The Nature and Origin of the Bible

The Bible tells us that the Word of God is established eternally in heaven. [1] However it is not the Christian claim that the Bible itself has existed eternally in heaven, or that the Bible will be needed once God's people leave this world and go to heaven. This contrasts with the Muslim claim about their book the Quran. Muslims believe that, although it was only finally revealed on earth through Mohammed approximately 1300 years ago, the Quran is a transcript of a tablet preserved in heaven.

The New Testament makes clear what is implicit in the Old Testament, namely that the Eternal Word is not a `thing' (a book) but the very personal expression (Word) of the mind of God who sustains all creation and works out the plan of salvation for the world. [2] In the New Testament the eternal and personal Mind or Word came among us clothed in our full humanity so that we might know Him face to face. [3] The Bible is both the account of, and the result of, this very real and personal engagement of God's eternal mind with the history of the world. Through this very personal self-disclosure by God the Bible was written. Unless we use the Bible to receive knowledge of the Eternal Word we will never really understand it.

So then the Bible claims to be the book that is the record of God's very personal revelation of Himself to humankind so that we might know Him who is our Creator, Lord and Judge and so discover His salvation for our lost humanity and spoilt world.

How can we understand and assess this claim? How should we study it?

I use an example from another branch of knowledge - astronomy. (Examples could be taken from any number of branches of knowledge.)

The world's great telescopes are amazing instruments full of all kinds of gadgets to enable the astronomer to come to a knowledge of the particular part of the heavens he is viewing. Let us imagine a team of technicians coming to examine this instrument and make sense of it, without realising that its purpose is to view distant objects in the skies beyond it. They will all try to work out what this and that gadget is for, and write many learned papers about them. If they are writing independently of one another they will all have different ideas about which parts of the instrument are useful and which are useless, which were original and which were later additions, which are fundamental and which are merely superficial.

What is certain is that they will never be able to make sense of it as a whole until they discover what it is for, and they won't find that until they actually look through it. Once they have made this fundamental discovery then they will gradually be able to make sense of the whole. As they actually use the telescope for its purpose of viewing reality beyond it in the heavens then it will, as it were, be able to unfold its many and varied recourses to them and they will see it as a wonderful inter-related unity. If they refuse to take into account the purpose of the telescope in their investigations, we would have to say that the whole basis of their work is irrational even though it has the appearance of being scientific.

Similarly our understanding of the Bible can only come when we use it for its purpose namely to lead us to personal knowledge of God. If we resist such life changing knowledge we will never be able to assess the truth of the Bible. We cannot be detached observers or listeners.

The Bible is the account of the relationship of God with all creation. Although the Bible writings were all complete in the first century AD, its story, in both Old and New Testaments, looks ahead to the end of time. Its story begins at the beginning of creation and finishes in the future at the close of the present age. The Bible therefore encompasses the whole of reality and does not allow us the dualist way of thinking that would seek to break up knowledge into disconnected parts. It cannot be considered as if it were just a religious book divorced from such subjects as history or science. More of this later.

The Bible is dominated by the figure of the Almighty and living God who creates, redeems and judges according to His own loving and righteous purposes which come from the heart of His being. In the pages of the Bible we come face to face with Him as He speaks, calls and expects a response. [4] God is therefore revealed in the Scriptures as deeply personal and something must be said here about personal knowledge.

Personal knowledge of one another is not gained primarily through looking at one another but through listening to one another. It is through speech that we reveal what is really on our heart and mind. Thus God's revelation of Himself is in terms of `Word' rather than picture. We must not seek to make any image of Him.

Because knowledge of Him must be based on personal relationship, knowledge of Him is not primarily knowledge of a philosophical principle or ground of being. Also it is not primarily knowledge of certain codes or laws. We know Him as a Person as we know all persons. Personal knowledge always has at its heart trust and love and therefore a willingness to receive, give and be changed by our growth in understanding of other persons.

Because God is Person it belongs to the heart of the message of the Bible that our response to Him must be faith and obedience rather than human wisdom or works of the law. Philosophical discussions, words of wisdom and codes of law do find their essential place in the Bible, but only as servants of that true knowledge of God that comes through faith.

This means that we should not seek to discover truth by extracting doctrines from the text of Scripture and then merely comparing them with one another. That would lead to the detaching doctrine from the deeply personal knowledge that is appropriate for God. The doctrines that we find in our Bible study must only be considered in relation to that profoundly personal knowledge of God that is revealed in His personal relationship with His people. Indeed it is common to hear conversion testimonies from men and women who say that they once found the Bible meaningless but when they experienced openness to God himself, the Bible came alive.

