Thinking about the nature of truth helps us understand how the Bible is (and is not) true.
And don’t get nervous … I believe all the Bible is true … but you need to read on to discover what I mean by this.
Beginning with Truth
There are different types of truth.
There is logical truth, scientific truth, historical truth, relational truth, poetic truth, and yes, even universal truth. There is a lot of overlap between some of these types of truth, but there are also some areas that might be true in one category, but not true in another.
Various Types of Truth Claims
For example, the statement “2+2=4” is mathematically true, while the statement “I love my wife” is relationally true. But I cannot use mathematics to defend the truth that I love my wife, so the statement “I love my wife” is not mathematically true.
Then there are statements which are true for some and not true for others. The statement, “Halloween is a day on which children get candy,” is true for children who go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween, but is not true for those who don’t.
Many historical truth claims are true when they are made, but are not true later. For example, “King George is the King of England” was true when he was king, but is no longer true today.
Then there are experiential truths and truths from a certain perspective. Consider these two statements: “The sun rises in the east. The sun rises in the west.” Which statement is true? Everybody would agree that first statement is true. Yet from a scientific perspective, the sun does not rise in the east. This is an illusion based on our experience of seeing the sun rise up out of the Eastern horizon. Scientifically, however, the sun is stationary and the earth rotates around the sun.
Of course, even that is not a scientifically true statement, since in reality, the sun is not even close to stationary. The sun it is moving through the Milky Way galaxy at a speed of 450,000 mph. And when you consider that the Milky Way galaxy is moving toward the Andromeda galaxy at a speed of about 150,000 mph, and the earth is moving around the sun at a speed of about 70,000 mph, what this means is that when you were a child and your mother told you to “Sit still” you were still moving at a rate of about 670,000 mph.
So as you sit there reading this text, are you sitting still or are you moving?
You might say, “Well, I’m sitting still relative to my chair, but not sitting still relative to the universe.” Fine. Except that even relative to your chair, you are not sitting still. For the word “still” means “absent of all movement.” Yet your blood is moving, your eyes are blinking, your cells are reproducing, and your molecules are vibrating around like crazy. You are not remotely “still.” So you see? The truth claim that you are sitting still relative to your chair requires even further clarification to be truly true.
This dilemma about truth becomes even more convoluted when we begin to discuss history, poetry, and literature.
The statement, “I ate porridge for breakfast this morning,” is a true statement (Relative, of course, to how I am using the words “porridge” and “morning.”) But if I say, “The porridge was good,” we now have a truth dilemma. What do I mean by “good”? I could mean that it tasted good, or that it was morally good, or that it was not rotten, or maybe that it manufactured and sold by a company named “Good.”
And what about the statement, “I will eat porridge next Monday morning?” It is my plan to eat porridge next Monday, but does this plan make the statement true today? In other words, can a statement about the future be true?
Then there is the language of poetry. Take this statement: “The color of love is red?” Is that true? Yes, it is true. But not from a scientific, or logical, or mathematical, or historical perspective. Love has no color. And in fact, what exactly is “red”? For that matter, what is “love”? (Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more!)
Or take fiction and literature as an example. Here is a True or False question for you to answer: Aesop’s Fables are true.
Well, of course they’re false! In fact, the word “fable” means “myth” or fictional story, which by definition, means they are not true.
And yet Aesop’s Fables contains some of the greatest truths in literature. Truths about greed, teamwork, hard work, and self-discipline. So in this sense, Aesop’s Fables are amazingly true.
Enough with all this though. I hope you see that the truthfulness of a statement depends almost entirely on the type of truth statement it is, the context in which it is said, and numerous other factors.
So what about the truthfulness of the Bible?
The discussion above is why it is so difficult for some people to answer the question, “Is the Bible true?” Is that question referring to scientific truth, historical truth, relational truth, mathematical truth, poetic truth, or some other type of truth?
Initially, the answer to all these questions seems to be “Yes.” Many would state that “No matter what type of proposition or claim the Bible is making, it is true.”
Okay, let’s consider a few examples.
Earlier in this post, we talked about mathematical and scientific truth claims in the Bible.
