My introductory article made clear my intent to focus on biblical answers to common questions. I closed by asking, “Why should we believe something just because the Bible says so?” This is a supremely important question: if there’s no good reason to believe the Bible, talking about biblical answers to questions is rather pointless.
Here’s one possible answer to the question of the Bible’s trustworthiness: “I believe that the Bible is completely authoritative simply because it is God’s Word, and it commands my allegiance and submission.” A different answer would be something like this: “I think that the Bible is trustworthy because it agrees with the conclusions of science and history and archeology and ethics, and therefore merits my allegiance.”
The first answer sounds terribly circular, doesn’t it? The second, by contrast, seems more rational and well-considered. But when talking about the Bible, we’re asking questions about our ultimate authority, and discussions about our ultimate authorities work differently than normal questions.
You see, most disputes are resolved by referring to some kind of shared authority. “I saw it with my own eyes!” “I read it online.” “The state law says….” “My horoscope promises….” These claims are appeals to authority: if you and I both accept a given source of authority as trustworthy (your sense experience, for instance, or my encyclopedia), our dispute can be settled by consulting that authority.
But suppose I reject a source of authority that you accept. I ask you why I should believe that a horoscope is a valid and trustworthy source of knowledge about the events of the coming day, and you respond, “Look, it says right here in the horoscope, ‘Completely valid and trustworthy.’“ I look at you, unimpressed.
But isn’t this the same thing I’d be doing if I said, “Look, the Bible is trustworthy; it says so right here in the Bible”? It may seem so; however, if I’m making the claim that the Bible is the ultimate authority, what alternative do I have?
Consider this parallel situation: a person says, “I don’t accept anything by authority; I have to test it myself.” A person who says this is claiming to be his own ultimate authority. If I were to ask him, “What makes you think that you’re entitled to such a lofty position?”, he’d either have to appeal to his own authority (a circular argument) or else appeal to some other source of authority, which undercuts his claim of being the ultimate authority.
The point here is that all claims of ultimate authority must, in the final analysis, be circular. What happens when two (or more) claims of ultimate authority collide? For instance, the Bible claims ultimate authority, but so do people who don’t believe the Bible. We’ll need at least another article to address that question.