The Argument for Scriptural Authority

Last Friday I sat with a group of women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.  I do this every Friday, offering the group of 10-20 women a chance to ask questions and inquire about whatever aspects of the Bible, the Christian faith, Christian history, theology, or a variety of other topics they would like to.  I don’t always have the answers, but at least they have the opportunity to talk about what is on their minds during this journey towards physical and spiritual health.

One young woman has been here for about four months.  She’s pretty quiet and I’m pretty sure she’s not on board with the whole Christianity thing.  That’s fine – I certainly understand people enter the program with a variety of backgrounds.  I think the conversation Friday was centering around the importance of Scripture as a fundamental bedrock of our faith, as the norm against which we compare whatever ideas or experiences or feelings or spiritual encounters we may have.  She asked whether I thought the Greek & Roman gods & goddesses might have been demons in disguise.  I said yes, that’s certainly a possibility.  Or that the creators of those myths were inspired by demons at some level, prompting them to envision deities that were really just amplified versions of humankind.

What I heard behind her question (rightly or wrongly), however, was why should I trust the Bible rather than some other collection of writings or sacred texts?  It’s a good and important question.  Some agnostics – those who aren’t certain we can know whether a god exists and which god it might be – look at the plethora of sacred writings around the world and conclude that you can’t reach a conclusion.

Then again Sunday night I heard similar, veiled expressions.  Why trust Scripture so absolutely? How can we know for certain it is the Word of God?  It’s a question that we need to have an answer for as Christians.  Oftentimes we may feel at a loss.  The question is so fundamental, and we’re so used to assuming that this is what everyone agrees with, that we aren’t able to articulate an intelligent response.

I believe that we can offer an intelligible reason why someone would take the Bible seriously and not, say, Roman and Greek mythology writings.  Or the Q’uran.  Or the Book of Mormon.  Or the Hindu Vedas or any other sacred text or spiritual writing.

The reason begins with the Gospels – the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible.  These are each in their own way eyewitness testimony about a single person – Jesus of Nazareth.  Matthew and John are written directly as eye-witnesses.  Matthew and John were both part of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve followers.  They each write their testimony about Jesus down separately and probably at very different times.  Mark is not one of the twelve disciples himself, but likely was an early follower of Jesus and is not writing his testimony about Jesus but rather Peter’s, and Peter was one of the twelve.  Finally, Luke is not himself one of the twelve but was likely an early follower and by his own admission his Gospel represents his research and collection of information regarding Jesus.  It is an amalgam of eyewitness testimony that likely includes Jesus’ mother, Mary and other people as well.

Four separate but related testimonies regarding the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  I reject the modern assumptions that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all basically copies of one another with minor tweakings.  I am also skeptical about attempts to perfectly harmonize all of the Gospel accounts so that similar events between them must refer to the same single event.  I treat them as four individual eyewitness accounts all centered on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Add to that the testimony of St. Paul, the author of much of the rest of the New Testament, who had a divine encounter with the resurrected and ascended Jesus of Nazareth which completely changed his life and purpose, and you have quite a collection of witnesses!

What they universally present is the picture of a man who could do and say amazing things, and who credits these abilities to his identity not just as the son of Joseph but also as the Son of God.  He presents himself as divine, speaking and acting with divine authority and purpose.  As proof of this, He prophesies his betrayal, arrest, conviction, execution, burial and, most amazing of all, his resurrection from the dead three days later.

All four of the Gospels indicate that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy completely and perfectly.  He was betrayed.  He was convicted of blasphemy by the Jewish authorities and insurrection by the Roman authorities and sentenced to death.  He died by crucifixion and was buried on Friday evening.  Sunday morning (technically three days later) the tomb was found to be empty.  That same day Jesus began appearing to his followers, physically alive, bearing some of the marks of his ordeal (nail marks and the wound in his side) but not others (the massive beating he underwent as per Roman custom prior to his crucifixion).  He continued to present himself alive to his followers – sometimes numbering in the hundreds (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) over the next few weeks before physically ascending from their midst into the heavens with the promise that He would return.

