Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Word of God is the Word from God

From John Frame:
It may seem that we have been on a long, strenuous journey through the steps listed in Chapter 33: copying, textual criticism, translations, editions, teaching, preaching, sacraments, theology, confessions, creeds, traditions, human reception, interpretation, and understanding. It may seem that we can barely perceive the autographic text through the fog. And it may seem that with every step we lose assurance. For at every step, errors enter the picture. Can we be sure that our Bible is based on accurate copies, a proper textual tradition, sound teaching, interpretation, and so on?

But believers understand that reading the Bible is not like this. It’s not like a slog through a jungle in which we have to hack away at thousands of pieces of underbrush before we reach our destination. Rather, it is very much like listening to our father talking to us. As in Abraham’s case, we hear in Scripture a personal word from God.

If the problems of text, translation, etc. are so difficult that we can never identify the voice of God, then, of course, our faith is an illusion. Faith in Scripture is precisely hearing the voice of God, believing, obeying, and participating in his words (Chapter 39). Abraham is the primary model of Christian faith in the New Testament (Rom. 4:1-25, compare John 8:56; Gal. 3:6-29; Heb. 6:13-20; 11:8-22; Jam. 2:21-13). "He believed the Lord, and (God) counted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6) is quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; Jam. 2:23). We too are to believe Christ, and our faith in the promise of his free grace is the instrument of our salvation.

It will not do to say that revelation is something nonpropositional, perhaps an occasional mystical experience. That is not the kind of revelation Abraham heard. God gave him commands, and an intelligible promise. Our salvation is grounded in that promise. Without it, there is no hope.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul expresses amazement that some in the church have come to deny that the dead are raised. He replies:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19)
If there is no resurrection for human beings, then not even Christ has been raised. We know that Christ has been raised, so certainly there is a resurrection for all believers. But how are the Corinthians to be sure that Jesus was actually raised from the dead? The answer is that they have learned this in a personal word from God:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Cor. 15:1-12)
Now apologists often quote this passage as a list of evidences for the resurrection, and it certainly is that. Paul lists resurrection appearances to apostles, even one appearance to five hundred brothers at once, some of whom are still alive and therefore, we should assume, capable of testifying. But the Corinthians, most of them, had not personally witnessed the resurrection. Nor had they (or would they) individually cross-examine the witnesses. For them, the knowledge of the resurrection comes from another source, namely the preaching of Paul (verses 1-3, 11-12). Paul’s primary argument is that the resurrection of Christ was part of the apostolic preaching, the preaching God used to plant the church. To doubt that is to doubt the whole gospel. To reject the resurrection is to reject Paul’s preaching as "vain" (14) and faith itself as vain. And if our faith is futile, we are yet in our sins (17).

Paul’s preaching was like the promise to Abraham: a personal word from God. Our faith too is based on this personal word. If we have no personal word, our faith is futile, and we are yet in our sins. And if we cannot identify God’s word (despite the history of textual and interpretative problems), then we have no hope. Christianity is a sham.

However, we have seen that God intends to speak personal words to his people. He acknowledges no barriers that can keep him from communicating with us successfully. And believers throughout the centuries have been assured that God’s word is true. They have found that word to be trustworthy enough to build their lives upon it, to trust it as their only comfort in life or death, to believe and obey it no matter what the unbelieving world may say.

How is such assurance possible? For one thing, it is not at all difficult for God. Abraham’s case was also problematic. Humanly speaking, it is hard to understand why he would accept God’s word. His reason and emotions must have questioned the notion that he should leave his home to dwell in a new and strange land (Gen. 12:1). Even more, his instincts must have rebelled against the idea that God would want him to sacrifice his beloved son, the son of the covenant (Gen. 22:2). Any of us would have been inclined to say that the voice asking him to do such things could not have been the voice of God. But God somehow managed to identify himself. Abraham was assured that this was the word of God. It was the highest assurance, because it came from God himself. Similarly, God gets through to believers today. The unbelieving world, the academic establishment, and our own rebellious inclinations, pose a thousand reasons why we should not accept Scripture as humble servants. The problems of text, interpretation, and theology often seem insuperable. Nevertheless, many still believe, and their number increases. It is hard to account for this. However, it is God at work.

Subjectively, it works like this. When someone believes God’s word with true faith, he or she does not accept it through autonomous reasoning, through the consensus of scholars, or through an independent examination of evidences. We do not believe God because we have subjected God to our tests and the tests of others. Rather, God’s word is the foundation of our thought.[1] God’s word is the ultimate criterion of truth and right. It is the judge of what reasoning is valid and sound. The ultimate test of a scholar is whether his work agrees with Scripture. And Scripture determines what evidences are to be believed.

It is God himself who enables us to accept his word as our foundation, our presupposition.

To say this is not to deny that Scripture presents problems to us. Often, it is not easy to know what Scripture is saying, or to answer the objections that arise in our hearts. So there is much in the Bible of which we do not have assurance, even when we seek to trust God’s word as our presupposition.

But the Christian life is a journey, a movement from faith to more faith (with, to be sure, ups and downs along the way). This is both a journey toward better understanding and toward overcoming our unbelief (Mark 9:24). The latter process is called sanctification. The former process is also related to sanctification: our level of understanding is related to our level of trust and obedience.[2] But our lack of understanding is also related to our finitude, our inability to resolve all the questions that the phenomena of Scripture pose to us.

But every believer begins with certainty. When we trust in Christ, we "know" that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13), and we "know" that he hears our prayers (verse 15).[3] As I mentioned earlier, if we have faith at all, we know that Christ has been raised from the dead. It is our fundamental confession that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God (Matt. 16:16; compare John 6:69). Such facts become our presuppositions, the foundations of knowledge.

