The Vault

D.B. Knox: The Authority of the Bible

From a lecture to the Evangelical Union, Sydney University, as appeared in The Australian Church Record, November 18, 1948. 

The Bible is very much a modern book. Its annual sales and circulation easily outrivals its nearest competitor —not only the books in English literature, but, I suppose, the books of any foreign nation. It is a book that is in many ways remarkable. If only for its English style it deserves study. Sir Arthur Quillier Couch, late professor of English literature at Cambridge and editor of the Oxford book of English verse once described the prose style of the English Bible as a “miracle” and asked his students this question: Does it not strike you as queer that the people who set you courses of study in English literature never include the Authorised Version which not only intrinsically but historically is out and away the greatest book of English prose? Perhaps they pay you the silent compliment of supposing that you are perfectly acquainted with it . . .I wonder?

The Bible is remarkable for the length of time it was coming into being. Sixteen hundred years elapsed between the writing of the first book of our Bible and the completion of the last. Sixteen hundred years is a long time. Cast your minds back through the events and epochs which made up English history and sixteen hundred years will bring you the Roman occupation of Britain. Such was the time during which the sixty-six books which go to make up the Bible, were written.

38 authors contributed. They include men of very varied outlook, some were kings, some generals, some priests and clerics, some shepherds and some fishermen. Some of them were men of the highest educational attainments, others were men of the soil, taken from following the plow.

We can imagine how variegated would be the outlook of men from such different levels of society, and from historical epochs of which the mental climate changed with the flux of sixteen hundred years, yet it is a remarkable fact that the Bible has a uniform voice throughout its pages. All its authors hear constant witness to a God of love and righteousness.

The great commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart end with all thy soul and with all thy might,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” are taken from the oldest book of the Bible, while the book written nearest to our own time, the Gospel of St. John, contains such wonderful verses as “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life,” or again, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Many other passages could be adduced to support the conclusion that the message of the Bible is unchanging from the first page which speaks of man’s Creation, to the last which speaks of the future judgment.

The Bible is remarkable in the estimation in which it is held. As you know the Christian Church is divided into several denominations, and these unfortunate divisions obscure the fact that the Church is united on its fundamental doctrines, especially it is united in its attitude to the Bible. All the Christian Churches agree in acknowledging that the Bible is the word of God and that it contains the truth on what we are to believe and how we are to act. And Further, the experience of individuals throughout the centuries unites in acknowledging the Bible as the source of spiritual strength —this is true not just of English Christians, or of European Christians, but of Christians in every race in mankind.

The Bible is indeed a book for humanity. In view then of its remarkable character and its remarkable influence, you and I need look for no other excuse for devoting time examining the Bible.

The subject I have chosen is the authority of the Bible, and I propose to deal:

  1. Content of Authority.
  2. The reasons for giving the Bible that authority.

The first part can be dealt with in a sentence or two. As the Presbyterian Confession of Faith has it: “The Bible is given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life,” or as the Church of England puts it in her Articles “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary for Salvation,” or as Thomas Acquinas, the Roman Catholic theologian, says when he describes the authority of Scripture as incontestible proof in doctrine: “Our faith rests on revelation made to the Apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books.” (Sumna Theologa Question. I , Act 8. Reply obj. 2.) You will have noted that it is a common element of these three statements about Scripture to speak of its authority in terms of faith and life, of Salvation and of sacred doctrine. In this sphere its authority is supreme; for it was given for the purpose of being an infallible guide in matters of religion. If we read the Bible with this intention, the Holy Spirit, Who is its author, will apply its truth to our minds and conscience. If we neglect to read — and read regularly—this God-given Book, we need not expect God to speak to us.

Turning now to our second question, what are the reasons for this belief through which we give the Bible this authority ? But first we must deal with an objection which is Frequently heard.

