Recalcitrant Reason Requires a Firm Foundation

Article by   September 2015
In the past three articles, I tried to respond to one particular objection to a Reformed approach to apologetics. That objection centers on a supposed confusion in Covenantal Apologetics between epistemological and ontological principles. There is much more that can be said about that objection, but it's best that we move on now to the next objection.

The next objection to a Covenantal (presuppositional) approach to apologetics is stated this way:
Presuppositionalists claim that the Word of God is self-authenticating. It needs no proof. It is the basis for all other conclusions, but it has no basis beyond itself. But what they fail to see is that while all of this is true of the Word of God, nonetheless, it is not thereby true of the Bible. For there must be some evidence or good reasons for believing that the Bible is the Word of God, as opposed to contrary views.[1]
The proper concern of the objection is that, for example, the Qur'an claims to be the Word of God, as does the Bible. How, then, can one accept the latter claim while rejecting the former one? Won't we need reasons for accepting the Bible and for rejecting the Qur'an as the Word of God?

This is another major topic, but we will try to respond to it here. We have broached the topic of principia enough in previous posts that it would be redundant to develop it at any length again here. However, given the rejection of Protestant principia by so many evangelical Protestants, it might be useful for us to remember that Protestants, not simply "presuppositionalists," are bound to recognize Scripture's self-attesting authority. This self-attestation must be an integral part of a Christian defense.
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.4).
When we think of Scripture as self-attesting, we can begin with this paragraph in the Confession. In seeking to explain what the Reformers meant by Sola Scriptura, the pastor/theologians of the Reformation recognized that there were only two options available on the question of an ultimate authority. Either man (or the church) is the ultimate authority, or God is. 

During the Reformation, and continuing to the present day, the expression of these two options is clearly seen in the difference between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic view, explicitly denied in the Confession, is that the Bible is to be affirmed as the Word of God because of the "testimony of the church." This testimony is simply one example of a man-made testimony. There is no substantive difference between the "testimony of any man" and the "testimony of the Church." Thus, the evangelical objection, above, is the same in substance as the Catholic view. The Protestant view, on the other hand, included a recognition that if the Bible was deemed to be the Word of God, and thus authoritative, based on some testimony other than itself, then that testimony would, by definition, be the ultimate authority.

The evangelical objection expressed above argues that some other testimony to the Bible's identity as the Word of God is necessary in order to distinguish it from other books that claim to be the Word of God. But "some other testimony" will either be from men or from God. Since there are really only two options available to us, any view that requires something other than Scripture in order to establish Scripture to be the Word of God is decidedly opposed to the Reformation principle, and is equivalent to a Roman Catholic view.

The difference between the Roman Catholic view and the evangelical objection, above, is that the latter approach is grounded in an individual's supposedly "objective" decision as to whether the evidences for the Bible's reliability is likely enough to warrant an affirmation of its inspiration. So, the Catholic view defers to the church as final authority, whereas the evangelical view defers to the individual person's "reasonable" decision.

We can summarize the evangelical view, which seeks for some other testimony, under two, sometimes interrelated, categories. The first category is historical reliability. In order to determine whether or not the Bible is inspired by God, and thus is his Word, we must first show that the Bible is historically accurate. Let's concede, for the sake of argument, that we can show the Bible to be historically accurate. What would our conclusion be?

John Warwick Montgomery concludes his own assessment of the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection with this:
It should now be very evident to the reader that the possibility of future evidence arising to negate the force of the now existing evidence for Christ's claims is almost too small to be entertained, the evidence for the Resurrection involves only four documents, whose dates of origin have been determined beyond a shadow of a doubt. The only relevant new evidence which would be pertinent to this problem would seem to be a discovery of Christ's remains..., but the possibility of such data ever existing is virtually nil... [2]
Notice the conclusion: the possibility of future evidence arising to negate Christ's claims is "almost too small to be entertained," and the possibility of discovering that Christ's bodily remains in a tomb is "virtually nil." In other words, the probability for each is very low.

But if the probability for each is very low, we can say that there is some, even if small, probability that Christ's claims are false and that his remains will be discovered. Is this the way Christians are meant to think, and to defend their faith? Is this the way Christians are supposed to communicate the veracity of Christ's claims and the reality of his resurrection? Historical investigation is not bad, but the best that historical investigation can do is to conclude for a probability. How one moves from probability to certainty is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, given this argument, to determine. But the truths of the gospel require nothing less than certainty. To communicate otherwise is to undermine the very source of our certainty in the first place. 

Another "evidential" approach to affirming the Bible to be the Word of God is sometimes called the "Christological" approach[3]  This approach attempts to steer clear of the problem of historical reliability by setting up various "criteria of authenticity" that move toward the likelihood of inspiration. 

One author outlines five criteria: 1. Multiple attestation, showing that the claims and works of Christ are given in multiple independent sources; 2. Dissimilarity, showing the dissimilarity of some of Jesus' sayings compared to first-century Judaism; 3. Embarrassment, argues that statements of Jesus that would prove embarrassing from the standpoint of the writer is probably authentic; 4. Palestinian environment, which argues that what Jesus said or did that is consistent with early Palestinian culture is likely authentic; and 5. Coherence, which allows that any sayings of Jesus that do not pass the any of the previous four criteria are likely authentic if they cohere with those that do.[4]

The first criterion is thought to be the most important, so we can think about it for a minute. In the first criterion, the argument is that there are at least four, probably more, independent sources for the sayings of Jesus. There are the four gospels, and the testimony of the other apostles to what Jesus said. But one of the questions that immediately arises is, what, exactly, is the status of these independent sources? The "Christological" approach tends to eschew the approach of historical reliability, for various reasons, so it wouldn't want to appeal to that criterion in support. The best answer to this question, from the standpoint of the evangelical, is simply that they are independent sources. Once we recognize their independence, as well as their similarity of content, we have a likelihood of their authenticity.

In a "Christological" approach to arguing that the Bible is the Word of God, these "criteria of authenticity" are used in assessing Jesus' own claims of deity, and the historicity of his resurrection. The argument is then put like this:
  1. Jesus taught that he is God incarnate.
  2. God authenticated Jesus' teaching by raising him from the dead.
  3. Hence, Jesus is God incarnate.
  4. Jesus (i.e., God incarnate) taught that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and he promised the inspiration of the New Testament through his apostles.
  5. Therefore, the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is divinely inspired.[5]
It is the "criteria of authenticity" that are supposed to give credence to the likelihood of this argument. What they cannot do, because they are not able to do, is to give any certainty to Jesus' statements. Instead, Jesus' statements are "known (or justified) apart from any assumption of the Gospels' divine inspiration or even historical reliability. The items that pass these tests are known on purely historical grounds -- grounds accessible to believer and unbeliever alike."[6]

The problems with this approach, from an apologetic perspective, are legion. On the basis of what, for example, will the unbeliever allow for the "likelihood" or "plausibility" of Jesus' statements? Presumably, on the basis of the five criteria. But what is it that makes those criteria worthy of trust, or of plausibility, especially when the statements made by Jesus, from the perspective of unbelief, are utterly outrageous? If six authors write that Jesus said he was identical to the "I Am" of the Old Testament, is an unbeliever meant to cry "Uncle"?

But let's say these criteria are all successful and the unbeliever concedes. What has he conceded? By the admission of those who argue in this way, the unbeliever concedes that all of these sayings of Jesus are likely authentic. So, concedes the unbeliever, "You're probably right. I too will believe in the probability of the life, death and resurrection of the one who was probably God." Is this sufficient for an apologetic? How would one move from these probable conclusions to the certainty that the gospel, and its truth, requires?

It is interesting that these same authors fail to recognize what the foundational status of Scripture includes. As we have noted in previous articles, the Westminster Confession does delineate the categories for arguments for Scripture's status. Included in those categories are,
the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God (WCF 1.5, my emphasis).
The good news in this comparison of apologetic approaches is that the evidential evangelical apologist and the Covenantal apologist both are appealing to the same material. The evidentialist is appealing to the Gospels, to the theology of Paul, to Christ's own statements, etc. The evangelical criterion of independent sources, for example, could be construed as an appeal to "the consent of all the parts." 

The difference in the two approaches, however, is, literally, fundamental. The difference is in the foundation on which one stands in order to appeal to these same statements. The foundation for the evangelical is the supposed neutral and objective reasoning of the unbeliever, who has the same historical access to the Bible as the believer. The foundation for the Reformed apologist is the status of Scripture itself. Only with that status, can one move from an appeal to the statements of Scripture, to the certainty of its gospel truth.

As for the problem, stated above, between the Bible's claim and the Qur'an's claim to be the Word of God, one response that is in keeping with Scripture's foundational status is to encourage a comparison of the two. Herman Venema (1697-1787) put it this way: "Let a comparison be instituted between [Scripture] and the systems of the heathen and of Mohammed, and its certainty and superiority will be seen."[7] The beauty of this approach is that it requires exposure to Scripture, wherein alone is the power of God for salvation.

We should recognize as well that the Qur'an does not simply claim to be the Word of God. It claims to supplement Scripture, even as it contradicts it. So, its claims can be assessed in light of its own criteria, and can be found seriously wanting.[8] Other serious deficiencies in the Qur'an include the fact that it lays no claim to divine inspiration, but instead it purportedly comes from an angel. Mohammed himself does not claim to be inspired. The Qur'an gives no revelation of the character of God, only of his will, and there are no miracles or supernatural testimonies to its authenticity. Its mode of revelation is singular, and not composite, and it has no historical ground (other than that it attempts to incorporate from Scripture). So, a comparison of the two views of God's Word yields deep and substantial differences.

The sum and substance of the difference between the evangelical approach to Scripture in our defense of Christianity and the historically Protestant, Covenantal, approach is found at the foundation. The foundation of an evangelical approach is in a supposed neutral notion of reason, a kind of presumed public objectivity, that ignores or undermines a full, biblical view of sin's effects. A Covenantal approach, with its foundation in a Reformed view of sin and of Scripture, always and everywhere stands on the firm and certain foundation of Scripture, as it invites those who oppose it to "take and read." Read the "majesty of the style;" see the "heavenliness of the matter" and the "scope of the whole." No other book will provide a coherent view of the entirety of the universe, as well as of the condition of the human heart. These are arguments, and they should be used in our defense. If the unbeliever does hear or read, he will be exposed to the power of Scripture, which the Spirit of God uses, by and with that Word, to change the recalcitrant reason of unbelieving man to the soft and sanctified knowledge of God in Christ.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] Norman L. Geisler, "Reviews," Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2, (Fall 2013), 173.
[2] John Warwick Montgomery, The Shape of the Past: An Introduction to Philosophical Historiography (Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1968), 237, my emphases.
[3] For an exposition of this approach, see Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder, In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (B&H Academic, 2013-07-01), 435-463.

[4] These five criteria, and their explanations, are taken from Ibid., 439-440.
[5] Ibid., 443.

[6] Ibid., 440-441, emphasis original.

[7] Quoted in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 280, my emphasis.

[8] For a mock dialog between a Christian and Muslim that deals with this question, see K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Crossway, 2013), Chapter 7.

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