For the last two years, I have focused in a greater way than ever before in my life on the question of how we know that the Christian Scriptures are completely true, and then, in view of that, how we should read them. The overflow of that focus and that thinking is now in two books. The first was released two weeks ago. The title is A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness. The second I just finished a few weeks ago (it is scheduled to be released next year). I’d like to call it Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture.
So what I would like to do in our time together is help you see how your confidence in the Scriptures can be unshakable — not because you are stubborn or strong-minded, but because there is a reasonable and warranted ground for this confidence. And, of course, the ultimate goal is that through the Scriptures you would see the glory of God and savor the glory of God and be transformed by this seeing and savoring so that your emotions and attitudes and ideas and words and way of life magnify the glory of God increasingly forever.
The Most Urgent Question
Ever since I first got serious about the question how we know the Bible is true, it has seemed to me that the most urgent question is not how to provide arguments that convince modern atheists (like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens), but rather, how it is that an uneducated Muslim villager in the bush of Nigeria, or a pre-literate tribesman in Papua New Guinea, can know that the message of the Bible is true so that, three weeks after hearing and believing it, he would have a justified, warranted courage to die for his conviction. He could die for the truth of the Scriptures, and not be a fool.
That, to me, is a far more urgent question than how to answer secular skeptics. Is there a way for uneducated, ordinary people around the world to have a well-founded confidence that the Bible is true?
One of the reasons this question began to be so relevant for me when I was about 22 years old, and wrestling with the issues of biblical certainty, is not that uneducated people are more precious than educated people, or more in need than educated people. That’s not true. The reason had to do with my own quest for confidence. When I was exposed to the best arguments for the reliability of the Bible, I was wonderfully encouraged and helped. They seemed right to me. They were compelling.
You don’t need to be a scholar to know the Bible is true. God makes this confidence available to every Christian.
But what I discovered was that a week or two after studying them, I couldn’t remember all the pieces of the argument. I remembered that the argument seemed solid, but I couldn’t reproduce the argument in the present moment. And what made this troubling was not mainly that I couldn’t remember all the steps in the argument for the sake of the debate, but worse, I couldn’t remember them all for the sake of my soul. And on top of that, there was the nagging sense that I would meet some highly educated person who would point to something in my argument that I had overlooked, and I would be stumped. So basing my confidence on a fairly sophisticated sequence of history and logic felt fragile to me.
So you can see that my question about how a pre-literate villager with no formal education can know the Bible is true is very similar to the question, How can I know in a way that doesn’t depend on complicated historical and logical arguments? So for me this issue is not mainly about debates with the new atheists or other educated skeptics. This issue is about my own soul, the task of global missions, and the rearing of our children.
How Jonathan Edwards Helped Me
The person that helped me most in wrestling with these issues is Jonathan Edwards — the New England pastor and theologian who died in 1758. Not because he is brilliant — he is — but because he posed the question exactly the way I did, and he directed me to the Scriptures that answered my questions.
What many people don’t know about Edwards is that from 1751 to 1758, after he had been dismissed from his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, he was the pastor of a tiny church in the frontier town of Stockbridge and was a missionary to the Indians. Here’s where he connected with my concern. He wrestled with how the Indians, with no knowledge of history, or of the wider world, or any ability to read or any formal training in logic — how would they be able to have a well-grounded confidence in the message of Scripture? Here’s what Edwards wrote:
Miserable is the condition of the Houssatunnuck Indians and others, who have lately manifested a desire to be instructed in Christianity, if they can come at no evidence of the truth of Christianity, sufficient to induce them to sell all for Christ, in any other way but this [path of historical reasoning]. (Religious Affections, 304)
Thus a soul may have a kind of intuitive knowledge of the divinity of the things exhibited in the gospel; not that he judges the doctrines of the gospel to be from God, without any argument or deduction at all; but it is without any long chain of arguments; the argument is but one, and the evidence direct; the mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory. (298–299)
Unless men may come to a reasonable solid persuasion and conviction of the truth of the gospel, by the internal evidences of it . . . viz. by a sight of its glory; ’tis impossible that those who are illiterate, and unacquainted with history, should have any thorough and effectual conviction of it at all. (303)
So Edwards is arguing that the path to a reasonable, warranted, well-grounded conviction of the truth of the gospel and the Scriptures is a path that the Nigerian villager and the Papuan tribesman can follow. It is the path of seeing the peculiar glory of God in the word of God.
See Divine Glory for Yourself
I do not doubt that hundreds of you in this room have experienced what Edwards is describing, even if you have never thought of it in these terms. It’s almost always the case that God saves and gives us faith, and only later do we see in the Bible how he did that, and what language the Bible uses to describe our experience. It’s like a baby being born. He’s alive and breathing and crying and eating, before he knows how to describe any of that. Experience often precedes the ability to describe the experience.
So let me try, with three biblical analogies, to help you grasp what Edwards and I mean by gaining a well-founded conviction about divine truth by means of seeing divine glory. If you see these analogies, you may be able to interpret your own experience with biblical categories and language.
1. God’s Glory in Creation
God intends for us to have a well-grounded conviction that he is the powerful, wise, merciful creator and sustainer of the world by means of a sight of his glory.
Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” Notice! The heavens — the sun and moon and stars and galaxies — are not themselves the glory of God. We are not pantheists. The heavens are not God. And their glory is not the glory of God. They are telling — pointing to — the glory of God. Which means you must have eyes to see through the glory of nature to the glory of God.
Many non-Christian scientists see glory in the universe. Charles Misner said that Einstein had seen much more majesty than the preachers had ever imagined, and it seemed to him that they were just not talking about the real thing. So we have Psalm 19:1 showing us that the sight of glory can give us a well-grounded confidence that this universe is of God.
Then even more importantly, Paul says in Romans 1:19–21,
What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
My guess is that very few of you have had trouble with the claim that God’s invisible power and divine nature are revealed in the creation, and that we are accountable to see his glory and know that God made it and that he is powerful and wise and beneficent. But you do not see this with your physical eyes. Your physical eyes see the wonders of the universe. They become the lens through which your spiritual eyes — what Paul calls the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18) — see the very glory of the God.
And my argument — Edwards’s argument — is that the same thing happens when you read the Scriptures. The Scriptures reveal themselves to be the word of God the way nature reveals itself to be the world of God — God’s glory shines out from the meaning of these words, and authenticates their divine origin the way God’s glory shines out from the creation and authenticates its divine origin.
2. God’s Glory in the Incarnate Christ
Here is a second analogy of how God’s glory authenticates his divine reality — namely, the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the God-man.
God expected people in Jesus’s day to see the glory of God in him and know that he was the Son of God, even though he was really human, and looked like other ordinary people.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” (John 14:8–9)
Many people looked at God-incarnate and did not see God. And many people hear God’s word today and do not hear God. But the Son of God was really there for those who had eyes to see, and the word of God is here, for those who have ears to hear. The glory of God in Christ was missed by many. And the glory of God in the word is missed by many. But neither is deficient.
3. God’s Glory in the Gospel
Here is one final analogy — the most important one — of how God’s glory authenticates the word of God — namely, the way the glory of God vindicates the gospel.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The gospel, the story of how God came to save sinners, emits a supernatural light to the eyes of the heart — the “light of the gospel of glory of Christ.” Christ’s self-authenticating glory shines through the gospel. And God shatters the blindness in verse 6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
The only hope for us to know the Bible is true is for God to do the miracle of opening our blind eyes.
So the light is called in verse 4 “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And the light is called in verse 6 “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Paul is saying that the way we come to know that the Christian gospel, as recorded in Scripture, is true is by a sight of its glory. The glory of God in the face of Christ. The glory of Christ, the image of God.
I call this a peculiar glory. It’s a glory that shines through all of the Scripture, but most brightly in the gospel of the Son of God crucified for the sake of sinners. What makes the glory of God in Scripture peculiar, especially the gospel, is the way God’s majesty is expressed through his meekness. God reveals himself in Lion-like majesty together with his Lamb-like meekness.
Isaiah cries out that this glory is utterly unique in the universe. “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). God magnifies his greatness in condescending to help us, to save us. He magnifies his greatness by making himself the supreme treasure of our hearts, even at great cost to himself (Romans 8:32), and in that way satisfying us — serving us — in the very act of exalting his glory. This peculiar brightness shines through the whole Bible, and comes to its most beautiful radiance in the person and work of Jesus Christ, dying and rising for his enemies.
The Bible Shines a Peculiar Glory
My conclusion is that, just as God confirms that the world is his by revealing his glory through it, and that Jesus is the Son of God by revealing God’s glory through him, and the gospel is the gospel of God by revealing his glory through it, in the same way, the whole Bible authenticates itself by shining with the glory of the one who inspired it. Which means that we know that the Scriptures are the word of God because in their true meaning we see the self-authenticating glory of God. Or to use the words of Jonathan Edwards, “The mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory.”
Of course, the problem is that by nature we are blind to the glory of God. We suppress it. We love the darkness, Jesus says (John 3:19). Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” We have eyes, but we do not see. Ears, but we do not hear.
The only hope for us to see the glory of God in Scripture, and have a well-grounded confidence that it is the word of God, is for God to perform a miracle and take away our spiritual blindness that we are all born with. And Paul says God, in fact, does do this. God comes to us and he speaks a word of new creation just like he did in the old creation and says, “Let there be light.” And we are given life and new spiritual eyes. “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
You know Christ is real. You know the gospel is real. And you know the Scriptures are true, because God says, “Let there be light.” You see the peculiar glory and you know this is not the mere work of man. This is of God.