In my One Verse Podcast, we have been looking at some of the claims in Genesis 1 (which some people believe are scientific truth claims … but I don’t). In Genesis 1:6, we read that God placed a firmament in the sky to separate the waters above from the waters below.
As I pointed out in the podcast, the word “firmament” means a hard dome. So is it true that there is a hard dome up in the sky which holds back a heavenly ocean from falling upon us?
Well, no, this isn’t true.
Ah, so then the Bible has errors?
I do not believe so (as I explain the Podcast). While Genesis 1:6 may not be scientifically true, there are other ways that a statement can be true. The key is figuring out how Genesis 1:6 is true.
Take the truth claim of the Bible that “God is love.” Is that true? Well, of course it’s true. But it is not mathematically or scientifically true. It is relationally true. It is a statement about God’s character and nature.
Or what about the numerous statement in the Psalms about how God looks and acts? I just randomly opened to the Psalms and found the statement in Psalm 68:4 that God rides on the clouds. Is this true? If you look up at the clouds and see them moving across the sky, is God up there riding across the sky on the clouds like a person rides a horse? Or maybe God is into cloud surfing the way people surf waves?
No, of course not. Psalm 68:4 is poetically true, describing the glory and majesty and power of God.
Or how about the parables of Jesus? Are they true?
Well, of course they are true!
But was there really a landowner who went away and when he sent back servants to receive the income from the land, the tenants of the land killed all the servants? And so the landowner finally sent his son, thinking the tenants would listen to him, but instead, the tenants killed the son as well? Did that really happen? Maybe … but its highly unlikely, and the reason Jesus told this parable, was not to teach a historical truth, but to teach a theological and relational truth about his own mission and ministry.
Or take prophecy. Are prophetical statements about future events true? Well, they do reveal divine intent, and since God can bring about what He intends, we could say that prophetical statement are more true than the statements about any human intent, but again, are statement about future historical events actually true before they occur?
We could go on and on, but here’s the point:
The question is not “Is the Bible true?” but rather, “How is the Bible true?”
Asking that second question is key in properly studying and understanding the Bible.
This sort of approach to Scripture allows us to take a more nuanced view of the doctrine of inerrancy.
I Believe in Inerrancy
Biblical Inerrancy is loosely defined as the idea that the Bible is without error. That everything on which it speaks, it speaks truly.
I agree with this.
I believe the Bible is true. I believe every word of it is true.
And in fact, I am going to go further than most inerrantists I know. I believe the Bible is more true than most of them believe.
Most inerrantists qualify their belief in the truth of the Bible by saying that the Bible is without error in the original manuscripts. That is, most inerrantists only believe the original manuscripts of the Bible are inerrant. They freely admit that the manuscripts which we have now are full of errors.
But I do not qualify my belief in the truth of Scripture this way at all. Because of how I understand truth, I believe the Bible is true more than inerrantists do.
While I do believe that the original manuscripts were completely true, I also believe that the copies of these original manuscripts are completely true, and I believe that all translations and Bible versions are completely true, including not only the KJV, but also the NIV, the NASB, the Message, the Living Bible, and even translations into Swahili or Klingon. Yes, did you know there is a Klingon version of the Bible? There is. And I believe it is true.
I know these sorts of statement will make people mad, but here’s the thing: I believe that these debates about who truly believes the Bible and who doesn’t are just the smoke and mirrors of religion.
Debates About Inerrancy are Debates for Control
Debates about inerrancy are nothing more than ways for one particular group of religious leaders to manipulate and control their followers into submission and to keep them from listening to the ideas or teachings of another group of religious leaders — who, incidentally, use the same arguments to control and manipulate their followers to keep them from listening to the first group!
It is a powerful argument in the minds of many to be able to say, “I am right and those people over there are wrong because they don’t believe the Bible, and so you better listen to me.” But every time I hear this sort of language coming out of a teacher or a ministry, I run away faster than I would run from a roaring lion.
But if my understanding of what the Bible says is different than your understanding of what the Bible says, you cannot say that I don’t believe the Bible is true, for I do. I simply believe that the Bible is true in a different way than you believe it is true, and I believe that the truth claims it makes are different than the truth claims you believe it makes.
