Some people say something like the following:
"You can't quote the Bible to prove the Bible because it's circular reasoning."
There's something about what they're saying that's right. The following is a bad argument:
1. The Bible says it's the word of God.
2. I can trust what it says, since it's the word of God.
3. Therefore, I can trust it when it says it's the word of God, so I should believe that it's the word of God.
However, that's not the only thing someone can mean when saying that the Bible can count as evidence for Christianity. I have in mind a very different kind of argument. What Christians call the Old Testament (and what scholars today call the Hebrew Bible) could have taken something like 1500 years to produce, perhaps shorter but certainly well over 1000 years even by liberal estimates (though how much of it one says is early depends on one's presuppositions). Adding in the New Testament (or Greek Bible, if you prefer that name) brings it to 1500-2000 years. Think about what's happened in the last 2000 years.
Two related arguments come to mind. One has to do with prophecy. The other is from the unity of the Bible.
The prophecy argument:
The best way to focus on prophecy is probably not the kind like this:
"Prophets said it, and it happened, so that shows that the prophets were inspired."
A lot of people will be unconvinced by that, because they will look at how vague the prophecies are and all the alternate interpretations and say that anyone could pull together prophecies when they're that vague and find enough to fit any particular set of events. Besides, couldn't the New Testament authors have written accounts engineered to fit with what they saw as prophecy from the Old Testament? (I'm not saying I agree with everything in this response. I'm just reporting why a lot of people aren't convinced by it.)
Here's the kind of prophecy argument I think will do better. Look into what the Messianic expectations actually were at the time of Jesus and compare them with the actual prophecies they believed led to this. Look at the tensions within the prophecies and how the New Testament authors resolved them compared with how the people of Jesus' time focused on just bits of them without dealing with others. Two examples will show the idea. In lots of these prophecies, there is something of God coming -- Yahweh himself. This is all through Isaiah, especially in chs. 9 (can you be clearer than "mighty God"?) and 40 (it's the way of Yahweh that's being prepared for, since he will come as a mighty warrior) and quite clearly in Ezekiel 34, when God says he will come and be his people's shepherd.
Yet through all of this, there's a clear sense that God's coming is through a righteous human king as a son of David (Isaiah 9 and 11) and also as a suffering servant (the chapters following Isaiah 40, especially vivid in 42 and 53). These are somehow the same event. Ezekiel 34, after saying that God is the one who will come and be their shepherd, goes on to say that he will send his servant David to be their shepherd. These passages don't resolve this tension. They just leave it hanging. The same point comes out of Jesus' argument about Psalm 110 (Yahweh says to my Lord...) also shows that there is a Lord who Yahweh can talk to and say "sit down at my right hand", something David could only partially fulfill.
What should someone conclude? It seems that the scriptures foretold something very much like what Christian theology developed about Jesus, and the people looking for a Messiah at the time wouldn't have come up with it on their own, since they weren't seeing all of this in the scriptures. Jesus' views on the law and on prophecy about himself (as presented in the gospels) don't fit with what the people of his time expected. How could all that have developed as an accident? Even worse for the critic of Christianity, how could the apostles have engineered all the texts to fit this picture if they had no reason to return to the original tensions in the passages rather than the later "political Messiah" interpretations of their day? Did the death of their leader lead them to conclude that he was God himself when he didn't claim it for himself, especially death in a cursed form?
That seems so unlikely that I have to conclude that Jesus did claim these prophecies in all their tension to apply to him, which leads us to the liar-lunatic-lord trilemma. Many point out that such a trilemma commits a fallacy, since there are supposed to be other options, most importantly the option that Jesus didn't say the things the Bible reports him as saying but that the early Christians put them on his lips. But I think what I've just said makes that far more unlikely than some critics would allow. Jesus' moral teachings strike such a chord and show me how unbelievably anti-God I am in my own nature that I can't believe he was making it all up or was deceived, so I have to conclude he is Yahweh who was prophesied to come as a human king and suffering servant, the latter more for his first coming and the former more for the future return.
I would also note the huge change in Paul's thought from persecuting Christians to worshiping with them, founding churches, loving Christ, and pouring his heart into God's work. What would have caused a Pharisee, possibly even a member of the Sanhedrin, to undergo such a change? People focus on the change of the 11 disciples from Jesus' ministry to afterward, which is significant, but Paul is on another level entirely. He later describes himself as the worst of sinners, a persecutor of Christ himself.
