Thursday, January 30, 2020

Do we have what the authors wrote?

“From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had” (John 5:4).
If the above verse appears in your Bible at all, it will probably be in a footnote. It is not considered to be part of the biblical text anymore. Does that seem like an odd choice to start talking about why we can trust the Bible? Let me explain.


The New Testament was complete before AD 100. The Gutenberg printing press arrived in 1450. Until then, every copy of the Bible was made by hand. When hand copying anything of any length, copying mistakes are inevitable. Over the centuries typos naturally crept into the text. There were also additions to the text. Some were well-intentioned attempts to harmonize passages or to explain something in the text; others were probably just marginal notes a copyist thought were supposed to be part of the passage. In total the NT grew a couple of percent over those 1400 years.

We do not have the original writings of the New Testament authors. We probably don’t even have copies of copies of them. So how can we know that what we have is what they wrote?

It’s important to know that this situation is not unique to the Bible. Every ancient document has this same problem. A discipline called “textual criticism” was created to compare the copies we have to work back to the originals.

The usual example goes something like this: Suppose a group of thirty people were asked to copy a letter. Each of those thirty copies would have errors. But each would have different errors than the others. If the original were removed, you could compare them and determine what the original said. If you only had two copies, any time there was a difference you would have a 50-50 chance of getting the correct result. With 5 copies, it would usually be obvious what the correct reading was. The more copies you have, the easier it is to discern what the original said.

Now we have copies of copies of copies of copies, so there are errors that are transmitted to the next generation of copies, and then new errors are made as well, but by determining which copies are older and comparing and weighting what we have, experts can work their way back to the original text.

Again, this is not confined to the Bible. Homer, Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Herodotus, and Plato are the big name examples, but everything written before the widespread use of the printing press falls under this problem.

However the New Testament stands out in one respect: we have many more, and earlier, copies of it than of any other ancient work. As the late, eminent F. F. Bruce said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.”
relative # of copies
# of copies compared

The result is that we have absolutely no doubt as to what greater than 99.7% of the NT says. Of the remaining 0.2-ish%, it is generally a matter of one word in a sentence that might be this or that. In no case do any of these uncertainties cast doubt on any major doctrines.

If someone gave you $100 dollars in pennies, and someone else came along and told you there was a chance that 2 of those 10,000 pennies were counterfeit, how concerned would you be?

The situation is not quite as tidy for the Old Testament — it’s more like 95%. But the Christian faith is built on the teachings of the apostles in the NT. The OT is history and background for the NT. Remember, the old covenant has been completed and set aside in favor of the new covenant established by Christ. A little bit of uncertainty about a line here or there in the OT does not undermine the Christian faith.

Thanks to textual criticism, we can identify all the places where words (or sentences) were added to the text. Places like the verse above have been removed. Two holdouts remain. The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) and the so-called long ending of Mark (16:9 and following) remain in the Bible but with notes like this one in Mark: “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.” So there are no dirty little secrets. This is in the text, spelled out for all who care to see.

Skeptics today make a lot of noise about the copying errors in the Bible. They vastly overstate their case. They want you to doubt your Bible. You don’t need to. Even if we didn’t have the modern critical text, we would have everything we need for salvation, to know God, and to live the life he desires. But we do have the modern text, and we have no reason to doubt that it gives us the actual words of the apostles of Jesus Christ.

God has made sure that we have his word 2,000 years after it was written. What do you think the appropriate response to that should be?

For more information on this topic, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus both have an interview with an expert on the topic. The expert in the second, Dan Wallace, has co-authored several books touching on the topic including Dethroning Jesus and Reinventing Jesus.

Photo credit: "Pennies" by foreverseptember

Part of Christianity 101

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Why do we trust the Bible?

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:14-15).
Why do we trust the Bible?

People who grew up in the church grew up trusting the Bible because people they trusted told them it was trustworthy. Even people who didn’t grow up in the church may have had someone they trusted, someone in whom they saw the power of God to change people, tell them the Bible is the source of the transformation in our lives and can be trusted.

There is no shame in that.

Everyone has things they believe because they trusted the people who told

Flat Earth map from 1893
them they were true. Almost everyone believes the earth is round; almost no one has gone into orbit to check. Everyone believes George Washington was the first president of the United State; how many have carefully investigated the historical documents to verify their truthfulness?

