John 8:31-36, Isaiah 55:10-11, Hebrews 4:12, Psalm 119:10-16;105
I have been enjoying this sermon series I am calling “Examining the Evidence – Asking the Tough Questions About Why We Believe.” For the past two weeks, we have asked the questions, “Does God Exist?” and “How Did We Get Here?”
And for the past two weeks, I have presented the evidence – evidence that comes from science, and from mathematical statistics and probabilities. And what we discovered from those statistics – when we looked at the conditions that are necessary for life to exist on planet earth – when you look at the scientific constants – and the precision that each of these hundreds of constants has to meet – and how interdependent they all are – we saw that the probability that life on earth can exist and flourish – or that the universe came into being at all for that matter – as a result of blind chance or dumb luck – is virtually zero.
In fact, the universe is so very fine tuned that it has the appearance of being engineered. The only conclusion that I can come to – and to me the only choice that makes sense – is that the universe must have had both a designer and a creator and a sustainer. This designer, creator, and sustainer we have come to call God.
At this point, that’s about all we can know about God. That there is a God who created everything there is. We can know nothing else about this God unless or until this creator God reveals more of Himself to us. So let’s talk today about how it is that God reveals God’s self to us.
One of the ways is through his Son Jesus Christ. And we’ll be focusing on Jesus in the remainder of this series. But today I want to focus on a different way in which God reveals Himself to us – and that way is through His Word. So today’s question is, “Can the Christian Scriptures be trusted?”
First let me say a little something about God’s Word, the Bible. The Bible is actually not one book, but rather a library of books – 66 books in all. It is divided into two sections – the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament – and the New Testament. If you’ve ever noticed the Route 66 symbol that we use around here – that is a reference not only to historic Route 66, but it is our way of encouraging people to read the Bible, and to study the Bible – using the slogan, “Driving the Word Home on Route 66.” Now, I wish I could take credit for that slogan. It’s not original with me. But – I’m going to keep using it anyway.
So – can the Christian Scriptures – the Bible – be trusted? Well, first let’s look at how the Bible came to be. The books of the Bible were written by some 40 different authors, over a period of more than 1100 years. It is the story of God, and how God has interacted with the human race throughout history. In a nutshell, it can be called a divine drama – beginning with creation and the fall of sinful humanity. The rest of the Bible is really the story of God and God’s people – and God’s great desire and efforts to reconcile sinners to Himself. Ultimately – the Scriptures point to Christ – both Old and New Testaments – his life, his death, his resurrection – and through his life, death and resurrection – we are reconciled by God to God.
Was the Bible written by men? Yes it was. It is not something that just dropped down out of the sky, or found under a rock. It was written by men, but – it is not a just a human document either.
One of the books of the Bible, II Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The literal meaning of the word translated “inspired” is “God-breathed.” That doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit whispered into the ears of the writers what God wanted that person to write. No. But somehow – someway – the Scriptures we have are “God breathed” – God’s Holy Spirit inspired the authors of the books of the Bible to write what it is that they did write. They wrote about what they knew – what they saw— what they heard – what they experienced.
But then we could ask, how do we know that what we have in the New Testament is actually what the authors wrote? How do we know that it wasn’t somehow changed over the course of history? To be sure, we do not have a single original copy of any of the books of the Bible in our hands. The best we have are ancient copies or manuscripts.
So it’s no wonder that critics are saying that the Christian Scriptures cannot be trusted. And they will say either one of two things about that. And they are wrong on both counts.
1. They say that our current English translations are taken from poorly transmitted copies. However, there is something called the “Bibliographical Test” of Scripture. This test determines the historicity of an ancient text by analyzing the quantity and quality of copied manuscripts, as well as how far removed they are from the time of the originals. This test flatly refutes this false argument. And over the centuries, the scribes and monks who copied the Bible by hand copied them very meticulously – very carefully. And yes, some errors were made. Sometimes there were errors in spelling or punctuation. Sometimes a line of text might have been inadvertently left out, or written twice. But by comparing the great number of ancient manuscripts that we have, these errors are easily discovered. So that we can say with 99% accuracy that the Bible we have today is the Bible that was written by the original authors. And none of these errors has had anything to do with any of the beliefs that we Christians hold to be true.
