From God to the Bible

In our religiously pluralistic world, it is crucial for a religious person to have a response to the diversity of religious beliefs.  Natural theology is helpful in arguing for a Creator, but I fear human reasoning alone cannot take that next step in declaring what the nature of this creator is like.  We need revelation for this.  In this paper, I will argue for the value of natural theology but also the necessity of revelation.  I will then present my reasons for trusting the Christian Scriptures as God’s revelation.  We will then conclude with what it means for the Bible to be authoritative.

When it comes to belief in God, natural theology should be utilized.  Alvin Plantinga has described natural theology as argumentation for the existence of God.[1]  Natural theology works best when it is primarily concerned with expounding on general revelation.  Due to this relationship, I reject that natural theology can lead us to Christ or even tell us specific things about the character and nature of God.  Here, we need the revelation of the Bible.  If we could reason ourselves to Christianity and God, what would be the need for the Bible and what would be the need for God to reveal himself?  I assert that the fact of God’s existence is within general revelation and so is an appropriate discussion for natural theology.  You can give arguments for some person ‘x’ existing, but to know anything personally about this person ‘x’, they must reveal information about one’s self.  Comparatively, facts about the world can give us arguments for God existing, but do not give us appropriate data to discover who God is, God must reveal this to us.

There are many though, who follow Barth and reject natural theology altogether.  They claim the Bible is the only source for any kind of information about God at all.  They also affirm this Word of God does not depend on the conceptual frameworks we operate with.[2]  Unfortunately, we do not come to the Bible as blank slates but with concepts and ideas in our minds.  So, to make the Bible make sense, it will require us to use the concepts and frameworks we already have to fit the Bible into them, or to create new ones that are appropriate for understanding the Bible.[3]  Also, if one wants the Bible to be more than just another story or “another truth”, we will need to make Christianity more than just a self-referential system and engage in argumentation that gives reasons for beliefs and interacts with criticism.[4] We do need to be cautious though not to let Christianity become beholden to secular conceptions of the world.

When it comes to interpreting the world, the facts probably do not come to us bare.  Rather facts tend to come to us within our interpretive framework, they come value laden.[5]  This is in part because of the way data from the world is underdetermined and can be interpreted in multiple ways.  This poses a massive challenge to natural theology in its attempt to begin from universal facts or truths.  The universal truths we find may only be in part and not whole, because of the way our worldview impacts the way we receive facts.  When we engage in apologetics, we need to be aware of the way that our Christian beliefs already puts us in a different world to some extent.[6]   We can’t uncritically just adopt any presuppositions of our conversationalist partner and purely reason from those to Christianity.  We may be able to do this in part, but we also must engage in conversation that works to show that the Christian perspective makes better sense of the underdetermined data of the world to persuade them to adopt a Christian perspective.

I will admit Barth’s suspicion of human intellectual abilities after the fall can be overlooked by evidentialist theologians who praise natural theology.  Westphal has done extraordinary work in showing that there is not just a quantitative, but also qualitative difference between human knowledge and divine knowledge.[7]  Not only is our knowledge quantitatively deficient to reason to the nature of who God is, it is also qualitatively insufficient.  We would not be able to reason our way there because there are limits on our intellectual faculties and capacity.  This is a large reason why God needs to reveal himself to us.

This is why I believe that for all the necessity and benefit of natural theology arguments, they don’t actually argue for the triune God revealed in the bible.[8]  For the most part they argue for the theistic God; a benevolent, caring, and powerful God.  I see the God of natural theology as a place holder God who gets identified with Yahweh after the revelation of scripture.  Yet, even at this point, I think we would step into error if we did not recognize that natural theology does not give logically airtight deductive arguments that are irrefutable proofs for God’s existence.[9]  We will make too much of natural theology if we claim this for it.  It is best then to see the projects and conclusions of natural theology as more inductive arguments, more of an inference to the best explanation based off the evidence before us.[10]

Natural theology at best leads us to accept that some sort of God or Creator exists, from here revelation takes us to who that God is.  There are thousands of religions though, how are we to adjudicate between them all?  It’s my conviction that the Christian Scriptures are authoritative revelation of God.  It is because the Bible’s source is from God that it is authoritative.[11]  Even in acknowledging that the Bible is inspired through humans does not make it any less inspired.  Like the mystery of the Incarnation, it is both human and divine.[12]  We now turn towards the task of arguing for the Bible’s authority.

