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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

The Self Defending Bible

November 25, 2015 •

Yesterday I was with some fellow-ministers for our monthly fraternal. Our current focus for discussion is Tim Keller’s book on preaching[1] and we were looking at his chapter on ‘Preaching the Word’. Its key thought is our need as preachers to grasp that the power and authority of God himself are inherent in the Bible, not in ourselves and our own eloquence.

Keller ends the chapter with a section entitled, ‘Defending the Lion’ in which he cites the well known words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon on how best to stand up for the Bible. Spurgeon said,

There seems to me to have been twice as much done in some ages in defending the Bible as in expounding it, but if the whole of our strength shall henceforth go to the exposition and spreading of it, we may leave it pretty much to defend itself. I do not know whether you see that lion – it is very distinctly before my eyes; a number of persons advance to attack him, while a host of us would defend [him]…Pardon me if I offer a quiet suggestion. Open the door and let the lion out; he will take care of himself. Why, they are gone! He no sooner goes forth in his strength than his assailants flee. The way to meet infidelity is to spread the Bible. The answer to every objection to the Bible is the Bible.[2]

Re-reading those words brought home to me with some force the truth of what Spurgeon was saying about the Bible’s being well able to defend itself.

It struck home especially in light of a lecture I had given earlier in the week in the North of England under the title, ‘Can we trust the Bible?’ It was part of a series of annual lectures run by a national Christian organisation that was designed to offer a defence of the faith on a range of fronts where it is under attack. The Bible and its trustworthiness is not surprisingly one of them.

My initial thought as I began preparation for this presentation was to set out the arguments – historical, theological and rational – that point to the Bible’s reliability. But having invested several hours going down that route, it struck me there might be a better way. So I opted for letting the Bible itself explain why it is worthy of our utmost confidence, doing so primarily from Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

The backdrop to Paul’s message in that letter is striking. The New Testament church was on the cusp of losing almost the entire upper echelon of its leaders – Paul being one of them. The church at large was facing an even deeper internal crisis. From what Paul says in the body of the letter, it is clear that distortion and even denial of the Bible’s message was widespread. The need to find ‘faithful men’ who would ‘correctly handle’ the word of truth was urgent. And doctrine that was ‘sound’ was losing ground in the face of congregations who only wanted to hear what their ‘itching ears’ desired. The apostle recognises his young friend’s faith in the Bible was being challenged. So he urged him, ‘But as for you, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of…’, that is, in ‘the holy scriptures that are able to make you wise for salvation’ (2Ti 3.14-15).

The rationale in Paul’s exhortation is threefold: Timothy need only look at the impact, promise and source of this book to realise it is beyond the ordinary. Indeed, that it is the only book ever written that is worthy of our unreserved trust and commitment.

The impact of the Bible in the lives of those whose influence had shaped Timothy most profoundly was plain to see. So Paul says that he should continue in his devotion to its teachings, ‘knowing those from whom he had learned them’ (2.14). He has mentioned three of these people by name already: Lois and Eunice, his Grandmother and mother (1.5) and Paul himself, his father in the faith (3.10-11). In ways that reflect what Paul teaches in Romans (6.17; 12.1-2), the life-transforming power of this book is self-evident. And it is seen universally in the way it consistently and cross-culturally produces lives that are Christ-like in character.

The promise that lies at the heart of the Bible is even more noteworthy: it gives people the wisdom that leads to salvation. At one level that is an unremarkable statement. Every religion the world has ever known makes that claim: ‘salvation’ in some shape or form. But the Achilles Heel of all religion (not unlike nearly all financial gurus) is that it is very easy to make the promise, but not so easy to guarantee it will be fulfilled. But it is Paul’s precise choice of words that shows how Christianity is unique. The Bible’s promise of salvation is ratified and received ‘through faith in Christ Jesus’ (3.15). The drama of redemption in which he is presented is not played out merely in the pages of a book, but on the stage of human history. By his life and death Jesus has actually done what was required by God to make peace with those who were estranged from him. By his resurrection, God vindicated all he had done to secure salvation for all who trust him and thus guarantees a redemption that is real.

All of this leads to the climactic ‘proof’ that Paul presents: the source from which this holy book has come. ‘All scripture is God-breathed…’ (3.16). The Bible in its entirety is not the words of men about God; but God’s own words spoken through men. (Even though in a technical sense Paul was thinking of the Hebrew Bible when he spoke of ‘scripture’, it is clear from what Peter says elsewhere in the NT that the apostles knew what God was revealing through them was on a par with the OT [2Pe 3.15-16].) The God who speaks in these scriptures is the God who cannot lie (He 6.18).

When I finished delivering the lecture, there was the customary Q&A session and it was listening to the questions and comments that reminded me of Spurgeon’s comment. One gentleman in particular summed it up. He said, ‘I came here this evening expecting to hear a rationalistic defence of the Bible’s trustworthiness, but you just let the Bible speak for itself and that made the case far more clearly.’ The cage was opened and the ‘lion’ was more than able to stand up for itself!

[1] Keller, T., Preaching: Communicating Faith in an age of Skepticism, (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd; London) 2015

[2] “The Bible: Speech at Annual Meeting of the British and Foreign Bible Society, May 5, 1875” in Speeches by C.H. Spurgeon at Home and Abroad, ed. G.H. Pike (London 1878)


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