Dear Dr. Luginbill, How do you KNOW if the Bible is true? How does one come to KNOW that, not merely believe it or assume it? What is the basis for our belief? How do we separate truth from error? How do we know for example, that the Bible is God's word, and yet the other ancient, allegedly sacred writings (e.g., Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.) are not? And how do we know when someone is rightly interpreting scripture? How can I have confidence for example that YOUR interpretation of some difficult passages (e.g., your treatise on tribulation vs. a pre-trib rapture) is more correct than, say, those of another minister, pastor, Rabbi, etc.? Especially when both of you quote scripture to back your respective positions up?
Lastly, how is the Holy Spirit supposed to witness truths to me? What is the form of that witness? What can I expect for answers when I pray for wisdom (e.g., James 1:5)?
Thanks much for your time in advance,
These are all good questions - questions which every dedicated follower of Jesus Christ should ask at some point, because the "authority" issue really must be resolved in the believer's heart before serious spiritual growth can occur.
I say at "at some point", because there are two potential extremes here, both of which must be avoided. One extreme, the one addressed by your questions, is to take everything at face value without questioning. This is a very dangerous approach and the stuff of cults. Whatever authority you eventually decide to follow, you may find the comments made on cult characteristics in the following two studies useful in your search for God's truth:
Read Your Bible: Protection against Cults
Peter's Epistles #27: "Three Doctrines which Threaten Faith"
Not to revise all the arguments made in these studies here, but keep in mind the example of the Bereans, who are praised in scripture for "checking out the Bible" to see if what Paul was claiming it said was actually there (Acts 17:11).
The second extreme ultimately has an equal potential for personal disaster, that is, getting caught in a "loop" of searching for the right method of searching. Numerous philosophical and religious systems have been constructed on this very dilemma since antiquity. I can only give you the benefit of my personal experience on this one, and I believe that in this judgment I also have the Spirit of God in this opinion (cf. 1Cor.7:40). At some point, one has to trust God, one has to believe that He exists, and that He does help, aid, and reward those who diligently seek Him from a pure heart:
And without faith, it is impossible [to please God]. For whoever wishes to draw nearer to God must believe that He exists, and that He will reward those who earnestly seek Him.
The universe and its masterful construction, nature in all its brilliant complexity, is proof positive for all who are honest about their inmost thoughts that the One who made it truly exists, that "He is" (Rom.1:18-20; cf. Job 38-39; Ps.8:1-4; 19:1-6; 97:6; Acts 17:24-31; and Peter's Epistles #11: "Natural and Special Revelation"). God has designed the world to bring us to Himself (cf. Acts 17:26-27). Can there really be the slightest shadow of doubt - given what our hearts tell us about what such a perfect, holy, loving God must be - that He has also provided the means for us to seek Him?
Indeed, it is our Father's desire for all mankind to seek Him and to come to know Him (1Tim.2:4; 2Pet.3:9), for Jesus Christ died for all (1Jn.2:2; cf. Jn.1:29; 3:17; 2Cor.5:15; Col.1:20; 1Tim.2:6; 1Jn.4:14). The fact that so many have no use for Him and many even overtly reject Him (following the pattern of Satan), in no way changes the fact of His perfect character and His perfect love, a reality which shines through so penetratingly clearly in His gift of His only Son for the entire world (Jn.3:16; 1Jn.4:10). We may have questions about the procedures (the gist of all you ask here), but we should never be in any doubt about the character and intentions of our gracious and merciful Father - He is not trying to trick us (that is what the devil attempts), rather He is calling us through His Spirit to come to Him and Jesus, for God is drawing us near, if only we will respond (Jn.6:44-45; 12:32).
Your questions are well-taken, and I believe that it is in this very spirit - of desiring to entrust your life to Him in the correct way - that you have asked them. The answer to the "where and how" of spiritual growth is to be found first and foremost in faith. This may be very poor philosophy, but it is good theology. First, we are lead to the unmistakable reality that God exists (we don't "know" it empirically, but we believe it). And this belief in turn entails some notion of the overwhelming wonder of Him, not simply because of His magnitude and ability, but also because of His character and awesome goodness. Next, He makes plain to us the only way of salvation, acceptance through faith of the person and the work of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and faithful discipleship to Him thereafter for the preservation of that faith. These first two steps can be and almost always are taken without the resolution of the questions of authority and procedure you address here (and without any of the tangible proofs so important to the world). After salvation, however, when one is sure of one's God and one's Lord, it is natural and indeed proper to ask "where do I go from here?" and "how do I follow and serve Him best?" The short answer to these questions is "through faith in the truth". Just as we became aware of the truth of God's existence from what He made and through how He made it and us (for He plants this seed in us all) and then reached out to Him in faith, expressing in our hearts an eagerness to know Him, a faith that He would provide an answer (satisfied in His provision to us individually of the gospel of Jesus Christ), so should we now follow Him and grow in Him by that same faith in the truth. And just as we became followers and disciples of Jesus Christ by responding in faith to the truth of Jesus, who He is, and what He has done for us, so should we now follow Him and grow in Him by that same faith in the truth. For just as God did not leave us without a witness to the existence of Himself, but quite the contrary constructed the entire universe from the super-galactic top to the sub-micronic bottom to lead us to Him, so He will not leave us without the means to grow in Him now and to know Him now. And just as God did not leave us at loose ends when we became aware of Him, but sent His precious Son to die for us on the cross and caused the knowledge of this great gospel message of salvation to be proclaimed around the world (through the response to which message we have been saved), so He will not now leave us in the world bereft of what we need to truly live for Him.
