Why believe in Scripture?

.Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels.

One of the most contested issues in theology has to do with the Bible. On the one hand, it is easy to believe that the biblical texts are the works of human beings who are interested in communicating and propagating their own perspectives on things. On the other hand, it is not at all obvious why anyone should believe that these human words are also the Word of God. Why believe that God speaks through Scripture? Closely related to this are still other questions: Why believe that what the Bible says is true? And how can one know which books count as Scripture and which do not?

There are a few different ways of answering these questions. Some people say that the determination of Scripture is the prerogative of the Church. Christ established a visible, hierarchically structured community of persons which has the authority and necessary divine assistance to determine which texts do or do not contain and communicate the Word of God. At the end of the day, however, it is the authority of the Church which establishes this or that text as properly belonging to the scriptural canon. Other people say that whether a text is or is not Scripture, the Word of God, i.e. whether it does or does not properly belong in the canon, is not a matter for the Church to establish or determine on its own authority. Rather, the Church merely recognizes the divine “stamp” on certain texts and not on others. The texts are not authoritative because they are recognized by the Church, but rather the Church recognizes them because they are themselves authoritative.

I am personally inclined toward this latter line of reasoning. (Of course, there are many other relevant factors to consider, such as whether a specific text arguably came from an apostle or someone close to an apostle, etc. But I will set these issues to the side, because what I am writing here is intended as complementary and not as exclusive of them.) But we have to ask a further question: How does the Church recognize the divine Word in the human words of these texts? This is not an easy question to answer. Some thinkers say that the Holy Spirit assists people to recognize the divine quality of the biblical texts in something akin to a form of supernatural perception. Just as one sees the colors and shapes of things with one’s eyes, so also the Holy Spirit helps the Church to “see” that these texts contain and communicate the Word of God, that they are divinely inspired. John Calvin proposes something like this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion I, 7, 2: “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.” And he says later on:

[T]he testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason [in favor of the authority of Scripture]. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.

Institutes I, 7, 4

This idea may seem very plausible to a lot of people, but I am not so sure about it. It leaves certain important questions unanswered. For example, how does one know that the Holy Spirit is bearing witness to the divinity of the text? How can we distinguish this purported work of the Holy Spirit from the sort of strong conviction that any person might have about any text he or she takes to be truthful, regardless of whether it actually is? After all, we can obviously be strongly convinced of something even though it is false. Sometimes people change their opinions about things, going from being strongly convinced of one thing to being strongly convinced of another, even though the truth of the matter presumably cannot have changed in the meantime. This happens whenever a person changes his or her mind about a matter of metaphysics, or ethics, or history, or anything else of that sort.

I agree with Calvin that the divinity of the biblical texts has to be recognized in them in some way. But we need to be more precise about what it means to recognize the Word of God in the human words of the Bible. On this point, it may be better to leave Calvin behind and consider an earlier theologian, Origen of Alexandria.

Origen writes in his On First Principles that all the churches throughout the world “most clearly teach” that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit (On First Principles Preface, 4). But he also notes that, before the coming of Christ, “it was not at all possible to bring forward clear arguments concerning the inspiration of the ancient scriptures” (On First Principles IV, 1, 6). It is only once Christ comes into the world that “the inspiration of the prophetic word and the spiritual character of the Law of Moses shone forth.” In other words, the advent of Christ in the world makes it possible to see how God speaks through the Old Testament scriptures, which would otherwise just seem like ordinary writings.

How does the advent of Christ reveal the divine quality of the Scriptures? Precisely through their spiritual fulfillment. Origen notes that the Jews did not believe that Christ fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament because they were not literally fulfilled: they did not see Him “visibly proclaiming release to the captives, nor building up what they consider to be truly a city of God, nor cutting off the chariots from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem, nor eating butter and honey, and before knowing good or preferring evil, choosing the good” and so on (On First Principles IV, 2, 1). But Origen’s response to this is that it is is precisely because the fulfillment is spiritual or typological, rather than literal, that the earlier words can be seen to be divine. Henri de Lubac comments: “The spiritual sense is thus essential to Scripture: it is not possible to believe the latter without admitting the former. Those who hold to the ‘mere letter’ cannot logically hold to the dogma of inspiration” (History and Spirit, p. 338).

This point is worth exploring in some detail. Why does the spiritual or typological fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ reveal that they are divinely inspired? Because in this way it becomes possible to discern the divine voice and what it says from the human voices of the biblical authors and later readers. I call this the “phenomenon of the Third Voice,” and I talk about in a paper on proto-phenomenology of Scripture in Origen as well as in chapters 4 and 6 my dissertation.

What is the phenomenon of the Third Voice? It occurs when, during the act of reading the Bible as Scripture, a sense or meaning spontaneously suggests itself in the consciousness of the reader which cannot be identified either with (i) what the human author plausibly could have meant by his or her words, nor with (ii) what the human reader would have come up with, given his or her own habits of interpretation. The sense or meaning that one encounters in this experience is spoken by a “third voice,” distinct from the authorial voice of the human author and the hermeneutic voice of the human reader. I argue in detail in ch. 6 of my dissertation that this is what it would mean for someone to encounter the Word of God in the human words of the Bible, and I give numerous examples from history to show how many Christians have had such experiences and taken them as being encounters with God’s Word, from Anthony and Augustine to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Now, one of the most controversial aspects of the New Testament’s presentation of Christ is the spiritual or typological interpretation of Old Testament passages. Matthew, for example, sees the flight of Jesus and His family from Egypt as a fulfillment of something the prophet Hosea says: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1). If you read the Hosea passage, it seems obvious that it could not in principle have been about Jesus Himself. Hosea says just one more verse down: “The more I called them, the more they went from me” (Hos 11:2). Hosea is clearly talking about the people of Israel and condemning them for fleeing from God. But Christ is one person and did not flee from God. How then could Christ’s flight from Egypt in childhood be a fulfillment of the supposed Old Testament prophecy?

