The Bible and Truth

Is the Bible objectively ‘true’, either in part or as a whole? Is it objectively the Word of God, this book of paper and ink and leather which rests beside me on the table? Orthodox theology would claim that the Bible is ‘true’, and many evangelicals on the right wing would claim that – in the original autographs from which our modern translations descend – the very words were literally God’s words.  But what, exactly, do we mean by ‘true’? 

We usually apply the terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ to statements of fact; for example, “Og, king of Bashan with his whole army marched out to meet us in battle at Edrei.” (Deut 3:1 NIV).  This is a plain statement which could be either true or false. But how about biblical texts which are not statements of fact?  For instance; “Stop judging by mere appearance, and make a right judgement.” (John 7:24).  In what sense can we say this is true or false, other than arguing that we believe it to be true that Jesus said these words?  In fact, this latter reference contains both a prohibition and a command; and of course, we find lots of these in Scripture too. 

Trying to understand the truth which the Bible conveys obviously involves more than reducing our analysis to such simplistic terms as ‘true or false’, or ‘thou shalt’ or ‘shalt not’ declarations.  Those who have a tendency to do just this run into the danger of treating the Bible as a kind of compendium of propositions, so-called ‘proof texts’ with which to ‘prove’ their own particular personal or theological viewpoints. [1]

When we examine factual statements, commands, prohibitions etc., in Scripture, we soon begin to notice that there are those which cannot be proved empirically by external disciplines such as archaeology, geology and so on.  In fact, many of the most profound truths of Scripture are not conveyed to us in this way at all, but by poetry, parable and apocalyptic literature. These truths, which we often collectively call ‘spiritual Truth’, or ‘absolute Truth’ [2] go beyond the requirement of merely affirming the veracity of given statements of fact, such as we may be likely to find in historical narrative, for instance.  Theses texts communicate the kind of Truth which connects with our very soul and affects our eternal destiny. For example, “You must be born again” (John 3:3).  A moment’s thought will confirm that such texts defy any kind of external proof; only the person who has actually been born again will recognise the Truth they contain. (cf 1 Cor 2:14). 

One of the great names in 20th century theology was Emil Brunner.  Brunner, along with Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, C.H Dodd and others, was one of the so-called neo-orthodox theologians. These theologians had been influenced by the thinking of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), [3] and applied sections of his existentialist thinking to their theology and methods of biblical interpretation. 

Brunner claimed that Truth does not come to us as proposition but as encounter.  The Scriptures stand objectively outside of us as ink, paper etc., in a book which can be read and discussed by anyone in a perfectly detached and dispassionate way.  We can be like spectators, simply looking at the text, without being actually involved or interacting with it.  Brunner, Barth and the other neo-orthodox theologians emphasised that Truth cannot simply be boxed up in sets of propositions and left at that.  The propositions only become true for the reader as they are apprehended subjectively. 

According to neo-orthodoxy, then, the Scriptural record as we have it on the printed page is not inspired in and of itself.  The revelation is inspired to be sure, but the words themselves are but a witness to that inspired revelation and not the revelation itself.  The Bible as it lies on the table beside me is not inspired in the sense that orthodox theology understands it.

The revelation received by an individual – let’s say Isaiah – was revelation to Isaiah.  Isaiah wrote what he saw happening and what he believed the Holy Spirit was saying to him. God had then revealed Himself to Isaiah. When someone else – you or I perhaps – read Isaiah’s words, we are reading a record of the revelation Isaiah received.  This record can only become revelation to you or I when God reveals Himself to us via the words of Isaiah’s writing.  The same applies to any of the words of Scripture.  We are reading the record of witnesses to revelation. 

Now whatever you may think about this, it does make sense of some of our experiences.  As one example, if you’re like me, and spend quite a lot of time reading the Bible, you’ll no doubt often have had the experience of coming across a verse or sentence you’ve read a thousand times before which has gone straight past your understanding.  One day, these same words will suddenly connect with your very soul, and you think to yourself; “I never saw this before… this is amazing”, or some similar response.  In other words, the text on the page has suddenly stopped being just objective print on paper – something outside of ourselves – and has become ‘subjective’; it has ‘connected’ with us in a real and personal ‘existential’ way and entered into our hearts and minds. 

Another example of the usefulness of thinking about Scripture in this way is that it helps to offset the extreme fundamentalism I touched on above, which sees the Bible as an end in itself; a ‘paper pope’ which can tempt us into the sin of bibliolatry; i.e., worshipping the Bible itself.   

Nevertheless, the orthodox view remains that Scripture is objectively true, in and of itself, whether people believe what it says or not.  I too, hang on to this view whilst being aware that, even though the Bible may be objectively true, it doesn’t do me one bit of good until it becomes true for me; until I recognise that Truth and digest it subjectively.  

We must always of course remember that as we read Scripture, we are totally reliant on the help of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the Truth he would have us see. This doesn’t detract from Brunner’s view that we ‘encounter’ Truth. Spiritual Truth is encountered, not assented to, in such a way that it hits us between the eyes and sinks into the fabric of our being, never to be moved.  Assenting to propositions is another thing, and we all need to search our hearts and minds as to how we are understanding, interpreting and using Scripture.

[1] In making these observations, I’m not suggesting that it does not matter whether Og was the king of Bashan or not!
[2] From this point, the word Truth is capitalised to denote the difference between that which is seen as absolute and the use of the word ‘truth’ in general.
[3] See ‘Is Existentialism a Threat to Christian Faith?’ elsewhere on this blog. 

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