What about the Bible? Is the Bible true? Is it historically accurate? Is it a revelation from God? We often hear such questions in popular forums and in the media. And in almost every case we would be mistaken to take such questions seriously. As I have argued in previous posts, the Bible’s authority does not become an issue for us until we accept the testimony of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do not accept the truth of the resurrection because the Bible says so. Instead, we become interested in what the Bible says about other matters when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. Today I want to look at the question of the Bible autobiographically.
Let’s look at how the question of the Bible arises for a person born into a Christian family and surrounded by a Christian culture. I shall speak from my own experience. My experience of the Bible was always that of an insider. It was our book. Though I don’t remember the word being used, it was the unquestioned authority for church life, morals, and for knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. I loved to hear stories of the Old Testament heroes of faith and the New Testament stories about Jesus, Paul, and Peter. The Bible provided texts for the preacher’s sermons. My parents owned several copies of the Bible, which were displayed on the coffee table and night stands. At an early age I received my own copy of a King James Bible with my name inscribed inside. I came to understand that reading the Bible was a religious duty, a discipline that should be maintained for a lifetime. Memorizing important texts and in depth study was also encouraged. Religious education was identical with Bible education. And the most admired preachers were those reputed to have the most extensive knowledge of the Bible. William Chillingworth’s (1602-1644) famous declaration that “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestants” certainly describes the religion of the church and family of my youth.
At some point, in my late teens I think, I discovered that there were outsiders whose view of the Bible differed dramatically from ours. I say “ours” because I had accepted the church’s understanding of the Bible without question. That is what my parents taught me, it was the belief of all the good people at church and the ministers, and it was reinforced by the consensus of Southern (American) culture. Ironically, my first encounters with external critics and doubters of the Bible were facilitated by teachers and books that wished to defend the church’s view of the Bible. They wanted to reinforce my faith that the Bible is indeed worthy of the respect given it by the church. My teachers realized that an inherited and naïve faith in the Bible had to become a reasonable faith or it would not be able to withstand the scrutiny it was sure to receive from critics. I think their intuition in this matter was correct: an inherited faith must transition to chosen faith.
But I believe they were mistaken to attempt to demonstrate apart from faith that the Bible deserved the respect that the church had traditionally given it. It is impossible to prove that the Bible deserves to be treated as the sole authority for knowledge of God, morality, and religion by arguing from its visible characteristics to its divine origin, historical reliability, and moral superiority. The Bible is a huge book, or actually, a huge collection of 66 books. It spans fifteen centuries and crosses many very different cultures. It recounts thousands of events for which we have no other sources and no independent way to confirm. It contains many writings for which we know neither the authors nor even the century in which they were written. No matter how many of the Bible’s marvelous characteristics we uncover we can never get close to proving that the Bible deserves the respect given it by the church. And the unhappy by-product of this effort to prove the Bible is creating doubt in the hearts of the very people these arguments are designed to help. We are courting disaster if we convince young people that they must transition from an inherited and naïve faith to a chosen and reasonable one but lead them to believe that in order to be reasonable their acceptance of the Bible’s religious authority must be based on rational arguments for the Bible’s perfection. Such a strategy distracts from the real decision of faith and may exile them to years of wandering in the desert of doubt and indecision. I know this from experience.
Hence in my view, apologists for the Christian faith should resist answering directly the questions with which I began this essay: Is the Bible true? Is it historically accurate? Is it a revelation from God? Why? Because no definitive answers can be given. Any answer will raise as many questions as it answers, and it will provoke endless counter arguments and follow-up questions. The only path forward is the one I charted in earlier posts. We must decide—apart from any view of the authority of the Bible—whether or not to accept the apostolic testimony to Jesus resurrection. Yours, mine, and the whole church’s respect for the Bible’s authority rightly flows from this decision and from nowhere else. But as I hope to show in future posts, the church’s respect for the Bible has not been misplaced; it really does flow from this decision. And neither was my trust in my parents and the church of my childhood misplaced.