An Ancient Text For Modern (Or Postmodern) Times

Introduction

2015 has been a year of numerous anniversaries. My parents celebrated fifty years of marriage in 2015. And of course, Elim celebrated its one hundredth birthday.

There were of course other significant anniversaries in 2015 as well. In February 1915, photographs were required on British passports for the first time. The Women’s Institute was founded in 1915.

In June 1815, Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. And, stretching back even further in time, on 19th June 1215, King John signed Magna Carta at Runnymede.

All of these events have had a direct bearing on the way we live today.

History has shaped who we are. Our society is shaped not only by the societal currents of today, but those of yesterday as well.

An ancient text with no relevance for today?

It is against such a background that we should weigh the oft repeated criticism that the Bible, because it is an ancient text, has little relevance to life in the twenty-first century. Historical events and documents referred to above indicate that dismissing something because it lies outside the modern era is a bit reckless and betrays a superficial grasp of how society functions and develops.

In addition to the many instances and ways in which society has been shaped by history, there are the numerous other ways in which life and thought today are informed not just by the recent past, but also by the ancient past.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of other religious faiths. The Quran, for instance, still influences the lives of millions of people today.

Another way in which ancient texts impact upon society today, is found in the ongoing influence of the classical world on contemporary thought.

Take the legal system, for example. The English legal system is based on common law or case law. In Scotland the legal system owes more to the influence of Roman law.

Or military strategy. Military officers in training still pick apart Hannibal’s victory at the battle of Cannae .And you could add the ethical role of the Hippocratic Oath in medicine. Or the influence of Euclid on mathematics.

And how could you fail to recognise the impact of the ten commandments on our legal system and on the personal morality of millions?

The idea that the ancient world or an ancient text has little relevance for life today is simply not borne out by the facts.

Even if it is not irrelevant, why should we believe it?

So given that the Bible is not irrelevant simply because it is an ancient text, why should we believe it?

The most obvious answer is that the Bible is the Word of God. And we know it is the Word of God because of the witness of the Spirit.

Ultimately, the Bible is relevant to twenty-first century life because it is the timeless Word of God.

The witness of the Spirit

How do we know it is God’s Word? We know it is God’s Word because the Holy Spirit has given us the ability to recognise it as God’s Word. Here’s what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2.12:

What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 

This is entirely consistent with what Jesus taught about the Holy Spirit’s role as teacher:

The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14.27; See also John 16.13)

The primary reason we should believe that the Bible is the Word of God is because of the Spirit convincing us that it is the Word of God.

That is what the church has taught for twenty centuries. This is crucial to our understanding of the authority of scripture. We simply cannot recognise its true nature, let alone begin to understand it without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Five additional reasons that support the witness of the Spirit

So we come back to the question of why we should believe that the Bible is the Word of God. What reasons are there beyond our own spiritual experience?

Firstly, there is the faith of the church.

Throughout church history the church – in all its branches – has recognised the Bible as the Word of God. 2 Timothy 3.16 has been taken at face value as a statement of divine inspiration and authority.

This collective witness to the authority of scripture counterbalances the personal nature of our recognition of the Bible as God’s Word through the witness of the Spirit. Far from detracting from our own experience of the Bible, it  acknowledges that our personal conviction based on the Spirit’s witness to God’s Word is confirmed by the church today and throughout history.

Secondly, there is the historical basis of the Bible

The Bible is not just a collection of religious writings. Its events are recorded as having happened at actual times and in actual places. Luke, for example, places the birth of Christ (Luke 2.1-3) and also the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3.1-2) firmly in a historical context.

Additionally, the textual evidence for the New Testament is far stronger than for that of any other piece of ancient literature, historical or otherwise. There are over five thousand eight hundred Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in existence today. If we can’t trust the New Testament as historically authentic, we cannot safely trust any other work of literature from that era or before.

Thirdly, there is the witness to Christ and of Christ

In His life and ministry Jesus fulfilled something like over three hundred prophecies referring to Him in the Old Testament. Given that Jesus had no control, humanly speaking about where He would be born and the details surrounding His death, the fulfilment of prophecy is a very powerful argument for the authority of the Bible (See, for example, Micah 5.2 / Matthew 2.6; Isaiah 53.12 / Matthew 27.38, 57-60 )

Then there is Jesus’ own view of the Bible. He appeals to Old Testament scripture as having divine authority and warns against attempts to tamper with God’s law (for example, Matthew 5.17-20)

The above arguments are powerful reasons in support of the authority of scripture.

However, there are two further arguments that might not carry the theological weight of the two just mentioned, but in their own way they are compelling.

So fourthly, the influence of the Bible on culture, especially on Western culture.

There is no doubt that Bible has had a significant impact on the history of the world, especially the Western world. The sixteenth century reformation unleashed ideas that have had a lasting impact not only on the church, but on Western thought and politics.

The Bible’s influence is not restricted to just those arenas.

Melvyn Bragg, not someone known for His faith, said of the King James Bible: There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible and not Shakespeare set this language on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since.”

Finally, the experience of Christians throughout the world and throughout the ages testifies to the power of the Bible as God’s Word.

Millions of people today and for millennia have turned to the Psalms for comfort in difficult times. Millions have had their lives changed by the gospels and New Testament epistles.

Actor David Suchet, famous for his role as Poirot, recounts how he read Romans in a Gideon Bible in a hotel room and his life was transformed. And how many more could testify to that kind of encounter with God through His Word?

The Bible continues to impact and influence the lives of many. Because it is an ancient text in no way makes it irrelevant. Age and relevancy do not depend on each other, as we saw earlier.

The Bible still has the power to change lives because it is still the Word of God.

I’ll close with a quote from Lee Mack. When Mack was the castaway on Desert Island Discs and was told that he would have the Bible to read on the imaginary desert island, responded:

I’m glad you get the Bible, because I would read the Bible. I think it’s quite odd that people like myself, in their forties, quite happy to dismiss the Bible, but I’ve never read it. I always think that if an alien came down and you were the only person they met, and they said, ‘What’s life about? What’s earth about? Tell us everything,’ and you said, ‘Well, there’s a book here that purports to tell you everything. Some people believe it to be true; some people [do] not believe it [to be] true.’ ‘Wow, what’s it like?’ and you go, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never read it.’ It would be an odd thing wouldn’t it? So, at the very least, read it.”

It would be an odd thing indeed to not to read a book which purports to tell you everything. It would be an odd thing indeed not to read it because you concluded that it was old and therefore not relevant to modern life.

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