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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

The Uniqueness of the Bible

October 3, 2014 •

The search is on. Can we find confidence in anyone or anything at all? Or are we left to our own devices and just dumb luck? Is life a meaningless series of serendipitous events, weaving moments of happiness into an ethereal fabric of emptiness?

Having begun to probe with a series of questions,[1] we then introduced a bold claim: that the Bible is reliable, wholly reliable.[2] It is worthy of our trust. But why is it so? And how can we know?

To be sure, more must be said to explain why you and I can know for sure.[3]

What is the Bible?

What is the Bible? This question could be (and has been) answered numerous ways. Speaking about its formal qualities, the Bible (from the Greek, “books”) or, as it is also called, the Holy Scriptures (from the Greek, “the holy writings”), consists of 66 books written over a period of approximately 1500 years, by the pens of 40 different human agents. At the hands of these writers, an assortment of different historical, cultural, linguistic, and educational contexts along with a variety of literary genres combine to produce a deliciously diverse flavor in the biblical texts.

But notably, through this vast historical, literary, and stylistic diversity comes a unified message of how God forgives sinners. The Bible presents no mere philosophical or moral message, but is the gripping account of the plan of redemption promised, accomplished, and applied by God himself. God shows himself to be at work on the stage of history, and with sovereign mastery lays out an intricate plot concerning the birth, life, death, and resurrection of history’s Protagonist (Jesus Christ). In its multi-colored splendor, the Bible speaks with one voice; it uniformly declares redemptive grace centered in Jesus Christ – the only sinless Man who is also the very Son of God, the Savior of sinners.

So when we say that the Bible is the Word of God, we mean that its Source is God, its message divinely given, and as God’s revelation, its character unlike any other document in the world. This does not mean that the Bible dropped from heaven like a parachute oblivious to human context and history. On the contrary, it is, as we will see in the next section, an earthy book. But in its earthiness, it is marked by stooping grace: God enters the human context, accomplishes redemption and speaks in understandable words to explain it.

Yet, though manifestly in human language and for humans, the Bible is nothing less than the very Word of God. While not a novel assertion, it is a sweeping one. The implications of this claim are comprehensive, categorically (re)shaping the way in which we should think about our lives and our world. Or put more properly, as God’s Word it is to be trusted – completely and confidently. Truly God’s Word, it demands our undivided attention.

But how can we be so sure? What makes the Bible different than other so-called holy books? What sets it apart from other religious, moral, and philosophical writings?

History attests to those who have believed the Bible unreservedly. To be sure, many have found the biblical redemptive message compelling enough to give their lives for it. Having understood what Christ’s death and resurrection meant to them, the sacrifice of their own lives seemed little to offer. Others, to be sure, have mocked the Bible and its message. As we consider the truthfulness of the Bible, it is surely important to remember that human response does not establish biblical truthfulness. The apologetic[4] of zeal can carry us only so far, as martyrs have died for many causes.

Is the Bible Unique?

So the question remains. Is the Bible different than other books? An assortment of arguments could demonstrate the uniqueness of Scripture.

We could survey the Old Testament prophecies and discover their fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The sheer cumulative force of the promise and fulfillment between Old and New Testament evidences divine revelation and divine orchestration of history for redemption in Christ. The display of divine purpose to forgive sins in a promised Messiah, and the way in which Christ accomplishes that purpose in accordance with Old Testament promise, renders a marvelous apologetic for the uniqueness of the Bible.

We could note the manuscript evidence that cumulatively demonstrates the trustworthiness of the text of the Bible. The quantity and quality of extant manuscripts gives us a clear look at the original writings (called autographs). Our New Testament we have now 2000 years later is amazingly reliable, as the manuscript evidence displays. Combining the attested assurances of reliable manuscripts with the intricate unity of the biblical message delivers a compelling argument for Scripture’s trustworthiness.

We could also consider the rawness of the Bible. The historical pattern of writing during the biblical period was often to exaggerate military exploits and kingly greatness. The Bible stands out in stark contrast. Despite any cultural pressures to advance historical propaganda, the Bible does not candy coat peoples’ lives; it does not revise history to portray kings and other leaders as possessing a power and glory exceeding reality.

This is also true of Israel as a nation. Instead of asserting Israel’s eminence as the motive for divine selection, Scripture orients us to the God of the nation rather than the nation itself. In fact, through the striking candor at Moses’ pen, we discover how the people of Israel are chosen in spite of their insignificance and irrelevance. The people of God, according to Scripture, are chosen not because they are great, but because their God is great and he loves them (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).

If that humbling manifestation were not compelling enough, Scripture does not simply distance itself from political propaganda, but speaks in stark realism concerning sin and evil. Even the “good” men in the Bible are bad men. Even the righteous are not righteous enough. The Bible boldly portrays the universal grip of sin in grim ways, showing even the heroes of the Bible as corrupted by evil (e.g., King David with Bathsheba; 2 Samuel 11:1-27).

The redemptive message of Scripture comes with a wholly raw, earthy, and real look at the sinfulness of humanity, and provides the single solution to sin – a divinely promised and accomplished remedy in the very Son of God. Truly one of the most compelling features of biblical uniqueness is its realism about sin and its divinely gracious solution for it. Sin is horrid; God himself takes on its horrid consequences as the means of rescuing his people.[5] No other book in history takes sin and salvation so seriously.

Each of these arguments for Scripture’s uniqueness has pointed value. Each of them delivers a powerful apologetic for why we should believe the Bible. But despite their strengths, such tactics are not enough. In fact, the cumulative effect of all intellectual, moral, or emotional arguments will fall short of adequate persuasion. This is not because the arguments are uncompelling, but because the human heart cannot receive such persuasion apart from an act of God in our hearts.

This fact has not gone unnoticed, as nearly 400 years ago, learned men from England and Scotland gathered to summarize the teaching of the Bible. In their assessment of Scripture’s power of persuasion, they note,

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole, (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.[6]

In brief, the amazing features of Scripture are inadequate to persuade us fully that the Bible is the word of God. Persuasion is a divine gift of grace, and the Spirit of God works with the word of God to create assurance too deep for words. Full and final conviction comes to us by the Holy Spirit of God, and to him and his work we now turn.

[1] Part One of this series in SQN, “How Can I Know For Sure? Certain Uncertainty,”

[2] Part Two of this series in SQN, “How Can I Know For Sure? God Has Spoken,”

[3] The booklet, How Can I Know For Sure?, contains a series of questions after each section, intended for group discussion. To purchase a copy, go to

[4] An apologetic is a systematic defense of a particular viewpoint.

[5] See Galatians 1:3-4.

[6] Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5, emphasis added.

This post is third in a series called "How Can I Know for Sure?" Read part one, "Certain Uncertainty," and part two, "God Has Spoken." 

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