Faith, Evidence, and the Scriptures
Let us consider the following situation. Mrs. Jones is worried about her husband’s loss of weight and his lassitude. With some difficulty (for her husband has never needed a doctor before) she persuades him to have a series of medical tests. The tests strongly support the view, the consultant tells her, that Mr. Jones has cancer. Mr. Jones says he has never felt fitter and that the consultant is probably incompetent.
In this situation there are three different kinds of questions that arise and need separate treatment: the question of whether or not Jones has cancer, the question of what evidence there is that he has cancer, and the question of what would persuade him to accept the diagnosis that he has cancer. These three questions are connected, but they are not the same question. Let us see why not.
The first question concerns what the facts are. If someone has cancer, this means that he has growths of a certain sort in his body, the presence of cancerous cells. This is what having cancer is. The second question concerns evidence. Cancer generally gives evidence of its presence, such as the development of certain lumps, loss of weight, and in certain cases the findings of x-rays or exploratory surgery. The two issues, whether someone has cancer and what the evidence for his having cancer is, are connected in the following way: Cancer normally or generally gives evidence of itself, and evidence of a certain sort is normally taken to be evidence for cancer. Cancer normally provides such evidence of itself; but it is necessary to allow for the possibility that there might be cancer but no evidence of it, or that there should be atypical evidence, or that there should be evidence of cancer but no cancer.
The third question concerns what will rationally convince someone that certain data are evidence for a certain condition—presumably such factors as attentiveness to the evidence, a willingness to accept its verdict however unpalatable, and so on. What should convince a person that he has cancer is enough evidence of the right kind. But often other nonrational factors (e.g., wants and predispositions of certain kinds) intervene to prevent this.
Exactly the same three questions arise about the Bible. Is the Bible the Word of God? What evidence is there for the Bible’s being the Word of God? What evidence ought to persuade people that the Bible is the Word of God? These three questions, again, are distinct yet related. The first question is about the causal origins of the Bible. Does it come from God in a sense in which the Times or Who’s Who do not come from God? In this chapter I am not going to dwell on what exactly is meant by the divine authorship of the Bible except to notice that the issue is basically a theological or metaphysical matter, bespeaking a relationship of a rather special kind between God, the Creator and ground of all being, and some aspect of His creation. The truth conditions of this are truths about God and His special relationship to certain human authors and not merely about the thought processes or literary habits of human authors. Perhaps it is fortunate that exploring the exact character of these truth conditions is not a matter that has to concern us.
What is going to concern us directly is the question, What evidence is there that the Bible is the Word of God? And also, though to a lesser extent, the question, What ought rationally to persuade someone to believe that the Bible is the Word of God? But although I will look at these questions directly I will not try to answer them directly by attempting to provide the evidence. Rather I will be concerned to ask what sort of questions these are and what sort of evidence might provide adequate answers.
The main thesis of this chapter is that the chief reasons for believing the Bible to be the Word of God are religious reasons. But “religious” here does not mean “subjective” or “irrational,” but “concerning a person’s bounden allegiance to God.” Further, the evidence on which the Scriptures are to be considered to be the Word of God is chiefly internal evidence. The main part of the chapter will be concerned with setting out this thesis and defending it against certain objections. But first let us glance at certain other views, both in order to gain some perspective and to indicate the main deficiencies of such views.
The first view we can call externalism, which can be expressed as follows: the evidence of certain data that make no essential reference to the content of the Scriptures is logically necessary for the Bible’s being accepted as the Word of God. The stress on logical necessity should be noted. External data are required to validate the Scriptures as the Word of God but they are not themselves sufficient to validate the Scriptures. Such a view does not hold that no attention needs to be paid to internal data but that such internal data are of no value unless they first meet certain tests.
The historical roots of this outlook, which has been very deeply entrenched in Anglo-American theology (to look no further), go back a long way. It was prominent in the writings of the eighteenth-century opponents of deism such as Joseph Butler and William Paley and even earlier in Thomas Aquinas.1 But the actual example of this position that we will examine is that of Archibald Alexander (1772–1851), an influential Princeton theologian.
Alexander’s approach, it must be remembered, is presupposed by what are, in his view, the convincing arguments of natural theology. Having established the existence and character of God by argument, the Christian apologist must then go on to establish that the Scriptures alone among all the books of the world are a credible revelation from God.