You have to come to grips first and foremost with what the Bible says about Jesus as pertaining to his person and work.  Based on the accounts provided, there are three reasonable options:

  • He was crazy – delusions of grandeur, but not who He thought He was
  • He was evil – deliberately lying and fooling others knowing it would get him and many others killed
  • He was the Son of God – his work and particularly his resurrection demonstrate He was telling the truth about himself and what He was here to accomplish

If you want to opt for either of the first two explanations, you need to explain the fact that the Gospels present him as able to do amazing things.  Healing the sick.  Driving out evil spirits.  Raising the dead.  Miraculously feeding thousands of people spontaneously.  Controlling the weather.  These are difficult (I would say impossible) feats to fake.

Which means that if you want to select one of the first two explanations you need to have a reason why the eyewitness testimony claims these things about him when they were apparently not true.  You need to either discredit the authors (Matthew, John, Peter/Mark, Luke & his sources) and show why they are deliberately lying or were fooled, or you need to discredit the documents themselves and show how they are internally inconsistent, or have not been transmitted in a way so that we can trust that they say today what they originally said 2000 years ago.

Many have tried to do one or both of these things in order to opt for explanations 1 or 2 about Jesus.  None have credibly succeeded.  We have no reason to distrust the authors of the Gospels, and each of them is reputed to have suffered much – up to and including execution – for professing their faith in Jesus as raised from the dead.  The documentary transmission evidence for Scripture is astounding and provides virtually 100% validation and verification that we can know what the original manuscripts said.  And no credible explanations for how a man could pretend to perform miracles have been offered, and no credible explanation for how he could fake his death and resurrection has been forwarded.  The closest thing to an alternative theory on the resurrection is that the disciples or someone else stole his body from the tomb.  Given the fact that the tomb was sealed, guarded, and the stone blocking the entrance was substantial, this seems unlikely.  Also given the importance to both the Jews and the Romans that Jesus remain dead, it seems unlikely that the missing body of such a high profile person would remain unsolved for very long – unless the body hadn’t actually been stolen.

This leaves us with option 3 – that Jesus of Nazareth was also the divine Son of God. This is a hard option because it pushes aside the naturalistic philosophical assertions of the past 300 years or so – that creation is a closed system with knowable and predictable causes and effects, and therefore that nothing miraculous can happen, meaning the dead cannot live again.  This philosophical assumption has ruled ruthlessly in Western Civilization for centuries without any proof other than itself as a prior evidence.  Miracles cannot happen because miracles are impossible.  Any report of a miracle is therefore by definition faulty and incorrect.  The philosopher David Hume is particularly credited with popularizing this argument.

But it requires multiple assumptions which cannot be proven. We can prove that our experience shows overwhelmingly that most people don’t rise from the dead.  But we cannot extrapolate from that to say that nobody has ever risen from the dead, particularly because we have eyewitness accounts that say some people – most notably Jesus – have.  Incidentally this is why his resurrection is such a big deal!  It’s not like it happens all the time!  The only way to dismiss those claims outright is to rule them faulty philosophically.  To presume that we do know that they cannot be true.  To assert this we would have to claim to have total and complete knowledge of all deaths ever, in order to authoritatively rule out the claims involving Jesus.  But we don’t have this.  Not even close.

If Jesus did rise from the dead and this is evidence of his divinity and He could perform miracles and prophesy the future, it seems reasonable to take his Word on Scriptural authority.  Jesus frequently quotes from and alludes to the Old Testament – the Hebrew canon of Scripture.  He never contradicts it (though He does sometimes clarify interpretations and applications of it).  He never treats it as anything less than fully reliable, as actual Truth.  Why would He, the Son of God, so fully approve of these writings?  Because He knows they are inspired by God, and are therefore accurate and reliable.

