I had a conversation recently with someone who does not believe that the scriptures are without error. This person asked me why I believed they were so and, out of habit, I directed her to the relevant passages, Psalm 119; John 17:17; 2nd Timothy 3:16 etc..
“But isn’t that circular reasoning?” she asked.
And, of course, she was correct.
Her original question was not whether the scriptures themselves testify to their own perfection. They do. Rather she asked how that perfection might be established. To provide a good answer I could certainly use the scriptures but I would need to respond without grounding my argument in the bible’s own testimony about itself.
This is a different matter altogether.
It is important to remember when sharing the gospel with those who are skeptical that there are many gateways to faith and that the Holy Spirit can enter through any one of them.
It is common in evangelical circles to hear that it is impossible to “argue anyone into the Kingdom”. Simply share your own experience with Jesus Christ. This is said to be the best approach because people relate best to personal stories. If your story does not move them or God does not move them through it, then they are simply not “ready to hear”. In any case it really doesn’t pay to argue with a skeptic because, once more, no one was ever debated into the Kingdom.
Only God can germinate and give growth to the seed of the gospel in the human heart. That is true. But often, I fear, this is used as an excuse to rationalize or justify not reasoning with those who have very serious intellectual reservations.
There have, in fact, been many Christians moved to faith not through the sharing of personal experiences with Jesus Christ, but through intellectual argument that leads, ultimately, to repentance and a true conversion of the heart.
For that reason I believe that it is important to have a basic familiarity with some standard apologetic approaches to common questions.
The following line of argument for the truth of the biblical texts is far more an evangelical than catholic one but I do not believe catholics would object to the essential truth of the propositions themselves. They would, perhaps, think the whole argument unnecessary since Mother Church has both declared the infallibility of the bible and defined the scope of the canon.
To establish the perfection of scripture it is important to step away from the concept of infallibility and regard the Gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from a purely historical standpoint.
A good question to ask someone is whether they believe that the New Testament conveys basically reliable historical information.
What I mean by that is that when compared to, say, the Book of Mormon, does your interlocutor believe the Gospel narratives provide plausible accounts with regard to geography, place names, historical personages and events.
The answer to this question is unavoidably yes. There are minor debates of course with regard to things like the census recorded in Luke’s birth narrative but even the wildest skeptic will have to admit that the historical narratives are essentially consistent with what is known about first century Palestine.
The next move is to establish the resurrection as a well attested historical event.
The primary point you will want to make here is that the New Testament provides both valid contemporary accounts of those who personally profess to have seen Jesus Christ alive and embodied subsequent to his death and burial in the stone tomb (Peter, Paul, John etc…) and contemporary second hand but specific accounts of others who profess to be eyewitnesses of the same (James, the 12, Luke, Mark, the “over 500” 1st Corinthians 15). There are many ways of establishing this that I do not have the time and space to explore in this short essay.
If someone objects that in the discussion of bodily resurrection you have stepped beyond the realm of history and into the realm of “myth” or “faith”, simply ask them whether they consider a public event to which hundreds testify as witness to be within the realm of historical inquiry.
If they say “no” then they have delegitimized and discounted whole swathes of human history.
If they say “yes” then you simply suggest that given the multiple attestation and primary source documents available then it is certainly legitimate to recognize the resurrection as an event within the realm of public history.
Another objection may come from those who do not believe in “miracles”. This is an easy objection to overcome so long as the person making it believes in a creator God. It is difficult to maintain both the possibility of an intervening exercise of divine power in creation and the impossibility of the very same exercise of the very same power at another point in history. The person who holds this position sets arbitrary and superficial boundaries around the exercise of God’s dominion. A good way to undermine this is to simply ask why your interlocutor believes that it is possible for God to create time, space, and matter, and yet impossible for him to effect or intervene within the sphere of those things he has created.
If this person does not believe in a creator God, then you will need to back up and argue for God’s existence. The present apologetic for the perfection of scripture, hinges on an already established theism.
In any case once you have established the resurrection as a well attested historical event you can begin to ask what that means with regard to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
If Jesus truly died, as the New Testament documents attest, then God alone would have had the power to raise him from the dead.
If Jesus has truly been raised from the dead, then the historical fact of the resurrection provides divine validation or verification of his words.
To deny that the resurrection constitutes divine validation is a difficult denial to maintain. This is seen by thinking through the alternatives. If, for example, Jesus was false and his claims about himself and God were untrue then his resurrection, which could only occur by God’s power and under his authority, served to primarily facilitate and spread a lie. If only some of the things Jesus said and claimed were true then God is implicated in facilitating and spreading a half-truth.
Few would be willing suggest such a thing.
What remains is to determine what, in fact, Jesus said and believed first with regard to his own identity and second with regard to the Old Testament and New Testament.
It is important to begin by showing that Jesus claimed to be God. You should be able to point to a number of gospel texts to demonstrate this fact.
Expect an objection at this point centered upon the reliability of the Gospel records of Jesus’ words.
One of the best aspects of this argument is that you have already established the basic or essential historical validity of the New Testament. All you have to do now is ask the person to show you evidence that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels are, in fact, not his words.