That a revelation is possible, will not be called in question by any who believe in the existence of a God; nor can it be believed that there is anything in the notion of a revelation repugnant to the moral attributes of the Supreme Being. It cannot be inconsistent with the wisdom, goodness or holiness of God, to increase the knowledge of his intelligent creatures. The whole end of a revelation is to make men wiser, better, and happier; and what can be conceived more accordant with our ideas of divine perfection than this?2
Let us grant, for the sake of argument, both the legitimacy of the program of natural theology and its success. We can also grant the point made by Alexander in this quotation that the idea of revelation is logically consistent with the concept of God. Alexander goes on:
Supposing a revelation to be given, what would be a satisfactory attestation of its divine origin? It must be some sign or evidence not capable of being counterfeited; something by which God should in some way manifest himself. And how could this be effected, but by the exertion of his power or the manifestation of his infinite knowledge; that is, by miracles, or by prophecies, or by both?3
Alexander is here considering the question of what sort of evidence there ought to be and he argues that initially at least the evidence ought to be external—miracles and prophecies. But notice the number of assumptions, which Alexander seems to regard as self-evident or at least perfectly reasonable, on which his argument rests:
- The only satisfactory attestations of divine revelation are signs.
- Such signs must be incapable of being counterfeited.
- Only manifestations of divine power or infinite knowledge are sufficient to produce noncounterfeitable signs.
- Miracles and prophecies are not counterfeitable.
- Miracles and prophecies are the only noncounterfeitable signs and so they are the only satisfactory attestations of divine revelation.
None of these five propositions seems to be convincing, much less obviously true, and yet Alexander offers them as if they are unquestionable. Take 1, for example. May it not be true that great cheerfulness in the face of adversity, or financial prosperity, or inventiveness, or physical beauty are equally good attestations of divine revelation? And what about 2? It seems to be straightforwardly false, since miracles and prophecies have been and are counterfeited. And what about 3? May it not be the case that what is needed to produce noncounterfeitable signs is not infinite power, but just very great power?
The point of raising these questions is not to provide an alternative set of candidates to those Alexander produces and to argue that these are more reasonable than his, but to suggest two things about externalism. The first is that Alexander’s argument relies on an extremely dubious appeal to what is obvious or reasonable; and second, that the form of the argument is badly conceived. The form of the argument—the strategy that Alexander, in common with all other externalists, uses—is that there is some obvious, unquestionable test or criterion of what is appropriate for a divine revelation and that the Bible, and only the Bible, meets it. But is this a properly conceived form of argument for the task in hand? Alexander does not argue that it is, but he assumes that it is. But, as we have seen, this form of argument is far from being self-evident.
We can see that a more general defect of externalism is the supposition that there is some a priori standard of reasonableness that the Scriptures must meet and do meet. But who is to decide what this standard is? And supposing that a standard can be agreed on, what is the force of calling it reasonable? The answer may be that what justifies our calling it reasonable is that there is some a priori likelihood that anything that will count as a revelation will meet this standard. But this would be ludicrous, for such a revelation is by definition (and by Alexander’s own understanding of it) unique and unparalleled, a supernatural thing. Now some event or complex of events can be probable or improbable only with respect to a given body of evidence. So we say that the day is likely to be wet and windy on the evidence provided by other relevantly similar days.
But to what body of evidence is appeal being made when it is said that it is reasonable that anything counting as the Word of God must meet certain standards? We have not had experience of other revelations from God that would enable us to form a rule of generalization in the light of which we might judge that the next revelation has occurred. The trouble, then, lies with the form of the argument that gives rise to externalism; for it means that any criterion formulated in accordance with this form of argument is bound to be Procrustean. The air of reasonableness about such a position is totally spurious.
The other example of a type of argument that may be used to establish that the Scriptures are the Word of God is a version of fideism. But it is important to remember that “fideism” is the name of a family of positions. There are many differences between different members of the family. But broadly, as applied to the problem we are considering, the view is that the proof or evidence that the Bible is the Word of God is not to be found in a set of external criteria, but elsewhere. The contrast established by fideism is not necessarily between faith and reason but between faith and external proof. In order to see this more clearly it is necessary to distinguish between the following three positions:
- The view that the Bible is the Word of God cannot be rationally defended. Accepting the Bible as the Word of God is a leap of faith.
- The view that the Bible is the Word of God is not irrational as is shown by the inadequacy of arguments aiming to show that it is irrational.
- The view that the Bible is the Word of God is a matter of its own evidence, and there are external arguments leading to this view.
These three positions (and others that we do not have space to consider) can be thought of as members of the fideistic family. But there are important differences between them. We shall not consider (1) any further, but concentrate on (2) and (3).
These positions may seem to be paradoxical, even self-contradictory. For, it may be asked, how can there be external arguments or reasons that lead to the conclusion that the Bible is God’s Word and this not be what we have called externalism? Surely the whole point of something being self-justified is that it derives its justification from itself. If so, then what part can external reasons or arguments play? Have we not already considered and dismissed the view that acceptance of the Bible’s being the Word of God is founded on external considerations?
But this question is based on a confusion, the confusion between
- The only convincing reasons for accepting the Bible as God’s Word are internal ones.
