How do you know the Bible is the Word of God?
Virtually every Christian has heard that question at one time or another. And when we do, our hearts beat faster and we feel a flutter in our stomachs. We want to offer an insightful, sophisticated, and compelling answer. Just something that will keep us from looking foolish.
So, we search our brains for that apologetics talk we heard years ago and the numerous historical data points that were mentioned. But, since we don’t remember the details, we mumble something about the Bible having good “historical evidence” for its truth (hoping no one asks for the details).
But, lurking in the background of such discussions is an assumption that needs to be challenged. And that assumption is that external “historical evidences” are the only proper grounds for forming our beliefs about the Bible. We are only justified in our beliefs, so we think, if we can recite a litany of scientific data points to back them up.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with defending the Bible on historical grounds. The Bible has impressive historical credentials and there’s a time and a place to discuss them. But, if we insist this is the only grounds for our beliefs, then we run into a few problems.
For one, it would mean that hardly any Christians really know that the Bible is the Word of God. If one must achieve nearly Ph.D.-level knowledge before their trust in God’s Word is justified, then very few Christians enjoy such a privilege.
Beyond this, the Bible itself seems to indicate there are other ways to know it is God’s Word. One such way is from the Bible itself and its own self-authenticating qualities. This is not the time for a full-length defense of that approach, but I have written extensively about it in other places (for example, see here) as have other scholars (see here).
But, there is also another way: on the testimony of others we trust. As strange as it sounds, we are justified by believing God’s Word is true because those we trust have told us it’s true.
Indeed, Paul hints at this very reason when he exhorts Timothy to trust God’s Word:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:14-15).
Notice that Paul’s exhortation for Timothy to continue trusting God’s Word is grounded in who taught it to him: knowing from whom you learned it. There’s little doubt this refers to Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Tim 1:5).
In other words, one reason to believe God’s word (but not the only reason) is because of the testimony of others we trust. And this particularly applies to parents (or grandparents).
Of course, in our current anti-authority culture, this line of reasoning sounds laughable. Several objections arise:
1. “The testimony of others is not a valid grounds for our beliefs. We have to check it out for ourselves.”
According to this objection, we can only believe something if we have investigated the evidence for ourselves. But, this is simply not the case for most things we know. Moreover, it betrays a naive confidence in our modern investigative abilities—what philosopher Alvin Plantinga refers to as “Enlightenment optimism run amuck” (Warrant and Proper Function, 78).
Can I really discover, in a way independent of testimony, that in the fifth century B.C. there was a war between the Athenians and the Spartans? Can I discover in this way that Plato was a philosopher? Or that the woman I take to be my mother really was? Or that I was given the name I think I was? Or that there is such a country as Australia? (78)
He concludes: “We are therefore dependent upon testimony for most of what we know” (78)
2. “My parents could be wrong.”
Of course, this is true. What our parents tell us could be wrong. But, this is missing the point. The issue is whether it is reasonable to believe those we trust (and have good reasons to trust) when they tell us certain things are true. And Timothy had good grounds for trusting his mother and grandmother.
The only alternative is to doubt all sources of knowledge merely because they could be wrong. In such a case, I would have to doubt my own sense-perception and accept nothing I see, hear or touch. After all, my sense perception could be deceiving me!
But such an approach would lead to a self-defeating skepticism. On those terms, I could not know the truth of anything (including the truth of my skepticism!).
3. “My parents have no way to know such a thing.”
This objection basically argues that children can’t trust their parents about whether the Bible is true because they are not experts in the Bible. Most parents haven’t studied the historical evidences or earned a Ph.D. in New Testaments studies, etc.
But, this argument actually assumes the very thing under dispute. It assumes, as mentioned above, that external “historical evidences” are the only proper grounds for forming our beliefs about the Bible. But, this is not what Christians have historically believed. On the contrary, Christians have believed you can know the Bible is God’s word by its own self-authenticating qualities.
And if parents have good grounds for knowing the Bible is God’s word, then it is reasonable for children to listen to the testimony of their parents.
4. “Trusting my parents makes me a victim of religious indoctrination.”
Such an objection is just a variant of the classical argument that all religious beliefs are the result of cultural conditioning. Or, so the argument goes, most people are only Christians because they were born in the West to Christian parents. If they had been born in, say, Egypt, they would probably be Muslim.
But, that argument cuts both ways. If all religious claims are subject to cultural conditioning, then that applies also to the skeptic, atheist, and pluralist. Plantinga again:
Pluralism isn’t and hasn’t been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn’t be a pluralist or that his pluralistic beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process? I doubt it (“Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,” 187-188).
In other words, there’s no reason to be inherently skeptical of what your parents taught you, just because your parents taught it to you.
