“You have to start with the Bible.”
The foregoing is typically meant as a pious statement about one’s commitment to the authority of biblical instruction. If you accept the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God, then the notion of “starting with the Bible” seems to follow necessarily. It seems one cannot, at least as an Evangelical Christian, deny this statement as it applies to faith and, by extension, all of life. When questions arise concerning church practice (“should we worship on Saturday or Sunday?”) or doctrine (“did Christ die for all sinners or only certain sinners?”) it seems that only the Bible alone can decide these matters. Further, when it comes to matters of life, such as divorce and remarriage, childrearing, or entertainment choice, the first and final word on the matter is the Bible. This position would hold that most of man’s problems arise by not starting decision procedures with biblical consultation. As I see it, this notion points to the famous Reformation Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). My aim in this post is to discuss some reasons why this line of thinking is problematic.
We are immediately faced with the question of what “starting with the Bible” actually means. The more unreflective answer is that it means the Bible is authoritative for Christian life and practice. The things prohibited in the Bible should not be done and the things prescribed in the Bible should be done. True enough. But that does not really help us with the underlying issues. It does not help us understand exactly what the Bible wants us to do. Moreover, the Bible does not provide a comprehensive and systematically organized doctrinal list, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. Of course, the Bible is written in human language, to be understood by people of all different cultures and languages, across wide-ranging geography and time. Communication requires a sender and a receiver. God inspired the biblical writing through an individual person, and the individual person wrote in their language and according to their personality (the apostle Paul, anyone?). People read the words of God on paper or listen to them as they are spoken. We understand they express propositions that are objectively true. Yet, how does this come about?
Communication is possible because humans are rational beings, capable of understanding language and concepts. Before a person can understand the Bible, they must know the meaning of words and have the ability to grasp abstract ideas. An example of an abstraction is “tree.” To understand that an oak is a tree and a walnut is a tree is to understand the concept of "tree," and how “tree” applies to numerous diverse and differentiated objects. If man was not a rational being, endowed with a will and intellect, God could not communicate nor have any relationship with us. It seems unavoidable that certain things must be in place before God can meaningfully speak to us. We can only understand higher level things because we understand those that are more basic.
The first words in the Bible are “In the beginning God…” Christians believe this is true. But if a person had no idea who or what God is, did not have a notion of God, apprehend the idea of “beginning,” or had a defective concept of God, etc. then the words of Genesis 1:1, and the rest of Scripture, would make little sense, either taken in whole or part. When we interpret the Bible, we must explicate certain criteria that govern such interpretation. These criteria are sometimes called “prolegomena.” Examples of this are a monotheism, a God who speaks and acts, and so forth. It is important to note that the Bible does not make a list of prolegomena for us to examine. When we organize and reconcile biblical passages, we rely on logic and reason. We do not question our reasoning faculties when systematizing Scripture. To do so would undermine the entire enterprise, as we would be relegated to skepticism.
Some Christians hold the view that the unredeemed cannot successfully understand the Scriptures or understand them in a meaningful way. Nor can the unregenerate truly understand God or things that are about God. The sin of Adam has so infected every aspect of man that, prior to being non-volitionally born-again, he cannot truly seek to know about God (or the Bible). The impenitent man willfully suppresses the truth. On this rationale, it is hard to avoid the claim that the atheist cannot understand Scripture. Of course, this is clearly false. There are plenty of atheists who can read and grasp the words and concepts within the Bible, in some cases better than Christians. What the atheist does not accept is that what they are reading is true. And, of course, they cannot believe it is true because they are unbelievers. If they were believers, they would immediately see the truth of divine revelation, or so this view would hold. If they really understood the Bible, they would accept it. At least this position is encompassed in the view of Christians sometimes called “presuppositional.”