The phenomenon of the Third Voice helps us to see how to understand this situation. Christ left Egypt as a child. When Matthew learned about this, he spontaneously remembered the passage from Hosea, only now he understood it to be saying something new: namely, that Christ, the Son of God, was called out of Egypt. He grasped a sense or meaning of the Old Testament text which could not be identified with the intended meaning of the author, nor is it something he would normally have come up with on his own, prior to knowing Christ. It was the presence of Christ in the world that provided the occasion for a “third voice,” beyond the voice of Hosea and the voice of Matthew, to make itself heard by saying something about Christ through the words of the Old Testament prophet. In other words, Matthew encountered the Word of God in the Old Testament text and it said something to him about Christ. What Matthew does in his gospel is to share this experience with others and to make it possible for them to have it too, even if in an indirect way.

Some scholars look at Matthew’s use of the Old Testament texts and suppose that he simply had gone off the rails. He was convinced that Christ was the Messiah, so he pored over the Hebrew Bible in search of any passage whatsoever that he could use to prove his beliefs to others. Others say that Matthew and the earliest disciples even made up stories about Christ’s personal history on the basis of various Old Testament passages they (for some reason) took to be “prophecies.” What these approaches have in common is that they deny that the text Matthew produced, such as it is, is an essentially truthful and adequate presentation of things as he knew them to be. If one denies the truthfulness of Matthew’s presentation of things, then one has to come up with all kinds of explanations for why he uses the Old Testament the way he does.

On the other hand, if we accept the fundamental truthfulness of Matthew’s presentation of things, – in other words, if we accept the truthfulness of the flight from Egypt or other events that Matthew and the other evangelists interpret typologically, – then it becomes possible to see that they had an encounter with the Word of God. They experienced what I have been calling the phenomenon of the Third Voice. Christ’s advent in the world was the occasion for God to speak to them about Christ, making use of the words of the Old Testament which were familiar to them and yet communicating something neither the human authors nor the human readers could have come up with on their own. Thus, if one accepts the truth of Matthew’s presentation of things in his gospel, then it becomes possible to see how God spoke about Christ through the Old Testament texts.

It is important to understand my proposal carefully. I am not saying that the Bible is the Word of God just because it is true. A lot of people speak truthfully about all kinds of things. That doesn’t mean that God is speaking through them. Aristotle may have been right about a few things, but the fact that he was right doesn’t mean that he was divinely inspired. Rather, I am saying that if we read the New Testament texts in the way the Church has always done, namely as fundamentally truthful testimony to the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, then it becomes possible to see how they contain and communicate the Word of God. The apostles and disciples of Jesus experienced this Word when they followed Jesus around from place to place, seeing what He did and hearing the divine Voice speak to them as it happened. For example, when Jesus cleanses the Temple in John 2, the evangelist writes: “His disciples remembered that it was written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (John 2:17). That is a passage in Ps 69. In context, the psalm is not making a prediction about what the Messiah would later do. It is a prayer of David’s that God would deliver him from his enemies. But the disciples saw what Christ was doing and God spoke to them in their consciousness, through the words of David, in order to say something about Christ.

This is the sense in which the New Testament, together with the Old, contains and communicates the Word of God: by relating the experiences of the apostles and disciples had of this Word during their time around Jesus of Nazareth. There was an experience of the Word of God (analyzed phenomenologically as the phenomenon of the Third Voice) that convinced the apostles and disciples that God spoke through the Old Testament prophets about Christ. And they relate this experience in their gospels by speaking of Christ as “fulfilling” various Old Testament passages.

But it is only possible to see this if we accept the fundamental truthfulness of the New Testament’s depiction of things. If we reject this fundamental truthfulness, then the testimony to the experience of the Word of God in the phenomenon of the Third Voice becomes obscured. So this is my argument for why we should believe in the truthfulness of Scripture: because if we grant that fundamental truthfulness, it becomes possible to see how these Old and New Testament texts together contain and communicate the Word of God.

Someone might say: But why should we grant the truthfulness of the New Testament in the first place? Why not accept a more skeptical interpretation of it, like in some critical studies?

I would answer as follows. If I want to see something, I have to know where to stand in order to see it. I can see some things from a certain spot but not others. I can see who is in the garage if I stand in it, or at least in front of my house, but I cannot see who is in the garage if I am in the back yard or inside the book store. The only reason for adopting a certain perspective is because that perspective helps you see the things you are interested in. The value of a perspective is the “light” it sheds on the things you are concerned with. So also, assuming the fundamental truthfulness of the New Testament testimony to Christ makes it possible to see how it contains and communicates the Word of God, as I’ve described in this article.

In a sense, Christian faith is like making a “wager.” One makes a wager in favor of the fundamental truthfulness of the New Testament testimony to Christ and follows through on that wager to see where one ends up. Because it is a wager, it involves a bit of leap. One makes a wager in conditions of uncertainty, where it is not obvious what to do or how to think. It is possible to take other wagers. But these other wagers are not obviously better than the Christian wager, and nothing rationally forbids a person from making the Christian wager. So although I do not think that I can definitively prove that the Bible is truthful and that it contains and communicates the Word of God, nevertheless I can explain and invite others to take the wager. By accepting the fundamental truthfulness of the New Testament’s testimony to Jesus, it becomes possible to see how God spoke to His apostles about Him. And that is what motivates the Church to trust in Him and to cling to Him above everything else.