In sum, Paul’s argument to Timothy proves to be valid. Yes, there are many other ways to know the Bible is the Word of God. But, don’t overlook a rather basic way: the personal testimony of people you trust. And that particularly applies to Christian parents.
This is an excellent article. The primary reason I am a Christian today is the testimony of my Mom and Dad (and my Dad especially so). As a kid, I was able to observe the integrity of my Dad’s life and the consistancy of his walk with the Lord, and, as a result, I was able to see for myself that this “Christianity religion thing” actually works. It’s not just some thing we do on Sundays or merely a moral code; it was the central theme of my home growing up. Of course I had to investigate the areas I had questions in when questions arose–but that underlying framework provided by my parents’ testimony has proved indespensible to my faith today.
Patrick Dowley says
Seems like the skeptics today cannot arrive at any reasonable conclusion and prefer to say we don’t know.
Ok, but then don’t we also have to ask the question of what constitutes a valid authority on a given subject?
Agreed than knowledge cannot move forward without testimony but not all testimony is created equal. If I want to know about the war between Athenians and Spartans, simply trusting my parents would not be the best option and inherent skepticism would be a more appropriate response. Its not their fault, there are simply better authorities on the subject. Why would the question posed on this article be any different?
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, James. But, I think you’re confused about the argument. I never said your parents can tell you about the war between the Athenians and Spartans. Rather that was an example (from Plantinga) about how we rely on the *testimony* of others for most things we know. And when parents tell their children the Bible is the word of God, that is also a form of testimony. Do Christian parents have a way of knowing such a thing? Absolutely. I mentioned that other articles I have written make the case that Christians can know the Bible is the Word of God through the self-authenticating qualities of the Bible itself. You may not agree, but that is a standard, historic Christian view, and one I cannot fully defend here.Thus, if Christian parents are justified in their beliefs about the Bible, then a child is justified in believing their parents’ testimony.
Chris Sanders says
“Thus, if Christian parents are justified in their beliefs about the Bible, then a child is justified in believing their parents’ testimony.”
If we assume a parent’s or other person’s testimony to be truth simply by them claiming to be a Christian without testing it against a higher authority, we can quickly fall into confusion because one person’s conviction and testimony will almost always be in opposition to another’s conviction and testimony (numerous examples of this can even be found in the interactions between Jesus and His disciples e.g. Matt. 16:22-23). The context around the 2. Tim 3:14-15 that you quoted, continuously hammers the idea that other teacher will come who teach what “… suit[s] their own passions”, and Paul advises to instead lean back on The Word because the text in there has been tested and comes from a much higher authority. Believing “self-authenticating qualities of the Bible” is indeed time-tested, but unlike the Bible, people’s testimonies have been time-tested to be often unreliable and fallible.
So, it would seem that the argument is then dependant on the viability of the idea that scripture is self-authenticating. Despite its historic relevance in early Christianity, I just question whether it can inspire the confidence needed to meet the challenges of the modern, post-higher criticism world.
Thanks for taking the time to respond and challenge my thinking on this subject.
James wrote, “don’t we also have to ask the question of what constitutes a valid authority on a given subject?”
Good question. A follow-up question: Can a “skeptic” recognize a valid authority without trusting some form of authority to begin with? Questions about epistemology often remind me of Meno’s paradox.
Christian parents who have studied the Bible constantly, and applied and tested what they’ve learned in their daily lives constitute valid authority, I would think. They are better authorities than those who have merely studied the Bible as a way of gaining knowledge, but never ventured to test its verity in real life circumstances.
Depends what “because” means. Here you’re talking about the origin of a belief, which is irrelevant to its truth value – if I believe that 345 x 678 = 233,910 because I read it in a fortune cookie, my belief can still be true even if the origin of my belief is unreliable. But that unreliable origin of my belief is not sufficient logical warrant for it.
Same with the testimony of Christian parents, or Muslim parents, or atheist parents. Just because our theological beliefs originated with their testimony doesn’t mean they’re a reliable grounds for belief. And conversely, just because parents make mistakes doesn’t mean that nothing they say is true – “a broken clock,” & all that. 🙂
Great points. I think a major problem that stems from this is that kids will accept it because their parents say it’s true… then stop. Parents rarely give a foundation for their belief, often because THEY don’t know why the believe it. In the real world, “I believe it because my dad says so” doesn’t work.
From my experience, trusting a parent needs to be step 1 in believing God is real, the Bible is true, etc. however, it must be followed up with discipleship. In a world full of skepticism, atheists are more than willing to teach our kids why the Bible is false. If we aren’t building upon their trust in us by teaching WHY we believe what we believe, then we’re giving discipleship rights to those who are happy to tell them why the Bible is a lie.
Great food for thought. Thank you.