As Christians, we claim that the Old Testament and the New Testament are both equally the Word of God.  The Old Testament itself claims to be inspired by God,[13] and the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament is the Word of God.[14]  Most books of the Bible have an intricate and complex transmission history.  Old Testament books specifically get tricky because of the way stories persisted orally before being committed to writing.  Even after being put down in words, the Old Testament books have an editorial history throughout the years of its transmission by scribes.  This should not cause to much concern for the inspiration of the Old Testament because God was still in the process of revealing himself.  The uncountable edits to biblical stories that formed their final presentation is well within the realm of God’s continued revelation, as he inspired scribes down through the ages in their editing.

We must still admit this transmission history urges us to ask, what parts of the Old Testament are really inspired?  Is it only the original stories before the editing of the scribes, the final products that we have now, or is it somewhere in between?  I believe it is the final products that we should hold as inspired by God.  This is because these would have been the books that Jesus and the New Testament writers would have used and quoted from as scripture.  It is because of findings like the Dead Sea Scrolls that we can have confidence that the Old Testament we use now is what Jesus and his followers would have been using.  Since Jesus uses the Old Testament as authoritative scripture, we can have confidence to do so as well.

We will now look at the merits for trusting the New Testament.  With the New Testament, we have more abundant and accurate copies of it than any other ancient text.[15]  We may only have copies, and differing copies at that, but from the science of textual criticism we can get extraordinarily close to reconstructing the originals.  It is also important to understand the entire New Testament was completed by end of the first century, or at least very early into the second century.  We then have full copies of the New Testament within 250 years of its completion, with numerous partial copies and fragments dating to within the generation of when the letters were originally completed.[16]  When it comes to historical reliability, it doesn’t get any better than this.  Compared to other significant ancient writings, we have earlier accounts to the events attested, more copies, and earlier copies with the New Testament than almost any other ancient text, and especially any other religious text.

It may be the case that we can be sufficiently sure what the original New Testament documents said, but we still need to establish reason to trust these documents as documenting true things about the world and about Jesus.  One reason to trust the New Testament writers is because they include information that could be detrimental for their movement.  They would have had reason not to include embarrassing information if they were editing their movement to make it attractive to potential new recruits.  I will name a couple now.  The apostles and New Testament writers themselves are not portrayed as very wise or impressive followers of Jesus in the Gospels, and now they are the ones leading the movement.  It is women who initially discover Jesus rose from the dead.  Given that a woman’s testimony was valued at half that of a man’s, and this is the decisive moment for the Christian movement, it would not make sense to keep that as a part of a message that you were changing to make it more appealing.

As noted earlier, the New Testament writings were written within the same generation or two of Jesus’ life.  This means that there wouldn’t be enough time for a systematic editing of events and recasting of meaning of these events.  Also, if this was attempted, the witnesses to Jesus and his disciples would have been around to contend any misrepresentation.[17]  The New Testament writers were willing to include damaging information and probably would have had a hard time getting away with lies about events.  With this established, we can take a step towards trusting that they were also honest in their portrayal of the glorifying aspects of Jesus and his followers.

When it comes to the pivotal event of the resurrection, the amount and nature of eyewitnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus adds to the reliability of the New Testament.  They cover a large amount of people in different circumstances with varying relationships with Jesus.  There were differing sorts of experiences recorded suggesting there was not collusion between witnesses on how to describe an encounter with the risen Jesus. (Geisler, pg. 315).[18]  These realities do not guarantee that the witnesses were telling the truth, or that some or all did not just hallucinate seeing Jesus.  However, I do think they mean we can’t a priori reject the possibility of a resurrected Jesus, as Hume would urge us.  I don’t think there would be any reason to think any of the witnesses were lying about their encounter.  Keeping in mind the diversity of the witnesses, to think they all hallucinated an encounter is about as probable as them actually encountering the risen Jesus.

