For five days in the summer of 1979 I was an expert on the Bible.
Although I was humble about my status, my fellow pre-seminarians attending Vacation Bible School at East Cisco Baptist Church were awed by the agility with which I wielded my knowledge. We would sit restlessly through the flannelgraph-aided stories of Noah, Joseph, and David, waiting for the event that would put my considerable skills to the test: Bible speed drills.
Because besting an opponent often requires beating them to the Scriptural punch, we young Baptists were quizzed on our ability to quickly find any passage in the Bible. Our instructor would call out an obscure book such as Habakkuk or Colossians or Nezeriah (that one was to keep us on our toes) and we would furiously race to be the first to find the chapter and verse. The winner of each round earned a gold star.
To say I was good at Bible Speed Drill would be an understatement. I was the best, the undisputed champ, not only of VBS, but of the entire city of Cisco, TX (at least since the time of Richard John Neuhaus, who also lived in the town during his boyhood). I was confident that I could handily beat any of the other 4,516 residents in town, especially the Methodists and Catholics who, my Pentecostal neighbor assured me, never opened a Bible at all. My record spoke for itself: I had more stars than the Andromeda galaxy. I was clearly an expert on Scripture.
My claim to being a theological prodigy, however, was short-lived. The deeper I delved into the Bible—which required reading past the index page—the more I realized I was utterly clueless.
Initially, I believed I could regain my esteemed status by years of study and accumulation of Biblical knowledge. As Jacob had wrestled with the angel, I continued to grapple with Scripture. But unlike the patriarch I quickly lost the fight, pinned in the first round by the sheer weight of the Bible's magisterial beauty and truth. I soon realized I wasn't called to be an authority on Scripture but rather to recognize that the Bible itself was an authority unto which I must yield.
I also began to recognize that the subject was Christ himself, who was foreshadowed, revealed, or illuminated in all sixty-six books. Christ can only be truly and properly known through the revelation presented in the entirety of Scripture.
The British theologian Alister McGrath notes that Scripture is regarded as a channel through which God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is encountered. Faith accepts Scripture as a testimony to Christ, and submits to Christ as the one of whom Scripture speaks. Our epistemological warrant for knowledge about Christ is therefore predicated on accepting the testimony of the Gospel. As the enthymeme disguised as a children's hymn explains: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
But is it enough to believe simply because the Bible tells me so? Isn't it circular reasoning to claim that Scripture is authoritative because it says it is? And is it rational to believe something on the sole ground that Scripture affirms it? To answer these questions let's examine the reasons for believing the claim made in the Sunday School song.
While it might not appear to be an argument, the first line (“Jesus loves me”) is actually a conclusion based on the premise “the Bible tells me so” (specifically, John 3:16). For this premise to be applicable requires accepting, (a) the Bible is quite likely to lead to truth, and (b) there is no convincing reason for believing it doesn’t. Or, as an epistemologist might say, I have justification, warrant, and an absence of defeaters for this belief.
Since I'm still a Christian, I obviously believe Scripture leads to truth and have not found a convincing reason for giving up belief in this premise. But while the belief might be warranted and rational, what prevents if from being a circular belief? Am I claiming to believe the Bible leads to truth because "the Bible tells me so"?
The answer is that I was lead to believe the Bible is true because of the testimony of a thoroughly reliable witness: the Holy Spirit. Not only does the Bible tell me so, but God himself has testified to the veracity of the claim. Assuming that the Spirit has in fact guided me to believe the premise, I have a rational, reasonable, non-circular reason for believing that the Bible is true.
With the Holy Spirit as the interpreter, the Bible becomes a self-authenticating, perspicuous, and sufficient authority for Christian doctrine. Because God has provided immediate (direct, without an intermediary agent) confirmation for me that his mediate special revelation (Scripture) is true, I find that I can do nothing else but humbly and reverently submit to the power of his Word. To do anything else would be to replace the divinely inspired authority with one based on a norms of creation, such as culture or tradition.
This is why I can add a new verse to the song that I learned so long ago:
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible told me so
And the Holy Spirit did bestow, a truth that only He would know
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.
(Note: This is part one of a two part series on an evangelical view of the Bible.)