There are a few problems with this view that I have not yet been able to successfully resolve. The first is the implication that God endows the regenerate with a truth-rendering interpretative framework. What might explain this implication as the role of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit Himself shows the believer the truth of God’s Word. Yet, without resorting to occasionalism, the empirical evidence works strongly against this view. Certainly, believers can be mistaken in their interpretation. We see widespread disparity even among the original expositors of Sola Scriptura. Therefore, we must say that the reasoning faculties of the believer are still fallible. What is the difference, then, between an unbeliever and a believer in this category? Perhaps just that the believer desires to know the Word of God. But this does not mean that He will actually succeed in grasping it or making a coherent doctrine and staking out a sound position. Unless occasionalism is true, then it seems God desires some cooperation on the role of the believer in understanding the Bible. The believer has to do some work, learn Hebrew, Greek, systematize it, and the like. But if the believer has fallible reasoning and the unbeliever also has fallible reason, then where is the material difference? Can we really make a distinction in the type of rational fallibility? Is not the whole notion of sin-tainted reason bound up with the notion of fallibility? The answer cannot be because the unbeliever merely suppresses the truth.
As I understand it, the presuppositional position will affirm the unbeliever can successfully use reason in non-biblical/spiritual activities (such as science) in much the same or identical way as a believer. Yet, granting that the regenerate person is indeed changed in a substantial way (viz his relation to God), there is still no sound basis for the radical bifurcation of reasoning faculties in the believer and unbeliever. It is only by systematizing certain Reformed doctrines that one can arrive at this conclusion. However, such doctrinal compilation itself is done with admittedly fallible human reason. And the myriad systematics available within the Reformed tradition attest to variation in result. What grounds are there for thinking any superiority in the reasoning faculty itself between the regenerate and the unregenerate? Unless one presupposing the truth of their doctrine (distinct itself from presupposing the truth the Bible), I do not see how such a view can be sustained. From this, it follows that a prolegomena incorporating man’s ability to know God (Yahweh, the One and Only) exists and certain divine attributes are predicable of Him in the absence of Scripture is defensible.
One rebuttal to this conclusion is that such a prolegomena will not lead one to the Triune God of Scripture because it ends up (or starts biblical interpretation) in disputed abstractions, posits a “god of the philosophers,” and so on. I think such a response is a red-herring. It should be noted that one hears this in more of an apologetic setting versus a backdrop of biblical prolegomena. In any event, the reconciliation of biblical theism with what is knowable via unaided reason does not even present a gap to traverse when properly done. The same divine attributes found in the Bible agree with those found via unaided reason. That this cannot be one and the same being is a demonstrably strange conclusion. One exploring and describing God via His effects in creation does not seek to fully explicate God as is done within the Bible. Rather, he seeks to demonstrate in another way what the Scriptures brightly illuminate.
Another issue I see with the “starting with the Bible” position is that it implies that knowledge of God’s specifically revealed truth and salvific belief are necessarily connected. That is, one cannot truly understand the Bible without affirming it as true. I alluded to this notion above. Is it really impossible for an unbeliever to know and yet reject what the Bible claims? Perhaps the answer is “yes” for those who affirm certain soteriological distinctives. However, it is difficult to see how this actually works out. A person can certainly know something is true, such as that smoking is bad for them, and yet act contrary to this knowledge. A person can also know what the Bible says and teaches, and still withhold belief. They can know exactly what the Bible says about God and salvation and remain unconvinced of its truth and/or still withhold assent. Likewise, I can understand Buddhism in a comprehensive manner yet still reject it as false. Many Christians clearly understand Islam, the teachings and life of Mohammed, and still boldly proclaim the truth of Christianity (which is, at its core, antithetical to Islam).
Something that often gets lost in this matter is that the Scriptures tell us that believing in God is not enough for salvation. “Even the demons believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). Given this, I cannot see how it is problematic for any view of Christian soteriology (and attending systematic) to affirm that an unbeliever can know about God’s existence via reasoning from what is observed in the created order, and also a great deal about God, yet still not be redeemed. Many in the presuppositional camp will readily say that man knows the truth about God, yet suppresses this; the sinner knows it but does not admit it. But this brings up a thorny issue. They would have to say that man knows God because God has planted the idea in man as an image bearer, but this would effectively import an idealist epistemology; man knows and thinks about ideas, not things. The result ends up burying us in the post-Cartesian debate of arranging ideas, subjective perceptualism, and futilely trying to connect ideas in the mind to things in the world. Without idealism, the only playable game left is realism. Yet, if realism is true, then the only way the impenitent man can know about God in the first place is by inferring and reasoning from effect to cause, which is the method starkly opposed by the presuppositionalist. I cannot see a way out for the presuppositionalist here; he must deny idealism and affirm that man can, in fact, know God from the light of natural reason by observing God's effects in creation. But if he denies this and embraces idealism, he must explain how the suppressed truth about God is actually knowable. I will leave further explication of this dilemma for another time.
