“Every word of God proves true. He is a shield to all who come to him for protection. Do not add to his words, or he may rebuke you and expose you as a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5–6, NLT)
Perhaps you’ve played the telephone game. It’s a game designed to demonstrate how quickly stories can change and rumors spread. The game goes something like this. I tell the person next to me some phrase or bit of a story. They share it with their neighbor and so forth until it gets to the end of the line. What the last person reports as the story is compared to the original, with predictably wild results.
The telephone game is often referenced as an argument against the truthfulness of God’s word. After all, how can we trust that these words, laws, and stories were transmitted properly through the generations? We can’t even go through a dozen verbal retellings without getting the words horribly mangled. And if God’s word was passed in that rather serial, 1-1, method, it would perhaps be a justifiable argument. But it wasn’t.
If we play the same game but with a larger group, divide the crowd into smaller groups, say five for this example, and play the game. The initial five would each get the same story. There would be some transmission errors as it went through each line. But when the outputs are considered together, the original story can be discerned. Now, multiply that by hundreds and add in the desire to transmit the words perfectly with cross-checks along the way, and the accuracy of the Bible becomes worthy of our trust.
Now, we must also recognize that we all put our own lenses between God’s word and ourselves. We read the Bible through the lenses of our upbringing, our prejudices, our hopes, our pains, our world-view, our culture (or the culture we’d like to have). Those lenses magnify certain truths and hide others. Add to that much of the Bible was written within a specific culture, and if we’re not careful, all kinds of mayhem and abuse of God’s word will follow.
But that’s also the beauty of God’s word. Though written to a bronze-age agrarian patriarchal culture, its truth speaks to every culture, even the information-age urbanite egalitarian. The reason is simple, God’s word speaks to the human condition. While everything else may change, the frailties and failings of the human soul haven’t changed.
And this is where we must be careful. It is far too easy to add or take away from God’s word based on our cultural norms or desires. And yet, we must also recognize that while God’s word remains steadfast, our understanding and application do change as we encounter those truths today.
Consider slavery. No one today would argue that God endorses slavery, and yet the cultural notes of the Bible display slavery as normal. God’s word didn’t change. Our understanding and application did change. By the way, the Bible doesn’t condemn or endorse slavery; it only recognizes that it existed. The overriding truth from the Bible on this topic is this – “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NLT)
You see, the errors that need correction are not those of transmission, not God’s word, but the errors caused by my own prejudices, desires, and culture. The Bible is best used as a spotlight on our own soul instead of as a hammer forcing others into our norms and convictions. It even says as much, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” (Hebrews 4:12, NLT) Notice that sword is pointed at our own thoughts and desires.
The bottom line is this: we can trust the accuracy of the Bible, but we must be cautious to neither add nor subtract from its message. And, above all, we must let it pierce our own soul and speak to our own condition.