NOTE: This article is a general overview of this entire category on “The Bible is Incomplete”. Be sure to see also the specific supporting articles here.
It will take some courage to read this article—if you insist on honesty.
A great many believers seem to prefer to gloss over some of the difficulties of Christianity, rather than looking into them. One prime example of this is with understanding the very nature of the Bible and the documents that comprise it. There is one teaching about the Bible that seems to be widely understood, and yet rarely written into the official doctrines of the various churches. It is this:
Most believers tend to assume something along the lines of “the Bible is complete”, meaning that they believe that God has more or less decided the table of contents for the Bible, and that nothing that we “need” is missing from it. Interestingly, no such statement about the Bible is made in the Bible documents themselves, so there is no authoritative source for the idea. Nonetheless, as my research below will tend to show, it is a fairly popular and controversial idea.
Let’s get some numbers in place to help understand where I’m headed with this. I Googled several common claims about the Bible to see how often they appear in print on the Internet. While this is hardly a scientific study, I find it to be a useful, if rough, gauge of how popular and/or controversial an idea may be. Look how the following phrases vary widely in the number of times they are found:
- “The Bible is infallible” 302,000
- “The Bible is inerrant” 170,000
- “The Bible is the word of God” 5,310,000
- “The Bible is inspired” 778,000
- “The Bible is authoritative” 99,200
- “The Bible is God’s revelation” 136,000
- “The Bible is complete” 68,600
- “The Bible tells us everything we need to know” 56,800
- “Everything we need to know is in the Bible” 782,000
The last three are the focus of this present investigation, and as we can see, there’s a fair amount of discussion on the topic. Having briefly scanned some of the early returns in these Google searches, I can tell you that a good deal of the returns on “The Bible is complete” are conversations about whether other works should be considered scripture, too. (The Book of Mormon, The Quran, The Apocrypha, etc.) Meanwhile, the last two items on the bullet list above tend to return statements both for and against the ideas in red.
What I find particularly troubling is the last item on the list. Even if we assume that the debate is 50/50 for and against the notion, that leaves us with nearly 400,000 times that someone has ventured to assert on the World Wide Web the idea that Christians needn’t know anything that isn’t in the Bible. Now, we can take the high road here and assume that the context of these assertions is strictly limited to the topic of the religion itself. So, if we put it this way, they’d be saying “Everything we need to know about Christianity is in the Bible.” (See a full article on this question.)
The articles I will be posting in this “Bible Incomplete” category, however, will tend to demonstrate the opposite. Here’s a quick overview, just to show that this point is both rational and responsible. The following questions are not directly and explicitly answered in the Bible, and yet they are inescapable questions for anyone attempting the practices of Christianity and of “church” today:
- Must a congregation have elders?
- If so, how many?
- How often is the communion to be taken?
- How many cups are to be used in the communion?
- What is the “age of accountability”?
- If the women were not to speak in the assembly, does this include the Sunday School class?
- How often is the church to assemble?
These are but a few of the many questions that naturally arise in our attempts to practice Christianity today. They are inescapable questions. For example, if your church is going to assemble at all, it is going to have to decide when and how often to do it. Will you pull the answer out of thin air? Or will it be important to you to show that your answer to the question is the same as the original answer to it? A great many believers seem to laud the idea of having a “Bible-based church” (944,000 returns at Google), so I’ll assume that you’d prefer to have the original answer to the question, as opposed to one that is simply made up.
Some churches meet but once a week. Others consider only one meeting to be obligatory, but may have other optional meetings throughout the week. Others consider as many as three or four weekly meetings (of various types) to be obligatory. Some of these claim to base their practices on Bible “commands”, and some on Bible “examples”. Interestingly, however, very few churches seem to cite the following example as a practice to be upheld today:
Acts 2:46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, (KJV)
So we have an actual example from the original ekklesia that is almost universally disregarded in deference to some other practice. (This happens with other issues, too, such as the communal nature of the original ekklesia, as well as the congregational discipline they exercised against unrepentant members.) Even so, however, nowhere in the Bible is there to be found any actual command on this question. Nor is there any exposition on the topic.
Thus do I consider it self evident that the Bible is “incomplete” on this example topic. And this raises all manner of questions:
- Why wouldn’t God want us to know what to do?
- Is it not important?
- How are we to handle disagreements on the topic?
- What are the consequences of us making poor decisions in light of the incomplete nature of our information on the topic? Are we accountable for the practices we adopt?
- Does our lack of direction on this topic constitute some sort of “test” from God?
- Let’s say we have some latitude on this question; do we have complete latitude on it? Or ought we to make at least some attempt to imitate what we think we see in the original example?
- Why is it that lots of different churches have prayerfully sought an answer as to how to proceed on this topic, and yet they have reached different conclusions? Is God not guiding anyone on this? Or is God only guiding some, but not others? Or does God have a different will on this topic for each of the denominations and/or congregations?
These questions are hardly the type enjoyed by people who prefer an “easy” religion, for they are both important and difficult, not being easily answered for those who are honest. Many would find the second bullet point above to be attractive, assuming that it must simply not be an “important” question if it’s not directly addressed in the Bible. Indeed, here’s an interesting compound Google search I did, searching for where the following two phrases appear together:
- “If God wanted us to know” 125,000
- “Put it in the Bible” 117,000,000
- Both of the above phrases appearing together: 19,400
I found this intriguing, so I altered the second phrase a bit to capture more of the argument I was looking for, and found:
- “He would have put it in the Bible” 112,100,000
Did you catch that number?! Over 112 MILLION times, somebody has discussed online the idea that we can determine things about God based upon what he did (or more accurately, did NOT) “put in the Bible”. (See an article on this subject here.) And it’s surely more frequent that this, for this present search only includes returns for conversations in which the idea was mentioned in these EXACT words!