Returning to an issue raised above, the Bible requires interpretation. Does “starting with the Bible” help at all? Let examine how this might be. We sometimes hear things like “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.” If this is taken to mean that many passages in Scripture help explain or contextualize others, then there are no prima facie issues. But does “starting with the Bible” actually give us a means of understanding passages so that we might successfully compare them to others for intra-textual reference? Antecedently, what interpretative method should we utilize? The historical-grammatical? Does the Bible actually say “thou shalt use the historical-grammatical method unless the text is allegorical, metaphorical, etc.?” And how do we know when a text is allegorical or hyperbolical? We read the text and ask what it means. We then seek a way to anchor word, symbol, and conceptual connection. This should not be understood as “going outside” the Bible here; one is not importing meaning or words into the text.
When we read certain texts that seem to interpret other texts in the historical-grammatical way, we still must make a meta-decision about this move. Why does such a method make sense when others do not? Again, the Bible does not tell us specifically. We must resort to those pesky reasoning faculties once again. Further, what about the many passages which describe God in contradictory ways? How do we adjudicate which ones are metaphorical and which ones are literal? For example, does God change? We must first know what change is and why it would be problematic to predicate change in God before we can rightly divide the relevant biblical texts. Does God have physical arms and legs? If not, how is it that we determine that John 4:24 is speaking literally about God’s nature and Deuteronomy 4:34 is speaking metaphorically? Clearly, we must bring something to the Scriptures in order to properly interpret them. We cannot derive a method of interpretation from the text we are trying to interpret. Such rationale would lead to a self-undermining vertigo.
It has been said that “we can either start with the Word of God or man’s word.” Such a statement seems well-intentioned, but badly misses the point. The latter of the disjunct is a straw-man. I have never heard it said that we should start with “man’s word.” The dichotomy so presented implies that not “starting with God’s word” is tantamount to idolatry and can only lead us astray. Thus, rejecting a presuppositional or covenantal approach is wrongheaded. Still, I wonder how such a statement is even informed. Does one find that in the Bible? If not, then on what grounds does the proponent base it? Clearly, it came about by means of some faculty which allowed the adjudication of various claims and came up with that one as a truth proposition. Yet, how is this not “starting with man’s word?”, at least in terms of how this phrase is bandied about in a frequently derogatory manner.
I find myself continually thinking the “starting with the Bible” view is a “heads I win, tails you lose” position. If you dispute it, you somehow deny the power of God to speak through special revelation; you somehow elevate man’s word above God’s (whatever that means). If you affirm it, you stand on the sacred ground of the Protestant Reformers in upholding Sola Scriptura; you are a pious Christian. Those in the Reformed camp will typically couch their presuppositional or covenantal view within their overall systematic. I think that such a position is self-defeating.
The Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. And we know this because God reveals Himself in ways that allow us to first know truth, so we can then know that God’s word is true. The Bible is written in human language, requiring a rational and intellectual framework for understanding. This rational (please note, not rationalist) framework is the means by which the Bible is intelligible to man. We must interpret the Scriptures, and we have the tools to correctly do that. We are born with these tools, and the stain of sin does not delete them, even if it does reduce their efficacy and aim in use. If we affirm that the only way we know something is true is because it is in the Bible (or because of the Bible), then we lose the objective ground by which to claim the Bible itself is true. And the Christian certainly affirms that the Bible is true for both the believer and unbeliever. The Christian holds that the events of the Exodus, Exile, Crucifixion, Resurrection, the early church, and countless other things, are historical facts. This would mean that they are accessible, in principle, to anyone. Why a person would voluntarily walk away from a methodology that upholds the integrity of these claims is puzzling.