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Thoughts on why the Holy Bible is worth reading…

“‘The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World’ – centers in the truth of the basic assumption of Biblical Christianity that the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, is what throughout it claims to be, the record of an unfolding revelation of God.” – E. M. Blacklock[1]

I was given my first Bible when I was 19 years old. At the time I was transitioning from years as a student and competitive swimmer, to a typical life of a young adult leaving a life of strict discipline. I struck up an unlikely friendship with a young Christian man who spent many months trying to convert me to Christianity. He didn’t quite convince me, but sometime in our friendship he gave me a Bible. It became my most treasured possession. Many years later when I became a believer my Bible became essential as I navigated this radical way of living called Christianity.

Currently, a third of the world’s population identify as Christian[2]. Those 2.2 billion people recognise the Bible as the source of the doctrines of their Christian faith. Yet, despite its popularity, no book in history has been so viciously maligned, intensely scrutinised, misused (unfortunately sometimes for atrocities) and misrepresented.

In April 2018, GQ Magazine published an article: ‘21 Classic Books You Don’t Have To Read By The Time You’re Thirty.’ On the list at number 12 was the Bible. Part of it’s blurb read:

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned… 

Many Christians rushed to online forums to express their outrage. Yet the comments were nothing new, being reflective of the Bible’s standing in our western secular culture. But was the author correct in his descriptions of the Bible?

While it is true many Christians in the West do neglect personal Bible reading, many of us do read it daily. There are also many Christians who risk their lives to own a Bible in countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian.

The Bible is not a single book with one author. It is an extraordinary collection of 66 individual books and letters. 39 books make up the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Scriptures), and the other 27 make up the New Testament. These books were put together in a Biblical Canon – books that meet the standard and criteria of authoritative inspirational writings[3].

The books of the Bible were written by around 40 authors over a timespan of around 1600 years on three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe, and in three different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The authors came from different cultures, education and socio-economic backgrounds, and included: Kings, prophets, battle hardened military leaders, sea battered fishermen, a tax collector, a physician, and even a zealous Pharisee!

Miraculously, despite such diversity, there is a clear meta-narrative – a Golden Thread[4] – weaved throughout the books of the Bible, revealing the story of a creative, relational God and the Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration of humanity. The Bible is beautifully unique in both its complexity and unusual unity.

Is the Bible repetitious?

Repetition is often used in the Bible, giving readers varied perspectives and a more thorough view of events. It also emphasises ideas and themes of importance such as the laws of the Old Testament, or God’s repeated patience with His rebellious people.  The Bible also contains many ‘undesigned coincidences’ where small details in one account of a story add further detail or meaning to accounts by other authors. These are more easily found in repeated narratives such as the Gospels[5].

An example of repetition often put forth by Bible detractors is the question of why there needs to be four Gospels. In the Gospels we are given four very different eyewitness accounts of Jesus. Matthew writes a theological biography of Jesus; Mark from a literal, discipleship perspective; Luke from an historian’s perspective; while John writes from the perspective of an evangelist, prophet and pastor seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians[6]. These four independent perspectives add depth and meaning to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Is the Bible self-contradictory?

As the Bible is a collection of ancient near eastern texts they should not be read through the filter of our western perspective. Many so-called contradictions are not contradictions at all, they are differences, misunderstanding of the text or textual variants. Most English Bibles add textual variants in footnotes. An example of a biblical contradiction is Mark 15:25 where Jesus is crucified on the third hour, whereas John 19: 14-15 has Jesus still standing before Pilot in the sixth hour.  Mark is using Jewish time reckoning – dawn to sundown – placing the crucifixion at around 9am. John if using Roman time reckoning – midnight to midday – places Jesus before Pilot at 6am. John appears to use Roman time reckoning throughout his gospel. 

Is the Bible sententious?

The Bible is full of moral sayings, proverbs and parables. There are lessons to be learned and warnings given, but always with the aim of improving the lives of communities and individuals to whom they were given. Biblical narratives, whether historical or proverbial, give examples of the need for moral laws by sharing the real traits of Biblical characters. Raw emotions, actions, reactions and over reactions are laid bare in both Old and New Testaments. Sins, faults and shameful behaviour and their consequences are exposed rather than hidden. .