I know many scientists. None of them have repeated every experiment. None of them have even repeated every experiment in their own field. There are several scientists today who are renown for their skepticism about God and the Bible. They all rely on Newton’s, Maxwell’s, and/or Boyle’s Laws without repeating every experiment to confirm them.

So, again, there is no shame in trusting the Bible because people you trust told you it was trustworthy.

However, in today’s world, believers need to move beyond that. The scriptures come under attack from several directions. If you cannot answer those attacks, you may well find your trust in them eroding. Even those who don’t walk away from the faith can find a weakened confidence leading to an ineffective Christian life.

Also, people may ask you about these issues. Whether you’re trying to share the gospel with people or they just know you’re a Christian, people may, whether out of idle curiosity, genuine interest, or pure mischief, ask you to explain why you believe the Bible.

Trusting the Bible is not an all-intellectual exercise, and we’ll return to that shortly, but it is good for believers to be able to answer the charges leveled against the Bible. Skeptics and honest seekers alike raise valid questions: How do you know this is actually what was written? Why should we trust the writers? Is there any proof? Why these books and not those? These are fair questions, even if they’re not always fairly delivered.

Being able to answer these questions will strengthen your trust in the scriptures and equip you to help those honest seekers who need to know the truth. That is what we will turn to next.

Image credit: Map of the Square and Stationary Earth, Orlando Ferguson, 1893.

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Bible: Introduction

“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” (Rom 15:3).
It may seem like a bait-and-switch to start talking about the Bible now. As much as I want to talk about God, it’s necessary to start here. The Bible is the source for most of what we know about God, so it’s important to know whether we can trust it, how we got it, and how to use it.

And before we can talk about all of that, we need to talk about exactly what it is.

The Bible is not a book. It is a library. There are 66 books in the Protestant*
The Bible when printed like a normal book.
The Bible printed like a normal book.
Bible. They were written over the course of more than 1500 years by dozens of different people in various parts of the world in three different languages. We don’t know who wrote many of them.

The first 39 books we inherited from the Jews. We usually call them “the Old Testament” — meaning that they contain the old covenant (or testament), though in reality they contain more than one covenant. Jews call them “the Bible.” Many today refer to them as “the Hebrew scriptures.” Jesus usually called them “the Law and the Prophets.” The apostles simply called them “the Scriptures.” These works were written by prophets, kings, and government officials. They contain the history of how God dealt with Israel and his promises to them as well as their worship and wisdom literature.

The 27 books of the New Testament are the writings of the apostles and their students. The four gospels contain their memories of the life and teachings of Christ, and the epistles are their application of his death, resurrection, and teachings to life as a Christian.

With that history in mind, it is important to know how to read the Bible well. There are three keys to this: context, context, and context.

Literary context is the grammatical context of the passage and the type of literature — for example, whether you’re reading history (which you would read in a more straight-forward fashion) or poetry (where you expect figures of speech and symbols). This ought to be the simplest thing to deal with, but in practice Christians don’t always do this well.

There were no chapters and verses in the original writings (except the Psalms). A verse cannot be understood apart from the paragraph it is a part of. A paragraph must be understood in light of the larger passage. Yet people continually try to isolate verses from their context resulting in grossly misunderstanding — and misusing — them.

The same goes for the genre (that is, type of literature) of books. Proverbs are not promises, and figures of speech in poetry should not be taken literalistically. Nor should you try to allegorize passages in historical books. Keeping the type of literature you’re reading in mind is very important when reading the Bible.

Historical context is the world in which the book was written. Every book was written by a specific person to specific people. Their culture, language, and world view were influenced by when and where they lived, and we have to try to read the text through their eyes. A text cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to the original audience.

Theological context is what the author knew about God. God revealed more of himself and his plan over time. Conditions changed. We have to read the text in light of what the authors knew and apply it in light of what we know. One common mistake is to read the Law of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) and try to apply it to our day. The Law was fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection. It is not binding on Christians.

There are plenty of tools to help us with those three things. Bible handbooks, commentaries, study Bibles, and Bible dictionaries help us keep these contexts in mind as we read.

After we read the Bible well, we are not done. The Bible was not given to us to entertain us or to merely enlighten us. It was given to change us. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

You cannot know God without spending time in the Scriptures. But that time was spent in vain if you do not put into practice what you see there.

