How do we know that the Bible is true? Best-selling author John Piper examines the Bible’s “self-authenticating” nature and unique ability to showcase God’s unmatched glory, laying a solid foundation for the belief that God’s Word is absolutely perfect and totally reliable.
In this interview, John Piper (@JohnPiper) talks about his book, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Crossway, 2016).
In this new book, you argue that the Scriptures evidence themselves; prove themselves to be God’s true and trustworthy Word. But this isn’t a new argument is it?
John Piper: No, not the basic argument of the Scriptures being self-attesting; that is, not so much that they claim to be the Word of God, but rather that they show themselves—by their glory, by the revelation of the glory of God mediated through them—to be the Word of God and, thus, reliable. So in my effort to say what I have to say, I start with the Scriptures. In fact, the book is mainly Scripture, but I try to root it in relation to what John Calvin did in the Institutes of the Christian Religion and the internal testimony of the Spirit, and how that is not different and yet not quite the same as what I am doing.
Jonathan Edwards was the most important dead guy outside the Bible to stimulate me in the particular direction of glory that I went. And a surprising source for me was the Westminster Larger Catechism, to find a phrase there that was so provocative to me that I wanted to know: “What do they mean by this phrase about how the Bible shows itself to be the Word of God?”
So along with the pervasive biblical effort to show what I mean and to defend it, there are points of historical theology where I try to make clear that there is nothing new here.
How did you come to your understanding of the complete truthfulness and reliability of God’s Word?
John Piper: I have to start with family origins. I grew up in a Christian home and I was taught from the time I was this big that this book is God’s Word. So, to be honest, I never doubted that. My momma and daddy said so. Is that good enough? Only later did I begin to formulate questions about how I know. I remember rigorous historical arguments in seminary, especially from Galatians 1. I remember Dan Fuller unpacking a very sophisticated historical argument for the reliability of Paul’s apostleship, and from there Paul’s writings, and from there the rest of Scripture. I was fascinated by this.
Are you in danger of putting your faith in God’s Word on your parents?
John Piper: Even if you could say that my faith rested on this argument (that my momma and daddy said so), 90 percent of the people in the world don’t have access to that kind of argument. But if God indeed spoke in a book, and what is in this book has eternity hanging on it, surely he would have provided means by which his children of the simplest sort in the most remote village of Papua New Guinea or the most uneducated person in America or Britain would be able to know he is telling the truth and would be able to stake their lives on it.
So this view of the Bible directly connects to a concern for God’s global mission?
John Piper: It does. Global mission, local evangelism. When you speak to someone, you may have five minutes to present what you believe to be the saving message of this book. Can they, in five minutes, get a grasp that would be a ground—a legitimate, warranted ground—for them to stake their lives on what you have just said? That is a huge question.
Jonathan Edwards asked this question about the Indians in New England. That is why he went to 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul says that the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ. Edwards said that the simplest native American who hears the gospel faithfully spoken from this book can ascend to certainty, not by a complex of inferences, but by a single step—the glory of Christ seen in it.
When I read that, I thought, first of all, what does it mean? And second, is it true? And third, would that be applicable to the whole of Scripture?
John Piper: So I’ve tried to build on that insight—that you ascend to the certainty of the mind in the things of God—the gospel in this case—not by a sequence of probabilistic arguments, but by a single step of sight of divine glory; the eyes of the heart seeing (a phrase from Ephesians 1) such a glory in and through what the Bible teaches that you know the same way you know in seeing things naturally.
So why focus particularly on glory? Usually when people talk about the truthfulness or the reliability of Scripture, the word glory doesn’t come out quite as clearly as it does in your book.
Well, that may be what is a little different about my book from what I’ve read in others. But here’s the sequence of thought that was so illuminating for me; so provocative and helpful for me.
I began from 2 Corinthians 4:4 and 6. The latter verse affirms, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” So when the spiritual eyes are opened as the gospel is taught from the Word, you see a beauty, a glory, a distinguishing streaming forth or radiance of God himself that ends the issue. You know this is God.
Then I saw analogies that were very helpful to me (and I hope they will be to others). I saw the analogy in nature. The heavens are telling the glory of God, and Paul finds fault with humanity, that we don’t glorify God or give him thanks, even though we know that he is glorious. So there is, in our hearts, his template—which is made for a perfect fit with the glory of God—and we suppress it, and yet there is a revelation of the glory of God in nature. If I were trying to help somebody catch on to what I’m doing, I’d ask: “When you last looked at the stars or the sky or the way that the world works, did you see the glory of God?” The heavens are not the glory of God. The stars are not the glory of God. They mediate his glory. You look through them. And that is a gift, but we don’t see it.
