This week Jared walks us through the ways in which the Bible is true and in some ways untrue. He’ll start by unpacking what we mean when we talk about truth and give us some helpful insights into how we can approach historical facts that sometimes seem to be at odds with the Biblical text.
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Pete Enns: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the Internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns…
Jared Byas: [00:00:08] …And I’m Jared Byas. Welcome everyone to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. Today we’ve got a really simple question. It may not even take up the whole time. Maybe five, six minutes. It’s: Is the Bible true? So we should probably be able to wrap this up really quickly. But in all seriousness, I think this is a really important question that may actually seem simple up front. But the more we dig into it, the more complicated it gets. In fact, my first intersection with this question and the Bible, in a very personal way, came about ten years ago when a colleague…I was a pastor. And again it was a fairly large church. We had five to seven teaching pastors. And he was preaching on Genesis and had been sharing the idea that perhaps one could believe the Bible is true while also believing in evolution. And, for a lot of the people in the congregation, this was no big deal and, for some, it was a huge deal. And, in fact, there was a gentleman I had grown to know over the last few years at the church. This would have been about 10 years ago. And I saw him storm out the back of the church doors red in the face intent on getting out of those doors as quickly as possible. So I followed up with him the next day and invited him to lunch and he was still fuming. Still hadn’t kind of come down off of that when we sat down at a McDonald’s. And we just talked for a few hours, but it didn’t start out that way.
Jared Byas: [00:01:40] His first question when we sat down was, “Well, Jared this is why I need to know. Is Genesis true or not?” And I started to ask other questions and understand. He says, “No it’s a very simple question. Yes or no. Is the Bible true or not?” And unfortunately, I had to say, “Well, I don’t think that’s actually a very simple question because it depends on what we mean by truth.” And of course, aha, you caught me. I was a relativist and I wasn’t taking a stand. But after a few hours of listening to him and talking with him, we both began to see. And I began to help him understand that this question is worth exploring. And that it’s okay to explore it. And that just because the truth isn’t simple, doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. And just because it’s not clear doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We just have to work for it. And it may be a lifelong pursuit.
Jared Byas: [00:02:37] So this is an important question to me. It’s a question I’ve gotten asked a lot. Is the Bible true? And I think we’ll have to first ask the question: what do we mean when we say that word? And I think we mean very different things. And so that’s my goal for today is to talk about the different ways we use the word truth and then talk about how the Bible is true in those different senses.
[00:03:02] Or we may discover maybe not true in other senses and that’s okay. Because we use it in different ways and we can’t expect the Bible to be things that it’s not. And so that’s what we’ll explore today.
[00:03:17] The other story I have in terms of my entree into this is when I was in college and I actually was, I think I was in a Greek class, and was translating John and we are translating John 14 when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” So that’s something that began to stick with me and I began to ask the question: what does it mean for a person to be the truth?
[00:03:43] Because in my tradition, truth was always a proposition. It was always a sentence as to whether it was true or not. Was that sentence true or not? But then here we have Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And that just started this journey for me of asking, well, what do we mean by truth? What does the Bible mean by truth if a person can be the truth? Perhaps, it’s bigger than just belief statements or doctrines or sentences.
[00:04:13] And so, that began my journey in asking this question: Is the Bible true? So we’ll go through these three different ways we use the word “truth” and then we’ll talk about how the Bible relates to each.
[00:04:27] But the first is what I would say is truth as fact. So, truth as individual facts about physical reality. The what. There’s lots of examples of this. You know, scientific examples. Historical examples. So you know, I grew up in Texas and had visited several times growing up the Alamo and so there is a fact about the Alamo. It exists. It’s there. I can touch it. There is a fact about what happened at the Alamo. Some facts about what happened at the Alamo. Historical facts. Scientific facts. And it’s important then to recognize when it comes to the Bible, is the Bible true as it relates to individual facts about physical reality?
[00:05:19] And this is where we have to get even more nuanced when we’re talking about the Bible and why context matters. Because we have to ask the question in this passage: is the Bible trying to state facts about physical reality? And sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.
[00:05:37] But there is a second level, or second definition, of truth when we’re trying to ask: Is the Bible true? And that is truth as meaning. So, truth as this connected meaning about the human condition. What I would say is the why question.
[00:05:55] So sometimes we talk about truth. We throw it around and what we mean is truth as an individual fact that corresponds to a physical reality. With a what. And sometimes we use truth as meaning. Or what something means for us in the human condition. Or the why question.
[00:06:16] So it’s sometimes what we mean when we’re talking about truth is this interpretation of the facts. What does it mean? And we’ll talk about the Bible and truth in that way. Sometimes we can say is the Bible true when we say, yeah, it’s true. It’s trying to tell us some truth about what it means to be human. And sometimes, in fact, you can tell a truth about meaning using things that are false about physical reality or historical fiction.
