This summer I was asked to preach on the following question at Steele Heights Baptist Church in Edmonton: “Is the Bible reliable?” This is a HUGE topic. It also could quickly go sideways if handled improperly.
Growing up, were I asked about the reliability of the Bible, I would have interpreted the question as follows: Is the Bible accurate in all its factual assertions? There are three main problems with this approach to the question.
First, it assumes that reliability consists simply in relaying propositional information. Yes, the Bible does that. But is that all it does? Is that primarily what it does? (And is that what our translations — e.g. NIV, KJV, ESV, etc. — do?)
Second, this approach makes no distinction between the relative importance of various propositions. Thus, for example, on this account reliability is seen to extend to the account of an iron axhead floating (2 Kings 6:6) as surely as the confession “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.” (Romans 10:9)
Third, this assumption that propositional statements are intended simply to relay factual information is not a neutral one. Rather, it already assumes a particular hermeneutic — a one size fits all hermeneutic — which does great violence to the diversity of biblical genres. To see how absurd this is, imagine future non-English readers from two or three millennia in the future who are poring over a collection of English texts — narrative, poetry, essay, etc. — collected from our time in history and translated into their future language. If they assumed that all the propositions in this diverse collection of writings were to be interpreted literally, how often do you think they might stumble over hyperbole, sarcasm, irony, and countless other idiomata?
These were the challenges I was facing when contemplating preaching a forty minute sermon on “Is the Bible reliable?” In response to the challenge, I opted for a three step approach. I began with an illustration highlighting the great diversity of the biblical texts. Next, I argued that the Bible’s reliability should be construed as ethical/formational, i.e. as purposed to form the reader into a particular kind of person. Finally, I argued that when it comes to historical-factual information, we should privilege that which attests to who Jesus is and what he did.