- The Bible is God’s Word.
The considerations that support a are not necessarily the same considerations that support b. Thus there may well be external reasons for accepting a that are not reasons for accepting b. For example, one reason for accepting a might be that any external considerations that are offered are empirically weak or logically flawed or theologically inadequate in some way. But these weaknesses or flaws are not positive reasons for accepting b, as they are of a wholly negative character. And so it may be argued that there are general considerations of an external kind, considerations that allow that the Scriptures may be their own evidence for being the Word of God.
One example of this sort of argument is that provided by Alvin Plantinga is his paper “Is Belief in God Rational?”4 In this paper, he is concerned with the rationality of believing in the existence of God, whereas we are concerned with the rationality of accepting the Scriptures as God’s Word; but the general issues are the same. Plantinga argues that classical natural theology—for example, the “Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas (and also, incidentally, the natural theology of Archibald Alexander)—is foundationalistic. That is to say, classical natural theology is based on a view of human knowledge that claims that it has a foundation of self-evident beliefs, propositions that we all know, or can know, without having further evidence for them. The stock of such beliefs provides the foundations for knowledge. It is by reference to such foundational truths, propositions “evident to the senses” as Aquinas put it, that the existence of God may be rationally established.
Plantinga criticizes foundationalism on familiar grounds,5 particularly on the ground that the notion of self-evidence on which foundationalism rests is suspect; for it may happen that what appears self-evident is not in fact true, and hence cannot be self-evident. And so the idea of knowledge being based on a self-evident foundation is dubious. But this is not to say, according to Plantinga, that knowledge is totally without foundations, but it is to deny that knowledge rests on a foundation of self-evident propositions. Knowledge has foundations, but not self-evident foundations, in Plantinga’s view. Certain propositions are basic (but not self-evident) because a person commits himself to the truth they express and makes them the rational basis of all other propositions to which he rationally commits himself.
If, with an older tradition, we think of reason as an organ, or power or faculty—the faculty whereby we discern what is self-evident—then the foundationalist commits himself to the basic reliability of reason. He doesn’t do so, of course, as a result of (broadly speaking) scientific or rational investigation; he does so in advance of such investigation.6
If basic propositions are those propositions that a person commits himself to (and are not self-evidently true propositions) then there is no reason why a person should not commit himself to the existence of God as part of his intellectual foundations. “There is a God” would then be foundational for him.
To accept belief in God as basic is clearly not irrational in the sense of being proscribed by reason or in conflict with the deliverances of reason. The dictum that belief in God is not basic in a rational noetic structure (structure of belief) is neither apparently self-evident nor apparently incorrigible. Is there, then, any reason at all for holding that a noetic structure including belief in God as basic is irrational? If there is, it remains to be specified.7
The form of Plantinga’s argument might be expressed in this way:
- There is no reason to suppose that p is not true (i.e., there is no reason to suppose that the proposition “God exists” may not form part of a person’s foundational beliefs).
- Therefore, p may be true (i.e., it is rational to hold that the proposition “God exists” may form part of a person’s foundational beliefs).
Notice that on this argument there are and can be no positive reasons for accepting 2. There cannot be such reasons because otherwise the proposition that God exists could not be foundational in the required sense, for a proposition can be foundational only if in order rationally to believe it there need be no evidence for it. There could of course be motives for committing oneself foundationally to the proposition “God exists,” but no reasons.
Interesting questions arise at this point. Are there any limits to the possibilities to which a person can commit himself foundationally? Could he commit himself foundationally to the existence of fairies and hobgoblins? Could he commit himself foundationally to the proposition that God does not exist? Presumably he could. Unfortunately we cannot go further into such questions here.
What we must consider are the consequences of someone taking this line of argument with respect to the proposition “The Bible is the Word of God.” It seems possible that a person could commit himself to the Bible in this way. There appears to be nothing logically inconsistent in his doing so. But, once again, he would have no positive reason for doing so, and the idea that certain considerations might strengthen his confidence in the Scriptures as God’s Word, and other considerations might weaken it, would be logically impossible. The only reply that the question, “Why do you accept the Bible as the Word of God?” could be met with is “For no reason … I have committed myself to the view that the Scriptures are the Word of God basically.” And there seems nothing to stop others from doing exactly the same with Science and Health, The Book of Mormon, or The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.
This line of argument seems perfectly consistent, but it is awfully thin. What is thin is the idea that there are and can be no reasons for the view that God exists or that the Scriptures are the Word of God, only poor and inadequate reasons against.
Having looked at two types of argument or strategy that are unsatisfactory, we now come to the main thesis of this chapter: There are reasons for accepting the Scriptures as the Word of God and these reasons are chiefly to be found within the Scriptures themselves. This is a fideistic position of type 3, mentioned on page 307.