The Bible claims to be about the relationship between God and all of His creation. However it is primarily concerned with His relationship with human beings for we are created to be the link between the natural world and heaven itself - between God and creation. Further it is we who have sinned against Him bringing suffering to the world. Hence the story of redemption as told in the Bible particularly concerns God and humankind.

Because the nations and peoples are many, God chose one people, to represent all peoples, who would be the human bearers of God's purposes in redemption. They, the chosen people, were given a land - the Promised Land - in which God would work out His purpose for the world.

Because they were uniquely to be the ones who would receive the Divine Word, God's deeply personal relationship with humankind became particularly intense in His relation with the Jewish people (Israel). They like the rest of us were and are sinners. Hence the special intensity of God's relationship with them drew out of them the best and the worst that we see in the human race. Both God's special relationship with them and their inevitably intense response to that relationship ensured that their history would be unique among the nations. Further their encounter with other nations brought and brings the Gentiles into contact with God's revelation. Therefore the nations' reaction to the Jewish People reveals both the best and the worst, not only in the Jews, but also in the wider world as well. (This is the deepest way to understand the historic and ever present mystery of anti-Semitism.) [5]

In the story of Israel we see, as if in a magnifying mirror, the story of all peoples and the story of our individual lives. That is why the Bible speaks to peoples and individuals of all ages. In it we hear God's Word to us all.

When we reach the New Testament we find that God has not just drawn near to Israel, but His Word has actually come into their midst. `The Word became flesh and dwelt among us'. [6] Now the particularly intense relationship that draws out of them both the best and the worst reaches its dramatic climax. It is in this climax that God is able fully to reveal His Person to us. It is at the cross that God's heart of love and righteousness is fully made known. This final revelation is foreshadowed in all His past relationship with Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. Thus the whole Old Testament, rather than just a few passages, bears witness to Christ [7]. In Him the full relationship between God and humankind, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, is finally revealed. That is why the New Testament draws upon Old Testament words spoken to Israel and applies them to Jesus. Since Israel embodies before God, all peoples, it also is right for preachers to use such passages and relate them to the wider world, church and individuals.

It is in the culmination of meeting between God and Israel that the worst and best about His people is finally seen. The best is seen, for example, in the life of the Apostles (all Jews) who accept Christ, and begin to take the Word of God into all the world, thus fulfilling God's calling to Israel to be a light to the Gentiles.

The worst is seen in the Jewish religious leadership who reject Christ and in doing so reject the very Person of God Himself. Yet it is here that we see the wonderful sovereign love of God for us all. Not only does God use their good response to Christ, He needs and uses also their rejection of Him too. Indeed their rejection of Him is the means by which He fully makes Himself known to us as He bears all our sins in His body and `takes away the sins of the world'. [8]

Both Old and New Testament tell us that God had actually purposed to use the sin of Israel as the means of bringing light to the world. [9] His righteous love is seen in the context of the sin of His people. Although the cross of Christ is the place where this is accomplished, it is seen too in the Old Testament. Here also the wonderful love and forgiveness of God are demonstrated in the context of the sin of Israel. It is only in that context that such books as `Jeremiah' could have been written at all. [10] This is a major theme of Paul's epistle to the Romans. Here he argues that it is human unfaithfulness to God that brings out His faithfulness and that is the way He had purposed it from the beginning. [11]

It is out of this very real and dramatic relationship between God and Israel, that Old and New Testaments came to be written. The writings of the Scriptures are the response to all that has happened as the life of God meets the people of Israel. The Bible is the result of the Divine really embedding itself in the humanity of God's people. Those who were most intimately caught up in the drama record that Divine initiative and human response for us. They were not detached observers.

Thus the writing of the Bible can be considered both from the perspective of the Divine and human. However it must never be forgotten that its ultimate origin is God not man.

It is not as though part of it is Divine and part human. It is entirely Divine and entirely human. It is in the very human words of the Biblical writers that the Divine Word is heard in all its fullness. The bond between the Divine and human is always the Holy Spirit. That is why the human authors of the Scriptures, writing with all their varying degrees of good or bad Hebrew or Greek, nevertheless through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, really are enabled to bring the Word of God to the world. That is what the Bible is.

