This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.

Question

Hello Dr. Craig.

First, in your study of Biblical inspiration, you observe that the New Testament claims to be inspired by God himself, but that seems to be a pragmatically circular statement. Because the New Testament would be right about its own inspiration only if it is inspired, wouldn't it? But that's just what we want to know. any help here?

In Christ.

Israel

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William Lane Craig's Response

Dr. William Lane Craig

I always enjoying getting questions over my current area of study, which has until recently been the doctrine of Scripture as part of my projected systematic philosophical theology.

Your question, Israel, involves a confusion which is surprisingly common even among Christian scholars who have written on this doctrine. The confusion involves a conflation of two quite distinct questions, which were neatly distinguished by the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge:

1. What does the Bible teach as to the nature and effects of the influence under which it is written?

2. Is the Bible what it claims to be?[1]

The first is a doctrinal question; the second is an apologetical question.

It is not at all viciously circular to inquire after Scripture’s doctrine of Scripture and to conclude that Scripture teaches that it is divinely inspired (the first question). Unlike the presuppositionalist, we are not here concerned with how we come to be justified in believing Christian truth claims (the second question). Rather we merely want to ask what those truth claims are. It is indisputable that Christian theology has historically looked to Scripture as the basic source of its doctrinal content. Since Scripture is the norma normans (determining norm) of Christian doctrine, we want to know what the Scriptures teach with respect to the Scriptures and so what the Christian religion has to say about its normative sources. Later we can ask the apologetical question of whether and/or how belief in that doctrine may be justified.

Unfortunately, an unsympathetic critic like James Barr is oblivious to this distinction. He says that the argument that is “most incessantly used” by “fundamentalists” is this: “The Bible is authoritative, inspired and inerrant because it itself says so.”[2] He attributes this confused and circular reasoning not merely to popularizers but to the Princeton theologians Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and B. B. Warfield. Barr describes the Princetonians’ doctrine of Scripture as asserting, “The Bible was inerrant because it was inspired. . . . But why was it inspired? Because it made inspired (and therefore inerrant) statements that it was inspired. That the argument was circular is clear.”[3] This characterization of the Princetonians’ argument is confused. Barr treats Charles Hodge’s statement about the basis of scriptural authority, “The infallibility and divine authority of the Scriptures are due to the fact that they are the word of God; and they are the word of God because they were given by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost,” as though Hodge were answering the question as to the reasons for belief in scriptural authority.[4] Hodge was answering the first question, but Barr took him to be answering the second!

Remarkably, Barr recognizes that Hodge distinguished the second question from the first question. Barr writes,

But then the question arises: how do we know that what the Bible teaches about inspiration is true? In other words, can any sort of reason to be given why this biblical doctrine of inspiration should be accepted? Hodge’s answer is that it lies beyond the sphere of Christian theology to discuss that question. ‘After showing what the Scriptures teach on the subject, it would be necessary to show that what they teach is true. This, however, is not the position of the Christian theologian’ (p. 166). That is to say, it is a presupposition of any activity calling itself Christian theology that it accepts, even without asking for a reason, the teaching of the Bible on a question like this.[5]

Barr would turn Hodge and Warfield into presuppositionalists, even though, when they did address the second question, they offered a robust apologetic consistent with critical methods in support of biblical inspiration based on the testimony of the historical Jesus. In the above quotation Hodge is simply saying that such a task does not fall on the shoulders of the systematic theologian, who is obliged only to answer question (1).

So, as contemporary philosophical theologian Max Baker-Hytch points out, a theologian can appeal to Scripture in two different ways: (i) citing claims made by Scripture in order to demonstrate what is entailed by Christian theism and (ii) using a claim asserted by Scripture as a premise in an argument.[6] What I was doing both in my chapter and in my QoW #709 was (i), not (ii), since I’m writing a systematic theology, not an apologetic.

Late in my chapter, however, in the final section “Justification of Belief in Scriptural Inspiration”, I do turn to question (2). Richard Swinburne identifies three factors that increase the probability of a Christian revelation claim: (i) evidence for the existence of God; (ii) a priori reasons arising from God’s nature that certain doctrines are true of Him; and (iii) historical evidence relative to the historical claims of Christianity and in particular to the resurrection of Jesus.[7] I have defended all of these in my published work. Taking these considerations as given will make it easier to justify regarding Scripture as an objective revelation or communication from God.

