IV. Why I believe the Bible
1. Psychological realism
The Bible contains a wide variety of psychological portraits—some are thumbnail sketches, others more 3D—involving men (e.g., Aaron, Abner, Abraham, Absalom, Agrippa [I&II], Ahab, Amos, Asa, Asaph, Barnabas, Daniel, David, Eli, Elijah, Esau, Felix, Festus, Gamaliel, Haman, Herod [the Great, Antipas], Hezekiah, Jacob, Jehoiada, Jeremiah, Jonathan, Jonah, Joseph [OT/NT], Judas, Laban, Manasseh, Mordecai, Moses, Naaman, Nebuchadnezzar, Nicodemus, Paul, Peter, Pilate, Rehoboam, Samuel, Saul, Stephen, Thomas, Uzziah, Zecharias) and women (e.g., Abigail, Athalia, Delilah, Esther, Hagar, Hannah, Herodias, Jezebel, Lot’s wife, Mary, Mary & Martha, Michal, Miriam, Naomi, Rahab, Rebekah, Ruth, Sarah, the Samaritan woman, the Shunammite, the Syrophoenician mother, Tamar, the witch of Endor, the hemorrhaging woman) from all walks of life.
To my mind, and to countless readers before me, their characterization always rings true. They are unmistakable and unforgettable. Even if a novelistic genius could pull this off, the Bible wasn't penned by a novelist, but by several dozen writers of varied experience. So the only plausible explanation is that we are face-to-face with a record of real people—which is, of course, inseparable from a real life setting.
(For a defense of traditional OT authorship, cf. O. Allis, The Old Testament: Its Claims And Its Critics [P&R 1972]; G. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction [Moody, 1994].)
2. Thematic consilience
The OT is filled with a bevy of apparently disparate motifs involving people (Adam, David, Enoch, Jonah, Melchizedek, Moses, Solomon), places (Eden, Promised Land, wilderness), ideas (remnant, firstborn, firstfruits, theophany, imago Dei, pilgrimage, exile/restoration, inheritance, only child, sonship, spotless lamb, seed of promise), offices (prophet, priest, king, covenant mediator, kinsman-redeemer, the Anointed), institutions (Temple, tabernacle, Sabbath), events (Flood, Exodus), observances (circumcision, Passover, burnt offerings, kosher laws, lustrations), and things (manna, Jacob’s ladder, brazen serpent, red heifer, scapegoat, river of life, tree of life).
In the NT, these seemingly scattered motifs suddenly converge on the person and work of Christ. Cf. F. Bruce, The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes (Eerdmans, 1968); E. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery (NavPress, 1988); R. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (IVP, 1971); W. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 1995); J. Motyer & R. France, "Messiah," The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (IVP, 1998), 2:987-995; V. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Wolgemuth, 1991); W. VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption (Zondervan, 1988); "Jesus, Images Of," Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, L. Ryken et al. eds, (IVP, 1998), 437-51. Although typology is prospective, the pattern only emerges in retrospect. Short of providence and plenary inspiration, it’s hard to see how such massive coordination is possible.
3. Archetypal quality
The Bible resonates with themes of perennial and universal appeal. This is something it shares in common with other great literature and drama—although to an uncommon degree. But what sets it apart in that respect is that the Book of Genesis reveals the historical origin of such archetypal literary motifs.
4. Diagnostic discernment
The Bible offers a diagnosis of the human condition. On the one hand, it describes the psychology of the believer. On the other hand, it describes the psychology of the unbeliever. And in both cases, its diagnosis is uncannily acute, accurate and prescient. On the one hand, every believer can find himself in the lives of the Old and NT saints. On the other hand, unbelievers, past and present, act and react, as if typecast, in exactly the way that Scripture predicts—according to the evasive animosity of Jn 3:19-21 or the suppress-and-supplant strategy of Rom 1. Cf. "It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe…All of our intuitive judgments of what is probable turn out to be wrong…because [they were] tuned—ironically, by evolution itself," R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (W.W. Norton, 1986), xi-xii; "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist," ibid., 6; "The living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with…the illusion of design and planning," ibid., 21; "Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory…we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories," ibid., 287; "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… [and] just-so stories, because we have an a priori commitment...to materialism...no matter how counter-intuitive...Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door," R. Lewontin, The New York Review of Books 44.1 (1/9/1997), 31. Robert Jastrow has documented the atheistic prejudice of many modern cosmologists in God and the Astronomers (Norton, 1978); Cf. S. Jaki, God and the Cosmologists (Gateway, 1989). For a Freudian critique of atheism, cf. P. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless (Spence, 1999).
