Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept as Scripture: Logical Non-contradiction

Last week, in “Cultural Understanding”, we took our first look at non-contradiction – a test which has historically been applied to help determine what does or doesn’t deserve a place within the Christian Scriptures.  We discovered (with the help of some archaeological “digging”) that not all apparent contradictions are actually contradictory and considered the importance of taking the time to uncover all of the facts (or at least as many as possible) before passing judgment on conflicting texts.  We also learned the importance of being open to our initial judgment being proven wrong – just as any good archaeologist or historian would be.  This week, we’ll take our discussion a bit further as we examine the role played by eye-witnesses and the importance of logical non-contradiction within the pages of the Bible.  Our focal point?  The New Testament.

As we discussed last week, some of the apparent discrepancies in Scripture result not from genuine contradictions, but from our lack of knowledge regarding ancient cultures.  A prime New Testament example of this principle can be found in the chronology (timeline) of the Gospels.  Take a moment to flick through their pages and you will quickly notice that the events don’t always take place in the same order in each account.  Nor does every account contain the same details of each event.  While some might be tempted to discard the lot as “contradictory”, this is far from the case.

Unlike modern biographers, the goal of ancient writers was not to present a chronological account of the life of an individual, i.e., to tell their tale from birth through death, but to convey a point about that life.  Each historian considered not just the raw events (as modern journalists aspire to do), but their implications for the lives of their chosen audience.  When audiences differed, so did the material presented.  The result is that two authors each giving an account of the same historical figure might include radically different details and in a distinctly different order – yet both be quite accurate in their reporting.

This isn’t a case of “spinning” the events in favor of one particular view or another, but of selecting the most pertinent material for a given audience – much as a professor might share the same concepts in an High School class or a college class, but with different “supporting” information.  For example, because his audience was primarily Jewish and was deeply familiar with the Torah, Matthew focuses his Gospel on the ways in which Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophesy.  Mark, on the other hand, was more interested in sharing with a Gentile audience who would have been bored stiff by such details.  Instead, he focuses his account upon Christ’s practical influence upon the lives of those who surrounded Him.  The result of these considerations (as well as others) is that we find differences between the accounts such as Matthew telling the story of two men beside the Jericho road (Matthew 20:29,30) while Mark relates the tale of only one (Mark 10:46).  This apparent discrepancy in numbers is not a contradiction, since Mark does say that Jesus healed “one man” (which is entirely true) and not that Jesus healed “only one man”.

Sound like a bit of verbal wrangling designed to get Christians out of a sticky position?  Not at all!  In fact, we all do the same thing on a daily basis, but (likely due to the fact that most of what we say doesn’t have the potential impact of Scripture) don’t think twice about it.  Take for example, the statement that, “The four of us went to gym class.”  Likely, there are more than four people in your gym class, but if the focus of your dialogue is upon you and your three best friends, your phrasing will reflect that.  Your statement isn’t a lie, a contradiction, or a twisting of the truth even if there are thirty people who actually attend the gym class at your school – the four of you (the stars of the story) did go to class.  The same principles apply to Scripture.

While cultural context and a healthy dose of logic are really all that are needed in order to resolve many of the seeming conflicts contained within the pages of the Bible, clear, provable contradiction (like one book saying there were only two men present while another says there were five) has always been considered sufficient cause to discard any claimant to Divine authority.

Next week, we’ll take a look at one more form of non-contradiction which has played a key role in the formation of the Christian canon: doctrinal non-contradiction, but for now, feel free to share your comments in the box below!

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture: Cultural Understanding

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve taken a look at the role that “The Test of Value” has played in establishing the Christian canon.  We’ve looked at both science and history and spent some time examining what they can and can’t tell us about the world which surrounds us.  We’ve considered their importance in forming an accurate picture of world events and taken a look at ways in which they help us establish the truth or falsity of an account.

Today, we’ll shift our focus slightly as we begin to delve into yet another test for Holy Writ: that of non-contradiction.  We’ll examine some apparent logical and doctrinal inconsistencies within the pages of the Bible and consider the part that non-contradiction plays in determining what stays and what goes.  But before we get started, let’s take a moment to examine the role of cultural understanding and the ways in which our comprehension of other societies (like those discussed in “Archaeology and Historical Accuracy”) can influence our perception of the Biblical account.