The most interesting thing to me about this is not just the change but how it changed his theology, his biblical interpretation, and his sense of God's fundamental heart. It's like night and day comparing his letters to the Pharisees he and Jesus contrast their message with. The only thing I can think of to explain this is that he had such a vivid encounter with the resurrected Christ that he had to go back and rethink all of the scriptures that he'd spent so much time in, leading to a revolutionary understanding that just happened to match up to and explain what the apostles confirmed about what Jesus had taught them. You can use a liar-lunatic-"met-the-Lord" argument with Paul at this point.
That's the form of the prophecy argument that seems to me to be incredibly good. People will still resist it, of course, but it seems more to be grasping at straws or out of mere ignorance of what the Hebrew Bible actually says than anything else.
Unity of the Bible:
Before I go into the argument, I should point out that some people see disunity in the Bible and therefore use it as a reason to undermine the Bible. I'm well aware of such approaches. First, I don't think most such arguments hold any water at all. See my handout from an apologetics course I taught on issues relating to challenges against the Bible for some details on supposed contradictions in the Bible. [Dead link removed. I';m not sure I still have this document anywhere.] Most of these claims involve misunderstandings of the cultural context, the standards of recording information, or the possibility that two accounts of something can present different details while both being accurate. Many of them also ignore the fact that some accounts are presenting the deeper meaning of something that is merely reported elsewhere. The worst kind of mistake is to assume that a tension between two ideas that don't seem to go together is a contradiction when both are deliberately affirmed together in the same passages to make a deliberate theological point (say, that God is sovereign yet we're fully responsible for what we do). It's hardly worth spending much time responding to that kind of reductionism.
My second point about this objection is probably even more to the point. I'm not (at least in this piece) arguing for inerrancy, the view that every detail of the Bible is entirely accurate on whatever level it was intended to be about. (Disclaimer: inerrantism doesn't mean you have to take Genesis 1 as a science text unless it was originally intended as such. If Genesis 1 is not about a scientific ordering of when different things were created but a theological description of the God of Israel as creator of all things, as opposed to other views of God, then don't read it as a science text, and you can still take it as accurate for what it was communicating.) The idea that the Bible is inerrant (or infallible, if you prefer, which isn't exactly the same thing), is an important element in what I take to be orthodox Christian belief. I don't deny it. However, it is not what I'm trying to argue in this discussion, and I'm not sure the argument I'm presenting here will get exactly that view. Perhaps all I'm arguing for here is that the Bible, in its general progression or argument, is united in its progression of telling of the fall, the problems that resulted, what would be required for a solution, and what God's solution is now and will be. Just that suggests something amazing, given the time scale and multiplicity of backgrounds involved in the eventual product. All I claim to have shown is that it should count as evidence that God was involved in its coming together. Inerrantism or infallibilism would not follow just from that, at least not in a way that could be shown convincingly and easily (though I think once you admit God's hand in it, the inerrantist or infallibilist has her foot in the door, but I'll leave that thought for another time).
Now on to the unity argument itself. In some ways it's pretty similar to the prophecy argument above. The idea is to show how the New Testament authors saw all scripture as fulfilled in the new covenant and the person of Christ, which is along the same lines as what I said above, but you can expand it to make sense of the law as a guide to show people to Christ, especially in their incapacity to be truly good apart from him. You can expand it in terms of the whole ritual system looking forward to aspects of Christ and the new covenant, with a spiritual reality behind it all, a reality that it ultimately stood for all along. There are lots of other things that enter the picture in this argument that don't specifically count as prophecy in the way people normally think of the term, though they probably could be seen that way in an extended sense. Let me give a few concrete examples.
You could go to places like Hosea 1-3, Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 37 about the new covenant and places like I Samuel 15:22, Psalm 40:6-8, Psalm 51:16-19, Amos 5:18-27, Hosea 6:4-6, Isaiah 1:11-17, Micah 6:6-8, Proverbs 21:3, and Jeremiah 7:21-23 where the ritual system itself isn't the point but something deeper (as Jesus insisted in Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 23 and as you see in other places in the NT, most notably Hebrews). Then there's the promise to Abraham that his descendants will bring blessing to the nations, along with the heavy emphasis among the prophets and some of the psalms on this. See Genesis 12:1-3, the end of Psalm 22, Isaiah 11, Isaiah 18:7; 19:18-25; 23:17-18; 27:12-13, and much in the second half of Isaiah, particularly chapter 43. Jonah has a remarkable message for a people not in the covenant community of Israel, one he stubbornly resists. Joel looks forward to God's Spirit poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28), and everyone (not just every Jew) who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved. See also Zechariah 8:22; 9:9-10; 14:16-19. I'm just listing passages off the top of my head here, not delving into the details or doing any comprehensive search for every passage I could list. That it's so easy to list passages off the top of my head says something about how complete and thorough this point is. A full list would be overwhelmingly comprehensive. To evaluate the kind of argument I'm presenting here, you actually need to read the whole Bible as it presents itself, studying carefully the key passages that fit this tendency and seeing how they're used in the New Testament. You'd have to be looking to what the Bible says about God and God's continuing work over time. These kinds of study are exactly what too many critics of Christianity have never bothered to do. There's no way to evaluate this argument carefully without knowing this stuff really well and giving at least a somewhat sympathetic reading of the New Testament when it takes up of all these grand, overarching themes.
