A Conviction Which Asks Not For Reasons
It’s sometimes thought that you can’t appeal to the Bible to support the Bible’s claims- i.e., you can’t believe that the Bible is God’s Word simply because it says so. Something else has to validate that claim, otherwise you’re arguing in circles.
In another entry I wrote a while back, I addressed this question. My point there was essentially that ultimate authority is self-attesting. If an authority needs something outside of itself to authenticate it, then it’s not an ultimate authority. Which means that at the end of the day, a person can only come to believe that the Bible is God’s Word by reading it.
John Calvin once called this “a conviction which asks not for reasons.” In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he argues this point over against the idea prevalent in his day that the Church has authority to declare what is Scripture and what is not. Rather, the Church can only acknowledge Scripture to be God’s Word and give “unhesitating assent” to it (1.6.2.)*.
In our own day, this same struggle exists in different forms. In many circles, people look to reason to give the Bible authority. Anytime some rejects the Bible because it doesn’t seem to align with human reason, they are saying that reason is a higher authority in their eyes than the Bible. Now let’s say you’re a Christian and you use reason to answer every one of that person’s objections to Christianity. Furthermore, in response to your reasonable explanations of the Bible’s credibility, they make a profession of faith. This is good, right?
Well, maybe not. If the basis of their faith is in reason, then reason is still their ultimate authority, not God’s Word, which would be fine except for the small problem that their faith will be extremely unstable. What happens to their faith when something in the Bible doesn’t match up with reason? Ultimately, faith based on anything other than God’s Word itself is going to be futile. Continuing, Calvin says:
If, then, we would consult most effectually for our consciences, and save them from being driven about in a whirl of uncertainty, from wavering, and even stumbling at the smallest obstacle, our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons…” (1.7.4)
Calvin goes on to say that even if you were to adequately refute every one of a person’s objections to Christianity, you still wouldn’t be “implant[ing] the certainty which faith requires in their hearts.” This isn’t to say that apologetics (the defense of the faith) is useless, only that it has limits. You can’t argue someone into the Kingdom of God. If you win them with reason, their faith will be dependent on reason and falter when obedience to God doesn’t seem reasonable.
The “higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons” that Calvin says our conviction must be based on is God himself, specifically God’s Spirit. A person becomes convinced that the Bible came from God in the same way that “we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, [and] sweet from bitter…” As we read Scripture, the Spirit convinces us that that God is its author, which in turn leads us to obey it in repenting of our sins and putting our faith in Jesus to save us. As many arguments as I could give for why the Bible is God’s Word, at the end of the day I just believe it is. It’s as natural to me as distinguishing between light and darkness.
…the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted. (1.7.4)
And a little further on,
Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. (1.7.5)
And at the risk of sounding uber-Reformed since I’ve already quoted Calvin a ton, I love what the Westminster Confession of Faith says on this: “…our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” Scripture is its own evidence because the Spirit, who alone can cause us to believe it, works through Scripture itself.
Alright let’s get real practical. What does all this mean? What Calvin and the Westminster divines are addressing is something that has huge implications for how we minister to other believers and how we witness to non-believers. As an example, I’ve heard more than a few preachers talk about how, when asked by a skeptic or a seeker what they should read in defense of Christianity, they recommend the Gospel of John.
If I’m really honest, there have been many times when that sounded like a wasted recommendation to me. Why recommend the Bible if they’re not even convinced that it’s the Word of God? Shouldn’t they read More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell first? Or The Reason for God by Tim Keller? Shouldn’t they at least warm up to the possibility of the Bible’s truthfulness before getting anything out of it?
Sure, that might be a good starting point. Books like these are great and helpful. But we have to realize their limits. They can’t do what only the Holy Spirit can, which is convict of sin and point to Jesus (see John 16:7-8). And the Spirit is most known to do this through the very words he inspired in the Bible. You’re more likely to win a convert to Christ by reading the Bible with them than by trying to convince them that the Bible is worth reading in the first place.
John’s Gospel doesn’t address things like the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. But it does present us with a Jesus who demands our submission and love. And only the Holy Spirit can make those demands beautiful in hearts that are disposed to reject them.
So trust the Bible to do more than you or any brilliant Bible scholar could ever hope to accomplish in the hearts of other people. The Spirit is continuing the work that Jesus began even to this day, and the Bible is his chief weapon.
* “1.6.2” = Book 1 (of 4 total), Chapter 6, Paragraph 2