It probably comes as no surprise that the most common question I receive from both Christians and non-Christians is “How do I know the Bible is the Word of God?” And the reason this question is at the top of the list is not hard to determine. The authority of the Bible is the foundation for everything that we believe as Christians. It is the source of our doctrine and our ethics. Thus, we need to be able to answer this question when asked.
Let me say from the outset that there is not just one answer to this question. I think there are many ways that Christians can come to know the Scriptures are from God. God can certainly use historical evidences to convince us of the truth of his Word (though it is important to understand the limitations of evidence). And God can use the testimony of the church to convince us of the truth of his Word (I cover the details of this in Canon Revisited).
But, it is noteworthy that throughout the history of the church many Christians have ascertained the divine origins of the Bible in yet another way: its internal qualities. Apparently some Christians were persuaded of the Bible’s authority by reading it and observing its distinctive character and power.
Tatian is one such Christian. Tatian was a second-century Christian thinker, a disciple of Justin Martyr, and the author of an apologetic work known as Oration to the Greeks (c.165). In this work, Tatian makes his case for the truth of Christianity. During one section, he lays out his personal conversion story and recounts how he carefully examined all the pagan religious writings and found them incoherent, problematic, and, sometimes, downright evil. But, then he happened to come across the Scriptures and began to read:
I was led to put my faith in these by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centered on one Being. And my soul being taught of God, I discern that the former class of [pagan] writings lead to condemnation, but that these [Scriptures] put an end to the slavery that is in the world (29).
This is a profound statement. Tatian, the impressive intellect that he was, was not persuaded by historical evidence nor from the testimony of the church (though, as noted above, both are legitimate when appropriately utilized), but by the internal qualities of the Scriptures themselves. There was something about the Scriptures that came alive to him. How did he discern this? As he indicates, “my soul being taught of God.” Presumably this is a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit.
And Tatian was not the only one who thought like this. One century later, Origen says something very similar:
If anyone ponders over the prophetic sayings…it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize that the words he is reading are not the utterances of men but the language of God (Princ. 4.1.6).
The Reformers also thought this way. They believed the truth of Scripture could be ascertained, by the help of the Holy Spirit, from the Scriptures themselves. This is what they meant when they said the Scriptures were self-authenticating.
Such a reality should come as no surprise. After all Jesus said, “My sheep here my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
Do we know what NT books Tatian determined to be scripture?
Michael Kruger says
In this quote, he was likely referring to OT books, but we cannot be sure. We know he accepted at many NT books as Scripture, including the 4 gospels, and a number of Paul’s epistles.
When I saw the question my first reaction was to answer “by faith.” I think this is a good example of just that. Although the Bible provides ample evidence for its historicity and trustworthiness, the bottom line is that faith, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer, is the only way that we can know that the Bible is from God. We can prove how reliable the Bible is, but at its core that will not prove it is the word of God. I think that is the point that the unbeliever misses. Many cannot accept the fact that there will always be a chasm between scientific and historical evidence and the knowledge of God and His revelation. That’s where faith comes in and the individuals quoted in this article, I think, point that out very clearly.
Thank you for a very nice and succinct article.
Tim Campbell says
This was really good. But, how is this different from the Book of Mormon “burning in the bosom” subjectivity. I am a committed to inerrancy,etc. Just could hear argument from opponents on “self authenticating” as subjectivism. Thoughts?
Michael Kruger says
Calvin and the Reformers addressed precisely this question. They maintained that this is not subjectivism because the divine qualities of Scripture are objectively present. Just because it requires the Spirit to rightly apprehend those divine qualities does not make them subjective. The Mormon view (and the Barthian view) are different from the Reformed view in precisely this way. Both ground our confidence in the experience of the Spirit (burning in the bosom), whereas the Reformed view grounds our confidence in the objective qualities themselves (the Spirit simply helps us to see them). I also cover this issue in my book Canon Revisited, chapter three.
Here are some comments I made on chapter three of your book for a friend in seminary. I wrote a critique of the whole book, but when I came to this website and saw this article and this comment mentioning chapter three, I thought I would throw in my two cents.
p92 – I am commenting here on the nature of circularity. He points out that all foundational authorities authenticate their authority in a circular way. i.e. the authority is known to be the authority because it claims to be so. This has an element of truth, but it is missing the most important element: how I know that the authority is actually an authority. He might reply: “but we know it is authoritative because it claims it for itself.” From this argument, then, every person and every book that claims to be an authority is one. In epistemology, there are four ways of knowing things. First, I know something through 1) reason and 2) experience. All knowledge comes to me primarily in one of these two ways. From my reason and experience, I am able to recognize some 3) first principles, which are immediately evident (e.g. the part is never greater than the whole, the effect can never be greater than the cause, etc.). Also, through reason and experience I learn that some people or books or institutions are reliable 4) authorities for certain or all information. As my experience with this authority continues, the authority becomes more and more reliable to me, including its own claim to authority. This is the difference between vicious circularity and non-vicious circularity. So, I hope that he addresses the process of 1) – 3) for showing how we get to 4), otherwise his proposal will be viciously circular. Philosophy without theology has no direction or purpose; but theology without philosophy is blind. Philosophy without theology is like having a map to a land that doesn’t exist; theology without philosophy is like visiting a country and having no map. Unsound reasoning doesn’t suddenly become sound by adding the words: “God said so.”
