How do I know the Bible is God's Word?

How do I know the Bible is God's Word? August 20, 2010

A common response to my rejection of the term “inerrancy” is “If the Bible contains a single error, how can we know it is God’s Word?” 

First, let me say again: It is the TERM “inerrancy” that I reject, not the authority or trustworthiness of Scripture.  AND every inerrantist I know or have read admits there are errors in Scripture as we have it today.  Only the original autographs were inerrant in the strictest sense.  What I want is an authoritative Bible that actually exists and not one that used to exist!

No informed, right-thinking individual can hold any actually existing Bible in his or her hand and say “This book is inerrant” without stretching the term inerrant beyond the breaking point.  All they can say is “This is the best approximation we have of inerrant autographs that once existed.”  But once you base authority on inerrancy, you have to then say “This is a somewhat authoritative book because it is the best approximation we have of the authoritative texts that once existed.”  That’s not good enough for me.  I want the Bible I take to church to be authoritative and it is.

Second, John Calvin himself claimed that the authority of the Bible lies in the Holy Spirit and not in some rational proof of its accuracy.  Read Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, chapter 7.  For Calvin (as Luther before him and most Protestants later) the guarantee of the Bible’s truth and authority lies in the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.”

That’s why I used Emil Brunner’s illustration of the dog listening to the old Victrola record player.  The RCA logo had the caption “His master’s voice.”  How do I know the Bible is God’s Word and authoritative for faith and life?  Because in it I hear my master’s voice.  And not just I, but millions of others have and still hear God’s voice speaking to us through its message.

Third, belief in strict, detailed, technical inerrancy and insistence on it for authority sets up an impossibly high standard for any book.  And it undermines faith because one has to wait for each new edition of Biblical Archeological Review (or similar publication) to know whether one can still believe the Bible.  What if the Bible contains a factual error in history or cosmology?  Does that mean the end of belief in the Bible?  I pity anyone who says so. 

I believe in the authority of the Bible because I believe in Jesus; not vice versa.  The Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ child and that in it is authoritative that promotes Christ (was Christum treibt) (Luther).  Too many evangelicals, like fundamentalists, base Christian belief on (alleged) secular facticity.  The two are, of course, inseparable.  I don’t want a faith that is irrational or esoteric.  However, the foundation of Christian faith itself is not a set of facts but Jesus Christ communicated to us by the Holy Spirit.

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  • Jayflm

    Amen to the Christ-centered perspective on biblical inspiration! He was crucified. He arose. He promised that He is returning. Those who were His closest companions were so absolutely convinced of these realities, so thoroughly transformed by the outpouring of the promised Holy Spirit that they laid their lives on the line to declare His message.

    That living message, empowered by the Holy Spirit, was more than enough to transform the world of the first century as people across the Roman empire came to faith in Christ. Don’t we understand that most of that occurred without a written New Testament, and with the Hebrew scriptures for the most part safely tucked away in synagogues?

    Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us. Two thousand years after Christ walked the earth, I am glad that the Father saw fit to provide it for us. In all its variety and across the vast amount of time it took to be written, it is God-breathed, and profitable for doctrine, correction, reproof and training in righteousness. It leads us to Jesus. Yet, no matter what science might throw up as objections to this or that part, my faith stands upon Christ alone.

  • Perhaps it would be more helpful, for those trying to understand you more clearly, if you gave a few examples in Scripture of factual errors in history and/or cosmology, and how these factual errors relate to inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16) and “men and women moved by the Holy Spirit” speaking from God (2 Pet. 1:21 NRSV). This could help people from jumping to unnecessary conclusions.

  • I see you reference Calvin when he suits your purpose. Very interesting.

    • Why would you reference a source if it did not suit your purpose?

      • Bill

        Besides, Jules, Calvin wasn’t wrong about everything! 🙂

  • But Dr. Olson, if Jesus fully accepted the authority and inerrancy of the Bible (John 10:35), why should we reject the inerrancy of the Bible over textual variations? That is pushing the issue. Further, I admit that Jesus is the center of Christianity and He is the head but we learn about Him not through subjective experience (“the inner voice”) but from His Word (John 2o:31). But if the Bible is not inerrant, how do we know that what John wrote in John 20:31 or Romans 10:9 or 1 John 5:1-4 is not true? It could have been added or things left out about Jesus. We simply don’t know. This opens the door for subjective experience becoming the basis for faith (neo-Orthodoxy) or it opens the door for “newer” revelation since we just can’t trust the Bible (Mormonism, hyper-charismatics).

    • Bened

      Great word, TSD, et al. Well put. Far too many hide behind a Jesus of their own making, exalting their own fallen, finite opinions as judge and jury of even God Himself and His Word. It’s a convenient rouge. it started in the garden. Doubt the character of what God has said, then I can doubt the character of the God who said it. Then I’m off the hook. Obedience to His “flawed” but well-intentioned revelation becomes optional instead of imperative. Thus, I’m no longer accountable to Him. He’s accountable to me! To do otherwise is to repent, believe the gospel, crucify self and its opinions, and bow to the God who revealed Himself in and by His Book – The Bible.

  • Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  • Jordan

    “How do I know the Bible is God’s Word and authoritative for faith and life? Because in it I hear my master’s voice.”

    What would you say to a Mormon who says the same thing about the Book of Mormon, or a Muslim and the Koran? I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. My concern is that your statement could be used by just about anyone and I’m just curious how your proposal works with these sorts of situations. Thanks.

  • Third, belief in strict, detailed, technical inerrancy and insistence on it for authority sets up an impossibly high standard for any book. And it undermines faith because one has to wait for each new edition of Biblical Archeological Review

    But if God authored it, it is not that high.

    And why should archaeological discoveries dissuade us? Why do we give priority of a modern’s reconstruction of a past event over a contemporary eye-witness account?

    Your opposition I find inadequate. If you are prepared to accept as authoritative a intrinsically errant book, why can’t I accept as authoritative a pragmatically mildly errant book? I agree that one can follow Christ and not accept some components of the Bible as true, Wenham argued well enough in his Christ and the Bible. But with belief in errancy one is left with the possibility of disagreeing with a portion of Scripture by discounting it as errant. I am not saying this is what is always done, rather what can be done.

    Inerrantists can cope with with the fact their English versions have mistakes. But with difficulties they are constrained by other versions, original languages, and probable original texts.

    At the end however, it matters not which leads to preferable interpretive techniques, it matters what Scripture itself teaches. If there is no requirement for inerrancy, we can’t insist on it because we would prefer it that way. Though I think there are good arguments for inerrancy.

    I will add Dr Olson, that I prefer you be an infallabilist and call yourself one, than be an infallibilist and call yourself an “inerrantist” with unreasonable qualifications.


    bethyada wrote, “And why should archaeological discoveries dissuade us? Why do we give priority of a modern’s reconstruction of a past event over a contemporary eye-witness account?”

    If archaeological discoveries cannot dissuade us, then they cannot affirm us either. The underlying argument to bethyada’s point is that archaeology is irrelevant to the Bible because we believe exactly what the Bible says regardless of what happens in the world. That line of thinking divorces the Bible from the world.

    Furthermore, if one takes that approach, then one cannot argue with believers of other faiths about inaccuracies or errors in their holy books–they will respond with the same argument, namely, that it is true regardless of what modern archaeology or science appears to find. As an example, consider the Mormon belief in the tribes of Israel coming to North America (as revealed in their holy book but not confirmed by archaeology or genetic testing).


  • Matt

    I love this Muggeridge quote:Regarding the scripture: Is it not extraordinary to the point of being a miracle, that so loose and ill-constructed a narrative in an antique translation of dubious text should after so many centuries still have power to quell and dominate a restless, opinionated, overexercised and undernourished, twentieth-century mind?

    • That’s great. I once met and conversed with Malcom M. He was quite old then and died not long afterwards. What a curmudgeon he was! But I loved his book and film series The Third Testament. It’s partly what inspired me to write The Story of Christian Theology–an account of the “canon outside the canon.”

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson quote – “However, the foundation of Christian faith itself is not a set of facts but Jesus Christ communicated to us by the Holy Spirit.”

    Not true!

    1 Corinthians 15:14-17 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.

    I think it is best, whenever we talk about belief to fall back on the old church favorite ofrom St. Vincent of Lerins in his Commonitory – “We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”

    This of course is part of the work of the Spirit, but we must balance this with hard evidence. Not that anyone would ever be able to prove or disprove if Jesus resurrected or not. But hypothetically if they did then we are to be pitied for sure!

    • Good luck finding something that has been believed by all Christians everywhere at all times. Of course, the event of the resurrection, like the events of the incarnation and cross, is part of the foundation of Christian faith. But Christian faith is not in facts; it is in a person to which the facts testify.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    The foundation with God has always been events in history. So the foundation is grounded in facts, so the gospel message is what God in Christ accomplished in time and space, now everyone stares reality in the face (Jesus the truth), and decides whether they want to go with reality or with a lie. But yes, in each individual’s life their entering into the family of God starts with faith in Him

    In any event I think publications like BAR help us get away from wrong interpretations that ignore the culture of the day. There are groups of Christians, many Christians who would do well to read BAR. The ironic thing of it is, many Christians will use archaeology when it suits them and dismiss it when it does not.

    In actuality many of the issues have nothing to do with inspiration or inerrancy but in genre and culture. I think that is the biggest hurdle