I began seminary with an intensive summer elective titled "Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture." The professor was a capable and trustworthy guide; I was a novice. Thrown by issues I'd never considered, I soon found myself in an acute spiritual crisis. Inwardly unravelling, I couldn't dodge the question: is this book flopped open on my desk, the object of severe censure from some quarters—is this the Word of God or not? My life depended on how I answered, and I knew it.
This wasn't a topic for casual debate with classmates. Real crises never are. And I didn't have the ability to satisfy myself on each accusation threatening my confidence before making up my mind. Life can't be put on hold and, besides, suspending judgment was but a roundabout path to the same miserable end as chucking my confidence on the spot. A decision was demanded: was I in or out?
As a detached deadhead just two years before, I had borrowed a Bible from a girl named Heather who lived downstairs. (I remembered seeing it on her shelf once.) At the time I didn't know a single person my age who claimed to believe in Jesus. But I read a work an old hippie recommended and along the way began suspecting the author was borrowing heavily from the Bible—though I didn't know enough about the Bible to sort it out. That haunted me. So I took up the Bible in order to become "culturally literate."
I read a bit in Genesis but quickly found my way to John, where something happened: I was captivated by Jesus. Soon I was reading the borrowed Bible and neglecting everything else, sometimes even meals. After a couple weeks, Heather dropped by and sheepishly asked for her Bible back. I had been surprised to find her Bible well used, and I was stunned she missed it. But I understood why she wanted it back. So I handed it back to her determined to get one for myself.
Unlike Anything Else
As I read this book I somehow knew it was God speaking, for it was unlike anything I'd ever handled. Here I found Jesus Christ—crucified, risen, reigning—and in him found life and light, hope, and joy. I was being transformed through this book, and I soon found power to walk away from old consuming habits—glad to be rid of them.
And I kept reading (and began praying), I grew by leaps and bounds. The more I read, the more I thrived. But I was naïve, too. I'd never struggled through the tough questions. Unbelievers I spoke to raised these questions, but I brushed them aside as mere dodges, ways of defending themselves against a truth they couldn't bear.
But now I was asking tough questions, and I didn't have final answers for any of them. How could I be sure this was God's Word? My life and eternal happiness were staked on trusting what was written in these pages.
Though I had much to learn, I realized I'd never possess those highly coveted final answers to many of my most distressing questions. On one side, unbelievers had been trying to discredit the Bible for centuries, and had yet to discover a decisive case; on the other hand, believers had for just as long been setting out compelling reasons to believe this is God's Word, yet they couldn't put the matter beyond dispute. Certainly some arguments and evidence were more helpful and compelling than others, but none was conclusive.
Even if an apologist did succeed in demonstrating beyond all doubt that Scripture was accurate down to the details, what then? Would it necessarily follow that these writings were God's Word? We don't believe the Bible is God's Word because it's true; we believe it's true and altogether trustworthy because it's God's Word. The question, then, was simple: did I believe it was God's Word or not?
A finite mind like mine cannot know the answer to this question apart from divine revelation. The answer I needed, then, could only be received by faith. That's the position in which we find ourselves, and that was the crux of the crisis for me, home alone, pacing my study.
Wrestling with God
I wrestled with God and went all in—by his grace, that's what saving faith does. It doesn't lean on its own understanding but trusts the One who straightens our paths (Prov. 3:5) and, in so doing, faith "gets the victory" (WCF 14.3). A more humble reader aware of his frailty, I discovered what Calvin knew long ago: that we can know that "Scripture is the Word of God . . . only by faith" and that "its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit" (Institutes, 1.8.13). As I poured myself into the text, my confidence returned—deeper and fuller than before. Some questions lingered and deserved the best answers I and others could give, but now they were just questions—curiosities along a road leading us all the way home.
The Spirit's inward persuasion is not, John Owen explained, a testimony "to us of the Word," as though it were another word from God about the Bible, "but by the Word" (Works, vol. 16, p. 326). However much "we may be moved and induced by" arguments, evidence, and the testimony of others that Scripture is God's Word, 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" (WCF 1.5). We need no other word; "the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" is enough (WCF 1.10).
The best and ultimate apology, in other words, is to prayerfully plunge yourself into the pages of Scripture—most urgently when you least feel like it and you're least sure of yourself.
I needed this challenge because I needed to know exactly where to stand—the only place we can stand—and I needed to be standing there at the outset of my studies, marriage, and ministry. No doubt we have many strong arguments and evidence, not to mention the encouragement of the saints through the ages—to answer questions that linger in unbelieving and faithful minds. But at bottom we have something even better, the only sufficient place to stand: God's direct testimony to our hearts as we hear his Word read, read it for ourselves, meditate on it in our minds, and preach and teach it to others.
If you would know and be sure this is God's Word, then you can never do better than to take it up and read it prayerfully, faithfully, and obediently for yourself.
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Bruce Baugus will participate in one of two dinner panels hosted by our The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference's Premier Sponsor, Reformed Theological Seminary, next month in Orlando. The topic of the panel will be "Having Confidence in the Scriptures." Baugus—from RTS Jackson—will be joined on the panel by John Currid, Mike Kruger, Chuck Hill, and Justin Taylor (moderator). Here is a brief description of what you can expect on Monday, April 8, at 5:30 p.m.:
While walking with those two disciples on the Emmaus road, Jesus "opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). Christians affirm the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of God's Word but sometimes struggle with confidence in Scriptures. The Scriptures are attacked from outside the church and are oftentimes minimized within the church. This panel will strengthen our confidence in the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments.