The testimony of the Bible is the foundation for the Christian faith. Many have argued, however, that the testimony the Bible gives is hearsay. As such, they argue that it would not even be admissible in court and is insufficient as testimonial evidence for anything it affirms. One of the best examples of this argument is found in the writing of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine who was one of the first to publish it widely for a popular audience. Paine is most famous for his pamphlets Common Sense and Rights of Man, but he also penned a theological treatise (arguing for Deism) called The Age of Reason where along with various other attacks on the Bible, he offers the hearsay argument against the Christian faith.
Paine writes, “But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it. It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.” (Paine, The Age of Reason, Section 1)
This argument goes right to the heart of the obligation of humankind to accept the Word of God and so it deserves an answer. A common Christian response is to offer an analysis of types of evidence and testimony, usually pointing out that in any case not all hearsay is inadmissible in court. Often, this is followed by evidence that the text of scripture is historically reliable and so forth. These responses may have their place but in this case, the response must address something more fundamental. Technically speaking the criticism is a straw man argument because although it might work on a popular level it does not properly address the Christian doctrine of how revelation through the Word of God functions.
The thrust of the argument is that we believe that God revealed certain information to prophets or apostles who then told others, either in person or through their writing. That, however, is not the Christian doctrine. Some modern theologians have argued that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation but the traditional Protestant view is not that the Bible is a record of revelation but that the Bible is revelation. This is a small distinction but it makes a massive difference.
Hearsay describes an indirect communication as when a person receives information that is at least one level removed from the source. The Christian view of revelation, however, is that the Bible is direct communication from God to those who read or hear it. We do not consider the Bible to be an indirect communication. We do not understand its accuracy to be dependent upon the veracity of Moses, Paul, or John. It is in every sense the Word of God and people are therefore under obligation to believe it. The Bible itself makes this claim in various places, perhaps most clearly in Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy. Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16 ESV) He is claiming unequivocally that God is the author of the Bible. The claims are not the claims of the apostles and prophets; they are the very claims of God. The transmission of the Bible is therefore a miraculous process whereby God reveals through rather than merely to His chosen messengers.
The written Word of God is therefore similar to the incarnate Word of God in that it is both human and divine. The scriptures are the thoughts of God expressed through human language and literature. The Bible is not merely a witness to revelation, nor does it only become revelation in encounter, or depend on the responses of men for its validity or its standing as revelation. The inspiration of its writing is not in the sense that God dictated each word but rather that the Holy Spirit influenced the mind of the human author such that he selected out of his own experience and vocabulary exactly those words that conveyed God’s message precisely. These human words are therefore properly God’s words though communicated through the particular style and vocabulary of the various human authors.
The message is not mediated to us through the prophets or apostles in the sense that it is a message they received and then give to us. Rather, the message is mediated directly to us through the work of God the Holy Spirit as His word is read or preached. As a result, anyone who has read the Bible, heard a scripture reading, or heard a faithful exposition of the Bible from a teacher or preachers has heard the very voice of God and is therefore under obligation to submit to it. If, as Paine argues, revelation is limited to the first communication then based upon a proper understanding of the doctrine of the Bible any who have heard the message have received direct testimony from God. They will therefore be responsible for their acceptance or rejection of it.