Perhaps we could express this more precisely as follows: It is a necessary condition of properly accepting the Bible to be the Word of God that one’s main reasons for doing so arise out of the Scriptures themselves. In my defense of this position I hope to avoid, on the one hand, the externalism of Archibald Alexander and on the other hand the strong fideism of Alvin Plantinga. For all their obvious differences, what both arguments have in common is that they defend the divine authority of the Scriptures (in Plantinga’s argument wholly, and in Alexander’s partly) in abstraction from the actual content of the Scriptures.
The basic approach to the question of the origin and authority of the Scriptures must be a posteriori. It is wrong to decide such questions, either for or against, without considering the content of the Scriptures themselves. “Considering the content of the Scriptures” means not merely looking at what the Scriptures say about themselves but examining the force or impact of the Scriptures. Part of the reason for believing that a person is a king may be that he says that he is a king. But the evidence that he is a king is much stronger if he is seen exercising the prerogatives of a king. It is not simply that the Scriptures say that they are the revelation of God that is the evidence for their being so, but also that they function as the Word of God. Let us try to look at this in a little more detail.
We need, in the first place, to examine the basic “logic” of the meaning of the Scriptures. Though the Bible purports to provide its readers with information not available to them elsewhere, its basic stance is not merely that of an information-provider but that of a document that, on the basis of the information that it provides, makes claims on and offers invitations to its readers. Basic here is the idea of God’s personal address to people, an address that calls for a response.
It is possible to break this down into a number of different elements. One element is the idea that the Bible purports to give an analysis or diagnosis of the reader. The Scriptures offer this diagnosis as the truth about the reader. Now if the Scriptures are what they claim to be, the Word of God, then one would expect that careful examination and self-scrutiny would reveal that the diagnosis “holds good” in the life of the reader. Connected with this is the power of the Scriptures to raise and satisfy certain distinctive needs in the reader, particularly the recognition of his sin before God and the enjoyment of forgiveness and reconciliation to God through Christ. Connected with this is the displaying in Scripture of excellent moral standards that focus and integrate the life of the reconciled person. And connected with this is the provision of new motivations to reach out for the newly set standards.
These ideas, briefly and inadequately expressed here, arise out of the meaning of the words and sentences of the Scriptures. They are briefly and inadequately expressed in that they need to be set in a fuller theological context than we are able to provide here and to be shown to be grounded in the data of Scripture. These are complex and never-finished tasks.
The peculiar logic of the situation might be expressed as follows: What has to be known in order for these biblical claims to be established is not merely something about the claims but also something about oneself. This may be partly what Augustine and especially John Calvin meant when they said that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are conceptually intertwined.8
The data of Scripture, in which the divine authority of Scripture is grounded and which provide evidence for the Bible being the Word of God, are known a posteriori. Fundamental, therefore, to accepting the Bible as the Word of God is considering the relevant evidence for that claim honestly and seriously. This point cannot be overstressed, for it is common to find on both sides of this debate those who tell us what the Scriptures must be like without stopping to look and see if the Scriptures actually are like this.
The kinds of consideration that we have been discussing are not the only sort of internal evidence for the divine authority of the Scriptures, but they are the chief sort of evidence. I must now attempt to clarify this further by taking up additional aspects of the claim and then by trying to meet some objections. But there is one initial objection that arises, and that must be dispatched at once.
Someone may say that even if what has been said so far is acceptable, it is far from establishing the conclusion that the Scriptures are God’s Word, for by “the Scriptures” is presumably meant the sixty-six canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. How do we get to the sixty-six books from the slender base that has been established? The short answer to this is that we get to it through the authority of Christ. It is because He endorses the Old Testament and makes provision for the New that both Old and New have this authority. He endorses these writings and sets the boundaries of what is authoritative, but of course these writings become authoritative in the sense of practically influencing the thinking and the conduct of those who accept them only when their teaching is actually submitted to and responded to. Perhaps we need to draw a distinction at this point between accepting the Bible as God’s revelation and practically experiencing the “weight” of that authority. One may recognize the authority of the Scriptures in the first sense without recognizing it in the second sense in respect of some particular passage or book of Scripture either because one has not paid sufficient attention to it or because its “relevance” to one’s situation is not apparent.
Would it be fair to say, on the view that is being defended, that the Scriptures are self-evident? “Self-evident” is an ambiguous expression, for it may mean, when applied to a proposition or set of propositions, that the proposition(s) are accepted as true on their own evidence, or it may mean that the evidence reaches a certain standard, that of being so evidently true that no other evidence could either make it more evident or less evident than it is. It has been argued that certain propositions such as 2 plus 2 equals 4, propositions that are believed to be true by everyone who understands them, and sincere utterances such as “I am in pain” are self-evidently true. Whether or not there are such self-evident truths, it is not the case that the previous argument about the Scriptures being the Word of God requires that there are. And so no claim is being made that the Scriptures are self-evident in the sense that it is impossible, rationally, to doubt their truth. For it is clearly possible to entertain doubts of a rational kind, doubts about the meaning and implications of the text, for example.
