Most Christians will at some point wrestle with doubts over the truthfulness of Scripture. This observation is generally uncontroversial. What inflames debate is how these doubts should be resolved. Do we bypass our intellectual struggles and treat them as unimportant or a sign of weak spirituality, or do we delve into apologetics and rigorous historical study in order to establish our faith once and for all? Or might there be another way?
In his latest book, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, John Piper deals with these issues by considering two primary and related questions. The first is whether we can trust the Bible. There are a few approaches we might take to establish an affirmative answer, such as historical research. Piper himself walked this road during seminary, but became convinced such research is unable to provide adequate warrant for one to stake their life on the gospel.
Many Christians will never have access to historical scholarship. Not only this, but when it comes to establishing the truthfulness of Scripture, historical research can only supply probability, not certainty.
Some have attempted to bridge this by suggesting that faith, by its nature, “takes a risk and leaps into uncertainty” (131)—perhaps pointing to Paul’s statement that we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). But Piper rejects this kind of reasoning: “Yes, the things believed are unseen. But the New Testament does not say that the foundations of faith are unseen” (131).
In other words, the Bible never suggests we must take a leap in the dark in order to trust Christ. “According to Scripture,” Piper writes, “people don’t have to be educated historians to know the historical truth of Scripture” (130).
This point is vital, for Piper’s other burden is to determine how the common Christian, without access to the corroborating facts of historical scholarship, can have a well-grounded trust in Scripture. But what are thes “real and compelling grounds” if not historical research? Piper draws from Jonathan Edwards and the apostle Paul to provide the answer.
Before explaining what constitutes real evidence, Edwards considers the object of our faith, for the object will determine the evidence. And the object of our faith, Edwards contends, is “the great things of the gospel” (137). But the 18th-century theologian isn’t referring merely to gospel facts, but also to the “holy beauty and amiableness . . . that is in divine things” (137).
When we embrace the gospel, then, we have been convinced by its “internal evidences”—by “a sight of its glory” alone (138). This must be, for otherwise anyone illiterate or unacquainted with history would never experience saving conviction.
True saving faith, Piper concludes, is both reasonable (based on real evidence) and spiritual (enabled by the Holy Spirit to behold spiritual beauty in the gospel) (138).
Piper then turns to 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 to moor these insights in Scripture. Those to whom the gospel is veiled are those who can’t see the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (v. 4). For believers, though, God has pierced their hearts with the light of glory streaming through the gospel (v. 6).
Piper notes that parallels in this passage between “gospel” and “knowledge” indicate the gospel is “the true story of events about Christ that can be known” (141). Though Paul’s emphasis is Christ’s glory, the historical facts remain crucial, for when they are “known rightly,” they are seen as glorious and beautiful (141).
But how does this self-authenticating gospel glory relate to the truthfulness of the whole Bible? Piper is careful not to draw a sharp distinction between the gospel and the Bible. The Scriptures are, after all, the writings God “saw as necessary to provide the foundations, explanations, and implications of his saving work in the world” (147).
Fighting to See
Piper knows Christians don’t experience constant, uninhibited sights of Christ’s spiritual glory. Doubts can creep into our minds as we’re confronted by unbelieving friends or skeptics’ sophisticated arguments. Spiritual sight, then, is what Piper calls “embattled” sight. We fight “by prayer, and by a steady gaze at the Word of God, for the sight of his glory that sustains our well-grounded hope” (177). We see this battle for faith all throughout Scripture (Ps. 119:18; Mark 9:24; Luke 17:5).
Nevertheless, what Piper proposes in A Peculiar Glory isn’t a veiled argument for irrationality or mysticism. Human reasoning and agency are necessary for spiritual sight. We must hear or read the Word to believe in Christ (Rom. 10:13–17). We must think over biblical texts so we can understand their meaning (2 Tim. 2:7) and see spiritual beauty, for “God’s glory interpenetrates the true meaning of the Scriptures” (271).
But—this is crucial—we don’t depend on the human agency of “historians and apologists and scholars to prove to us that the Scriptures are true and that God is real” (272). God’s glory—the ultimate ground for our faith—is mediated through his Word as his Spirit illumines our hearts. We need no extrabiblical source to confirm that what we see in the Bible is real and true.
Having endured some intense seasons of “embattled sight,” I’m drawn to Piper’s argument in A Peculiar Glory. He articulates what I’ve experienced in my own pilgrimage. For many years after my conversion I attempted to establish my assurance of biblical truth in logical and historical arguments, but was, despite a few fleeting moments, adrift in doubt. It was good I was afflicted (Psalm 119:67, 71), though, for I’ve been taught to ground my intellectual and spiritual certainty not ultimately in apologetics, but in God’s Word and the beauty of his Son revealed there.
Until we see this glory, we’ll be left to take a leap of faith, and then who knows where we’ll land.