The Bible: Fiction or Fact?

Oct 11, 2017

Can the Bible be trusted? Is it a book of fiction? Why do Christians follow it? In this week's episode on Ask Away, Vince and Jo Vitale answer questions on why the Bible is so important to Christians and whether or not we can trust it as the "Word of God."

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Jo Vitale - @Joanna_Vitale
Michael Davis - @mdav1979

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Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. Today we are going to be covering a matter that should concern every believer. Even Muslims call Christians the people of the book, yet almost since the beginning of the faith attacks on the trustworthiness and historicity of the Bible, even by people who call themselves Christians, has been almost constant. Apologetics itself has no ground to stand on without the concept of the Bible being our final authority.

But how do believers defend God's word? I am thrilled to see what you guys, Jo and Vince, what you guys, what your take is on this. But before we get started, Vince, if you could tell us how's it going at the Zacharias Institute? Is there anything you would like our listeners to know about?

Vince Vitale: Yeah, great to be with you, Michael, and exciting times at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. We've just launched the Zacharias Institute a few months ago. This is a training institute that we now have down in Atlanta. It's the first time as a ministry that we've had a location where we can bring people in and train them. The tagline is the Questions of Culture, the Invitation of Christ. So it's a place where we're trying to take people's questions very seriously, and we're trying to invite them into the gift of knowing Jesus Christ.

We've done programs already for emerging apologists and evangelists, for youth. We're going to be doing things for pastors and business leaders in the months ahead and many things that will be open to all. So we hope you'll check that out, the Zacharias Institute.

Michael Davis: Excellent. Excellent. We are going to go right into our first question regarding the Bible. So here's the question. “Why does God even need a book? Why can't He just speak to us directly? If He is so powerful and He is so...just the ability to be able to control every atom in the universe, why does He even need a book? Why doesn't He just speak to us?”

Vince Vitale: I appreciate that question, and exactly, you think God's all-powerful. He has an infinite number of different ways that He can speak to us. It might seem odd for Him to choose to speak to us through a book. But I think sometimes we look to criticize the option that God has chosen without necessarily having a better option to put forward. So sometimes it's worth thinking through the question a little further. Okay, if not a book, how should He have communicated to us? You might think, "Well, God should have just spoken directly into our heads. That would have been the best way for God to communicate to us." But if that's the way He spoke to us, I think we could so easily distort that. If God was just a voice in our heads, that's so subjective. We can so easily manipulate that. I think that for God to be someone that we are in genuine relationship with, He has to be someone who can disagree with us.

I worry that if He just spoke through a voice in our heads, we could always manipulate that into whatever it is that we want Him to be saying. Sometimes you see this actually even with Christians, or those claiming to be Christians, where they'll want to take some of the Bible as true, but some of the Bible as false. In a sense, we pick and choose what it is that we want to believe. On the other hand, God might have just done something miraculous. Every time He wanted to speak to us, He just wrote in the sky every time He wanted to communicate a sentence to us. But if He did that, I worry that that would be so overpowering, so domineering, we'd have no choice but to believe in Him. Maybe we would be obedient to Him, but it would be more out of fear and that overpowering sense of the way He's communicated to us.

It would take away, I think, the freedom that we have to choose to trust Him. So He could speak directly into our heads, I worry that we would just manipulate that. He would never have a way of actually disagreeing with us, confronting us, challenging us. Or He could just speak miraculously through words in the sky. But if that was the case, would that be so overpowering that we wouldn't have the freedom to actually choose Him? So neither of those options seem very good to me.

I come to think a book is actually a great option. If God wants to communicate to a community of people in a way where He can disagree with them and challenge them, but it's also not so overpowering that it takes away their freedom to trust Him, how should He do that? That's a good question. I can't think of a better option than a book.

Jo Vitale: Relating to what Vince is saying, I was just thinking of that quote by Voltaire when he says that, "If God made us in His image, then mankind can certainly return the favor." You could just imagine all the kinds of gods we'd come up with when we're left to our own devices. What I love about the Bible is that God can reveal to us exactly how He wants to communicate Himself, the truth of who He is.