There is no such evidence.
New Testament skeptics generally rely upon a “guilty until proven innocent” approach with regard to the New Testament. The present apologetic forces them to reverse that and deal with the texts as basically “innocent” documents that they must prove “guilty.” You will have shifted the burden of proof onto the shoulders of those challenging the veracity of the Gospels rather than bearing that burden yourself.
Since there is no counter evidence, only suspicion dressed in academic garb, you should be able to easily parry objections at this point.
Once you have established that Jesus did indeed claim to be God, remind your interlocutor that he has already agreed that the resurrection stands as a divine validation of Jesus’ claims.
Next move to an investigation of Jesus handling of the Old Testament. Your aim here will be to show that Jesus’ attitude toward the Law, Prophets, and Writings, what we have received as the Old Testament canon, was consistent with that of an orthodox Jewish teacher of the law; that Jesus believed that the Tanach is the infallible and authoritative Word of God. To do this, find those texts in which Jesus, when quoting from the Old Testament, uses the names of prophets and human authors interchangeably with the name of God. For example he might say, “And God said….” when quoting from the Pentateuch or the prophets. Also find those texts in which Jesus appeals to and argues from the Old Testament as a means of settling disputes with those who argue from tradition. A great place to go for this is Mark 7 or Matthew 15 where Jesus berates the Pharisees for establishing traditions that are not only inconsistent with but actually lead people to disobey God’s word.
Having established that Jesus believed the Old Testament to be the Word of God, the next task will be to show that Jesus promised to provide his disciples with the same sort of inspiration for the writing of the New Testament.
John 14:25-26 and 16:13-15 are crucial to this task.
Here is John 14:25-26
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
It is important to remember that Jesus spoke these words specifically to the twelve, not to the whole church. Jesus addresses the future Church in his prayer recorded in John 17. John 14-16, however, represent a discourse specifically addressed to the 12. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come to the twelve to remind the twelve of Jesus’ life and words and teach them all things.
This is not to say that these words do not at all apply to the Church today. They do. They were spoken for us, but they were not spoken to us. They were addressed specifically to the twelve and therefore apply in their fullest sense to them.
This is especially important with regard to the promises contained in John 16:13-15
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Here the Holy Spirit is promised as both revealer of new truth and as the superintendent or guide into the right understanding and articulation of the truth he will reveal. He will not speak on his own authority but only what he hears. The disciples will be the receivers and heralds of this new revealed truth.
This is, again, not a promise to the whole church, but rather it is a promise to the disciples for the building up of the whole church. It was fulfilled in the production of the books of the New Testament which represent the inspired remembrances of what Jesus did and said, new truths from Christ to his Church, and declarations of what is to come. Every book in our New Testament can be traced back either to one of the twelve or to someone whose work and/or apostleship was affirmed by one of the twelve and/or produced during their lifetime. Each book, therefore, carries apostolic weight and warrant and as such carries the inspired infallibility promised by Jesus in John 14 and 16.
The criterion of apostolicity, based in large part on the promises of Christ quoted above, was the primary criterion by which the Church received the books of the New Testament as God’s Word along with those of the Old Testament.
There are a few objections that will likely be raised at this point. Some may wonder why we accept the Pauline corpus since Paul was not one of the twelve and his apostleship was something that he claims was conferred to him personally by the risen Christ. A ready answer can be given by quoting from 2nd Peter 3:15-16,
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
Here Peter, the chief apostle, himself writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares Paul’s letters on par with scripture.
Others might ask about the gospels of Luke and Mark since neither evangelist was among the twelve. But Luke was, according to Acts, a close friend and follower of the apostle Paul and was under his oversight. And Mark, according to the second century writings of Papias (d.155AD) Bishop of Hierapolis as quoted by Sts. Irenaeus and Eusebius, accompanied Peter. His gospel reflects Peter’s preaching and records Peter’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry, though Papias notes that Mark arranged the material himself.
Finally, many will point to the book of Hebrews as an example of a New Testament book without apostolic attestation. And it is true that Hebrews was received into the canon because it was believed to have been written by Paul. Since Pauline authorship is now disputed some will question the legitimacy of the Nicene decision. There are two points in response.
First, few doubt that the book of Hebrews was written within the first century and therefore within the lifetime and ecclesial context of the twelve. Whether it was written by Apollos or Barnabas or another first century teacher, given its intended Jewish Christian audience, it was almost certainly known to and accepted by the disciples themselves. Second, the book is wholly consistent with the known apostolic books. There is no contradiction or tension between its content and that of the Pauline or Catholic epistles, Revelation, or the Gospels. Its complimentary nature points to an author who both knows apostolic teaching well and is probably well known by the apostles.
It is most reasonable then to defer to the Nicene decision with regard to the book of Hebrews even if one objects to the reasoning behind it.
At this point you will have established on the basis of Jesus’ own words and promises the inspiration and perfection of both the Old and the New Testament books. That your interlocutor may quibble with you about the inclusion of various texts is of little concern. If he has come to this point, you have essentially won the argument. He has already conceded that the apostolic books are subject to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. They are inspired by the Holy Spirit and their content is divinely superintended.