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IV. Proper Basicality and the Role of Scripture

According to the model, Christian belief in the typical case is not the conclusion of an argument (which is not to say arguments cannot play an important role in its acceptance),324324   For example, in rebutting defeaters: see below, chapter 11. or accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs, or accepted just because it constitutes a good explanation of phenomena of one kind or another. Specific Christian beliefs may, indeed, constitute excellent explanations of one or another phenomenon (the Christian teaching of sin leaps to mind here), but they aren’t accepted because they provide such an explanation. Nor are they accepted as the conclusion of an argument from religious experience. According to the model, experience of a certain sort is intimately associated with the formation of warranted Christian belief, but the belief doesn’t get its warrant by way of an argument from the experience. It isn’t that the believer notes that she or someone else has a certain sort of experience, and somehow concludes that Christian belief must be true. It is rather that (as in the 259case of perception) the experience is the occasion for the formation of the beliefs in question, and plays a causal role (a role governed by the design plan) in their genesis.

In the typical case, therefore, Christian belief is immediate; it is formed in the basic way. It doesn’t proceed by way of an argument from, for example, the reliability of Scripture or the church. As Jonathan Edwards puts it, “This evidence, that they, that are spiritually enlightened, have of the truth of the things of religion, is a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence. They believe the doctrines of God’s word to be divine, because they see divinity in them.”325325   A Treatise concerning Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959 [originally published 1746]), p. 298. Subsequent references to Religious Affections are to this edition. Christian belief is basic; furthermore, Christian belief is properly basic, where the propriety in question embraces all three of the epistemic virtues we are considering. On the model, the believer is justified in accepting these beliefs in the basic way and is rational (both internally and externally) in so doing; still further, the beliefs can have warrant, enough warrant for knowledge, when they are accepted in that basic way.326326   Of course that is not to say that a believer can properly reject proposed defeaters out of hand, without examination (see below, chapters 11–14); nor is she committed to refusing to think she could be wrong. No doubt she can be wrong: that is part of the human condition. If there were a demonstration or a powerful argument from other sources against Christian belief, an argument to which neither she nor the Christian community could see a satisfactory reply, then she might have a problem; this would be a genuine example of a clash between faith and reason. No such demonstration or argument, however, has so far reared its ugly head. My Christian belief can have warrant, and warrant sufficient for knowledge, even if I don’t know of and cannot make a good historical case for the reliability of the biblical writers or for what they teach. I don’t need a good historical case for the truth of the central teachings of the gospel to be warranted in accepting them. I needn’t be able to find a good argument, historical or otherwise, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or for his being the divine Son of God, or for the Christian claim that his suffering and death constitute an atoning sacrifice whereby we can be restored to the right relationship with God. On the model, the warrant for Christian belief doesn’t require that I or anyone else have this kind of historical information; the warrant floats free of such questions. It doesn’t require to be validated or proved by some source of belief other than faith, such as historical investigation.

Instead, Scripture (through the work of the Holy Spirit) carries its own evidence with it; as Calvin says, it is ‘self-authenticating’:


Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated. . . .

“Therefore,” he says,

illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guess work! . . . Such, then, is a conviction that requires no reason; such, a knowledge with which the best reason agrees—in which the mind truly reposes more securely and constantly than in any reasons. I speak of nothing other than what each believer experiences within himself—though my words fall far beneath a just explanation of the matter.327327   I, vii, 5, pp. 80–81. Here Calvin speaks of “utter certainty” and of the mind “reposing securely” in these teachings. But this is only one side of the story: elsewhere he notes that even the best and most favored of us are subject to doubt and uncertainty: “For unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful” (III, ii, 15); he also says that “unbelief, in all men, is always mixed with faith” (III, ii, 4, p. 547). (What he means, of course, is not that unbelievers always have a portion of faith, but that faith always contains a portion of unbelief.) It is only in the pure and paradigmatic instances of faith that there is that ‘utter certainty’.

Calvin speaks here of a certainty, a knowledge that Scripture “has flowed to us from the very mouth of God,” even if it is “by the ministry of men.” He does not mean to say, I think (at any rate this is not how the model goes), that the Holy Spirit induces belief in the proposition the Bible (or the book of Job, or Paul’s epistles, or the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians) comes to us from the very mouth of God.328328   As to what Calvin actually meant here, there has been considerable debate. Rather, upon reading or hearing a given teaching—a given item from the great things of the gospel—the Holy Spirit teaches us, causes us to believe that that teaching is both true and comes from God. So the structure here is not: what is taught in Scripture is true; this (e.g., that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself) is taught in Scripture; therefore, this is true. It is rather that, on reading or hearing a certain teaching t, one forms the belief that t, that very teaching, is true and from God.

