One of the major tenets of the Reformation is Sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture is the only source of authority for faith and life. We trust Scripture as the infallible Word of God. But biblical criticisms gave rise to skepticism toward the infallibility of Scripture as liberal critics declared the Bible to be full of errors. Furthermore, Protestantism holds that infallibility does not extend to the canonization, which is defined as the process in which the Church –a fallible vessel– recognized the 66 books in our Bible as divinely inspired. So the Church might have failed to recognize some divinely inspired books and/or misrecognized some uninspired books as inspired. Although credible historical and theological arguments may be given in defense of canonization, ambiguity remains in various aspects such as the late formation of the Old Testament canon and the late acceptance of certain New Testament books. Then, how should we accept the authority of Scripture? John Calvin, having recognized the limit of reason, taught that while there is ample historical evidence, the authority of the Bible can only be personally accepted by faith through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Yes, indeed we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Saving faith by the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel is sufficient and normatively necessary (e.g. John 6:44, Rm 10:17). Through the testimony of the Spirit, we may call God our Father (Rm 8:15, Gal 4:6) and we hear the voice of our Shepherd (John 10:27). Yet, does saving faith include personal acceptance of the infallibility (hence authority) of Scripture by faith? What is the relationship between the two categories of faith of a believer? To address such questions without ignoring the associated difficulties, let us look at the insight of Søren Kierkegaard, the enigmatic 19th century Danish Protestant philosopher.
Just like us, Kierkegaard lived in a complex era. Cartesian foundationalism was a prevalent epistemology. Here, true knowledge must possess a foundation of truth which must be demonstrated with certainty. To obtain such certainty, one shall become entirely “objective”. At the time, Christianity was a dry state religion. Later, the rise of biblical criticism undermined the epistemic foundation of Christianity. In such era, Kierkegaard attempted to articulate Christianity in a way that is relevant to lives and faithful to Scripture. He first defined that to exist as a human self is to undergo a process of becoming which requires one to be relational, both internally and externally. Such relations with itself and other selves facilitate synthesis as part of the ‘becoming’ process. As a consequence, a self is not autonomous. Our self-existence is ultimately grounded in the autonomous Self who possesses infinite qualitative difference compared to any human self, namely God. To become a true self, one shall attempt to realize the potentially in relation with itself, other selves, and the Self. From there, Kierkegaard identified three spheres of existence: aesthetical, ethical, and religious. The transition from aesthetical to ethical is facilitated by moral consciousness. A self that realizes the futility of pleasure-driven life without any ethical commitment transitions to the ethical sphere. The kernel of Kierkegaard’s works, however, lies within the transition from the ethical to religious sphere. What facilitates and characterizes such transition?
First, Kierkegaard rejected the pursuit of objectivity in foundationalism on the basis of his anthropology. A human self never attains absolute certainty. To have such certainty means to be complete and hence stop ‘becoming’ which contradicts the notion of human existence. Such certainty is only feasible in God. Although epistemic uncertainty is a part of human existence and the limit of reason, we find a way of resolving it in our daily decisions. This demonstrates that subjectivity plays a big role in our actions. That is, our actions are never purely objective. Rather than being defeated by skepticism due to the hopelessness of absolute certainty, Kierkegaard argued that we should embrace such subjectivity. One may argue that rather than pursuing absolute certainty, we simply strive for high degree of certainty in practice. But such degree of certainty itself is a measure which varies from person to person and hence subjective. Here, Kierkegaard defined subjectivity as that which is outside reason and includes emotion and passion. In relation to Christianity, subjectivity is essential in attaining true knowledge for a limited human self. A purely foundationalistic approach to Christianity will eventually lead to skepticism. In other words, subjectivity allows oneself to “live the truth” without requiring absolute certainty.
Second, Kierkegaard criticized foundationalism in its usage of historical evidence as the rational basis of faith. While Kierkegaard accepted the historical root of Christianity, he argued that historical evidence is neither sufficient nor necessary to produce faith in an individual. Historical evidence deals with contingent and temporal matters whereas the realm of reason or logic is characterized by necessity and eternity since a logical proposition is a perennial truth. What is contingent and temporal belongs to a different category from the necessary and eternal.
