Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:12-19).
I was struck by this passage as I read through chapters 7 and 8 of the gospel of John, because the situation in which Jesus finds himself is so familiar to me. As Christians, we carry on the work of Jesus in proclaiming that he is the light of the world. We testify that whoever follows his word will not walk in darkness. Sometimes we are able to present a comprehensive apologetic detailing why the word of God is necessary to have light, and why anyone without it is indeed in darkness intellectually and spiritually. Sometimes we simply affirm it as the truth without elaboration. In either case, what is one of the chief responses we receive? In my own experience, it is, “Even if your arguments make sense, they beg the question, because they rely on the very Scripture whose authority you are trying to prove! This is circular—I have no reason to believe it. You’re trying to tell me that Scripture is true because Scripture says that it’s true.”
This is the same accusation that Jesus himself faced when he declared the truth before the Pharisees. The world will not accept the word of God for what it is. Even though Jesus is the truth—the very standard for declaring and for judging what is right and what is wrong—the world will not accept this standard. They demand an “external” standard for determining what is true and what is false. If some claim cannot be subjected to whatever means of evaluation they normally use, then it is worthless. How could it be known to be true?
This sort of attitude assumes that man is autonomous in his ability to discover truth. It assumes that he is in such a position that he can judge any claim, and appraise its truthfulness apart from God himself. Thus Jesus says, “you judge according to the flesh”. It is impossible to rightly discern the truth of God’s word if one is judging according to the flesh, for these truths “are spiritually discerned”, so that the natural person “is not able to understand them” (1 Cor 2:14). To assume that there is some other standard by which to judge God’s word is to make something higher than God himself. It makes our God-given faculties higher than the God who gave them. Anyone doing this is therefore implicitly denying the authority of God even as he pretends to be impartially examining the evidence so as to decide whether or not God has authority.
Our response to this self-deceiving attitude should be the same as Jesus’. Firstly, we should point out how ridiculous it is to claim that something is not true simply because it attests to itself. Even if Scripture does bear witness about itself—and how could it not, for what higher witness is there than God’s own word (Heb 6:13)?—the fact is that its witness is true. We know this because we have the Spirit of God, who attests to us that this is so. We do not need, and could not find, a higher witness.
Secondly, we should respond according to the world’s own standards. For, since Scripture is true, we can use whatever means of determining truth the unbeliever likes to show this, provided these means are actually valid (if they are not, we should refute them instead). We practice that curious dichotomy:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes (Pr 26:4-5).
First, we reveal the foolishness of making our God-given means of determining truth higher than our creator, by refusing to do so ourselves. Second, once we have shown the folly of worldly judgment, we use it nonetheless to show that, even by that worldly judgment, the truth of God’s word is evident. The foolishness of the unbeliever is not only in presuming to stand over God as judge, but is also in judging incompetently and coming to the wrong conclusions. He is so darkened and hardened against God’s word that he will neither accept its own testimony, nor evaluate its claims honestly as he would any others. Indeed, this latter concern is something for which Christians must particularly be prepared as they examine the Bible with unbelievers. The refusal of non-Christians to interact with the text of Scripture as they would with any other text becomes manifest and flagrant. Normal textual criticism will be utterly disregarded and rejected in order to preserve their prejudiced preconceptions about God’s word. We must answer the fool according to his folly so as to destroy his illusion of wisdom; but not before we refuse to answer him according to that folly, lest we be like him ourselves.
So we have a twofold task in declaring God’s word. On the one hand, we show that objections to the truth we affirm are baseless in their own right, and so Scripture stands firm. On the other hand, we show that, even by the unbeliever’s own standards, he has failed to rightly judge the truth of God’s word, and so stands condemned.