The Battle For Truth

This article was written to accompany the The Mission of God and the History of the Church’ hangout.

This article was written by Tom O’Toole, based on an outline created by Andy Johnston.


  • To what extent is your understanding of theology similar to that of a first century Christian? What about a fourth century Christian? A sixteenth century Christian? A nineteenth century Christian?
  • What doctrines do you think Christians from every century would agree on? What doctrines would there be differences about?


As the church has fought to hold fast to the truth over the last 2,000 years, disagreements about that truth have been commonplace. There are very few theological questions that have not become the subject of debate. Many of these debates arise around secondary issues and are conducted in a gracious and loving fashion, but sometimes battle has raged around key theological issues.

Perhaps the two most prominent areas of theology to come under attack are the authority of Scripture and the person of Jesus.


  • In what ways can the authority of God’s word come under fire?


Whilst the battle for authority has been hard fought over the last 2,000 years, it actually goes back much further – all the way to the Garden of Eden.

When the serpent tempted Eve, the first words that he spoke to her were, “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1) The essence of the temptation was the questioning of God’s word. As well as asking if God had actually said it, the serpent then challenged the veracity of what God had said and the motivation of God in saying it. “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)

Eve’s confidence in God’s word was undermined, and as she responded to the serpent’s translation, she firstly misquoted what God had said (adding in the stipulation ‘neither shall you touch it’) and then gave in to the temptation to disregard what God had said.

She had chosen the authority of herself and of the serpent over God. The world has never been the same since.

False Prophets and Super Apostles

The story of the Bible is a story of God speaking to his people. He has done so in many ways. According to the writer of Hebrews, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

Whenever God speaks truth, it is usually accompanied by others speaking an alternative ‘truth’ to bring the Lord’s authority into question.

Through the Old Testament, there were false prophets. These ‘prophets’ would often bring words that they knew the people or the king wanted to hear. They did so in God’s name, but without God’s inspiration. “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:22) The Bible warns against these false prophets in the strongest possible terms (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5)

An example of a false prophet is Hananiah, who was a contemporary of Jeremiah. When the Lord had sent Jeremiah to prophesy about the exile that was coming, Hananiah brought words suggesting that the exile would be over quickly, and within two years, everybody would return. He was speaking on his own authority in opposition to God’s authority, and Jeremiah confronted him in the Lord’s name. “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 28:15-16)

In a similar way, as Paul was exercising his God-given apostolic ministry, there were others who claimed the title of apostle who stood in opposition to him. They presented a false gospel and claimed to be superior to Paul. Once again, they were contradicting those speaking God’s word and setting their own authority against God’s. Paul warns the church in Corinth about them. “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.” (2 Corinthians 11:3-5, see also verses 12-15)

The Battle For Scripture

The challenge to the authority of God’s truth was true in both Jeremiah and Paul’s day, but is no less true today.

The frontline for this battle is Scripture and the challenge to its authority as God’s Word.


  • On what basis do you trust the Bible?

How Did We Get Our New Testament?

By the time of Jesus, there was common acceptance amongst the Jews of the books that make up the Old Testament. Jesus in no way challenged this and quoted form those books as the authoritative word of God. As Jesus himself endorsed those books as God’s word it is easy for the church also to accept them.

The New Testament was written after Jesus’ lifedeath, and resurrection. If we are to recognise its authority, it is important to know how those 27 books came to be regarded as Scripture.

In the late fourth century A.D., there were a series of important councils where church leaders met. A number of these councils (notably the council of Carthage in 397 A.D.) confirmed the 27 books that the church recognised. This list had earlier been mentioned by in a letter by Athanasius in 367 A.D.

This is not to say that the Canon of the New Testament was decided or created by these church leaders. Rather, it was recognised. As new books were being written, these councils realised that it was important to set in writing the books that had for centuries held authority within the churches. These books had always been Scriptural and the church was simply acknowledging this truth.


  • Why do you think the 27 books of the New Testament were recognised as Scriptural in the churches?

There are four key grounds on which the New Testament books were recognised as Scriptural.

  1. They are self-authenticating.The New Testament authors considered each other’s work to be Scriptural. In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul refers to words found in Luke’s Gospel as ‘Scripture’, and Peter uses the same word to describe Paul’s writing. “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
  2. They are dated early.All of the books in the New Testament were written between 48 and 95 A.D.
  3. They are apostolic.All of the books in the New Testament were written by an apostle or somebody working in close relationship with one of the apostles (or in the case of Hebrews where the authorship is unknown, it fits theologically with the apostolic teaching).
  4. They ring true.The New Testament books were widely received as scriptural across the whole church. The content of these books rings true to readers as the authoritative word of God.

It is a combination of all of these factors that led the 4th century councils to recognise these books as God’s word.

This is in contrast to other books about Jesus, such as the ‘gnostic gospels’ (made popular by Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’). Examples of gnostic gospels include the so-called gospels of Thomas, Philip, and Judas. These books were not written in the first century, or even the second or third, but were fourth century creations. They were not written by eye-witnesses to the events (or even people who knew the eye-witnesses). They were not biographical like the canonical gospels are, but were written by ‘gnostics’ who claimed to have a secret knowledge of Jesus.