Third, Kierkegaard contrasted two religions. The immanent religion A, manifested within the ethical sphere, is a religion which searches for the truth inside oneself. Sound familiar? Such person strives for the “highest good” according to one’s conscience. While some God-consciousness may be present, religion A emphasizes immanence without relating to God himself. Moreover, the true pursuit of goodness should not be for the sake of reward other than the happiness caused by the goodness itself. If such principle abides, the person will eventually realize that he is “guilty” (recognition of his shortcoming and sinfulness) and the solution exists outside human powers. That is, one can achieve nothing apart from the Self. This facilitates one’s transition to the eminent religion B of Christianity–the true religion. Religion B must be based on a revealed truth from God. Such revealed truth, consistent with the infinite gap between human existence and God, must be paradoxical and hence supra-rational (not irrational). In other words, the revelation is a fresh and new knowledge which consequently creates a tension and results in a paradox. While a paradox can be made up, Kierkegaard maintained the uniqueness of Christianity as the “Absolute Paradox” is embodied in the incarnation of Christ since the eternal and necessary meets with the temporal and contingent within a single being, God who entered the human history and became flesh. Rather than simply a metaphysical paradox, incarnation is an ethical paradox as well. God, the necessary who has no need for us, chose to enter the realm of contingency and demonstrated the ultimate act of “selfless love” which surpasses, yet does not contradict reason. Such absolute paradox can only be appropriated by faith when a “mutual understanding” between reason and the paradox happens, that is, when reason admits its limitation and the paradox gives itself. Such faith originates neither from one’s inner-self nor from other human selves, but is a divine gift upon his encounter with God as he realizes that his reason reaches its limit and his moral quest fails. Kierkegaard characterized this faith as a subjective and qualitative leap, a change of category. It involves emotion, passion, tension between fear and blessedness, and total submission as the absolute paradox challenges the limitation of reason and evidence. Hence, just as evidence is neither sufficient nor necessary for faith, a lack of evidence is not the reason for the absence of faith. The Kierkegaardian notion of faith differs from blind fideism –with which Kierkegaard is often falsely associated– as the faith subjectively embraces a propositional truth and a historical reality of incarnation of Christ. Yet the interpretation of such historical reality must be subjectively appropriated since further evidential or rationalistic attempts on establishing its credibility, while edifying and educational, cannot be the basis of faith. It also differs from Pascal’s fideism where the “wager” appeals to risk and reason. In our view, Pascal’s wager tends to result in one’s ‘hedging his bets’. It is far from the biblical faith of total submission to Christ, which is well articulated by Kierkegaard.
Despite Kierkegaard’s extensive use of Scripture in his writings, he did not attempt to establish the authority of Scripture which was threatened by the rise of modern biblical criticism. Lacking such insight from his writings, can we answer the following questions from Kierkegaardian perspective: 1. Does saving faith include personal acceptance of the infallibility (hence authority) of Scripture by faith? 2. What is the relationship between the two categories of faith of a believer?
The first question can be answered simply by appealing to the gospel content. The incarnation of Christ is a historical reality which is witnessed only in the canon of Scripture. Hence, saving faith – characterized in part by a total submission – certainly includes appropriation of and submission to the gospel truth. However, the canon includes not only the basic gospel message of redemption in and through the God-man, but also other doctrines that are important for faith and life. Most believers came to Christ by appropriating the gospel message without presupposing the authority of the entire canon. While some, upon their conversion, may reckon that the Bible is the Word of God, they may not apprehend its sense of authority and infallibility. Therefore, saving faith indeed includes personal acceptance of the authority of the basic message of salvation in the gospel of Christ which permeates throughout Scripture just as salt in the sea water. However, stating that saving faith includes personal acceptance of the authority of Scripture as a whole is unwarranted. Yet the same faith is the “receiving organ” of (possibly) later acceptance of the authority of Scripture. Having said that, we do not intend to argue that appropriation of the authority of Scripture in its totality is a necessary fruit of saving faith. Instead, we argue that such authority may be appropriated through the same means.
To address the second question, one solution is to employ a presuppositional argument. The authority of the canon must be presupposed as an article of faith. A presupposition demands neither proof nor evidence. It stands as a subjective starting point of a quest for further knowledge of Scripture. While this solution is valid, it fails to address how such article of faith is related to saving faith. Another solution is to apply the so-called “externalist epistemology” which assumes that our perceptions are reliable and defines knowledge as how we are rightly related to the world outside us. Here, knowledge does not imply absolute certainty but resorts to qualitative reliability. From such perspective, one may claim that our appropriation of the authority of Scripture is simply a “reliable belief” based on the facts we know about Scripture through our experience. Such belief gradually evolves, either stronger or weaker, depending on the reliability of Scripture as our senses perceive it. It is comparable to other practical beliefs such as the reliability of our friends and cars. While such solution accounts for the subjectivity of faith and allows us to understand how faith grows, it fails to highlight the presupposed uniqueness of our faith in the authority of Scripture.
