Is it true?
Christians probably disagree more than anything else about what we mean by the truth of the bible.
In our family at All Saints we have people with a wide spectrum of beliefs about the nature and role of the bible.
Scripture, tradition and reason
The Anglican tradition bases its authority for what we say about God, the world and the church on a balance of three "appeals". Scripture, tradition and reason. There are several churches close by that clearly place scripture ahead of the other two, and there is a sense that as a moderate, inclusive, catholic expression of church we have a vocation to restore that balance. Tradition means all the teaching, belief and practice that has been handed down to us since the birth of the church with the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the first disciples in that secret room. Reason means the God-given powers to argue, explain, question, do science and be logical with which we consider questions of truth, morality, behaviour and motivation. What then, is scripture? Clearly it is the bible. But do we read that bible recognising it was written and comes down to us from the christian tradition? Or from the preceding Jewish tradition? And do we read and respond to the bible with all the power of rational thought God has given us?
The bible - how the crucial source for understanding God and Christ came down to us
We are not, at All Saints, a church in which we view the bible as incontrovertible history, an alternative to all the discoveries of science, philosophy and archaeological research, and an absolute, literal and detailed road-map and instruction book for the living of life. We believe it is God's gift to us to inform and guide us, and it is the fullest and truest account we have of the development of belief and relationship with God in the Old Testament, and the most personal account of the life, teaching and divine purpose of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, and the most informative teaching on the christian life from the earliest days of the church in Acts and the Epistles. It is impossible to be a christian without using these texts to bring us closer to our creating God, our redeeming saviour and our transforming Holy Spirit. But did revelation and prophetic powers and examples of christian endeavour stop when a group of bishops in the first three centuries decided which books were good for faith and which were doubtful? Different parts of the church have included or excluded certain books and certain variants of the text for the last 2000 years. They originally excluded, for example, a number of Old Testament books - Tobit, Judith, Wisdom (also called the Wisdom of Solomon), Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and additions to Esther and Daniel - but various church leaders at various times re-included them, and we call them the Apocrypha and use them in our lectionary at All Saints. Martin Luther, the Father of Protestantism, included these books, but struck out the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, because they didn't accord with his theology.
Human and divine hand in the bible
The bible we have today has been shaped over time in the context of faith. The difference between the accounts of the life of Christ in the four gospels reflects the different life, culture and belief of the early communities for which they were written as a tool for instructing new members. It is sometimes said that Scripture has shaped our faith and our church, but it is equally true that our faith and the church have shaped scripture.
Bible versus science and archaeology
Those outside the church, especially the many voices that are anti-religion, aided and abetted by the press, see the bible as proof of the dottiness and irrelevance, even the sinister illogicality, of christianity. However, as in so many other ways, they are mostly attacking their own misunderstanding of the nature of scripture.
Take the example of Genesis and the story of creation. Ah, they say, christian belief as exactly set out in the bible, is clearly contradicted by science so christians are stupid and deny the evidence of science. That is to misunderstand the purpose of the writers of Genesis, the religious culture in which it was written, and our understanding of the Old Testament. As christians, we can respond to the poetic sense of the role of the creator in the creation of the world, God's care for it and love for it, God's hope that it will respond in love, and that we should be awed and grateful. That in no way contradicts the big bang theory or any other scientific understanding of the cosmos, of the expanding universe, of the the scale of the universe and the minuteness of its building blocks. To an open minded christian, science helps to show the awesomeness of God. Genesis adds to what science teaches us. Similarly, when the bible explores social attitudes, it is generally reflecting the life and beliefs of the time, and often using human activities and relationships to illustrate, for people familiar with that world, the relationship between us and God. The diversity of material in the bible is immense, so we shouldn't be surprised if it contains good sense and a rule book and hygiene guide for a nomadic Bronze-age people, as it does, but we need to be very careful before we try to apply this to our 21st century life and issues.
Accepting difference in the understanding of scripture
Thus it may be helpful to some christians to see the bible, every word of it, miraculously dictated by God to a huge range of different writers, and carefully selected and redacted at god's specific instruction by different hands in the first few centuries AD. To christians of our tradition, we believe we can know even more of the mind of God from the scriptures if we study them, understand the culture that informed their writing, and prayerfully use them to challenge, goad and, by the example of previous generations, use them to understand God's relationship with humanity. Thus we can, in all honesty, say after we read any passage of the bible "This is the word of Lord", and reply "Thanks be to God". Without scripture we would know nothing of our faith.