Believing the Unbelievable

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Believing the Unbelievable: an issue of truth

Donald Carson states that it should go without saying that the authority of the Bible must be recognised by Christians, “The church cannot exist and flourish without unreservedly embracing the Bible. But the central heritage of the church on this subject has come under increasing fire. It is not surprising therefore that Netland[1] lists scepticism about the Bible as one of the contributing reasons for the rise of religious pluralism and the rejection of exclusivism (something that is exclusively true & relevant).”[2]Carson is, in my opinion, correct in his emphasis on ‘ Christians must’. However, it seems to me that we have, unfortunately, to ask rather than presume what is exactly meant by ‘Christians’. By the church we should, I believe, be thinking of something akin to the model seen (through the eyes of the New Testament) in the first century. By ‘Christians’, I take it that Carson does not mean all those purporting to be Christians. He may be referring to the church that is yet to come as well as the church that we can refer to as the body or group of believers taking seriously the claims made in both the Old and New Testaments. Christianity may have lost ground but all is not lost—the ‘lost’ ground can be retaken—metaphorically speaking that is. It is my aim through this essay to encourage confidence and to offer some  ‘reasonable grounds’ for belief in the trustworthiness of the part of the Bible known as the New Testament. Belief, that is, in its validity and in its reliability—even for cynics, Christian or otherwise—for those living in a Post Modern fog of doubt and confusion.

Preachers often refer to the allegedly true story of a young boy’s definition of faith: ‘Faith is believing something you know isn’t true.’”[3]  This is, of course, a travesty—a total distortion of the biblical definition of faith. Faith is not an irrational leap in the dark nor is it believing something that has no bearing on facts. Biblical faith is, I suggest, believing the Truth.  In his book ‘Escape From Reason’, Francis Schaeffer suggested that modern man [now post modern man] has come to his [present] position because he has accepted a new attitude to truth. Any new attitude to ‘anything’ does not usually arise in a vacuum—it happens over time, usually through the filtered influence of academics and intellectuals. In the twentieth century, this influence spread through the media in the guise of ‘education’, soap operas and television documentaries, as well as through newspapers and other forms of ‘communication’. Schaffer: “The modern [sixties] view of truth drives a wedge between the Greek and Jewish views, but it does so at the wrong point.

Those who hold the modern view would picture the Greeks as holding to rational truth and the Jews as being existentialists.”[4] …….. “The Jewish concept is separated from the Greek in that the Jewish was rooted in space-time history and not just a balanced system.”[5] Indeed, this a crucially important point when it comes to developing an apologetic for the Judao/Christian scriptures because the New and Old Testaments are inexorably linked.

The Greeks may have had ‘ideas’, but it was through God’s people Israel that God revealed His word, and this not in a vacuum but, as Schaeffer said—‘in space and time’.

In Defence of the New Testament:the beginnings of an apologetic to the mind of post-modern man

The description of mankind, given by academics and intellectuals in the twenty first century is that of a species that could not recognize truth (if there were such a thing)  even if it were to hit them between the eyes. The abandonment of objective truth and the acceptance of relativism are basic to post modernism. As a movement it is wide ranging, covering culture and architecture and sociological issues. But its attitude to truth and knowledge is crucial. Postmodernism decisively rejects any concept of objective truth, and so certainty….. The intriguing fact however is that our postmodern age has continued to function as if truth, meaning and even authority still exist. It, of course, has to be admitted  that that there is no other way we can function; consistent relativism is unliveable. Post-modern thinkers use reason to actuate reason, and structure sentences in their essays of deconstruction. The world we actually live in is not the world of the post-modernist. “It is a world where reason and knowledge, and truth and meaning and structures do exist and function perfectly satisfactorily.” [6] Even though academics in their ivory towers may dismiss Hick’s comments as being unreasonable, we have nevertheless to reject views that deny the possibility that ‘post-modern man’ actually has no common sense whatsoever.