In this same connection it is striking that Scripture presents the opposing as well as the supporting side. It candidly records the objections of the unbeliever.
5. Historical centeredness
The Bible is studded with place names and proper names, dates and addresses. It is possible to locate Eden on a map (in Mesopotamia), retrace the route of the Exodus or the journeys of St. Paul. And you can color in the outline of various places and people and people-groups named therein (e.g., Nebuchadnezzar, Pilate, Herod, the Hittites) from extra-Biblical sources. Although our historical distance and the ravages of time impede a complete reconstruction, more than enough survives to show that the many stories of Scripture took place in real time and space. Cf. P. Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity (IVP, 1999); F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1974); E. Blaiklock & R. Harrison, eds., The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Zondervan, 1983); F. Bruce, In the Steps of the Apostle Paul (Kregel, n.d.); A. Hoerth, Archaeology & the Old Testament (Baker, 1998); W. Kaiser, A History of Israel (B&H, 1998).
In the NT alone we have four biographies of Christ by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All of our 5000 Greek MSS designate these authors, and these only. Cf. On the originality of the superscriptions, cf. M. Hengel, The Four Gospels (Trinity, 2000), 48-56.
Matthew and John were Apostles, so they wrote from firsthand knowledge. Mark was a native of Jerusalem, whose family home was a house-church frequented by the Apostles (Acts 12:12). So he was likely an eyewitness to the Jerusalem ministry of Christ, as well as having full access to the Apostles for further information. And Luke was in touch with many of the founding members of the mother church in Jerusalem. (For a defense of traditional NT authorship, cf. E. Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents [Leiden: Brill, 1999]; D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction [IVP, 1990].)
In addition, two of the NT letters were written by half-brothers of Christ (James, Jude), as well as two letters penned by yet another Apostle (Peter). So the NT is a 1C historical witness to a 1C historical figure, founded on multiply-attested firsthand observation and testimony.
6. Johannine asides
In the Fourth Gospel there are a number of occasions when John will gloss a saying of Christ (e.g., 1:38,42; 2:17,22; 4:2; 6:6,10,46,64,71; 11:13; 20:16). Now, if the Evangelist were making up these speeches, you wouldn't have a direct quotation followed by an editorial aside. Rather, the Evangelist would build his own interpretation into the very form of the statement and then put the whole thing in the mouth of Christ. So these parenthetical comments presume that John is transcribing what Jesus really said, and then putting it in context for the benefit of readers who, unlike himself, were not on the scene.
For a Synoptic example, cf. Mk 5:41. Peter, James and John were in the room when Jesus spoke these very words and raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. One of them then reported this miracle to Mark, who reproduces it verbatim. Note also the extraneous detail of her age (v42). The healing of the deaf-mute supplies still another such instance (Mk 7:34).
7. The Synoptic Problem.
The various parallels between the Synoptic Gospels suggest some internal relation of literary dependence. The basic argument is that if a teacher received three student papers as similar as the Synoptics, he'd suspect that his students had collaborated. And this is generally resolved in favor of Markan priority, partly because Matthew and Luke never agree to disagree with the order of Mark, which indicates that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their point of departure. (It should be unnecessary to point out that there's nothing inherently dishonest about sharing information. Historians constantly use and reuse primary and secondary source material.)
Now this supplies an external check on how Matthew and Luke edit their sources. And when we compare the three we see an extremely conservative transmission of primitive tradition. From time to time, Matthew and Luke touch up Mark's syntax or add some background detail for Matthew's Jewish audience and Luke's Gentile audience. What stands out is dull, dutiful fidelity over markéd originality.
Conversely, Matthew and Luke supply an external check on Mark, for they both had independent sources of information and corroboration. Matthew as an apostle, while Luke likely had contacts with the dominical family and founding members of the mother church. So they, in turn, vouch for the historicity of Mark.
The same reasoning extends to the Fourth Gospels as well. As Craig Keener observes,
"Despite the interest of my doctoral mentor, D. Moody Smith, in the question of John and the Synoptics, I had not pursued that question in any detail until examining some parallel pericopes in the early stages of preparing this commentary, an examination undertaken merely in an effort to be somewhat thorough. What surprised me was that, where John could be tested against the Synoptics, he recounted earlier traditions in the same basic idiom in which he covered ground otherwise unfamiliar to us. While current historical methods cannot locate John precisely on the continuum of historical reliability, they can demonstrate that, where we can test him, John is both historian and theologian," The Gospel of John (Hendrickson 2003), 1:46.
