This is third and final installment of my series looking at some of Bishop J.C. Ryle’s reasons why the Bible is God’s Word. These are taken from his sermon “Inspiration” in Old Paths, a collection of sermons on theological topics he regularly dealt with in his conversations with non-believers. Ryle wrote and ministered in the mid to late 19th century. As we will see below, this was a century of incredible advances in the sciences, and these advances raised new questions about the Bible’s reliability. As we will also see, Ryle was ready for the challenge.
In installments one and two, I outlined some of Ryle’s rational arguments that, when taken collectively, help a skeptic to view the Bible in a way they haven’t before. I end this series where Ryle ends it: answering the most common objections to the Bible’s divine inspiration.Here are a few of them:
1) The Bible contradicts itself.
Thanks to theologians such as Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and von Harnack, theological liberalism was taking hold in the academy and culture in the 1800s. This theological school began it’s interpretation of the Bible by assuming that the Bible was man’s creation. Every difference in the scriptures was exploited to show that these “discrepancies” prove the Bible was a collection of personal reflections on God. According to this position, the differences in the four Gospels prove that they are solely human reflections. The argument was that a divinely inspired text would not have such inconsistencies.
When Ryle was confronted with this question, he gave a simple but powerful answer. The Gospels were written by four different men with different emphases addressing different audiences. There is information which these writers don’t include because it wasn’t relevant to their emphases and audiences. The four aren’t each writing a complete, exhaustive account of a situation. They are just reporting what they saw and why it’s important. Thus, when read as a whole, the inconsistencies disappear.
2) The Bible contradicts history.
Archaeology was truly coming into its own as a science during Ryle’s life. Many discoveries were being made around the world, and some of these discoveries seemed to contradict the Bible’s account of history. This lead many to question the Bible’s historical accuracy. For example, British Archaeologist George Smith had discovered an alternative account of Noah’s flood in 1872 which differed from the Biblical account in numerous ways. Again, the assumption was that if the Bible was inspired by an omnipotent God, then it would not contain any historical inaccuracies.
Ryle responds to this concern by pointing out Archaeology’s ever-changing nature. So little is discovered in these excavations, and it would be unwise to draw broad conclusions from one or two ancient items. Moreover, due to the lack of hard evidence, there are as many interpretations of these finds as there are archaeologists. If there can be no consensus within the Archaeological community, then why should one so quickly discount the Biblical account? Also, new discoveries are being made every year, and they can greatly alter or disprove the most widely accepted theory.
Ryle ends his argument by pointing out that Archaeology can also be the Bible’s friend if the discovery provides enough information to be objectively understood. To prove this, he alludes to another of George Smith’s finds. In 1866, Smith discovered an inscription which recorded Israelite King Jehu’s tribute payment to Assyrian King Shalmaneser III. Though such payment is not mentioned in the Bible, its account of these two Kings’ reigns (2 Kings 9-10) is consistent with this inscription. Thus, if it’s consistent in chronology, then it must be consistent other places as well.
3) The Bible contradicts natural science.
The 19th century also saw the rise of Darwinism. With the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, the traditional Biblical understanding of creation came under widespread scrutiny. Again, the academy and culture placed a microscope on the Bible’s descriptions of the natural world, and it was found lacking. The most obvious example of this is the question of how humans came into existence: were we created or did we evolve? How could be Bible be God’s Word to us if it couldn’t get this right?
Ryle responds to this critique by pointing out the Bible’s purpose: “The Bible was not written to teach a system of geology, botany, or astronomy, or a history of birds, insects, and animals, …” Instead, it was written to communicate the character of God and His love for fallen humanity. It’s a book of theology, not science. Moreover, because the Lord wants humanity to understand His love for them, He inspires Biblical authors to write in such a way that this message can be widely understood:
“… and on matters touching these (scientific) subjects (the Bible) widely uses popular language, such as common people understand. No one thinks of saying that the Astronomer Royal contradicts science because he speaks of the sun’s ‘rising and setting’.”
In summary, Ryle is inviting the Bible’s critics to let the Bible speak in it’s own terms using it’s own methods. Don’t ask the Bible questions it wasn’t written to answer.
4) The Bible contradicts reality.
The 19th Century’s dominate world-view was Rationalism. Human reason and experience were the ultimate, final authority that tells one if something is true. If it can’t be understood using these methods, then it is cannot be true. It was this worldview that drove science’s development, and it did lead to many truths (especially in the natural world) coming to light. Many 19th century thinkers, however, applied this philosophical theory to other areas, and the Bible’s miraculous events (specifically Christ’s resurrection) came under intense scrutiny. If the individual hadn’t experienced it, then it must not be true.
Ryle replies to these attacks by using their own world-view against them. We only know of these miracles because individuals wrote down their actual experiences of Christ’s resurrection! These were first hand, eye witness accounts of this miracle. The only authority these Biblical writers appeal to is their human reason and experience. So, using Rationalism’s own logic, one should believe these accounts. Yes, the 19th century reader of the scriptures may not have witnessed the resurrection, but there were many other events in history he may not of experienced but still takes them as true. Why? Because someone did experience them.
So, why have I shared Ryle’s responses to these questions? The questions still remain, and Ryle’s answers still provide answers that make today’s non-believers think. Here’s why:
1) The 19th century’s and our 21st century’s worldviews have much in common. If 19th century Rationalism’s focus on putting human reason and experience as the center of determining truth was the seed, then 21st century’s Postmodernism is its mature fruit. The same assumptions of how one determines truth are shared by the two centuries. The basic worldview Ryle was facing has the same DNA as ours. His criticisms seek to expose and undercut the basic assumptions of Rationalism, and, because of the cultural similarities, his arguments continue to work today.
2) Ryle never dismisses science. In his arguments, Ryle doesn’t fall into the trap of rejecting science (and it’s Rational philosophical foundation) as completely false. He doesn’t claim that it is all wrong and can offer no truth whatsoever. Instead, he points out two important things about science. First, he concedes that science does give objective truth. It can tell us things about reality and is a great good to the world. Second, he shows that science has limits. It is an excellent tool for understanding the natural world and history, but there are some truths it cannot give us. Just as one shouldn’t ask the Bible to serve as a scientific journal, one should not ask science to serve as a theological journal. Let them be used in the way they were designed.
This strategy is very useful when dealing with non-Christians. Many well-intended Christians have sought to argue for the Bible’s divine inspiration by completely rejecting the scientific worldview. This causes us to lose credibility very quickly. Our brothers and sisters that hold this position are ignoring the vast truths and benefits science has accomplished. It’s just not very fair to truth. So, we should follow Ryle’s example here and acknowledge the reality of what science is but also show that it has limits.
3) Have a preponderance of evidence. The reason why I’ve split up this article into three parts is that Ryle offers a lot of diverse arguments for the Bible’s divine inspiration. Why so many? Ryle was wise enough to understand that a skeptic is brought to the truth when a preponderance of evidence is put forward to prove the point. Hanging your argument on one or two points isn’t convincing because an excuse to not accept it can always be found. However, when a multitude of points are put forward, when they are all taken together, it is much more difficult to dismiss them. It takes a lot of straws to break a camel’s back.
–This post was written by guest contributor Rev. Hamilton Smith, Pastor and Lead Planter of St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant S.C. Hamilton is currently pursuing his Doctor of Ministry, with a focus on J.C. Ryle’s Reformation theology for today.
This post was written by Rob Sturdy