Can I Trust the Bible? (Part III): God’s Word Written
Several days before our wedding, Mandy and I drove to the Rains County Courthouse in Emory, Texas and obtained a marriage certificate from the county clerk. On our wedding day, we made sure the pastor signed the certificate, and we asked some relatives to verify that he had put it in the mail after the wedding was over. We had heard of other couples who found out months—or years—after the fact that they weren’t legally married because of a failure to obtain a marriage certificate, and we didn’t want the same thing to happen to us.
Our marriage was important to us, so we put it in writing. In fact, most important things are written down. Buying a car, leasing a home, and graduating from high school all require documentation. Nowadays, you can’t even leave Walmart without them checking your receipt!
Committed to Writing
So far in this series, we’ve seen that God is a speaking God. He works through his Word to create and sustain, to save and to judge. We also saw that he graciously overcomes our human limitations by speaking to us in human language. But today, we’ll see that God goes further than that: he commits his Word to writing. From the earliest days of the people of God, he’s revealed himself not only by speaking but through the written word.
Consider the covenant that God made with his people after he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. It wasn’t a verbal agreement that ancient scribes happened to write about. No, God was the one who ensured that the stipulations of the covenant were recorded in writing. First Moses “wrote down all the words of the LORD” and “took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people” (Exodus 24:4–7). Then God himself wrote the covenant on stone tablets that he gave to Moses, tablets that were "written with the finger of God" (31:18; cf. 34:1).
Moses added to this document near the end of his life, commanding the priests and Levites to read it aloud to all the people every seven years. Then he entrusted the written Word of God to them for safekeeping: “When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites . . . , ‘Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD.'” Obviously, this Book was to be carefully watched, guarded alongside the nation’s most precious treasure (Deuteronomy 31:24-26).
Decades later, Joshua would add to the “Book of the Law of God” (Joshua 24:26). The phrase implies that the document originates with God, and yet—just like in Moses’ case—Joshua is the one who did the writing. And so it goes throughout the rest of the Bible.
The Doctrine of Inspiration
This mysterious dynamic—God’s words written down by a human author—is referred to by theologians as inspiration. In the Scriptures, “God creates an identity between his own words and some human words, so that what the human words say, God says” (Frame, Systematic Theology, 542). The word inspiration comes from 2 Timothy 3:16, in which Paul tells Timothy that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (KJV). Literally, Paul says that Scripture is “God-breathed.” It’s not just a humanly devised record of the times in which God revealed himself to his people. It is, in its own right, the Word of God.
How does this happen? Sometimes, God tells a person to write down something specific (like dictating a letter to a typist). For example, God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 36:2). Often, however, the process itself is shrouded in mystery. Peter tells us simply that in the writing of Scripture, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
The Reason for Scripture
While we don’t know specifically how the Holy Spirit operates in the heart and mind of human authors to bring inspired Scripture into existence, we would do well to reflect on why he’s done this. We’re told in Deuteronomy 31:26 that Moses gave the children of Israel the Book of the Law “that it may be a witness against” them. That is, with Scripture—as opposed to the spoken word—few can say, “I didn’t know,” because the document is available for them to read and ponder.
It may sound like God is being unkind or trying to ensnare the Israelites in a legal trap. But the opposite is the case. Scripture is evidence of God’s mercy. He doesn’t want your response to him to depend on hearsay or the imperfect memory of another human being. He wants you to be able to get to it on your own, even though you live in a different time and place from Moses or Isaiah or Paul. God in his kindness has made his Word accessible to all people in all places by committing his Word to writing.
The question, of course, is whether the 66 books of the Bible constitute the written Word of God. Do all 66 books fully possess the quality of inspiration? Are there other books missing from the list that really ought to be included? This question, the question of canonicity, will be the subject of the next post.