Know the Truth
eBook - ePub

Know the Truth

A Handbook of Christian Belief

Bruce Milne

  1. 384 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Know the Truth

A Handbook of Christian Belief

Bruce Milne

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About This Book

"You will know the truth, " said Jesus, "and the truth will set you free." Christians have already begun to know God and his truth. This handbook assists in that liberating knowledge, as it opens up the great themes of God's Word and shows how they fit together. Each chapter deals with one aspect of biblical truth and encourages further study with Scripture references to look up, questions for discussion, and books for additional reading. The main sections conclude with practical reflection on how the Bible's teaching challenges us and moves us to adore the living God. This new edition of Bruce Milne's widely appreciated Know the Truth has been extensively revised and updated to ensure its ongoing relevance and value as an excellent introduction to Christian doctrine.

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IVP Academic

The final authority in matters of faith


Few topics stir greater controversy than religion. That is hardly surprising since religious beliefs involve our deepest values and commitments. Is there a God and, if so, what is he like? Can I experience God personally? What about the claimed evidence of intelligent design in the universe? What can we really know about Jesus? Was he married, for example, and is Christianity the only way to God, or are there many paths? Why is the church often so unlike its founder? What about lifestyle issues, like extramarital sex, or homosexual partnerships? Should we all become environmental activists? Is being a Christian likely to make me richer, or healthier? Does prayer make a difference to our circumstances? Is there life after death and, if there is, what might it be like?
These and similar questions are debated constantly, both by Christians and non-Christians, and all of them will occupy us at points in the following chapters. But in the heat of such exchanges we may fail to notice a more basic disagreement, about religious authority. How do we arrive at our conclusions? What counts as evidence? Should we simply appeal to what we feel personally, or to what people claim to experience? Would the findings of anthropology, or comparative religion, or social psychology, have important light to shed on these issues? And what about the teaching of the Bible? In other words, where does authority lie in religion? To what grounds should we appeal?
On examination, the diverse viewpoints adopted about religious matters can be seen to be largely determined by a prior decision, taken consciously or unconsciously, about the seat of religious authority. To raise the question of authority may not resolve all the disagreements, but it will, at the very least, help to clarify the real points of difference and so prevent unnecessary misunderstanding.
Hence any attempt to expound basic Christian doctrine obviously needs to begin at this point. How do we decide what is correct Christian teaching? To what can we appeal to resolve differences and conflicts? What is our criterion of truth? These are the questions which must first claim our attention.


Authority is the right or power to require obedience. There is a widespread crisis of authority in contemporary society where the only authority accept­able to many is one consciously self-imposed, what seems or feels right to me.
From the perspective of Christian faith, God has the supreme right and power to require obedience because he is the Creator and Lord of everyone. ‘I know God’s view of this, but I feel no obligation whatever to conform to it’ is a sentiment which true Christians can never share. They may disobey God’s will, even deliberately, but always against their better judgment. Their subsequent bad conscience will witness that God’s authority remains in operation and continues to be recognized. Authority lies in God.
Once Christians grasp this fundamental principle, the question of authority becomes the practical one of finding God’s will and mind on any issue. But how do we encounter God and discover his mind and will? More particularly, has God provided a source from which we may arrive at his truth and thus bring ourselves under his authority?


Over the centuries Christians have appealed to a variety of voices as the source of final authority.

The creeds

These summaries of Christian truth were produced in the early centuries to state the essence of the faith in a time of theological confusion. The Apostles’ Creed1 is the oldest and best known, and therefore has a strong claim to authority. It certainly provides a useful series of pegs on which to hang expositions of the Christian faith, but it will not serve as the final source and standard of Christian truth. First, it is too general. It has value in checking extreme viewpoints, but does not provide a full enough statement of the doctrines in question. Secondly, its claim to authority rests on something earlier and more primitive, the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

The historic confessions

These statements of the Christian faith belong to the Reformation and post-Reformation period, e.g. the 39 Articles (1571) and the Westminster Confession (1647). These are much fuller than the creeds but again will not do as final authorities. First, they are ‘party’ statements reflecting views of one branch of the universal church, and therefore contain elements which could not command the support of other branches. Further, they too are ‘secondary’ statements. A cursory glance shows that they consciously justify their assertions by appeal to biblical teaching.

Christian experience

This approach begins with actual human experience of God and tries to identify the doctrines expressed by that experience. Many influential nineteenth-century theologians followed this path. It suffers from two crucial difficulties. Within our experience of God, we somehow have to distinguish between objective truth about God and our own subjective opinions, limited and biased; this difficulty is seriously compounded by our being fallen creatures with fallen minds. It also limits Christian truth, ruling out anything beyond our immediate experience, e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity.

Christian reason

This approach claims that Christian truth consists in what we can demonstrate about God by logical reasoning, and has had its advocates since the third century. Few would entirely exclude rational considerations in formulating Christian truth; but it will not serve as our ultimate authority. Fallen humanity’s perception of truth, particularly in the moral and spiritual sphere, is severely limited; the mind of the creature cannot measure the Creator; and this approach always fails to capture the vitality of authentic biblical religion.

The ‘inner voice’

Some claim that God speaks directly in the depths of our consciousness and that this ‘voice within’ is the ultimate source of authority. This view is common today, being frequently interpreted as the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Of course, it includes an element of truth; the Holy Spirit does fulfil a crucial role in the Christian understanding of authority, but he works essentially in and through the Scriptures. Any specific claim to his prompting should be treated with instinctive scepticism if it makes no reference to the written Word of God or receives no confirmation through the experience of one’s own church or group. The sincerity of many making such claims must not obscure the immense dangers of self-delusion here. The records of many Christian counsellors provide ample evidence of the spiritual shipwreck repeatedly made on this reef.

The ultimate source

None of these is adequate to bring us God’s mind and hence be the authoritative source of Christian truth, but each makes a contribution. The creeds and confessions stress our place in the worldwide, centuries-old church of Jesus Christ; we would obviously be wise to weigh its testimonies with care. Christian experience reminds us that doctrine is never merely intellectual, while Christian reason insists we state our doctrines in accordance with our creaturely ways of communicating. The ultimate source of authority, however, is the triune God himself, as he is made known to us through the words of the Bible. This combines three truths.
1. God has taken the initiative. Out of his own divine freedom, unconstrained by any inherent necessity other than his love, he has chosen to communicate with us and disclose himself, and his will, to us. This process is called ‘revelation’.
2. God has come to us himself, in person, in Jesus Christ, the God-man. As the eternal Word and Wisdom of God, Jesus Christ is the mediator of all our knowledge of God (cf. John 1:1f.; 14:6–9; 1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 2:3, Rev. 19:13).
3. Our knowledge of God comes through the Bible. He has caused it to be written and through it speaks to us today as he spoke to his people when those words were first given. The Bible is to be received as God’s words to us, and revered and obeyed as such. As we submit to its authority we place ourselves under the authority of the living God who is made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ. This terse statement of the ultimate source of authority will be amplified below.


Gen. 1:1; Job 40:1–5; 42:1–6; Ps. 95:6; Isa. 40:21–23; 45:9; Rom. 9:19f.; 11:33–36; Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:9–11.


  1. State the Christian view of authority.
  2. Explore the implications of this view for (a) Christians working at all levels of education, (b) questions of law and order, (c) a Christian approach to the arts.
  3. Summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the various claimants to final authority in the sphere of Christian truth.
  4. Outline the advice you would give a Christian seeking to know God’s will in a specific matter.


Arts. ‘Authority’ in NBD and NDT.
D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth (IVP, 1983).
C. F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority 1 and 2 (Word Books, 1976).
H. Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1978).
B. Ramm, The Pattern of Religious Authority (Eerdmans, 1957).
P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Baker, 1977).