God raises Christ having died as a Jew at the hand of Jews and Gentiles in a new recreated humanity that breaks the human division between Jew and Gentile. In the resurrection of Christ, then, Israel is reconstituted and the Church that embraces both Jew and Gentile becomes through Christ the new Temple. This is a major point made by Paul in Ephesians. [12]

In Romans 11 Paul goes on to discuss the future for both the Church and Jewish Israel. He argues that it is precisely because God had purposed that Jewish Israel be disobedient for our sake that He has not abandoned the purposes for them that are revealed in the Old Testament prophets. Thus the Bible tells us about the future destiny of the Church, Jewish Israel and the world. It is not though three separate purposes. Rather through the final restoration of Israel to its land and eventually to Christ, the Church itself will be blessed and, in turn, the world experience `life from the dead'. [13] (This does not mean that all will be saved for although the resurrection of Christ embraces all creation there are many, both Jew and Gentile, who reject the grace of God. This means there will be both a resurrection to Eternal Life and a resurrection to condemnation.) Paul also makes clear that the Christian Church should never look down upon the continuing Jewish Israel because the very sins of self-righteous pride that led them to reject Christ are in danger of affecting the Church too. Indeed he goes on to imply that if the Church does not live up to its calling it will not succeed in its calling to lead the Jewish people to Christ. [14]

Thus although the Bible story is focused in Israel and then Christ, its story enfolds the whole of reality from the beginning to the end of time. Is there any external indication that the story it tells is a true story - a true history?

We ponder briefly the human subject of the story - the people of Israel. Over and over again the Old Testament prophets tell us that, the history of the Jews will be unlike the history of any other people, and that towards the end of time, after great suffering, the Jews will return to the promised land, where they will become the centre of hostility. This hostility will affect the whole world. Eventually God will reconcile them to their Messiah, cleanse them from their sin, judge the nations who have hated them, and make them a blessing to all peoples. [15] The New Testament is not silent about this purpose of God. [16]

Many (Jews, Christians, and agnostics) have written about the Jewish story and commented on its uniqueness.

  • A Jewish View:
    By the standards of others, once they had lost their country, the Jewish people should have fallen into decay long ago. But instead, uniquely (emphasis mine), they continued to maintain themselves as a nation, and by doing so became in the eyes of others an uncanny and frightening people. [17]
  • An agnostic view.
    Mark Twain wrote:
    `The Jews constitute a tiny percentage of the human race. Properly the Jew ought, hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with has hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylon and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? [18]
  • Two Christian Views:
    Karl Barth who did not like proofs from nature for the Christian Faith, said of the history of the Jews:

    "In fact, if the question of a proof of God is raised, one need merely point to this simple historical fact. For in the person of the Jew there stands a witness before our eyes, the witness of God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and in that way with us all. Even one who does not understand Holy Scripture can see this reminder. And don't you see, the remarkable theological importance, the extraordinary spiritual and sacred significance of the National Socialism (Nazism) that now lies behind us is that right from its roots it was anti-Semitic, that in this movement it was realised with a simple demonic clarity, that the enemy is the Jew. Yes, the enemy in this matter had to be a Jew. In this Jewish nation there really lives to this day the extraordinariness of the revelation of God." [19]

    The Anglican Theologian and distinguished Churchman, Alan Richardson, in Christian Apologetics (1947) SCM, wrote:

    "In view of the remarkable history of the Jewish people it ought not to seem strange to us that they should have some unique destiny to fulfil in the providence of God. The history of other nations provides not even a single remote parallel to the phenomenon of Jewish existence down the ages and to this day. What other nation of antiquity has preserved its identity and character as the Jews have done, though exiled from their homeland and dispersed throughout the world? Throughout centuries of persecution the Jewish race has survived the catastrophes which have so often destroyed the national identity of other peoples. Religious or secularised a Jew remains a Jew - a voluntary or involuntary witness to the truth that is symbolised in the story of God's Covenant with Abraham. This striking fact of the persistence of the Jewish race has long been recognised as important evidence of the truth of the Biblical interpretation of history." [20]

What about the history of the Christian Church?

The New Testament leads us to expect that throughout the Church's history, just like the churches of the New Testament, it will have wonderful life mixed with appalling faults. [21] Towards the end of the age many will fall away from the faith and the love of many will grow cold. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, the gospel will spread to all nations. [22] In other words, as this age draws to its close, parts of the world where the Church has been strong will see a major decline in godly faith and parts of the world where the gospel is new will see a major expansion of the faith of Christ.

What about the destiny of the world?

The Bible leads us to expect that wars and natural disasters will be a constant feature of world history. Towards the end of the age we can expect and intensification of these things together with the added dangers of bombardment of the earth by meteors and the like. Jesus tells us that as the time of His Second Coming draws near, wickedness, knowledge and travel will greatly increase. [23] (Nothing wrong with the latter two of course.) Evil will not, though, have the final say in the destiny of creation; for beyond the death of Christ was resurrection - a resurrection that enfolds all creation. [24]

What about the world of science?