Another reason to trust the disciples and New Testament writers is because of the personal conviction they displayed.  In reading the New Testament, it is clear that the resurrection of Jesus is unquestionably essential to any Christian belief.  To think the New Testament writers would fabricate this event is unreasonable given what they experienced in proclaiming this truth.  The martyrdom and persecution Jesus followers experienced would not make sense if they did not believe in a resurrected Jesus.  Disciples ended up dying for their belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, suggesting that they sincerely believed he had risen and were not just lying to keep the movement going.  The resurrection of Jesus is a historical claim that has yet to be refuted with any historical or physical data, this continues to add to our trust in the New Testament writers.

When evaluating the information above, I am convinced we have good reason to affirm that biblical books have been preserved reliably and that we can trust the accounts we find written in them.  If we can trust the New Testament, then we have grounds to proclaim Christ’s deity.  If we trust Christ is who he says he is, then we can trust the Old Testament as God’s Word from the way Jesus quotes from it as scripture.  Also, we can trust the other New Testament writings were inspired because they were in the apostolic tradition, which Jesus gave authority to.[19]  This leads us to conclude that the Old and New Testament would be authoritative given the Son of God affirms both.

Even if all the arguing above for the authority of the Bible is wrong or unconvincing, we must recognize that the Bible declares itself to be authoritative, and authenticates this claim internally.  The bible itself proves and affirms its own authority because it is through the bible that God proves himself to be who he says he is.[20]  This means that in living the life of the Bible, one will encounter God and Jesus in the ways the Bible claims and will experience life the way the Bible claims.[21]  The life the Bible promises one will experience is one of edification.  For Penner this is the truth that matters.[22]  The Bible is true, and thus authoritative, because of the way it is edifying to all who search its wisdom.  The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and God being true to his word will make real the claims he has in his book to all who seek him through it.

In affirming that the Bible is the fullest and most accurate revelation of God because of our trust in Jesus being incarnate, we are saying the Bible is authoritative.  We can keep the Bible authoritative without letting it fall into authoritarianism if we guard against making it a legal rule book.[23]  How then should we understand the Bible as being authoritative?  We can regard it as an authority over all fields it comments on or only on matters of faith and religion.[24]  Or maybe we should see it as a Constitution of sorts for Christians in that it governs Christian behavior.[25]  I am inclined to view the Bible as an authority for what we are to believe about God and Jesus, and thus how we are to live our lives in light of that.  It is here where we see another way the bible can be authoritative without being authoritarian.  The Bible can hold this logical or object place of authority without having existential authority, that only happens when one submits to the Bible’s logical authority.[26]  The Bible is not God’s decree of laws as a dictator, but a love letter as a parent.

Before I conclude, I would be remised if I didn’t make a comment on inerrancy.  In claiming the Bible as God’s authoritative inspired Word, it’s hard to avoid the implicit claim of inerrancy.[27]  The tension is that there seems to be clear signs of contradiction, like the conflicting stories of Judas’ death in the Gospels.  These points of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions thwart our confidence in inerrancy and challenge us to accept the Bible does have errors.[28]  The danger is if we claim the Bible has errors, it would seem to no longer be divine, and thus no longer authoritative or true.  There’s a plethora of ways to configure one’s belief on whether, or in what way, the Bible is inerrant, and what that means about inspiration and authority.  So, we must not feel constrained by that dichotomy of either inerrancy or no inspiration.  It’s also important to note that any standard of testing the inerrancy of the Bible that is not predicated off the metaphysical reality of the Bible will yield results adverse to the inerrancy of the Bible because of the presuppositions in differing metaphysical frameworks.[29]  A strong case can be made that if the Bible is true, then any standard of testing that is not derived from the biblical framework would be erroneous because it would not be based off the true antecedent metaphysical commitments of the Bible.[30]  I would argue that when all considerations of genre, context, authorship etc. are considered, the bible does not error in the manner in which it is authoritative, which is when it is telling us what to believe about the triune God and how to live our lives in light of that.