Revelation means unveiling something hidden, so that it may be seen and known for what it is. The principal OT word, gālâ, comes from a root meaning ‘nakedness’ (cf. Exod. 20:26), but is frequently used metaphorically: in Isaiah 53:1 God’s arm is literally ‘made naked’ in his work of salvation (cf. Isa. 52:10); 2 Samuel 7:27, ‘you have revealed this to your servant’, is literally ‘you have made naked your servant’s ear’. The Greek equivalent, apokalyptō, is used in the NT only in the developed theological sense of making known religious realities (cf. Luke 10:21; Eph. 3:5).
These terms spell out what is implied every time the Bible refers to God’s speaking to and relating himself to men and women; biblical religion is a religion of revelation, a faith based on the claim that God has come to us and disclosed himself. If we are to know God, revelation is indispensable for two complementary reasons.

We are creatures

‘In the beginning God and female he created them’ (Gen. 1:1, 27). These first words of the Bible express the distinction between God and humankind. God as the Creator exists freely apart from ourselves; the creature depends utterly on God for existence (cf. man and woman as ‘dust’ in Gen. 2:7; 3:19; Ps. 103:14). God and humankind therefore belong to different orders of being.2
This distinction is not absolute. We are made ‘in the image of God’; God communicates with us (Gen. 1:28, etc.); God became a human being in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14); God the Spirit indwells Christians and brings them into a personal relationship to God (Rom. 8:9–17). All these factors confirm a degree of correspondence between God and humanity. Yet a ­profound, irreducible distinction remains.
This distinction in being involves a distinction in knowing: ‘who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no-one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor. 2:11). Only God truly knows God. Since God is Creator and Lord of humankind, his knowledge includes our self-knowledge (Ps. 139:2f.); but our knowledge does not include God’s self-knowledge.3 Our creaturehood, therefore, requires God to reveal himself if we are to have adequate knowledge of him. Even unfallen Adam needed to be personally addressed by God before he could know God’s will (Gen. 1:28ff.; 2:16f.).

We are sinners

Our need of revelation is immeasurably increased by our sinfulness. The fall has affected every aspect of our being, not least our perception of moral and spiritual reality. Sin renders us spiritually blind and ignorant of God (Rom. 1:18; 1 Cor. 1:21; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1f.; 4:18).
There is therefore no road from our intellectual and moral perception to a true and satisfactory knowledge of God. The only way to knowledge of God is for God freely to place himself within range of our perception, and renew our fallen understanding. Hence, if we are to know God and have any adequate basis for our Christian understanding and experience, revelation is indispensable.


If God is our Creator, revelation in some form is overwhelmingly probable since we may confidently assume that God made us for a purpose; and since his creatures are obviously responsive beings with inherent tendencies for relationship, we may also assume that God’s purpose in creating us involved some kind of relationship and response to himself. Such a relationship and response require revelation in some form; creation itself, therefore, appears to imply revelation. Indeed, would a patently wise, intelligent Creator leave his creatures to grope around on their own in the universe for some clue to his existence without making himself known? The thought is palpably incredible. ‘If God really is God, the Creator of all things visible and invisible and the Source of all rational order in the universe, I find it absurd to think that he does not actively reveal himself to us but remains inert and aloof, so that we are left to grope about in the dark for possible intimations and clues to his reality’ (T. F. Torrance).
If we suppose further, as many do, even vaguely, that the Creator God is loving, the likelihood of revelation becomes overwhelming; what loving parent would deliberately keep out of a child’s sight and range of reference so that it grew up ignorant of its parent’s existence? Although we cannot simply equate human loving with God’s love, we can presume a sufficient degree of identity to render a deliberate, total self-effacement on God’s part a denial of love.


Theologians usually distinguish two main forms of revelation: ‘general’ and ‘special’. General revelation is the revelation of God made to all people everywhere. It has a number of forms and features.


