Beyond Historical Apologetics: Reasons for Trusting the Bible

In 1970, archaeologists discovered a collection of scrolls from the ancient Jewish community of Ein Gedi dating back to the first few centuries AD. Radiocarbon dating and handwriting analysis suggest that the manuscripts were written only a short time after the famous Dead Sea scrolls, making the fragments among the earliest examples of biblical text ever discovered. Unfortunately, a fire had turned the archaeological treasures into charcoal, leaving them illegible until this year, when scientists used sophisticated new techniques to scan and digitally “unroll” the scorched fragments to reveal what had been written inside.

What researchers uncovered were 35 lines of Hebrew from the beginning of Leviticus, offering a small window into the Scriptures of 1,700 years ago. And, remarkably, that snapshot from only a few hundred years after Christ was discovered to be identical with the medieval Masoretic Text from which modern translations of the Old Testament are derived. Not for the first time, a triumph of modern archaeology backed up the Christian conviction that God has supernaturally curated his Word, preserving it across the centuries from distortion and error.

Today’s Christians have more historical evidence than ever before to ground our faith in the accuracy of the Bible. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the persons and places recorded in the Bible, from the Hittite civilization to the stone pavement where Pilate tried Jesus. Thousands of newly discovered manuscripts offer an unprecedentedly rich collection of data for reconstructing the precise wording of the Bible’s original text through increasingly specialized techniques of textual analysis. And, like the Ein Gedi scrolls, these new discoveries consistently back up the claims of historic, orthodox Christianity.

With such a wealth of supporting evidence, it is tempting to rely on the data from archaeology and textual analysis to ground our confidence in the integrity of Scripture. Increasingly, Christian apologists take a very historically oriented approach to proving the truth of the Bible. The very popular Cold-Case Christianity promises that former detective J. Warner Wallace will “use his nationally recognized skills as a homicide detective to look at the evidence and eyewitnesses behind Christian beliefs.” Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley recently declared that Christians should not appeal to the authority of Scripture without first laying out evidence to bolster the credibility of the Bible’s individual authors. The evidence is there, it is compelling, and it is natural to point to it to answer skeptics and bolster the faith of believers. (I might add that next week I will be teaching a series on precisely this sort of evidence.)

But we need to be cautious about relying on historical data as our primary reason for trusting the Bible. The first reason for caution is that such arguments depend on fairly detailed and specialized knowledge. Really mastering the evidence requires more time and, frankly, more academic aptitude than most of us have. Without such careful study, convictions which are premised on incomplete information are less likely to persuade skeptics and are even liable to collapse unexpectedly in the face of a persistent challenge.

A second problem is even more fundamental. Even the best historical argument is merely a matter of probability. The testimony of long-dead eyewitnesses, the oral traditions of the first-century church, the accuracy and care of early scribes—the historical case for trusting the Bible necessarily relies on an incomplete picture based on partial data from thousands of years ago. The Gospel accounts are better attested than many other historical events whose truth we take for granted, but the data of history alone cannot offer the calm certainty which the author of Hebrews describes: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, emphasis added).

Perhaps that is why God has graciously given us many additional grounds for assurance that the Scriptures are in fact his Word.

One supporting argument which does not receive enough attention is the beauty of the Bible. Of course, parts of the Bible like the Psalms display obvious literary and poetic beauty, but the beauty of the Bible goes deeper than the imagery and expression of individual sections. Careful reading reveals literary devices such as the recurring Old Testament prophet, priest, and king motifs which come together in Christ in the New Testament, or the subtle organizational schemes that give form and structure to entire books, such as Genesis, the Psalms, or Matthew.

Of course, recognizing the Bible’s literary beauty requires familiarity with God’s Word (one benefit of systematic expository preaching), but just as the beauty and order of creation testify of their creator, so too the beauty and order of the Scriptures testify of their divine author. Either the Bible was assembled across many hundreds of years by a team of authors and editors with Shakespearean talent in genres from history to poetry, or there was some other Author and Editor at work behind the scenes.