Synoptic variants are often treated as evidence of creative redaction, but this overlooks the fact that variants occur when the same writer retells the same story. So this doesn't imply a distinctive doctrinal slant. It rather reflects the narrative conventions of Biblical historiography. Critics who draw up a long list of internal "contradictions" fail to make allowance for this elementary fact. For a discussion of the harmonistic method that takes redaction criticism into account, cf. C. Blomberg, "the Legitimacy and Limits of Harmonization," Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, D. Carson & J. Woodbridge, ed., (Zondervan, 1986), 139-74.
8. The Incomparable Christ
When we read the Bible, we can identify with almost every character. Some of them are better than us, others worse. Yet we can project ourselves into either persona. But there is one singular and surpassing exception. In Christ we encounter a figure who is at once one with us and yet apart from us, who inspires admiration and defies emulation. He has fellow feeling without loss of firmness, and familiarity without hint of complicity. He can speak at the level of a child, yet with a reserve of subtlety that leaves the keenest listener out of his depth. No other figure, in either fact or fiction, covers such a range and or strikes such a balance, for in him we witness perfect manhood and perfect Godhood conjoined in one peerless person. C. Blomberg, Jesus & the Gospels (Broadman, 1997); The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (IVP, 2001); F. Bruce, Jesus: Lord & Savior (IVP, 1986); C. Cranfield, "The Resurrection of Jesus Christ," On Romans (T&T Clark, 1998), 137-50; D. Guthrie, A Shorter Life of Christ (Zondervan, 1970); E. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Eerdmans, 1968); M. Harris: Three Crucial Questions About Jesus (Baker, 1994); K. Latourette, Anno Domini (Harper, n.d..); J. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Baker, 1977); L. Morris, Jesus is the Christ (Eerdmans/IVP, 1989); R. Reymond, Jesus, Divine Messiah (P&R, 1990); A. Schlatter, The History of the Christ (Baker, 1997); R. Stein, Jesus the Messiah (IVP, 1996); N. Stonehouse, The Witness of the Synoptic Gospels to Christ (Baker, 1979); G. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (IVP, 1999); G. Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1954); "The Historical Christ," The Person and Work of Christ (P&R, 1950), 5-33; M. Wilkins & J. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan, 1995).
It is a truism to say that creative writing is autobiographical. This can even be unwittingly and uncomfortably revealing. A famous instance is the figure of Satan in Paradise Lost. He is easily the most vivid, memorable and well-rounded character in the epic. And the reason is that Milton put so much of himself into the character. Milton was an imperious, independent, versatile, and supremely self-confident man—and all these traits are reproduced in his diabolical antihero.
Now what I’ve said about Milton holds true of Austen, Dante, Bunyan, Eliot, Goethe and Racine as well—to name just a few. You could construct a psychological profile from their imaginative vision. If you had no other source of biographical information you could still deduce their sex, social standing, period, place, taste, talent and worldview from their creative labors. Cf. B.B. Warfield, "Concerning Schmiedel's 'Pillar-Passages,'" Works (Oxford, 1931), 3:181-255
Sceptics regard the Gospel portrait of Christ as a wholly or fairly free invention of the evangelist or redactor—especially in the more exalted aspects of its conception. But here we immediately run into a roadblock. For powers of characterization are constrained by the personal resources of an author’s own personality and experience. Every storybook character is a psychological projection. To be sure, it may be modeled on close observation of humanity in general. But that is still filtered and distilled through the psyche of the writer.
Now the problem with reducing Jesus to an imaginative construct is that it would take a Jesus to make a Jesus. And, I ask you, dear reader, have you ever met anyone like Christ? I know I haven’t. What is more, I have never encountered his like in all the multiplied histories of great men. Indeed, it’s disillusioning to read about great men. The more I learn about them, the less I like them. When I study their life in detail, there always emerges some unseemly or unscrupulous side to their character.
There is only one credible explanation for the portrait of Christ that forms itself from the pages of Gospel history: the Gospels present us with a realistic depiction of a real person. To attribute this feat to the creative energies of the evangelist or redactor only pushes the problem back a step. For if we knew nothing else about the author, we would know this much—that he was a man of like passions as ourselves, sharing our fallenness and finitude. Just as water cannot rise above its own level, and muddy water cannot clarify its own issue, a characterization cannot ultimately improve on the character of the creative writer. His writing is ultimately an exercise in mirror-writing as he makes out his own distorted visage at the bottom of the well. That which is flesh begets flesh (Jn 3:6).