The Protestant Reformers said that the Bible is the sole authoritative source of religious truth, whose proper understanding must be found by looking only at the words of the text itself. This is the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura (Latin: by Scripture alone). According to this teaching, no outside authority may mandate an interpretation, because no outside authority, such as the Church, has been established by Christ as an arbiter to determine which of the conflicting interpretations is correct.
There is perhaps no greater frustration in dealing with Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants, than in trying to pin them down on why the Bible should be taken as a rule of faith at all, let alone the sole rule. It reduces to the question of why Fundamentalists accept the Bible as inspired, since the Bible can be taken as a rule of faith only if it is first held to be inspired and, thus, inerrant.
Now, this is a problem that doesn’t keep many nominal Christians awake at night. Most have never even given it any serious thought. To the extent that they believe in the Bible, they do so because they operate in a milieu that is, if post-Christian in many ways, still steeped in Christian presuppositions and ways of thought.
A lukewarm Christian who would not give the slightest credence to the Koran would think twice about casting aspersions on the Bible. It has a certain official status for him, even if he cannot explain why. You might say that he accepts the Bible as inspired (whatever that may mean to him) for some "cultural" reason, but that is hardly an adequate reason, since on such a basis that would mean the Koran rightly would be considered inspired in a Muslim country.
"It Inspires Me"
Some Fundamentalists say they believe the Bible is inspired because it is "inspirational," but that is an ambiguous term. On the one hand, if used in the strict theological sense, it clearly begs the question, which is: How do we know the Bible is inspired, that is, "written" by God, using human authors as instruments?
But if "inspirational" means nothing more than "inspiring" or "moving," then someone might decide that the works of Shakespeare are inspired. Furthermore, parts of the Bible, including several whole books of the Old Testament, cannot at all be called "inspirational" in this sense. One bears no disrespect in admitting that some parts of the Bible are as dry as military statistics—indeed, some parts are military statistics—and offer little to move the emotions.
Witness of the Bible
What about the Bible’s own claim to inspiration? There are not many places where such a claim is made even elliptically, and most books in the Old and New Testaments make no such claim at all. In fact, no New Testament writer explicitly claims that he himself is writing at the direct behest of God, with the exception of John, the author of Revelation.
Besides, even if every biblical book began with the phrase, "The following is an inspired book," this would prove nothing. A book of false scriptures can easily assert that it is inspired, and many do. The mere claim of inspiration is insufficient to establish that something is bona fides.
These tests failing, most Fundamentalists fall back on the notion that "the Holy Spirit tells me the Bible is inspired," an exercise in subjectivism akin to their claim that the Holy Spirit guides them in interpreting the text. For example, the anonymous author of How Can I Understand the Bible?, a booklet distributed by the Evangelical organization "Radio Bible Class," lists twelve rules for Bible study. The first is, "Seek the help of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has been given to illumine the scriptures and make them alive to you as you study them. Yield to his enlightenment."
If one takes this to mean that anyone asking for a proper interpretation will receive one from God—and that is exactly how most Fundamentalists understand the assistance of the Holy Spirit to work—then the multiplicity of interpretations, even among Fundamentalists, should give people a gnawing suspicion that the Holy Spirit has not been doing his job very well.
No Rational Basis
Most Fundamentalists do not say in so many words that the Holy Spirit has spoken to them directly to assure them of the inspiration of the Bible. Rather, in reading the Bible they say that they are "convicted" that it is the word of God, they get a positive "feeling" that it is inspired, and that’s that. But this reduces their acceptance of the Bible to the influence of their culture, habit, or any number of other emotional or psychological factors.
No matter how it is examined, the Fundamentalist position is not one that is rigorously reasoned out. It is a rare Fundamentalist who, even for sake of argument, first approaches the Bible as though it is not inspired and then later, upon reading it, syllogistically concludes that it must be. In fact, Fundamentalists begin with the fact of inspiration—just as they take the other doctrines of Fundamentalism as premises, not as conclusions—and then they find passages in the Bible that seem to support inspiration. They finally "conclude," with obviously circular reasoning, that the Bible confirms its inspiration, which they knew all along.
The man who wrestles with the Fundamentalist approach to inspiration is eventually unsatisfied, because he knows that the Fundamentalist has no sound basis for his belief. So where does one find a reasonable proof for the inspiration of Scripture? Look no further than the Catholic Church. Ultimately, the Catholic position is the only one that proves conclusively the divine inspiration of Scripture, the only one that can satisfy a person intellectually.
The Catholic method of proving the Bible to be inspired is this: The Bible is initially approached as any other ancient work. It is not, at first, presumed to be inspired. From textual criticism we are able to conclude that we have a text the accuracy of which is more certain than the accuracy of any other ancient work.
An Accurate Text
Sir Frederic Kenyon, in The Story of the Bible, notes that "For all the works of classical antiquity we have to depend on manuscripts written long after their original composition. The author who is the best case in this respect is Virgil, yet the earliest manuscript of Virgil that we now possess was written some 350 years after his death. For all other classical writers, the interval between the date of the author and the earliest extant manuscript of his works is much greater. For Livy it is about 500 years, for Horace 900, for most of Plato 1,300, for Euripides 1,600." Yet no one seriously disputes that we have accurate copies of the works of these writers. However, in the case of the New Testament we have parts of manuscripts dating from the first and early second centuries, only a few decades after the works were penned.
Not only are the biblical manuscripts that we have older than those for classical authors, we have in sheer numbers far more manuscripts from which to work. Some are whole books of the Bible, others fragments of just a few words, but there are literally thousands of manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and other languages. This means that we can be sure we have an accurate text, and we can work from it with confidence.
The Bible as Historical Truth
Next we take a look at what the Bible, considered merely as a history, tells us, focusing particularly on the New Testament, and more specifically the Gospels. We examine the account contained therein of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Using what is in the Gospels themselves and what we find in extra-biblical writings from the early centuries, together with what we know of human nature (and what we can otherwise, from natural reason alone, know of divine nature), we conclude that either Jesus was just what he claimed to be—God—or he was crazy. (The one thing we know he could not have been was merely a good man who was not God, since no merely good man would make the claims he made.)
We are able to eliminate the possibility of his being a madman not just from what he said but from what his followers did after his death. Many critics of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection claim that Christ did not truly rise, that his followers took his body from the tomb and then proclaimed him risen from the dead. According to these critics, the resurrection was nothing more than a hoax. Devising a hoax to glorify a friend and mentor is one thing, but you do not find people dying for a hoax, at least not one from which they derive no benefit. Certainly if Christ had not risen his disciples would not have died horrible deaths affirming the reality and truth of the resurrection. The result of this line of reasoning is that we must conclude that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. Consequently, his claims concerning himself—including his claim to be God—have credibility. He meant what he said and did what he said he would do.
Further, Christ said he would found a Church. Both the Bible (still taken as merely a historical book, not yet as an inspired one) and other ancient works attest to the fact that Christ established a Church with the rudiments of what we see in the Catholic Church today—papacy, hierarchy, priesthood, sacraments, teaching authority, and, as a consequence of the last, infallibility. Christ’s Church, to do what he said it would do, had to have the character of doctrinal infallibility.
We have thus taken purely historical material and concluded that a Church exists, namely, the Catholic Church, which is divinely protected against teaching doctrinal error. Now we are at the last premise of the argument.
This Catholic Church tells us the Bible is inspired, and we can take the Church’s word for it precisely because the Church is infallible. Only after having been told by a properly constituted authority—that is, one established by God to assure us of the truth concerning matters of faith—that the Bible is inspired can we reasonably begin to use it as an inspired book.
A Spiral Argument
Note that this is not a circular argument. We are not basing the inspiration of the Bible on the Church’s infallibility and the Church’s infallibility on the word of an inspired Bible. That indeed would be a circular argument! What we have is really a spiral argument. On the first level we argue to the reliability of the Bible insofar as it is history. From that we conclude that an infallible Church was founded. And then we take the word of that infallible Church that the Bible is inspired. This is not a circular argument because the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired) is not simply a restatement of its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable), and its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable) is in no way based on the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired). What we have demonstrated is that without the existence of the Church, we could never know whether the Bible is inspired.
The point is that Fundamentalists are quite right in believing the Bible to be inspired, but their reasons for so believing are inadequate. In reality this conviction can be based only on an authority established by God to tell us the Bible is inspired, and that authority is the Church.
And this is where a more serious problem comes to light. It seems to some that it makes little difference why one believes in the Bible’s inspiration, just so long as one believes in it. But the basis for one’s belief in its inspiration directly affects how one proceeds to interpret the Bible. The Catholic believes in inspiration because, to put it bluntly, the Church tells him so and that same Church has the authority to interpret the inspired text. Fundamentalists believe in inspiration, though on weak grounds, but they have no interpreting authority other than themselves.
Cardinal Newman put it this way in an essay on inspiration first published in 1884: "Surely then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is [idiomatic] and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligations. Such is our natural anticipation, and it is only too exactly justified in the events of the last three centuries, in the many countries where private judgment on the text of Scripture has prevailed. The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility."
The advantages of the Catholic approach are two: First, the inspiration is really proved, not just "felt." Second, the main fact behind the proof—the reality of an infallible, teaching Church—leads one naturally to an answer to the problem that troubled the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:30-31): How is one to know which interpretations are correct? The same Church that authenticates the Bible, that attests to its inspiration, is the authority established by Christ to interpret his word.