The acceptance of these principles comes through faith, but it is a very clear, very solid, very human faith. Our human fathers, provided they were loving and good, held us by the hand when we were young and took us to the good places we needed to go. We went without demur, because we trusted in their love and goodness. Now human beings are fallible, sometimes wrong, and sometimes even evil, but our Heavenly Father will never take us anywhere except the most blessed places possible, if only we are willing. For such is the great love and merciful character of our God, a character that every one of us knows instinctively (for He made us so as to see the truth), and a character to which every one of us is guided by His Spirit (for all who are His have the benefit of that guidance: Rom.8:9).
That God can, will, and indeed is leading us forward must be accepted by faith. But it does not take an uncommon amount of faith to accept that a God such as we have who has already done the most for us in sacrificing His Son for us, and who has already proved Himself to us in this very thing (both in coming to be aware of Him and in coming to know the gospel of His Son), to believe that He has provided means for our spiritual growth as well. It takes only a tiny bit of faith to begin, small as the grain of a mustard seed. And it is not as if what we being asked to believe in something which by its very nature would strain human credulity. Not at all. Assuming the existence of a loving and gracious God, assuming our entrance into His family, our salvation from sin and death through faith by means of what He has provided in the sacrifice of His Son, while it may be known by faith alone, to my mind, it certainly stands to reason that such a God who has indeed already done the most for us, though we were yet His enemies, would not now withhold the truth from us, but would rather provide a reliable source of that truth for us (i.e., the Bible), since it is only through that same truth that we are able to come nearer to Him and serve Him better (Eph.4:15; 2Pet.3:18):
For [God] who did not spare His own Son, but handed Him over [to death] for our sake, how will He not also graciously give us "all things" along with Him?
Make no mistake, the "faith-logic" of all God is, of all He has done, and of all we have believed and known through faith thus far, suggests, or rather, demands that God provide us "all things" necessary for a life for Him in preparation of an eternal life with Him.
This "faith-logic" means, consequently, that there is in fact here on this earth right now some way of getting closer to Him. And it also stands to reason (the spiritual reasoning of common sense and of faith, even if such methods do not meet the test of strict systems of man-made philosophical systems) that this must include information, truth, about Him. For, given the sort of creatures we are, what relationship, no matter how simple, no matter how sublime, does not exist and grow and thrive based upon knowing the person with whom we have the relationship, and doing so better and better day by day? As it is the human realm, a realm which (apart from sin and sinfulness) is of His creation for our benefit and instruction, so it is in the quest to draw nearer to Him. We need to know more about Him.
How to accomplish this? If Jesus were here, we could sit at His feet. But Jesus is at the Father's right hand, and not at present visible to our eyes. If God would appear to us or talk directly to us in some way, we could certainly get our information, our truth, by that means, or if He would talk to someone else, then we could get the information second-hand (provided we had confidence that God was actually talking to that person and what was said was being accurately relayed to us). It is easy enough for us to discern that God is not speaking to us (or anyone else) personally in a distinct verbal way today. But how are we to know whether a person alive today who makes such a claim is true or an impostor? To hearken back to the example of our human fathers, we learned, by experience, that they were reliable and trustworthy over thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of experiences – not perfect people, but worthy of our trust. Jesus told us that His sheep respond to His voice, but instinctively avoid the voice of the stranger (Jn.10:1-18), and this is the essential principle which applies both to the Bible and to Bible teachers. For it is not a question of "shades of gray", but of mostly darkness on the one hand, and of mostly light on the other: turn your back on the darkness, face toward the brightness of the light, and you will not go wrong.
Whatever imperfections there may be in the copy of the Bible you hold in your hand (problems of translation, misinterpretation, textual errors), they are insignificant in comparison with anything else produced by the mind of Man rather than the will of God. Whatever errors there may be in teaching which you have otherwise approved by long usage, by long reflection, by constant checking of scriptures and other means, these are also likely to be a far cry from much of the apostasy and outright satanic deception which may easily be found in the world today peddled by those who represent themselves as angels of light, but who are in reality messengers of darkness (2Cor.11:14), who are reality wolves in sheep's' clothing (Matt.7:15).