Is the Bible foolish?

It is doubtful a ‘foolish’ book could continue the serious worldwide influence the Bible has maintained for over a thousand years. Ironically, this often maligned book continues to sell more copies than any other book in history. People have risked their lives to ensure the Bible reaches believers in countries where it is banned. Others have dedicated their lives to making sure it is translated into indigenous languages. 

The Bible’s influence has brought more good to the world than any other book in history. A few examples are:

Martin Luther King Jnr and his call for human equality; Christian missionaries and their self-less, determined education of the poor, indigenous people and women; William Wilberforce and his tireless and often seemingly hopeless work to end the slave trade; Kate Sheppard and her leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in New Zealand, resulting in the first votes for women in the world[7]; The incredible intensity and beauty found in Classical art, literature and music.

All of the above have their roots in a Christian worldview based on the truths found in the Bible. These truths reveal  every human being as having intrinsic worth and purpose and were created by an awesome loving God. Biblical Christianity was a dominant influence in forming our democratic western culture with all the freedoms we enjoy today.

Is the Bible ill-intentioned?

By its continued existence, despite constant opposition, the Bible proves its own worth and standing. It is a book of good intention and has offered direction, hope and purpose for billions of people over thousands of years. 

The Holy Bible is worth reading. It is a rich library of books and letters containing various literary genres from poetry and prose, through to history, philosophy, and theology. This great Book acknowledges and answers the questions of life giving meaning and a salve to what C. S. Lewis describes as that ‘old ache[8].’

I opened this post with a quote from E. M. Blaiklock’s 1975 lecture and I will finish with his closing remarks:

J. G. Lockhart tells of Sir Walter Scotts last days. The great writer was incapacitated by a stroke. Lockhart writes: ‘He desired to be drawn into the library, and placed by the central window that he might look down upon the Tweed. Here he expressed a wish that I should read to him, and, when I asked from what book, he said – “Need you ask? There is but one.” ‘  True. There is still but one.

Endnotes:

[1] E. M. Blaiklock, OBE, The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World, The 2nd Olivier Beguin Memorial Lecture. 1975. E. M. Blaiklock was Chair of Classics at Auckland University from 1947 to 1968. He was a prolific writer of Christian Apologetics. 

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

[3] These are the number of books in the Protestant Canon accepted by Protestants from the time of the Reformation, although all 66 books were accepted as authoritative from the first century.  There are several other books included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon’s such as the Old & New Testament Apocrypha. I will discuss these further in my next post. See also: Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, WW, Dr., Blomberg, C. L. Dr., Hubbard, Jr, R. L. Dr. 2004, Ch. 4, The Canon and Translations.

[4] John Dickson, A Doubters Guide to the Bible. 2014.

[5] Due to space I have not added examples of undesigned coincidences in this post but will in a future post as it is an interesting topic. The concept of coincidences that are undesigned was first discussed in William Paley’s Horae Paulinae, 1869, and followed further by John James Blunt in his Undesigned Coincidences, 1869. A contemporary book has been written by Lydia McGrew – Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, 2017.

[6] The Holman Concise Bible Commentary, B & H Publishing, 2010.

[7] https://nzhistory.govt.nz/files/documents/womenandthevoteinNewZealand.pdf

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” 

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Challenge Response: A Real God Would Have Protected the Original Gospel Manuscripts

Welcome back people of the internet.

On Wednesday, we heard this challenge from our comrades at STR:

Christians claim that God directly inspired the authors of the gospel books, even to the point of dictating each word, so as to make the text inerrant. But if God was so concerned about getting the historical record of Jesus’s ministry correct, why would he have allowed those original, and supposedly inerrant manuscripts to be lost for the generations of Christians to come? Why would he not have protected these documents to ensure there would be no ambiguity as to the ultimate truths he was trying to convey. The loss of the original manuscripts is entirely consistent with a human-inspired product, not one overseen by an unlimited deity.