[00:06:52] So for instance, if you read “The Lord of the Rings” or you read “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “Aesop’s Fables” or pretty much any fiction book, the point of that is that you’re being told truth about the human condition even though it’s through falsehoods. So you’re being told truth even though it’s through fiction. So sometimes truth is individual facts about reality. Sometimes truth is meaning, connectedness about the human condition–what things mean.
[00:07:22] And then the third piece that I think we’ll see is that I think the Bible lands on actually more often than not is the truth as wisdom. So we have truth as fact, truth as meaning, and then truth as wisdom.
[00:07:37] This embodiment of how we live our lives. And this is the one place where it’s an adverb. It’s truthfully are we living truthfully are we living out truth. And it’s interesting because this kind of truth actually can’t be found in books or be talked about in sentences but it can only be lived out. And that’s why it’s a hard one to grasp. But I think the Bible actually points us to this idea of truth as embodied wisdom more often than not which is can be kind of frustrating because the Bible sometimes resists US in trying to nail it down as a science book or as a book of facts. I don’t think that was its intended purpose. So I wanted to first outline those three ways in which we used the word true where truth truth facts truth has meaning and then truth as wisdom or embodiment embodied wisdom. And when it kind of go back through and ask that question again is the Bible true.
[00:08:47] Well when we’re talking about individual facts about reality, we have to say that the Bible is sometimes true and sometimes not true. And then we have to say, well, where’s the Bible trying to actually state facts and when is it not? So for instance, we would never say that the Bible’s untrue when we’re reading Jesus’ parables because we’re saying, well, Jesus isn’t trying to state historical facts about physical reality. We’re not going to say that Jesus is a liar because he’s talking about a prodigal son that probably never existed. So again it depends on what the Bible is intending to say.
[00:09:33] Now sometimes I think the Bible is wrong about the facts it speaks about physical reality. And I think that’s true because it’s written through the lens and understanding of an ancient people who didn’t understand how the world functions or works in the same way we do.
[00:09:52] And perhaps to give us a little humility here in the 21st century, I would imagine that in 150 years a lot of our understanding of how the physical world works will be outdated and they will think we were speaking a bunch of falsehoods as well. So as our knowledge of reality grows, things become less and less truthful but we’re speaking our truth. We’re speaking as we can understand it right now.
[00:10:19] So the only way we could know if we’re actually truthful about these facts is to have all the knowledge. We posit what we can given what we have.
[00:10:29] So, is the Bible true when it’s talking about individual facts , or facts about the physical universe or reality?
[00:10:37] Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t and sometimes it is intentionally not trying to state facts. And sometimes it is trying to state facts. Just want to keep that as complicated as possible so that you understand when we ask is the Bible true, that’s not a simple question. So we have to take it by a case by case basis.
[00:10:58] Is the Bible true? Well it depends. Is it trying to talk about facts? Is that what we mean by truth in this instance? And, if so, is the Bible trying to tell us facts? And then we can ask the question: are those facts–do they correspond to the physical world or to the historical records or to the evidence that we have?
[00:11:19] So I think that’s really important and it’s important for me to say that just because, again, the Bible is trying to state a fact doesn’t mean that it’s right. It could be wrong. Because, again, the Bible speaks to us in the language of the culture at the time. In the limitations of the understanding of the world at the time. So we would expect that it would speak about creation in a way that would have made sense to the ancient world. That the Psalms and others would talk about the world in a way that would have made sense to how the ancients understood the world.
[00:11:57] Then we have the second which is: is the Bible true? If we’re talking about it as meaning about the human condition. The why factor. That’s often where I want tp say that the Bible is more often than not true. What truth is trying to tell?
[00:12:16] So, a good example of truth as meaning when talking about the human condition–understanding why something was written the way it was–is–we talked about this not too long ago when we had our Deuteronomy episode, where we talk about how the Chronicler, the author of The Book of Chronicles, changes the story of many of the Kings in the Samuel kings. And we would call that person who wrote that the Deuteronomist. So the Deuteronomist writes these stories about kings like King Manasseh and other kings. King David. And then the Chronicler comes and writes this other history. First Chronicles, Second Chronicles. And changes the facts. So in that sense we can say, well, is the Chronicler…When the Chronicler says that King Manasseh repents from his egregious sins and Samuel King’s does not have that. And King Manasseh does not repent then what are we…
[00:13:21] We can in one sense say that is it true? Is the Bible true? Well, clearly the facts are different. So it’s not true in that sense. No. But I would ask the question: is that the most important use of the word truth? Because I would say that it is true in that it’s trying to give us some meaning about the human condition. We’d have to ask the question: why does the Chronicler change the facts? And it’s for a very specific purpose. It is to help the Israelites who are coming back from exile, the Judahites, to understand their story in a new way. And that’s extremely valuable and that’s extremely true.