Concerning the grounds for accepting the Scriptures as the Word of God, the Westminster Confession 1.5 states,

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

The genius of this statement is its combinatorial approach to justification of belief in the inspiration of Scripture, which, by adducing multiple, independent reasons, increases the probability of its conclusion.

Pride of place is given to the witness of the Holy Spirit to Scripture’s being God’s infallible and authoritative Word. Christians, around the world and for millennia, have the experience that God speaks to them through the Scriptures. They experience the Scriptures as God’s Word to them. This phenomenon of “experiencing as,” like the closely related phenomenon of “seeing that,” is well-known in other contexts.[8] For example, someone unfamiliar with the rules of baseball, may, like us, see a white ball hit over a fence, but he would not see that a home run has been hit. Someone may experience a trusted person’s action as a betrayal, whereas an ignorant third person would not experience the same action in that way. Similarly, Christians may experience Scripture as God’s Word. Its truth and authority are in turn an implication of its being God’s Word.

On this account belief in Scripture as God’s Word is what epistemologists call a properly basic belief, grounded in the experience of hearing Scripture as God’s speaking. It is a basic belief because it is not inferred from other, more foundational, propositional beliefs. It is properly basic because it is appropriately grounded rather than simply arbitrary. Among contemporary epistemologists the rationality of such properly basic beliefs is widely recognized.[9] In the absence of some defeater, then, the belief that the Scriptures are God’s Word may be epistemically justified.

Taking belief in scriptural inspiration to be a properly basic belief grounded in our experiencing Scripture as God’s Word does not preclude our also making a historical case for the inspiration of Scripture along the lines envisioned by Hodge and Warfield. Taking as one’s point of departure a sort of mere Christian theism, one appeals first and foremost to the authoritative teachings of the historical Jesus to warrant belief that Scripture is God’s Word. Such a case can be seen as confirmatory of the Spirit’s witness, as the Westminster divines implied. Here is a simple formulation of the premisses of such an inductive argument for scriptural inspiration:

  1. God exists.
  2. God raised Jesus from the dead.
  3. If God raised Jesus from the dead, God ratified Jesus’ teachings.
  4. Jesus’ teachings were such that they could be plausibly interpreted to imply the inspiration of Old and New Testament Scriptures.

Notice that (4) is very modestly stated, making it easier to justify, for it allows that Jesus’ teachings were also such that they could be plausibly interpreted not to imply the inspiration of Old and New Testament Scriptures. Note also that (4) is formulated so as to allow blurry boundaries to the canon, especially the New Testament canon, by speaking of New Testament Scriptures, that is to say, books included in, but not necessarily co-extensive with, the canonical New Testament. Jesus’ bestowal of his divine authority upon the Twelve apostles gives grounds for regarding apostolic writings as having that same authority in their teaching, leaving us to inquire which books are apostolic. Very early on the Gospels and a collection of Paul’s letters were regarded as Scripture, on a par with the Old Testament. Whether books like Jude or Hebrews should also be included among the apostolic writings remains an open question as far as this argument goes. Fortunately, not much hangs doctrinally upon how this question is answered, since the Gospels and Paul are adequate for a full formulation of Christian doctrine.

Moreover, as the Westminster divines saw, an individual believer may well have multiple grounds for belief in scriptural inspiration, in which case an evidential argument establishing its conclusion to a probability of <.5 may play a valuable role in a cumulative case for belief in scriptural inspiration. By grounding belief in scriptural inspiration both on the inward work of the Holy Spirit and on the witness of history, we have firmer and, I trust, sufficient grounds for affirming scriptural inspiration that are not at all circular.


Notes

[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (re-print ed.: Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1940) I.153-4.

[2] James Barr, Fundamentalism, 2d ed. (London: SCM, 1981), pp. 72.

[3] Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 263.

[4] Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 262.

[5] Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 262.

[6] Max Baker-Hytch, “Analytic Theology and Analytic Philosophy of Religion: What’s the Difference?” Journal of Analytic Theology 4 (May 2016), p. 351, 10.12978/jat.2016-4.120023010007a.

[7] Richard Swinburne, Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. v-vi.

[8] For a religious application of “experiencing as” see John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 2d ed., Foundations of Philosophy Series (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp. 61-3.

[9] See Tyler Dalton McNabb, Religious Epistemology, Cambridge Elements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).


This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.