The Holy Bible is unique among texts considered sacred by other belief systems
Jo Ann Davidson
Most major religions have what is sometimes referred to as a “sacred text.” What Christians call “Holy Scripture” is considered one of these. It is evaluated as the best spiritual literature coming from Christianity and then equated with the writings of Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, or even the excellent devotional materials by Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa.
The question needs to be asked, however: Are all “sacred texts” alike? Why have Christians insisted on the absolute nature of the Holy Bible? In light of contemporary thinking, we ought to consider once again the primary “textbook” of the Christian faith and its supreme authority for Christians.
The Nature of the Bible
First of all, we need to recognize the fundamental assumptions and parameters within which the Bible writers worked. Thankfully, these were often stated explicitly. For example, none of the Bible writers ever attempted to prove the existence of God. Without exception, they all assumed He existed. Biblical prophets claimed to have real knowledge of an infinite God. They were absolutely certain God spoke through them when they thundered, “Thus says the Lord!”
Moreover, all the Bible writers believed God when He insisted that He could foretell the future and that doing so was a mark of His divinity. Isaiah wrote, “‘Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them’” (Isa. 42:9).1 “‘Indeed before the day was, I am He’” (43:13). Through the prophets, God announced the great time prophecies concerning the history of nations and also the coming of the Messiah. Some modern minds assume that God cannot be so precise and suggest that the prophecies were written after the fact as predictions. This modern attitude of doubting God’s ability to predict the future, however, is never found in any of the Bible writers.
Furthermore, Bible writers were absolutely certain that, though infinite, God can and does communicate with human beings. None ever argued that human language is any kind of barrier to direct communication from God. In fact, with great frequency, God is referred to as the actual Person speaking through the prophet. For example, Elijah’s words in 1 Kings 21:19 are referred to in 2 Kings 9:25 as the oracle that “the Lord uttered . . . against him” (NRSV), and Elijah is not even mentioned.
The Work of the Prophet
The message of a prophet is always considered equivalent to direct speech from God. Identification of a prophet’s words with God’s words is so strong in the Old Testament that often we read of God speaking “through” a prophet. And to disobey a prophet’s words was to disobey God. In Deuteronomy 18:19, the Lord spoke through Moses of a coming Prophet: “‘Whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.’”
The Bible writers also recorded numerous incidents of God speaking directly to human beings in the Old Testament, including conversations with Adam and Eve after the Fall (Gen. 1:28–30; 3:9–19) and with Job (Job 38–41). There is also the divine call of Abram (Gen. 12:1–13), which was the first of several conversations (including the lengthy conversation in Genesis 18:1–23); and later the burning bush dialogue between God and Moses (Ex. 3:1–4:17). The civil code in the Pentateuch is recorded as words spoken directly by God to Moses. The interchange with Elijah at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:9–18) is but one of many direct exchanges with the prophets.
Old Testament prophets are consistently pictured as messengers sent by God to speak His words. The repeated use of the introductory formula “thus says the Lord” or its equivalent, used many times, clenches the full authority of a prophetic message. Indeed, a distinguishing characteristic of true prophets throughout the Old Testament is that they do not speak their own words. God said to Jeremiah and Ezekiel: “‘I have put My words in your mouth’” (Jer. 1:9); “‘You shall speak My words to them’” (Eze. 2:7). And those who refused to listen to a prophet were held accountable for refusing to listen to “the words of the Lord which He spoke by the prophet Jeremiah” (Jer. 37:2).
Such extensive evidence strongly suggests that biblical prophets experienced something far more than a “divine encounter” that merely implanted mystical conviction and/or admiration for God in their hearts. God’s encounters with human beings do not produce mere glorious feelings but instead, provide actual information (Deut. 29:29)! Significantly, one Person of the Triune God is known as the “Word” (John 1:1; italics added).
Closely connected with God speaking are numerous accounts of a prophet writing down the words of God, which are then taken as fully authoritative. A few examples illustrate this:
● “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this for a memorial in the book’” (Ex. 17:14).
● “And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord” (24:4).
● “Joshua wrote these words [statutes, ordinances, and the words of the covenant renewal] in the book of the Law of God” (Joshua 24:26).
● “Samuel explained to the people the behavior of royalty, and wrote it in a book and laid it up before the Lord” (1 Samuel 10:25).
Even the recording process is divinely controlled with the penman being “moved” (2 Peter 1:21). This written communication thereby has divine authority, as Moses testified, “‘You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you’” (Deut. 4:2).
Revelation and Inspiration
Divine revelation or inspiration is never controlled by human beings. It is not a human achievement but a divinely controlled activity. Both Testaments consistently testify that the truth of God is not the end product of a diligent human search for the divine nor somebody’s best thoughts about divine matters. It comes exclusively through God’s initiative in disclosing Himself. The Book of Hebrews gives the word of God divine authority: “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12, NIV). A prophet does not speak about God. Rather, God speaks for Himself through His prophets. And human language is assumed to be capable of conveying divine communication.
New Testament writers reflected the same authority as the Old Testament prophets, insisting that they spoke by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:10–12), to whom they credited their teaching (1 Cor. 2:12, 13). Significantly, the same Paul who urged that believers should strive to work together peaceably often used bold language to defend the absolute truth of the gospel he has preached (Gal. 1:6–9). Apostolic teaching is very directive, issuing commands with absolute authority (1 Thess. 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:6, 12: “we command” you).
The prophets and apostles do not describe how they recognized the word of God when it came, but it is clear they were certain that God had spoken. Sometimes He spoke in ways that they did not readily understand, and on occasion, even objected to, yet they never questioned the divine origin of the message.
