Can we trust the Bible?: The inspiration and authority of God's word

As we continue our study of biblical authority, we come to this practical question: what are we to call this book?  What words best describe its authority?  Which terms should we avoid, and which should we encourage?  And why does it all matter?

Let's learn what the Bible says about itself, then discuss some of the popular words for biblical authority in Baptist and church life today.

God's word on God's word

We'll start our very brief tour within the pages of the Bible itself.  Does this book consider itself to be authoritative?  Or do those of us who affirm the timeless truth of Scripture misunderstand the book we defend?  Critics of the sixteenth century reformers accused them of making a "paper pope" of Scripture.  Is our commitment to biblical authority warranted by the Bible itself?  What does God's word say about itself?

The Bible on its origin

The Author of this book made the most stupendous claim in all of recorded literature: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Mt 28:18).  No Caesar, general, or dictator ever thought to claim all authority over the entire universe.  If Jesus possesses "all" authority over every dimension of reality, how much authority do you and I have?  The words given to us by such a Person obviously become the most significant and authoritative in all the world.

The Bible agrees.  It claims to be "inspired" ("breathed into") by its Author: "All Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim 3:16).  It claims divine, not human, authorship for its source: "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pt 1:20-21).

Paul says of his words, "The gospel I preached is not something that man made up.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:11-12).  He made the same statement to the Corinthians: "This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit" (1 Cor 2:13).

Scripture claims to possess this divine authority for all time:

"The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever" (Is. 40:8).

After quoting this passage, Peter adds, "And this is the word that was preached to you" (1 Pt 1:25).

Jesus was clear and adamant: "My words will never pass away" (Mt 24:35).

The Bible claims to be the authoritative word of God on every subject it addresses.  It asserts that its truths are objective and eternally relevant.  It could not possibly claim a higher authority for itself.

Relating the divine and the human

So we know that the Bible is literally "God's word," given to humans through human agency.  How did he use men to get his word to mankind?  Here we must consider "theories of inspiration."

First, let's dispense with mistaken approaches.  Some consider the Bible to be "inspired" like all great literature--no less and no more.  This is the "natural" inspiration theory.  Others believe that the Bible was inspired to the same degree as Christian writing, preaching, and teaching today.  This is the "general Christian" theory.  Still others accept as inspired only certain sections of Scripture.  This is the "partial inspiration" approach.  The Bible rejects all three by claiming God's special authorship of all the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16).

Now let's consider the three most popular theories in church life today.  One is the dictation approach.  By this view, God gave the literal words of Scripture directly to their human writers.  The authors functioned something like stenographers.  Some of the Bible clearly came to exist in this way (the Ten Commandments, for instance).  But we find different vocabularies, writing styles, and goals within the various books.  For this reason, the "dictation" theory is not popular with most scholars today.

The verbal approach suggests that God inspired the individual words of the Bible while also allowing human personality to be used.  This view is usually combined with "plenary," meaning "all."  It teaches that God took the initiative in inspiring each of the individual words of Scripture, but he did this in a way which engaged their personalities as well.

A third approach is the dynamic theory.  Those who hold this view believe that God guided the writers more often than he gave each word to them.  In this way their personalities were used, while God's purpose was achieved.  This approach, while not insisting on the direct verbal inspiration of each word of the text, still maintains the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.  This view affirms that inspiration is verbal not so much in its method as in its result.

Which approach is best?  All three contain ideas which should be combined into one concept.  We should affirm both the divine and the human elements behind the creation of Scripture, without allowing either to minimize the other.

Sometimes God dictated his words; sometimes he gave the authors his words in very direct ways (dreams and visions, for instance); and sometimes they use their own vocabularies to express the truth he gave them.  Perhaps an analogy can clear up this confusion.  Many writers, both ancient and modern, have compared the divine/human authorship of Scripture to the divine/human nature of its subject, Jesus Christ.  Jesus was fully divine, but fully human as well.  We cannot understand this mystery fully, but we can affirm it.  In the same way, Scripture can be the very word of God, and yet use the words of men.

All significant spiritual truth requires the acceptance of paradox.  God is three and yet one; and the Lord is sovereign while we have free will.  Jesus is fully God and fully man; his word retains both the divine and the human as well.