All this together shows a unity of theme and purpose to all scripture, despite all the different perspectives involved from different walks of life, different cultural settings, different situations with respect to who is politically in charge, and different stages of the development of the ritual system of worship in ancient Israel. Yet the New Testament pulls it all together to make sense of the progression in terms of:
(1) what was already there as its core principles guiding God's actions (mercy/lovingkindness, justice, holiness, etc.)
(2) what was already there in terms of what our core problem is (separation from God due to everyone's rejection of God)
(3) what was already there in terms of what would be required to solve those problems (which would require another whole list of scriptures if were being careful)
(4) what was already there in terms of who would come (back to the first argument above) to solve what the Old Testament acknowledges as humanity's most significant problem
(5) what was already there in terms of the spiritual realities that have always been true and behind all the different modes of communication and ritual throughout God's dealings with people
I wouldn't say that all these things were absolutely clear throughout all the Biblical record. Paul admits as much when he says that God's treating the Gentiles as heirs was the mystery of God's plan in the new covenant, something unknown to all the prophets but made clear through Christ (in terms closer to Peter's). But there are seeds of all this throughout the Hebrew scriptures, enough Jesus to take some disciples through all the scriptures to show how they all pointed to him (Luke 24). When you take into account the transformation in Paul, forcing him to go back through all the scriptures he had known so well to rethink them in terms of Christ, it's hard to hold on to the idea that he was that badly deceived (since he was obviously an incredibly intelligent man, and this was such a huge change) or deliberately deceiving (since the kinds of persecution he was willing to undergo, eventually leading to his death, were about as severe as anyone has ever experienced). His reevaluation of the whole scriptures is clearly presented in his letters, and where would this have come from? It's hard to immerse yourself in those scriptures and consistently find his interpretations so far off the mark in comparison with his contemporaries who were so often reducing the tensions within the scriptures while he affirmed them. This confirms in my mind that Paul's rethinking of all he had held dear (and was willing to kill people for) really came from an encounter with the risen Christ. At the very least, it should count as evidence for such a hypothesis.
So that's my latest thoughts on these matters. I know some serious scholars would take issue with a couple steps in my argument, but I'm confident that would just be a matter of going back and defending some undefended claims, and I don't think there's no such defense. I just haven't explicitly put all of it in there, since it would be time-consuming and would take a lot more work than this already took, which was a fair amount. This is a pretty elaborate argument, and people aren't always going to sit down and read or listen to something like this, but much of this is necessary to understand why Christians believe this stuff. Understanding the whole message of God is crucial to understanding what the basic message of God is and why Christians have staunchly affirmed it in the face of persecution, physical or intellectual. People who are going to criticize Christianity should be willing to deal at this level if they're going to be sure their attacks are any good.
Addendum: Innerrancy (added 27 August, 2003)
Once you have granted this sort of argument, you have a non-viciously-circular argument for scripture as by-and-large trustworthy. What I mean by non-viciously-circular is that any circularity involved in it isn't the intellectually problematic sort. It's circular to affirm your conclusion to prove your conclusion. Any circularity in this argument isn't like that. It's more of an observation of what's in scripture that leads to a pretty compelling portrait of what must be true of that scripture.
Now two points remain in the issue of inerrancy, both mentioned above.
1) Some people overemphasize the difficulties in making these tensions fit together, but I've already addressed that. Textual differences (say in different accounts in Samuel vs. Chronicles) are often easily addresses because of the evidence of copy errors or rounding of large numbers. This doesn't remove every difficulty absolutely, but it gives some good evidence that so many of the so-called errors aren't that at all. There's also the issue of a possible Hebrew text of Samuel and Kings that we've lost, one reflecting something closer to the Septuagint Greek translation of those books that happens to agree more with Chronicles. If such a text existed, and there is some evidence that it did, it may better reflect the original text.
