Apologia: A Sermon Series In Defense of the Faith, Part IIa – “Can We Trust the Bible?”

apologiaIf you grew up in church, it is likely that one of the first songs you ever sang as a child went like this:

Jesus loves me

This I know

For the Bible

Tells me so

Little ones

To Him belong

They are weak

But He is strong

Yes, Jesus loves me

Yes, Jesus loves me

Yes, Jesus loves me

The Bible tells me so

It is a sweet and, indeed, powerful little song…and it is gloriously true! The song makes a fundamental theological assertion: Jesus loves me. Then it twice gives the basis for our ability to know this fact: “the Bible tells me so.” This little song also points implicitly to a historical reality: the fact that the Church throughout time has stood confidently upon the claims of the Bible and what it says about God and us. But today that little statement, “the Bible tells me so,” is much more likely to be met with indifference or outright scorn than with confidence.

There can be no question that the major attacks on Christianity today are centered around the Bible. The average college student today or the average person with a normal amount of exposure to the major media outlets today will have heard numerous times that the Bible is unreliable, that it was written so far after the events that they purport to record that it cannot be trusted, that powerful leaders and churchmen altered the true message of the Bible to make it say what they wanted it to say, and that what we have is riddled with errors and contradictions and outright lies. In truth, the fundamental confidence in the Bible that many of you grew up feeling and seeing around you has largely been eroded in modern culture. More than that, any weight that the statement, “Because the Bible says so…” might have had at a certain point in our cultural history is by and large gone today.

Because of this, the Church needs to talk about how we got the Bible and the process of its formation. In truth, modern skepticism about the Bible presents the Church today with a unique opportunity to learn again the story that too many Christians today have never even heard, namely, the story of how the Bible came to be. It is, in fact, a truly amazing story and one that should engender faith and confidence in the Church. Young people in particular need to know that they can trust the Bible they hold in their hands, that they can have confidence that what they are reading is what was written, and that God speaks today through His word just as He has for two thousand years.

For our purposes today, I will be focusing on the New Testament in particular since that brings the topic into more manageable parameters in terms of size and since the New Testament in particular is the main point of the attack today for Christians. I am approaching this message with a particular premise in mind. That premise is this: the reliability of the New Testament is important as it is from the Bible that we learn information about the person of Jesus: who He is, why He came, and what He has done and is doing.

Let me also present three very basic facts related to the historical development of the Bible that will frame the presentation today.

  1. The books of the New Testament were written. The original manuscripts are called “the autographs.” The autographs were written between 50-100 AD. None of the autographs have yet been discovered.
  2. Immediately after the autographs were written, copies began to be made of the autographs and spread throughout the world. We refer to these as “the New Testament manuscripts.” We currently have around 5,800 Greek fragments, partial manuscripts, and complete manuscripts of the books of the New Testament. We have over 20,000 if we include manuscripts written in Latin and various other languages.
  3. In the year 367 AD, Athanasius, in his Festal Letter, provided the earliest known list of the 27 books of the New Testament as we know them.

These three basic facts will be important as we work through the issues surrounding the question of the reliability of the New Testament.

The Bible claims to have been inspired by God.

The most basic and fundamental fact is that the Bible claims divine inspiration for itself. That is, the writers of the Bible saw the Bible as having come from God, as having been inspired by God.

We find the key passage for this in 2 Timothy 3.

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The Greek word for “breathed out” is theopneustos. Theo = God, pneustos = breathed out. “All Scripture is theopneustos.” “All Scripture is God breathed.” Mark Strauss has offered some helpful insights on this word that provide a needed nuance to our understanding of it.

The Greek word translated “God-breathed” is theopneustos, a term possibly coined by Paul himself to express the nature of inspiration. The King James Version rendering, “inspired by God,” finds it roots in the Latin Vulgate (divinitus inspirata). Unfortunately “in-spired” might suggest that God “breathed into” Scripture its authority, while theopneustos more likely means that God “breathed out” Scripture. Inspiration does not mean divine validation of a human work, but God’s self-revelation of his own purpose and will.[1]

God, therefore, breathed out the scriptures. While it is true that “the scriptures” Paul would have been referencing in this particular verse would have been the Old Testament Scriptures (for the New Testament was obviously in the process of being written), it is clear that the New Testament writers saw their writings as being likewise scripture and therefore likewise God breathed. For instance, in 2 Peter 3, Peter referred to Paul’s writings as “scripture.”