So we have Jesus validating the Old Testament canon as trustworthy and fully acceptable.  The case for validating the New Testament is a little trickier, in my opinion.  Some point to Jesus’ promises to his disciples as recorded by John (14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15).  Based on his promises of the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the Apostles, their writings are to be trusted as inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore on the same standing as the Old Testament canon.  Thus it is that the New Testament is composed chiefly of writings that were believed to come from the Apostles and St. Paul, the so-called thirteenth apostle.

That these books were treated as authoritative is evident in that they are all quoted or referred to by Church leaders very early on.  They have been almost universally recognized as canonical, and the occasional challenges to this have been rejected.  Other writings were certainly known and sometimes even referred to, but always treated as something other than these New Testament documents, chiefly on the basis of apostolic authorship (despite the doubts of some today as to whether or not all of the New Testament writings are by the people they are traditionally credited to).

So the trustworthiness of the Bible is unique among sacred texts in that it is linked to a very specific historical and geographical set of events in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.  Eyewitness accounts of this man emerged within mere decades of his death and resurrection, likely much sooner than that in oral form.  The accounts were cross-checked by a large number of people who witnessed and experienced these events firsthand and certainly could have been utilized by enemies of Jesus to disprove the claims in the Gospels if they were untrue.

In other words, Scripture provides a rational reason to trust it as authoritative, something that no other sacred text can do.  This means for the true agnostic, the best place to start in trying to understand what god might exist is to start with Christianity because it has the best evidence behind it.  If it isn’t convincing, continue wherever else you like, you aren’t going to find more compelling, objective evidence.  The writings of Buddha weren’t written down until hundreds of years after his death.  The Q’uran and Book of Mormon insist on absolute faith and trust in the singular experiences of Mohammed and Joseph Smith without any reliable external validation either of other witnesses or of other historical or archaeological data.  The Vedic hymns are still a source of mystery as to their purpose and origins.

So I believe that the Bible can and should be the ultimate authority in my life.  The objective historical and archaeological data is augmented by my subjective experience of myself and the world and by how Scripture describes what those experiences show me.  And because of the objective authority of Scripture, I trust it to govern and interpret my subjective ideas, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  I trust that if there is ever uncertainty between what I feel like doing and what Scripture tells me to do, I should follow Scripture rather than my feelings.

I think this is a logically cohesive approach.  It is not bullet-proof.  It is open to doubt and a certain level of uncertainty.  But I believe it provides far more certainty than any other sacred text or religious or philosophical treatise.  It far better describes the reality I encounter internally and externally every day.  It far better paints a portrait of the divine as a radically Other, rather than an extension of myself.

And it provides a unique and unparalleled hope.

Whereas every other religion and philosophy ultimately places responsibility for my past present and future on my shoulders, Christianity and the Bible are the only things which tell me these things are beyond my control in any substantive measure.  Buddhism and Hinduism prompt me towards enlightenment and self-release from a cycle of birth and suffering and death and rebirth.  The Q’uran insists that I am capable of and adequate level of obedience to the requirements of God and simply need to do it.  Mormonism echoes this to a large extent.  Secular humanism places our hope in genetics and education and other control mechanisms but still equates to a we-will-fix-ourselves approach.

Only the Bible tells me that I can’t fix myself.  Only the Bible describes the secret horror I find within me each day – oftentimes I don’t even want to fix myself.  Only the Bible insists that as I cannot fix myself I certainly can’t fix others.  Only the Bible adequately deals with my greatest issue in life – my mortality.  Only the Bible can give me true hope – that my salvation, my repair, my perfection are not within my control, but must be trusted to the God who created me in the first place.   That isn’t always easy, but it’s hugely comforting.  It can be abused and misapplied, but it remains valid and true and beautiful in spite of those who would misuse it.

So I trust the Word of God as the sole reliable authority in my life.  Here I stand, I can do no other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s