When my wife and I were first married, an Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman came to our door, trying to sell us the books. I remember him in our apartment, pressing us to buy a set by monthly instalment over several years, because we could then have at our fingertips, for the rest of our lives, the most authoritative voice on, well, virtually everything.
Who could have known that within a couple of decades that segment of the publishing industry—one that had dominated the information world of my childhood—would dwindle into obscurity? Now even op shops won’t accept donations of once-costly sets of encyclopaedias.
The printed encyclopaedia’s doom was sealed in 2001 when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger brought Wikipedia online and made its service free. It also made it wiki, from a Hawaiian word for “quickly,” that had come to mean a method of collaborative authorship where anyone could add, delete or change content.
It sounded like a recipe for chaos, but it worked surprisingly well. There was the occasional intentional or misinformed edit or obscenity bomb, but as the number of responsible participants on the site grew, these generally got fixed so quickly that few readers ever saw them. Today, Wikipedia gets 470,000,000 (that’s 470 million) hits a day, making it the most popular reference work in the world.
The nature of knowledge
The internet has changed the way we understand knowledge. The original Encyclopaedia Britannica was written and edited by scholars, then fashioned into 60 kilograms of paper, cardboard and ink. Its very bulk implied its truths would last forever.
Wikipedia’s advantage is its dynamic variability. That Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman would have had us believe that our reference work would be useful for a lifetime, and in a few disciplines it might have been. But Wikipedia reflects our rapidly evolving knowledge base, written and proofed by a mix of people whose names we don’t know. Though Wikipedia is surprisingly reliable most of the time, the dynamic nature of the internet has caused many to think of truth as something that shifts from moment to moment, that it’s a mere conversation with no fixed anchors.
The classical understanding of knowledge was that it was large but enduring, which is why nineteenth century doctors relied on the medical diagnoses of the ancient Roman physician Galen. Isaac Newton said that he felt like “a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
But the internet concentrates our minds at the foaming edge of the breakers rolling in. And the kind of flexible thinking toward the ever-changing landscape of the sciences and current events is essential to keeping up-to-date. But the resulting sense of the fluidity of truth has also put at risk areas of knowledge where we value depth and stability—things like morality, values, faith, tradition, even aesthetics. At the churning edge of the knowledge wave, almost everything seems relative.
We of course want scientific truth to be validated by results. I think you’d agree that physicians shouldn’t still treat illnesses by bloodletting just because Galen prescribed it in 200 BC! But most Christians would say that there’s a vast body of moral and religious truth that is unchanging, even if it is 2000 or more years old. Unlike human knowledge, the Bible isn’t impermanent and changeable. It’s everlasting, always truthful and a document of astonishing power.
The case for the Bible
The Bible and Wikipedia have this in common: both are collaborative efforts. There are 66 books in the Bible, written by an unknown number of authors over a span of roughly 1600 years. The word Bible itself comes from the Greek biblia, meaning scrolls, which was the earliest form of a book. The Bible wasn’t written by God but by prophets who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Some books identify their author; others are the end result of oral traditions that passed along stories and teachings until they were eventually recorded by unknown scribes. There’s no single literary form. The Bible contains parables, history, sermons, prophecies, theology and philosophy, letters, songs and poetry, aphorisms, and the mysterious apocalyptic, like Revelation.
Unlike Wikipedia, the Source of the Bible’s messages is not human scholars but God. “All Scripture is God-breathed,” wrote the apostle Paul, “and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The Bible isn’t the only religious text that contains moral teaching and it’s more than just about ethical principles. It’s a full and honest account of God’s interactions with humans. It can be used as a theological or behavioural handbook, though it’s more helpful to understand it as a narrative with a spiritual purpose. The Old Testament describes God as our Creator who deals with His disobedient children like a stern parent, with rules and discipline. In the New Testament He’s a Brother in the Person of Jesus, who with love and sacrifice saves us from our own sinfulness, rescues us from eternal death and ultimately will re-create the earth into a perfect home.
That it comes from God doesn’t mean the Bible should be thought of as the ultimate encyclopaedia, however. While the Bible answers our questions about God, it doesn’t try to answer all questions. For example, the Bible writers appear to have believed that the earth was fixed in space, with the heavenly bodies moving around it. This makes it a poor astronomy textbook. But astronomy isn’t its purpose. Wikipedia contains a vast amount of astronomical facts, but that knowledge can’t save us. The truths of the Bible can. In spiritual matters, the Bible is in fact faultless. The single perfect message of the Bible’s quite imperfect human writers is this: God has been, since the beginning of time, trying to save humankind and He has succeeded when we accept His gift of salvation.
The Bible has two supernatural features that can’t be duplicated in any work of human knowledge. First, God’s Spirit actively guides the reader. Jesus said that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Second, studying the Bible transforms lives. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The Bible has transformed the lives of criminals, addicts, those ill both physically and emotionally, and billions of sinful people like you and me. What other text can make that boast?
The Bible’s message of salvation is centred in the God-man Jesus Christ. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets . . . , but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1, 2), whom Scripture declares to be not only divine but “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The focus of the Jesus story—indeed, of the entire Bible—is His martyrdom by crucifixion and His resurrection from death. Here is a claim that no other text makes: that dead people will be restored to life by God’s power.
Human reference works are subject to error and a Wikipedia entry can change dozens of times in a day. The Bible, though, is from God and like God, it’s perfect and unchanging. The Bible’s message of salvation is as accurate today as it was 3000 years ago. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” said Jesus, “but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).