How do you know that the Bible is the truth? As do all the writers of scripture who precede and follow Him, Jesus quotes the Bible consistently, and in all His remarks addresses it as the authority from God (cf. Jn.10:35!). Now there are many wonderful apologetics for the scriptures out there, and I believe that anything I might write here in brief would of necessity be woefully inferior to the task at hand in comparison with them. One of the most poignant things I've ever read on the subject occurs in L.S. Chafer's Systematic Theology (s.v. Bibliology, vol. 1) to the effect that apart from God "the Bible is not a book that men could write if they would, nor would write if they could". This is pithy way of saying that the Bible is absolutely unique in such an overwhelming way that it defies logic, defies faith to believe that it is not divinely inspired. Can this be proved scientifically? Perhaps not. But read it. And re-read it. One of the things that continues to impress me day after day and year after year is that such a collection of writings spanning some fourteen centuries should be so completely consistent in its message, in its tone, in its purpose, in its power to inspire for God's good. As a professional student and teacher of the world's greatest literature, I can honestly say that nothing else even comes close, not in consistency, not in power, not in intent. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, which can compare to the Word of God. All one really needs to do to confirm that the Bible really is the inspired Word of God is to delve deeper and deeper into it. For, ultimately, it doesn't need any apologists. Vivified by the power of the Holy Spirit in the experience of the believer, it really does "speak for itself".
How do you know that any particular Christian teaching ministry, this ministry, for example, is truthful? We can discern this by the same process of careful investigation under the power of the Spirit. Just as we are encouraged about the truth and truthfulness of scripture the better we know it and the more we read it, so it is that by use and practice, by testing and verification, by long and circumspect experience, that we come to know, through the guidance of the Spirit acting in concert with our faith-common sense, who is really "of God" and who is not. If a teaching ministry really is doing God's work, it should reflect a consistent quality and message which our conscience and our heart lead by the Spirit will verify as good. And it will meet the test of scripture.
Both of these points above (i.e., the Bible dynamically proving its own inspired nature through the Spirit in the experience of believer, and the quality of teaching in a particular ministry doing a comparable thing over time in the experience of the sober Bible student) touch on your last set of question, namely, the nature and the manner of the Spirit's ministry to you (see Peter's Epistles #7: "The Ministry of the Holy Spirit"; and Peter #17: "The Leadership of the Holy Spirit"). We should not expect a verbal message, or an over-riding of our will, some massive sign like a whirlwind or earthquake. Rather, the ministry of the Spirit is like "a small still voice" (1Ki.19:12), saying inaudibly to our heart "this is the way - walk in it" (Is.30:21). For all who do and seek to do what is right, the Spirit is an aid; for all who would slip away from God, the Spirit acts as a restraint. But we have free will, and God does not oppose it. He influences us with His Spirit, but not to the point of coercion. If it is our choice to "quench the Spirit" (1Thes.5:19; cf. Eph.4:30), that is, to act against His prodding directed toward our hearts, in which case we must follow the flesh by default (cf. Gal.6:5:16-26). But only blessing and growing fellowship with God awaits, if we would but respond to what the Spirit "tells us", not in the issuing verbal commands, nor through provoking hyper-emotional reactions, but by subtly guiding us through scripture, through faith, through the spiritual common sense we all possess, and, ultimately and very importantly, through the detailed and explicit knowledge of God's truth that we come to know through correct Bible teaching (for it is teaching which helps put all of these things together). Truth, detailed understanding and belief of all the teachings of the Bible, is the lever, the "mechanical advantage", spiritually speaking, used by the Spirit. The more truth we know, believe and live by, the more effectively are we able to know, believe and live by the truth.
Since we live by the Spirit, let us also march forward by the Spirit.
I cannot put these things to you or to anyone else in terms of irrefutable logic: faith and the things of faith cannot be proved by Man's devices. But I can validate for you with my own experience what every other believer who has persevered in Jesus Christ has found: just as God is real, and salvation in Jesus Christ is a blessed reality, so also walking with the Father and the Son is a real possibility for all who would do so. In fact it is a mandate, one which can only be accomplished by faith, "in Spirit and in truth" (Jn.4:24). And the really wonderful thing about God's system of faith is, in my opinion, that just exactly the fact that it requires us to lean on Him before we know "by sight" that He will be there for us when we do. We leaned on Him when we understood He existed, and He brought us the gospel, brought us to Jesus. If we lean on Him now, lean on Him for support in the process of growth, for guidance in our search for the truth, He will be there for us again .... we just have to have faith, and He will take care of the rest.
Seek Him. You will assuredly find Him (Lk.11:9-13). If you just trust Him, trust His Word, and trust (with verification) those He has (truly) provided to help you, then all your questions will eventually be answered, even those blessed ones your heart has not yet conceived.
You might also have a look at the following:
Faith: What is it?
I hope this is of some help in your search.
Yours in our Lord Jesus Christ,