For the New Testament, there are more than 5,000 ancient Greek manuscripts. The oldest complete New Testament dates just prior to 300 AD. However, manuscript fragments as well as collections of New Testament books exist that were written as early as the mid 2nd century. And even if we didn’t have these, Christian leaders from the 2nd Century – also known as the Church Fathers – wrote commentaries on the various books – or quoted from these books that make up our New Testament. Virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from the works of the Church Fathers.
So the time between when the books of the New Testament were actually written, and the oldest fragments or portions of Scripture we have is quite short – some as short as 40 years.
Now let me ask – how many of you believe that Alexander the Great really existed? The oldest manuscript we have that mentions Alexander the Great is 500 years after the time of Alexander the Great. The earliest copy we have of anything written by Plato is 1300 years after the time of Plato. There are 210 known ancient manuscripts of Plato’s work. Nobody ever questions what we have from Plato was really written by Plato! Compare that to the more than 5,000 ancient copies of the Greek New Testament.
Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce says, “the shorter time span in between when the book was written and the earliest copy of the actual event, coupled with the number of copies increases the accuracy of the writing.” …and thus less doubt about what the original authors wrote.
What we have is the most historically reliable, accurate document on the face of the earth – accurate to within 99% of what the original authors wrote. God has preserved His word to us. What you hold in your hands is the word of God.
2. Critics will also make the claim, and I have heard people make this claim, that the church did not decide until the year 397 at the Council of Carthage which books would make up the New Testament canon. Canon by the way simply means a rule or standard. The claim therefore is made that the books of the New Testament canon either were not written until then, or were manipulated and edited at that time in order for the church to make them say what they wanted them to say.
Let me just say that there is absolutely no evidence for this at all. As I said earlier, even if we did not have one single ancient text, manuscript or fragment, the entire New Testament can be virtually reconstructed from the writings of the 2nd Century Church Fathers.
So who did decide which books were in and which were out? The early church had three criteria for determining what books were to be included or excluded from the New Testament Canon.
1. First, the books had to have apostolic authority – that is, they had to have been written either by the apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or by associates of the apostles.
2. Second, there was the criterion of conformity to what was called the “rule of faith.” In other words, was the document consistent with the basic Christian tradition that the church recognized as normative.
3. Third, there was the criterion of whether a document had enjoyed continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large.
This process excludes many other ancient documents – what the History Channel on TV calls “The Lost Books of the Bible.” Let me give you just one example. The Gospel of Peter claims to be written by St. Peter, but scholars date it to the second half of the 2nd century. At the resurrection of Jesus – it tells about a cross that follows Jesus out of the tomb. And this cross talks. SO it fails the criteria for inclusion – a late date – no one knows who really wrote it – and I mean – the talking cross alone is enough to can it.
Suffice it to say, that scholars use a process called Textual Criticism to examine the texts as we have received them. It’s a complicated process, but Textual Criticism studies conclude that the New Testament has come down to us essentially unchanged from the time its books were originally written.
Let me quote F. F. Bruce again. “One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and general apostolic authority,…what these [early church] councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.”
Folks – I know that this has been more of a lecture than a sermon, but this is not just a book of great stories – of heroes – heroes who by the way were written about with warts and all. It’s not a rule book or a book of morals written to help you and me live a good life.
This is God’s word to us. Old Testament and New Testament. 66 books by some 40 different authors written over a period of more than 1100 years. And all with the same theme. This is the story of God. The story of God and His people. It is a story of creation – of humanity’s fall and rescue by God – fall and rescue by God – fall and rescue by God – over and over again.
SO here’s one more thing for you to think about. The last thing that I’ll say today about why we can know that this is God’s Word to us. It is the power of the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – to change lives.
Maybe you’re here today and you’re a skeptic. All I can do is invite you to get into God’s Word. Start with the Gospel of John. If you don’t have a Bible, take one from the pew rack in front of you – or see me after worship. I love to give away Bibles. Maybe you’ve got one at home, but you don’t know where it is.
Or maybe you’re like Archie and Edith Bunker. Some of you remember that TV show from the 70’s. Archie asks, “Edith –why’s the Bible sitting on the TV stand?” And Edith says, “I put it there because it keeps falling off the refrigerator.”
What will you find when this book gets off the shelf – or the TV stand – or the refrigerator? You’ll discover that this God who made the universe is the same God who loves you. In fact – He’s crazy about you. He wants you to be on this crazy adventure with Him called discipleship. From the book shelf – into your hands – into your mind – into your heart – and into your life. This is God’s Word – and He wants you to have it. Amen