As the first century was coming to an end, the Christian message was beginning to be challenged by various cults and false teachers. Responding to this reality, the Apostle John wrote “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). He implied that there is a test to determine whether someone is walking in truth or not: are they listening to (and heeding) the message of the apostles.
This was the attitude of the prophets of Old Testament times as well. Samuel, for example, said to Saul, “Tell the servant to pass on before us, and when he has passed on, stop here yourself for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God” (1 Sam. 9:27). When Moses spoke to Pharaoh, he did not speak on his own authority, but prefaced his words with “thus says the LORD” (Exodus 4:22; 5:1; 10:3; 11:4). Other prophets followed the same pattern (Josh. 24:2; Judges 6:8; 2 Sam. 12:7; 1 Kings 11:31; 17:14; 2 Kings 19:20). They had the audacity to assume that their messages were God’s word, and carried God’s authority – and they were right.
The writings of the prophets carried the same authority. This is evidenced by the recurrence of the phrase “the word of the LORD came” (Isaiah 38:4; Jer. 1:2, 4, 11; Ezek. 1:3; 3:16; Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; 3:1). It was clear that it was not the prophets themselves – through their own ingenuity or wisdom – who came up with these words. The words were a supernatural gift from God himself. It was truly revelation. It was not “inspiration” in the modern sense of the word – which implies some kind of boosting of an artistic genius that already exists. Instead, God was revealing himself and his thoughts and words to those who wrote the original manuscripts of the Bible.
God continues to reveal himself personally to those who seek him, but he no longer needs to communicate to us the same way that he has in the Bible. Those sixty-six books remain the standard by which we can judge whether we are listening to God’s voice or someone else’s. The Bible is the standard in two senses of the word. It serves as a basis of comparison for all the words and ideas that bombard us. It also serves as the rallying flag (or standard) where all those truly seeking and speaking God’s truth will congregate.
Willingness to accept the teachings of the Bible is evidence that one has had a real experience with God. It is a choice that everyone who encounters the Bible must make, and it has consequences. Since God’s word is his standard, those who reject it, or belittle it, or only choose to heed it partly, will find themselves caught up in a spirit of error. They might be partly aware of the realities of which the Bible speaks, but will fail to understand their implications. For example, many unbelievers know about, and even celebrate Christmas and Easter. But the deeper implications of the events celebrated (like the incarnation and the resurrection) find no place in their world-view. Those deeply deceived might even understand some of these theological ideas, but will not feel the necessity of applying them to their own lives by a true conversion. By refusing to put their faith in Christ (as revealed in the Bible), they have aligned themselves with Satan by default.
The Bible did not come to humanity as one complete document. The messages of Moses, the Prophets, and the other Old Testament sages were revered by Jews in their separate forms for centuries. But the tendency was to combine them into groups even then. The earliest grouping was the five books of Moses, which the Jews call the Torah, or Law. By the time of Christ, all Jews accepted the Torah as God’s inspired word, while some Jews (like the Saducees) did not view any other books in that category. For most Jews, however, it was hard to resist the appeal of the Writings (which contain some historical books and some poetic works) and the Prophets. The Hebrew Bible was already complete by that time, and consisted of all the documents that we now call the 39 books of the Old Testament. While there were many other books known by Jews at that time (in several languages) only these books were regarded as canonical, that is, inspired scripture.
The Gospels had the same appeal for Christians as the Torah did for Jews, since they recorded the events associated with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and were conveyed by either apostles themselves (like Matthew and John) or people who were closely associated with them (like Mark and Luke). Thus the Gospels became the standard for measuring God’s will as revealed by Jesus for new covenant believers just as the Torah had been the standard as revealed by Moses for old covenant believers.
The writings of the apostles continued in letters to the churches founded in the first century. These letters were called epistles, and reflected the new reality of the Christian church, and concentrated on defining and protecting it. The writings of John (including Revelation) completed this group of documents. Like the Old Testament books, these books began as individual manuscripts, and were later copiously copied and compiled into groups. Recognition of the inspired nature of these books was practically immediate, but it was not until a heresy developed that questioned the canonicity of the Old Testament (Marcionism), that the Church felt the need to officially set the Canon.
As the Church sought to convey the message of the whole Bible to the predominately Greek speaking world of the first century, they were helped by the Greek New Testament, and a version of the Old Testament which had been translated from its original Hebrew and Aramaic, into Greek. This Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was the first in a long line of what we call versions of the Bible. The versions seek to bridge the cultural, linguistic, and temporal distance between the original manuscripts and modern audiences.
No one version of the Bible will ever be perfect, because 1) the needs of modern audiences are always changing, 2) our understanding of the texts of the original manuscripts is constantly being tweaked, and 3) our understanding of the culture of biblical audiences and writers is being updated through historical, archaeological, and philological research. It is OK to have a preference for a particular version (as long as one does not get too dogmatic about it), but it is better to use several versions, comparing the renderings on certain texts – for the sake of clarity, and to avoid the biases of individual scholarly teams.
Is Diversity a Liability?
The existence of multiple versions and manuscripts may lead some to question whether God’s authority can be asserted. But the same kind of diversity exists in creation itself. While the skies declare the glory of God, they don’t always do it in the same way. They are sometimes cloudy skies, sometimes clear. They are sometimes rainy, sometimes dry. They are sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. The diversity in creation testifies to the brilliant creativity of our Creator, and leaves us not knowing what he’s going to come up with next.
Since God expects us to come to him by faith, he seems to have eliminated the certainty factor from the Bible in order to encourage people to put their faith in him, rather than to trust in their own understanding of his revelation. On the other hand, one might argue that the multiplicity of manuscripts and versions can help humans gain even more clarity, in the same way that several witnesses to a crime insure that the whole truth about it comes out at the trial.
Bultema asserts that “in the ancient church (canonicity) happened to be the greatest problem. While they all believed in the infallible inspiration of the Scriptures, they were not settled as to the question of which books should be included into or excluded from the sacred volume.”1 The modern church seems to have settled the issue of canonicity, but now struggles more and more with the fundamental question of authority, and the extent to which they can trust the Bible as God’s exclusive voice. Advent Christians have historically asserted absolute confidence in the Bible. The next few chapters will show that the confidence is not misplaced.
1 Harry Bultema, Miracle of Inspiration. (Grand Rapids: Grace Publications, 1990), 9.