Some people will still not convinced, thinking there are irresolvable contradictions, but any close look at traditional responses to these shows that at worst they are hard-to-reconcile perspectives and not at all contradictions, which always take the form 'p and not p'. Someone who says there was an angelic presence at the empty tomb and someone who says that there was a plurality of angels are not in conflict, so it's not a contradiction. One just gives more details.
Another point worth making is something I said above about Genesis. Biblical passages should be taken for what they were intended to be. If Luke's historical narratives in Luke and Acts are intended to be the sort of historical reportage typical of modern historiography, you have problems, but recent narrative criticism shows that he was taking aspects of a few particular varieties of ancient historiography. Ben Witherington has done some nice work arguing that Luke-Acts is a two-volume historiographical work about something that he believed really happened, the divinely-produced development of early Christianity. Theology certainly informed how he told the story, but the preface to the two-volume work shows that he doesn't think his theology affected whether what he told really happened. He believed it did, and he was seeking to be perfectly accurate by the standards of the kind of historiography he was writing, which was more like the Greek historiographers Thucydides, Polybius, and Tacitus, who had very high standards about distinguishing myths from historical facts than the later Roman historians, one example of which would be Josephus.
Luke seems to have thought of himself in the former tradition, which did allow for things some on the more liberal end might call errors, but I think that's inappropriate to the genre. If Luke reports of a speech by Peter or Paul, we might expect that he is passing off the exact words he gives us as the speech, but that's not the idea at all. He is constructing for us the general thrust of the speech, which in almost all cases was probably far longer and more detailed. Sometimes he uses his own favored terminology to do this, sometimes with the terminology more characteristic of the speaker. This is not to say that he was just constructing it willy-nilly. He tells us he investigated everything thoroughly, and I see no reason not to believe him. Similar things could be said about the gospel of John and its significantly idiosyncratic language applied to Jesus, which could very well be explained by an eyewitness who was later reporting of some things that didn't make it to the other gospels to explain crucial elements of Jesus' ministry and teaching but in the language and theological categories of that eyewitness. So I don't think this first point about supposed contradictions is a problem at all.
2) The errantist might still claim that, even if the pushing of supposed contradictions isn't successful to lodge the inerrantist from her position, the inerrantist hasn't established that inerrantism is true. So even if inerrantism hasn't been disproved, it hasn't been established. This is an important point. Hardly any inerrantist thinks inerrantism can be proved without a doubt, just as hardly any Christian thinks Christian beliefs about the resurrection can be proved without a doubt. However, that doesn't mean there's no reason to believe it, and it certainly doesn't mean the evidence doesn't point in that direction. The argument I want to make here is:
a) given what I've said above about the unity and general trustworthiness of the grand themes of the Bible
b) given what I've said about about the silliness and inappropriateness of most claims about supposed errors
c) taken in light of the internal witness of the scriptures toward the authority of the scriptures as God's word, its complete trustworthiness at the deepest levels (cf. Ps.119 for one obvious place), its portrait of Jesus as the embodiment of God's word (esp. John's prologue), its portrayal of the apostles and prophets (at least the ones whose writings are recorded; some think, probably rightly, that the NT gift of prophecy is of a different sort, one to be evaluated by believers in light of scripture) as God's absolutely reliable messengers (since a prophet without that isn't a real prophet, as scripture says; cf. Dt 18), and ultimately the conviction throughout the scriptures that God is true and is not a liar or someone who can speak falsely (for a passage taken to be very old even by liberal scholars, see the Balaam oracles in Numbers)
d) you can conclude that the Bible's presentation of itself as having no errors makes it quite legitimate to believe that it truly is infallible in terms of how it presents itself in the genre each work is intended to be
Not everyone will grant all these things, so the argument isn't what I would call a demonstration. However, I think each move is a legitimate one. Each step, I believe, I can adopt without having to prove absolutely that it's true to every skeptic. I certainly think I even have reasons for such a move, though I'm not sure I can express those reasons. Particularly, I think that these are the sort of steps in reasoning that a well-informed, thoughtful, Spirit-led believer will make because of God's internal witness, whether you think these are infallible convictions from the Spirit or just Spirit-led reasonable conclusions. Is the argument circular? That depends on what you mean by the term. It involves internal evidence, but it doesn't seem to me to be viciously circular in the sense defined above. It doesn't rely on its conclusion to establish that same conclusion.
Note: There was some excellent discussion in the comments at the original blog post. You can view that conversation in the archive of the post at the Wayback Machine.
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.