Friday, 28 March 2008

Some conversation on how we know God's word

I copied this comment, from Matt, from the post that it was attached to ("Enough rope to hang themselves with").
I read your article in evangelical times on the question of being good whilst being an atheist and was impressed by the logic that either atheists are immoral or nothing is (morality only having possible origin in God himself to be more than a fiction) so I looked up this blog.
Thanks Matt. I wrote several posts on the atheism theme at the time I was writing the ET article. I wasn't expecting that to come out yet. They've given me permission to reprint it here after some time has passed.
I also appreciated these comments about God's word being self-evident (from the little I know about Francis Schaeffer this seems similar to his position) because it is often so hard to explain to myself and others why I believe. You're right, the Bible just speaks truth if we listen. I suppose the question is really if people want to hear or not at the end of the day.
That God's word is self-authenticating is the historic Protestant understanding, and is written in lots of the historic confessions of faith - including the one that Dr. Schaeffer subscribed to (the Westminster Confession). I've really appreciated the little of Dr. Schaeffer's work that I've been able to study. If you Google for "Riddlebarger academy Schaeffer" then that should bring up an excellent and easy to listen series of lectures that Dr. Kim Riddlebarger in the USA did describing Schaeffer's life and thought. His great point was to challenge unbelievers to justify their approach to life. Unbelievers often act as if their own approach to life had no assumptions behind it and no burden of proof to carry - as if Christians alone had that responsibility; Dr. Schaeffer encouraged Christians to demonstrate that Christianity gives a coherent explanation of human experience, whereas unbelief cannot even begin to. If you search back in the series of earlier posts here you'll see how strong an argument I think that is.

As a Christian you can give a rational and self-consistent explanation for:
  • Why the universe exists
  • Why the universe is orderly
  • How complex, self-reproducing life forms can exist
  • Why right and wrong can exist
  • Why human beings assume that right and wrong matter
  • How there can be universal values that transcend all human individuals and cultures
  • How human beings can be self-conscious, thinking and morally accountable beings
  • ... and many more things besides.
Unbelievers behave day by day as if the above things can all be taken for granted - yet without them having to give us any explanation for them. Bizarrely the more militant of the unbelievers do all that whilst claiming that the mantle of being logical, scientific and rational for themselves! Ho hum.
However, one question springs to mind. If we believe the bible primarily because it 'speaks to our consciences', are we able to infer from this that it also posseses 'historical reliability' in the conventional sense or must we do personal research of the kind you mention to make such a claim with any integrity?
I think this is a really good question. I think firstly I want to say in response that I don't think I could say that I believe the Bible "primarily because it speaks to [my] conscience." If only this were true, then we would have a world full of believers, but it evidently isn't so. The Bible speaks to the consciences of people in the pew week by week, and yet somehow they go home with it having had precious little effect on them. The position I tried to take in the previous post was that the Bible's witness, interacting with our minds and consciences, leaves unbelievers without excuse; but yet they are still left unbelievers unless something more happens. That's their fault; their resistance of God's word is sinful, and incurs guilt and judgment; but it isn't sufficient in practice. As Paul says in Romans 8:7-8, those who are in that condition actually cannot please God, or desire to obey his laws; to receive the truth, however clearly it is declared, goes against their nature and is beyond their capabilities.

I quoted the beginning of the answer to the question in Keach's catechism before. The full answer reads like this:
"Q. 5. How do we know that the Bible is the Word of God?

A. The Bible evidences itself to be God's Word by the heavenliness of its doctrine, the unity of its parts, its power to convert sinners and to edify saints; but the Spirit of God only, bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in our hearts, is able fully to persuade us that the Bible is the Word of God.

(1 Cor. 2:6,7,13; Ps. 119:18, 129; Acts 10:43, 26:22; Acts 18:28; Heb 4:12; Ps. 19:7-9; Rom. 15:4; John 16:13,14; 1 John 2:20-27; 2 Cor. 3:14-17)"
This answer gives four reasons by which the Bible shows us its identity as God's word: 1) The unique nature of the teachings within it 2) Its astonishing coherence despite the wide variety in its human authorship 3) & 4) The remarkable effects it has in changing the lives of those who aren't Christians and then continually changing them after they have become Christians - a power that is not limited by time or culture. There's no book anything, even remotely like this, in the world. As such, it bears out its own claims about its divine authorship. Nevertheless, the human condition is so bad - dead in sins, blind to the light, and without any ability to turn ourselves to God - that it is only by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that we come to acknowledge the reality of the Bible's status, as we experience the living power of it and provides the irrefutable proof. I know the Bible is the Word of God, because I've personally experienced the salvation that it speaks of.

Often with unbelievers I think the best thing to do if they ask why we should believe that the Bible is God's word is to challenge them to read it. Some of them will refuse or come up with implausible excuses as to why they can't, thus showing that their problem isn't in their minds, but in their hearts and wills. I had an e-mail exchange with an atheist over a year ago who was really confident that the Bible was nonsense, but when I challenged him as to if he'd ever read it the best he could do was mumble that 25 years ago he had made an attempt but not got very far!! If the Bible really is God's word, then reading it
has to be the best persuasion; our arguments are like trying to explain a really sharp sword to them, when it would be much simpler to plunge the thing in and say "there - you can feel that - that's what I meant!" Then they can have the Holy Spirit himself persuade them. Spurgeon's classic quote: "Defend the Bible? I'd rather defend a lion! Let it loose!"

When we've experienced the salvation and the Saviour that the Bible tells us of, we can then look into what the Son of God believed and taught about the Scriptures' historical accuracy. I think I've said enough for now though.

1 comment:

Matt Williams said...


Thanks for your response. It is certainly quite comprehensive and I look forward to getting into those Schaeffer lectures as well. I like the consistency of what you say, that if we only find the Bible to be true by engaging with it ourselves then Jesus is the best authority for the historical reliability of the Bible. I hadn't thought of it quite like that althoug we had a recent sermon that focussed on Jesus' use of scripture as an argument for its authenticity. It is certainly hard to be humble enough to admit that we can only understand the Bible at all because we have it revealed to us! I will hopefully comment more now I've found this very interesting blog, discussing these things in writing helps in terms of ensuring clarity about these important issues.
(sorry if my posts appear multiple times, the computer often seems to tell me the post has failed but I don't know if it has or not)