But what I also love about it is it's not just written by one person who's claiming, "Well, I have the authority, so listen to me. I alone have the words of God." But actually 66 books written over centuries and centuries and different genres by so many different people, there's just a multiplicity of witnesses across the generations. But what's amazing about that is despite so many different voices, nevertheless you get this amazingly coherent and consistent picture of God right from the Old all the way through to the New Testament. So I think so many voices and yet that God is clearly communicating the truth of who He is to us.

The other thing that encourages me about it is just that even though culture changes over time and different generations, you see different shifts going on, but because we have a book, it means that throughout the generations, we can all say, "Wow. We're part of the same historic faith." Christians a thousand years ago were still pouring over the same words and scripture. They're still allowing them to form and shape them. And so I think it makes us part of something way beyond our own really small little bit of life that we live.

But I also want to say that just because God's speaking through a book doesn't mean He's not speaking directly. I'm sure we've all had experiences where you're reading scripture and you're like, "Wow. This is piercing my heart." These are like living words and water to my soul. So I think God can speak through a book and still be extremely direct.

Michael Davis: Absolutely. I'd like to also add is that I think we sometimes have a misunderstanding of our place with God in relations to the Fall. If you look at the way that God interacted with Adam and Eve before the Fall is He did communicate directly to them. It is not God who has caused us to not be able to speak directly with God, it's the fact that sin entered the world. If God is holy and pure, He can't speak directly to us when we're not. That's the whole point of what Jesus did when He came to Earth and died on the cross, is He made it so that eventually one day we will be communicating directly with God. That's glorious. And one of the things that we also have to understand is that God is speaking directly to us.

Piggybacking off of what you said, when someone says, "Lord, speak to me." Pick up your Bible, because that is God speaking directly to you. Talking about, we all had, just like you said, we've all had experiences where there's something going on in our life. I don't know how many times I've done this. I've just flipped through a Bible and just put my finger on specific scripture and it's just like that is God helping me through certain situations, absolutely. God is speaking directly to us. It's also when you think about the Lord of the universe, a person who is sustaining, just like what we were talking about, sustaining the entire universe. His ability to speak to us and for our capability to understand, we have to have something that is going to be understandable to us because God is infinite and we are not.

He is so gracious to have given us this book. That's the reason why I am so confused at certain people who decide that they want to take certain bits of the Bible and leave certain out. It's like without this book, I don't know what I would do because otherwise, if I make God in my image, I have no faith in that. But I know this, that the God who loves me and who did so much for me, not only did He save me, but He also gave me this book so I could find comfort in that.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. And when you choose, "I'm going to follow some of this book and not other parts of the book," then really who's God? Is God, God or then are you making a choice to say actually, "I'm going to be God. I'm going to be the determiner of good and of evil?"

Michael Davis: Absolutely. So that goes into the next question that we got regarding the Bible. How do we know that the Bible hasn't been changed and exaggerated over time? Every single time I talk to an atheist, every single time, I get this question.

Vince Vitale: It's a question you get all the time, but it's a great question to get because you can answer so confidently to this question as a Christian. That's one of the things that I love. I think about it like the children's game of Telephone. One person starts by saying something to the person next to them. So I say to the person next to me, "Michael's a great guy." They say that to the person next to them, and they say it to the person next to them. By the time we work around the room and we get to the final person, what comes out is, "Michael's risen from the dead.

Michael Davis: Don't put that on me.

Vince Vitale: That's how sometimes people think about the Bible, as if one thing was initially written down but then it got exaggerated and exaggerated over time. The reason we can so confidently respond to that question is because we have so many manuscripts, handwritten manuscripts of the Bible. We have far more than we actually have for any other ancient document. We have them in many different time periods, and we have them in many different places. So it would be as if you started a game of Telephone, but you started many different games of Telephone at the same time, all branching from the same initial source. You had lines of your friends just lined up going in branches from where you're sitting and you each told them, "Michael's a great guy."

