not “aware” of that “knowledge”. You have “facts” but no “wisdom”. Certainly there are additional “facts” or “experiences” exclusively within the Church (the Eucharist, for example) but in general I’m not looking for “facts” from the Church, but rather interpretations of facts.

    This is my feeble attempt.

    When the Church says I have “experienced” the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist but my toes didn’t tingle or some-such I allow the Church to define the meaning of the “experience” for me.

    So the Bible is True, but it is just a “pile of facts” easily misleading you until the Church assembles the Truth of it’s meaning from it.

    Perhaps I am speaking in circles here, in which case your charge of the lack of usefulness might be more fair than I had first believed.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Some brief observations:

    For a better understanding of the Church see Father’s posting on “Our Common Life”

    Knowledge of God comes not by our own understanding, but from above.

    The circumstances within which such knowledge is received or recognized differs from person to person. There is no formula. I can only testify to that which I know. When one enters the doors of an Orthodox Church to worship (despite our many short-comings), one enters the Kingdom of Heaven. The more often someone enters with an open heart and mind, the more aware one becomes of the Kingdom and its intersection with our world.

    The way of Christ is the way of the Cross. As Father Stephen points out in “Our Common Life” that extends to all who seek union with Him.

    The way of the world is opposite to the way of Christ. We are trained to just accept uncritically anything that the world offers to us for our pleasure and fulfillment while at the same time demanding iron-clad proof of God’s mercy and forgiveness in Jesus Christ and His Church before we respond.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Zoe,

    Your comment got stuck in the spam filter, so it was delayed in being posted. Sorry.

  5. David Avatar
    David

    Zoe, I am so grateful for your point about doing the instructions and not just reading them for understanding. That is much better than my attempts to explain it.

  6. zoe Avatar
    zoe

    Father Stephen, I cannot fully trust my slow website connection but I’m thankful to God and to you for this blog site;

  7. David Avatar
    David

    One of the problems with words like “reasonable” is that they can’t be consistently applied. If you think we are full of contradiction and sloppy thinking, you’ll have to come to grips with the paradoxes that develop when you recognize the millions of people you might initially consider not only reasonable, but brilliant, until you find out they also believe the Bible to be True. You define what is reasonable, by what you already assume.

    If people smarter than you or I can disagree on what is reasonable and what is not and there are plenty a portion of both on either side of the question, then is “reasonableness” (in the manner you mean) a meaningful measure of Truth?

    I gave up your line of thinking in my own life, precisely because there were too many people, too much smarter than me who could not agree on what Truth was. How was I ever to know it? That’s the question that brought me to my knees in the Narthex of St Herman Orthodox Church in Oxnard, CA.

  8. zoe Avatar
    zoe

    Jim, God will not force anyone to believe in Him or His Son Jesus Christ. We are free to make our own choices in this life. Since you firmly believe that the Bible is not true, and most of the responders to this blog are using the language of Faith (in God) taught in the Bible; while you are using the language of the philosophers whose aim in life is to ask endless questions;
    communication or understanding is impossible. You are talking, so to speak, in a different language than the rest of us. Count me as one more ignorant person and forgive me for my ignorance. Lord have mercy on us all.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    The discussion has gone full circle many times now. I am turning off comments on this article. I pray God’s blessing on all and that other articles will do what this article may or may not have done.


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