Evangelicals may disagree about many things, but we stand together on the non-negotiables that define the Christian faith: The Trinity, justification by faith, and the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, to name a few.
Many false belief systems, from Mormonism to Islam, profess a high regard for the Word of God. But, in fact, they deny its inspiration, inerrancy, or preservation and thus reject the Bible as supremely authoritative.
Specifically, false religions employ four tactics to undermine the Scriptures:
(1) They change it. The most notorious offender is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, whose members are known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In the late 1800s, Charles Taze Russell launched a Bible study to spread his denials of the Trinity, Jesus’ physical resurrection, and eternal punishment of the wicked in hell, cleverly twisting the Scriptures to buttress his false teachings. Not to be outdone, his successors produced their own version of the New Testament in 1950, and the completed New World Translation (NWT) in 1961.
Revised in 1984, and again in 2013, the NWT is a sanitized version of the Bible. Six translators — only one of whom had any training in biblical languages — essentially scrubbed the deity of Christ out of passages like John 1:1, John 8:58, and Col. 1:15-17, and blurred other essential doctrines.
Christians are sometimes asked if we believe the Bible is literally true.
After all, whether eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood is a plunge into cannibalism, or a figurative expression of full devotion, depends on how we understand the language of Scripture.
In one sense, we might say the Bible is divinely inspired literature through which God speaks to human beings in our own language. This naturally includes a range of literary devices, from narrative to hyperbole.
So, what does it mean to take the Bible “literally”?
It means applying a natural reading as the author or speaker intended, with a goal of grasping the writer’s message. This requires context and may include approximations, analogies, metaphors, quotations, parables, apocalyptic language, etc.
In contrast, taking the Bible “literalistically” means adhering to a rigid understanding of the primary meaning of words, without allowing for figurative language or a possible range of meanings.
An example may help clarify this. In John 10:9, Jesus states, “I am the door.” A literalistic rendering of this passage means that Jesus is calling himself an actual wooden piece of hardware, which either is absurd, or communicates a failed grasp of reality for the One who claims to be our only hope of everlasting life.
A literal understanding of this verse, however, considers the figurative language of Jesus’ words and the context in which He speaks. In other words, Jesus is the one true hope of everlasting life.
Muslims believe in the Injil, or gospel, but define it differently than evangelical Christians do. Further, they claim the church has corrupted the biblical texts so that only the Qur’an preserves the genuine good news.
In defining the gospel, Muslim commentator Yusuf Ali writes that “the Injil spoken of by the Qur’an is not the New Testament. It is not the four Gospels now received as canonical. It is the single Gospel which, Islam teaches, was revealed to Jesus, and which he taught.”
In other words, the gospel is the prophetic teaching of Jesus as captured in the Qur’an, directing all people to submit to the will of Allah.
Further, Muslims argue that Christians have altered the New Testament texts, resulting in doctrinal errors such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and original sin.
But a careful look at the Qur’an shows that Islam’s most holy book affirms the inspiration, preservation, and authority of the Gospel record. At the same time, it exposes the inconsistency of Muslim teachings about the Bible.
The faith of some Christians is challenged when they learn that the autographs, or originals, of the Bible no longer exist. Written on stone, metal, papyrus, and parchment, the words first penned by 40 divinely inspired authors over 1,500 years have not survived the ravages of time.
If God is able to breathe out His Word so that the originals are rightly described as inerrant, infallible, and sufficient, could He not also have ensured that the originals survived?
Of course. But He didn’t.
Nor did God promise that an unbroken line of inerrant copies would be made and preserved from the inspired autographs.
What we’re left with are thousands of manuscript copies sporting tens of thousands of variants, a reality that has spurred scholars like Bart Ehrman to abandon Evangelical Christianity in favor of agnosticism.
But should that be our response?
This is the last in a series of columns on the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture.
When Christians say the Bible is true, we often use terms to describe the manner in which God has spoken to us through His written Word.
One such term is “sufficient.” But what does that mean?
All the words God intended
“The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly,” writes Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology.
By sufficient, we mean the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. It’s what the Reformers called sola scriptura – by Scripture alone.
In practical terms, this means the Bible answers life’s most important questions, such as: Is there a God? What’s wrong with the world? And what happens when I die?
Not that Scripture is an exhaustive catalogue of everything God knows, for omniscience cannot be confined to a single set of divinely inspired writings.
Equally important, sufficiency does not prevent God from speaking to us today through Spirit-filled leaders, dreams and visions, or even an audible voice if He so chooses, although these forms of communication are better classified as illumination, not revelation, and they must conform to Scripture.