The interesting thing about this challenge, is that it has assumptions about what God would do in a given situation, when those assumptions may be better explained as what the challenger would do in that situation. Additionally, the objection assumes a theory of inspiration which is held by hardly anyone today. Many objections to the truth of Christian Theism begin in this way, failing even before they are finished.

Let’s take a look at how Alan responds to this question.

How do you think Alan did in responding to the challenge? Are there any other things he could have said?

If you liked this video, have a look at www.str.org, and also STR’s YouTube channel.

Should we trust the Bible or the Qur’an?

Brian Auten has posted a link to the audio from a recent debate between Jay Smith and Khalil Meek. The exchange was held at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 17 with Smith, a Christian apologetist, defending the trustworthiness of the Bible and Meek defending the Qur’an.

Listen to audio here.

Jay Smith also has some good resources on debate.org.uk for those who might be wanting to reach Muslims:

Can we Love Jesus and Accept Evolution?

James Anderson, assistant professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, reviews “I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution”, the latest book by Denis Lamoureux:

“A full critique of Lamoureux’s evolutionary creationism cannot be given here. I will, however, indicate some of the major reasons why I don’t find his arguments compelling. In the first place, his approach to interpreting Scripture is highly problematic. He professes to acknowledge both the “Book of God’s Works” (revelation in nature) and the “Book of God’s Words” (revelation in Scripture) but it’s clear that he gives the former unqualified priority over the latter; if there is any apparent conflict between nature (for which read: modern science) and the Bible, Lamoureux concludes that the Bible is mistaken due to its accommodation to ancient science. On this way of thinking, the Bible must always be judged in the light of modern science. Yet this prioritization is the very opposite of the view that Christians have historically taken on the issue. As Calvin famously put it, the Bible functions like a pair of spectacles given to correct the distortion of natural revelation by our fallen intellects. Scripture has authority over science, whether ancient or modern.

Furthermore, Lamoureux’s separation of theological statements and scientific statements in the Bible is impossible to apply in practice. Take, for instance, the claim that God judged the world by sending a great flood (cf. 2 Peter 3:6). Is that a theological statement or a scientific statement? On the face of it, it’s both—at the very least, it has theological elements and scientific elements that cannot be teased apart.

A further concern is raised by Lamoureux’s central claim that the Bible is accommodated to ancient science and therefore makes scientific statements that are false. Why think that the accommodation only pertains to science? Why not suppose, for much the same reasons, that the Bible is accommodated to ancient morality too? Indeed, that’s precisely the argument used by many liberal theologians today who argue that Christianity is compatible with monogamous homosexual relationships. If Lamoureux wouldn’t accept their position, why should we accept his? What do modern scientists have that modern ethicists don’t?

The point can be pushed further still. If the Bible is accommodated to the fallible scientific outlook of its original audience, perhaps it is also accommodated to their fallible religious outlook. Perhaps all those claims in the New Testament regarding Christ’s substitutionary atonement are merely a concession to the religious outlook of ancient people who were used to thinking in terms of animal sacrifices, propitiatory atonement, and so forth. Presumably those claims would be no more immune to error than the Bible’s scientific claims. But then how much confidence could we place in the gospel message preached by the apostles?

The point is this: accommodationist theories of biblical inspiration such as Lamoureux’s are like a universal acid that burns its way through everything. Once we argue that the Bible is unreliable in one area (science) due to its accommodation to ancient ignorance, we can have no principled basis for insisting that it is still reliable—never mind inerrant—in other areas such as ethics and theology.

So much for Lamoureux’s doctrine of Scripture. What about his scientific arguments? I’ve noted already some of the weaknesses in his case: circular reasoning, selective evidence, and conclusions that go far beyond what the empirical data support. Equally problematic is the fact that he doesn’t even mention, let alone address, some of the many significant scientific difficulties faced by the theory that all living organisms have gradually evolved from rudimentary life forms by purely natural processes (e.g., the lack of a plausible mechanism for large-scale evolutionary development, the so-called “Cambrian explosion” in the fossil record, the origin of sexual differentiation, and the existence of irreducibly complex biological structures). The uninformed reader will almost certainly be misled into thinking that the scientific case for evolution is beyond question. Still, perhaps we should cut Lamoureux some slack on this point. After all, if the biblical authors can be excused their misleading or false statements on the basis that they were captive to the science-of-the-day, presumably so can he!