Defining Evidence:

William J. Cairney [7]suggests five necessary points when considering evidence for the reliability of ‘prophetic works’:

  1. History written in advance[8]
  2. Prescience: accurate statements written previously [in a pre-science age]
  3. Historical evidence: verification through the means of modern research[9].
  4. Archaeological evidence
  5. Philosophical & logical ‘verification’

Cairney, [10]“And suppose all these evidences hang together without internal contradictions or literary stress within the same anthology. Collectively, we could not take these evidences lightly.” Quite! The problem is however that we have had at least two centuries of what has been, nothing less than a sedulous attack on the New Testament as a reliable source of first century information. This ‘onslaught’ has so undermined the Bible’s credibility that the job of presenting an acceptable apologetic, in the main, falls on ‘ears that cannot hear or eyes that cannot see [truth]’.[11] [12]

There are more than reasonable grounds for believing that The Bible is ‘the collective anthology’ in which we can have full confidence. The use of prophecy in apologetics is one way through which we can encourage and even impart confidence in The New Testament (and indeed in the Old Testament as well).  It is true that matching up prophecies, spoken or written, with the actual fulfilment can be rather a subjective exercise, however there are enough examples that give objective reasons [evidences] for accepting Biblical prophecy as examples of the reliability and indeed credibility of the New Testament. Unfortunately, space does not allow for their mention here, so this will have to be the material for another paper. However there are many excellent books written on the subject.

‘Authenticating’ Prophecy

Authentication calls for rigorous tests involving objective prediction of the future. Such tests would require:

  • Unambiguous statements/pronouncements
  • Clarity—no vagueness [13]
  • Prior announcement [before the event]
  • Independence: not events that are the result of the efforts of ‘followers’

 Bloom on other ‘scriptures’:

Despite his ambivalence regarding the presentation of evidence, Mohammed does go on to give ample predictions and warnings about the last judgement. However, by the time one can verify those prophecies it may be too late to change sides. After finding that the prophecies in the Koran and the Book of Mormon are notably weak or non existent, it might seem strange to note that there are so many long range prophecies in the Bible. [14]

There are reasons to be cynical when dealing with writings that may be devoid of any external reference, i.e. prophetic verification. Why should it seem strange that there are many long range prophecies in the Bible as compared with other religious writings? The above is a clear example of the difference between the claims made for:

divine revelation—for any other writings laying  claim to God’s authorship through ‘direct revelation’ from God or otherwise.  Why it is that The Bible alone has been, and is the butt of jokes and ridicule? The fact is, there needs to be an ‘evangelistic’ polemic. because there is a clear distinction between the claims of some ‘scriptures’  and the book that God has revealed over time through various ways and through numerous people in the space time continuum.

The Word of God?

Allan A. Macrae[15] Asks the obvious question: “How do we know what the word of God is?” He suggests the following possibilities:

  1. We may say we ‘know that Jesus is our saviour, that ‘we know we’re going to heaven’ but this is not the same as ‘knowing that the Bible is the word of God. Knowing that Jesus is our saviour and that we are going to heaven is to do with our security in Christ—given us as a deposit. But these cannot be given as empirical proof because they are most certainly not.
  2. How do we know whether or not the men who combined the books that make up ‘The Bible’ were correct? Who can prove it?
  3. The Roman Catholics looked to the hierarchy of the church.

MacRae says that none of the above can be taken as empirical evidence. It is, as he suggests, “simply not good enough” for anyone to claim that ‘their’  writings or ‘their’ book/revelation is the word of God .MacRae is, in my opinion, correct—how could anyone, in the twenty first century market place of ideas and options, even consider offering  such subjectivisms as a defence for anything. Some would argue, as does Kierkegaard[16], that at least subjectivism has an ‘existential relevance. No one’ could deny that, but it is hardly empirically viable evidence, is it? Notwithstanding all the relative and subjective reasons for belief in a divine source for any of ‘the scriptures’; is there any difference between the non Christian subjectivist claims that the ‘truth’ is in their word and therefore has to be accepted and our using as a proof text 2 Timothy 3:16,17, which is often used as a means of verification for the rest of the Bible? I suggest not.  Please do not misunderstand me; I believe that the Bible is the word of God and that through reading it we can have personal assurances as mentioned in ‘a’ above. My belief in the authenticity of the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible is, indeed, my raison dêtre for writing this essay. As the Lord Jesus said regarding the unity of the church I say regarding the need for sound apologetics—it is,  “So that the world might believe…” [John 17:20]. Belief in something because it feels right could be considered foolishness—as the proverb says, “There is a way that seems right to a man but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 16:25).

