Much of this work is a distillation of Bruce Milne in Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, pages 25-62.
Statement #1: “If you don’t know Jesus, then you don’t know God at all, and that’s just that. Jesus is the only way to the Father and the only way to have peace with God.”
Statement #2: “That’s not true. Jesus may be your way, but God has revealed Himself in lots of other ways. My friend is into New Age religion and she says she really feels God within her.”
Discuss…. But what I want you to realize is that such divergent viewpoints are often determined by a prior discussion about the nature or grounds of religious authority. What should our authority be? Should we appeal to what we feel personally? Or is there something more ultimate? How do we decide what is correct teaching? To what source can we appeal to resolve differences and conflicts? What is our criterion for truth? If you don’t know, you end up where the wind blows.
What IS “authority”? Authority is the right or power to require obedience. I submit that the world is experiencing a crisis of authority in culture today – and it is largely self-imposed as we have rejected the biblical authority that our ancestors assumed.
Over the centuries, various Christian sects have appealed to a variety of voices as sources of authority, such as: the historic creeds or confessions (the 39 Articles of the Reformation, the Westminster Confession); the mind of the Church (i.e. the main trend/consensus of Christian opinion); subjective Christian experience and “the inner voice” (which largely began in the 19th century); Christian reason as the belief that truth consists in what we can demonstrate about God via logical reasoning.
All of these have some degree of validity. But none of them are adequate to bring us to God’s mind and thus be the authoritative source of Christian truth. The ultimate source of authority is the triune God Himself as He is made known to us through the words of the Holy Bible. This view combines three truths: 1) God has taken the initiative. We know of Him because of His decision to make Himself known to us and reveal His will to us (revelation). 2) God has come to us Himself in Jesus Christ, the God-Man. As the eternal Word and Wisdom of God, Christ is the mediator of our knowledge of God (John 1:1ff; 14:6-9; 1 Cor 1:30; Col 2:3; Rev 19:13). 3) Our knowledge of God comes through His Revelation in His Scripture. He caused it to be written and speaks to us through His eternal Words given to all generations of believers. And as we submit ourselves to its authority we place ourselves under the Living God who is supremely revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
What is “revelation”? Revelation means unveiling something hidden, so that it may be seen and known for what it truly is. The principal OT word is “gala,” which comes from a root meaning “nakedness” (e.g. Exodus 20:26 cf. Isa 53:1 and 52:10 where the arm of the Lord is literally “made naked”). In 2 Sam 7:27, the literal rendering is “You have made naked your servant’s ear.”
But how has God revealed Himself to us given that: 1) We are creatures. There is a vast distinction between “God created” in Gen 1:1 and “God created man” in Gen 1:27. God the Creator exists utterly apart from us, while we as creature depend utterly on God for our contingent existence. We are literally “dust” and to dust we shall return (Gen 3:19). That said, this distinction is NOT absolute: we are made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). God communicates with us (v. 28). Ultimately, God became a man in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-14); God the Spirit indwells Christians and brings us into personal relationship with God (Rom 8:9-17). There is a profound correspondence between God and man; but the profound and irreducible distinction remains as a barrier that only God can overcome. For instance, only God truly knows God and the thoughts of God. God’s knowledge includes our self-knowledge (Ps 139:1-6), but our knowledge does not include God’s self-knowledge. Our creaturehood requires God to reveal Himself if we are to have any adequate knowledge of Him. 2) We are sinners. Our need to have revelation from God is immeasurably increased by our sinfulness. The fall has affected every single aspect of our being – including especially our perception of moral and spiritual reality. Sin leaves us spiritually blind and ignorant (Rom 1:18; 1 Cor 1:21; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:1-5; 4:18). That means there is absolutely no road from our intellectual and moral perception to be any kind of genuine knowledge of God. The ONLY way to knowledge of God is for God to freely place Himself within range of our perception and renew our fallen understanding. Which makes revelation from God crucial.
What is the likelihood of such a revelation from God? Is there a reason we ought to expect God to reveal Himself? If God is our Creator, revelation in some form becomes overwhelmingly probable because we can presume that God made us for a purpose. And since His creatures are clearly responsive beings with inherent capacities for relationship, we may also presume that God’s purpose for creating us involved some kind of relationship and response to Himself. Such a relationship requires revelation in some form. Would a wise, intelligent, relational Creator leave His creatures to grope helplessly in the dark without making Himself known? The thought is plausibly absurd. And when we presume that God is loving, the likelihood of revelation becomes overwhelming; no loving parent would deliberately keep out of His child’s sight and range of reference so that His child would grow up ignorant of His existence. The alternative would be a “Susan Smith” God, who gave birth to her children only to load them into a car and push the car into a lake to perish.
God has revealed Himself in Creation. In Rom 1:18-32 Paul explains God’s judgment on the Gentile world. God “gave them over” (1:24, 26, 28) to the self-destructive tendencies of their fallen natures because, though they knew God, (by His creation), they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him (1:21). Instead, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” and “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” and “did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God (1:23, 25, 28). This spurned knowledge of God consisted of their not recognizing “God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature [which] have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (1:20). Therefore they are “without any excuse” (1:20). In short, the creation of the world obliges mankind to acknowledge God and give glory and thanks to Him (1:20). Similarly, at Lystra in Acts 14:17 Paul informs the pagan crowd that God “has not left Himself without testimony.” And in Acts 17:26 refers to the Creator’s ordering of the affairs of individuals and of nations “so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him.” God has also revealed Himself in moral experience. In Rom 2:14, Paul points out that “when the Gentiles, who do not have the [OT] law, do by nature things required by the law… they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” There is clearly some awareness of God’s moral will on the part of [even non-Christian] humanity. The Bible confirms the fact that God has revealed Himself to all within our moral experience, which is to say that He has revealed Himself in the conscience of the NON-Jew/Christian. Yes, sin causes a moral obtuseness which distorts all of our consciousness of God and His will, but nevertheless, all humanity has some awareness of the sense of obligation to do good and to spurn evil that reflects the image of God to whom we are all finally fully responsible. Further, God has revealed Himself in our universal religious sense. The instinct for worship is a universal human phenomenon. Anthropologists have NEVER uncovered so much as a single people or group, no matter how primitive, who lacked a sense of awe before the supernatural. I submit that John 1:9 and Psalm 139 (esp. 12-16) testify to this universal religious sense. Which is to say that atheism is NOT “natural”; it is rather bizarre and abnormal.
By the way, it is BECAUSE of this role of God in all our hearts and in our governments that a stabilizing of human society due to the sanction of moral law – whereby good and evil are distinguished and evil is held in check – is a fruit of God’s general revelation regardless of how little it is acknowledged by sinners. Without this Providence of God, human society would swiftly unravel into chaos, anarchy and nihilism. Because of God’s general revelation, even in spite of the blinding effects of sin, no one can plead entire ignorance of God. Everyone alike is confronted by God and therefore carries responsibility for the lack of a true relationship with their Creator.
Further, God’s revelation is not static like the sun’s rays or electricity; rather, it is dynamic as God sovereignly chooses upon whom He will shine His light. We find that God repeatedly reveals Himself to mankind but that mankind repeatedly resists, obscuring and even perverting the revelation (Rom 1:21-28). It is only in an attitude of utter submission and obedience that God’s revelation can truly be encountered. When people refuse the revelation they have and refuse to adopt an attitude worthy of revelation, God may close the door to further revelation (Matt 25:29; Mark 6:21-28; Luke 8:18; 23:9). And a person who repeatedly resists God’s revelation may eventually become incapable of recognizing or responding to it. By contrast, as a person responds to the light God gives him, God will send more light/revelation such that he will be saved.
The supreme/ultimate form of God’s self-disclosure was His becoming incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-14). In the Incarnation, God bridged the gulf separating Creator from Creature by “taking the form of a servant…being found in appearance as a man” (Phil 2:7-8). In Jesus Christ God is present in the world in person, and His character and essential nature are “naked” to us: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:10). This identity of Father and Son is critical for our knowledge of God. Jesus is not a partial or temporary image of God which needs to be complemented by anything or anyone else afterward. He is “the exact representation of God’s being” (Heb 1:3). In Jesus Christ we see and confront the beating heart of God. Jesus Christ is the center/summit of all divine revelation.
Nevertheless, apart from the Twelve disciples, special revelation comes to us in and through the Bible first and foremost. God has always communicated to His people through His written Word mediated through the lives of chosen patriarchs, prophets and apostles. A written Word (according to Abraham Kuyper): 1) achieves durability, with errors of memory and intentional or accidental corruption being minimized compared to any other form of communication; 2) can be universally accurately disseminated through reproduction and translations; 3) has the attributes of fixedness and purity; and 4) has a finality and normativeness which all other forms of communication cannot attain. The Bible as God’s written Word is objective and eternal, never changing as men’s subjective feelings of God change. It is in the Bible that we learn about and meet Jesus Christ. It is the Bible that is the basis for all Christian teaching and preaching. And just as Jesus taught through the Bible of His day in His earthly ministry, He teaches us through His Word today. This it is written, “The grass withers, the flower fades but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isa 40:6).
It is worth asking, ‘Why should anyone believe that God could communicate with a different order of being such as man?’ The answer is that God is well able to communicate with His own rational, verbalizing and image-bearing creatures on their own level (i.e. by human language) because He created us to be able to communicate with us. To deny the reality of God as Communicator (as some do) is in effect to deny the reality of God as Creator. Psalm 94:9 says, “Does He who formed the ear not hear?” We could also say, “Does He who formed the mouth not speak?”