Does this seem a little daunting? Don’t let it put you off. God gave us his word so that we may know him and know what he wants from us. He intended it to be understandable. It takes a little work, but every worthwhile thing requires some work. Putting in the effort will pay off immensely.

* The Protestants’ Bible contains fewer books than that used by the Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox.

Part of Christianity 101

Friday, January 17, 2020

Introduction to Christianity 101: Practical Theology

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2Cor 10:5).
The first section of our introduction to Christianity is what I’ll call practical theology. Theology is simply thinking about God. Everyone is a theologian. Everyone has an idea of what they think God is like, and that affects how they live. So it’s important to have correct ideas about God. As Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

levels of theology
But not all theology is equally important. Every discipline has specialists. They get into academic discussions that don’t matter to the average person. They drill down deep and explore the frontiers. They split hairs and parse terms. We don’t necessarily need to know all of that. It's important to know what God is like, what’s wrong with people, and how we’re saved. It's less important to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, exactly how election works, or whether the millennium is literal or figurative.

Which is why I call this “practical” theology. I want to focus on what we absolutely need to believe, why we believe it, and what difference it should make in our lives. And knowing God — and what he says about things — more deeply will help us love him more dearly and see things more clearly. And it will help us to explain what we believe and why we believe it to others.

All of this is necessary because there are a lot of bad ideas about God out there. Everyone's a theologian, and most people are bad ones. They have wrong ideas about God, wrong ideas about humanity, and wrong ideas about what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it. And they can influence us if we’re not careful. But we can also influence them!

All of this is about making a difference in the world for Christ and his kingdom. We do not want to know things for the sake of knowing things. “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1) unless we are careful to guard our hearts against pride. We only know what we know because God has chosen to reveal it, and when he revealed it he gave us a task. We want to be more like Jesus and to take the good news to the people who desperately need to hear it.

To that end, we will focus on a very particular subset of Christian theology. Theology is sometimes divided into (1) primary issues, (2) secondary issues, and (3) tertiary issues (see diagram above). Primary issues include those things you must believe to be saved and those things that make us distinctly Christian (eg, the trinity). All Christians should believe these things. Secondary issues are things that determine whether we can belong to the same congregation (eg, infant vs believer baptism). Tertiary issues are things that people within the same church can disagree on (eg, views of the end times). I intend, to the best of my ability, to stick to primary issues. If I discuss secondary issues, they will be clearly labeled as such.

I want to do it this way because I don’t want to talk about being a good Baptist or a good Presbyterian (not that there’s anything wrong with being either of those things) but about what all Christians have in common, what makes us one family and one people with one mission: to introduce the lost to Jesus.

So this will be organized around the Apostles' Creed, the ancient summary of what all Christians everywhere ought to believe.

I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried.
He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. Amen.

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Christianity 101

I'm about to launch into something I've been working on, in some ways, for 20 years. I've been working on it in earnest for over a year now. We need to equip the next generation to know what Christians ought to believe, why we believe it, and what difference it makes in our lives.

My oldest child will be heading off to college in a couple of years. College is a spiritual and cultural war zone for our kids. If they're not prepared, they will be casualties. At the very least they can be wounded and filled with doubt or maybe decide to compartmentalize their faith or perhaps try to hide from the real world in a Christian ghetto. At the worst they can walk away from the faith altogether. In any of those cases their ability to serve at witnesses for Christ will be impaired at best.

But if they are properly prepared, the battle field can be a mission field, and their faith can come out of the experience stronger. That's what I want for my children and for yours.

I had originally intended this to be just conversations I had with my kids, but for a variety of reasons I've decided the best way to do this is to put it in writing in little bite-sized pieces. And if I'm putting the hours in to write these little articles, I may as well share them with anyone else who might find them useful, so I'll be posting them here. My posting frequency is going to go up quite a bit — I'm hoping to put out two a week.

If you know anyone you think will benefit from this, feel free to share. Besides "following" on Blogger, there's an RSS feed, email subscription, and you can share via the social media buttons.

I hope you will benefit from these articles. I hope our kids will benefit from them. We are in a fight for our children's future. I intend to win.

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

30 Years to a Better You

It's hard to believe I have 30 years of Christianity to reflect on, but I appear to be getting old. So I began thinking about lessons learned, mistakes made, and positive changes I've seen in myself. I'm not what I want to be, but by the grace of God I am not what I was.