The claim, “You don’t believe the Bible is true” is nothing more than a smokescreen put up by manipulative religion to discredit or ignore a challenging teaching or idea about the Bible which disagrees or contradicts what that religion teaches. This accusation is played as a trump card, but it turns out to be nothing more than a joker.
But if we can stop arguing about inerrancy, we can return instead to what has true value, which is actually discussing the biblical text itself. We can talk about how a passage is true, even if we know it is not scientifically or historically true.
Does this way of thinking help you know that you can trust Scripture as true? I hope so. Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
To understand the context and truth in the bible, I do believe we need to search outside the bible.
I always say that what someone believes today is their truth today and we should respect it and don’t force your truths on anyone. Try to understand why that is their truth. The day I understood this – it changed ‘judgement’ to understanding! But your post will help me to explain it better. thanx
Jesus is the truth – and if we do not really know Him for who He is and let him be himself with you then you can’t say you know the truth.
Many christians who differ from me – say the spirit did not show them what he showed me so it can’t be true what I believe – but the spirit will only reveal to you within the limits you set up as God does not force relationship.
Matthew Richardson says
Modern hebrew texts have been compared to the dead sea scrolls and found to be unchanged. I believe the Hebrew and Greek texts are accurate. It’s the translations that I sometimes have issues with. I think the translators sometimes try to re-interpet passages according to thier own conceptions rather than just translating what is actually said. That’s why I have a version on my laptops that shows the original Hebrew and Greek.
Jeremy Myers says
Which Greek manuscript approach do you use? The UBS or the Majority Text? And either way, there are thousands of variant readings with little consensus on what the “original” really said.
>And either way, there are thousands of variant readings with little consensus on what the “original” really said.
Depending upon which Biblical software one is using, one can see anything from a dozen to 10,000 manuscripts, to view the variant readings in context.
Matthew Richardson says
Not sure. I click on the Greek word and get a StrongNotes translation. I use this software http://www.scripture4all.org/
Matthew Richardson says
The word in Hebrew that is usualy translated as Firmament can also be translated as Expanse. Also, some believe (though I have doubts) that the pre-flood world did have a roof of some kind over it (ice, clouds…?).
Excellent point Matthew. I’m not convinced that just because another ancient group of people believed it was a ‘hard dome’ that necessarily we have to force that belief on the Hebrews. Same goes with the semantics here for similar words. After all, if we do that, don’t we then have to do that when the a Canaanite uses the term ‘god'(el), or other near eastern dialects/languages(il, ilim, elim, etc.) use their similar term for God, then we have to force their meaning and that theology onto the Israelites? The firmament/dome theory is an interesting discussion, an interesting take, but it’s only one view.
>I’m not convinced that just because another ancient group of people believed it was a ‘hard dome’ that necessarily we have to force that belief on the Hebrews.
One of the more outrageous followers of Immanuel Velikovsky has suggested that the “firmament” of the Hebrews were ice rings, along the lines of those found around Neptune. The flood was partially caused by those ice rings crashing into the Earth, when the world’s collided.
Alabama Independent says
While I believe the Bible is true and without error, the most important thing to believe is that God send His son, Jesus, to die for our sins, and the Blood that Jesus shed on the Cross washes us of all our sins and God remembers those sins no more. And it is comforting to know that if we do error an commit a sin, we only have to turn to God and ask for forgiveness and have the assurance that those sins are also forgiven, and we are restored to fellowship with God!
Alabama Independent says
I believe the Bible is true, but more importantly I believe that God sent His son, Jesus, to die for our sins, and the Blood which Jesus shed on the Cross, washes us of all ours sins and they are remembered no more. And if we happen to commit an error resulting in a sin, we only have to ask God to forgive us for that transgression, and that sin is likewise forgiven to be held against us no more. What a Powerful and loving God we serve!
Amen to that!
