Jonathan Edwards and the Bible’s Historical Reliability

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We normally associate the rise of “higher criticism” of the Bible with the 19th century. But by the 1600s, authors such as Benedict Spinoza had already begun to question the reliability of the Bible on matters such as whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch.

I recently read Michael Lee’s fascinating monograph The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (2013). In Lee’s account, Jonathan Edwards is one of a cast of characters who responded to the new challenges to the Bible’s authority.

Lee argues that Christians had traditionally looked to Scripture itself, rather than external standards of historicity, as the Bible’s best validation. But once the Bible’s defenders were drawn into defending the Bible according to modern standards of historical proof, they were fighting a losing game. The orthodox found they could never “prove” the historicity of the Bible on issues such as dating and authorship, at least not to the critics’ satisfaction.

Jonathan Edwards (1855), Engraved by R. Babson & J. Andrews, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan Edwards (1855), Engraved by R. Babson & J. Andrews, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Edwards wrote a lot about the threat of English Deists, who often questioned the authorship and reliability of various books of the Bible, including those of the Pentateuch. But for Lee, Edwards maintained an important distinction about spiritual knowledge and revelation, a balance that later defenders of the Bible tended to forget. Edwards did “make the case that the proofs for the reliability of the Bible were rational and based on universally accessible evidence.” That is, any fair observer could appreciate that there was a strong probability that the books of the Bible were what they purported to be.

But for Edwards, that rational assessment of the Bible only went so far. “Ultimately,” Lee writes, “the perception of the divine authority of revelation was a gift from God.” God had to give believers a new “spiritual sense” and understanding in order for them to truly comprehend the truths of Scripture. More importantly, the Holy Spirit had to change one’s affections, so that the believer now delighted in the truths found in God’s Word. Those transformed affections would lead a believer into a life of devotion to Christ and action for the kingdom.

This is a key distinction to keep in mind for orthodox scholars engaged in biblical studies, or for anyone engaged in biblical apologetics. It is a worthy calling to defend the Bible’s reliability on historical and logical grounds. And pastors will sometimes need to explain how we know that we can trust the Scripture historically.

But we should remember that the best that historical, rationalist arguments for reliability can do is to clear the ground for true faith to come in. Faith is hardly irrational, and Christians can offer solid historical reasons to believe in the whole Bible as God’s authoritative, perfect revelation. But rationalist historical argument can never ultimately bring someone into the kingdom. For that, they need what Edwards described as the new spiritual sense. That sense is a gift of grace from God.

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