Editor’s Note: Posted originally on the Old HB September 14, 2007
Christopher wrote to discussion list to ask how we know the Bible is true and how our appeal to the internal testimony of the Spirit is different from the Mormon “burning in the bosom.” This reply is slightly revised from the one that appears there.
It’s important to put the question carefully. There are ways of asking and answering this question that end up subverting what they intend to defend.
If we ask the question “Is there a way to demonstrate that God is so that we remove all uncertainty” or “is there a way to demonstrate the truth of Scripture that removes alluncertainty?” the answer is no. We are creatures, not the Creator. We always know things the way creatures know them, not the way God knows them. We know things as they are revealed to us in nature and in Scripture. If we set up a burden of proof that means we know as God does, with that sort of certainty, then Scripture (or any revelation) becomes redundant. Indeed, God becomes redundant or at best, a sort of complement to our our deified knowledge.
Can we have certainty appropriate to creatures, that Scripture is the Word of God? Yes. How do we go about making this case?
First, we have to admit that when it comes to ultimate questions of this sort, questions of final authority, if we try to leverage that authority with another (e.g., our own) then we’ve defeated ourselves before we begin. In other words, if we appeal to another authority outside of Scripture to validate it, then Scripture isn’t really what it claims to be: the final authority.
So, given those constraints, within which all humans have to live, can we do it? Well, the autonomous atheist appeals to himself and others like him to validate his autonomy. He doesn’t appeal to the Bible! So we appeal to the Bible to validate our conviction that the Bible is true. When we do this, when we enter this necessarily circular argument, it not as if we don’t appeal to evidence. We do. There is evidence intrinsic to Scripture itself that it is what it says it is. This is appropriate. If Scripture didn’t have such evidence our claim would be that much less reasonable. There is also extrinsic evidence. This is why the comparison to the Mormon subjectivism fails. We start with real history, tested, including witnesses to actual history that has been validated by archeology and other investigation repeatedly. The Mormons start with a con man who stuck his face in a hat and claimed a revelation from an angel named Moron(i).
The first claim we make is not a burning in the bosom – vague, indeterminate subjective experience to which one imputes meaning. I had a burning in my bosom all last night but after about 12 Rolaids I was better. I interpret my burning as heartburn and they interpret it as a sign from God. They’re whole religion is premised on goofy interpretations of fraud and natural phenomena. The farmer sees “PC” in the sky. Does it mean “Preach Christ” or “Plant corn”? That’s the problem of natural revelation. It reveals some of God’s attributes so that we’re under the law by nature and without excuse before God but it doesn’t generate saving knowledge of God.
Is there evidence within Scripture that it is what it says it is? Yes. Take Luke/Acts. It is the most careful historical record of the period. At every point where the critics have said the Luke got something wrong, we come to find that he got it right down to the last detail. He’s more accurate than comparable histories and historians. When we ask if the Pentateuchal history is accurate, the answer is yes. In other words, the more we learn about the context in which the biblical books were given our confidence in Scripture is confirmed.
There are other ways of going at this. The textual history of Scripture is very impressive. As I recall, there are but a few copies of Plato’s Republic but, as you know, dozens and hundreds of good copies of the text of the gospels and epistles that say the same thing with only minor, inconsequential textual variants. If the textual history is that good and if we can trace the provenance of these texts, in some cases, to within only a few years of the life of our Lord, and if they are making public claims about historical events, then isn’t it reasonable to have confidence in the claims Scripture makes for itself to be the Word of God?
Then there is the intrinsic evidence such as the internal coherence. The Bible was written over a 1600 year span from Gen (c. 1500 BC) to Rev (c. 93 AD) in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), in sixty-six books, with multiple of authors, many of whom are unknown to us and yet they whole story of Scripture coheres, it hangs together, it testifies of a unity of authorship and purpose and outlook behind the diversity of languages, authors, and intentions. The most recent documents from the canon, the NT gospels and epistles, certainly read the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures to have this sort of unity of authorship. Whenever the critics have tried to tear apart Scripture, examination of their methods has shown that they prove too much, that they set up tests that no document can survive. It turns out that the critics are often unhistorical, that they don’t pay attention to the details. Yes, the vocabulary of Paul’s epistles sometimes changes or there are apparent seams in Pentateuchal or prophetic books but those are explicable when we put the literature in historical context and pay attention to details. Take the relations between 1 and 2 Peter. The theology is the same but the vocabulary and grammar differs, Why? One obvious answer that the critics miss is that Peter used different secretaries with very different styles but that there is a unity of authorship is evident in the theology of the books. The critics don’t have time for these sorts of investigations because they don’t fit the paradigm (e.g., “all reasonable people know that the Bible can’t be
We can appeal to the coherence of the promise and fulfillment structure of revelation. Throughout the typological revelation, the Bible promises and typifies many future events and the events promised and typifed occurred or were explained in the more recent literature.
Finally, is there a place for a subjective appeal, an appeal to the internal witness of the Spirit that, in fact, what we’re reading is true? Yes. However reasonable it is, the Christian faith is not the result of dry, rational calculations — though it certainly involves our rational capacities. We are not fideists. We don’t believe the faith blindly.
We are making claims about God and ultimate realities such as hell, heaven, and salvation. It would be odd if the persons (i.e., the Trinity) about whom we’re making claims were uninvolved in the process of confirming the truth of Scripture.
If that we’re true it would put us back on the footing of appealing to another ultimate authority to validate this one.
If the Triune God is and if he reveals himself and operates in the world, why would we exclude him from testifying to the truth of his own revelation? We don’t appeal in the first instance to the testimony of the Spirit, but we do include that in our claims for the trustworthiness of Scripture. This goes back to the first point that there’s no way to defend the faith or Scripture properly without beginning with the thing we intend to defend. The question is whether our appeals are reasoned.
In the case of Mormonism or Islam the claims unravel in the light of history.
That isn’t true of Scripture. The Mormons resist historical investigation. We welcome it. The Muslims resist critical inquiry and we embrace it. Bring it on. We’re confident that our truth claims can withstand scrutiny because ours is a public faith about public events. Hundreds of people saw the risen Christ. The soldiers were interviewed. Known figures are invoked. These are all things that could have been challenged. Matthew was conscious that there was controversy over the resurrection thus his explanation about what the unbelieving Jews were saying.
So, our faith is reasonable without being rationalist and it is faithful without being fideist. It is reasonable to believe the Bible but the authority of Scripture does not rest, ultimately, upon autonomous reason. Our confidence in Scripture rests first of all in Scripture but is confirmed by extrinsic and intrinsic evidence.