Authority, Reliability, and Truth

Are questions about the Bible’s reliability all that important? Are they so serious that they warrant discussion on our Web site on a regular basis? Couldn’t our time be better spent on some other subject?

It certainly is true that Christians have a responsibility to consider many serious subjects. Studies regarding acceptable worship, stewardship, evangelism, church organization, etc., are all topics on which Christians should meditate frequently. However, by acknowledging that a proper understanding of these topics (and many more) rests ultimately on the authority of Scripture, then attacks on the trustworthiness of Scripture is no trivial matter. Skeptics are very well aware of the fact that if they can undermine the reliability of the Bible, then they can undermine the very foundation of Christianity. Unfortunately, with prominent positions in public schools, universities, and the media, the Bible’s critics have become much more powerful and influential in recent times, and can be heard throughout the world on radio, television, and the Internet.

In the May/June 2006 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Michael D. Coogan wrote an article titled “Question Authority!” in which he linked the issue of authority (or lack thereof) with Bible (in)consistency.

“The Bible says” is often regarded as decisive in contemporary debates about such issues as abortion, assisted suicide, the status of women, same-sex relations, capital punishment and war and peace. The problem is that the Bible is often inconsistent…. [T]he Bible does not speak with one voice.

Just because something is written…in the Bible…doesn’t mean that it’s the only possible view or even that it’s true (2006, 32[3]:24, emp. added).

What example did Professor Coogan give to “prove” his point about the Bible’s inconsistency and unreliability? Supposedly, since the Bible teaches that God “punishes children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9),” yet also states “The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20; cf. Jeremiah 31:30), then “the Bible does not speak with one voice,” but is “inconsistent.” Is he right?

In reality, the Bible’s teaching on sin, suffering the consequences of sin, and bearing the guilt of one’s own sin is very consistent. Ever since Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, man has suffered the consequences of sin. A person frequently suffers because of his own sins (cf. 1 Peter 4:15). Many times, however, man suffers because of the sins of his forefathers (including parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.). Today, children may suffer because a father is thrown in jail for drunk driving, and thus is unable to provide sustenance for his family. A starving civilization may suffer partially because their forefathers set in place a belief system where eating animals like cows is taboo (since the animal might be a reincarnated ancestor).

God informed the Israelites that the sin of idolatry (and the fruit of such sin) is so heinous and bitter that children (even to the third and fourth generation) would suffer as a result. The children of idolatrous parents sometimes suffered death because their parents sacrificed them to Baal (Jeremiah 19:5). Others, such as those living during the time of the judges, were afflicted time and again with poverty, disease, and slavery, because they, like their parents, “forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtoreths” (Judges 2:13). It may be that even in America, the righteous remnant will suffer because of God’s decision to punish a “God-fearing nation” that presently is expunging Him and embracing sin at every turn.

But, even though innocent descendants may suffer the consequences of their forefathers’ sins, they do not “bear the guilt” of their forefathers’ sinful actions (Ezekiel 18:20). That is, they do not inherit their parents’ sins. The Bible never suggests that children are guilty of idolatry simply because their parents were idolatrous. Children are innocent; so much so that Jesus said, “of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). Ultimately, being held responsible for sin and bearing the guilt of sin is altogether different from suffering the physical consequences of the actions of others.

In the conclusion of his article in Biblical Archaeology Review, Coogan wrote: “Just because something is written…doesn’t mean that it’s the only possible view or even that it’s true” (2006, 32[3]:24, emp. added). In reality, it is Coogan’s article that lacks truth, and it is the authority of his article (not the Bible!) that should be questioned.


Coogan, Michael D. (2006), “Question Authority!” Biblical Archaeology Review, 32[3]:24, May/June.


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