There is plenty of internal and external evidence that the Bible is true, and contains a message from God that is important to us. But it’s also important to remember that the Bible doesn’t claim to be a history or a science book, and there are uncertainties in translation and interpretation. For example, how do we disentangle literal from figurative, which translation should we use, and does the Bible contain any errors? None of this should detract from the key messages that God communicates to us through his word, the Bible.
Literal or figurative?
Most would agree that some parts of the Bible are written to be taken figuratively. But how can we work out which bits of the Bible are supposed to be taken literally, and which bits are figurative? This is important, and will influence our understanding of creation, and much of the Old Testament record, our interpretation of the Devil, and our take on Revelation (amongst other things). Perhaps the single most important way of disentangling literal from figurative is whether the account tells you whether it is supposed to be taken literally (e.g. the resurrection) or figuratively (e.g. the parables of Jesus). But what’s your stance when the Bible account seems to contradict our current understanding of science and the physical world? Many take the view that the Bible must be right and our understanding of science and the physical world is wrong and will catch up eventually (scientific views do change, after all). My own view is more flexible than that. It doesn’t damage my faith at all to interpret a Bible passage figuratively (to a lesser or greater degree) in order to square it with science – with the creation record being the prime example.
A perfect translation?
It is important to understand how the various Bibles that we have today came into being. The Bible is translated from lots of different ancient manuscripts written in several different languages including ancient Hebrew, Greek and other languages. Unfortunately, there is no definitive original “version” to work from. Bible translators, on the whole, do a good job of putting these ancient, foreign languages into a form that we can understand. There are many different types and styles of God communicating with mankind that eventually resulted in the written record that we have today (direct communication, visions / dreams, national historical records, humans writing their own thoughts that were, unbeknown to them, being guided by the Holy Spirit). My view on Bible inspiration is that it’s not so much that every syllable was directly inspired by God – more that God has ensured that we have exactly what we need to understand his key messages to us. All of this means that there is no perfect translation. All can be useful, provided we understand the approach of the translators (i.e. whether they are trying to produce a word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase, or paraphrase translation).
Is the Bible without error?
There do seem to be some minor copy errors in the Bible (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:3-4 says "David smote also Hadadezer...and took from him...seven hundred horsemen..." vs. 1 Chronicles 18:3-4 says "David smote Hadarezer...and took from him...seven thousand horsemen..."). Some try to argue that these copy errors are explained by very similar incidents with slightly different details, but this seems unlikely to me. There is an influence of society in the way that certain words were translated in some translations (e.g. the use of “God save the King” in 1Sam10:24 (KJV), and “God forbid” in Rom3:4 (KJV)). Sometimes, it seems, the Bible goes along with the thinking of the day rather than challenging it. For example, the New Testament describes the casting out of demons to cure what we would now understand to be mental illness caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Even if Jesus did understand the root cause of mental illness, he couldn’t have challenged it at the time without undermining his more important spiritual lessons. There are some occasions when eye witness accounts recorded in the synoptic gospels don’t seem to match. I actually see this as a reason to believe the Bible: if you were a police officer investigating a crime and all of the eye witness accounts matched exactly, you’d probably think it was a stitch-up!
What I believe about the Bible
There is considerable historical and archaeological evidence that supports the accuracy of the Bible, and gives credibility to its spiritual message. For example, fulfilled Bible prophecy provides both internal and external evidence that the Bible is true (Dan9:2, Jer29:14). And I am struck by the public health value of the Law of Moses in particular. I think it is a mistake to make a literal understanding of the Bible, the superiority of one particular translation, or Bible inerrancy central to your faith. Instead, let’s focus on the Bible as a guide for the future, an insight into the mind of God, a statement of God's creative power, a book for every generation, and a remarkable record of the many forms of God's communications with mankind.