Those closest to the text

The first Christians were convinced of the divine, authoritative nature of Scripture.  They were clear on the fact that the Bible is the absolute, authoritative word of God.  For instance, Peter cited Old Testament prophets as his authority in his Pentecost address, the first "Christian" sermon.  Stephen's defense of the incipient Christian faith was largely a retelling of Israel's history in the biblical narrative (Acts 7).  James argued for Gentile inclusion in the Church on the basis of biblical prophetic witness (Amos 9:11, 12; Acts 15:16-18).

Much of Paul's ministry was spent explaining how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament Messianic promises.  An early example from his first missionary journey: "From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch.  On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down.  After reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, 'Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak'" (Acts 13:14-15).  Paul immediately recited the biblical history of his people (vs. 16-22), and showed the people how Jesus fulfilled their Scriptures (vs. 23-31).  He then claimed Psalm 2:7 (v. 33), Isaiah 55:3 (v. 34), Psalm 16:10 (v. 34), and Habakkuk 1:5 (v. 41) as warrant for the gospel he proclaimed.

The letters of the New Testament and early Christian history are replete with biblical citations.  In fact, if we had only the letters written by second-century Christians we could reconstruct most of the New Testament on the basis of their voluminous quotations.  There is no doubt that the first Christians considered the Bible to be the authoritative revelation and word of God.  Critics can say they were right or they were wrong, but they cannot say they were ambiguous.  These men and women would rather die than deny the truths they found in God's word.

Archaeological evidence for the Bible

Not only do we have outstanding non-biblical evidences to substantiate the central theme of Scripture, we also have excellent archaeological data to support the rest of the biblical witness.  Here are some examples, listed in the order of their biblical occurrence.

Old Testament discoveries

Archaeologists working with the ruins of Jericho made this astounding discovery in the 1930s: the walls fell outwards.  Typically, attackers used poles and rams to push stone walls inward.  In this case, they fell down and out, making it easy for the Israelites to climb them and take the city (Josh. 6:20).

In 1993, Israeli archaeologists were sifting through debris as they worked on the ruins of the ancient city of Dan in upper Galilee.  What they discovered this day would make the front page of the New York Times: an inscription, part of a shattered "stele" (monument) and dated to the ninth century before Christ.  It commemorated a military victory by the king of Damascus over the king of Israel and the house of David.  And it cited the "House of David" clearly and without question.

This was the first non-biblical artifact proving the existence of the great King of Israel.  A year later, two other artifacts were discovered, naming Jehoram, king of Israel, and Ahaziah, king of Judah.  Many scholars now believe that the monument relates to the battle in the region recorded in 2 Chronicles 22:5.

Archaeologists have also discovered dramatic evidence of Solomon's amazing wealth and building campaigns.  Fortifications at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer date to the middle of the tenth century B.C., exactly the time of Solomon's reign.  Solomon's "Royal Quarter" has been unearthed in Jerusalem.  And part of the Temple he built still stands on the eastern side of the Temple Mount.

Babylonian chronicles of the destruction of Jerusalem parallel precisely the biblical records of this tragic event.  And ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's palace complex have been discovered, proving his existence and significant role in the ancient Middle East.

New Testament evidences

According to Luke 3:1, Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene during the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry.  But no evidence of Lysanius' existence had been discovered, until an inscription was found which records a temple dedication by him.  His name, title, and place all agree with Luke's description.

In 1990, workers building a water park two miles south of the Temple Mount inadvertently broke through the ceiling of a hidden burial chamber.  Archaeologists found twelve limestone ossuaries inside.  One of them, decorated with six-petaled rosettes, contained the bones of a sixty-year-old man.  And it bore the inscription Yehosef bar Qayafa, "Joseph son of Caiaphas."  Historians have identified the remains as those of the high priest of Jesus' execution.

In 1961, excavations at the seaside ruins of Caesarea Maritima unearthed a first-century inscription.  Badly damaged, the Latin inscription reads in part, Tiberieum . . . [Pon]tius Pilatus . . . [Praef]ectus Juda[ea]e.  The inscription confirms the status of Pontius Pilate as the prefect or governor of Judea.

Yhohnn Yehohanan was a crucifixion victim, executed during the Jewish Revolt in A.D. 70.  In 1968, his remains were discovered.  His legs were fractured, evidence of the typical Roman means by which death was hastened.  Nails were driven through his wrists and heels.  His death corresponds precisely with the descriptions of Jesus' crucifixions found in the Gospels (cf. John 19:17-32).

Luke describes Paul's ministry in Corinth and this attack: "While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul" (Acts 18:12).  Gallio ejected Paul's accusers from his court (v. 16) and refused to prosecute Paul.  This Gallio is known to be the brother of Seneca, the philosopher, who was himself tutor of Nero.  However, critics were skeptical of Luke's claim that Gallio was "proconsul" of Achaia during the time of Paul's ministry there.  Then an inscription was discovered at Delphi with this exact title for Gallio; it dates him to A.D. 51, the time Paul was in Corinth.

Erastus is identified in Acts 19:22 as one of Paul's Corinthian co-workers.  In excavations in the area of Corinth, we find an inscription which states, "Erastus in return for his aedileship laid the pavement at his own expense."

Fulfilled prophecy

Jeane Dixon made the news after President Kennedy's assassination, when her prediction reported four years earlier in Parade magazine was recounted: "As to the 1960 election, Mrs. Dixon thinks it will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat.  But he will be assassinated or die in office, though not necessarily in his first term."

However, in January of 1960 she had claimed, "The symbol of the Presidency is directly over the head of Vice President Nixon."  Either he or Democrat John Kennedy had to win the election.  Additionally, three of the ten presidents who served in the 20th century had died in office, and two others were critically ill at the end of their term.  The odds against her were not as high as we might think.

Further study of psychic claims made in 1975 and observed until 1981 concluded that only six of the 72 predictions were fulfilled in any way.  A six percent accuracy rate is not impressive.

Does the Bible fulfill its predictions?  When it makes prophetic statements regarding the future, do they come to pass?  As we consider evidence for biblical authority, we should spend a moment with the fascinating subject of Messianic prophecy and its fulfillment by Jesus Christ.  If any book makes promises it does not keep, we are justified in dismissing the rest of its truth claims.  But if a book's prophecies rendered centuries earlier are clearly fulfilled in history, we can consider the rest of its claims to be trustworthy as well.

The importance of Messianic prophecy

Jesus appealed repeatedly to Old Testament predictions regarding himself:

At the beginning of his ministry, he read a Messianic prediction from Isaiah 61, then said to the waiting crowd, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:21).

He told his critics, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me" (Jn 5:39-40, 46).

At the Last Supper, he warned his disciples, "It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me.  Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment" (Lk 22:37).

At his arrest he told the crowd, "This has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled" (Mt 26:56).

On Easter Sunday night he said to the two disciples traveling to Emmaus: "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?"  Then, to explain what he meant, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Lk 24:25-26, 27).

After his resurrection he said to his astonished disciples, "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (Lk 24:44).

New Testament writers made the same appeal, claiming repeatedly that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament predictions regarding the Messiah:

At Pentecost, Peter cited prophecies from Joel 2, Psalm 16, and Psalm 110 in claiming that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 2:14-36).

He later explained Jesus' crucifixion to a crowd at Jerusalem: "This is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer" (Acts 3:18).

Peter told Cornelius, "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 19:43).

When Paul came to Thessalonica, "As his custom was, [he] went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.  'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,' he said" (Acts 17:2-3).

Paul described his message as "the gospel [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures" (Ro 1:2).

Paul's message could be summarized: "what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3-4).

Clearly, if Jesus did not fulfill Old Testament predictions regarding the Messiah, both he and his first followers were deceivers of the worst sort.  Their movement depended entirely on the claim that he was the promised Messiah of God.  It still does.

Representative Messianic prophecies

More than 300 times, the Old Testament makes claims or predictions regarding the coming Messiah.  Jesus fulfilled every prophecy.  Most scholars date Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, at ca. 400 B.C., demonstrating that these predictions were not made during Jesus' day.  Translators who created the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, began their work ca. 250 B.C.  At the very least, there were more than two centuries between the last prediction and Jesus' fulfillment.

Listed in order relative to Jesus' earthly life, here are some of the main prophecies to consider:

Born of a woman's seed (Gen 3:15 / Gal 4:4)

Born of a virgin (Is 7:14 / Mt 1:18, 24, 25; Lk 1:26-35)

Descended from Abraham (Gen 22:18 / Mt 1:1; Gal 3:16)

Descended from Isaac (Gen 21:12 / Lk 3:23, 34; Mt 1:2)

Descended from Jacob (Numb 24:17 / Lk 3:23, 34)

Part of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:19; Mic. 5:2 / Lk 3:23, 33; Mt 1:2)

From the family line of Jesse (Is 11:1 / Lk 3:23, 32; Mt 1:6)

From the house of David (Jer 23:5 / Lk 3:23, 31; Mt 1:1)

Born at Bethlehem (Mic 5:2 / Mt 2:1)

Presented with gifts (Ps 72:10 / Mt 2:1, 11)

Children would die (Jer 31:15 / Mt 2:16)

Would be anointed by the Spirit (Is 11:2 / Mt 3:16, 17)

Preceded by a messenger (Is 40:3; Mal 3:1 / Mt 3:1, 2)

Would minister in Galilee (Is 9:1 / Mt 4:12, 13, 17)

Would perform miracles (Is 35:5, 6 / Mt 9:35)

Would teach parables (Ps 78:2 / Mt 13:34)

Would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech 9:9 / Lk 19:35-37)

A friend would betray him (Ps 41:9 / Mt 10:4)

Sold for 30 pieces of silver (Zech 11:12 / Mt 26:15)

Money thrown in the Lord's house (Zech 11:13 / Mt 27:5)

Money used for a potter's field (Zech 11:13 / Mt 27:7)

Forsaken by his disciples (Zech 13:7 / Mk 14:50)

Accused by false witnesses (Ps 35:11 / Mt 26:59, 60)

Silent before his accusers (Is 53:7 / Mt 27:12)

Wounded and bruised (Is 53:5 / Mt 27:26)

Smitten and spit upon (Is 50:6 / Mt 26:67)

Mocked (Ps 22:7, 8 / Mt 27:29)

Hands and feet pierced (Ps 22:16 / Lk 23:33)

Crucified with thieves (Is 53:12 / Mt 27:38)

Prayed for his persecutors (Is 53:12 / Lk 23:34)

Friends stood afar off (Ps 38:11 / Lk 23:49)

Garments parted and lots cast (Ps 22:18 / Jn 19:23, 24)

Would suffer thirst (Ps 69:21 / Jn 19:28)

Gall and vinegar offered (Ps 69:21 / Mt 27:34)

Would be forsaken by God (Ps 22:1 / Mt 27:46)

Would commit himself to God (Ps 31:5 / Lk 23:46)

No bones broken (Ps 34:20 / Jn 19:33)

His side pierced (Zech 12:10 / Jn 19:34)

Buried in a wealthy man's tomb (Is 53:9 / Mt 27:57-60)

Would be raised from the dead (Ps 16:10 / Ac 2:31)

Would ascend to heaven (Ps 68:18 / Ac 1:9)

Would be seated at the right hand of God (Ps 110:1 / Heb 1:3)

What are the chances that one person could fulfill each of these predictions?  Many of them were beyondJesus' human control (such as the soldier's decision to thrust his spear into Jesus' side).  Were they coincidental?  Mathematician Peter Stoner once calculated the odds of one man's fulfillment of just eight of these predictions: one in 10 to the 17th power (one followed by 17 zeroes).  That number would fill the state of Texas two feet deep in silver dollars.  Stoner then considered 48 of the Messianic prophecies, and determined their odds to be one in ten to the 157th power.

Clearly, the Bible keeps its promises.  And its central figure is who he claimed to be: the Messiah of God.

Conclusion

The archaeological and non-biblical evidences for the Son and word of God are exactly what we would expect to find.  Roman historians took little notice of Jesus' life and death until his movement became significant to the Empire.  Archaeological evidence documents the existence of the most significant kings of the Old Testament and leaders of the New.  Nothing in the archaeological record contradicts Scripture.  Rather, we find much outside the Bible to confirm that which we find inside its pages.

Fulfilled prophecy is another matter.  Here we find evidence so remarkable as to be almost beyond human comprehension.  Taken together, non-biblical historical records, archaeology, and fulfilled prophecy offer us yet more reasons to trust the authority of God's word today.

 Sources include Jeffrey L. Sheler, Is the Bible True? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999; John Arthur Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, ed. ed. rev. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982); Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1962)

 Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook On Christian Evidences (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1990) 91.

 This discussion follows the treatment by Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999) 167-94.  McDowell's discussion is helpful in that it depends heavily upon Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament sources cited.