Tag Archives: biblical authority

What About the Bible? An Autobiographical Reflection

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.

“This I Know, For the Bible Tells Me So”

We have come to the point in our discussion of the resurrection of Jesus where we can see clearly what is involved in a reasonable and responsible decision to believe and adopt the Christian faith and life. If we’ve studied the first disciples’ recorded memories of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death, if we’ve listened to the testimonies of Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and many others to the resurrection, if we’ve been favorably impressed with the way of life of the early disciples, if we know and admire some contemporary believers, and if we are attracted to the Christian hope, I believe our decision to enter the Christian way can be reasonably and responsibly made. This transition is not best described an inference from premises to conclusion or an inference to the best explanation or a decision about the level of probability that a narrated event really happened. It is certainly not a blind leap of faith or a careless fall into wishful thinking. It is best described as the deepening of a personal relationship from respectful listening to trust and love for those who are in a position to know what we do not.

As a personal relationship of trust and love, faith makes a decisive commitment. It does not deny the possibility that it could be wrong, that it could be deceived. But it will not accept an obligation to withhold commitment while it anxiously seeks more evidence to confirm its trust. Nor does faith proportion its commitment to the weight of probability on each side. Genuine trust and love pushes aside the whispering voice of doubt that says, “But what if you are wrong?” Faith asserts in response, “I understand that I cannot know absolutely that I am right, but I believe that I am right. And I have decided and am determined to live as if I am right, even if I am wrong!” I shall have more to say about daily living in faith in future essays in this series. We are focusing here on the initial decision to believe.

Beyond the Fourth Decision Point

We have made the decisive move beyond the fourth decision point, that is, the division between mere theism and Christian faith in God. Now what? What are the implications of this decision? The first result of this move is a dramatic change in our relationship to the apostles and other early disciples. As seekers and enquirers, we treated the apostles’ writings as we would other historical documents. We gave them no advantage, no special deference, no authority above other texts. But once we come to believe that the apostles experienced Jesus’ conquest of death in his resurrection, everything changes. Now we are eager to know everything they can teach us about Jesus Christ and how we too can become his disciples. Because of their special relationship to Jesus, we accept them as our teachers, exclusively authoritative for what it means to believe, love and, hope as Christians. As a matter of historical placement, no other teachers, no other texts can guide us. But this way of understanding the authority of the Bible may seem new to many, so I want to deal briefly with that concern.

The Bible Tells Me So?

The children’s song says, “Jesus loves me! this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” A wonderful thought! Comforting to adults as well as children! But this line in the song does raise a question. Do Christians hold all their Christian beliefs simply because the Bible tells them so? Should nonbelievers be urged to believe in Jesus simply because the Bible tells them so? But why should a nonbeliever feel obligated to believe what the Bible says simply because it says so? Should believers attempt first to convince nonbelievers of the Bible’s divine authority and then argue from the Bible’s authority to the truth of everything the Bible teaches? In my view, it would be a serious mistake to place a decision about the authority of the Bible before a decision about Jesus and the apostolic testimony to his resurrection. Such a stance presumes either a culture in which the Bible is already held in high esteem or it obligates us to argue from historical and rational evidence to the Bible’s divine authority. Neither option is very promising. We no longer live in culture where we can assume that people will accept a claim just because the Bible says so. And most contemporary people view as implausible and unpersuasive arguments to the divine authority of the Bible from its historical reliability or internal coherence or its sublime teaching. Such arguments raise more questions than they answer.

As I argued above, I believe the proper basis for an individual’s recognition and acceptance of the authority of the Bible is the act of faith in the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Acceptance of the Bible’s authority is implicit in this act. In future posts I will continue to develop the implications of this thesis, attempting to place particular Christian teachings in their proper order in relation to the central Christian claim, that is, that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.