Alternatively, we may simply state that accepting the authority of the canon by faith is analogous to saving faith. However, such analogy is not obvious. A strong analogy can be established, however, if there is an analogy between the objects of faith. Therefore, it is sufficient to demonstrate an analogy between the incarnation of Christ and Scripture. Indeed, such analogy has been recognized by several Reformed theologians. Kuyper taught that “there is a necessary, intrinsic parallel between incarnation and inscripturation of the Logos which further necessitates for each the form of a servant”. Other theologians such as Warfield and Bavinck recognized likewise. Just as the Logos who is eternal, divine, and glorious, entered the temporary, contingent, and lowly world, the eternal Word of God entered the world, impinging upon the history of humankind. Just as the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, the Word of God took a form of human language and was given to us. Just as Christ is fully divine and fully human in nature, Scripture is fully divine and fully human in its authorship. Fallible human authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit to put Verbum Dei in an infallible written form. Christ became an obedient servant upon his mission on earth, suffered as a human, and subjected himself to rejection and contempt. Likewise, Scripture, taking a servant form, is subjected to rejection, severely and often unfairly criticized. Christ, being a human, was weak and “without form or comeliness”. Likewise, the canon did not visibly drop from heaven with trumpet sounds yet came in a humble process of inscripturation over two millenia. One may be easily captivated by the majesty of the cosmos –starry skies, the Alps, and the Niagara Fall– regardless of his belief in God. Yet it is much easier for him to ignore or simply not notice a book entitled “Holy Bible”, let alone for him to treat it as divinely inspired, infallible, and authoritative. While well-preserved through duplications and translations, the non-existent autographa has become a subject of criticism and an excuse when one stumbles in faith. Added to such weakness is the uncertainty of canonization as the Church is fallible. However, just as Christ is sinless and perfect, the canon is infallible and perfect in its purposes. Therefore, the absolute paradox that is inherent in the incarnation of Christ is also present and demonstrable in the inscripturation of the Word of God. Note that employing such analogy does not negate but rather establishes the uniqueness of Christ through appropriating the infallible Christological testimony in Scripture.
Having established the analogy between the incarnation of Christ and the inscripturation as well as recognizing the inherent absolute paradox in both, we are now ready to apply the Kierkegaardian notion of faith to the authority of Scripture. Such authority ought to be personally appropriated through a divine gift of faith upon one’s encounter with the paradox of the existence of the eternal Word of God in such an earthly form. The faith, having acknowledged the limitation of reason and the available evidence, is subjective, passionate, a leap from one category to another. Note that we do not argue that such appropriation must come instantaneously. It often takes place through a process of investigation which involves reason and evidence. However, such process may be viewed as a preparatory stage for the subjective “leap of faith”, a total commitment to the authority of the canon despite the limitation of (neither in light of nor in the absence of) reason and evidence. Once such leap of faith occurs, one may study Scripture with a proper presupposition. Here is when we may apply the aforementioned presuppositional argument. Such presupposition is not merely an intellectual axiom for the task of hermeneutics. Instead, we subjectively embrace its infallibility and “take every thought captive onto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5) as we embark on such an exciting enterprise. A total commitment to the paradoxical truth is possible without intellectual certainty since our faith is subjective. The infallibility (hence authority) of Scripture is an article of faith. Now we may apply the insight from the externalist epistemology. As we keep appropriating truth from the canon with the aid of our reason and interpretation of evidence, our intimate knowledge of and experience with God (Gal 4:9) grows as he consistently reveals himself in Scripture and witnesses how scriptural truth plays out in our lives. Consequently, our faith upon Scripture is strengthened in quantity and quality. Indeed, having presupposed its infallibility and authority, our faith in Scripture increases as we experience its reliability. Having said this, we reiterate that such faith is a gift from God as Kierkegaard maintained. While Scripture is self-authenticating, we are able to accept its infallibility and authority only through the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. Hence, the authority of Scripture rests not upon us, but upon God.