Finally, I suspect many evangelical readers will be unconvinced by Lamoureux’s plea that his position preserves all the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He speaks several times of “non-negotiable” Christian beliefs, but never explains what criteria he uses for treating some traditional Christian beliefs as non-negotiable and others as dispensable. One can’t help but suspect that his list of essential doctrines is rigged so that his own views fall safely within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Lamoureux’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin, which follows of necessity from his rejection of the historical Adam and Eve, is particularly problematic. If Adam never existed then obviously no human being could have inherited a sinful nature from him. Lamoureux suggests that this traditional doctrine originated with Augustine (who was, of course, misled by the science-of-the-day) but he fails to acknowledge that Augustine argued his position from Scripture. What Lamoureux recommends in place of the traditional doctrine might be dubbed “Original Sin Lite” (or perhaps “Original Sin Zero”): every human being is a sinner and that’s all we need to affirm. Yet surely this falls far short of the doctrine taught in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, which offers both a coherent theological explanation for universal human sinfulness and a profound parallel (and contrast) between Adam and Jesus. It’s remarkable that Lamoureux makes no reference to these passages in his discussion of original sin, and his treatments elsewhere in the book require him to hold these texts at arm’s length. One has to wonder whether he would have so quickly concluded that Adam is a dispensable mythical figure had he been more exposed to the Reformed tradition in his theological studies. There is far more at stake here than whether Paul was mistaken in certain incidental historical facts.

I have to conclude that despite its irenic approach and the undoubted expertise of its author, this book fails in its goal of reconciling biblical Christianity with modern evolutionary science. Nevertheless, it is very useful in this respect: it makes clear what price has to be paid in order to make peace with evolution, even if one takes a relatively conservative approach. The first casualties are the doctrines of biblical authority, clarity, and inerrancy, closely followed by the doctrine of original sin; and once those are sacrificed it’s inevitable that more will follow, for no doctrine is an island. The doctrines of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone, to cite two examples, are intimately connected to the nature of the fall and its consequences.”

Read the whole thing here (or an abridged version at Discerning Reader here).

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The Great Trinity Debate at Parchment and Pen

The Reclaiming the Mind Ministries site Parchment and Pen is hosting an online debate on the Christian doctrine of the trinity, the claim that God is three persons and yet one substance. The debate began on April 11 and will take place over six weeks. Defending the traditional trinitarian position is apologist Rob Bowman, author of books such as Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ and 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists. His opponent is David Burke, a Christadelphian heading up the Christadelphian forums.

If you’ve given much thought to the doctrine of the trinity and the nature and identity of Jesus, you’re bound to find the exchange a worthwhile one.

Here is the format and arguments that have been posted so far (I’ll update when the posts become available):

Week 1: Scripture and the nature of God.

Rob Bowman on God and Scripture

David Burke on God and Scripture

Week 2: The person of Jesus Christ.

Rob Bowman on Jesus Christ

David Burke on Jesus Christ

Week 3: The person of Jesus Christ (responses and further arguments).

Rob Bowman on Jesus Christ, continued.

David Burke on Jesus Christ, continued.

Week 4: The Holy Spirit.

Rob Bowman on the Holy Spirit

David Burke on the Holy Spirit

Week 5 (begins May 9):  Theological views of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Rob Bowman on the Trinity

David Burke on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Week 6 (begins May 16): Closing statements.

Rob Bowman’s Closing Statement

David Burke’s Closing Statement

You can read Rob’s introduction to the debate challenge here. And also worth reading is Rob and David’s list of resources that are relevant to the debate.

Is Biblical inerrancy a late innovation of the Church?