To begin with, it is important to recognize that both Christians and other earnest seekers of the Truth have often found what appear to be “contradictions” within the pages of Scripture – places where two or more accounts are not in agreement with one another.  Such contradictions (if they really are contradictions) would be sufficient cause to discard the passage of the Bible in which they are found and (in some cases) the Bible as a whole.  For this reason, it is important that we not take such textual disagreements lightly.  At the same time, it also pays not to be too hasty in our judgment.  (Wouldn’t it be a shame to throw out something perfectly useful just because we didn’t understand how it worked?)  Things are not always what they seem and a sincere investigator must take the time to learn the facts before he comes to a conclusion.  Many times, the facts which are most relevant are the cultural ones.

Take, for example, the accounts of the reigns of the Israelite and Judean kings from the books of Kings and Chronicles.  An astute observer will notice that the length of their reigns is not always the same from one book to another.  Even other Old Testament accounts seem to leave the actual length of rule in doubt and, for years, scholars were stumped by this discrepancy.  Clearly, both accounts couldn’t be correct – so which one was and why?

It took some digging (literally) to discover that the time-keeping issue unearthed by modern scholars wasn’t actually a discrepancy at all.  The apparent conflict originated not in a logical contradiction, but from a cultural oddity: the two kingdoms, while being adjacent to one another, operated on two different calendar systems – both of which accurately portrayed the reigns of the kings according to the standards of the culture.

In the accession system (used by Israel throughout its entire history), if a king reigned for the last month of a year, he was counted as having ruled for the entire year.  In the non-accession system, however, only full years of a reign were considered.  During the rule of the kings, Judah began with the accession system, switched to the non-accession system, and then switched back – leading to an apparent (but not actual) inconsistency with the Israelite account.  The difficulty then, is not one of contradiction, but of having attempted to understand two separate ancient cultures in light of modern practice.

Such details go a long way to confirm the inerrancy of Scripture.  Had the accounts been written hundreds of years after the events had taken place, a different time keeping system would have been in use.  It is likely that the author would have utilized this more “modern” method – leaving the accounts of the kings’ reigns to be proven inaccurate (and inauthentic) at a later date when the details of accession and non-accession time-keeping were uncovered

Meanwhile, an accurate cultural understanding goes a long way towards smoothing over many of the apparent discrepancies contained within the Christian canon.  The moral of the story?  Before discarding the Bible (or any portion of it), take the time to gain an understanding of the culture in which the text in question actually originated.  Like the scholars who discovered the Israelite and Judean calendars, you may be surprised by what you unearth!

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept as Scripture: Archaeology and Historical Accuracy

Last week in “The Test of Value”, we began to take a look at the influence that accuracy (especially scientific accuracy) has played in determining whether Christians accept or reject a book as Scripture.  This week, we’ll continue the theme by examining the issue of historical accuracy and the role that archaeology has played in determining what does or doesn’t merit a place in the Bible.

Before we begin, however, we must take a moment to understand what the field of archaeology can and can’t offer us in regard to determining historical truth.  It is important to recognize that archaeology does not deal directly with history, but with what remains of history.  The story which artifacts tell must be deduced from their surroundings and, sometimes, due to the differences between modern cultures and ancient ones, these deductions are inaccurate.  (If you want a great example of an argument which has arisen as the result of such deductions, take a moment to do an internet search for “Qumran” (the ancient community located near the spot where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found).  You may be surprised at what you find!)

As our knowledge of the ancient world expands, so do the possibilities for interpreting its remains.  What at one time was a “proven fact” can quickly be discarded as a misinterpretation of the evidence.  This isn’t always the case, but it does happen frequently enough to leave room for doubt.  The result is that while archaeology can do much to confirm details of an account, it is not always a source of absolute truth.  Its evidence must be weighed, often in the light of the evidence from other fields of study, before we arrive at a conclusion.  In a sense, archaeology is the handmaiden of history – illuminating our understanding of recorded history by bringing its remnants to light.

One of the most common errors made in regard to these remnants is the “argument from silence”, i.e., to argue that something (or someone) did not exist simply because no evidence of its existence has ever been found.  While this might sound reasonable at first, the argument falls to pieces upon further investigation.  For years, it was argued that the Hittites mentioned in the Old Testament were a fictional group of people.  No remnant of their society had been found anywhere near the expected Biblical location and no mention of them was made in any other ancient literature.  If God really had promised their land to the Israelites, the promise had been an empty one.

That is, until the early 1900’s when Hugo Winckler of the German Orient Society uncovered an impossibly large cache of clay tablets confirming that the Hittites had existed!  Since then, archaeologists have unearthed many remnants of their society.  The lack of evidence once thought to disconfirm the claims of Scripture was turned into a treasure trove which confirmed Scripture.