I think the Bible being historically true is essential. Without it, i don’t see how to avoid the unyielding conclusion that Bible is unreliable. Doesn’t that leave us free to cherry pick what we want and discard what we don’t want.? Doesn’t christian living then just becomes a free-for-all where we just make it up as we go along, believing whatever we want(accurate here, inaccurate there)? What is it then that makes something ‘God’s Word’? Haven’t you just demoted the bible to being merely fallen man’s ideas about God, some historically true, some historically false, bring your white-out? Under this model, not sure what’s left to separate the bible from other religious books, which(under this model) ‘also’ contains historical truths, and falsehoods. Not trying to be abrasive or harsh, but I just don’t see how to avoid these conclusions.
I agree that many have used the Bible to control/manipulate, but surely not all. However, the manipulation, in my opinion, comes not from inerrancy, but divining one’s own(or the church’s) interpretation. Certainly you can see that the Bible’s historical reliability, for millions of christians, is the basis for believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead, in history. It’s not just some philosophical/psychological self-help token. On the historicity of the resurrection, Paul had this to say: 1 Cornithians 15 –
1Now I would remind you, brothers,a of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
The Resurrection of the Dead
12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If in Christ we have hopeb in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
The key to your understandable concerns about the ‘free-for-all’ is, as you probably already know, to let Holy Spirit quicken verses to you as He sees fit. We can all trust Him in that, because He knows what He’s doing. The same Spirit that speaks to me, speaks to you and all other believers, but He personalises everything according to our individual needs at the time. I love how He respects people like that. 🙂
Sure, your interpretation through the Spirit might be different from someone else’s. But that’s because He’s used the same Scripture to speak different things to different people, which imo shouldn’t really surprise us. He’s God and He works in so many different dimensions of thought and influence. This also goes with what Jeremy said above under ‘Inerrancy and debates for control’.
And did you know that Jesus Himself cherry-picked? Some examples here:
David A Fraser says
I think the problem is what is meant by “error.” The standard of evaluation is what determines what is to be considered correct, accurate, precise, corresponding to the criteria of truth. Innerrancy is a slippery term. Jesus said the smallest seed was the mustard seed. By purely botanical, universal standards that is inaccurate, erroneous. Even in Jesus’ environment there were smaller seeds (from the Black Orchid). Nor did the mustard plant grow into the greatest shrub on earth. But we don’t push the argument on such a text by applying standards that obscure the point Jesus was making by his analogy. It would have been the smallest seed most sowed and the largest shrub they experienced. So was it in error or not?
David – interesting analogy. In my opinion this is not an error. It can ‘become’ an error in the eyes of some IF they force a false context onto the text. Grammatical/historical exegesis. What was the author trying to communicate and how would the audience have understood the author at the time that it was spoken/written. Let me illustrate it this way:
Say I am talking about baseball, and different leagues in different countries and I’m comparing and contrasting various types of equipment used in those leagues(aluminum bats in college, only wood in the pros, etc.) and the topic of baseball size comes up, and it’s noted that the baseballs in Japan are smaller than the balls used in Major League Baseball. In that context, I might say ‘Japan uses the smallest of all balls.’ That would be correct, and I would know it’s correct, the reader would know it’s correct. Then someone comes along and says, ‘you are wrong, the balls they use in golf are smaller! Ha! you made an error.’ But obviously this would be utter nonsense. I know about golf, I know the balls used in golf are smaller than the balls used in baseball. The accuser is bringing in an false context. The context was baseball. If I digressed into all the potential qualifiers, I would alienate and irritate the audience. As it is, no one is deluded here. Nobody thinks something that isn’t correct. It’s all clarified by context, semantics, and potentially variants from the autographs, textual emendations that crept in over time.
The problem comes when someone says, ‘the prophet so-and-so thought they were supposed to wipe out the (insert any people group under the ban), but they were deluded. God actually wanted something completely different.’ If the prophets/authors were deluded when they make a point or make certain statements, there’s no basis to trust anything they say. We just end up with a glorified version of Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘The power of positive thinking.’
Jeremy Myers says
Right. Inerrancy, as often discussed, is not a helpful or accurate term. I believe in “inerrancy” as I understand it, but many understand it differently.
I think that “inerrancy” is often a term thrown around by leaders and teachers who want to cajole and control people.