There is no comparison between these books and the scriptural New Testament and they were rightly omitted.


  • If a new letter was discovered today that could be proved beyond doubt to have been written by the Apostle Paul, should we consider it to be Scripture? Why/why not?

What Was the Reformation About?

There are many issues that formed part of the reformation, but the spring from which they all flowed was the authority of the Bible.

Amongst kings and bishops, there was a climate of mistrust around ordinary people reading the Bible. In England, it was a criminal offence to read the Bible in English for over a century.

The established church of the day was Roman Catholic, and the emphasis that was given was not to the importance of the Bible but to the authority of the Pope.

Martin Luther’s reformation began in 1517, when the Pope had given permission for the sale of indulgences (which led people to believe that they were buying God’s forgiveness). The heart of the issue was not the indulgences themselves (although they were awful), but the power of the Pope who had given permission for them to be sold.

This reformation challenged the authority of the Pope and looked to place Scripture back in its central place as God’s word to his people. From this re-discovery of Scripture, a number of other issues followed:

  • Justification by faith alone –The idea that I am made righteous through faith in Jesus, not by my own good works.
  • Priesthoodof all believers – The idea that we don’t need a particular church or priest in order to access God, but that all believers can access God directly because Jesus is our great high priest.
  • Sacraments do not have ‘magical powers’ – It is important to break bread and to be baptised in order to be obedient to Jesus, but we do not believe these acts have any magical power.



  • What are some of the issues on which the truth of God’s word is challenged in our culture?

Culture is changing and many people, even some Christians, want to change truth in line with culture. This is not right. Truth is unchanging, but the way we apply truth will be different in different cultures.

One of the most pressing examples in today’s culture is homosexuality. Over the last few decades the pervasive cultural opinion has shifted from most people seeing homosexuality as wrong to most people accepting it as a valid lifestyle choice. As Christians engage with the issues surrounding this, it is important to remember that the challenge is not primarily about sexual ethics but the authority of Scripture. The question to focus on is the same question that Eve was asked in the Garden: Did God say?


  • For each of the issues that you named above, ask yourself ‘did God say…’ to ensure that you have a clear Biblical framework for thinking about these issues.
  • For the issues where you believed that Scripture says something different to our culture, think about how you can approach the issues in ways that are humble, winsome and also truthful.

The Person of Jesus

Along with the authority of Scripture, the person of Jesus is the doctrine that has historically come under most attack.

To truly understand the incarnation, it is crucial to realise that Jesus is both 100% God and 100% man. Without this, there would be no Christian faith.

If Jesus were not thoroughly human, it would undermine his resistance to temptation as he would not have truly experienced the temptations of man. “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18) In addition, it would have diminished the suffering of Christ on the cross.

On the other hand, if Jesus were not God as well as man, he would not be able to fulfil the role of mediator between man and God. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5)

John’s letters were some of the last documents in the New Testament to be written. 1 John is thought to have been written around 90 A.D., and by this time both the deity and the humanity of Jesus were coming under scrutiny. John affirms that both are vital to our faith:

“This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” (1 John 4:2-3)

“Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:22-23)

In early church history, these truths continued to be challenged.

Docetists taught that Christ only appeared to have a human body but was not truly human. Their error was refuted by a number of church fathers, such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Hippolatus and condemned as heresy at the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.

Arians followed the teaching of Arius and believed that Jesus was a created being. They argued that “there was a time when Christ was not”, a conclusion they reached by misinterpreting various Bible passages (e.g. Colossians 1:15). Again, this teaching was opposed by many church fathers, notably Athanasius, and was condemned as heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This council set out the Nicene Creed to clarify orthodox theology regarding the person of Christ:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.”

The creed then concluded with a condemnation of those that took an Arian position.

Even today there are groups that follow in the footsteps of Arius and do not see Jesus as fully divine (for example the Jehovah’s Witnesses). There is nothing new under the sun!


  • If you were asked to explain why you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man, how would you do so?


The challenges that we face as Christians today are remarkably similar to those faced by Christians over the last 2000 years.

There is still a battle for truth. Questions are still raised about whether we can trust the Bible and whether Jesus really is who he claimed to be.

At the same time, the mission is still being fulfilled. The gospel is still being proclaimed, and has now gone to places that the Apostle Paul never even knew existed.

Christians have always faced persecution. Eleven out of the twelve original apostles were executed. We should not be surprised, therefore, that persecution is increasing today.

Meanwhile, the world is still being turned upside down (see Acts 17:6), there are still unreached people groups in the world that we must reach, and this mission is crucial in heralding the return of Jesus.

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)


  • ‘Did God say?’ (Genesis 3:1). Why is the authority of Scripture such a hotly contested issue throughout church history?
  • What grounds do we have as Christians to be confident that the New Testament canon is authoritative?
  • Why is it essential for us as Christians to believe that Jesus was 100% God?
  • Why is it essential for us as Christians to believe that Jesus was 100% man?