Well, if you get down the lines, say you have 10 of these lines, if you get to the end of them and nine of them report back to you, "Michael's a great guy," and one of them reports back to you, "Michael rose from the dead," well then you know which one got it wrong because you can assess the manuscripts relative to the rest of them. You can see which ones were reliable. That's exactly what we can do with the Bible. We can look at all of the manuscripts from all the different time periods in all the different places, many of them very early. And what we find is that they're nearly identical. There are changes within them, but they're very minor. Even Bart Ehrman, the scholar who probably has done the most to try to show that there are these discrepancies in the manuscript tradition, even he will admit that actually none of the core beliefs of Christianity are affected by any of those variations that you see.

The Bible is very honest about this as well. If it is the case that nine of the manuscripts say one thing and the 10th one said something different, you'll have a footnote in a good Bible. You'll see in a study Bible right at the bottom you have a little footnote which says, "Most manuscripts read this, but some read that." Normally they're things which are consistent with each other and there are different interpretations of what was said, but they're very, very similar. So we can look at these manuscript traditions. We can have utter confidence that actually what we read today in our Bibles is what was initially written down.

Jo Vitale: What I love about this is it's still an ongoing field of scholarship. So people are constantly discovering more, which actually makes it really exciting to follow because you never know what the next piece is going to be. For example, just at the moment, we're still waiting this year to find out about they think they've uncovered a fragment of Mark's gospel from the first century, which would make it the earliest fragment from the New Testament ever discovered. So we're still waiting to hear about that, but it's looking likely that that's what it is. It's so interesting where they find these fragments. Some of them are from rubbish tips in Egypt and others are from burial mosques in Egypt. So all over the place they're finding these fragments of gospels and still being uncovered.

I loved that this is as true in terms of reliability for the Old Testament as well as the New. Obviously, the New Testament is the most historically well-attested documents in the ancient world, but for a long time scholars were a bit worried about the Old Testament because we didn't have lots of early copies of the original texts. It was a thousand-year gap. People were wondering, "Well, is the Old Testament that we have anything like the original ones?" And then many of you will probably have heard the story of in the middle of last century when they unearthed the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave and suddenly found all of these manuscripts from the first century. And yet when they compare them, for example, they found a whole copy of the Book of Isaiah and then they take it and they compare it with what we're reading in our Bibles today and found it to be about 99% accurate.

And then even the differences there are really issues to do with spelling or little details rather than any big doctrinal differences. So it just speaks to how careful those scribes were when they were passing down and handing on the Torah and these documents. They treated them so carefully and so reverently. So I really think we can trust the process of transmission, which is such an amazing thing to be able to say that we can have confidence that when you go out to Barnes & Noble that the book you're picking up there actually looks so much like what the first Christians were reading. How amazing is that?

Vince Vitale: Yeah. I think it's not at all overstating to say that by normal standards of how you would assess the historical reliability of a document, the biblical scriptures are the best attested ancient document of all time historically. It's very hard to disagree with that claim unless you're discounting them solely because they include stories of miracles. But then that's not a historical assumption. That's a philosophical assumption. If you're starting from the assumption that miracles could never happen, well, then of course you're going to think that this book is not reliable. But if you're even open to the possibility of miracles and then you assess it based on normal historical standards, it comes out incredibly strong.

Michael Davis: Absolutely. For those of you who don't know, my background is Judaism. So I was raised Jewish and I got Bar Mitzvahed. But one of the things that the rabbi talked a lot about when I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah is just the way that the Jewish scribes, how meticulous they are. If they get one letter wrong, that entire section of parchment or of a vellum is thrown away. This is the reverence for this book. Again, talking about the importance of the Bible, it would necessitate a level of care. And yes, if we were writing about a sporting event or a gladiatorial contest and people were copying it, they might be whatever. But we're literally talking about the words of God. This is scripture, and there's reverence there. So it makes sense that people would treat it with care.

And yes, you hear stories of scribes putting in notes and whatever else. But to your point, Vince, if you got 150 versions that say one thing and two or three, let's say, from a small area in northern Africa that say something different, we can feel pretty confident that we know that these are the original texts, absolutely.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, absolutely. And because these manuscripts are checked over the years, the reliability actually gets stronger rather than weaker over time for exactly the reason that you say, Michael. This is a book that's treated with real reverence and would be checked by scribes over and over, and if they did find a mistake, it would be discarded or it would be corrected. So actually over time, you might think that the accuracy gets less, but actually it's the opposite. It gets stronger over time.