15b just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

The Bible proclaims divine inspiration for itself. It sees itself as more than a collection of mere writings. It sees itself as God’s words to man mediated through inspired writers. For the skeptic, this will be an insufficient argument, for skeptics would simply point out that the Bible saying that the Bible is divinely inspired is a circular argument. But for the Church this is the first place to start: the Bible is God’s word.

The doctrine of inspiration, as in God’s inspiration of scripture, is closely related to a larger doctrine, the doctrine of revelation. Revelation refers to the broader idea of God’s disclosure of otherwise hidden truths. Thus, in the case of the Bible, God has revealed truth by inspiring men to write His word.

I believe the doctrine of revelation is ground zero in the battle for truth in the world today. When all is said and done, the first question that must be answered is the question that the serpent asked Eve in Genesis 3:1 in the garden of Eden: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say…’” Along side the serpent’s question we should also put Pontius Pilate’s question from John 18:38, “What is truth?”

“Did God actually say?”

“What is truth?”

These two questions asked at two critical points in human history (the temptation of Eve and the crucifixion of Jesus) are still the questions being asked today. Has God actually spoken? Has God truly revealed anything about Himself? Does truth exist? How can we know it if it does? From where does truth come?

This is what is at stake in the modern world and, in truth, this is what has been at stake in every age of the world’s history: can we know the truth.

For Christians, the answer is a definitive, Yes! We know the truth because the Truth, Jesus, has come among us. “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus is the apex, the summit of God’s revelation of Himself. But we know about Jesus through the scriptures that have been divinely inspired. Therefore, the Bible is not our object of worship. That would be idolatry. But the Bible does point toward the object of our worship, Jesus. To do so with any integrity, however, the Bible must be true and reliable and without error. And this is what the Bible is claiming for itself when it uses the word theopneustos, God breathed.

The writers of the Bible were aware of the need for accuracy and attested to the fact that they had been very careful in what they wrote.

The Bible is God’s word, but, again, it was mediated through men who were inspired by God to write the words. It is therefore profoundly significant that the writers of scripture gave testimony concerning the care they took with their writings. Consider, for instance, Luke’s preface to his book in Luke 1.

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke acknowledges that many had written about the life of Christ and the beginnings of the Church, that these who had written had received and were now passing on the eyewitness accounts of those who saw and experienced the crucial events of the life of Christ, that he had closely studied the things that he was now writing, that he was structuring his letter in an orderly and careful way so that it would be accessible and understandable, and that the point of his gospel was that we “may have certainty concerning the things [we] have been taught.”

Certainty. This is what Luke felt the writings of the scripture could give us.

The point is that Luke makes a clear assertion of historical reliability and care with what he has written. Paul made the further point in 1 Corinthians 15 that the events described in his own teachings (and, by extension, his own writings) could be verified because many of the people who were hearing Paul were alive to witness the things about which he was teaching and writing.

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But 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. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Paul therefore leaned heavily on the fact of eyewitness corroboration for his teachings. This emphasis on accuracy and reliability is telling. Paul was not trying to spin a yarn for money or fame. Rather, he was passing on a story that had been verified by many others and for which he was willing to die.

Peter made it very clear that accuracy and reliability were important to him as well. In 2 Peter 1, he wrote:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Peter bases the accuracy of his writings on the fact that he was writing about things he had personally seen. He was an eyewitness. He was not making up a story. He was simply reporting the facts.

Church, if skeptics and critics wish to say that the biblical writers were intentionally and deliberately conspiring to mislead a gullible public, they can do so…but that is what they will, in fact, have to say. The writers of scripture were abundantly clear that they were passing on accurate and reliable information.

While the canon of the New Testament was not formally recognized until the late 4th century, the writings of the New Testament were being read and referred to by early Christian writers as early as the AD 90-110.

These writings, as we have said, were not formally codified until the 4th century. This fact has led some to the profoundly over-simplistic conclusion that there was no Bible for four hundred years. This is extremely bad thinking, however. What the Church did in the 4th century was finally and formally recognize the canon and establish the parameters of the definitive contents of the Bible, but in doing so they were not creating the Bible, they were simply and finally acknowledging what the Church had known for four hundred years already.