So what role does archaeology play in validating a book as part of the Christian Bible?  To begin with, it does provide us with known facts.  Archaeology has uncovered much evidence to support the Biblical record (evidence of places and people named within the pages of Scripture) and archaeologists have done a wonderful job when it comes to illuminating our understanding of ancient cultures.  As the picture becomes more complete and more gaps are filled, we find ample evidence that the writers of the Bible did live at the time and in the places they claimed.

So what happens when a book that claims to be Scripture is disproven through archaeology or other historical documentation?  The same thing that happens when a volume is proven scientifically inaccurate: it is discarded.  It has been discredited as the Word of God and does not merit a place within our Holy writ.

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept as Scripture: The Test of Value

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at the important role that prophesy plays in determining what Christians accept as Scripture.  We’ve learned about “Testing a Prophet” and have discussed both “The Test of Uniqueness” and “The Test of Detail”.  This week, we’re going to look at another test applied to texts to determine whether they merit a place among our Holy writ: the test of value.

The test of value can be broken down into three primary subheadings: accuracy, authenticity, and applicability. Of all the tests of Scripture, the first of these (accuracy) is one of the most important.  After all, if a writer can’t get basic verifiable facts about science, history, and geography correct – why should we believe his explanation of spiritual things?  It’s a valid question and one with which Christians (and others) throughout the ages have struggled.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at these “factual” questions, beginning today with the issue of science.

It doesn’t take most of us long to recognize that what we learn in science class doesn’t always mesh with the claims of Scripture.  For example, according to Genesis 1:27, God created man in His own image – with intention and purpose.  According to our science text books, however, man is the result of random mutations which have taken place over the course of millennia – an accident.  It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that both can’t be true.  So which one is?  And what role does information like this play in determining whether any book should or shouldn’t be included in Scripture?

To begin with, as Christians, we need to approach anything bearing the label of “science” (whether or not it confirms our original beliefs) with a certain level of skepticism and, perhaps, even agnosticism (a willingness to openly admit that we just don’t know).  Instead of jumping to conclusions about what can or can’t be true (conclusions often based upon our upbringing, system of belief, or the pressure applied by those around us), we need to be willing to do a bit of research and be open to the results.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, “science” is “a knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.”  The key elements of this scientific method are observation and repeatability, i.e., the person performing an experiment must be able to witness an event taking place and, through recreation of identical circumstances, reproduce that event multiple times.  We see this method in action when we consider the laws of gravity.  Drop an apple while standing on this planet and it will fall to the ground… over and over and over again.  The result?  Scientific fact.

Science is an excellent method for determining truth, but it is important to note that it isn’t the only way to determine what is or isn’t true.  There are many “facts” (those surrounding historical events, for example) which cannot be either proven or disproven through scientific investigation.  Whether life came in existence through evolution is an excellent example.  While we do observe minor adaptive changes (micro-evolution) throughout creation, no scientist has yet been able to actually “create” living, breathing organisms out of chemicals in a laboratory.  Nor has anyone witnessed reptiles actively transforming into birds or apes becoming human (though they can be trained to interact in human-like ways).   The initial creation of life, like other historical events, is beyond the realm of science.

1 Timothy 6:20 warns that we should avoid, “…worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”.”  The old King James Version puts it, “… keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.”  This doesn’t mean that Christians ought to reject scientific findings (quite the opposite!), but it does mean that we need to be careful to ensure that what we accept as science actually is science.

So what happens if genuine science does contradict the claims of a book which declares itself to be Scripture?  Then the answer is simple: the book of Scripture must be discarded.  It has been discredited as the Word of God.  And this is one of the reasons that the Bible stands as it does today.

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture: The Test of Detail

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at the role that prophesy plays in helping Christians determine whether a writing or group of writings ought to be accepted at Scripture.  We’ve discussed both the importance of “Testing a Prophet” and examined the application of “The Test of Uniqueness” to prophetic utterances.  This week, we’re continuing our series with a discussion of another important test: the test of detail.