Michael Davis: Exactly. We find more documents. I actually had a conversation with someone who denied the deity of Christ, and when I pointed to the Gospel of John and its clear affirmation of Jesus' divinity, he actually said that the Book of John was a product of the post-Nicene church. The Council of Nicaea, for those of you who don't know, was the council that really solidified Orthodox Christology, like who is Christ. I was then able to point back to P52 or Parchment 52, which until the discovery of the fragment from Mark was the oldest piece of parchment that we have from the New Testament, dating back to between 80 AD and 125 AD, which actually goes back about 200 years before the Council of Nicaea. That was from the Gospel of John. But the thing is, to your point, there's such a presupposition that this is false, so they assume that God would not protect His love letter to the world.

We have to understand that we so think that our God is so powerful and so strong and so capable of doing all these amazing things, but we don't have faith that He could protect His word to us? It just doesn't make any sense. The fact that the Bible is so clear, the fact that so many people who agree on so little still use the same Greek and the same Hebrew should attest to the fact that this is true.

Jo Vitale: Yeah.

Vince Vitale: I think that's right. It opens up the question of authority as opposed to just our liability because we've spoken some here about is the Bible a historically reliable document. But actually as a Christian, I believe far more than that. Not only that it's a reliable document, but actually that it's a perfect book and that it should be an authority in my life. Sometimes I get people who are asking the question, "Well, why did you go from reliability to authority?" In my life, the way that worked out was that I initially was looking at the person of Jesus and initially I was just treating the Bible like a historical document, a document that seemed to be reliable in many ways, but a historical document. I was asking the question, "Well, who did Jesus claim to be?" I came to the conclusion that He claimed to be God.

He claimed to be the source of eternal life. He claimed to be the one who would judge us. He claimed to be the one who was able to forgive sins and so many other things. He claimed to be before Abraham, to be of ancient of times. And then the question was, could Jesus back up that claim? Hopefully we'll do a whole episode on this. But the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I found to be incredibly compelling. I found that Jesus claimed to be God, and then I found that he affirmed that claim by raising from the dead. So then my next question was, how did Jesus treat the scriptures of His day? And then I looked to the Bible and I found that Jesus said, "Not the smallest letter would be removed from the Old Testament scriptures." I found that when Jesus was tempted, He quoted scripture on its own as authority. It didn't need further argument.

I found that sometimes Jesus drew conclusions based on even the small phrasings of a sentence or the specific grammar of a word. He took the scriptures of His day as an authority on their own. So if Jesus claimed to be God, if He affirmed that that was true by raising from the dead, and if that's the way He treated the scriptures of His day, then I think it's part of what it means for me to be a faithful Christian and to follow Jesus to treat the scriptures of my day that way as well.

Michael Davis: Absolutely. Anything to add, Jo?

Jo Vitale: No. I think that was great.

Michael Davis: Okay, excellent.

Jo Vitale: It was good.

Vince Vitale: Thank you dear.

Jo Vitale: You're welcome. I can be encouraging.

Vince Vitale: Yeah. I only get that on air.

Michael Davis: Fantastic. We're actually going to move to some application. I think that we are stuck in kind of a devotion culture, where people love buying books that are just basically devotionals. But so few people actually know how to use this book. I'm pointing to a Bible, by the way, how to use the Bible.

The question that we received is what do you find is the most effective way you have found to study the Bible?

Jo Vitale: When Michael says he's pointing to this book, he's actually got a brand-new Bible with pink edges and it shimmers. It's actually a really nice-looking Bible.

Michael Davis: It's red. It's Art Guild. It's really nice.

Jo Vitale: Definitely, definitely pink.

Michael Davis: It's a really nice hand-

Jo Vitale: It's veering on pink. Anyway-

Michael Davis: Go ahead. Go ahead.

Jo Vitale: Studying the Bible, I mean there are so many different ways to get into scripture. I think this is going to sound like a strange thing to say, but for me, I've really fallen in love with digging deep into the challenging passages in the Old Testament. I think that so often we can stick to the New Testament or we like to read our Psalms or maybe some of the nice bits of Isaiah, but there's a lot of dodging of some of the more difficult texts. I understand why Christians do it because it can be really hard to understand. I went through a struggle when I was doing a master's in biblical interpretation.