Similarly with the idea of self-witness. What I am arguing is not that Scripture witnesses to itself about its divine origin and that this witness rules out any rational doubt, but that Scripture witnesses about itself to us and that this witness may find confirmation or validation in experience, in the diagnostic and other work mentioned earlier. Emphasis does not fall on proving the existence of God and then proving by miracle and prophecy that this book of all books is God’s revelation (the Alexander strategy) but it falls on proving God in experience and a fortiori establishing that He exists. God is proved by hearing and obeying Him and finding that He is as good as His word.
Thus the certainty of the Scriptures as revelatory documents lies in their being confirmed in experience and what this entails or renders probable. The experience is not a further revelation. To suppose that it were would lead to an infinite regress, for if it were a further revelation, it would need credentials for it to be rationally acceptable. But what could these credentials be other than a further revelation? And so on ad infinitum. Rather, the experience has to do with the impact of the revelation on the lives of those who receive it.
To clarify still further, the experience is not a different sort of evidence, ineffable or indescribable, that makes up for the inadequacy of the biblical evidence, but rather the discovery that the claims of the Scriptures bear the weight of experience.
“Self-evident” is also sometimes used as a rough equivalent to “axiomatic,” and there is a sense in which our argument requires that the Scriptures be axiomatic, namely, theologically or religiously axiomatic; i.e., they provide the basic data and the basic set of “controls” from which theological conclusions are to be derived. They are theologically sufficient for such reflection.
How does what we have been arguing tie in with the theological doctrine of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit? In the following way: What we have been describing, the power of the Scriptures to diagnose and “speak” is, in more theological language, the Spirit’s internal testimony. The two are not different things but two different characterizations of the same thing. The internal testimony of the Spirit is not to be thought of as in some way short-circuiting the objective evidence or making up for the deficiencies in external scriptural evidence, nor as providing additional evidence, nor as merely acting as a mechanical stimulus, but as making the mind capable of the proper appreciation of the evidence, seeing it for what it is, and in particular heightening the mind’s awareness of the marks of divinity present in the text in such a way as to produce the conviction that this text is indeed the product of the divine mind and therefore to be relied on utterly.
It is for this reason that our position cannot be ruled out as mere subjectivism, the idea that so-called religious or theological truth is merely about the believer’s own state of mind. For while there is a subjective side of things, a believer, there is an objective side, the text and its meaning, something public and verifiable.
Having tried to clarify what is meant by the self-evident truth of the Scriptures, we are now in a position to consider certain objections. (Incidentally, the very fact that I am taking objections seriously and am defending this view by contrast with the inadequacies of other views shows that the type of fideism I am defending is the type that argues for the existence of external arguments that lead to the conclusion that the proper evidence for the Bible’s being the Word of God is the Bible’s own evidence.)
- The first objection is that this position is irrationalistic. If by this charge is meant that this view does not proceed from self-evident first principles by inductive or deductive argument, then the point is granted. By that austere standard the view being defended is irrational. The proper reply to this is not to say that few, if any, other views reach the same standard (for two wrongs do not make a right) but to doubt the truth of this brand of foundationalism. And there is plenty of reason to do this.9 And if there are reasons for doubting the truth of foundationalism, it cannot be the mark of rationality in epistemology.
But to say that this position does not conform to the pattern of foundationalism is not to say that it is totally without reason. If anything, it conforms to a coherentist pattern of justification, for it is coherence with experience that forms the justification. Furthermore, in the face of doubts about the genuineness or reasonableness of the claim that the Bible is the Word of God there are ways in which such doubts may be met, by the clarification of meaning and the presentation of evidence, ways that are perfectly familiar from other rationally conducted disciplines. Thus, though the pattern of justification being offered is not foundationalistic, it does conform to that which obtains in interpersonal situations that each of us is familiar with.
A connected kind of irrationalism would be that the text simply causes or triggers some experience, as, for example, being in a crowded elevator might cause a claustrophobic to panic. But the words or propositions of the revelation are not the cause or occasion of the experience; rather, they engender it through the meaning of the propositions and their force (as commands, questions, invitations, or whatever) being appreciated.
- The second objection that I wish to consider is that this view is logically circular. I am attempting to conclude that the Scriptures are the Word of God by appealing to the words of Christ as authoritative and so the words of Christ are already being taken to be, or are assumed to be, scriptural. Is this not to argue in a circle?
