Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Is the Bible the word of God? (part 2)

Part 1

Starting points
Before we even talk about “defending the Bible as God’s word”, however, we need to think through the knotty question of whether this is even possible, and on what grounds we can do so. David Gibson puts it well:

What is it that convinces us that the Bible is God’s Word – is it faith, or evidence about the Bible’s reliability and truthfulness, or some combination of the two? Also, on what basis and using which method can we seek to persuade others of the divine origin of the Bible – by presenting evidence for the Bible’s reliability, or pointing them to Christ, or some combination of the two?
Let me try to put it another way in order to see why this is an important matter. If the Bible really is God’s word, then how can we, as mere mortals, judge it? If it is the ultimate authority, how is it possible that we can bring any external criteria to evaluate it, since that would then set up that very criterion as the ultimate authority? Isn’t God the only person who can authenticate his Word? But if that is so, then how can we hope to establish the credibility of the Bible? Should we even attempt this? Or is there a sense in which evidence can play a role?

Next, we must consider who we are. We are finite and sinful creatures. That means that our knowledge is necessarily partial and clouded. None of us are blank slates either; we all start somewhere with basic assumptions of the world. Think of the child who’s always pestering you with the question: “But why?” If you’re amazingly patient (and insightful!) you might indulge him until you reach the point where you can only say, “Because it just happens to be like that!” Those would likely be what many would call our ultimate beliefs. Therefore, our starting point is simply not one of an independent, disinterested, adjudicator. If we’re Christians, we believe that, God, in his mercy, has revealed his great plan of salvation in the gospel of grace and that the Holy Spirit has removed our blind eyes to see and accept this. In other words, we actually start from the position of faith and not of empirical evidence (that doesn’t mean we won’t get to the latter, as we shall see). Furthermore, we accept that God now has authority over all over lives, and that the authority of Scripture is shorthand for "the authority of the Triune God, exercised somehow through Scripture." (Tom Wright, emphasis in the original) We believe that the Bible is the Word of God because God himself attests to it.

The immediate objection is the charge of circularity. Isn’t this just a convenient get-out clause? Gee, you don’t sound much different from those ultra-fundamentalists: The Word of God is the Word of God because it says so! Again, we must remember that because we are arguing for an absolute authority, it follows that we need to appeal to that absolute authority. This is true of every system of knowing. A rationalist can only argue for the primacy of reason or logic by using reason or logic. Empiricists can only argue for the primacy of sense-experience with an appeal to sense-experience. Actually, I’m pretty sure Mat will agree with me here, he even happens to defer to his dad! :)

Is there no place for evidence then? Are we building our houses on sinking sand? The above position does not discount the use of evidence. Let me give 2 examples, one my own and one from Gibson (since I’m not sure if my example is a good one!). I know right now I’m sitting on a chair. Now I can verify this: my eyes tell me I’m doing so, and my bum is enjoying the comfort of the cushion. But there is a sense in which I just know I’m on a chair without all those verifications. Furthermore, I am not just expressing a proposition, but in a personal way, I am making a commitment to this truth that I am actually sitting on a chair, by choosing not to believe that I am dreaming and embodied in the act of actually sitting on it. The evidence supports my belief, but it doesn’t necessarily prove them. So I am actually, in a sense, making a faith commitment without discounting the place of reason.

Gibson says that if somebody were to ask him why he believes his wife loves him, he could simply reply: “I just know it”, or that he knows so because his wife has told him so. Either would not be an inadequate answer in itself. He does not have to give substantial or material evidence beyond the testimony of his wife’s word. However, Gibson could and would happily provide any amount of material evidence, by listing his wife’s attitude, actions, words, gestures, gifts and so on. Yet there’s a sense in which, not for lack of evidence, but rather, the reality of the relationship which ensures that he “knows”.

This is true of the Bible as well. In recent times, as a positive byproduct of the Da Vinci Code hoohah, there has been a lot of good work done to demonstrate the reliability and sufficiency of the Bible (I’ll list some of these works at the end of this series of posts). It’s important that we know that there is good reason to believe that the manuscript tradition of the Bible is reliable, or that archaeology has been consistent with the Bible, or that prophecies foretold in the OT were fulfilled. Paul himself "reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks" (Acts 18:4) and "proving that Jesus is the Christ" (Acts 9:22), although he is also clear that ultimately, it is the gospel that "is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes..." (Romans 1:16). In evangelism, we can appeal to such reasons, but we can’t ultimately argue anyone into faith; only the Holy Spirit can convict. Reasons can be aids, but they’re not the clincher, so to speak. Jesus himself says, "If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own" (John 7:17). Now that’s what we call throwing down the gauntlet!

There’s obviously more that could be said, but hopefully, with this brief treatment, I have sufficiently demonstrated the overarching framework within which we must consider how best to show that the Bible is the Word of God. I hope that I have shown that our starting point is God’s revelation and his grace, not us playing Simon Cowell over the Bible armed with some sort of external criteria, and how faith and evidence both play a role. As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve depended heavily on David Gibson, whose essay ‘For the Bible tells me so?’ is available here, as well as in Encountering God’s Word, Philip Duce and Dan Strange (eds.) That’s where you should go if you’re not satisfied, for a better and more indepth treatment.

I haven’t explicitly interacted with Mat’s post thus far, so let me pause for a moment here and do so. Firstly, I do think that Mat begins with the wrong starting point. I hope I’ve shown why beginning from a position of scepticism is problematic when we are considering questions of ultimate authority, without needing to lose our brains in the process. I have no wish to downplay the problem of biblical contradictions, nor do I wish to overplay it. IMHO, I think the vast majority can be harmonised, so long as we clarify what we mean by inerrancy and/or infallibility, eg. we take into account genre etc. I think Mat overstates his case here, although I want to acknowledge that there are indeed some genuine difficulties. However, I can live with not knowing the resolution to every question I have. Also, and I speak as a fellow self-absorbed sinner, may I suggest that in your fifth point, i.e Bible is boring, therefore this makes it unlikely to be the Word of God (and I understand that you were being a little provocative here), that this is too flippant an attitude to take? In effect, you are saying, I get to judge what the Word of God should be like; it’s about me, myself and I. I’m not saying that the Word of God is boring per se, but that we don’t get to determine what it should be like.

I understand that there are parts of the Bible which are tough to get through. I’m trying to get through the Pentateuch for my quiet times atm, and today I had to read Deuteronomy 21-23, which is basically a list of all sorts of laws. I did want to hit the snooze button! But as I read through the list, I begin to see how comprehensive it all is. It touches on issues of marriage, family relations, social justice, ritual cleanliness, even building regulations! Then I recall that a big emphasis in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy is the oneness of God and how he has rescued his people in the Exodus. And so, as I read through the laws, I begin to see that this list shows how God is the Lord of all of life, and also his concern not just for the big things but also the little ones. And so I can praise God even for the boring bits of the Bible. (For another amateurish attempt at reflecting on a piece of Scripture commonly found to be boring, you might want to read my exposition of Matthew's genealogy.)

Part 3
Part 4


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