One of the most persistent arguments against the inerrancy of the Bible is that it is late innovation in the history of the church. Inerrancy is said to be the product of the rationalist, Enlightenment mindset that prevailed in the nineteenth century and today, with the collapse of modernism, the rejection of foundationalism and other Cartesian assumptions, it is argued that inerrancy should be jettisoned with the now defunct philosophy that generated it.

While there are many ways to define inerrancy, the theological doctrine is usually understood as the view that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms (the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy remains a useful evangelical benchmark). Certainly, the Bible isn’t a catalogue of facts, and its truth canvasses literary genres that are rich and complex and must be appropriately grasped – but if God Himself does stand behind the production of the Bible, then it must be entirely truthful. Many Christians, however, are uncomfortable with the perceived contradictions between the Bible and discoveries in history and science or even internal difficulties within the Bible itself. Some have therefore sought to articulate more modest positions for what we can say Scripture is. Critical of inerrancy and what they see as a strict modernist understanding of the Bible, some promote a return to a more primitive, pre-modern understanding, where the Bible can be viewed as primarily concerned with questions of salvation and faith. Without a high view of the Bible, greater latitude can be allowed in its claims (and errors) concerning other fields of knowledge.

But does this suggestion hold up to scrutiny? Was the notion of an inerrant, infallible Bible a recent theological innovation, and merely the product of particular Enlightenment assumptions?

Without getting into a full discussion of inerrancy, several quick comments can be offered:

1. While it is true that the earliest proponents of inerrancy in the modern period, B. B. Warfield, A. A. Hodge and others, were shaped by the Enlightenment, this influence has been exaggerated. Critics have often argued that both Warfield and Hodge, writing in the late 1800s at Princeton University, were too heavily dependent on a modernist philosophy, known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Scottish Realism was an outlook that affirmed the human ability to know, and set out conditions for what could count as knowledge. The outlook opposed the skepticism of David Hume and sought to revive the European Enlightenment commitments to science, rationality and the Christian tradition. What is ignored, however, is the fact that the contemporary opponents of Warfield and Hodge and of the doctrine of inerrancy they defended, were no less dependent on this same philosophical position. It is a simply a mistake to conclude that a high view of Scripture is anchored to one philosophical outlook when those who denied that high view were equally reliant on the same outlook.

2. The fact that the Dutch and Germans adopted a similarly high view of Scripture cannot be avoided, and especially when these theologians were not dependent on the same philosophical outlook, and at times, even fought against it. Among the European Reformed heritage, heavyweights like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck both put forward a view of Scripture that accorded with Warfield and the other Princetonians. For example, Kuyper, while recognizing the diverse literary categories of the Bible, argued that if Scripture contained error, than “God is guilty of error”. (For a deeper discussion on these two, check out: ‘God’s Word in Servant-Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture’ by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.)

3. While there may not have been any attempt to articulate a comprehensive theory of inerrancy before Warfield et al, it is wrong to suggest that inerrancy was not the default view of the church. The best endeavours to assign inerrancy to a late stage of historical development have been ably criticized and do not bear up to rigorous historical research. Church historian Mark Noll has observed: “Most Christians in most churches since the founding of Christianity have believed in the inerrancy of the Bible . . . . [This] has always been the common belief of most Catholics, most Protestants, most Orthodox, and even most of the sects on the fringe of Christianity”.

John Woodbridge has marshaled many examples from church history to show that the suggestion that there was no idea of an infallibly inerrant Scripture before Warfield is mistaken. For example, Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist in the second century, wrote:

“…but if (you have done so) because you imagined that you could throw doubt on the passage, in order that it might say the Scriptures contradicted each other, you have erred. But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext (for saying) that it is contrary (to some other), since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself”.

Or Augustine of Hippo, a Latin church theologian and philosopher, writing in the fourth century said, ” I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error”. Or again: “therefore everything written in Scripture must be believed absolutely”.