We know this because we have the writings of the church fathers, that is, the writings of those men who wrote immediately after the close of the canon. And guess what we find in the writings of the church fathers of the first three hundred years? A staggering number of references to the writings of the New Testament.

In his book, Is the New Testament Reliable? A Look at the Historical Evidence, Paul Barnett notes that three early Christian writers referenced the vast majority of the New Testament in their writings from 96-110 AD.


Clement, writing around 96 AD, references Matthew, Mark, Luke, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter.


Ignatius, writing around 108 AD, references Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 3 John, and Revelation.


Polycarp, writing around 110 AD, references Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 John.

Paul Barnett concludes that “on the basis of these three early Christian authors it can be stated that twenty-five pieces of the New Testament were definitely in circulation by about the year 100.”[2] This is compelling evidence of the early writing and accessibility of the New Testament that we have today.

In addition to these, the New Testament quotations of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius have been counted and, in all, these early writers quote from or reference or paraphrase the gospels, the book of Acts, Paul’s letters, the general epistles, and Revelation 36,289 times. This evidence led famed Princeton scholar Bruce Metzger to write, “so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of the entire New Testament.”

Dan Wallace, perhaps the leading evangelical New Testament scholar today, observes of these patristic allusions to the New Testament:

Commentaries, homilies, and other writings by ancient church leaders known as church fathers are so plentiful that if all the Greek and versional witnesses were destroyed, the text of the New Testament could be virtually reconstructed just from the data in these patristic writings.

The quotations of the New Testament by the fathers number well over a million. The fathers write as early as the late first century, with a steady stream through the thirteenth, making their value for determining the wording of the New Testament text extraordinary.[3]

Furthermore, Josh McDowell passes on this telling story:

Sir David Dalrymple was wondering about the preponderance of Scripture in early writing when someone asked him, “Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?” After a great deal of investigation Dalrymple concluded: “Look at those books. You remember the question about the New Testament and the Fathers? That question roused my curiosity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.”[4]

Even the physical forms of the writings we have bear testimony to the early Church’s acknowledgment of and dependence upon the writings of the New Testament. Paul Barnett explains:

Justin, a leader of Christianity in Rome in the middle of the second century, refers to the memoirs composed by the [apostles], which are called gospels, are read as long as time permits…Justin describes how the church leaders read and applied the message of the Gospels to the assembled believers each Sunday in every city. This is only one of numerous examples indicating that the Christians of the second century read the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament, in their Sunday-by-Sunday church gatherings. Consistent with this is the recovery in recent years of manuscripts of the New Testament texts. Significantly these papyrus records are written on both sides indicating that they were parts of books that scholars call codices. A scroll was usually written on only one side, but the codex, which consisted of separate sheets stitched together, was really an early form of a book. It seems that the Christians of the second century moved away from using scrolls (which were cumbersome) and (perhaps) pioneered the employment of the codex for its convenience for reading and teaching in the churches. As it happens we have the four Gospels and the Acts in a single codex (P45), Paul’s letters and Hebrews in a single codex (P46), and the Revelation in a single codex (P47). It is reasonably clear that these codices had been assembled for reading in churches and for instruction based on those readings. Many scholars date these three codices approximately to the end of the second century, though it is not possible to be absolutely precise. The critical observation is that the texts of the New Testament were thoroughly established within a century or so of the end of the era of the apostles.[5]

It is a beautiful thing to behold! Very early in the Church’s history we find her doing exactly what we are doing today: gathering together in worship around the written word of God and hearing what the Spirit was saying to the Church. They did so because they believed the scriptures to be God’s word and they believed them to be accurate and reliable.

So can we, to the praise and glory of God.


[1] Hays, J. Daniel; Duvall, J. Scott (2012-04-01). How the Bible Came to Be (Ebook Shorts) (Kindle Locations 82-89). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p.39.

[3] Hays, J. Daniel; Duvall, J. Scott (2012-04-01). How the Bible Came to Be (Ebook Shorts) (Kindle Locations 535-539). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), p.43.

[5] (2013-07-01). In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (Kindle Locations 4827-4840). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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