The Bible, however, was not verbally dictated by God. The human messenger was divinely guided in the selection of apt words to express divine revelation. The individuality of each writer is evident, yet the human and divine elements are virtually inseparable. Ellen G. White offers intriguing insights: “The Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human.”2 She further notes that “Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. . . . The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.”3
Continuity and Unity of Both Testaments
A close reading of the biblical texts reveals a basic continuity and unity of both Testaments. Extensive citations of Old Testament materials in the New Testament indicate that the Old Testament writings were considered divine revelation. A few of the many examples include Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 7:14, cited as “which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (Matt. 1:22). Jesus quoted Genesis 2:24 as words that God said (Matt. 19:5). In quoting what was spoken by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28–32), Peter inserted “says God,” attributing to God the words of Joel (Acts 2:16, 17). Paul and Barnabas quoted Isaiah 49:6 as something that “the Lord has commanded us” (Acts 13:47), contending that an Old Testament prophecy placed moral obligation on them also. Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophet Isaiah (Acts 28:25). He also quoted in Romans 9:17 God’s speech in Exodus 9:16 as what “Scripture says to the Pharaoh,” indicating an equivalence between what Old Testament Scripture says and what God says.
As in the Old Testament, New Testament writers also knew it was possible for God to speak directly to people in human language. Examples include the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:17); the Transfiguration (Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35); the conversion of Saul (Acts 9:4); instructions to Ananias (Acts 9:11–16); Peter’s vision (Acts 10:13); the revelation to John (Rev. 1:11–3:22). Jesus Himself asserted numerous times that He spoke the words of God: “‘The Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak’” (John 12:49). Paul claimed that he received revelation from God: “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37).
The minds of the New Testament writers were saturated with the Old Testament, quoting it extensively to undergird their theological arguments. The four Gospels make it strikingly obvious that Jesus Christ submitted unreservedly to the Old Testament and confirmed its absolute authority. In His teaching and ethics, it was foundational. Old Testament prophecy was the pattern for His life, as He declared often: “‘It must be fulfilled’” or “‘as it is written.’” He didn’t rebuke the Jewish theologians of His time for studying the Old Testament but for permitting human tradition to cloud and even falsify God’s written Word (Mark 7:1–13).
Jesus expected everyone to accept the Old Testament as authoritative. Often He would inquire, “‘Have you not read what David did?’” (Matt. 12:3) or “‘Have you not read in the law?’” (vs. 5). When questioned on the issue of divorce, He answered, “‘Have you not read?’” (19:4). His response to those upset by children praising loudly in the temple was, “‘Have you never read?’” (21:16). Once, when being questioned, Jesus told a parable and concluded by questioning, “‘Have you not even read this Scripture?’” (Mark 12:10). Responding to a lawyer’s questions about salvation, Jesus asked, “‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’” (Luke 10:26). The lawyer quoted from the Ten Commandments, and Jesus declared, “‘You have answered rightly’” (vs. 28). Asked about last-day events on the Mount of Olives, Jesus urged His questioners to study Daniel (Matt. 24:15).
The apostle Paul continually referred to the Old Testament and insisted on its authority. For example, in his letter to the Romans, he made a powerful argument for the gospel built upon the Old Testament and, in the process, demonstrated the paramount principle of listening to what Scripture says about itself.
The Trustworthiness of the Bible
While it is sometimes argued today that the truthfulness of the Bible does not necessarily include historical details, Jesus and the New Testament writers accepted the historicity of the Old Testament. In fact, the New Testament writers used the historical narratives of the Old Testament to undergird the certainty of future actions of God. Israel’s history reached its climax in the coming of Jesus. The whole Old Testament was summed up in Him. Paul insists that all Scripture has been “given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), not differentiating between different books or sections. The “textbook” Christians hold as the highest authority is self-authenticated in an impressive manner.
David Dockery is right: “We must resist relating divine inspiration merely to content and not to form, to the Bible’s purpose and not to its essence, or to its thoughts and not to its words. The entirety of Scripture is inspired.”4 This is a crucial point: “Perhaps it has not been stated emphatically enough that nowhere in the Old Testament or in the New Testament does any writer give any hint of a tendency to distrust or consider slightly unreliable any other part of Scripture. Hundreds of texts encourage God’s people to trust Scripture completely, but no text encourages any doubt or even slight mistrust of Scripture.”5
Contrary to those who today suggest that different portions of Scripture are of questionable value, Ellen G. White emphatically stated, “what man is there that dares to take that Bible and say this part is inspired and that part is not inspired? I would have both my arms taken off at my shoulders before I would ever make the statement or set my judgment upon the Word of God as to what is inspired and what is not inspired. . . . Never let mortal man sit in judgment upon the Word of God or pass sentence as to how much of this is inspired and how much is not inspired, and that this is more inspired than some other portions. God warns him off that ground. God has not given him any such work to do. . . . We call on you to take your Bible, but do not put a sacrilegious hand upon it, and say, ‘That is not inspired,’ simply because somebody else has said so. Not a jot or tittle is ever to be taken from that Word. Hands off, brethren! Do not touch the ark.”6
God Himself expressed the same sentiment: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? For all those things My hand has made, and all those things exist,’ says the Lord. ‘But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word’” (Isa. 66:1, 2).
The Christian doctrine of Scripture is about a book. But really, it is more than a book. The Bible confronts us with a God who yearns for His children, who is in earnest to communicate His love to them, and who ultimately loves them more than He loved His own life.
“Every time I think I am losing my faith,” writes Fleming Rutledge, “the biblical story seizes me yet again with a life all its own. No other religious document has this power. I remain convinced in spite of all the arguments that God really does inhabit this text. . . . The God we proclaim to you today is not the ‘vague abstraction’ of the philosophers or the ‘insubstantial shadow’ of the New Agers. . . . He is the living God.”7
Jo Ann Davidson, Ph.D., teaches Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES