Part III: Assumptions, Axioms and Authority
What do you believe in?
There is no such thing as intellectual neutrality for us as humans. Every framework of thinking is built upon presuppositions and assumptions. All thought must first define and explain reality and whether knowledge is even tenable. Skeptics accuse Christianity, and religion in general, as systems of thought built on unproven assumptions. And they are right. But so is math, with its unproven axioms. So is science. It assumes there is some rhyme and reason to the natural world, and it assumes we can discover some of its principles. Even more basic than that, it assumes there is sense to human deduction and experimentation.
We all live by faith, even if we don’t think about it. You probably believe the world won’t fly out of orbit tomorrow, so you plan for the future. You probably believe 1+1=2. You probably believe what you see and experience is reality, and that we don’t exist in some kind of matrix. You probably believe your reasoning and rationality are trustworthy, at least to some degree. And even without thinking about it, each of these beliefs carries out its consequences in the way you live your life.
In his Confessions, Augustine marks this realization before he came to faith in Christ:
“If I took into account the multitude of things I had never seen, nor been present when they were enacted—such as many of the events of secular history; and the numerous reports of places and cities which I had not seen; or such as my relations with many friends, or physicians, or with these men and those—that unless we should believe, we should do nothing at all in this life. Finally, I was impressed with what an unalterable assurance I believed which two people were my parents, though this was impossible for me to know otherwise than by hearsay.”
Out of a backdrop of academics and philosophers who doubted everything and fluctuated between various opinions, Augustine came to this understanding. If we are to doubt all things, we must doubt our doubts as well. Belief is foundational to human thought and life.
Of course, that circles back to the question: What is truth?
What is worthy of belief?
One of my friends recently asked me what the point is of anything having truth-value if we cannot ascertain truth in the strictest sense. Aren’t we in a windowless room with the lights off? And doesn’t that make it impossible for faith to be anything more than wishful thinking?
To begin with, a conclusion that truth cannot be known or ascertained is in itself a truth claim—thus making it self-contradictory. But the analogy of a windowless room is an excellent one in many ways. That mirrors our situation well (though perhaps an even more accurate analogy is a blind man in the room). Left on our own, we are helpless to do more than conjure up continuous, un-answerable questions through human philosophy. But suppose this: someone from outside walks into our windowless room and tells us what is really out there, and what is really true. Then the question becomes, do you believe him?
Truth cannot ultimately be reached by human rationality. Our ability to reason and know is limited by our intellect, our senses, and our finitude. This is where revelation comes in. The only possible way we can know Something or Someone beyond ourselves and our dimension is if He (God) reveals Himself to us. As an imperfect analogy, consider getting to know another person: If you see and observe me regularly, you can figure out some things about who I am and what I’m like. But there’s a lot you would never know unless I told.
With God, there is what we call general revelation; that is, God has revealed Himself through creation. We can look at the universe and creatures in existence and get an idea of what He is like: a God of beauty, order, power, etc., when we see the vastness and complexity of galaxies, or even of a human cell.
But general revelation won’t tell us everything about God. We need specific revelation, otherwise we would never know God’s law, how He relates to us, or the intricacies of His character. The foundation of Christianity is faith in a self-revealing God, who has made Himself known to us, both in creation and in the Bible, His special revelation to mankind.
But how can we know the Bible is actually the Word of God?
Simply put, no one can prove the Bible is God’s Word. That’s why we are called to faith. But I will make two points, the second of which I’ll elaborate more on in the next essay: first, why it is only sensible that believing the Bible must be by faith and not by proof; and second, why it is not a blind or random faith.
Why it must be by faith: No field of study or human reasoning can prove the Bible is true. If the Bible is the Word of God, it is the highest authority in existence. Anything that can prove something else implicitly claims a higher level of authority. For instance, if we say archaeology or science can definitively prove the Bible, we are ascribing those fields higher authority than the Bible (in which case, you have contradicted the “hypothesis”—whether the Bible is the Word of God, and the highest authority—you presume to test). No one can prove who the authority on truth is but the truth itself. Truth must make itself self-evident.
We all yield to one authority or another. If you deny the Bible’s truth claims based on personal distaste or emotion, you essentially announce yourself as the authority on truth. Do you trust yourself? Christians are often accused of dogmatism and arrogance for claiming to have the only true way of salvation. I respectfully but firmly disagree: Christians, above all, acknowledge our complete helplessness to determine truth by human means. We cast ourselves in total dependence on the revealed Word of God—and in that, we humbly submit to its authoritative teaching. We don’t decide what the truth is, but we must be loyal to it at all costs. Consider this: real arrogance is when we pick and choose what truth we like. Real arrogance is when we declare ourselves the judge of truth, and the judge of God.
Why it’s not blind faith: There is a lot of evidence for the veracity of the Bible. I want to spend a greater deal of time on this, so I’ll reserve the meat of this for the next piece. As a preview, here are the major points I want to cover:
- Falsifiability: the Bible is grounded in history
- Consistency: 1500 years, 66 books, 1 message
- Fulfilled prophecy
- Correspondence to reality
Next time: In the beginning was the Word…