I was really, really struggling with some of these texts in the Old Testament. I'm sure we'll talk about them in later episodes, some of those challenging texts. But for a while I think I was scared to go deep because I thought, "What if it's too good to be true? What if when I pull back the veil here or get behind the text, I'm going to discover that actually God isn't as good as I think He is? Or maybe He's saying some things here that actually I find really challenging or hard to believe could be in line with the character of God that I see in Jesus?" But actually it was through that process of really wrestling with those texts rather than running away from them, of looking at them in the context of community.

I got together with some other Christians who were wanting to dig into the challenging texts in the Old Testament, so doing it with other people, which I think can be important when you're wrestling with hard things in the context of community. But also getting into commentaries, looking at the background details, and just taking the time to really honor that why are these things here. I would say it comes down to context, base the context in terms of history. What is going on in the culture at the time? What did this mean? Rather than immediately turning the page and assuming the worst, because from our 21st century perspective, things can be challenging and hard to understand. Thinking, "Okay. What does this mean then?" And then asking the question, "Well, why is it here in the text? Why is it in the Bible? Why would it be included? How does it fit into the overarching story and what we know of God's character?"

Scripture interpreting scripture, context being so important because I think when we understand what it meant in history and why it's in the text, only then are we in a place to be able to say, "Hey, what does it mean for us today?" So I would just want to encourage, maybe there are people listening who've you've been scared to look into the Old Testament, some of these hard texts because you're thinking, "What if I can't defend it? What if this is going to turn out to be the case that God really isn't as good as I want Him to be?" Actually, the more I've wrestled and gone deep and prayed and asked God to help me understand in that process, the more I've actually found that the very texts I thought would be the hardest to understand have turned out to be the most beautiful. I've actually falling more in love with the character of God, with His Justice, with His love, with His Holiness than I was if I hadn't gone there in the first place.

I just encourage. Don't shy away from the hard things, but get into them. Read commentaries. Study them in community. If you're struggling, ask God to help you when you're reading. Ask the Holy Spirit, who inspired the book, to give you a hand in understanding it.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, I think that's right. You'll find that a little biblical study will often challenge your faith, but a lot of biblical study will confirm your faith. I think that's really what you experienced, Jo, through your graduate studies, those initial months in your master's degree of starting to dig into biblical studies and actually finding that really challenging, but persevering, trusting God, doing it prayerfully, pushing through. And then I saw you come out the other side of your graduate studies more confirmed in the Bible than ever before.

Jo Vitale: There were texts I was scared to look at it and now they're the ones I speak on the most. Genocide, slavery, sexism, all those things that used to be I didn't want to go there and now I love to talk about them. So it's encouraging.

Vince Vitale: That's right. They're the ones that you love to talk about and, in a sense, the bigger and the deeper the problem, the more satisfying. In the case of Jesus, worshipful is the solution. That's partly what you've done. You've really dug into those really difficult texts, and then when actually Jesus is able to claim the victory even there, then that really leads to worship. So I think that's really helpful.

Jo Vitale: It takes away your fear because now when I come across a hard text I think, "I know what this looks like. We're about to go on a journey and an adventure, but where we end up will be more encouraging, more exciting." So now I get that sort of adrenaline of excitement rather than I'm fleeing in the other direction.

Vince Vitale: That's right. You've built up more and more evidence over time that the last three, four, five, six really difficult passages that you've dug into, you've seen that God has responded. He has provided answers. So you have that much more confidence when you find another one.

The other thing I'd add is just that the Bible, it is an intellectual book. There are rules in it, although it's not a rule book. It is primarily a relational book. It is a letter. It's a letter written with love to us. So it has to be a conversation as well. It's not just a book that you engage with passively. It's a book that you need to interact with and give back to in the context of relationship as well. I had one friend as an undergraduate who at the end of each day, he used to list the fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. And he would do it very slowly. After each one he would just spend time meditating, praying on what that had looked like that day. "Was today a day where there was love given from my life, received into my life? Where were the problems there? What is God saying with respect to that?"