One of the most distinguishing marks of Biblical prophesy is (drum roll, please) – its specificity.  Do you remember our prophesy about a balloon crashing atop a house in Manhattan tomorrow?  While the prediction failed the test of prophesy in that it didn’t come true and fails the test of uniqueness in that such a crash could be orchestrated and thus, self-fulfilling, it does fulfill the test of detail.  And similar detail is evident throughout the Christian Scriptures.  Take, for example, Psalm 22:14-18:

“I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws; And You lay me in the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.” (NASB)

Known as “The Psalm of the Suffering Servant”, the text is replete with detail.  The man described has been pierced in his hands and feet, his bones are visible, and men are gambling for his clothes!  If these details form an image in your mind, it isn’t surprising.  That’s just what they (and all genuine prophesy) were meant to do.  They illustrate a specific, identifiable, situation (in this case John 19:16-30).

One of the best tests of a prophet, both Biblical or otherwise, is in whether he “hedges his bets” with vague descriptions (like that a cataclysmic event will occur sometime within the next hundred years) or whether he’s willing to put it all on the line by detailing his prophesy.  In this case, the Psalmist who wrote the description painted a vivid description of a form of execution which would be popularized by the Persians beginning in the 6th century B. C. – nearly 400 years after his poem was written! (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropedia Ready Reference, 1988)  While readers (or listeners) may not immediately be able to recognize or anticipate the events described in a prophesy, the details are sufficient to ensure that many who have heard the prophet will recognize the fulfillment of his words when it takes place.

And this leads us to another important test of whether a prophesy should be considered Scripture: “Does the prediction offer something of genuine value to its readers?”

We’ll take a look at this question next week, but for now, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box below!

Works Cited

The New Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropedia Ready Reference (Fifteenth ed., Vol. 3). (1988). Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture: The Test of Uniqueness

Last week in “Testing a Prophet”, we discussed two tests that the Israelites (and modern Christians) use to help determine whether a man speaks for God and, consequently, whether the words he shares qualify as Holy Writ. This week, we’re going to pick up where we left off and take a look at another test that is used to determine “prophetic quality”: the test of “uniqueness”.  Unlike last week’s test, “uniqueness” is not a Biblical test of prophesy, but a logical one and it allows us to separate would-be prophets from real prophets based on the type and quality of their predictions.

If you think back, you may remember our discussing that if a prophet runs around telling people that a giant balloon is going to crash on top of a house in Manhattan tomorrow morning and it doesn’t happen – that man is not a prophet.  You may also remember us asking, “If a man prophesies that I will brush my teeth tomorrow… and I do?  Does he qualify as a prophet?”  While, obviously, the prediction of the latter prophet neither contradicted previous revelation nor failed to come true, it does fail three other tests of genuine prophesy.  The first of these is the test of “uniqueness”.

Most of us can make general guesses about the world around us and be correct a fair percentage of the time.  The sun probably will come up tomorrow and it’s likely that I will put on a pair of pants before I leave for work.  (At least my co-workers all hope that I do!)  Neither of these events are “unique” in that they are recurring.  Any reasonably intelligent person could make an educated guess as to what I will have for breakfast, what television I will watch in the evening, or which people I will encounter at work, simply by looking at the patterns which have already manifest themselves in my life.

Similarly, those who have deeply studied issues like politics, economics, and history can often appear to “prophesy” future events – foretelling economic collapse, civil war, and even the outcome of an election with unusual ease.  While such predictions may be beyond the realms of most of us, these too, fail the test of “uniqueness” in that they are made based on prior information, not upon future knowledge. True prophesy isn’t like playing the horses – it isn’t a matter of odds.

A second type of prophesy which fails this test is known as the “self-fulfilling prophesy”.  Unlike predictions which are based upon past events, a self-fulfilling prophesy may appear to have “unique” qualities to it.  It may predict an event which is, indeed, out of the ordinary, but which, upon closer examination could be intentionally fulfilled.

For example, someone might predict that I will go to the grocery store after work today.  I never go to the grocery store on a Friday, so it appears that there is, indeed, a “unique” quality to this prophesy.  Upon hearing the prediction, I suddenly remember that there are a few things that I need to pick up and, after work, I head straight to the local convenience mart.

Fulfilled prophesy?  Hardly!  While the prediction didn’t rely on prior information, it did fail to demonstrate genuine future knowledge.  Suggest that pizza would make a great dinner, that a local genius should patent his invention, or that the Town Council should erect a long-needed meeting hall and you’ll likely find that the predictions come through.  Such “prophesy” isn’t predictive so much as “motivational” – encouraging others to do things which may be out of the ordinary, but which aren’t beyond their means to accomplish.  And, as such, it fails to meet the true test of “uniqueness”.