Others have shown that inerrancy has been a central church doctrine from the patristic times. Donald Bloesch notes that inerrabilis (roughly “inerrant”) was used by Aquinas and Duns Scotus to describe Scripture, while both Martin Luther and John Calvin characterized the Bible as being infallible and without error. Calvin, for example, described Scripture as an “unerring rule” for Christian life and faith (“So long as your mind entertains any misgivings as to the certainty of the word, its authority will be weak and dubious, or rather it will have no authority at all. Nor is it sufficient to believe that God is true, and cannot lie or deceive, unless you feel firmly persuaded that every word which proceeds form him is sacred, inviolable truth.” The Institutes of Christian Religion)

The notion that a high view of Scripture is tied to a particular philosophical outlook late in the history of church is simply misleading. Christians have sought to articulate the truthfulness of the Bible, on the same exegetical grounds, irrespective of their position in the history of the church. Don Carson, research professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes:

“If one insists that a high view of Scripture cannot or should not be maintained today, one should at least acknowledge that one is walking away from the ancient and central tradition of the church, and from the teaching of Scripture itself.”

General and Special Revelation

Last time we looked at different sources and norms for Christian belief, and found there were at least four legs that makes the stool a theologian sits on. These legs were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. We also suggested there is another source and norm, and as we begin our overview on the Doctrine of Revelation we will be exploring this fifth leg – creation.

Romans 1:20

For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Psalms 19:1-4

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

From these verses we find that it is possible to gain knowledge of God through nature. It does not say how much knowledge, but it does say that it is clearly evident. In church history there has generally been acknowledged that God is revealed in some way through that which he created. [1] We call this knowledge of God that is derived from nature general revelation. General revelation is contrasted with special revelation.

What is meant most often meant by special revelation is Scripture, but knowledge of God – and of other theological truth – can also be gained directly from the Holy Spirit, through miracles, through preaching, or perhaps through a personal word of prophecy. As noted last time in Sources and Norms all of these should conform to the norming norm of Scripture, which testifies of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible.[2]

There are at least five features of General revelation that set its apart from Special revelation:

(1) General revelation is continuous whereas Special revelation is not continuous. It is continuous because there has never and will never be a time when it has not been available. Special revelation is given at certain times, but general revelation is there at all times.

(2) General revelation is natural whereas Special revelation is supernatural. To be natural is to be in accordance with the order and design of the universe. To be supernatural is to transcend (be beyond) that order and design.

(3) General revelation is available to all people whereas Special revelation is available to only certain people. Special revelation is distributed through the personal agents God chooses to use, including missionaries, evangelists and preachers. He may also use angels to spread the good news of the gospel. Jesus Christ, the greatest evangelist of all, witnessed to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Because God chooses to use personal agents restrictions of time and place are involved. General revelation however is accessible to all people to clearly see.

(4) General revelation is non-specific whereas Special revelation is specific. That is Special revelation has the same content as General revelation, but it has more details and is far more clearly defined. In Romans 3:1-5 Paul explains that Jews, who were entrusted with the very words of God, saw more clearly their unrighteousness and God’s righteousness than did the Gentiles, who were not the recipients of the written law.

(5) General revelation is non-redemptive whereas Special revelation is redemptive. Though the revelation from nature is not sufficient for salvation, God can use it to prepare peoples hearts to accept the Special revelation that is sufficient. The lesser light of general revelation can draw people to accept the greater light of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On this last point we want to be careful, for there is nothing to tell us that there was not once a time when general revelation alone was efficacious to salvation. Some suggest that the point at which general revelation ceases to be efficacious for salvation is the point at which special revelation becomes available. This could be, for instance, when the gospel enters into a culture for the first time. It remains the case however that for most people general revelation is not enough to save, and that special revelation is also needed.

Two questions immediately arise here concerning general revelation. The first is, “Are people who are born blind and deaf able to receive general revelation? The answer is Yes!

Romans 2:14-15

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since 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.

Here we see that human conscience is a part of God’s creation. A ‘moral law’ is written on the heart of every person and testifies of God in some manner. So even a person whose experience of the world is impaired by blindness and deafness, they are still able to receive general revelation from their own conscience. Thus it is the case that no one is without excuse.

The second question is more difficult. If there is ample proof of God’s existence in the world so that all people are without an excuse, why are there so many people who do not believe in God?

