How Do We Know That The Bible Is From God?3
How do we know that the Bible is in fact from God? Wherein lies our assurance? I recently read two interesting answers to this question, both of which, I believe, are true. The first comes from Andrew Wilson and the second from J. I. Packer.
Here is Wilson’s explanation, originally found at his blog (www.thinktheology.co.uk) under the title, “Why Accept the Authority of the Bible? A Twelve Step Argument.”
I saw an intriguing exchange on Twitter the other day. My friend Mike Betts had written something very innocuous - the Bible says we should trust God, or something like that - and someone responded, in a series of tweets that quickly degenerated into expletives and accusations of idiocy, that it is ridiculous to base our lives on an Iron Age text. What evidence is there, they demanded, that the Bible is true? After a few helpful questions, Mike wisely suggested that 140 characters might not be the best medium with which to argue for biblical authority, and said he could point them to some useful resources if they wanted. His interlocutor, apparently satisfied that "I can't explain all that in a tweet" meant "I have no reason to believe it whatsoever", immediately left the discussion, no doubt even more entrenched in their view that all Christians are idiots who are simply too stupid to have thought about whether the Bible can be trusted. Sigh.
That exchange made me wonder: how would I explain the argument for biblical authority, to a secular person, as quickly and logically as possible? Obviously I wouldn’t assume someone could be persuaded by a few hundred words - and in my experience, people who fire expletives around on Twitter are not usually looking to be persuaded of anything anyway - but I thought it might be helpful to lay out the argument, at least as I see it, both to give an example of how a Christian might respond, and to help a sceptic identify the point in the argument at which they differ. (Usually, it comes down to the resurrection. If I believe Jesus is alive, I probably accept biblical authority, even if I nuance it differently from other Christians; if I don’t, then I don’t. On the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, I think Paul would be with me on that).
So here’s my argument for biblical authority in twelve steps.
1. There are multiple, literarily independent, first century historical sources that attest to the empty tomb and/or the resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. (For the very sceptical, this can be established by learning Koine Greek and visiting the Chester Beatty Library, the British Museum, and so on).
2. Historical scholars generally agree that this is because the tomb of Jesus was empty, and his followers had experiences which they understood to be resurrection appearances. (See, for summaries of and engagement with recent scholarship, N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God; Geza Vermes, The Resurrection; Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach; and so on).
3. If miracles are possible, the most likely explanation of this evidence is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. If miracles are impossible, an alternative explanation - hallucination, conspiracy, swoon, other - is required. (This is argued compellingly in the books cited above, and implicitly conceded in the work of many sceptical writers on the resurrection, including well-known non-Christians like Vermes, Bart Ehrman and others).
4. If the existence of a creator God is possible, then miracles - understood as suspensions of natural laws as a result of divine action - are possible, since a creator God could act in any way they chose. (The first half of my If God, Then What? lays this out in a bit more detail; for a lot more detail, see Craig Keener’s Miracles).
5. The existence of God is possible. (Philosophically, this may be the most contentious premise so far - but since anyone denying it has to show the impossibility of God, and that has proved beyond the reach of most, I consider it fair game).
6. Therefore miracles are possible (from #4, #5).
7. Therefore the most likely explanation for the historical evidence we have is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead (from #3, #6).
8. If Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead, the most likely meaning of this event is that Israel’s God has vindicated and exalted him as Lord. (Almost all interpreters in history who accept the resurrection have agreed with this conclusion; a fascinating exception is the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, who believes it means that Jesus was a great prophet to whom Israel should have listened).
9. If Israel’s God has vindicated and exalted Jesus as Lord, then we should accept and embrace his view of the way God’s authority functions in the world. (Again, almost everyone in history who believes Jesus was resurrected has believed something like this).
10. The historical evidence we have indicates that Jesus of Nazareth believed divine authority was expressed through (a) the Hebrew scriptures, (b) his own prophetic teaching and actions, and (c) the teaching and actions of those whom he delegated as apostles. (This involves seeing the canonical gospels as broadly reliable records of Jesus’ ministry based on eyewitness testimony; see e.g. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses; N T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; and so on).
11. The Bible is the collection of (a) the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis to Malachi), (b) Jesus’ own prophetic teaching and actions (Matthew to John), and (c) the teaching and actions of those whom he delegated as apostles (Acts to Revelation). (It is of course open to anyone to object that, properly speaking, several of these books were not written by apostles. Rather than entering into a protracted defence of the Protestant canon here, I will simply direct the reader to Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited, and point out that even if someone disagrees with him, they would still need to concede the authority of the vast majority of the Bible).
12. Therefore we should accept and embrace the authority of the Bible (from #8, #9, #10, #11).
As I often find myself saying, that is not an objective “proof” for the authority of scripture. That would be like proposing an objective “proof” for trusting empirical sense data, or the efficacy of human reason. But it might well serve as an effective way of identifying where the disagreement in these conversations really lies. Like so many things, it comes down to our answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
While Packer would, I believe, affirm everything Wilson just said, his answer focuses more on what has come to be known as the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” In response to the query, Wherein lies our assurance that the Bible is from God? he writes:
“The result of this [inward] witness [of the Holy Spirit] is a state of mind in which both the Savior and the Scriptures have evidenced themselves to us as divine – Jesus, a divine person; Scripture, a divine product – in a way as direct, immediate, and arresting as that in which tastes and colors evidence themselves by forcing themselves on our senses. In consequence, we no longer find it possible to doubt the divinity of either Christ or the Bible.
Thus God authenticates Holy Scripture to us as his Word – not by some mystical experience or secret information privately whispered into some inner ear, not by human argument alone (strong as this may be), nor by the church’s testimony alone (impressive as this is when one looks back over two thousand years). God does it, rather, by means of the searching light and transforming power whereby Scripture evidences itself to be divine. The impact of this light and power is itself the Spirit’s witness ‘by and with the Word in our heart.’ Argument, testimony from others, and our own particular experiences may prepare us to receive this witness, but the imparting of it, like the imparting of faith in Christ’s divine Saviorhood, is the prerogative of the sovereign Holy Spirit alone” (J. I. Packer, Concise Theology, 14).