Finally, it is fitting to address the notion of infallibility. The infallibility of the canon means that Scripture does not err and cannot err in its purposes, that is, in the matters of faith and life. Moving beyond the issue of modernistic inerrancy of the non-existent autographa, we argue that if our faith in the infallibility of Scripture is as previously described, such faith will not be tossed up and down by the waves of modern biblical criticism. Since we reckon that our faith entails a subjective leap, we passionately appropriate and are totally committed to the truth despite the limitation of our reason and the available evidence. The contingent and worldly cannot prove the necessity and eternal. The evidence that supports the infallibility of Scripture cannot offer any absolute certainty. Likewise, the evidence for the contrary is incapable of disproving the infallibility of Scripture. Any assessment of high-degree of certainty is indeed subjective and based upon a certain passionate pre-commitment, be it pro- or anti-infallibility. Related to such notion is as follows. First, we ought to responsibly define infallibility. While reason and evidence have their limits, there are certain matters that can be demonstrated reasonably and evidently. For example, to dodge historical criticism, one insists that to be historically accurate, the gospel narratives must be written chronologically. Hence, the difference between the Synoptic Gospels and the Johannine Gospel in the account of “Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple” is taken to imply that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. Does infallibility demand historical accuracy in the sense of chronology? While subjectivity plays a role once one recognizes the limitation of reason and evidence, an overtly selective application of reason and evidence simply demonstrates a subjective pre-commitment to foundationalism. Second, armed with unwavering faith in the infallibility of Scripture, we may have the courage to engage the discipline of biblical criticism with God-honoring presupposition. Unlike those who assign an a priori “guilty-before-proven-innocent” verdict to the Bible, we approach the Bible with reverence and awe, with fear and trembling, reckoning that the Bible is the Word of God, yet it is decreed to live in such a humble earthly existence. It is given to us in the form of a canon, full of profound wisdom yet largely written in the language of commoners, univocal in theme yet microscopically multi-vocal in many places. Such paradox is supra-rational and to be appropriated with God-given subjective faith. Therefore, we may gain additional insights from the discipline, yet with an utmost discernment, and engage over-critical scholars with gentleness and respect.
So what have we accomplished? We wrestled with the doctrine of infallibility and authority of Scripture. We found that many persisting biblical difficulties, be it “inerrancy” or the history of canonization, may shake our faith in the Bible if we insist on a foundationalistic notion of faith which has its basis in reason and evidence. However, the 19th century Protestant philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that reason ultimately fails us since rational uncertainty is a part of our finite and contingent human existence. Furthermore, evidence, being contingent and temporary, cannot be used as a proof as proof deals with necessity and eternity. Faith is by nature subjective and a “leap”, a cross-over from one category to another. For Christianity, this is evident in the absolute paradox –or better termed ‘the absolute mystery’– of incarnation. Utilizing the analogy between incarnation and inscripturation –the mystery of glory in weakness, eternity in history, and treasure in the jars of clay– we arrived at a description of faith in the authority of Scripture and its relation to the saving faith. As students of Scripture, we often ask why God, in his sovereign good pleasure, did not give us an ‘ironclad Bible’. Instead, we are left with a modest Bible, majestic in its content yet full of apparent weaknesses. The more we study the Bible, the more we behold its genius yet at the same time we discover more unaddressed problems. Here, Kierkegaard helps us reflect what it means to have faith in the infallible, and hence authoritative, Scripture. We have a choice: to approach the Bible with a suspicious Nietzschian attitude or with an utmost reverence of a child longing to passionately listen to the voice of his Father. Regardless of the attitude we choose, it is subjective in nature. For us who are in Christ, the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts so that we may hear the voice of our Father as we flip through the pages of the Bible. Furthermore, the Spirit enables us not only to know the truth but also to submissively live in it. As we keep in step with the Spirit, his Word lights our path (Gal 5:25, Ps 119:105). If we stumble upon the weaknesses of Scripture, we may do well by looking toward Christ. As he hung upon the cross to bear the punishment of our sins, he “had no form of majesty that we should look at him”, “was despised and rejected by men” (Isa 53:2-3). But at that very moment, he was glorified and drew all people to himself (John 12:23, 31-33). The climax of the mystery of incarnation, the most magnificent glory and victory (John 16:33) in such an accursed weakness (Gal 3:13), happened on the cross through which God executed his divine plan of salvation. Likewise, God gave us his Word in the form which is foolish to the world to “shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27-28). If we are able to accept the mystery of the incarnation –God in the weakness of human flesh– how shall we escape if we neglect the mystery of Scripture –the Word of God in the frailty of human language?
By Eko Onggosanusi