In the previous verse Paul clearly states that people ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness.’[3] That is not to say that atheists are intentionally lying when they say there is no God. That is to say that human nature is so depraved we can deceive even ourselves. Because people refused to acknowledge God, even though his existence was made plain to them, they were coming under judgment. The following gives us clue on how they found themselves in this tremulous predicament. Paul writes:

Romans 2:21-22

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, . . . [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

What was the result of this? “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (v.21) This was the first step in a downward progression of depravity and wickedness. So pernicious is this trend that Paul, after carefully expounding the gospel, implores his readers to worship God (unlike those who refused to acknowledge him) and be transformed by renewing the mind (countering the effects of not acknowledging him).[4]

Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–74), the Dominican monk from the scholastic tradition, is referred to as the father of Natural Theology. Natural Theology is the task of discovering what we can know about God and his truth wholly apart from special revelation. Aquinas is famous for his five arguments for God’s existence, which all find something in the world that, together with reason confirm that the book of scripture and the book of nature both agree with each other. We will explore in greater depth what Natural Theology can tell us when we cover the Doctrine of God, but for now it is enough to note that general revelation is the field in which Natural Theology is grown, and that Aquinas’ views on how nature and reason together speak of God’s existence became the official view of the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), the great German reformer, though suspicious of philosophy and the scholastic tradition, nonetheless affirms that there is general revelation. Still, he wanted to stress that without Christ the picture was only ever limited and incomplete.

There is a twofold knowledge of God, genaral and particular. All people have the general knowledge, namely that God exists, that he has created heaven and earth, that he is righteous, that he punishes the wicked, etc. But people do not know what God proposes concerning us, what he wants to give and to do, so that he might deliver us from sin and death, and to save us – which is the proper and the true knowledge of God. Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know his intentions. So it is that people know natually that there is a God, but they do not know what he wants and does not want.[5]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer, is sometimes accused of having views that are anti general revelation. If we allowed him to speak for himself, we would see that this is not the case.

In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in out minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place then in our view in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him […] To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advanced prods which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them.[6]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), widely considered to be America’s greatest theologian, also recognizes that something of God’s person and character is communicated to us through the natural realm.

It is very fit and becoming of God, who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His works, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and shewing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to Himself and His spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to Himself. And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct by His works in this way as well as in others, viz., by presenting divine things by His works and so painting them forth, especially since we know that God hath so much delighted in this way of instruction.[7]

For Edwards the magnificence of the visible world was a helpful way to describe God’s own greatness.[8] In this he took his cue from the pages of scripture.

Psalms 103:11

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;

Psalm 36:5-6

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.

Next time we will be looking at the doctrine of Inspiration.


[1] Roger E. Olson. Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 74.

[2] Paul’s experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road was special revelation.

[3] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. see Romans 1:18-19

[4] Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. see Romans 12:1-2

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galations; in Martin Luther Werke: Kritsche Gesamtausgabe, vol. 40 (Weimar: Bohlaus, 1911), 602.18-603.13, 607.19-609.14

[6] John Calvin, Institutes I.iii.1, 2; in Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 3 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1928), 37.16-46.11.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, The Images of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (New Heaven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 61.

[8] Ibid., p. 134.

Source and Norms

So far we’ve explored some key terms, method, and the issue of diversity and unity within Christian belief. Today I’ll be looking at where we discover theological information and how we evaluate it. To illustrate I’ll be using the four-legged chair you are sitting on.


Sources for Christian belief are those things that deliver information about God and act as vehicles for what he reveals. Norms are standards by which any information is tested to be accurate and true. Evangelist, revivalist and founder of the Methodist movement, Charles Wesley described four other sources and norms for Christian belief. Although he was not the first, what he articulated came to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

Like a four-legged stool each source and norm acts as a prop to uphold the Christian who sits down to develop his theology. The first leg we need to consider is Scripture.

