The Bible is the primary authority for all Christians. But this causes a problem when we are asked “why do you trust what the Bible says?” Whatever reason we have must be a higher authority still, because we trust that when it tells us to trust the Bible. Neither can it be true that we have no reason for trusting the Bible. If that were the case, then we could not give non-Christians reasons why they should believe it.
The Bible’s authority has been grounded in four different ways. I believe three of them are helpful contributions but don’t ultimately solve the problem, and only the fourth one can give a satisfying solution.
Option 1: The Bible Gives Itself Authority
The Bible is a witness to its own authority from God. Jesus and Paul both endorse the Old Testament (John 10:35, Matt 26:56, 2 Tim 3:16), Peter endorses Paul’s writing (2 Pet 3:16), and everywhere people claim divine authority for what they are writing (e.g. 1 Cor 2:7, Rev 1:1). The Bible doesn’t need any external authority – it has its own authority direct from God.
This offers an important piece of the puzzle. The Bible makes big claims about itself which are either true or false, and they need to be taken seriously.
Why This Doesn’t Work
It is circular reasoning to say “the Bible is true because the Bible says so.” Many books claim to be authoritative – the Koran and the book of Mormon, for example. We do not usually believe something simply because it claims to be trustworthy. There needs to be a reason outside the Bible for believing it, simply because not everyone accepts that it is true without question.
There is another problem with this approach which is less often noticed. The Bible, of course, is not a single book but a collection of books which do not all mention one another. Even if we trusted one part, that would not give us enough reason to trust the whole. The Bible does not contain an authoritative list of which books belong to it. The gospels do not testify to their own authority, nor do the other letters of the New Testament give authority to the gospels.
Option 2: the Holy Spirit Witnesses to Each Individual that the Bible is True
If you read the Bible, the Holy Spirit will convict you of its truth, unless you are hard-hearted and refuse to listen to the Spirit’s voice. Therefore, the Church is made up of individuals who have read the Bible and been convicted by it directly from the Spirit.
It is certainly vital to recognise the role of the Holy Spirit in stirring the believer’s heart towards truth. Any view of the Bible’s authority which leaves out the Holy Spirit must be flawed.
Why This Doesn’t Work
The precise way that the Holy Spirit is involved according to this view is problematic. There are several reasons for this.
- Like the first view, it assumes that the Bible is a single book when it is actually a collection. Should the Spirit convict you of the authority of each book individually (and presumably, fail to convict you of many other first-century books which were left out of the Biblical collection), or should he convict you that the list is authoritative?
- It leaves no room for doubt, evidence or argument. If you accept this view, then how could you ever find out if you were wrong? You either believe or you don’t, and how you acquire belief is a “black box” mystery hidden from rational thought. No communication is possible between those who believe and those – either Christians or non-Christians – who doubt.
- It doesn’t help you choose between conflicting interpretations.
Does the Holy Spirit guide also in discovering the Bible’s meaning? If so, then why do Christians disagree on what the Bible means? Are some of them simply not listening to the Spirit although both claim to be? How do you know which side is right? But this problem raises an even more basic question. If this is how the Spirit guides, why do we need the Bible at all? Why not trust, without the Bible, that the Spirit will tell us what we need at any moment in our lives?
The core problem with this view is that it is individualistic, having no concept of the community of believers. It imagines that each individual Christian finds answers independently of anyone else. When there is conflict among Christians, then it has no advice about how to resolve it.
Option 3: The Historical, Scientific and Rational Evidence Supports the Truth of the Bible
If we study history carefully and apply our full intelligence to the task, then we will discover that the evidence proves the truth of the things the Bible claims.
If you hold this view then you know how to find out if you are wrong, which is essential for anyone – either Christian or not – who has doubts or questions about the Christian faith. Also, the same criteria that guide you in determining whether the Bible is reliable will also guide you in interpreting it, which is a stage better than the previous two options.
This is also the first view we have seen which makes evangelism possible. It means we can communicate with non-Christians using a shared public understanding of reality. Without publicly available knowledge it becomes impossible to share the gospel with anyone – all you can do is pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to them what he has revealed to you. But this view means you can do more than pray: you can invite people to investigate the public claims for themselves.
Why This Doesn’t Work
- Should faith be dependent on academic scholarship?
There are many expert historians who don’t think the evidence does in fact prove the truth of the Bible.
The phrase “historical evidence” is always shorthand for “the results of lots of historical research” which is shorthand for “What a lot of academic experts think right now.” But the problem is that the experts don’t all agree on what they think about the Bible. Also the academic consensus changes over time as new evidence shows up. There were periods in the 20th century when “history” (i.e. the consensus of historians in Universities) concluded that the Bible was unreliable. If we were relying on historical evidence during that time, then we would have to conclude that the Bible was mistaken about lots of things.
- History can never prove anything
The evidence will always be ambiguous and can be argued either way. If we should wait for every historian to agree that the Bible is historically reliable (or even a majority), then none of us should become Christians yet because that hasn’t happened!
- Christians are not smarter than non-Christians
. If thinking clearly and knowing enough history led to faith, then all the most intelligent and knowledgeable people in the world would be Christians, and you would know whether someone was intelligent or not by whether they were a Christian. But our faith has never been based on the wisdom of the world.
- There is no such thing as “the Bible” from the perspective of history
. As with the previous two views, people taking this view have forgotten that the Bible is not a single book. Why should the books in our modern Bibles be given more authority than the other hundreds of ancient documents about Christianity and Judaism?
Option 4: We Trust the Bible Because We Trust the Church
It was the Church who put together the list of books it considers authoritative, over the first few hundred years of its existence. To be a member of that Church means to submit to what it says is authoritative: and the Church submits to the Bible as its primary authority.
To become a Christian does not mean “to become convinced of the Bible’s truth (for some reason), and then to join a group of other people who have also been convinced.”
Rather, to become a Christian means “to join a community called the Church for which the Bible is the highest authority.”
If you don’t trust that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit (at least) for the first 400 years of its existence, then you have no reason to trust the Bible, because the Church could have been wrong in recognising/choosing which books were in the collection. Nor are there any independent criteria we could use to decide whether the Church was right or wrong about this. The only alternative to trusting the Church is to form our own church – really, to create our own religion – and decide for ourselves which books are the Bible for that religion.
There is only one Holy Spirit, who is involved at every stage in the process of growing in faith and maturity. He is a unifying Spirit who brings people closer to one another as they also come closer to God.
This way of understanding the Bible’s authority is also helpful when we ask how to interpret it. If the Holy Spirit has guided the Church through history in recognising the right Biblical books, then we have reason to be confident that the same Spirit will help the church when trying to figure out what those books are saying. He sometimes does that through individual Christians humbly offering their interpretations of the Bible to the wider body for acceptance or correction. Usually, however, we can be confident that the same Church which collected these documents together in the first place, has also interpreted them well.
As you can see, there is still an element of faith involved in option 4, but it different from the faith needed for options 1 and 2 because it is not disconnected from reason. There is also reason involved in option 4, but it is different from the reason needed for option 3 because it is not disconnected from faith. Only in option 4 are faith and reason combined, as they always should be and in fact always are whether we recognise it or not.