In Romans 1:18–32 Paul explains God’s judgment on the Gentile (non-Jewish) world of his day. God has ‘given them over’ (1:24, 26, 28) to the self-­destructive tendencies of their fallen natures because ‘although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him’ (1:21). But they ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God...exchanged the truth of God for a lie...did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God’ (1:23, 25, 28). This lost knowledge of God consisted of their recog­nizing ‘God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature [which] have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made’ (1:20). Accordingly they are ‘without any excuse’ (1:20). This revelation of God dates from the ‘creation of the world’ (1:20); it seems, therefore, that Paul sees the created order as God’s revelation to all people of his eternal power and deity, which obliges them to acknowledge God and give glory and thanks to him (1:20f.). In Acts 14:17 Paul informs the pagans in rustic Lystra that God ‘has not left himself without testimony’; this is confirmed by his kindness in ‘giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy’. In Acts 17:26f. Paul expresses a similar insistence concerning God’s universal revelation, to the assembled philosophers in sophisticated Athens. The Creator has so ordered the affairs of individuals and nations ‘that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him’. There are today significant scientific indicators of this creative ‘ordering’, as we will note in Part 2.4

Moral experience

Romans 2:14f. states that ‘when Gentiles, who do not have the [OT] law, do by nature things required by the law...they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them’. Thus the conflicts of the human conscience are relevant to the issues of God’s final judgment (Rom. 2:16, cf. 1:32). The OT prophets frequently speak of God’s just judgments on the Gentile nations, although these nations had not been taught the OT law (e.g. Jer. 46 – 51; Amos 1:6 – 2:3). The NT recognizes that the non-Christian conscience is qualified to pass judgment on Christians’ behaviour (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:7; 1 Pet. 2:12). Indeed the moral appeal of the gospel, its assertion that all have sinned (Rom. 3:9–23), its call to repentance (Acts 17:30), its interpretation of the work of Christ in moral terms (Rom. 3:21–26; 1 Cor. 15:3), all imply a genuine continuity between universal moral experience and that of the believer; this in turn implies some awareness of God’s will on the part of non-Christians.
These biblical references confirm the fact that God has revealed himself to all people in the conflicts of moral experience. This is not invalidated by discrepancies between human moral codes. While God reveals himself in the conscience of the non-Christian, owing to the fall the non-Christian’s knowledge of God’s will is by no means perfect. Sin causes a moral obtuseness which distorts all our consciousness of God and his will. The dictates of the non-Christian conscience are not therefore ‘God’s voice within’ in an unambiguous sense. Our point is the limited but crucial one, that ‘God has not left himself without testimony’; under all the conflicts of human moral experience, we all have some awareness that the sense of obligation to do good and to spurn evil reflects the will of an ultimate Lord to whom we are finally responsible.
This does not ‘prove’ God’s existence, any more than general revelation from creation does. Rather, Scripture claims that in fact God gives some witness to himself to all people in these dimensions of their experience, whether or not this can be verified by rational deduction. We will further consider this ‘witness’ in Part 2.5
We can briefly mention one other aspect of general revelation which is sometimes referred to, though its biblical basis is less certain.

Universal religious sense

The instinct for worship appears to be a universal human phenomenon. Anthropologists have yet to uncover any people, no matter how primitive, who lack a sense of awe before the supernatural. Calvin referred to a ‘sense of deity’ which is implanted in the human heart, and Luther asserted that ‘Human beings must have God or an idol’. John 1:9...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Copyright
  3. Contents
  9. PART I The final authority in matters of faith
  10. PART 2 The doctrine of God
  11. PART 3 Humanity and sin
  12. PART 4 The person and work of Christ
  13. PART 5 The person and work of the Holy Spirit
  14. PART 6 The church
  15. PART 7 The last things
  16. Index
  17. Notes
  18. About the Author