Although it would be foolish to use science to prove the Bible's world view, it cannot but be heartening to discover that the Bible's teaching about the essential nature of reality, sits more easily with modern science's discoveries about the natural world than would have been possible with the presuppositions of an earlier science. Twentieth Century scientific discoveries about the foundations of the natural world cry out more and more for a Creator and Sustainer. They further reveal a view of created reality in which the heart of the Bible's message can make sense. They are very briefly summarised here:

  • The universe gives strong indications that it is finite.
  • Space-time itself is not just the container of objects and events but part of the fabric of the natural world.
  • Physical existence has at its base mathematical information.
  • Although the natural world is ordered it is not a deterministic system.
  • Even across the bounds of space and time, physical being, at its foundations, is relational- It is not a collection of separate particles.
  • Life itself is based on information technology way beyond that invented or imagined by human effort.
  • The consciousness of animals and the self-consciousness of humans cry out for a non-materialistic understanding of animal and human experience.

The Bible's world view is that:

  1. God is the ground of the rationality of nature. In modern terms we can say that the laws of electricity, magnetism, gravity etc., which are fundamental to the behaviour of all physical things, did not just happen to be what they are, but owe their origin to God. The foundation of these laws is the Logos or Word of God that expresses the Mind, Will, Grace and Love of God.
  2. God is not only the Creator of all things but also their Sustainer. The universe was not merely created and then left to continue in its own way independent of the Creator. At its foundations - as many think is implied by quantum mechanics - the universe is an open system that seems to depend on a greater order beyond itself. Its continuing existence depends upon the grace of God; `He upholds everything by the word of his power' [25]
  3. Although God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, he has granted freedom to nature and especially to humans. We really are free. We do not live in a deterministic universe rigidly controlled by physical or Divine laws.
  4. God has given to humankind the freedom and authority to rule the earth. Our use of freedom really does influence for good or bad the world of nature with which we come in contact.
  5. There is a continuing interaction between: God and nature, God and the history of the world, and God and the story of our individual lives. God speaks, loves, calls to us, and expects a response.
  6. The gospel of Christ is that God has made Himself known to humankind in the redemption of the world. This redemption holds together all of space and time so that, even though we are individually responsible for our actions, yet also we are related across the bounds of space and time with God, one another, and the natural world through the great archetypal figures of Adam and Christ.

I end this paper with an analogy which should not be pressed too far but might just be helpful.

What about the relation between the Living Word and the Written Word? It might be useful to think (mutatis mutandis, of course) of the relation between the wave of information and the particle in quantum theory. In the wave-particle duality of the fundamental structure of nature, it is the wave of information that is primary. It is brought into concrete reality when it interacts with nature and is observed.

Could this be an analogy of how we should regard the relationship between the Eternal Word of God who is the source of creation and redemption, and the written word which comes to us through him? As he interacts with men and women in the history of Israel and the world, the Scriptures come to be written. It is by reading the written word that we discern the Eternal Word. Although the written Word cannot enclose him, we also must say that there is no other medium outside the written word though which we hear him. The Divine and human come together by the inspiration (or breath) of God in his Holy Spirit.

Endnotes

[1] Psalm 119:89

[2] John 1:1-2

3] John 1:14-18

[4] I owe some of the wording of this paragraph to Lesslie Newbigin.

[5] See Psalm 44:15-22

[6] John 1:14

[7] Luke 24:44

[8] John 1:29

[9] Isaiah 42:18-19, Romans 11 (whole chapter)

[10] See for example Jeremiah 30 and 31

[11] Romans 3:1-6

[12] Ephesians 2:14ff

[13] Romans 11:15

[14] Romans 11:17-24

[15]. Isaiah 43.49; Jer 30-33; Ezek 36-39; Zech 12 & 13. etc. etc.

[16] For example in Luke 21:20-24 we read:
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains and let those in the city get out ....for this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written.....They will fall by the sword and be taken as prisoners to all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled. This passage tells us that the coming scattering of Israel is the true fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies. We therefore conclude that these Old Testament prophecies cannot have referred only to the Babylonian exile hundreds of years before Christ! That means that the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration after exile must also refer to events after Christ as well as events before His time on earth. This is confirmed by the last words in the above quote which show us that the coming Jewish exile from Jerusalem is not forever.

[17] David Vital, The Origins of Zionism.

[18] In an essay entitled: Concerning the Jews quoted by Lance Lambert in his book: The Uniqueness of Israel. page 57

[19] Dogmatics in Outline, pages 75-76

[20] This is an excerpt from a larger passage found from pages 141-143

[21] Acts 20:29-30

[22] Matt 24:9-14

[23] See Isaiah 24, Joel 2:28ff, Mark 13, Rev 6:13

[24] Col 1:15-20

[25] Hebrews 1:3

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There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

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