EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Timothy Paul Jones, C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Family Ministry at Southern Seminary, discusses his book How We Got the Bible with Towers news writer Andrew J.W. Smith.
AJWS: You open the book with a discussion of the theology of Scripture, inspiration, inerrancy, and similar doctrines. Why was that an important way to open the book?
TPJ: It seems to me that in every generation we need to fight the battle for inerrancy again. If one generation loses sight of the fact that inerrancy really is a crucial issue in terms of healthy theology, then the next generation will lose not only the importance of it but the doctrine itself. It will erode the doctrine, so I think it’s important that you begin with a discussion of inerrancy. One of the things I’ve found is that, in discussing and talking with people who aren’t believers or who are young believers, they have very little understanding of what we mean by inerrancy. They really struggle to understand it. So I wanted to describe in a very simple way what inerrancy is and what its implications are, as well as demonstrating that this is historically viable. Even though the early Christians may not have used the word “inerrancy,” they certainly believed in the idea.
AJWS: You stress how the formation of the biblical canon is not haphazard or arbitrary. It didn’t happen overnight and it was logical. Why is this important to know about the collection of the canon?
TPJ: Probably a couple of decades ago it would not have been nearly as important to equip and educate laypeople about the formation of the canon. But we live in a post-Da Vinci Code world. The Da Vinci Code marked a moment in culture in which the skepticism about Scripture, that includes skepticism about the canon, really came to the forefront. It wasn’t that people didn’t have these ideas before; it was that it really became popularized. It really popularized this idea of questioning the books that are in the canon, which books belong in the canon and all of that. And I found that so many people, even mature Christian believers, have no concept of how the books of the Bible came together. And so I really want to help them understand that. I want them to see that this was something that, on the one hand, did not fall out of heaven already finished, but on the other hand, it wasn’t put together on the basis of some sort of political pursuit either.
AJWS: You discussed the well-known telephone game metaphor of the transmission of the New Testament — I’m thinking of Bart Ehrman and others. How is that metaphor both helpful and unhelpful for how we must understand the transmission of Scripture?
TPJ: I think that’s a true metaphor, actually, but not in the way that the skeptics use it. Of course in the telephone game, one person whispers something to the next person, which goes to the next person then all the way around the circle, until at the end you get this jumbled message. You compare it to the original message, and everybody laughs and that’s the game. Well, what is unhelpful about that metaphor is that it treats the transmission of Scripture as if the stories about Jesus were delivered haphazardly, as if there was no care taken to guard them and to keep them, as if the transmission was from one person to another rather than a community. So in those ways it’s unhelpful because it gives the impression of much more fluidity in the stories than really existed.
On the other hand, it is somewhat helpful because it ends up undercutting the case of the skeptic. What makes the telephone game work is that at the end they are able to compare the message that came through the circle with the original message. That’s actually precisely what happened in the first century. When the books of the New Testament were written, the eyewitnesses who wrote them were still alive. So when a message made it through the “circle,” so to speak, it could then be compared with the original message and could be corrected at that point. So in that sense, the very use of that metaphor undercuts the skeptics’ own case by demonstrating that as long as the person who started the story is still present it is possible to correct the story back to its original form.
AJWS: Why is it important to have multiple diverse and updated translations of the Bible?
TPJ: Well, every translation is something temporary. There is no such thing as a permanent, once-for-all-time translation because language changes. Our knowledge of ancient languages changes. That requires new translations being made so that the Word of God can be conveyed accurately to every person, and to every place, in every time.
I also think different translations have different purposes. There may be one translation that is excellent for a brand new believer but isn’t something you’d want to use a decade later for in-depth study of the Bible. There may be a Bible that is excellent for really studying the Bible, but for a new believer, somebody who speaks English as their second language or somebody who has reading difficulties, it may not be as useful.
AJWS: What were some of the difficulties in writing an accessible book like this about such complicated and nuanced issues?
TPJ: The difficulty is, in writing a book that is really aimed at laypeople, that some level of nuance is always lost in that. Now I’ve really tried to include very extensive footnotes because the research is there in the footnotes at that point. But in the writing, there has to be some nuance that gets left behind to make it understandable to ordinary people. So that’s the hardest thing — figuring out where to stop and just how to make it simple enough for the ordinary person. As we developed this book, we actually had different people who didn’t have seminary education, who didn’t have any training in this area — “Read this and tell us where you got bored. Read this and tell us what you didn’t understand, what didn’t make sense to you, what seemed irrelevant to you, and let us know on this.” And we adjusted the book really to try to make it as accessible as possible to anybody, from a high school age up should be able to pick up this book and read it and understand the central message that we’re getting at.
AJWS: What was the process like in exposing test groups to your book and having to make revisions to the book?
TPJ: It’s painful. It’s painful because somebody could come back and mark a whole page and say, “This was really boring” or “I don’t understand this at all,” and then you have to go back and rewrite. It’s not that you’re backing off the content or that you’re somehow giving up on it. It’s that you say, “Okay, I have to write it better.” I do find for me that the joy of doing that is, I think, when we understand it best is when we’re able to get it down to a layperson’s level. When we’re really able to get it simple, that’s when we understand it best.
AJWS: Who is your target audience for the book?
TPJ: Several of the books I’ve written are kind of reactive, that is to say, they take things that people are going to be encountering — maybe in college or in watching certain documentaries or in reading certain magazines — and try to help them to understand the truth. But one of the things I hadn’t yet done is be proactive, to write a book preparing people to encounter skeptics rather than react to them. So my purpose in writing this book is to be proactive, to help people be prepared to understand and to respond to these skeptical attacks on the gospel before they happen. That’s what I really wanted to be able to do in these books, beginning with high schoolers and young adults.
AJWS: What do you hope this book accomplishes among your readers?
TPJ: One of the things in family ministry seminars that I often talk to parents about is: When your children hear a question that casts doubt on the Bible, make sure that’s not the first time they’ve heard that question. Make sure it’s at least the second time. Make sure that you’ve asked them that question before the college professor or the co-worker does. So part of what I want to do in this book is make certain that when somebody hears questions of the authority, the accuracy, the reliability of Scripture, after they’ve read this book they’re able to say, “I’ve heard that objection before.” And they may not even remember the exact response to that objection, but they will remember that there is a rational and intellectually defensible response.