What is this ‘self-authentication’ of which Calvin speaks? Is he (or the model) claiming that the truths of the gospel are self-evident in something like the traditional sense in which 2 + 1 = 3 is said to be? Not at all. Self-evident propositions are necessarily true and, at least 261in the cases of maximal self-evidence, such that a properly functioning human being can’t so much as grasp them without seeing that they couldn’t be false.329329   See WPF, 108–9. But the great things of the gospel are not necessarily true (they are a result of God’s free and gracious action), and it is entirely possible to grasp them without seeing that they are true (it is possible to understand them and reject them). So according to the model (and Calvin), these truths are not self-evident. The propositions Scripture is reliable or God is the author of the Bible are not self-evident; neither are such teachings as that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, or that this reconciliation was accomplished by virtue of Christ’s atoning suffering and death.330330   According to Richard Swinburne, “Very few parts of the Bible seem to claim either ‘self-evident’ authority or indeed even to be the immediate ‘word of the Lord’ . . . much of Scripture has not seemed self-evident to so many of its readers; argument is needed to show how it is to be understood and why it is to be believed. Those to whom Scripture seems ‘self-evident’ are well advised to reflect on these facts before reaffirming their conviction that its truth needs no argument” (Revelation [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992], p. 118). Here two issues are conflated: (a) are these gospel truths self-evident? and (b) can they properly be believed without argument? According to the present model the answer to (b) is ‘yes’ but to (a) is ‘no’. (There is also still a further issue: according to the model, the central truths of the gospel are self-authenticating in this way; the same does not (necessarily) go for the rest of what the Bible teaches.)

Nor does Calvin mean to say (nor is it any part of the model to assert) that Scripture is self-authenticating in the sense that it offers evidence for itself or somehow proves itself to be accurate or reliable. Suppose a question is raised with respect to a given source of belief: is this source of belief really reliable? Suppose a question is raised with respect to a particular teaching of Scripture: is this particular teaching really true? Neither the source nor the particular teaching can, by itself, give an answer that (rationally) allays that doubt. Analogy: suppose I read Hume in an unduly receptive frame of mind and become doubtful that my cognitive faculties are, in fact, reliable. I can’t rationally quell or quiet that doubt by offering myself an argument for their reliability. It is the reliability of those very faculties, that very source, that is at issue; and if I have a general doubt about their reliability, I should also have the same doubt about their reliability in this specific instance; I should have the same doubt about the premises of the argument I offer myself, and about my belief that the premises imply the conclusion. Similarly for Scripture: If I am doubtful about its reliability, I can’t sensibly quell or quiet that doubt by noting that, say, II Timothy 3:16 says all Scripture is God-breathed (even if I were convinced that what is taught here refers to just the books I take to be canonical). So Scripture isn’t self-authenticating in that sense either.


What, then, could Calvin mean when he says that Scripture is self-authenticating? We can see what he means by noting a respect in which the gospel truths resemble self-evident propositions. According to the model, these truths, like self-evident truths, are indeed evident (do indeed have warrant); and, like self-evident truths, they have their evidence immediately—that is—not by way of propositional evidence. They do not get their evidence or warrant by way of being believed on the evidential basis of other propositions. So from that point of view, these truths too could be said to be self-evident—in a different and analogically extended sense of that term. They are evident, but don’t get their evidence from other propositions; they have their evidence in themselves (and not by way of inference from other propositions).331331   Compare Jonathan Edwards: “The gospel of the blessed God don’t go abroad a begging for its evidence, so much as some think; it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself” (Religious Affections, p. 307). In this same extended sense, perceptual and memory beliefs too are self-evident. They too are ‘evident in themselves’, in that they don’t get their warrant (or evidence) by way of warrant transfer from other propositions. To say that a proposition p is self-evident in this sense is just to say that p does, indeed, have warrant or evidence and does not get that warrant by way of warrant transfer (that is, by way of being believed on the basis of other propositions)—in a word (or two), p is properly basic.332332   Faith resembles perception, memory, and rational intuition (whereby one grasps what is self-evident) in that in all three cases the beliefs in question are properly basic with respect to warrant. But faith differs from perception (though not from memory and rational intuition) in that it does not involve anything like the highly articulated and detailed sort of sensuous phenomenology that prompts perceptual belief.

What Calvin means, then (and what the testimonial model endorses), is that we don’t require argument from, for example, historically established premises about the authorship and reliability of the bit of Scripture in question to the conclusion that the bit in question is in fact true; that whole process gets short-circuited by way of the tripartite process producing faith. Scripture is self-authenticating in the sense that for belief in the great things of the gospel to be justified, rational, and warranted, no historical evidence and argument for the teaching in question, or for the veracity or reliability or divine character of Scripture (or the part of Scripture in which it is taught) are necessary. The process by which these beliefs have warrant for the believer swings free of those historical and other considerations; these beliefs have warrant in the basic way.

But suppose someone does believe these things with a degree of firmness sufficient to constitute knowledge: isn’t this attitude, however it is caused, irrational, contrary to reason? Suppose I read the 263gospels and come to believe, for example, that Jesus Christ is in fact the divine son of God and that by his passion, death, and resurrection we human beings, fallen and seriously flawed as we are, can be reconciled and have eternal life. Suppose I believe these things without any external evidence. Suppose, further, I pay little attention to Scripture scholarship and give no thought to the identity or credentials of the real or alleged authors of these documents. I pay little or no attention to such questions as when they were composed or redacted, by whom or how many, whether the redactor was trying to make a theological point in editing as he did, and so on.333333   I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that Scripture scholarship is unimportant or unimportant for the Christian life (see chapter 12); what I mean is only that knowledge of its results is not necessary for warranted Christian belief. Won’t I be leaping to conclusions, forming belief too hastily? What am I really going on, in such a case? Where is my basis, my ground, my evidence? If I have neither propositional evidence nor the sort of ground afforded perception by perceptual experience, am I not just taking a blind leap? Isn’t this leap of faith a leap in the dark? Am I not like someone whose house is on fire and blindly jumps from his third-story window, desperately hoping to catch hold of a branch of the tree he knows is somewhere outside the window? And isn’t that irresponsible334334   As is argued by, e.g., James L. Muyskens, The Sufficiency of Hope: The Conceptual Foundations of Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), p. 113; see also pp. 134–44. and irrational?

Not at all. Faith, according to the model, is far indeed from being a blind leap; it isn’t even remotely like a leap in the dark. Suppose you are descending a glacier at twelve thousand feet on Mount Rainier; there is a nasty whiteout and you can’t see more than four feet before you. It’s getting very late, the wind is rising and the temperature dropping, and you won’t survive (you are wearing only jeans and a T-shirt) unless you get down before nightfall. So you decide to try to leap the crevasse before you, even though you can’t see its other side and haven’t the faintest idea how far it is across it. That’s a leap in the dark. In the case of faith, however, things are wholly different. You might as well claim that a memory belief, or the belief that 3 + 1 = 4 is a leap in the dark. What makes something a leap in the dark is that the leaper doesn’t know and has no firm beliefs about what there is out there in the dark—you might succeed in jumping the crevasse and triumphantly continue your descent, but for all you know you might instead plummet two hundred feet into the icy depths of the glacier. You don’t really believe that you can jump the crevasse (though you don’t disbelieve it either); you hope you can, and act on what you do believe—namely, that if you don’t jump it, you don’t have a chance.


The case of faith, this sure and certain knowledge, is very different. For the person with faith (at least in the paradigmatic instances), the great things of the gospel seem clearly true, obvious, compelling. She finds herself convinced—just as she does in the case of clear memory beliefs or her belief in elementary truths of arithmetic.335335   Again, in the paradigmatic cases; but of course the fact is the conviction and belief involved in faith come in all degrees of firmness. As Calvin puts it, “in the believing mind certainty is mixed with doubt” and “we are troubled on all sides by the agitation of unbelief.” In typical cases, therefore, as opposed to paradigmatic cases, degree of belief will be less than maximal. Furthermore, degree of belief, on the part of the person who has faith, typically varies from time to time, from circumstance to circumstance. Phenomenologically, therefore, from the inside, there is no similarity at all to a leap in the dark. Nor, of course, is there (on the model) any similarity from the outside. This is no leap in the dark, not merely because the person with faith is wholly convinced but also because, as a matter of fact, the belief in question meets the conditions for rationality and warrant.