But the Bible’s beauty is not merely a matter of form and literary merit. What it has to say, as well as how it says it, is divinely beautiful. No other religion has painted the darkness of human evil with starker realism, nor offered anything to equal the cosmic pathos of an omnipotent God who is born a servant and dies a criminal in order to woo his wayward bride.

The Old Testament spends 39 books and several thousand years building the awful, insoluble tension between God’s perfect justice and his limitless love, from the Garden, through the Flood, to Israel and her fallible judges and all-too-human kings, into exile and back out again—and then suddenly the tension crescendos into a blast of judgment, but as the smoke clears we see the ruined body of God himself, dead (but not forever!) on a cross which marks the only spot in the universe where perfect justice and perfect mercy can meet together. No human mind could conceive a story of such terrible beauty, which might be why no other religion has ever tried.

The story of redemption offers another, related argument for the divine origin of the Bible: the essential unity of a literary work which was created over millennia by dozens of authors, spanning law and prophecy, poetry and history, yet which manages to tell a coherent, consistent story. The obscure Old Testament command that the remains of sin offerings be destroyed outside the gate prefigured Jesus’ sacrificial death outside Jerusalem more than a thousand years later; the Flood’s destruction of sinful flesh while God’s chosen family passed through the waters into new life on the other side paints a vivid picture of baptism; God’s promise to Abraham of countless offspring finds wonderful fulfillment as Jews and Gentiles alike become heirs of Abraham through faith. The wonderful way in which the Bible’s threads weave together into a single tapestry can only be explained if there was a unifying mind behind it all.

But the Bible is not merely a literary work—it is also an active implement of God’s work in his people, which offers yet another reason to believe it is something more than the product of human minds. Isaiah tells us that God’s word does not return void, and anyone who is a Christian, or has lived alongside someone who is, knows the Bible’s power “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” as Paul puts it in II Timothy 3:16. The Bible has topped bestseller lists as long as they have existed. It has been translated into over 630 languages, with at least portions available in more than 2,500 more. If you are a Christian, its gospel message has fundamentally changed your life—ended it, in fact, and given you a new one. And, if you are a Christian, the Bible continues to convict and challenge, comfort and encourage, inform and transform.

Hebrews 4:12 says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The more we expose ourselves to the Scriptures through biblical preaching and daily reading, the more we will experience the power of God through his Word and the more our lives will reflect that power to those around us, offering a powerful argument that the Bible is more than just another book.

Perhaps you have noticed something about all of these arguments for the divine authorship of the Bible: Each of them is somewhat subjective and depends on the recipient being at least moderately familiar with the Bible on its own terms. This may help to explain the appeal of historical arguments which can point to objective, external evidence rather than calling for judgments about the Bible’s beauty or coherence or efficacy. But the usefulness of the one is not an argument for ignoring the others.

Taken together, history along with the Bible’s divine qualities offer a more holistic and compelling case for God’s authorship than one which is grounded in historical data alone. And we must not forget the final, most important, yet somewhat different kind of reason for believing the Bible is the Word of God—what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”

I John 5 declares that “the Spirit is the one who testifies… And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” How could the Spirit testify that eternal life is through the Son? By giving us a supernatural conviction of the truth of the written Scripture which reveals to us “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

This conviction is not immediately useful for apologetics because it is not the conclusion of a chain of reasoning to which we can point when challenged. Nor is it something which protects against all doubts in our own mind. Rather, it is the practical working out of Jesus’ promise in John 10 that his sheep would hear and recognize his voice. In the face of doubts, whether our own or others’, an array of apologetic arguments may be very helpful, but we can be grateful that underlying all of them is the promise of God that his Spirit will ensure that in the end his sheep will hear his voice where it is: in his inspired Word.

Did you enjoy this article? Add your email below to get new posts sent to your inbox! You can also help keep me writing with a small monthly contribution via Patreon.com.

1 thought on “Beyond Historical Apologetics: Reasons for Trusting the Bible”

  1. Absolutely wonderfully informative & inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing your in depth knowledge & wisdom. I will begin supporting your ministry.

Leave a Comment