[Originally published as The Foundation of Faith: Jesus or the Bible?]
A common feature of the debate surrounding apologetic methodology involves speculation as to the ground of our Christian belief.
We might summarize the question before us this way: Do we believe in Jesus because we believe the Bible, or do we believe the Bible because we believe in Jesus?
Ultimately I’m going to take issue with the way the question is phrased, but since this is how it is usually cast, I’ll take some time to work through those questions, first.
The Problem and the Tension
Those interested in this debate usually take a hard position on either side.
If you believe our faith is grounded in God’s Word, you’re likely a presuppositionalist. This view is most often associated with what’s known as “revelational epistemology,” which maintains that the only way anyone knows anything is by revelation from God.
If you believe of our faith is grounded in Jesus himself, you’re likely an evidentialist or classicalist. This position would only require agreement with the consensus of New Testament scholarship that the gospels are reliable primary source documents about the life of Jesus of Nazareth—a belief in supernatural inspiration is not required but is rather something like a side effect of becoming a follower of Christ.
The following by Dr. William Lane Craig nicely summarizes this view:
Even taken as ordinary, fallible human records, the New Testament documents have been shown to be reliable with respect to these facts. Too many Christians naively think that unless you presuppose biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the historicity of the life of Jesus goes down the drain. This attitude, far from showing confidence in the Bible, actually betrays a profound lack of confidence in its historical credibility. Without the theological assumptions of inspiration and inerrancy to hold it up, the Bible is implicitly taken to be untrustworthy on this view.
But once one becomes a Christian, then one submits to the teaching of the Lord Jesus. When we see how Jesus regarded the Old Testament, we perceive that he taught it to be the inspired and wholly reliable Word of God. So as his disciples, we should, too. We believe in the Bible because we believe in him.
What’s interesting is that folks on both sides of the debate would surely want to affirm aspects of the other’s view. Certainly we all want to say that we learn things about God through special revelation—and, at the time same time, we all want to say that the gospels are historically reliable documents that teach about the life of Jesus.
So what’s the real issue, then?
As someone with friends on both sides of the issue (I personally find myself somewhat in the middle), it seems to me it rests on the important distinction between logical and chronological priority.
How Do We Come to Know Things?
While a broader discussion about epistemology might be helpful here, that’s a bit beyond the scope of this piece.
For our purposes, let’s discuss logical priority vs chronological priority.
The latter is rather easy to grasp. For event x to be chronologically prior to event y, event x must simply take place before event y in time.
Logical priority constitutes x being a sufficient condition for y to take place. Fellow blogger J.W. Wartick has a concise, :
Logical priority, broadly defined, is the way things are ontologically ordered. That is, to say that for two factors, x and y, x is logically prior to y if and only if x takes precedence over y. An example could be to use miracles and God (note this is just for the sake of example, I realize that some would argue miracles can exist without God, but I’m simply using it as an illustration). The existence of God is logically prior to miracles in the sense that if God does not exist, then miracles do not. In this case, God would be x, while miracles would be y. In order for y to be the case, x must also be the case, thus making x logically prior to y.
From my view, then, a confusion (or ignorance) of this distinction is at the heart of the divide on the issue at hand.
The evidentialist, it seems, wants to argue that we believe the Bible because we believe in Jesus on the basis that we can know about Jesus and even form true beliefs about who he was and what he did chronologically prior to forming a belief about the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
The presuppositionalist might well agree with the latter half of the previous statement (I do!), but take issue with the first half, since our knowledge of who Jesus really was is based on the logically prior foundation laid by Scripture. He would reason that it is absurd to think that one should believe what Jesus claims about himself apart from prior revelation.1
Indeed, if not for the Messianic context of Christ’s life and work, he might well fall subject to the “liar” or “lunatic” poles of Lewis’ famous trilemma.
And, sure enough, the evidentialist may agree! So, how do we decide which view, if either, is correct?
Since we all ultimately affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture, we can use Scripture itself to inform our thinking here. I think Scripture has more to say on this very issue than most people realize!
How Do We Know Jesus?
First, it would be prudent to explore just how we know who Jesus is, which we can do by finding where he grounds his own authority.
The Son of Man
There are two very important passages that demonstrate Jesus finding and proving his own authority by the Hebrew Scriptures, both of which trade on the “Son of man” motif found in Daniel 7.
In Jewish thought, the “Son of man” was a messianic figure who would play a major role in the coming apocalypse.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary explains,
In the early to mid-20th century, scholarship posited that texts referred to an apocalyptic figure—a divine heavenly being—who would appear at the end of time to complete the work of judgment and bring final salvation to God’s people (Boussett, Kyrios Christos, 31–55; Mowinckel, He That Cometh, 348–53; Tödt, Son of Man, 22–31).
This apocalyptic figure seems to feature in Jewish texts such as 1 Enoch 46–71 and 4 Ezra 13. In both of these texts, an authoritative heavenly figure appears at God’s side to judge the world and bring salvation. Both 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra play a major role in the Jewish concept of the Messiah.
Multiple times, Jesus adorns this title in response to challenges of his authority.
In Mark 2:10-11 Jesus says,
But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.
This was a huge claim. For the Jews, only Yahweh could forgive sins.2 This was Jesus claiming equality with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and grounding his identity in prior special revelation.
Similarly, in John 5:26-27 Jesus claims,
For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.
Again, we see Jesus as the Son of man, claiming direct authority from Yahweh to execute judgment.
The force of Jesus’ assertions would be all but gone without the ability to tie his person to this messianic figure of the Hebrew Bible, but it’s not the only time he did that.
The Messiah of Psalm 22
Written 1,000 years prior to the events of Christ’s death and even before the invention of death by crucifixion, Psalm 22 is a stunning messianic passage.
It describes in detail the events surrounding the death of Christ.
We know that Jesus thought of himself as the subject of Psalm 22 because he cries out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” from the cross.
Jesus was not randomly pulling a relevant line from the Hebrew Bible to apply to his situation. His usage here was very intentional. The intent was to call the entire passage to remembrance since that is how they often referenced a selection of Scripture in Bible days.
The idea is that all of the thoughts surrounding the events of Psalm 22 come to mind when Jesus cries out its opening line from the cross.
Again, without this context, Jesus’ death would just as well fit the intended meaning of the derogatory “King of Jews” moniker given to him. This context demonstrates he is the Messiah, the actual King of the Jews, as he claimed.
The Road to Emmaus
One final example is the walk to Emmaus that Jesus shares with a couple of travelers, found in Luke 24. Recall the note in verse 27:
And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Perhaps even more stunning is the words of Christ himself to these travelers in the two preceding verses (25b-26):
O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Behooved it not the Christ to suffer these things, and to enter into his glory?
Of course, the word “Christ” just means “Messiah.” But the obvious suggestion here is that Christ’s life and work only have proper context if the prior revelation of Yahweh to his people confirms them. That seems to follow from all of the above examples of Jesus and his claims to divinity and authority.
This would suggest that it is not unreasonable to think that we do, in fact, believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible, and not the other way around.
Jesus called people to believe on him—sure enough. But remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom?
In Jesus’ story, the rich man pleads with Abraham that he might go and warn his brothers about this place of torment in the afterlife. The answer?
They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. (Luke 16:29-31).
In a stunning display, Jesus himself affirms that the writings of Moses and the Prophets have just as much power when it comes to persuasion toward belief as an eyewitness encounter of himself!
But he’s not the only one who thought this way.
New Testament Authors and the Priority of Special Revelation
Two examples will serve to demonstrate that new revelation was always adjudicated by prior revelation, lest new believers be led astray by false teachers.
In Acts 17:11, the Bereans are commended and even hailed to be “more noble” than those in Thessalonica because they searched the Scriptures daily. But note the reason they did this: to see “whether those things were so.”
The things declared to them by God’s messengers, Paul and Silas (v. 10). Note that Paul, in particular, had a divine appointment. He was “called to be an Apostle” (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1).
Thus, they did not just take Paul and Silas’ word for it. What they did meant nothing if it did not accord with the Word of God. Why think the same would not apply to the arrival of the Messiah?
A More Sure Word
In fact, I would argue that it certainly does! Note one of my favorite portions of Scripture, 2 Peter 1:16-21 (emphasis mine):
For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
Notice that Peter argues for the factual basis of his claims grounded in his own eyewitness testimony and experience of Christ.
Such testimony is exactly the kind of thing historians use to ground the historical reality of Jesus’ life. But according to at least one inscripturated eyewitness himself, namely Peter, the prophecies which were inspired of God and written prior to these events were even more sure!
That is to say, Peter knew that even when his mind or his eyes might fail him, God’s Word was sure above all else.
For all of these reasons and more, I cannot accept the thesis that we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ.
To do so is to imply that what a man can write in a history book apart from the inspiration of God has more persuasive and revelatory value than the very documents which, given under inspiration, provide the necessary context to understand the life and work of Jesus.
Given that neither Jesus himself or the biblical authors have such a mindset, and that the very opposite mindset is both demonstrated and commended in Scripture, I am forced to disagree strongly with this approach and anyone who wishes to promote it.
- To be absolutely clear, then, when the presuppositionalist (or anyone who affirms this view) says something like “we believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible,” he is not saying that we must first treat God’s word as inspired before we can believe in Christ, but rather that the truth and significance of Christ’s work depends upon the necessity of the Bible being God’s inspired Word.
- See v. 7 of this same chapter, cf Job 14:4.