But just to me, this image of hearing from the scriptures, but then also praying through them and responding to them and bringing them to bear on our actual lives. So the more you can be interacting with scripture, I think is good. Have a journal out next to it. As God is writing to you, be writing to Him. Be praying, often out loud works well because it just brings you into that physical relationship with God, which I think can be really significant. The other thing I would say is, don't always be on the run. I understand there are times when we're busy and hey, if you have 10 minutes and you spend those 10 minutes in the Bible? Great. No better use of your time.

But if the Bible's a relational book, you can't go deep relationally, often just in 10 minutes. So it's great. Just like in a marriage, just like in a friendship, it's great to have those short interactions, but you also need that time. If you're finding it difficult to get a lot of time each day during the week, well then set aside a real block on a Sunday. Make sure that on a weekly basis you're not only getting some time in the Bible, but enough time to go deep in the context of relationship.

Michael Davis: Absolutely. One of the things that I found helpful is actually is from on the Bible app, not to plug that, but it's through Ligonier. They're in-depth studies. The one I'm using right now is the study of Matthew. It's a 200-day study of the Gospel of Matthew. What it is, it's actually more commentary than devotion. What I've been doing is I've actually been literally writing out the Gospel of Matthew. So what I do is first I write it out, then I read the commentary on it, and then I basically write my reflections. It could be between one verse a day to 10, and it's been really helpful. It's been one of those things. I'm in seminary right now, finishing my last semester, but it's one of those things where it's separate from my studies and it's just one of those things.

I wake up in the morning. It's one of the first things I do. It's not like I'm trying to find something topical for my life at that moment, but it's amazing just going through it how often it aligns with what's going on in Matthew with what's going in my life. It's something I have to be intentional. I've got three children, one who's two and a half months. I've got work. I've got just so much stuff going on. But if I can be intentional with it and I can develop that relationship, it's been such a blessing. It's about 30 minutes a day, and it's just developing that relationship with God through Matthew has just been such an unbelievable blessing to me.

Vince Vitale: That's great. The more time you spend in the Bible, I think the more you find that you don't feel on the back foot. You don't feel like you need to defend it. You just feel like you want to share it because it's not just an intellectual book. You're actually seeing the power of it in your life. I love what Spurgeon said. Asked how he would defend the Bible, he said, "Defend the Bible? Would you defend a lion? Loose him and let him go."

Michael Davis: That's awesome.

Vince Vitale: I mean, I don't know if loosing a lion and letting them go is necessarily the best practice, but you get the point. There's power in this book when you engage with it consistently and in the context of relationship.

Michael Davis: Absolutely. We are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.

Vince Vitale: Well, I hope you've enjoyed this episode. I hope you'll be submitting your questions. The whole purpose of this program, Ask Away, is that we think our God is big enough to respond to every challenge, every objection, every question. So we welcome questions. We look forward to hearing yours. We've been talking about the Bible today and I hope one of the things that you'll take away is that this book is a gift. If I could embarrass Jo for a second, when we were first dating, she did some traveling. She was in Mongolia. At this point, I was sort of wondering, "Does Jo really like me?" I knew she was pretty far out of my league. I was hoping that she liked me.

Michael Davis: Yes, she is.

Vince Vitale: Michael can confirm this. Thank you, Michael. I received from Mongolia a 42-page, single-spaced letter from Jo. I thought, "This is a good sign." The letter was-

Jo Vitale: Not everyone would react that way.

Vince Vitale: The letter was telling me all about who she was. She wanted me to know her. Another thing that Jo did...sorry, Jo. Just before we got engaged, she wrote me out a list of 40 things that no one else knew about her that she wanted me to know before We got engaged. Incredibly beautiful thing to do, absolutely traumatizing, but incredibly beautiful thing for her to do. But again, she wanted me to know her. That's what the Bible is. It's a letter from God. It's not just 42 pages. It's thousands of pages, and it's telling us what God's been doing, who He is, what He cares about, the things that otherwise we wouldn't know about Him, but He wants to share with us and is telling us how we can relate to Him. That is the most extraordinary gift. I hope it's one that you will cherish.

Michael Davis: Well guys, thank you so much.

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