The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Does Evidence Take Away from the Bible’s Authority?


Authority Issues

Christians have always been extremely wary of holding anything, such as philosophy or “reason” or evidence, as an authority over Scripture. It is sometimes argued that if one appeals to something as a reason to believe Scripture, then that thing becomes one’s authority. But, for the Christian, nothing can stand in authority over Scripture. Thus, we cannot use reason and evidence as our basis for believing the claims of Scripture.

The very prominent theologian, Wayne Grudem, has said:

Since the words of Scripture are “self-attesting,” they cannot be “proved” to be God’s words by appeal to any higher authority. If we make our ultimate appeal, for example, to human logic or to scientific truth to prove that the Bible is God’s Word, then we assume the thing to which we appeal to be a higher authority than God’s words and one that is more true or more reliable. Therefore, the ultimate authority by which Scripture is shown to be God’s words must be Scripture itself.[1]

Is Scripture Self-Attesting?

Though it is a common phrase in the history of theology, it seems difficult to know exactly what is meant by saying Scripture is “self-attesting.” Grudem himself goes on to explain this as the persuasiveness of Scripture in the actual experience of the world. But if this is right, then Scripture doesn’t seem truly self-attesting. It is seems to be the experiences of the world that attest to its truth in persuading us. Grudem goes on to even more explicitly contradict his initial claim (so it seems to me) by saying we can have evidence for the authority of scripture without that evidence becoming a higher authority. He says:

This is not to say that our knowledge of the world around us serves as a higher authority than Scripture, but rather that such knowledge, if it is correct knowledge, continues to give greater and greater assurance and deeper conviction that the Bible is the only truly ultimate authority.[2]

I would agree. It looks like he is suggesting here we can make appeal to what we know about the world and see that it (the evidence) points to Scripture’s authority. This seems to concede (despite what Grudem said above) that something can play an epistemological role in believing and recognizing a thing’s authority without itself becoming the ultimate authority.

Question: “Is the Bible God’s Word?”

The real epistemological issue we face in believing that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God is what we do when the question is “is the Bible the Word of God?” This question, it seems, can’t be answered merely by looking to the claims of Scripture attesting to this fact, at least not without vicious circularity. To avoid circularity, we’ll need to use reasons and evidence to come to the belief that Scripture is authoritative. But our coming to know that Scripture is God’s revealed word doesn’t take away from its authority in our lives. Once we come to know that it is God’s word, then we recognize and submit to its authority (the authority, by the way, it possessed all along). How do we recognize it is God’s Word? I am extremely broadminded as to what counts as evidence for this claim.

Evidence Broadly Construed

Consider the following example. Suppose Al is standing before a complete library of the world’s great religious texts. The Bible is there alongside the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, Book of Mormon, the Upanishads, etc. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that each of these claim, in effect, to be divine revelation. Standing there before all of these options, how could Al decide which one is correct? It can’t be the mere fact that the Bible claims to be God’s word. This is because, again, they all make this claim. How is Al going to decide?

Let’s suppose someone, whom Al has reason to think is trustworthy, tells him that the Bible is God’s divine word. Al now has one (i.e., a preacher) testifying to the Word of God (Rom. 10:14). Let’s also suppose the Holy Spirit stirs in Al’s spirit confirming that the Bible is God’s divine word. In this, Al hears and recognizes the voice of God (See Jn. 10:27). Al now, it seems, has epistemological reason to think the Bible is God’s authoritative word. Though Al now has reasons to believe, he can and should improve the epistemic status of his belief. He can engage in an intentional study of the text itself and begin to see how Scripture accords with the world. He will also no doubt notice the consistency and harmony of the message throughout the biblical text. Let’s also suppose he begins to read Scripture as a guide and, as he internalizes its claims, it begins to change his heart and life. Al now possess an even stronger epistemological basis for his belief in Scripture’s authority.

Many don’t think of the preacher or the Holy Spirit as providing evidence. But it is not clear why we shouldn’t. Much of what we believe is on the basis of testimonial evidence. This is where a person, whom we have reason to trust (this is important!), reports something as a fact. It seems we thereby have some reason to believe the account. It is defeasible evidence, but it is evidential in nature. This may include testimony of our parents, our teachers, books we read, etc.  But again, a trusted person telling you something has some evidential value. Again, I am employing a notion of reason in an extremely broad sense.

No one will be surprised that I think Al should also turn to topics in apologetics related to the authenticity and authority of Scripture. One should come away with the distinct impression from this study that this is no ordinary book. None of this, as I’ve argued, should take away from the authority of Scripture. Indeed one has reason upon reason (I would argue) to yield one’s life to its authority.

(This is comes from a journal length article that will be published in the Southwestern Journal of Theology).

[1] Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 37.

[2] Ibid., 39.


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5 Replies

  1. Ricky

    There is a lot of people who believe they cannot accept Biblical authority without the evidence from outside the Bible. This might be the group of persons Grudem is talking about. His comments of self-attesting means that outside sources already prove past tense the Bible is fully trustworthy but when it comes to authority only God can cliam that position not mankind.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      I am perhaps one of those who are claiming that we need evidence outside of the Bible to point us to biblical authority. In other words, I think we need to know that it is God’s Word before we can know that it is authoritative. But I definitely do not think this has to be apologetics, philosophy or science that does this work. I think it can be our experiences of God himself which provide us reasons to believe the Bible is authoritative. But notice the Bible isn’t then, strictly speaking, self-attesting. It is God (who’s “outside of the Bible”) attesting to the truth and authority of the Bible. This is where apologetics, etc., can also play a role in us coming to know that the Bible is God’s Word.

  2. Todd

    Al might well find the Holy Spirit, or something he thinks is the Holy Spirit, stirring in response not only to the Bible but to other allegedly sacred writings. Mormons often speak of the “burning in the bosom” experienced by those who read the Book of Mormon with an open mind. I am personally acquainted with people who have had “conversion experiences” from encountering such non-Biblical texts as A Course in Miracles and The Urantia Book. That is, they began reading these books and felt such a powerful interior response to them that they came to judge them as having divine origin.

    So, the sense of internal spiritual response to a text doesn’t seem to be sufficient, given that the texts to which people have such a response are not consistent among themselves in message. They can’t all be authoritative.

    Similarly, the “intentional study” of the texts, with an eye to seeing how well they “accord with the world” is unlikely to settle matters, because all of these texts, including the Bible, contain material that is, on the face of it, problematic. Notoriously, God in the OT appears to command acts that are morally questionable, causing skeptics such as Dawkins to describe him as “genocidal” and more. Yes, apologists offer responses to such charges, but it’s well known that those responses aren’t in agreement with each other either. So if challenging material exists in other allegedly divine texts (and it does), it’s hard to make the case that they should be rejected for this reason, without moving the goalposts.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      Todd, Thanks for the comment. You make a fair point. However, I think there’s a distinction to be made between religious epistemology (my knowing that p) and convincing/persuading others (my being able to convince others of p). It sounds like you mostly have persuasion in mind whereas I have religious epistemology in mind. I wouldn’t expect my religious experience to convince or persuade some other person. But the experience does stand as at least *some* evidence for me. I agree that it’s often not very robust and must be supplemented with other sorts of evidence. So I would have to say that the Mormon who has a burning in the bosom would, if that’s true, have some evidence. I think there are some really deep problems with Mormonism that suggests the experience is not God’s confirming the view. But I haven’t experienced that and so, as far as my religious epistemology goes, the mormon doesn’t present a problem for the rationality of my belief. I have my experiences and other evidence for the Christian view.

      I’m really unsure of the second point you make. How does disagreement make it such that we can’t reasonably hold to a view? There are atheists who disagree with other atheists about atheism. If what you say is right, then one cannot be a reasonable atheist without moving the goalposts either (Or, if you like, no one could reasonably hold to a theory of science if there is any disagreement without moving the goalposts). But that doesn’t seem right. I think that someone could be a rational atheist despite disagreement with other atheists.

      On my view, we should hold to the view, after careful reflection and inquiry, that seems to be the most reasonable. If that’s atheism, so be it. I find Christianity to be, by far, the most plausible view.

      1. Todd

        Thanks for the reply, Travis. I guess part of my problem is that we can’t determine how well the Bible accords with the world until we interpret its truth claims, which may in turn depend on what we take the world to be like on extra-biblical grounds.

        For example, in Genesis we read about Adam and Even before and after the “fall.” There are clearly different ways of reading this text, but all seemingly imply that there was a pre-fallen state, then a fallen state resulting from human disobedience. It’s not clear whether the pre-fallen state obtained in the entire world, or just in the set-apart place called the Garden. It’s hinted that in the pre-fallen state the food of all animals was “seed-bearing plants,” but that’s certainly not the food chain we know about. Should we read it as saying that all animals were once vegetarians? And should we understand the text to be saying that the appearance of predation was somehow the result of human sin? A case can be made for those interpretations, but they don’t accord with the world very well, since predation existed long before human beings did. So we cast about for some other interpretation of the texts. I think this sort of thing would trouble me regardless of any stirring of the Spirit I might feel.

        I guess this is precisely why some Christians *are* wary of any sort of “testing” of scripture against other sources of knowledge. It leads to precisely the kind of hermeneutic circle I’m describing.