[00:14:05] To answer the question: are we God’s people? By beginning your history with generations and generations of genealogy, by helping to shape the story of King Manasseh in such a way that we feel still connected. There’s continuity that there isn’t anything too great that our God can’t overcome, show mercy toward, and include us back into his people.
[00:14:32] So that’s the truth. And then it’s told in a story that maybe changes facts, but it’s about meaning. It’s about the human condition. I mean another one a great example that’s brought up often is in Proverbs Chapter 26. And I think it’s verses 5 and 6. I’d have to look it up. But here we have back to back contradictory proverbs. One says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly lest you be like him.” And then the very next verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Right? So, it’s really this idea of truth as meaning about the human condition we see all throughout the Book of Proverbs. So, when you have these contradicting proverbs, you might ask the question: well, what are the facts? Which one is true? Well, it’s about the human condition and the human condition is a lot of grey area. It is a lot of: “Well, it depends.”
[00:15:37] So Proverbs 26 is resisting the question of is the Bible true in terms of facts about reality. Now should I or should I not answer the fool according to his folly? And it is asking the deeper question about the human condition. Can those both be true? Absolutely. They can both be true. Why? Because it depends on the context as to what the wise way is and that’s what it means. We answer a fool according to his folly. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we should. Sometimes we shouldn’t.
[00:16:12] So that would be the second category that we would understand truth. Truth as individual facts, truth as connected meaning about the human condition–and we see this again over and over in our world. I mean truth as meaning about the human condition is what is built…uh…I would say fiction is built on the back. It’s really standing on the shoulders of this understanding of truth. There are so many truths that we get from reading fiction. And how do we do that? Well, it’s not because it’s stating facts but because it’s connecting with us that something about what it means to be human and in a true sense it rings, it resonates true to us emotionally and aesthetically and so that’s just as true as individual facts. And that’s an important level to what we mean when we talk about truth.
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[00:18:08] Now, the last part of this–I think it’s the shortest shrift because it’s so hard to talk about–is this truth as embodied wisdom. It’s hard because, again, it’s the only one that’s an adverb. It’s the one that just asks: are we living truthfully? Are we living truthfully? Not is it true? It’s not a question that’s out there, but it’s this third sense of truth we can only live out. We can’t really even talk about it. We can’t…it’s not a proposition. It’s an embodiment. It’s living out those truths that we have gained and garnered from understanding the facts about physical reality and the truths that we have amassed as we’ve tried to connect different meanings about the human condition. So it’s taking those first two senses of truth and it’s embodying them in the world.
[00:19:02] And this is, for me, where I would land on what Jesus is talking about when the truth is a person. And I love that it just resists making a dogma or a belief statement out of the truth, but it just asks for you to live it. So, you know, again this one can’t be found in textbooks but you know some people can live lives of truth, or live truthfully, without knowing the facts or having the brain power to understand what it all means.
[00:19:39] I just think of so many beautiful people in my life who lived truth. Who didn’t always understand it. Who didn’t have the philosophical categories to understand it. Who didn’t have degrees in theology and could talk about all the times truth is used in the New Testament and parse out the different variants, but just lived in the truth.
[00:20:03] And then some people can know a lot of true facts. They can connect the dots. They can understand complex systems and what it all means, but still not live truthfully. So I had an experience of this back in 2013, I think it was. I presented at a festival called Wild Goose and while I was there–I had a friend who was at Duke Divinity at the time–so I stayed with him one night and he took me for a walk around campus. And he was telling me about one of the Ph.D. students there and he had gotten to know him over the last few years and his life just began to fall apart. Making a lot of unwise decisions. Just really deciding not to really try to care about other people anymore but just kind of living pretty selfishly and he didn’t seem to care. But, interestingly enough, he also didn’t see how it was connected to the work he was doing at the seminary–at the divinity school. Didn’t seem at all to connect the dots that it mattered that he was going into a field of study intellectually and the content of what he was studying was imploring him to live his life the opposite of how he was living it. And so he was resisting this embodied wisdom even though he knew it. He had the brainpower. He knew all the facts. He could connect the dots. He could understand very complex theological systems, but still didn’t live truthfully.
[00:21:43] And I think it’s really important to recognize that in our culture in the 21st century, we privilege so much in our heads and thinking right thoughts. And I know for me in my tradition, asking the question, is the Bible true, was the litmus test for your authentic Christian faith.
[00:22:08] But I would actually ask the question: Are you living truthfully? I would say that’s more primary in my understanding of faith now. It’s way more important that I ask the question: how are you living? Are you living a life of truth? Than asking: Is the Bible true?