Matthew Richardson says
Caution. Nit pick alert. Read at your own risk. Jesus used the mustard seed as a metaphor but did not actually refer to it as the smallest of seeds.
David A Fraser says
Huh? Hope you read Greek. Tell me the grammar is wrong.
Mark 4:31 “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth (μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς)3 2 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
The context of Jesus’ statement about the size of the mustard seed is the man sowing seed in his garden, which is confirmed by the word “garden plants” (lachanon; #3001 λάχανον; a potable herb; a vegetable). This verse is not a botanical reference to the size of every seed known to man, but rather a comparison of the mustard seed to the other seeds a gardener would typically sow in his garden in the biblical world at the time of Christ. It is absurd, and a misuse and misunderstanding of how the Word of God is written, to try to prove an error in the Word of God by finding a seed smaller than a mustard seed. Harold and Alma Moldenke correctly point out, “Such statements as that concerning the size of the mustard seed must always be judged in the light of the knowledge of the time of the people involved” (Plants of the Bible; Dover Publications, 1952, p. 61). Furthermore, but less likely, Jesus may also have been using a natural hyperbole (exaggeration), a common figure of speech used in discourse, the same way many Westerners will say, “I am starving” when they are just hungry, or “I’m freezing” when they are just cold. The point of Jesus’ parable was that just as the mustard seed starts out very small but becomes very big, so too the Kingdom of Heaven seems to have a small start, but will one day fill the earth. When Jesus said the seed “becomes a tree,” we must remember that the word “tree” is flexible, and can refer to both large and small trees, and many of the trees in the Middle East are quite small. Thus a mustard plant that grew to 10 or 15 feet (2 or 3 meters) could rightly be said to “become a tree.”
David A Fraser says
My main point (to use a different example) is that standards of precision change over time and in different contexts. In 1862 Leon Foucault measured the speed of light at 299,796 km/s. Today we would say 299,792.4574 km/s ± 0.0011 km/sec (though the US and British labs vary a bit). I suspect we would not say Foucault committed an error. Just that our means of measuring have gotten better and we can be even more precise than he was. Though some would choose to say his measurement was erroneous. It is the standard of precision that means what is error in one context is not in another. I have heard good physicists use 300,000 km/s as a good round figure in refering to the speed of light. Close enough.
Steven McDade says
Here’s my two bits. Unless the Bible can change your heart, mind and soul to that of the one God wants, it’s just words on a page that provides some people reading material. There needs to be good soil in a person, so to speak in Biblease. Some just won’t accept or go beyond simple faith. When we debate “truth” in ANY situation, the real truth is missed.
Jeremy Myers says
Absolutely true! The question then is not so much “Is it true?” but “Does it make me look more like Jesus?”
“…the word “firmament” means a hard dome. So is it true that there is a hard dome up in the sky which holds back a heavenly ocean from falling upon us?
Well, no, this isn’t true. ”
Yes, it could be true as well. Do we not know if it was there a real firmament? One clue would be that until the flood there was a “canopy” that was broken. Could be that kind of truth that we are not aware of to.
But I really like your post (s)!
HT Morgan says
I know this post has been out for awhile but I keep rereading it and sharing it with other people. I shared parts of your reasoning with friends of ours who don’t believe in God, the Bible, Jesus, and have no clue about the Holy Spirit. I shared what I could remember of this blog and promised to email it to them. This is a great explanation and shows how complex “truth” can be and specifically why we need a guide to knowing “The Truth”
That’s for all your writings and sharing you insights…
Jeremy Myers says
Thanks for reading and sharing what you learn with others. That is the whole point of this blog!
Aidan McLaughlin says
Brilliant post Jeremy. I love the facts and figures of this post. We are a very little part of a huge universe. I once read that the in the battle where josua wanted more daylight to win the battle the sun stayed in the sky for longer. Science has looked at this and at that time in history there was a 1 degree shift in the earth’s rotation. Something like that. Giving rise to the extra light josua needed. Truth itself all boils down to “this is the day the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it”. The Lord is the truth, he creates truth. On a daily basis. But yes. Very helpful post that was. Worthy of a new book maybe? Or maybe you gleened that from your extensive library? But again. Excellent stuff!!