These presuppositions are the ultimate criteria of truth for a Christian. All other ideas must be consistent with them. They form the foundation on which all our other knowledge is to be built. When someone raises an objection that conflicts with one of these presuppositional beliefs, we know that objection is false, whether or not we can otherwise refute it.

But there are things in the Bible we do not understand well enough to affirm them with this kind of assurance. My former colleague Richard Pratt uses a diagram called the "cone of certainty" to illustrate this problem. It is simply a cone with the narrow end at the top and the broader end on the bottom. At the narrow end of the cone are those beliefs we are sure of: say, the existence of God, the deity of Christ, his resurrection, salvation by grace through faith, and so on. At the bottom of the cone, there are matters in Scripture of which we are very unsure: Where did Cain get his wife (Gen. 4:17)? Why did Jephthah keep the vow to make his daughter an offering (Jud. 11:29-40)? Why was it such a serious crime for somebody to gather sticks on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36)? At the bottom of my cone is God’s reason for bringing evil into the world, and the timing of the millennium. We may have views about such matters, but we are not sure of them.

In between the bottom and the top are matters one which we may have opinions, but we would not claim they are absolutely certain. For me, these would include the mode and subjects of baptism, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, the biblical pattern for church government, and the nature of Jesus’ ignorance (Matt. 26:36).

As we grow as believers, there is movement through the cone. Some things of which we were once very certain become uncertain. Other things of which we have been uncertain become certain. But the overall progression, I think, is toward greater certainty. Scripture values certainty; and therefore our sanctification moves toward that goal, as part of the holiness God seeks in us.

The Bible often tells us that Christians can, should, and do know God and the truths of revelation (Matt. 9:6; 11:27; 13:11; John 7:17; 8:32; 10:4-5; 14:17; 17:3; many other passages). Such passages present this knowledge, not as something tentative, but as a firm basis for life and hope.

Scripture uses the language of certainty more sparingly, but that is also present. Luke wants his correspondent Theophilus to know the ‘certainty’ (asphaleia) of the things he has been taught (Luke 1:4) and the ‘proofs’ (tekmeria) by which Jesus showed himself alive after his death (Acts 1:3). The centurion at the cross says ‘Certainly (ontos) this man was innocent’ (Luke 23:47, ESV).

The letter to the Hebrews says that God made a promise to Abraham, swearing by himself, for there was no one greater (6:13). So God both made a promise and confirmed it with an oath, ‘two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie’ (verse 18). This is ‘a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’ (verse 19). Similarly Paul (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and Peter (2 Pet. 1:19-21) speak of Scripture as God’s own words, which provide sure guidance in a world where false teaching abounds. God’s special revelation is certain, and we ought to be certain about it.

On the other hand, the Bible presents doubt largely negatively. It is a spiritual impediment, an obstacle to doing God’s work (Matt. 14:31; 21:21; 28:17; Acts 10:20; 11:12; Rom. 14:23; 1 Tim. 2:8; Jam. 1:6). In Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23, it is the opposite of faith and therefore a sin. Of course, this sin, like other sins, may remain with us through our earthly life. But we should not be complacent about it. Just as the ideal for the Christian life is perfect holiness, the ideal for the Christian mind is absolute certainty about God’s revelation.

We should not conclude that doubt is always sinful. Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23 (and indeed the others I have listed) speak of doubt in the face of clear special revelation. To doubt what God has clearly spoken to us is wrong. But in other situations, it is not wrong to doubt. In many cases, in fact, it is wrong for us to claim knowledge, much less certainty. Indeed, often the best course is to admit our ignorance (Deut. 29:29; Rom. 11:33-36). Paul is not wrong to express uncertainty about the number of people he baptized (1 Cor. 1:16). Indeed, James tells us, we are always ignorant of the future to some extent and we ought not to pretend we know more about it than we do (Jam. 4:13-16). Job’s friends were wrong to think that they knew the reasons for his torment, and Job himself had to be humbled as God reminded him of his ignorance (Job 38-42).

So, Christian epistemologist Esther Meek points out that the process of knowing through our earthly lives is a quest: following clues, noticing patterns, making commitments, respecting honest doubt. In much of life, she says, confidence, not certainty, should be our goal.[4]

I agree. But in regard to our knowledge of God’s word, certainty should be our goal. We should not be complacent with doubt, but we should use all the abilities God has given us to advance in knowledge of his word. Besides following clues, noticing patterns, etc. we should employ our spiritual resources: prayer, sacrament, teaching. In all these, God comes through to us. That is to say, as we obey the revelation of which we are certain, God grants us certainty about other things.

To speak of this journey toward certainty is to speak of the workings of the Holy Spirit, the subject of the next chapter.[5]


[1] It should be obvious to those who know about such things that I am not asserting "foundationalism" in the sense that it is usually criticized today. For some observations on the subject, see DKG, 128-29, 386-87. I do not believe that all human knowledge should be deduced from Scripture, as Descartes tried to deduce all human knowledge from his foundational argument. But I do maintain that all human knowledge must be reconcilable with Scripture.

[2] See DKG, 40-49.

[3] I am describing here the faith of normal adults. God is able to make special provision for those who are unable to understand propositional content. See WCF 10.3.

[4] Esther Meek, Longing to Know (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).

[5] The present chapter may be usefully compared to my article, "Certainty," available at

1 comment:

  1. "But in regard to our knowledge of God’s word, certainty should be our goal."

    I wonder if LibProts and Emergers would agree with Professor Frame's statement.