That having been said, the Bible is not exhaustive in giving us all knowledge of God. We retain our human limitations, for instance. And while the Bible is God’s Word to us, the language of the Bible remains human and therefore limited. There is more to God than even the Bible can convey. Scripture itself distinguishes the “secret things” which belong to God (Deut 29:29) from “the things which are revealed” which “belong to us and to our children forever” (Isa 55:8-11). Francis Schaeffer pointed out that in His Word, God tells us truly about Himself, but not exhaustively. Human language – particularly written human language – remains the best medium we have for communicating God’s truth to us. And to the extent that human language is not finally completely adequate, we have the Holy Spirit. According to John 14:15-17, Jesus sent us the “Spirit of Truth” as an advocate who will help us and be with us forever.
What was Jesus’ view of the OT? Jesus accorded complete divine authority of the OT Scriptures. 1) He quoted the OT in a manner in which He clearly viewed it as the divine Word of God (Matt 4:4; Mark 14:27) and 2) even referred to it as “the Word of God” (Mark 7:11-13; John 10:34-36). 3) He spoke of its divine inspiration (Mark 12:36). 4) Jesus indicated His ministry was in complete accordance with the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27, 44). 5) He accepted OT history as completely true (Matt 22:29, 32; John 8:56; Mark 12:26; Luke 11:30-31; Matt 25:35: Matt 12:3; Luke 17:26-28; John 3:14). 6) Jesus assumed the normative character – applying to all people throughout all time – of OT ethics (Matt 5:27-48; 19:3-6; Mark 10:9). 7) Jesus rebuked those who did not believe the Scriptures (Matt 22:29-32; Luke 24:25-25; Matt 15:3). And crucially, 8) Jesus viewed the OT Scriptures as previsioning His own unique mission (Matt 5:17,19; Luke 24:46-47; John 5:46-47).
Significantly, although as Incarnate Deity Jesus exercised the very authority of God, Jesus at no point opposed His personal authority to that of Scripture. Even further, being persuaded that He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel through whom God’s Kingdom was to come, Jesus modeled His Messianic role in terms of OT teaching – such as the inevitability of His rejection and suffering on the cross (Matt 26:24; Mark 8:31; Luke 22:37). Jesus recognized that Scripture was God’s divine blueprint. Jesus clearly believed in the complete authority of the Scripture as God’s Word, and the One who was Himself the eternal Word and wisdom of God (John 1:1-14; 8:58; 17:5; Phil 2:5-11; Col 1:15-20), and who possessed a perfect and sinless human nature(John 8:46; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 1:19), simply could not have been wrong.
Jesus gave His apostles special authority. Jesus deliberately chose certain men to be His disciples and gave them a special endowment of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22 cf. Acts 1:5). He commanded them to go and teach in His name ((Matt 28:18-20; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). And He promised the Holy Spirit would guide their teaching and their witness of Christ (John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13-16).
The apostles claimed direct experience of this unique authority and divine insight (1 Cor 2:9-13). They proclaimed the gospel in the boldness and confidence that they spoke “by the Holy Sprit” (1 Pet 1:12), to whom they attributed both the content and the form of their message (1 Cor 2:13). We also note the special concern in the Book of Acts for the apostles’ role as specially appointed witnesses (Acts 1:21-26; 2:32; 4:26,33; 5:32; 10:41-42; 13:31). And thus they were authoritative proclaimers with the corroborative witness of the Spirit (Acts 2:32) of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They spoke with complete assurance (Gal 1:6-8) and issued commands with authority (2 Thess 3:6, 12). In fact, a person’s claim to have the Holy Spirit was measured by whether he or she recognized this divine authority of the apostles teaching (1 Cor 14:37). Peter actually classifies Paul’s letters as “Scripture” (2 Pet 3:16) and Paul commanded that the letter to Colossae be “read in the church” (Col 4:16).
Naysayers claim that this argument is circular (e.g., the Bible is the Word of God because the Bible calls itself the Word of God), but we need to point out a final reason for the authority of Scripture: how else could one establish a claim to ultimate authority other than by reference to that authority??? Wouldn’t any other authority to establish that ultimate authority itself become the ultimate authority? This same approach is used in other fields of human investigation: we don’t keep having to establish the “laws of science” by appeal to other science; it is the laws that give the rest of science its foundation. The fact of the matter is that, in the final analysis, only GOD can be the proper authority to Himself. There can be no other. That said, ultimately Christians escape the charge of circularity quite easily: I believe the Bible is the Word of God because Jesus believed the Bible is the Word of God – and Jesus was not only the greatest man who ever lived, but the Son of God, and thus in a unique position to know the truth.
It’s not that history and the historicity of the Bible don’t matter; nor is it that the correspondence of Scripture to logic, philosophy, psychology, science and medicine don’t matter. But if we’re always looking to corroborate the Bible we never get to the thing that we refuse to simply BELIEVE.
I was somebody who at one key point in life needed “convincing.” I wanted proof. I spent many hours searching for that proof. But here’s the thing: I found it (past tense). I don’t walk around wondering if there’s a God anymore; I don’t walk around wondering if the Bible is His Word anymore. I resolved those things. I moved on to weightier stuff, such as “Now that I believe, what am I going to do about it?” I think that’s what James is getting at in his verse, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (James 2:19).
[To be continued]