The Reliability and Authority of the Bible
In Whan Kim | South Korea
The Bible is the written Word of God, his utterly unique revelation. The word of God expresses who he is, what he has done, and what he is doing down through world history in both judgment and salvation. God has given this Word to his people as the only authoritative standard for their faith and life. The Bible is necessary because God’s people do not know how to glorify God due to their depravity, as well as their subjective and culturally bound limitations. The Bible is also necessary in order that his people, knowing what God requires and their failure to do it, can learn of God’s great provision of salvation in his Son, Jesus Christ.
The reliability and authority of the Bible may be handled by considering Scripture’s (1) inspiration, (2) inerrancy and infallibility, and (3) clarity and sufficiency. As we consider these marks of God’s Word, we are reminded that the Bible is both utterly reliable and completely authoritative; believers can depend on it, and believers must yield to it.
The Inspired Word
Throughout history God has been acting in mighty deeds on behalf of his people. As this redemptive history has developed, God has spoken through human authors in human language to communicate exactly what he wants his people to know about themselves and about him as their Creator, Judge, and Savior. These divinely inspired writings have been given to his people and collected into a book, the Bible, to become the unified message of redemption for God’s people. When we speak of the Bible as “inspired” we mean that God the Holy Spirit supernaturally influenced and oversaw the writing down of Scripture such that these writings became unfailingly reliable and authoritative, a perfect guide to any who would trust and submit to them. For these writings are from God himself.
The doctrine of inspiration comes from biblical texts which speak of God “breathing out” his word (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21). Hence the Bible is the inspired or God-breathed Word of God. God did this by the Holy Spirit through the writings of the prophets and apostles. This does not mean, however, that the Bible is a dictation of his words. We can easily see the unique personality and perspective of each human author in the various books of the Bible. Nevertheless, the Spirit of God worked through the human authors—prompting, guiding, and illuminating them as they recorded the very words of God. Therefore, while the authorship of the Bible is both divine and human, these are not in competition with each other. Rather, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).
To read the Bible, then, is to hear the very voice of God. Scripture is God’s own witness to himself for the sake of his people and for the sake of his own glory.
The Inerrant and Infallible Word
As the Bible is the inspired word of God, presenting us with God’s words as mediated through human language, it is likewise inerrant and infallible. Indeed, it would be impossible to conceive of the Bible as divinely inspired and yet untruthful at the same time, for God is utterly truthful (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Error comes from either deceit or ignorance. Yet God does not lie, and he is not ignorant. Rather, he is always utterly truthful, able to speak no falsehood, and exhaustively omniscient, able to speak all truth. This is what we mean by speaking of the Bible as inerrant—it is unswervingly truthful in all that it teaches. This perfect truthfulness extends not only to matters of doctrine but also to matters of historical reliability. Anything less would call into question the very character of God. In short, just as God is absolutely free from all error, so is his Word, the Bible.
“Infallibility” is similar to inerrancy, though infallibility alludes specifically to Protestantism’s difference with Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholics have historically spoken of the pope as “infallible.” Protestants wish to reserve the term “infallible”—that is, unable to utter anything wrong or to mislead—to Scripture alone. Infallibility strengthens and comforts believers by communicating that they can come to the Bible with absolute confidence that it will not lead them astray.
There are some places in the Bible that may seem at first glance to betray a lack of accuracy and precision, which would appear to undermine inerrancy and infallibility. Examples include imprecise quotations, rounded numbers, unrefined grammar, different accounts of the same events, or unscientific descriptions. Yet whether the Bible is erroneous or not depends upon the definition of the nature of the Bible. If the Bible is a scientific reference book of some kind, requiring the same kind of precision that such texts require, the Bible might be regarded as erroneous. The Bible is not, however, that kind of book. It is rather a book recounting the mighty acts of God on behalf of his people. And while inspired by God, the Bible’s human authors wrote in the ordinary language of the people, communicating in a way that would be accessible to all. Moreover, the oversight of the Holy Spirit does not mean that the unique temperament, language proficiencies, and education of each biblical author was somehow suspended when they wrote Scripture.
While the Bible does, then, come to us in all the earthiness one would expect of a book written by human beings in specific historical times and contexts, it is utterly trustworthy and without any error of any kind. This extends to both those parts of the Bible that have to do directly with faith and practice as well as to the historical dimensions of the text. Scripture is flawless, sacred, and divine—a perfect word from a perfect God.
The Clear and Sufficient Word
The question of the clarity (sometimes called the perspicuity) of the Bible must be approached from two perspectives: the authorship and the readership. From the point of view of authorship, the Bible has been given to us in perfect clarity. The Bible as the divinely breathed word of God reflects God’s perfection, and this perfection includes clarity. As God is coherent, rational, and articulate, so is the Bible. When he addresses his words to human beings, his words communicate with unfailing clarity. The Bible is therefore understandable to the degree that one understands the meaning of the divine author; it is not accessible only to an elite and specially favored few. That the books of the Bible were written by many human writers from diverse places over many centuries does not undermine its clarity, for the singularity of the divine authorship guarantees the continuity and organic unity of its contents and message.
The Bible is, however, often difficult to understand—as the biblical authors themselves attest (2 Pet. 3:15–16; compare 2 Tim. 2:7)! Yet it is crucial to point out that any perceived obscurity on the part of the Bible arises fundamentally from the readers’ own finitude or fallenness. Obscurity in understanding is the fault of the reader, not the author. Yet while the Bible is in places hard to understand, this is not because of any elitism on the part of the biblical authors. The Bible is written for ordinary people, not using some kind of heavenly language or mysterious code words but ordinary, plain language, which the Bible’s first readers could readily interpret. Consequently, those who today earnestly seek to understand the Bible can be confident of success in their endeavor.
Four clarifying points, however, must be made. First, Scripture is not equally clear to everybody. Because God was pleased to communicate his saving message in particular historical contexts, readers from later times or other cultures must familiarize themselves with the original context if they are to correctly interpret the Bible. Yet this is not to say, second, that uneducated believers are unable to read and benefit from the Bible—on the contrary, the central teachings of the Bible are clear to all its readers, regardless of their level of theological training. Third, the Bible itself teaches that there is a spiritual perception that is available only to those who have been born again—the wisdom of the gospel is meaningfully received only by Spirit-illumined readers of the Bible (1 Cor. 2:6–16). Like a pair of glasses to a man with poor vision, the Spirit makes the Bible’s pages become clear. Fourth, the difficult parts of the Bible can and should be understood in the light of the clearer parts.
The Bible is also sufficient for God’s people. It provides all that they need to know to live life well, in glad fellowship with their Creator, walking happily with him. The Bible attests that: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The Bible further attests that it is truth and light to obedient readers, making them “wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). Therefore, neither addition to nor deletion from the all-sufficient word of God is permissible (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18–19). We should read and study the Bible humbly, and yet we can also do so with strong confidence, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, and expecting that he will do this.
In conclusion, the Bible is the only book containing the very words of the God who created all things, showing his creatures his perfect character while also explaining his way of salvation in Jesus Christ. The Bible is the only inspired, inerrant, infallible, clear, and sufficient standard for their faith and life. It carries absolute authority and is unflinchingly reliable.
The Bible is the greatest earthly treasure that could possibly be placed in the hands of mankind. It is life-giving wisdom, leading to salvation and maturity. It is the unique source of delight and joy in Christ. Through the Bible, God addresses his saving message to us today. We must read and study it obediently and diligently in communion with its living divine author and by the help of his Spirit. In this way we shall understand, serve, worship, and glorify him properly.