Jesus declared to his disciples the Holy Spirit will “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:25) Very early the writings of those apostles and their associates came to be considered by the churches as possessing the same authority as the Law and Prophets (what we call now the Old Testament). Thus the Bible is for Christianity the most authoritative and respected source directly available for correct theological information. It acts as a norming norm – a standard by which none can contradict. Just as it would be unthinkable for a U.S. Supreme Court judge to say, “The constitution says all Americans should have the freedom of speech, but I disagree!” so it would be unthinkable for a Christian to deny the explicit teaching of Scripture. To remain faithful to Christian doctrine one must remain faithful to the scripture, and if on some point you think differently, it is there you cease to think Christianly.

Our second leg is Tradition. Everyone who starts a church that runs it for more than a week has tradition – even if the goal is to avoid all tradition. The two thousand year history of the church provides a wealth of theological information – some good, some bad – that has arisen and been affirmed by what is called the Great Tradition. It is very difficult to maintain that this history is not in some way influencing a person’s theology. The Reformers, especially Luther, who affirmed Sola Scriptura, which rightly expresses the idea that scripture alone is the final word, nonetheless accepted that scripture was always interpreted in the light of the Rule of Faith, which effectively became the four ecumenical creeds (the Apostolic, Nicean, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian). Tradition is a normed norm (a standard which itself is held accountable to another standard), which holds within it the compass of scripture.

I have in the past been critical of the role of Tradition as a source for Christian belief. That has only been when I have been evaluating what good theology is. Good theology, I take it, is that which is objectively true. This principle is the primary condition from which I choose to build. Tradition then becomes at most a useful guide, as it generally has been through the ages faithfully responsive to the instruction and guiding of the Holy Spirit. Vanhoozer says, “Canon may be the cradle of Christian doctrine, but tradition is its wet nurse.”[1]

The third leg of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is Reason, or the deliverances of the cognitive faculties. It includes wider disciplines such as philosophy, science, history and especially logic. It is with reason we delineate premises and evaluate arguments. Reason helps us to explore the internal consistency of an individual’s theology (or the internal structural soundness and aesthetic harmony of a theological castle). Reason is essential in communicating the gospel and is vital for that branch of Christian theology that seeks to defend Christian truth-claims, i.e., apologetics.

The final leg of our chair is Experience. Theological castles are not constructed in a vacuum. We naturally look to the world that God created to inform us about him. Against the background of our experiences in this world our theology will inevitably be influenced. One example is the Swiss-born, Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth, who abandoned Liberal theology because of all the evil he saw perpetrated in the Germany during World War One. Another example of experience acting as a source and norm within Christian belief is the once popular position called Cessationism. A Cessationist holds that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer operative today, but ceased to function sometime after the passing of the first or second generation after Christ. Due to the overwhelming amount of miracles today preformed in the name of Jesus, especially in Asia and Africa, and the availability of testimonies of witnesses to these miracles, this doctrine has largely been renounced.

Some theologians suggest another leg be included. Creation, it is argued, is also a source and a norm. We shall speak more of this next time when we exit our Prolegomena and begin with the Doctrine of Revelation, but for myself I do not see how creation constitutes anything substantively different than what is already covered by Reason and Experience.

Precisely how these four legs are ordered in terms of importance is disputable. Different tradition-communities lean more heavily on certain legs. It is how we order these sources and norms that create most of the variety we see in theology. For instance the many differences between Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches from Protestant churches stem from the different emphasis placed upon the role of Tradition as a source and norm. Let me suggest however that scripture should be considered the most authoritative, directly available source and norm for Christian belief – a norming norm – for all who seek to build their castles. The reason for this I hope should be made clear in our next section.

But a stool, of course, is more than its legs. The supreme source for all Christian belief is Jesus Christ himself. As the incarnate Word of God he is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible. The disciple declares Christ as “the true light that gives light to every man.” (John 1:9) Luther described Christ as the “canon within the canon.”

These are the Scriptures that testify about me,

John 5:39

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Hebrews 1:1-3

If we want to know of God, we must ultimately look to God himself, revealed specially in the person of Jesus Christ. Our clearest picture we receive of Him is through the scriptures.

Next time we begin on the Doctrine of Revelation.

Footnotes:

1. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The drama of doctrine: a canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) p. 234.