[00:22:27] And one key person I would just really recommend if you haven’t already to check out is an author, 200 years ago–I know most of you won’t, but if you are just sitting around and have nothing else to read–pick up Soren Kirkegaard. He’s a 19th century Danish philosopher, grew up in Copenhagen, and he’s often called “The father of Existentialism.” And really all that means is he was adamant about Christians embodying the teachings of Jesus. And he will be very adamant at how difficult this is. And, in fact, he has this great passage where he talks about being alone with God’s Word. And he says, “It’s a dangerous matter, of course.” He says, “You can always find ways to defend yourself against God’s word. Take the Bible, lock your door ,but then get out ten dictionaries and twenty five commentaries. Then you can read it just as calmly and coolly as you read the newspaper advertising. With this arsenal you can really begin to wonder: are there not several interpretations? What about new interpretations? Perhaps there are five interpreters with one opinion and seven with another and two with a strange opinion and three who are wavering who have no opinions at all. So you can calmly conclude: I’m not absolutely sure about the meaning of this passage. I need more time to form an opinion. Good Lord,” he says. “What a tragic misuse of scholarship that it makes it so easy for people to deceive themselves. Can’t we be honest for once? We have become such experts at cunningly shoving one layer after another. One interpretation after another between the word and our lives.” And so anyway that’s just a passage from Kierkegaard that I really love that kind of gets that a lot of his writings being about how we stop at truth as individual facts. Or We stop at truths as making meaning of things and it feels really good when we get that nugget of truth and soothes our soul and that’s important. But it’s just as important or perhaps more important that we live that truth out in embodied wisdom of how we navigate the world and how we’re bringing good into the world and how we’re bringing beauty into the world in a very tangible practical sense.
[00:24:57] And you know it’s important as we are in this day of a lot of, I would call it social media activism, where we can sometimes deceive ourselves into thinking that having opinions or knowing the facts is a substitute for embodying this life of truth. So when we talk about is the Bible true I think a better question is: is my life true?
[00:25:23] And so, I just have a few takeaways here from this understanding of truth. So one is, when I’m asked the question is the Bible true, I would say I see the bible as often but not always true in the first sense. So it’s often true when it’s talking about facts it’s not always true. It exaggerates numbers in the conquests accounts, largely because that’s how you talked about conquest accounts in the ancient world you exaggerated them to make them sound really important and big and devastating to your enemies. So, but the Bible is sometimes wrong in that idea of individual facts about physical reality. So I see the Bible as often not always true in that first sense.
[00:26:13] But I’m always looking to find meaning in it in the second sense. So I’m always looking to find the truth about the human condition in the Bible and find it often but I think it’s also important to recognise that, for me at least, the Bible is only ever a tool for that third sense. That the end result is that I live a life of truth and the Bible can be a tool for that. But the Bible can also be a weapon against it. And the Bible can also be a drug that keeps me from being clear about how to do it. It can be a thing that I used to escape having to live that.
[00:26:56] So, I sat down with someone in a youth group several years ago who felt awful that she wasn’t reading her Bible and it occurred to me that in a lot of traditions, we’ve made reading the Bible the end goal. And then again I see so many people who read the Bible while not embodying the wisdom that it’s pushing us to pursue. And so, for me, I started thinking of the Bible as a tool. It’s a means to a larger end. And for me that end is living a life of embodied wisdom.
[00:27:31] So, that’s kind of the first thing–seeing the Bible as a tool. And I think that’s important that we don’t idolize it. That it doesn’t become an end in itself. So in asking “Is the Bible true,” is often, behind that question, a sense of idolatry or making that the most important thing rather than seeing it as a tool.
[00:27:51] So, is it true? Yes, it’s true and useful as a tool in those senses.
[00:27:57] Two. My second takeaway here is I think it’s important just to be clear when you’re talking to people about whether or not the Bible is true. Let’s not oversimplify it and let’s not demonize each other where we might just be ships passing in the night. One person might mean is it true in the sense of individual facts. Another person might mean maybe, well, I connect with the truth that it tells about what it means to be human. And then we should both be wondering and grappling with how does this point us to how we live our lives. So just try to be clear with people.
[00:28:33] So the first, see the bible as a tool. The second, try to be clear with people when you’re talking about whether the Bible is true. And, three, just be cognizant. Be aware of how privileged that first sense–truth as fact. And try to see the Bible as a tool for that third sense. And it’s amazing once we get into that habit of seeing how often we privilege belief over practice that we see really how far down that rabbit hole we’ve gone.
[00:29:07] So, hopefully this has been a helpful introduction to understanding is the Bible true. And hope what you got out of it is it’s complicated but maybe some tools to help navigate that conversation in the future. Thanks so much listening to the podcast. We’ll be back with our regularly scheduled programming next week with a wonderful guest. Someone we can ask great questions about. Great questions to and have great conversations with about the Bible , what it is, and what we do with it. See you next time.