Objectors point out that 2000 years have passed since the Bible was written. For the greater part of this time printing was unknown; manuscript had to be copied from manuscript, and this gave opportunity for all sorts of errors and corrections to creep in. The test, they say. has been added to, changed and altered with the passage of time, and there is no guarantee that we have got the Bible as it was originally written.

This objection is easily disposed of. Our English Bible is translated from the Greek and Hebrew. Anyone who will be at the pains of learning there languages can verify the fact for himself that the translation is accurate. Most of us are willing to take this on trust.

But, it may be asked, can we know that the Greek text, for example, from which our New Testament has been translated, is the same Greek text which was written by the original authors? The answer, as the politicians say, is in the affirmative, and it is based on the science of textual criticism.

The textual critic of the Bible is in the fortunate position of possessing over 3000 manuscripts of the text. Some of these are very ancient. The famous Codex Sinaiticus in the British Museum was copied round about the year 350. It contains all the New Testament and large sections of the Old. The Vatican manuscript at Rome is a little earlier. These two manuscripts are written on parchment but recent archaeological excavations in Egypt have brought to light papyri manuscripts of the New Testament (preserved from decay by the dry sands of the desert), which date back to the second century.

Thus, only a hundred years elapsed from the writings of the books till the time when the oldest copies which we now possess were made. This does not give much time for corruption, and even this short gap can he bridged with certainty with scientific methods of criticism.

These methods of criticism follow three lines of evidence. First comes the sorting of the extant manuscripts into families. Because one manuscript has to be copied from another it is possible to arrange the manuscripts into genaeological tables, and so arranged the three thousand manuscripts are seen to belong to five or six families of manuscript traditions. And these families can be identified as belonging each to one of the great centres of the Church in the second and third centuries, such as Antioch, Alexandria, Caesarea, Rome. And when these widely separated centres are seen to agree in the tent which they have preserved, it is good evidence that this text is the original one.

Another line of evidence is the Ancient Versions. The New Testament was translated into Syrian, Latin and Egyptian in 2nd century, that is- at an earlier date than the earliest Greek manuscript that has survived. Each version is evidence of what the Greek text was at the date when the version was translated.

The third line or evidence is the quotations of the Bible in the Fathers, some of whose writings go back to within 20 years of the composition of the New Testament itself.

The conclusion is that there is no shadow of doubt that in our English Bible we are able to read what the original authors wrote. Most variations are merely verbal, such as the order of the Greek words. No doctrine is affected.

But this raises the question, granted we have what the authors wrote, can we trust their reliability?

Again the answer is yes, and for three reasons:-

  1. The writers were honest men. The personality of a writer is reflected is his writings and it is not difficult to see that the authors of the New Tenement books are ingenuous and sincere And this conclusion is borne out by their lives. Most of them suffered for their convictions, many of them being martyred.
  2. The writers were eye-witnesses of the events which they narrated: or else, like St. Mark, were the companions of eye-witnesses; and were in a position to know the facts; furthermore they wrote for the perusal of men and women who were themselves eyewitnesses, and who would have immediately detected inaccuracies it the narratives.
  3. The writers were conscious of the need of care in their reporting.

Thus St. Luke tells his readers that what he writes has the authority of those who were eye-witnesses from the beginning (Luke 1:2) and that the incidents he relates are “surely believed” as the result of infallible proofs. He is conscious that the normal man would ask what were the proofs of the extraordinary events which he describes. In the same way St John assures his readers that he is writing of things which he has seen and heard (1 John 1:1), which he has looked upon, and which his hands have handled.. There are other passages which reflect a consciousness of the value of first-hand evidence. These are: Hebrews 2:3, 1 Cor 15:3, John 21:26. II Peter 1:16.

We conclude that the authors of the New Testament were honest men who were in a position to know the facts, and who were conscious of the value of eye witnesses’ testimony; that is, they were reliable historians who wrote responsibly.

Thus treated simply as a book of history and considered apart from its divine inspiration the New Testament can be relied upon to give a true account of the events with which it deals.

(To be concluded).

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