Another look at the reliability of the Scriptures

  • David Martin
  • 23 November 2020

The reliability of the Bible is such an important question that it needs to be revisited time and again. Since Christians claim that the Bible is God’s word, we need to give a defence or—to use the old terminology—an apology to the world for this claim. The question comes in lots of different forms, but today let’s consider if the Bible is a reliable source of information about God.

If there is a God out there, how would we know? And assuming he is good, what could we reasonably expect this God to do? Let me challenge you to find a one-word answer. What could you reasonably expect God to do? You may be thinking of love. I love ‘love’ too, but love is too general. How could you expect God to love, for example? The word I came up with was ‘communicate’. For us to truly know a supreme and transcendent being, we would need this God to reveal themself to us. We would need God to communicate to us. And so we arrive at the popular idea of describing the Bible as special revelation. But how can we know the Bible is a reliable communication from God?

Let’s distinguish the two sides to this question. First, there’s the historical reliability side. The Bible records events in the past; it is a history of God’s dealings with humanity. So is it historically convincing communication? I’m not an historian myself, but lots of other people have delved into this, and their findings can be summarized by pointing out that it’s all about the sources of information. For the New Testament events, we can at the very least say the following:

  • There are at least half a dozen independent sources for the New Testament events.
  • These sources are close in time to the events they are reporting.
  • Non-Christian sources confirm the basic data of the gospels concerning Jesus.
  • Archaeology, from time to time, confirms specific details about these sources.

So the Bible is historically reliable, but what about the other side? Is the Bible theologically convincing communication? In other words, is it what we can expect from a good God? Let’s consider the following four expectations.

1. Constant and consistent communication

The Bible hasn’t changed. The way the Bible was copied and passed down is nothing like Chinese whispers. We get the word ‘Scriptures’ from the profession of ‘scribes’. When a scroll or parchment deteriorated, a new scroll would be made by a scribe literally inscribing all the words from the old one onto the new one. That’s how they did it before photocopiers and digital printers! They were meticulous and therefore very accurate. The communication hasn’t changed. And this is exactly what we should expect if God is the author behind it.

The communication is also internally consistent. It is the same message from cover to cover. The different authors agree with each other and no one part contradicts another. It has a magnificent overarching story of God working through history to save humanity. God chooses one nation, Israel, to save people from among all nations on earth. From the start of the Bible to its end, there is a great sweeping movement from first creation, through a process of redemption, to new creation. We should expect this high level of consistency if the Bible is God’s word.

2. Comprehensible and comprehensive communication

The overall message of the Bible is so easily able to be understood that an intellectually disabled 10-year-old child can understand it. They can understand that God made them and loves them, and that they are dependent on God and should worship him. This is no more than what we should expect because God would not show favouritism to elite intellectuals. The great irony, however, is that some Oxford professors do not comprehend these basic truths. It seems their intellectual ability creates a stumbling block called pride.

The Bible is also comprehensive. It covers everything we need to know about God. We have all we need to know through our knowledge of him (2 Pet 1:3). This is true both in the area of what to believe and in how to behave. The Scriptures are so comprehensive that they are sufficient for life and doctrine. And again, this is exactly what we should expect from a collection of books claiming to be God’s word.

3. Confronting and comforting communication

The Bible is confronting and comforting at the same time. God’s word confronts us with our sin and self-serving nature, but it also comforts us with the offer of forgiveness. One of the most striking examples of this is in Isaiah 1:18-20:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be eaten by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

If God is good and loving, we would expect any communication from God to hold in balance this kind of confrontation and comfort. That’s what the Bible does over and over again. It’s not much different to parenting of children. Bad behaviour requires confrontation through loving discipline and comfort with reassuring love. And this is exactly how God acts towards us in the Bible. We discover that God is our heavenly father.

4. Climactic communication

One last thing is that the Bible is as climatic as we should expect it to be. If there is a God out there, it is not unreasonable to expect that this God is: in control of all things; has good purposes in mind; and is moving history in a direction to achieve those purposes. We should expect those plans to be fulfilled in some kind of climatic event.

This is exactly what we find in the Bible. The story of God’s dealings with humanity reaches the pinnacle with Jesus Christ. This thought is best summarized in Hebrews 1:1-4:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

The fact that it mentions past days and last days indicates that Jesus is the climactic spoken communication from God. More than that, he is also the perfect communication from God because he is not only God’s son but also the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. There is a sense that this is direct communication rather than through intermediaries.

But the climax is even better than just words: it’s words in action. God is so gracious and compassionate that through his son he provides purification for sins. This, of course, is the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross. It was a sacrifice for sin in readily understandable terms—that of the perfect sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament Jewish religious system of worship. Jesus, in both his words and his work, is the climatic and perfect communication of God.

That’s why I am convinced the Bible is reliable. It’s what we would hope for and expect if there is a God out there. We would reasonably expect God to communicate in the way the Bible communicates.

Knowing this is extremely helpful for any and every disciple of Jesus. For me, it prompts thankfulness to God for communicating to me and all of humanity in such a complete and clear way. It gives me confidence in the Bible and in the solution it reveals. And—important in this day and age where ridicule is constantly heaped on Christian belief—it gives me courage to stand up for my faith. I can be confident in front of those who oppose it (the vast majority of whom have not seriously considered the Bible) because the Bible is what we would reasonably expect God to tell us. It therefore encourages me to invite those people to, at the very least, read one of the Gospels. If they did so, they’d come into contact with the perfect communication of God to us through the person of his Son. They might even become convinced themselves that the Bible is a reliable source of information about God.