Certain arguments of this type would be circular. For example, it would be arguing in a circle to claim that the Scriptures are the Word of God because the Bible says so and the Bible is the Word of God and so must be believed. However, it is not clear that our argument is circular in this sense, nor indeed circular at all. For what is being argued is that the evidence for the Bible’s being the Word of God is that the claims that the Bible makes are found to hold good. But these claims are not primarily, and certainly not only, that the Bible is the Word of God, but that certain promises, invitations, etc., hold good, and that the holding good of these in experience provides good inductive evidence for other claims, for example, the claims of Christ and His apostles that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God.
There is a logically contingent connection between the authority of Christ and the Old and New Testaments’ being the Word of God in that it is possible for Christ to have been the Savior in circumstances in which only parts of the Old and New Testaments were the Word of God, or in which the Old Testament as a whole or large parts of it had not survived until the present day. Accepting the authority of Christ does not entail accepting the authority of the Old and New Testaments. What it does entail is the conclusion that there is good evidence that Christ is who He says He is, and hence is to be trusted in His teaching in general. And if He teaches that certain documents are the Word of God and are therefore to be trusted as He is to be trusted, then that is an additional matter.
But is not the Christ who is believed in the Christ of the Scriptures? No, He is (at best) the Christ of some of the Scriptures and also partly the Christ of human make-believe and tradition. Part of any Christian’s task is to reform his ideas of Christ, to make them more and more consistently biblical.
- Someone might argue that to base one’s acceptance of the Scriptures on one’s ability to diagnose the human condition and to provide new goals and new motivations in regard to the Scriptures is to build on a very slender base. For might there not have been a gigantic mistake or systematic self-deception? How can one be sure that one has been told the truth about oneself, given genuine promises and invitations? Could it not be that these are the product of one’s imagination or of some source other than God? May they not be the effects of psychological weakness or, as Marx suggested, the product of adverse economic and social circumstances?
The answer to these questions is yes, such misconceptions are possible. Furthermore it is true that many people have come to believe that they are not merely possible, but actually so, and that the religion of their youth was make-believe. But the question is not whether there is the abstract possibility that the whole thrust of the Bible has been misunderstood, nor whether certain people have regarded themselves as having been duped, but whether I have reason to believe this. The history of thought is peppered with skepticisms of various kinds, both global and particular. Some have held, and do hold, that it is likely that we know nothing at all about anything, or exceedingly little. And it is logically possible that the whole of life is a dream, that I am not sitting at my desk typing this paper but that in fact my brain is being stimulated by some malicious superscientist into believing that I am typing when in fact I am eating (and should be enjoying) a very large chocolate nut sundae. These things are possible, but the relevant question is, have we reason to suppose that they are true? If it is said that it is impossible to defend our position against such possibilities, then the point must be granted, but it must also be granted that all other nonskeptical positions are in exactly the same boat.
So the general appeal to skepticism, if it proves anything at all, proves too much, consigning not only the view we are defending but all other claims to knowledge to the philosophical lumber room.
Yet it may be said that the fact that many have regarded the claims of Christ and of the Bible as fraudulent is surely some reason for caution. It is—in just the way in which the fact that some human friendships have been found to collapse when put under strain is a reason for caution about this friendship. But though caution is proper, doubt about the friendship of someone who shows every sign of being my friend would be neurotic and improper.
But surely this appeal to religious experience is purely subjective, isn’t it? Not necessarily. If an engineer predicts the collapse of a bridge and it collapses, his prediction has physically objective confirmation. But physical objectivity is not the only kind of objectivity. Suppose Smith wonders whether Robinson really dislikes him. If Robinson does dislike Smith, then in a sense this is subjective, something about Robinson’s state of mind. But in another sense it has objectivity. It has objectivity if, for example, it is sustained in varied sets of circumstances, if it is expressed in different ways. In the case of religious experience similar sorts of tests apply, and a person may become rationally convinced of the objectivity (i.e., the reality) of God’s love, even though God does not have objective physical reality.
- A fourth objection might be that we have left no place at all for the external evidence of the truth and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. For it might be said the Bible is a very diverse library of books, diverse in the sense that it contains not only moral and religious (in some narrow sense) claims, but also historical and metaphysical claims. Further, it might be said, not only are such claims made, but they are not incidental, but central, to Christianity, which insists that God has acted in a decisive way in history. To say that God has acted in history makes the metaphysical claim that it is God who has acted, and it makes the historical claim that certain events have occurred as a result of divine agency. Surely these matters need to be investigated as a part of any project to validate the claims of the Bible to be the Word of God.
At this point it is necessary to use our earlier distinction between the truth conditions of certain claims and their evidence conditions. It is undoubtedly the case that as normally understood the central claims of the Christian faith involve the truth of certain historical propositions. (If someone objects to the use of “historical” in this connection because it implies certain things about historical method, then we can substitute the phrase “propositions expressing witnessable events.”) If these claims are false, then Christianity is false. And further, in some sense these propositions form a part of the total evidence of Christianity, the set of propositions about the world that are true if Christianity is true.