Then I thought about the incarnation. Jesus took on flesh and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. But not everybody saw that. Jesus walked through the world, and some people looked at him and wanted to kill him. They didn’t see anything glorious. So there is an analogy to how the Scriptures might work.
And then there are the miracles. Not everybody saw the glory, and yet John said Jesus manifested his glory in the first miracle. And the seven signs in the Gospel of John were written down so that we could see the glory in the 21st century.
So glory has assumed a dominant, central position, because it seems to be the way God brings people to conviction. His glory in nature, his glory in the incarnation, his glory in the gospel, his glory in miracles—and we could go on. We could talk about his glory in human behavior. Do good deeds, and people will see your Father’s glory. Really? Do they?
So this idea took hold of me, that if God is working this way in all these areas in order to vindicate and warrant his truthfulness, probably that’s the way he’s doing it for the whole book.
You talk about Scripture as a window through which we see the glory of God. It’s not that the glory of God comes alongside Scripture in a different world. It’s mediated through Scripture. Explain the analogy you offer in the book based on Rembrandt’s painting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
John Piper: In the analogy, the Bible is the Rembrandt painting. A Rembrandt painting has distinguishing features, especially light and dark. But suppose you cover the painting with a black sheet of paper, then turn to someone and say, “Isn’t that glorious?” The person will say: “What? I can’t even see it.” My question is this: How much of it might you need to see in order to say, “That’s a Rembrandt”? Would a pinhole work? Probably not. So the pinhole is like the letters A N D on a page. That doesn’t work. How many pinholes do you need? The answer is not easy, because differing places on the canvas would yield more certainty to a Rembrandt expert than others.
In the same way, there are parts of Scripture that are much more quickly illuminating with regard to the glory of God than others, like, say, the book of Job. So there are parts of Scripture that yield their glory when you see them wide, when you see them full and whole, whereas other parts—Romans might be a good example—where a few isolated verses are off-the-wall glorious. But not only do some holes need to be bigger in order for the person to detect that there’s a glorious Rembrandt behind that black piece of paper, but the person might be a Rembrandt expert, who would need less to see glory, whereas a beginner might need to see almost the whole thing.
So for the doubting believer, you wouldn’t say, “If you are struggling to see the glory of God in this verse of Scripture, just read it again and again and again.” It might be that that believer actually needs to read a lot more broadly in God’s Word, because that will enlarge the picture, so that he sees more broadly how the Word is glorious. Then that text that didn’t fit for him will start making sense in the light of other texts.
John Piper: Right. But this raises a question, which somebody would probably throw at me at that point: “So, does that mean you can’t have confidence in the Scriptures as a whole until years and years later, when you understand Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles?”
And my answer is that even though you may not yet—and none of us do—fully grasp all the parts of the Bible, conviction grows. It may settle on you very quickly, depending on how you’re taught and what you’re exposed to. When you’ve seen enough of the glory of the apostles’ writings and of Jesus’s teaching and of the Old Testament, you have a high level of expectation, such that when you bump into things that don’t feel glorious, your spiritual inclination is to be patient and say: “Lord, I’m confident that you’re here. Help me see the glory.”
How does this book fit in with your other works, in which you so often try to relate the glory of God to joy?
John Piper: It was incipient in what I was doing, but I don’t think I saw it clearly until a year or two ago. I’ve devoted 40 years of my life to drawing the connection between the glory of God and the human soul as a longing, aching, yearning, desiring, wanting-to-be-satisfied soul. I believe the old Augustinian notion that we will not have any rest until we find our rest in God, because our hearts are made for God, the glory of God, the beauty of God in particular. Joy comes with the closing of the glory of God in the human soul. So the glory of God is the soul’s satisfaction.
In this book, I’ve asked, “Is the glory of God also the mind’s certainty?” I am arguing that when we speak of the Spirit illumining the mind, the word illumining is just a little bit fuzzy. It seems to suggest that the Holy Spirit is adding light so we can see light. But that’s not the way it works. The Holy Spirit removes the obstacles to our seeing the light, God.