MacRae suggests that individuals (having access to scripture—being de facto exegetes) are no better equipped  to decide—or to know objectively what is or isn’t God’s word, or what should or shouldn’t be in the canon of scripture. He states thus: “Must the individual believer study the evidence regarding the genuineness of each book for himself and make a decision as to every book which claims to be divine scripture?” [17] No, of course not.

God’s Word ‘Remembered’

John Warwick Montgomery:

Moreover, as A.T. Robertson, the author of the most comprehensive grammar of New Testament Greek, wrote, ‘There are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 for the other early versions. Add over 4,000 Greek manuscripts and we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. Besides all this, much of the New Testament can be reproduced from the quotations of the early Christian writers.’ To be sceptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity; for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament. [18]

It seems to me that the above information adds fuel to the fact that ‘we’ do have, more than, reasonable grounds for belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible, in its validity  and in its reliability.  Furthermore, it is important to note that the books of the New Testament did not become ‘the revealed word of God’ simply because  a group of learned men got together and decreed that this particular collection of writings were  God’s revealed word as opposed to other writings.

“Exactly why did apostolic Christianity survive and thrive? Robert Speer pulls no punches when he proclaims, ‘ Christianity lived because it was the true to the truth. Through all the centuries it has never been able to live otherwise. It cannot live otherwise today.’” [19]

The following quotes from Dunbar, Drane, Groothuis, Carson, Moo and Morris speak for themselves in that they make clear the historical case for belief in the validity and reliability of the scriptures.

David G. Dunbar, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon:

The view of critical orthodoxy lacks sufficient historical evidence. The early church fathers show no consciousness that they are acting to establish the canon. Indeed, the basics shape of the New Testament canon was securely fixed long before any fourth-century councils declared themselves on the matter. The obvious a posteriori  character of the arguments used by Irenaeus and his successors to defend particular aspects of the New Testament canon calls into question what it means to say that the church ‘chose’ or ‘established’ the canon…The apparently spontaneous development of the (New Testament) canon suggests that it is more appropriate to speak of  a recognition rather than a selection of the New Testament books, and the same interpretation can be extended to the recognition of the Old Testament.[20]

John Drane, The Bible Phenomenon

These books did not suddenly become important overnight. They had been widely used and highly regarded for centuries, and the decisions made in the fourth century were simply the formal recognition of a state of affairs that had existed for a long time before that. It is sometimes claimed that the church leaders were trying to suppress beliefs that they themselves disliked—things such as reincarnation, or evidence for cosmic consciousness or extra terrestrials in the Bible. But that is the exact opposite of what actually happened. The fact is that what appeared in lists of acceptable books was based on the consensus of what the overwhelming majority of Christians believed and practised.” [21]

Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy

The process of formally recognising these documents as Scripture inspired by God was not one of creating a Bible, but rather of discovering what was already functioning as the authoritative rule in the historic church. This cannot be emphasised enough. The idea of a power-hungry or simply incompetent bunch of ignorant clerics arbitrarily including and excluding books into the New Testament is a pervasive but historically indefensible notion.” [22]

Carson, Moo and Morris, ‘An Introduction to the New Testament’

In short: that God is a self-disclosing, speaking, covenant-keeping God who has supremely revealed himself in a historical figure, Jesus the Messiah, establishes the necessity of the canon and, implicitly, its closure. The notion of canon forbids all self-conscious attempts to select only part of the canon as the governing standard of the Christian church: that would be to decanonize canon, a contradiction in terms. Because the canon is made up of books whose authority ultimately springs from God’s gracious self-revelation, it is better to speak of recognising the canon than of establishing it. An canonical theology cannot rightly be divorced from the questions that tie God’s revelation to real history. [23]

The sceptic, the liberal and ‘the enlightened’ may say that the above proves nothing more than the possibility of consensus in the early church. However, it seems to me that any thinking ‘post modern’ person would surely consider the implications. I suggest that the implications ought to at least provoke serious thought. There are reasonable grounds for believing that the early church took the New Testament narratives seriously—so why not twenty first century post-modern man; moreover twenty first century Christian believer. The Liberals compromised on the truth, slipping down the slide into obscurity and death.

The Fundamentalists separated and, now, stand their ground on issues of morality, but ‘standing on their ground they remain—and Evangelicals? Mark Knoll gives the strong impression that Evangelicals have missed the opportunity to take at least some of the high ground in academic circles[24]. Noll, I suggest is correct, although it is not simply that Evangelicals should be looking for acceptance in the Halls of Academia, but rather that the world of Academia needs to hear the message of the gospel. The point being that, if Evangelicals do not wake up to the fact that belief in a credible Jesus may not exist in the future if belief in the relevance, authenticity and authority of The Word of God is further undermined. It’s likely that I speak, in the main, to those who hold to the view that God may work in spite of any opposition to the gospel of grace, as well as to those who believe in the sovereignty of God, and who believe that He, According to the New Testament, has given us the charge of going out into the world and making disciples. To both I say, take heart for we have a sound reason for proclaiming that ‘the New Testament Christ’, and His word are both true, very relevant and imminent. The world is waiting!

Groothuis [25]says that the canon of the New Testament is not an inauthentic collection of material created to suppress legitimate documents that present a New Age version of Jesus. Furthermore he says that no one should reject the biblical presentation of Jesus on the basis that the books of the New Testament were merely a result of political or theological prejudice.

“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye witnesses of his majesty.” [26](2 Peter 1:16)

Derek J. White [first written 2002;edited 11/14:Mutatis Mutandis]

[1] Harold A Netland. “Apologetics, Worldviews, and the Problem of Neutral Criteria.” Trinity Journal 12 (1991)

[2] D.A. Carson. The Gagging of God (Apollos) 1996 p.51

[3] unknown source

[4] Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason(IVP), 1968

[5] ibid

[6] Peter Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth (Apollos), 1998. p35

[7] William J. Cairney, An Evidential Approach to Biblical Christianity [Evidence for Faith] (Probe Books) ,1991. p.21

[8] This really depends on whether or not there is, in existence, a GOD who knows of events prior to their actual occurrence; this obviously has an affect on believer and cynic alike.

[9] Again this may depend on what is seen as a ‘possibility’.

[10] Ibid p.21

[11] Matthew 13:15


[13] Such as a prediction of something that would have happened anyway.

[14] John A. Bloom, Evidence for Faith  [Truth Via Prophecy] (Probe Books), 1991. p.178

[15] Allan A. MacRae, Evidence for Faith [The Canon of Scripture] (Probe Books), 1991. p.215

[16] Alister E McGrath, A Passion for Truth (Apollos), 1996. p.102

[17] Allan A. MacRae, Evidence for Faith [The Canon of Scripture] (Probe Books), 1991. p216

[18] John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity, 1964 (Bethany House), pp. [28-29]

[19] Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy. 1996 (Kingsway), p.118

[20] David G. Dunbar, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon (The Biblical Canon), 1986 (IVP .p357

[21] John Drane, The Bible Phenomenon, 1999 (Lion 1999), p.54

[22] Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy. 1996 (Kingsway), p.308

[23] Carson, Moo and Morris, An Introduction to The New Testament, 1992 (Apollos)  p.499

[24] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal Of The Evangelical Mind. 1994 (IVP)

[25] Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy. 1996 (Kingsway), p.312

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