But it does not follow from this that because a proposition is part of the total evidence for some claim that it has to be part of my evidence for this claim if my evidence is to be good evidence. Consider again the case of Mr. Jones, the victim of cancer. Part of the total evidence of Jones’s being the victim of cancer is that there is some condition that causes or allows the growth of cancerous cells in his body. But it does not follow from this that in order for Jones or anyone else to have good evidence that he has cancer he has to know what causes or allows these growths. Nor does it follow that the cancer must be seen, for an expert might know by looking at Jones’s history, together with certain tests, that he has cancer. He need not actually have direct evidence of the cancer itself.
The kind of “hold” the Scriptures have when they are understood in a certain way that implies the truth of certain historical happenings is prima facie evidence for the truth of the happenings in much the same way that the outcome of certain tests is prima facie evidence for cancer or a press report that a source near to the government has predicted a devaluation, followed by the devaluation, is good evidence that the source near to the government had predicted it.
But what if there is a conflict between the claims of the Scriptures and the findings of history? What happens if what has to be true, historically, for Scripture to be true is denied to be true by the consensus of competent historians? They might argue either in a straightforward way that the events did not happen or in a more a priori manner that the documents are not to be taken at face value but are imaginative reconstructions by a group impressed by Jesus.
In the first of these circumstances it would be a legitimate strategy to investigate the historical evidence, to examine the data produced by the competent historians, to consider new evidence, and the like. In the second set of circumstances it would be legitimate to ask for the reasons that have led someone to take up the a priori view about the status of the documents.
What this shows about the place of historical evidence and research is that in order to establish that the Scriptures are the Word of God it is not necessary for one to investigate the historical reliability and trustworthiness of the Scriptures before placing confidence in them. Rather, if the one who accepts the God-givenness of the Scriptures is presented with prima facie damning evidence against his position, he or some competent person in the field is duty-bound to investigate it. At the very least, such an examination is relevant to the calling into question and to the ultimate overthrow of his position. So there is an important asymmetry here: historical evidence cannot by itself establish the divine authority of the Scriptures, but it could overthrow it. And the reason why it cannot establish it has already been given in our discussion of externalism.
Similarly with questions of logical consistency. If the Scriptures are the Word of God, then, properly interpreted, the sentences of Scripture will be at least logically consistent with each other. This follows from the fact that if the Scriptures are the Word of God, then, properly interpreted, the sentences are true. And if a set of propositions is true, the propositions must be consistent with each other. It follows from this that if anyone were plausibly to show that there is a self-contradiction in the Scriptures, or in some set of propositions implied by the Scriptures, then this is directly relevant to their truth and hence to their God-givenness. For if there is a genuine contradiction, then not both of the contradictory propositions can be true. In a parallel way, if it is alleged that there is a conflict between some properly interpreted sentence of Scripture and what is known on nonscriptural evidence, this also demands investigation. So, once again, though it is not the case that the consistency of Christianity has to be proved before it can be accepted as true, if its inconsistency were proved, this would be sufficient to sound its death knell, and if the charge of inconsistency is leveled against it, this represents a prima facie difficulty, requiring investigation.
These comments underline what has been said previously—that the position being defended is not mere subjectivism. Nor is it some form of reductionism according to which Christianity is really about something that is not dependent either on history or logic. History and logic are both relevant aspects of the complex web that makes up Christianity because the Christian revelation offers itself as something that is consistent and is essentially rooted in history. But this does not mean, as I have stressed, that all logical and historical problems ought to be solved before Christianity is credible or before the status of the Bible as the Word of God is credible any more than that all historical and logical problems about Napoleon ought to be solved before anything about Napoleon’s military career is credible. The existence of my wife does not have to be established independently before I can be sure that she loves me. Her existence is implied by her love for me. This is not to say however, that there are no conceivable circumstances in which I might have to go about trying to establish that she did in fact exist, as for example, if she had disappeared or I was suffering from loss of memory.
- It might be said that the view that I am defending, that the evidence for the Scriptures being the Word of God is primarily internal evidence, leaves that position formally similar to the position of the truth claims of the myriad other religions and ideologies. In a sense this is perfectly true. Christianity is in this position. There is no line of argument that will prove to all, once and for all, that Christianity is true and all other religions false. On this at least we must side with Plantinga against Alexander. It is an inevitable consequence of the denial of natural theology and externalism.