Compare belief of this sort with the a priori and memory beliefs I spoke of above. In a certain sense, there isn’t anything to go on in any of the three cases. You don’t accept memory and obvious a priori beliefs on the basis of other beliefs; but you also lack the detailed phenomenological basis, the rich and highly articulated sensuous imagery that is involved in perception. What you do have in all three cases is another kind of phenomenal evidence, what I have been calling doxastic evidence. (In WPF I called it impulsional evidence.) There is a certain kind of phenomenology that distinguishes entertaining a proposition you believe from one you do not: the former simply seems right, correct, natural, approved—the experience isn’t easy to describe (WPF, 190ff.). You have this doxastic evidence in all three sorts of cases (as, indeed, in any case of belief), and you have nothing else to go on. But you don’t need anything else to go on: it is not as if things would be better, from an epistemic point of view, if you believed, say, 2 + 1 = 3 or that you had oatmeal for breakfast this morning on the evidential basis of other propositions, or on the basis of some kind of sensuous imagery more or less like that involved in perception. (I don’t mean that you can’t get more evidence, for something you believe by way of memory, but that you would not necessarily be better off, epistemically speaking, if you believed the proposition in question on the basis of other beliefs or on the basis of sensuous imagery.) The same goes (on the model) for the beliefs of faith: you don’t have either sensuous imagery or evidence from other things you believe to go on; the beliefs are none the worse, epistemically speaking, for that. In fact (on the model) they are all the better for that; they have (or can have) much more firmness and stability than they could sensibly have if accepted on the basis of rational argument or, as in this case, historical investigation; they can also have much more warrant. These beliefs (on the model) are not accepted on the basis of other beliefs; in fact, other beliefs are accepted on the basis of them.


You might think this model is a model of how, broadly speaking, Christian belief can have warrant by way of religious experience. That’s not exactly right—or if it is right, then memory and a priori beliefs also get their warrant by way of experience. But suppose we think that (on the model) the beliefs of faith do get their warrant by way of experience—that is, by way of doxastic experience—and suppose we describe that experience as religious experience. What is crucially important to note is that we don’t have here an argument from religious experience to the truth of these Christian beliefs. There could be something like that, a model according to which Christian belief got warrant by way of an argument from religious experience. This would be one in which you have religious experience (or note that others do), and then argue (perhaps by way of something roughly like the analogical argument for other minds) to the truth of these doctrines. Alternatively, it might be like the arguments some have offered from the facts of perceptual experience for the truth of perceptual beliefs. This model isn’t like that. The experience in question is an occasion for the belief in question, not a phenomenon whose existence serves as a premise in an argument for that belief.

According to Hebrews 11, “Now faith is the substance (ὑπόστασιζ) of things hoped for and the evidence (ἔλεγχοζ) of things not seen” (King James translation). The key words ‘substance’ and ‘evidence’ are translated variously; for example, the more recent Revised Standard Version has “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (my emphasis). Perhaps the former way is the better translation; in any event, it is the richer. For faith, according to Christian doctrine, is many things. It is the means or vehicle of salvation: “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 1:8). It is also that by which we are justified (above, p. 87), as well as that by means of which we are regenerated, becoming new creatures in Christ. And it is also the foundation and substance (etymologically, that which ‘stands under’) of Christian hope.

But faith is also “the evidence of things not seen.” By faith—the whole process, involving the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit—something becomes evident (i.e., acquires warrant, has what it takes to be knowledge). And what thus becomes evident or warranted is indeed not seen. This doesn’t mean that it is indistinct, blurred, uncertain, or a matter of guesswork; what it means is that the belief in question isn’t made evident by way of the workings of the ordinary cognitive faculties with which we were originally created. (The author refers, by way of synecdoche, to these faculties as vision.) Return to the account of Thomas’s skepticism (above, pp. 254): Thomas would not believe until he saw the nail holes, put his finger where the nails were, thrust his hand into Christ’s side. Jesus then says to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). From the present point of view, this is neither a general counsel commending 266credulity nor a rebuke addressed to such embryonic empiricists as Thomas. It is, instead, the observation that those who have faith have a source of knowledge that transcends our ordinary perceptual faculties and cognitive processes, a source of knowledge that is a divine gift; hence they are indeed blessed.336336   Compare Aquinas: “Accordingly, if anyone would reduce the foregoing words to the form of a definition, he may say that faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (ST II-II, q.4, a.i, respondeo).

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