Thomas Jefferson Would Be Proud: Using Human Criteria to Decide the Bible’s Authority

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

September 11, 2013

This is the third and final installment of my (limited) review of A.E. Harvey’s book, Is Scripture Still Holy? Coming of Age with the New Testament.  Prior installments can be found here and here.

As we have seen in prior posts, Harvey’s book is designed to critique the traditional Christian doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture.  After arguing that (a) Scripture isn’t revelation anyway, only Jesus is God’s revelation; and (b) since humans were involved in writing and transmitting Scripture, then it is unreliable and likely corrupted, one might wonder whether Harvey tries to salvage any authority for the Bible at all.

At the end of chapter one, Harvey attempts to articulate how we humans might just be willing to allow the Bible to have some authority.  Read carefully this remarkable statement:

[The Bible’s] credentials must be constantly reviewed, its exercise monitored, its place in the contemporary world of values seen to be defensible and appropriate. What this means, in the case of the Bible, is that…it must be show to have at least the credentials of other ancient historical writings; that as a foundation document for a religion it must have the necessary intelligibility and consistency; that for the nourishment of the liturgical and devotional life of the faithful it must have linguistic and imaginative depth; that to continue to be read as an ethical its stance on moral questions must continue to be found relevant. . . If a body of scripture is found to fail these tests, it must forfeit its authority.  If it passes them, it may claim continuing authority subject to the vagaries of human transmission and application already mentioned (p.18).

This is a stunning statement for many reasons, but most of all because it doesn’t even seem to be aware of the philosophical problems it creates.  Harvey has the hubris to lay out the credentials for why humans might be willing to allow the Bible to have authority without feeling any need to justify the criteria themselves. He mentions this long list without defense or explanation.

This is remarkable. If Harvey wants to ask, “Why should we follow the set of rules in the Bible as a standard for truth?” you think it might dawn on him that someone else might ask, “Why should we follow your set of rules as a standard for truth?” Or to put it another way, “What are the criteria for your criteria?” But, Harvey offers no explanation.

Aside from the arbitrariness of this list, there are additional problems.  For one, Harvey shows little awareness that each and every one of these criteria is entirely dependent on the worldview one brings to the table.  For instance, he claims the Bible must be authenticated as “historical.”  Ok, that sounds fairly reasonable.  But, eventually you have to define your terms.  What counts as “historical”? And what does not?  Do miracles count as historical?

One quickly realizes that the definition of “historical” is determined the worldview one brings to the table. But, that raises a question.  If God’s Word is supposed to, in principle, challenge people’s worldviews, then how can we allow people’s (unchallenged) worldviews to determine what counts as God’s word? Harvey never seems to recognize this is an issue. He almost proceeds as if people were neutral—as if they had no worldview at all.

Or, as another example, Harvey claims that we cannot accept the Bible unless it ethical position is found to be “relevant.”  But, again, Harvey never tells us what standard for morality he is using here.  Where does he get these moral norms that the Bible must measure up to?  Does he have another source of revelation from God he is not telling us about?

If he answers that it is just the opinion of society that determines what is morally “relevant,” then that raises an additional problem, namely why should society’s opinion determine what counts as God’s word?  And since society’s opinion is always changing, does that mean our “Bible” changes along with it?

Of course, even if a book passes all Harvey’s personal tests, Harvey is still not done.  He adds the extra caveat that such a book would still be “subject to the vagaries of human transmission and application already mentioned.”  In other words, even if a book passed all these tests we can still avoid following all of it by claiming it has been corrupted by human transmission.

In the end, Harvey’s whole approach is a bit of a ruse. On the surface it seems like he is simply engaging in a neutral exploration of the Bible’s authority. But, in reality, he has rigged the game from the start by being able to control what the standards are for what counts as God’s word.  As long as Harvey can determine the standards, he can determine the outcome.

It never seems to dawn on him (and probably doesn’t dawn on most readers) that setting up manmade criteria about what we will accept as God’s authoritative word simply gives you a book that is manmade.  Thus, regardless of what divine revelation Harvey ends up with, it will not be divine.  It will simply be a human creation.  It will simply be Harvey’s.

Of course, this has been done before.  Thomas Jefferson famously took scissors and cut out the parts of the Bible which he did not happen to like.  But, we can all see through this exercise.  In the end, the ultimate authority is not God. It is Thomas Jefferson.

Harvey’s book is a prime example of modern men setting themselves up as judges over Scripture. If Scripture requires a human stamp of approval to be believed, then it can never serve as an authority over humans.

C.S. Lewis captures well this approach of the “modern man”:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.


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