He is claiming that we can know the Bible is reliable because God says so. How do we know that God has communicated to us through the Bible? This assumes the canon.
p95 – first of all, I agree that we cannot include a book in the canon unless we actually have it in hand, but his “biblical” reasoning from Rom 15:4 and 2 Tim 3:16-17 does not support the conclusion. The content of those two passages do not at all imply the point he is trying to prove. It seems as if he is assuming his point of view and searching for proof of it.
p95 – reference to 1 Cor 5:9 – this would seem to disprove the point he is making. Paul refers to that letter as authoritative. This would be one of the few cases where one book of the NT actually affirms the authenticity and authority of another NT book.
97-103 – It is remarkable how little Scripture is used here, and even the Scripture that is used does not speak explicitly about a canon, attributes of Scripture, or any instructions at all about the formation of a canon. Yes, it says that the sheep know the shepherd and recognize his voice, but how do we know which sheep are hearing the right voice? How do we know the 2nd century gnostics were not hearing the right voice speaking to them in the Gospel of Thomas? If Kruger continues in this vein, the this book is completely useless to any “scholar” who does not start from a reformed perspective. The thing I want you to question is that assumption: why start with the reformed perspective? Why look at Scripture, history, or any other subject through that particular worldview? On paper it looks ok, but what is there that grounds that worldview in reality (and in this case, the historical reality of the Church’s recognition of the canon)?
Essentially, he is saying that, if we assume the reformed perspective, then we have a way of showing the books of the NT belong there. Any other group can say the same thing: Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses, whoever. If the argument is not reasonable or binding one anyone else, then it is merely an exercise in speculation. The fact that scholars disagree about history and other topics does not mean that there can be no historical grounding.
note 49 on p 103-104 is interesting regarding the marks of the true Church. Here are two other characteristics: continuity and unity. These are probably the most important characteristics of the Church that are derived from Scripture, and the only Church that fulfills these is the Roman Catholic Church. It is really interesting, too, that he puts forward the sacraments as a criterion for identifying the true Church and yet he rejects the sacraments as they are observed by ALL of the church fathers (all of them Roman Catholic), the same who witness to the canon.
This section on corporate reception is proving to be very interesting. If the corporate consensus (by the Roman Catholic Church; i.e. the Church at that time) is so reliable, on what grounds does he reject the Church for everything but the canon? Again, most of the passages he quotes are not proving his point and seem to be pulled out of context. There are better passages he could quote, ones that Ridderbos pointed out. Why would the Church be reliable about the canon but unreliable about everything else?
p106 “The Catholic model insists that the church’s reception of these books is the sole grounds for the canon’s authority.” False. This is just plain false, and he has plenty of evidence that he himself has presented in this book to recognize it.
The end of p106 is a great analogy, and it works for the REAL Catholic position, too.
But, once again, he seems to be blurring the ontological/epistemological distinction here (as he goes on to pp107-108). What he promised to discuss is the thermometer (the how-we-know), not the thermostat (the what-determines).
p108 is really interesting. Why believe that Christ will cause the church to accept the canon? Where does Scripture say anything like that? All of Jesus’s talk about the shepherd and the sheep make no mention at all about a list of books! Specifically, Jesus seems to be talking about the teaching of the Church, and Peter looks to be the new shepherd put in place (John 21: “feed my sheep” etc). The statements imply Tradition, and why limit that Tradition to just the list? Where does it say that the Church would get all the other stuff wrong?
His comment about unity (just before section 3) is not biblical at all. Christ’s prayer was that we would be one as He and his Father are one. His notion of unity has no relation to the picture painted by the NT of the Church.
up to p118 – agreed. All of these work together. The RCC would agree. The problem for Kruger: in establishing some of these criteria, he is reliant on the first few generations of Christians after the apostles (the RCC). But, why trust them? How do we know they are the right sheep who are hearing the voice of Jesus? More importantly, why trust them for only the canon and reject their Catholic beliefs?
What is interesting to note is that, again, all three of these together could be used by any other religious group: The Koran bears divine attributes, it was written by the prophet, and it was received whole and entire by all of his followers. Does that make the Koran trustworthy?
Mike Gantt says
I am a layman who has studied a good bit of your work on the canon, and the work of others as well – including Gamble, McDonald, Metzger, Bruce, and others. I have arrived at a conviction and I hope you will either confirm or correct it from your point of view.
The 27-book New Testament canon that we have had for 1,500 years is what the ancient church determined to be the extant apostolic corpus – no more, no less. That is, the ancient church put no writing in the NT that they considered to be non-apostolic; neither did they leave anything out of the NT that they did consider apostolic.
(* “apostolic” meaning written by an apostle or close associate of an apostle)
(By the way, I know that many modern scholars think that a number of the authors ascribed to various NT writings are not the actual authors, but my question has to do with the thinking of the ancient church that produced the canon – not the modern church that has inherited it.)
If you think I have this wrong, please tell me at what points. Thank you.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Mike. Although more can be said than your one sentence, I think it captures well the historical truth about canon.
I have a question, but first let me lay a foundation for it.
I have a coworker who has converted from Catholicism to atheism and from atheism to Islam. When I asked him how he went from a professing atheist to a practicing Muslim he told me the story of how he came to look into it. What I found interesting was that he said what convinced him was when he bought a Koran and read it that it “spoke to him.”
My question is; are we doing the same thing? What about those who don’t have a “confirming unction” when they read the scripture? And what about those who have a “confirming unction” over texts like the Koran? How does someone validate the authority of scripture and faith by the same means that others are validating their opposing faith?
LF6 (@lightfightersix) says
Hebrews 4:12 sums it up for me…
“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
Here is another thing Origen said:
Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth, which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).
Interesting that there is nothing about the Bible there.