Now you can get some better idea of just how pervasive is this notion that the Bible is “complete”. The more important question than its pervasiveness, however, is whether this is true. Did God determine the exact contents of the Bible? Is there some exact set of data that God wanted delivered to this generation? Were there documents that God specifically had held back from this generation?
These are questions you’ll have to struggle with if you want to really come to grips with the nature of the Bible and its presence in this generation. But again, you won’t find direct answers to these questions in the Bible itself.
So what do you make of that? What does it mean that the Bible doesn’t define itself in these and other ways? What does it mean that in no place did one of Jesus’ inspired apostles or prophets write an authoritative and complete table of contents, showing us all the documents that were to be included? What does it mean that the Bible makes mention of things that it does not explain, such as “the Third Heaven” that Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:2? What does it mean that the Bible mentions well over a hundred documents that are not included in the Bible collection? What does it mean that a fair number of major events or teachings are mentioned only once, and only in passing, as if the original audience was already familiar with them? (For example, the bodily resurrection of “many holy people” after Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew 27:52-53)
What does it mean that certain books that are not in the Bible seem to have been considered to be “scripture” by Jesus and the apostles and prophets? (Such as the Book of Enoch, also sometimes called 1 Enoch.)
And if all these questions haven’t “baked your noodle” already, here’s another one for your consideration. For all you non-Catholics out there, what does it mean that “The Bible” wasn’t compiled and settled until roughly 397 AD at the Synod of Carthage? Why would God want it to remain unresolved for such a very long time after the time of the apostles? And why is it that so many hundreds of millions of non-Catholics are taking the word of the proto-Catholics of 397 AD as to what should and should not be in the Bible? Why haven’t you done your own investigation?
And let’s say that you’re fine with the idea that these early Catholics decided for you what should go in the Bible in 397 AD. As dubious as that is, how, then, do you account for the fact that you reject the books of the Apocrypha, which the Catholic Council of Trent concluded in 1546 also belonged in the Bible? How is it that you take the word of the Catholic Church as authoritative on the one hand, and as not authoritative on the other?
These are not questions that can be responsibly put off on someone else; they demand answers—our own answers.
Whatever one may make of it, I believe I can show in a great many ways that the Bible is far from “complete”. If fails to answer a great many of the questions it raises. It fails to document a great many of the events it mentions. It fails to include a great number of the documents it mentions and quotes. And it leaves out at least some of the teachings of the apostles.
Did I get your attention with that last claim? Then tell me if you agree with this statement:
The general pattern of the ministry of the apostles was to travel, starting Christian assemblies wherever they went, and then supporting those assemblies by subsequent visits and letters (epistles).
Do you agree with that? I’ll bet you do, based upon the examples of Peter and Paul, mostly. But where is there any record of the missionary exploits of most of the other apostles? And where are their writings? Can you find me an epistle written by, say, Nathaniel? No, you can’t. Yet if we do some quick math, counting Peter as typical, then we would multiply his 2 epistles by the 13-or-so apostles and we should expect to see 26 epistles in the Bible. Or if we count Paul’s example as typical, we would figure 13 epistles each for 13-or-so apostles, and we’d come up with 169 total epistles in the Bible. Yet there are only 21 epistles in our present Bible! So we are compelled either to reject the model in the paragraph above, or to consider the possibility that the Bible record is grossly incomplete.
And it probably gets even more compelling when you consider that you cannot find what I call “0 Corinthians”. (Paul mentions a previous letter to Corinth in 1 Corinthians 5:9.) Yet, if we need to understand the content of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, don’t we need to understand the context of the conversation that was going back and forth between Paul and that congregation? Of course we do! Yet we do not have this letter. Nor do we have the letters from Corinth to Paul, to which he was most likely replying when he wrote 1st and 2nd Corinthians.
These are just a few of the reasons that I cannot in good conscience proclaim, as do so many others, that “The Bible” is settled, or that it is “complete”. Sure, it’s easier to assume such, but it is neither responsible nor intellectually-honest in light of all the evidence to the contrary. Undoubtedly, a great many believers will strive to dismiss this whole notion as somehow unimportant. They will jettison any assumption of reason, and appeal instead to their “faith”, or even what they call “my faith in the Bible” (17,700,000 hits at Google!) Yet in no place in the Bible can they find any passage that purports to claim that God himself has determined just what should appear in that collection of documents and what should be left out!
This is dishonest. It simply isn’t as easy as we may wish, and a lot of people need to “grow up” and deal with this fact. Whatever God’s intent for believers in this present generation, it is simply not as easy to discern as most like to pretend it is. Indeed, for a people who generally like to consider the original Christians to have been “primitive” in their “pre-canonical” generation, we are the ones who need to have explained to us so many of the things that the apostles assumed their audience would already understand! But if we are indeed so incredibly “enlightened” when compared to those primitive believers, how is it that we are so utterly incurious about the Bible, it’s origins, its table of contents, and its full and original meaning?
Ours is not a generation of enlightened, but of dull and misinformed believers, who are too lazy to “do the math” of their own religion, and who believe that all the “math” has already been done for them throughout the long “tradition” of the church. For the few who have figured out that tradition isn’t always worthy of honor, however, I offer this category and all the evidence I will post here in time.