Why trust the revelation of the Bible?  We can use natural theology to argue convincingly for the existence of a Creator God.  At this point, I believe that we can trust that the Christian scriptures are the revelation of that Creator God.  These scriptures have been reliably preserved and we have good reason to believe the writers’ words accurately portray God’s engagement with the world.  The scriptures also self-authenticate themselves from the way God makes the Bible real in the lives of those who search it.  We can rest in the errorless authority of the Bible’s words about God and how we are to live.

[1] Plantinga, Alvin. “The Prospects for Natural Theology.” Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991): 287-315. 287.

[2] Barua, Ankur. “The Problem of Criteria and the Necessity of Natural Theology.” Heythrop Journal 54, no. 2 (March 2013): 166–80. 169.

[3] Barua, Ankur. “The Problem of Criteria and the Necessity of Natural Theology.” 170.

[4] Ibid. 172.

[5] Westphal, Merold. “Overcoming Onto-Theology.” Overcoming Onto-Theology, January 2001, 128. 118.

[6] Barua, Ankur. “The Problem of Criteria and the Necessity of Natural Theology.” 173.

[7] Westphal, Merold. “Overcoming Onto-Theology.” Overcoming Onto-Theology, January 2001, 128. 80.

[8] Barua, Ankur. “The Problem of Criteria and the Necessity of Natural Theology.” 167.

[9] Plantinga, Alvin. “The Prospects for Natural Theology.” 289.

[10] Barua, Ankur. “The Problem of Criteria and the Necessity of Natural Theology.” 177.

[11] “Authority of the Bible.” The Ecumenical Review 23, no. 4 (October 1971): 419–37. 434.

[12] Packers, James. “Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority .” The Churchman, 1975, 7–21. http://churchsociety.org/docs/churchman/081/Cman_081_1_Packer.pdf. 10.

[13] Geisler, Norman L. Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2013. 354.

 

[14] Geisler, Norman L. Christian Apologetics. 356

[15] Ibid. 306

[16] Ibid. 308

[17] Geisler, Norman L. Christian Apologetics. 321

[18] Ibid. 315

[19] MacPhail, James R. “Authority of the Bible.” Scottish Journal of Theology 9 (March 1956): 14–30. 18.

[20] “Authority of the Bible.” The Ecumenical Review. 433

[21] Barr, James. “The Authority of the Bible: A Study Outline.” The Ecumenical Review 21, no. 2 (April 1969): 135–66. 158.

[22] Penner, Myron B. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 110.

[23]Barr, James. “The Authority of the Bible: A Study Outline.” 153

[24] Wisse, Maarten. “The Meaning of the Authority of the Bible.” Religious Studies 36, no. 4 (December 2000): 473–87. 477.

[25] Barr, James. “The Authority of the Bible: A Study Outline.” 154

[26] Ibid. 165

[27] Wynne, R. Carlton. “Inerrancy Is Not Enough: A Lesson in Epistemology from Clark Pinnock on Scripture.” Unio Cum Christo 2, no. 2 (January 2016): 67. https://doi.org/10.35285/ucc2.2.2016.art4. 71.

[28] Wynne, R. Carlton. “Inerrancy Is Not Enough: A Lesson in Epistemology from Clark Pinnock on Scripture.” 74

[29] Wynne, R. Carlton. “Inerrancy Is Not Enough: A Lesson in Epistemology from Clark Pinnock on Scripture.” 76.

[30] Ibid. 78.

4 thoughts on “From God to the Bible

  1. I loved when you said “The Bible is true, and thus authoritative, because of the way it is edifying to all who search its wisdom.  The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and God being true to his word will make real the claims he has in his book to all who seek him through it.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t read all of the article but most of it. After I read this part, it was all that I needed. I would like to add that the only way to get divine knowledge is through the Holy Spirit because He is our counselor and teaches us all things. Also my favorite New Testament writer is Paul.

    Liked by 1 person

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