We should instead see inspiration of the Bible not in the process, but in the product. This is consistent with the way we approach the rest of life as people of faith. Even though we understand rain formation in empirical terms, when it rains after a long dry spell, we still lift our eyes to heaven and thank God for sending the rain. And many of those who have concluded that the most reasonable explanation of the story told in fossils is that biological diversity is the result of an uninterrupted natural process nevertheless consider human beings to possess worth and dignity because they are “created in the image of God.” (This is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the notions of equality and human rights, for example.) So even though the Scriptures do not appear to be the result of a process that is qualitatively different from the normal one of composition, we can nevertheless recognize them by faith to be the word of God, supremely authoritative in matters of faith and practice.
To speak of our own faith testifying to the divine origin and moral authority of the scriptures is to acknowledge that while the Bible is the supreme authority in the life of the Christian, it is not the only authority. Just as the sacraments have three components—they constitute (1) the church bearing witness to (2) the work of God (3) in the life of an individual—so there is a “triangle of authority” that may be well understood by analogy to this “sacramental triangle.” The analogy is this: (1) God, through the Bible (recorded by individuals in a community in covenant relationship with God); (2) the community, through its historic teaching, creeds, and ongoing communal search for understanding (influenced by God and its individual members); (3) and the individual, through faith, reason, and experience (influenced by God and the community), all contribute to the confidence a Christian may have on any question of belief or practice, including the question of what authority or authorities to place confidence in. In other words, while the Bible can and does speak of its own inspiration and authority, it does not have to be exclusively self-attesting. There are two other authorities that support its claims.
The Bible’s own teaching about itself is well-known. “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21). “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his words were upon my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2). If we believe what the Bible says about itself, we will accept it as the inspired word of God. But how can we know whether to believe the Bible’s own self-description? We have already seen that we should not look for “magical” features that point to a superhuman process of composition. What, then, should we do?
We can, first of all, add to the Bible’s own testimony that of the church, which is a second, even if subordinate, authority in the life of the Christian. After much debate in its early centuries, the church declared that the books currently in our Bible were the ones it believed God had led it to embrace as Scripture. This declaration was made, and has been maintained ever since, with virtual unanimity.
A few historic communions in the Middle East have retained in their Bibles only a single gospel, a combination of the four canonical ones known as the “Diatessaron” (meaning “from four”). Some parts of the church include in their Bibles the books known to Protestants as the “apocrypha,” but even so they acknowledge that these books do not meet the same standard as the others; they are therefore also known as “deuterocanonical,” or “meeting a second (lower) standard.” Martin Luther, early in the Reformation, put Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation in an appendix at the back of the Bible, arguing that these books did not “preach Christ,” but later in his life he moved to a higher view of them and restored them to full status. These are the kinds of exceptions—and they are admittedly very minor—that can be cited to the otherwise unanimous acceptance throughout the church, throughout history, of the books in our Bible. Thus the church puts its authority behind the Bible’s own claims about itself.
A third authority does the same. Our individual faith as Christians testifies to us that the Bible we read is the word of God. This faith, moreover, is reasonable. That is, it is supported by another dimension of the individual component of authority: reason. It is not a leap in the dark. Is not a book that teaches love for God and neighbor as the supreme duty, that disallows all spiritual privileges based on human distinctions, that tells the story of God coming in person to save those who could not save themselves, that holds out the promise of life in the Spirit to those who have God’s laws written on their hearts, that teaches us to care for the weak and the needy as if we were caring for our Lord himself—is not such a book reasonably the word of the God whose character it reflects in these ways?
Our faith and reason themselves may appeal to the testimony that the church has borne to the Bible’s inspiration down through the ages. They may also appeal to the love shown for this book by those who have been most godly and compassionate. But in the end, we must walk by faith, and not by sight. The Bible was never meant to take the place of God. Having a relationship with a book is no substitute for having a relationship with the person spoken of in its pages, and who speaks through its pages. (Even less satisfactory is having a relationship with a myth about that book, a myth that closer acquaintance will inevitably explode.) The Bible does not give us the answer to any possible question we might ask it. But it does introduce us to the one who can live inside us as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, in abiding fellowship with the ultimate source of our being.
We do not, therefore, need to believe that the biblical authors were given natural-scientific insights far beyond the capabilities of their cultures in order to maintain our faith in the Bible as the inspired word of God and our supreme authority in matters of faith and practice.