One Indivisible Word

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A seismic shift rocked Christianity in the eighteenth century. The idea grew that the Bible speaks authoritatively about morality and religion, but not history and science. Is that viable, based on Scripture?

“This author knows that the inner kernel of Christian faith is completely independent of his own critical investigations. Christ’s supernatural birth, miracles, resurrection and ascension remain eternal truths even as their reality as historical facts may be challenged.”1

With these words the nineteenth-century critic David Strauss clearly spelled out a novel approach to the truth of the Bible. Under the influence of an anti-supernatural worldview, Strauss concluded that the Bible could have religious and moral worth even while being factually incorrect. Many people today share this view of biblical truth, but that should not blind us to this view’s recent origin.

For 17 centuries Christians, East and West, Catholic and Protestant, agreed that the Bible was the very voice of God and therefore completely true. There have always been skeptics, but with few exceptions, such skepticism came from outside the Christian church—at least, until the eighteenth century.

The assertions of the Bible cannot be rent into the sacred and the secular.

What happened? What prompted so many Christian teachers and leaders to abandon belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible? In short, the eighteenth century witnessed a tremendous shift of worldview in the Western intellectual tradition. This shift, called the Enlightenment by proponents, influenced many within Christian churches to replace an exclusive reliance on God’s authority with a reliance on human reasoning. They argued, in the language of Rudolf Bultmann, that modern men and women will embrace the Christian message only if it is stripped from its setting in “the cosmology of a pre-scientific age,” which is a “mythical view of the world.”2

Ralph Waldo Emerson explained it this way:

The paramount source of the religious revolution was modern science; beginning with Copernicus, who destroyed the pagan fictions of the church, by showing mankind that the earth on which we live was not the center of the universe . . . . This correction of our superstitions was confirmed by the new science of geology . . . . But we presently saw also that the religious nature in man was not affected by these errors in his understanding.3

Emerson, like Strauss and Bultmann, limited biblical authority to the moral and religious domains, entirely excluding the historical and scientific. Modern science, they argued, called into question the cosmological and historical assertions of the Bible. They presumed we could discard those “superstitions” and “myths” but still hold to the spiritual realities witnessed by the Bible.

But the Bible does not segregate its pronouncements on religious and moral matters from statements of cosmology, culture, and geography. History and theology are interdependent throughout the Scriptures. Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham; Luke goes back to Adam. The New Testament situates the historical birth of Jesus under the rule of Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus, his death under Pontius Pilate and Tiberius Caesar. John recorded Jesus’ controversial claim that He existed before the historical person Abraham. Jesus and Peter compared the second coming to the historical Noahic Flood. Paul tied the future resurrection of Christians both to Jesus’ physical resurrection and to God’s literal creation of Adam from dust.4

It is impossible to distinguish matters of God and morality from those of fact and history; the Bible sustains no such separation. The assertions of the Bible cannot be rent into the sacred and the secular; they compose one indivisible whole.

The Bible affirms its own truth and authority without limit, including matters of culture and geography along with issues of salvation and ethics. Jesus’ statement that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:34–35) embraced the whole Hebrew canon even if His citation was from Psalm 82. We cannot infer that Jesus taught the infallibility of the worship of the Psalms and the wisdom of the Proverbs but not the genealogies of Genesis 10 or the factuality of Gideon’s military tactics in Judges 7. Since the Bible is inspired, meaning it is God’s speech and God’s words (see “Every Word Counts,” Answers, July–September 2014, pp. 91–92), it takes on the truthfulness of the God who “never lies” (Titus 1:2). It does not depend on its subject matter; it depends on the character of its divine author, who speaks nothing but truth. Only writings that teach no wrong, that affirm no error, can conceivably be authored by the omniscient, reliable, and truthful God of the Bible.

Discussion Questions . . .

  • What do you think motivates people growing up within a Christian church to surrender their belief in the historical and factual truth of the Bible?
  • Has anyone pointed out to you a perceived error in the Bible? What was it? How did you respond?
  • Can you think of other passages in which the historical and factual truth of the Bible are intertwined with theology?
  • In what ways can accusations against the historical factuality of the Bible undermine the truthfulness of the moral and religious statements in the Bible?
  • In what ways do accusations against the historical factuality of the Bible impugn the character of God?
  • How does truthfulness (or lack thereof) in human speech reflect the character of the human speaker?
  • If we accept claims of modern science that contradict clear teaching of the Bible, where are we placing our trust? How should a Christian respond to such claims?
Dr. Paul Thorsell has been teaching undergraduate and graduate Christian Theology for twenty-five years at such institutions as Crossroads Bible College, The Master’s College and, currently, Cedarville University. Dr. Thorsell has authored papers and articles in biblical, systematic and historical theology.

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Footnotes

  1. David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, 4th ed., 2 vols. (Tübingen: Osiander, 1840), 1:vi; author’s translation, italics added.
  2. “The New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: SPCK, 1953), 3. Bultmann arguably is the twentieth century’s most influential critical scholar of the New Testament.
  3. “Life and Letters in New England,” §13.
  4. Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 1:5, 2:1, 3:1, 3:23–38;1 Timothy 6:13; John 8:58; Matthew 24:37–39; 2 Peter 3:3–7; 1 Corinthians 15:12–22, 15:42–49.

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