Another prominent feature of self-fulfilling prophesies is that they often suggest a framework for the interpretation of otherwise ordinary events. Just ask anyone who has ever read their morning horoscope.  What starts out as a perfectly beautiful morning quickly turns into a disaster because “Mars and Saturn are in conjunction”.  Never mind that you always forget to turn on the right burner, that your coworker rarely shows up for shift on time, or that your teacher is usually grumpy before midterms.  In such situations, perfectly ordinary events can take on special meaning simply because we expect them to.  There is, after all, nothing too odd about people behaving as they normally do.  It is our interpretation of the facts which makes the difference.

Next week, we’ll take a look at another test of genuine prophesy: the test of Detail.  Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts on the issue of “uniqueness” in the comment box below!

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture: Testing a Prophet

It is generally agreed that the 39 books of the Old Testament were set in stone (so to speak) by the time of Ezra around 400 B.C.  These books were the direct work of acknowledged prophets, i.e., those people who spoke for God.  While some of these men are reported to have performed miracles (like Moses with the parting of the Red Sea), the primary test of their validity was not their works, but their words.   Deuteronomy 13:1-5 tells us:

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you.”  (NASB)

So the first test of whether a man was a true prophet whose words were to be accepted as Scripture were whether his words conformed to previous revelation, i.e., was he telling Israel to do the same things the previous prophets had commanded or was he encouraging them to “try something new”?  If the answer was the latter, his work and words were to be rejected by the Jewish people.  After all, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.”  (Numbers 23:19a NASB)

This doesn’t mean that God couldn’t, didn’t, or doesn’t continue to reveal new things to His people.  In fact, we’re told in Joel 2:28-32 that in the Last Days there will be many who prophesy and dream dreams and Revelation 11:1-13 even gives specifics about two prophets who will testify during the time of the Great Tribulation.

What it does mean is that the “new” things He reveals will never contradict what has previously been revealed.  If He tells us not to steal one day, He won’t be telling us that it’s okay to steal the next day.  Any prophet who says otherwise isn’t a prophet of God!

The second test of a prophet is found in Deuteronomy 18:20-22 where we read:

“But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.”  (NASB)

Obviously, if a prophet runs around telling people that a giant balloon is going to crash on top of a house in Manhattan tomorrow morning and it doesn’t happen – that man is not a prophet!  But what about a man who prophesies that I will brush my teeth tomorrow… and I do?  Does he qualify as a prophet?

The answer to that question will have to wait until next week, but for now, take some time to think through these prophetic tests one more time… and share your thoughts below!

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

Answering Questions About the Bible: How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture?

Deciding what is or isn’t accepted as sacred text isn’t a problem limited to Christianity.  Ask any Muslim and they’ll tell you that one of the greatest debates of the Islamic world revolves around the Hadith, the apocryphal sayings of Mohammed.  Which teachings are accurate?  Which one’s aren’t?  How are they tested?  And who, ultimately, gets to decide which ones remain a part of the accepted religious tradition and which ones don’t?

These are questions faced by many faiths, so it’s not at all surprising that they should be asked in reference to Christianity as well.  There are more than a few ancient texts which refer to the struggles of the Jewish people and the work and teachings of Christ – so who decided which books were sacred and which weren’t and how did they decide?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at why the Christian Bible stands as it does today – why some writings were accepted universally and others only by certain groups – and why so many of us are convinced that these 66 books stand out from the rest!

We’ll start by taking a look at the key tests applied to any text which makes a claim to Divine authority:

  • The Test of a Prophet – What role does prophesy play in defining the Christian Scriptures… and how do we know that a prophet really is from God?
  • The Test of Uniqueness – What role does logic play in defining what is or isn’t prophesy and how does it influence what believers will or won’t accept as genuine?
  • The Test of Detail – Is detail an important element of authentic prophesy and how might it help us determine whether a text does or doesn’t belong in the Bible?
  • The Test of Value – How do accuracy and applicability help Christians to determine whether a text (prophetic or not) deserves a place within the Holy Writ?
  • The Test of Authenticity – Why when a text was written and who wrote it can make the difference between the acceptance or rejection of an ancient composition.

We’ll examine the philosophies and events which surrounded the establishment of the Canon (a fancy, Latin word meaning “rule” or “measure” which is used in reference to those books without which a group of writings – in this case, the Bible – would not be complete), answer some frequently asked questions, and consider the implications of our findings.  Whether you agree with me that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, Word of God or not – you’re sure to find the journey an enlightening one.