However, in saying that Christianity is in a formally similar position to other religions and religious claims I am not saying that nothing can happen to break the deadlock. True, all empirical theories are in a logically similar position with respect to the evidence, since the evidence does not entail any one of them in preference to any other, but this is not to say that there cannot be a rationally preferred theory, one that is the simplest and most economical explanation of the data, that generates correct predictions, and the like. In a parallel way the Scriptures make promises and claims, offer diagnoses, etc., as we have seen. And if a person is going to be rational in his approach to Christianity, he is going to have to do justice to these claims, to investigate them, to allow himself to be open to them, and so forth. In a sense if what the person who rejects Christianity has rejected is something that does not contain these elements, then he cannot have rejected Christianity, since these elements are vital to it and vital to a consideration of the God-givenness of the Scriptures on which Christianity ultimately rests.
- It might be objected from the theological side, which stresses the importance for the authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God of the Scriptures’ “engaging” in the life and experience of the reader or hearer, that we are in effect saying that under certain circumstances the Bible becomes the Word of God.
This objection is based on fundamental misunderstanding. What I have been exploring in the main part of this chapter are the conditions under which a person may properly accept something as being the revelation of God. I have not been concerned with what makes something the revelation of God, but with what evidence there is to conclude that it is the Word of God. To put the point theologically, it is necessary to distinguish between revelation and illumination.10
There is a further point. In setting out the conditions under which someone might properly accept the Bible as God’s Word, a distinction needs to be drawn between recognizing the evidence and accepting it. It does not follow from a person’s recognizing the evidence that he accepts it. Otherwise it would follow that one person could not accept the same evidence rejected by another, and the idea of religious rejection and rebellion would have no application.
- Finally, it might be said that the view being put forward here is different from that used by the apostles of Christ and therefore marks a degeneracy from primitive and pure Christianity.
There is a sense in which this can be granted, while in another sense it must be rejected. The basic pattern of justification is the same, but the details of the pattern are different, and necessarily so. The basic New Testament appeal is to the character of the work of God. The apostles do not appeal to the internal evidence of the entire canonical Scriptures, for this was not available to them; the arguments of the apostles are part of our evidence. We do not find them appealing to miracles or prophecies in abstraction, however, but to the coherence of both with the teaching and history of the Messiah and with their own experience of His power in their own lives and in the formation and life of the church.
Nevertheless, there are differences, but they are the sort of differences we might expect, because they arise out of their different epistemic positions. They were contemporaries or near-contemporaries of certain crucial divine acts. Therefore it is natural that they should appeal to eyewitnesses, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15. But it is impossible for us to do the same because no eyewitness of the resurrected Christ is available to us. It is implausible to suppose that in order for us to be justified in believing certain things it is necessary for us to have evidence available to us that cannot be available, for this would mean that we can never be justified in believing anything about the past more remote than a human lifetime. But we may do the next best thing: appeal to reports of the eyewitnesses, yet not, as I have stressed, to these reports in isolation, but to them as part of a web of history, prophecy, argument, claim and invitation, and human recognition and response.
I have been trying to argue that the chief evidence or reason for taking the Scriptures to be the Word of God is their own evidence, found to hold good in the life and experience of those who are serious and “open.” Thus, in a sense, my approach is basically a fideistic one. Yet while I have distinguished it from externalism, I have also sought to distinguish it from two other kinds of fideism, the kind that says that no evidence or reason of any kind can or ought to be given for taking the Scriptures to be the Word of God, and the kind that says that since there are no convincing general arguments that force us to conclude we may not rationally take the Scriptures to be the Word of God, it follows that we may.
One final matter that needs to be appreciated is that I have been offering a theory or an account of why the Scriptures have had the place they have occupied in the life and experience of the Christian church. It is not a part of this exercise to make the further claim that in order for someone properly to appreciate the Scriptures as the Word of God that person must endorse my account, any more than that in order to be justified in thinking that the kettle is hot we need to know about and endorse theories about molecules. A person may be blissfully ignorant of this account (and of any of its rivals) and still exemplify in his life the state of affairs for which the theory is offered as an account.
1 Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion (New York: Ungar, n.d.); John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, chaps. 18–19; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, chap. 6.
2 Archibald Alexander, Evidences of the Authenticity, Inspiration, and Canonical Authority of the Holy Scriptures (1836; reprint ed., New York: Arno, 1972), p. 61.
3 Ibid., p. 64.
4 Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Rational?” in C. F. Delaney, ed., Rationality and Religious Belief (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979). In a later version of this paper Professor Plantinga develops his views in a direction that appears to be more in accord with the argument of the present chapter. See section III of his “Rationality and Religious Belief” in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, ed. Steven M. Cahn and David Shatz (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).
5 For similar criticisms from a contemporary philosopher see Keith Lehrer, Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
6 Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Rational?” pp. 24–25.
7 Ibid., p. 26.
8 Augustine, Confessions; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, chap. 1.
9 Lehrer, Knowledge.