Tom Gilson

A Great Answer To a Different Question

My most recent Daily Press column, A Great Answer To a Different Question, begins

Here’s a snippet of a conversation I hear frequently, not exactly in these words, but something like it:

Question: “I’ve been wondering something about people who believe in the Bible. How do you know that it’s true?”

Answer: “Because it’s God’s word.”

I have a word of encouragement for those who think “Because it’s God’s word” is a good answer. You’re right, it is—except it’s a good answer to a different question.

When that web link expires you can view it in PDF.

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25 thoughts on “A Great Answer To a Different Question

  1. But the best answer by far to start with is the one you know already. Why do you believe the Bible is true? Your story of how you came to believe is almost certain to connect on some level.

    Are you sure you want to present the response this way, Tom? It reduces the response to the individual’s experience, which is subjective in the eyes of the observer: “to connect on some level” is not really satisfying. (If it were, then, not to pick on Steve Drake, but his “experience” of the Genesis creation account would have been convincing a long, long time ago.) I’m not saying a particular individual’s personal experience isn’t true, I’m not reducing such an experience to DL’s “gastric preferences,” and I am most certainly not reducing it to positivist/scientistic verifiability.

    Nonetheless, it requires more that any one individual’s (or many individuals’) personal experience(s) of conversion. Conversion stories are important rhetorical (understood in the positive classical sense) sources of knowledge. But, neither can those stories be authoritative nor can Scripture be authoritative in and of itself (that would be circular… and the canon was formulated roughly 350 years after Christ–only some authority can do that), the “keys to the Kingdom” were not given to Scripture, and Scripture itself points to the authority (I Tim 3:15).

    I’m not trying to be provocative, just pointing to a weakness in your presentation. Perhaps I missed something?

  2. My space in that column is limited to 600 words, and I wanted to suggest a starting point for conversation. Further, when someone asks Sam Christian why he believes, it seems the better part of honesty for Sam to answer by explaining why Sam believes.

  3. Holo,
    I’m curious. If the church (by which I’m assuming you mean the Roman Catholic church) has the sole authority to interpret Scripture so the church alone is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, then I have two questions:

    1. On what basis did Paul rebuke Peter in Gal. 2:1-13? After all, if Peter is acting as the first pope here and the keys of the kingdom were given to him, then how is it that Paul can rebuke him and say that he ‘stands condemned’?

    2. More importantly, how can Paul say that the gospel message itself has the authority to condemn even himself, as an apostle. In Gal. 1:8, he writes: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” In other words, Paul is saying that even if he (or the other apostles or an angel from heaven) changes his mind and preaches a different gospel, then he stands condemned. But if his word is the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, then on what basis does he argue that he is condemned if he preaches a different gospel?

  4. Tom:

    Okay – good point on the 600-word limit. It might be worthwhile following-up on your good rhetorical (again, meant in the positive classical sense) lead-in (also meant in the good sense): once a person’s interest is perked by a real personal account, they’ll want something more than that.

    And, in fairness to other personal accounts, you may want to consider, for example, Francis Beckwith’s decision to cross the Tiber… or Newt Gingrich’s or Scott Hahn’s or Jay Budziszewski’s or Hadley Arke’s or G.K. Chesterton’s or Bobby Jindal’s or Peter Kreeft’s or Richard Neuhaus’s or Alasdair MacIntyre’s or etc., etc. but perhaps one of the most intriguing John Henry Newman’s.

    Neil:

    I’m not interested in pursuing this. “Roman” is not “Catholic” writ large, by the way. To miss that simple point betrays missing a whole lot more.

  5. Holo,
    I’m not sure what you mean about my use of “Roman” and “Catholic”. I thought those were the terms used by the Roman Catholic church; at least, I find the phrase used that way on Catholic websites.

    You brought up the subject of authority and stated that “Scripture [cannot] be authoritative in and of itself.” Are you really saying that God’s Word is not authoritative in and of itself but requires some other source for its authority?

    Anyway, I think the questions I asked were important ones since they show that even the apostles were subject to the authority of the message they preached, arguing strongly against any idea that they or anyone else imparted authority to the message. Paul’s entire point in Galatians 1 is that the gospel he preached was authoritative precisely because it came directly from God and not the other apostles or anyone else. Consequently, it seems that he held God’s Word as the ultimate authority and saw his own apostolic authority as purely derivative and conditional.

    -Neil

  6. Neil:

    I can’t believe you miss the circularity of your position (Scripture is authoritative because Scripture is authoritative)… but then again, I can’t believe you think the human capacity for free will is without cause or that Bell’s Theorem somehow calls into question per se causality. And, you are astoundingly ignorant of Catholicism to miss the simple factual distinction that Roman Catholicism does not equal the Universal (Catholic) Church. I repeat: I have no interest in discussing your personal interpretive opinion (II Peter 1:20-21) on Galatians I in particular and on Scripture in general, your implied rejection I Timothy 3:15, or your ignorance of when and by what authority the Canon of Scripture was established… ~350 years after Paul preached.

  7. Holo,
    I’m not sure how my argument is circular. My argument (following Tom’s I think) would be:

    P1. God’s word (lowercase) is authoritative because of the nature of who God is
    P2. The words in Scripture are God’s words
    C1. Therefore, Scripture is authoritative

    This argument would only be circular if I claimed that “Scripture is authoritative because Scripture is authoritative” or “Scripture is authoritative because Scripture says it is authoritative.” As it stands, I think this argument is non-circular and sound, but I could be wrong. If you think it is unsound, then which premise do you reject? If you think it is circular, then which premise implicitly assumes the conclusion?

    As to your use of Catholic, I assumed that by “Catholic” you could not mean merely “Universal” because you appealed to the authority of the church to establish the authority of Scripture. If by “church” you simply meant the universal church of all believers in Christ, then I (and every Christian) is a member of this church through faith in Christ. But clearly, you do not believe that I (and every Christian) imparts authority to the Scripture! So I assumed that you were referring explicitly to the Roman Catholic Church and more specifically to the Magesterium. Was I wrong in this?

    All that being said, I think the issues I raised are crucially important and I would still be interested to hear your asnwers:

    1. If Scripture is God’s word, then do you really believe that God’s Word is not authoritative “in and of itself” but is imparted authority by the church?

    2. On what basis did Paul rebuke Peter in Gal. 2:1-13? After all, if Peter is acting as the first pope here and the keys of the kingdom were given to him, then how is it that Paul can rebuke him and say that he ‘stands condemned’?

    3. If the authority of the gospel message derives from the church (rather than being the source of authority from which the church derives it authority), then on what basis does Paul argue that he is condemned if he preaches a different gospel? Do you agree that it in Gal. 1:8, Paul shows that his own apostolic authority is purely derivative and conditional?

  8. Holopupenko is a member of the Greek [Eastern] Catholic Church, not the Roman Catholic. I was as “astoundingly ignorant” as you, Neil, until he said this ten days ago. So be it. I am ignorant of many things, and until recently this was one of them.

    Holopupenko, I’ve read the history of Christian doctrine from more than one source, and I have a keen appreciation for the role the Church played in its development. I contrast that with Victor Paul Wierwille, who went away by himself resolving to study the Bible without depending in any way on any human knowledge or tradition, so that he could find out for himself what it meant. He came back to found a modern-day Arian cult, “The Way,” which ensnared a college friend of mine. Such is the importance of those who have gone in advance of us.

    Nevertheless it seems to me you miss something here:

    But, neither can those stories be authoritative nor can Scripture be authoritative in and of itself (that would be circular… and the canon was formulated roughly 350 years after Christ–only some authority can do that), the “keys to the Kingdom” were not given to Scripture, and Scripture itself points to the authority (I Tim 3:15).

    First, Scripture can be authoritative if it is God’s word. It can be authoritative if it is pervasively, consistently, and reliably true. That’s all it takes.
    Second, it is at least disputable whether the Church councils formulated the canon, strictly speaking. Protestants believe the Church recognized the canon. Sure, it requires authority to speak on behalf of Christianity in so doing. But that action did not confer any authority upon Scripture; it merely recognized the authority inherent in it.
    Third, I have no idea what the “keys of the kingdom” have to do with Scripture’s not having its own authority.
    Fourth, I see no necessary connection between the church’s being “a pillar and buttress of the truth” and the Scripture’s not having its own authority. It’s metaphorical language, after all.

  9. Hi Neil (Re #7)

    P1. God’s word (lowercase) is authoritative because of the nature of who God is
    P2. The words in Scripture are God’s words
    C1. Therefore, Scripture is authoritative

    While I agree with your premise 2, above, I think the argument needs to justify that premise.

  10. Tom:

    The “astonding” has to do with basic, verifiable information as contrasted to the plethora of much more highly-nuanced knowledge of a Church that has existed since the Pentacost. My point was: could it not be that if something that simple was missed, that more important issues are even more easily missed? It is astounding–as astounding as some of DL’s and olegt’s ignorance about faith.

    On the “authority” thing, I never said Scripture was not authoritative (pardon the double negative). I said Scripture can’t say that about itself (nor does it) without being circular, i.e., I said it “is not authoritative in and of itself.” If you like, in Thomistic terms it’s the important distinction between the order of being (of the thing) vs. the order our knowing (that thing). Similar example: in the order of knowing we know first and foremost the “effects” of God in the world; in the order of being He is primary, i.e., we don’t know Him directly apart from some experience… which is a healthier echo of DL’s nonsense.

    Regarding the “keys,” to whom were the keys of authority (reflecting I Tim 3:15) given? As for your assertion “It can be authoritative if it is pervasively, consistently, and reliably true. That’s all it takes.” Nope. That’s a nice sentiment, but not much more than that. Ask Steve Drake about his “reliably true” interpretation, or whether olegt or DL accept what Scripture say as “reliably true,” or what the approximately 36,000+ Protestant denominations regard as “reliably true.” (Please don’t use the “well, they agree on the basics” canard: no, they don’t.) You probably won’t get very far, will you?

    Regarding your claim, “But that action did not confer any authority upon Scripture; it merely recognized the authority inherent in it,” Of course the councils didn’t “confer” authority, and of course they did recognize the authority. However, whose council’s were they? And, are you suggesting that this body had no authority to make that dogmatic [read: “teaching”] and binding declaration on the canon? (I’m not going to argue over the history–been there, done that.) Well then, any of the various sects out there at the time would have had equal “authority” to make pronouncements over the hundreds of letters floating about. You’re missing the point that, even if we reduce it to black and white logic, only an authority can declare the status of a collection of documents once the canon has been established.

    Scripture itself denies it is sufficient as the complete rule of faith: didn’t St. Paul assert that much teaching is found in the Tradition handed down by word of mouth (II Tim 2:2)? Didn’t St. Paul admonish believers to “stand firm and hold to the Traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thess 2:15)?

    This oral Tradition [teaching] was accepted by believers, just as they accepted the written teaching that came later as the authoritatively-pronounced canon. The Church, in the persons of the apostles and their appointed “assistants” was given the authority to teach by Christ (keys, anyone?); the Church would be His representative because He commissioned them, not Scripture.

    Commissioned to do what? To preach, by oral instruction: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17). The Church would always be the living teacher. It is a grave error to limit “Christ’s word” to the written word only (heresey alert: Luther’s sola Scriptura as opposed to sola verbum Dei) or to suggest that all of Christ’s teachings were reduced to writing. In fact, doesn’t John 21:25 strongly argue against a written-only account of Christ’s teaching (“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written”). What? Do we reject what is NOT in Scripture, do we reject sacred Tradition even when Paul admonishes precisely to adhere to sacred Tradition per the above?

    (By the way, when Luther deliberatly altered Romans 5:1 to suit his purposes, and declared James an “epistle of straw,” and declared other canonical NT books as “less than inspired,” on what athority was he promulgating that “teaching”?)

    Finally, why did you use the indefinite article “a” rather than the definite article “the” for I Tim 3:15? Check the Greek. And, again, you’ve altered my words: I never said Scripture wasn’t authoritative (see above).

  11. Re: Victoria @#9:

    Precisely. If formulated this way, it begs the question: who says so? They are God’s words because Scripture says so (II Tim 3:16,17)?!? Back to circularity…

  12. @All
    Perhaps if we reformulate P2 as “There are justifiable reasons for believing that Scripture is God’s word(s)”, so that, even if there is circularity, it’s not a vicious circle, but a benign one. If I recall correctly, this is part of what N. T. Wright argues for in his book ‘Scripture and the Authority of God…’. His basic premise is that the ‘authority of Scripture’ is a shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, somehow exercised through Scripture’ (and then the whole book elaborates on the meaning and implications of that.

  13. Victoria and Holo,
    I don’t think that an argument needs to provide reasons that a premise is true in order to be sound or non-circular. To be sound, an argument simply needs to follow the rules of logic and have true premises, right?

    Now I agree (with Tom) that this argument will not be at all _convincing_ to a non-Christian who will simply reject Premise 2. Consequently, we should be prepared to give the reasons that we accept Premise 2, and these reasons may actually vary quite a bit. But just because an argument is unconvincing to non-Christians doesn’t make it unsound. And as Christians, if we accept premise 1 and 2, then the conclusion follows logically and Scripture is authoritative without any appeal to the other sources of authority, which was my main contention.

    Holo, you write:

    “It can be authoritative if it is pervasively, consistently, and reliably true. That’s all it takes.” Nope. That’s a nice sentiment, but not much more than that. Ask Steve Drake about his “reliably true” interpretation, or whether olegt or DL accept what Scripture say as “reliably true,” or what the approximately 36,000+ Protestant denominations regard as “reliably true.”

    Here you’re confusing the inerrancy of Scripture with the inerrancy of its interpretation. I never maintained that our interpretation of Scripture was authoritative because our interpretation might be incorrect. Nor did I make any claims about how we come to know that Premise 2 is true; I think there are many different ways we might come to know that. I claimed -and you denied- that Scripture was authoritative “in and of itself.”

    If you disagree with the statement that “Scripture is authoritative in and of itself”, then which of my two premises do you disagree with?

  14. I don’t think that an argument needs to provide reasons that a premise is true in order to be sound or non-circular. To be sound, an argument simply needs to follow the rules of logic and have true premises, right?

    You’re kidding, right? As opposed to question-begging? You mean the premises are “true” because you want them to be true, or because you “accept” them as true? Give me a break… you then go on to bury yourself in the second paragraph, with repercussions for the remainder of your comment. Ugh! Enough of this…

  15. Holo,
    “A deductive argument is sound if and only if it is both valid, and all of its premises are actually true.”
    http://www.iep.utm.edu/val-snd/

    “To “beg the question” is to attempt to have [the main] question conceded by assuming it either implicitly or explicitly in the premises of the argument the arguer offers for its truth.”

    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2011/03/fallacy-friday-petitio-principii-begging-the-question.html

    Based on the definition of ‘soundness’ given above, an argument is sound if the premises are actually true regardless of what reasons we have to believe that they are true. do you disagree with this definition of soundness?

    With regard to begging the question, my conclusion was that “the Bible is authoritative.” Which of my two premises assumes either implicitly or explicitly that Scripture is authoritative? From my premises, it follows that Scripture is authoritative, but we could reject either premise to avoid the conclusion that Scripture is authoritative. If we can avoid the conclusion by denying either premise, then I don’t see how I can be guilty of begging the question.

  16. @Neil
    You said

    Now I agree (with Tom) that this argument will not be at all _convincing_ to a non-Christian who will simply reject Premise 2. Consequently, we should be prepared to give the reasons that we accept Premise 2, and these reasons may actually vary quite a bit.

    Absolutely (this was the point I was going for), and I think this brings us back to Tom’s original question.

  17. Victoria,
    Right! I just think it’s important to keep the truth of the proposition “the Scripture is authoritative” separate from the way in which we come to know this truth. After all, none of us would claim in any other area that the truth itself is dependent on our knowledge of the truth. The sun is bright, regardless of how I know it is bright or whether I know it is bright.
    -Neil

  18. @Neil
    Which is why I thought it would be better to rephrase premise 2; it would lead more naturally to discussing those justifications with the person asking the question.

  19. Victoria,
    Actually, I constructed this argument mainly because I didn’t think Holo’s assertion that “Scripture is not authoritative in and of itself” was correct. When it comes to talking with non-Christians, the argument I usually make is:

    1. The NT is generally historically reliable (plenty of evidence for this from history, archaeology)
    2. Therefore, Jesus claimed to be God (plenty of evidence for this in the gospels)
    3. Therefore, Jesus is either God or an evil lunatic

    This is the argument that I think is really central to evangelism. If a non-Christian really presses me on inerrancy, I would just follow up on this argument with (H/T/ R.C. Sproul):

    4. If Jesus was God, then he is completely trustworthy
    5. Jesus believed the Bible is God’s Word
    6. Therefore, the Bible is God’s Word (of course, OT and NT need to be explained separately)

    But I’m usually far more concerned with 1-3 than 4-6.
    -Neil

  20. @Neil
    You can add in the events surrounding the crucifixion, death, burial of Jesus, and his subsequent appearances to many witnesses as evidence for his resurrection; the historical development of the 1st century Christian community, what convinced Saul of Tarsus to become a follower of Christ and the apostle to the Gentiles, etc…

    You can also add the ‘internal witness of the Holy Spirit’ in the life of a believer; I don’t think we should neglect that even in an apologetic argument.

    At some point, one has to take that final step of personal faith and trust and commitment , based on the fact that the inference to the best explanation is the Christian one.

  21. Hi Neil,
    Your last outline is similar to my own. In fact, it is basically the steps I took in accepting the Bible as the full Word of God.
    Although I was a Christian my faith had an unsteady feeling to it. I felt like I “believed” but didn’t know that Jesus actually lived, died, was Resurrected, etc.
    It was when I stumbled across strong apologetic arguments for these facts that I realized it was a known fact, and not merely an accepted belief.

    I think by God allowing me to see suddenly the pure reliability of the NT I went straight to knowing the Bible in its entirety is the true Word.
    But when I reflect analytically, or try to show others the process, I move through your points 4, 5 and 6.

    On second thought, my 1, 2, and 3 are a little different. I think I was convinced that Jesus is Resurrected. This means both that Jesus is God and that the NT, which tells us this, is reliable.

  22. Victoria and Charlie,
    I think there are many different approaches we can take. I tend to view the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument as the best simply because it confronts us with the person of Jesus. It would conceivably be possible for someone to consider the bare historical fact of the Resurrection and walk away unconvinced or unmoved. But I don’t think it’s possible to do so with Jesus himself.

    I recently taught a 4-week apologetics course for our small group and presented what I consider to be four of the most foundational apologetic arguments for the Christian faith: 1) Lord, Liar, Lunatic 2) The Resurrection 3) God and revelation 4) Sin and the gospel. If you’re interested, they can be found here:
    http://www.shenvi.org/Notes/Prepared/Prepared.htm
    I recommend reading the blog posts first, since they give you an idea of where I’m headed each week:
    -Neil

  23. @Neil
    Wow – that looks like a really great course. The time and research that you must have put into it is very evident.

  24. This would be an easy question to answer if the church was more connected to its roots. Unfortunately we have a great many people who see Christ as his last name. The Bible is really unambiguous on how we can know Christianity is true. In both the old and new Testament the gold standard is fulfilled prophecy. Peter unhesitatingly pointed to prophecy as the surest of evidences even above his own eye witness testimony. Not philosophically deep but effective and true.

  25. The best answer to that question I’ve seen was in Voddie Bauchum’s Ever-Loving Truth. The distilled version is this:

    The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eye-witnesses to supernatural events that occurred in accordance with specific prophecies demonstrating that the Bible is divine, rather than human, in origin.

    Just about every phrase in that statement is fleshed out in chapter length in the book.

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