Herein I offer the benefit of my bumps and bruises for whatever use you may make of it.

Jesus doesn't just want to be your Savior. He wants to be your Lord.
There are a few things Jesus repeats in the gospels. "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." "Believe the good news." These get talked about a lot. There's one that gets less air time in many circles: "Come, follow me."

Believing is important. So is following. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." The thing we have to remember is that Jesus didn't come just to save us; he came to transform us.

A big part of following Jesus is reading his word.
Read it. Read it again. Keep reading it. A broad knowledge is important. A deep knowledge is important. You can't get both of those at the same time. Sometimes read to get as much Bible into you as you can.  Sometimes slow down and get hip-deep in the details. 

Study the Bible. Study studying the Bible. Study the Bible some more. The scriptures are the primary means by which God communicates with us. They reveal what he is like, what pleases him, what he wants, and what he intends for us.

So read it when you feel like it, and read it when you don't. Prioritize it. You don't have to spend hours a day in it. Some days you'll have half an hour, and some days you'll have five minutes. The commitment to spending time in his word is as formative as the time itself. And the day may come when "getting" to spend some time in the Bible will be a treat rather than a chore.

Just pray.
I think the primary lesson of the "Lord's Prayer" was that we should keep it simple. God's not looking for the correct formula or language. He's looking for you.

Sometimes you'll be a bit ashamed of your behavior in the recent past, and the last thing you'll want to do is expose yourself to God. Pray. This may be the most important time to pray.

Ask God for what you want, but remember that the purpose of prayer is not primarily about asking for things. It's about meeting God.

Slog through the doldrums.
There are seasons when you feel like God is right next to you, when the experience of his presence is almost tangible. Those do not last.

The rest of the time has been likened to the doldrums on the sea when the wind dies down and little progress can be made. Rankin Wilbourne, in Union with Christ, says, "The doldrums are an important, even necessary, part of learning to abide [in Christ]. They protect us from the dangerous temptation of enthroning our experience of Christ over the real Christ. See, if you always got a high, or a spiritual surge, every time you drew the sail, it would be easy to shift into pursuing your own immediate gratification instead of pursuing Christ."

Screwtape says, "It is during such trough periods, much more than the peak periods, that it [the believer] is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. ... Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

Habits help.
If you can set up your life so that certain daily actions trigger the behaviors you want, you'll do yourself a huge service. If you can get to the point where you reach for your Bible the minute you sit in your chair — even when that's not why you were sitting down there — all of this gets easier to maintain. Build a habit you can maintain. If you can't spend an hour a day in the Bible most days, don't try to do that. It's easier to spend a little more time when you have it than to maintain an impossible habit.

I've gotten in the habit of praying in the shower. I don't have anything else to do, might as well use the time, right? After a decade of that, it takes a conscious effort not to pray in the shower. So I'm guaranteed to spend at least a little time in prayer every day.

Does that feel cold and impersonal? It's really not. It's simply training yourself to do the things you want to do. And habits can really help you persevere during the doldrums.

Constantly evaluate yourself against what you see in scripture.
Don't just read it. Ask yourself what you need to change based on what you see there. Be specific. Make specific goals. "I need to be nicer" is not specific. "I will ask my neighbor how I can help her" is.

That thing you are absolutely sure doesn't apply to you does. That thing you really don't want to change is the thing Jesus most wants to change.

If you've read a passage a dozen times, and this is the first time you've noticed this place where you're lacking, that means this is the time the Lord has chosen to work on that. Cooperate and things will go better for you.

Hang in there.
I ran across a Desiring God article that speaks to this topic: Most Growth Will Be Slow Growth. The title pretty much says it all. We live in a get rich quick, get thin quick culture. This is the polar opposite of the Christian life. Sanctification is sloooow. Don't ask "Do I look more like Jesus than I did yesterday?" Yesterday could have been a particularly good day, or a particularly bad one. Ask "Do I look more like Jesus than I did five years ago."

Don't lose heart.
It's understandable that hearing "this is going to be a long, slow slog" can be disheartening. But we were never promised fast results. What we were promised was "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6). You will get there. That's the important thing.

How to be a Self-Feeder
7 Tips for Reading the Bible in a Year