This sounds quite similar to what C. S. Lewis said in his theology poetry: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
John Piper: Exactly. I quote that, and in one of the chapters, it assumes a pretty large position because of the psalm that says, “In your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9). I remember sitting at my desk for days thinking, “Lord, what does that mean?” I think it’s very much like what Lewis said, that the true meaning of anything, the true light of anything, the true truth of anything, is not known until the truth with a capital T is shining on it; the light is shining on it.
You say, “Faith is not a heroic step through the door of the unknown; it is a humble, happy sight of God’s self-authenticating glory.” How is that different from, say, Pascal’s wager?
John Piper: I have a whole chapter in which I wrestle with that, because that wager has haunted me ever since I was in college. At first, it haunted me as attractive, and then, the more I learned about the way the Holy Spirit works, as unattractive. Pascal said that if you venture everything on the gospel being false, if you’re proved wrong, the stakes are enormous. The payoff is horrible—it’s hell. But if you venture everything on the gospel being true and you’re proved wrong, you haven’t lost very much, and therefore he asked, why wouldn’t you wager that it’s true?
Here’s the problem: saving faith in the Bible isn’t like that. Saving faith is not concluding that something is beautiful even though you have no evidence that it’s beautiful. You cannot honor God by saying: “I trust you, but I have no reason to trust you. I think you’re beautiful, but I see no evidences that you’re beautiful.” That doesn’t honor God. It may look heroic. It may look as if we’re venturing into the dark and casting all our effort in that direction, but it only glorifies us. It doesn’t glorify him.
To be fair to Pascal, as I try to be in that chapter, he circles around and really owns up to the fact that the Holy Spirit must reveal the truthfulness of God.
So the difference between a leap in the dark and what I’m saying is that the Holy Spirit takes the dark away. He grants spiritual sight. If we’re evangelizing somebody and he says, “I don’t see it,” we don’t say, “Just believe it anyway,” because that’s no honor to the one who is believed. We say: “Let me show you more. Let me point you to more objective evidences that he is really glorious. And then let me pray for you.” And you go home and pray until it happens; until he sees.
This is quite significantly more than simply claiming that the Bible is God’s Word or even that the Bible claims to be God’s Word. It is a much stronger argument, isn’t it, that the Bible is proving itself to be God’s Word?
John Piper: Yes. Self-attestation is an ambiguous term. It might be taken to mean: “OK, I can find Matthew 5, where Jesus says not a jot or a tittle will fall from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, he’s claiming in the Bible that the Bible is true.” That’s not what I mean. I like that. I’m glad that’s there. That’s part of the glory, I think. That’s a facet of the diamond. But I’m saying that the Scriptures don’t just say they’re true. They actually display a kind of glory, a divinity that the spiritual, illumined eye can see and know directly.
You say it is a particular kind of glory or a peculiar glory. Why do you say peculiar glory?
John Piper: That may be the newest thing that I contribute to the historical argument, although I don’t know my church history well enough to know whether it is new or not.
I’m a glory guy, and I know how many people get frustrated with how quickly and easily we sling around the word glory without ever pausing. So when I talk about glory, I ask myself: “What do you mean? What’s this awesome thing you’re talking about?” Then I ask myself, “OK, is there anything particularly glorious about the glory of God?” So I dug in and I saw texts like the one in Isaiah, which says that there is no one like God, who works for those who wait for him (64:4). Or that Bel and Nebo, those Babylonian gods, bow down and must be carried, whereas the true God carries us to old age (46:1–4). And I began to see that there’s a strain in Scripture that teaches us that the majesty of God shines most brightly because it’s manifested in lowliness, in servanthood. You can follow that strain right through into the life of Jesus. And so, I try to show that it’s a peculiar glory in that majesty and meekness coalesce.
Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “The Excellencies of Christ” looks at Revelation 5, the famous passage that depicts Christ as the lion and the lamb. He is a lion-like lamb and a lamb-like lion. He’s not glorious because he’s a lion. He’s not glorious because he’s a lamb. He’s glorious because he’s a lion-like lamb and a lamb-like lion.
Then there’s the particular angle in Scripture on the glory of God, that we have a God who is high and holy, and yet dwells with he who is of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa. 57:15). That’s what I try to develop.
Bio: John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for 33 years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Don’t Waste Your Life, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence, Does God Desire All to Be Saved?, and Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian.