For people who want to live a life that honours God, we are to take God at His word. In other words, we’re choosing to believe what a Person says about Himself. John Calvin, one of the Reformers in 16th century Geneva, said that no testimony could be higher than that of God’s own. So trying to prove the Bible (or the “Book of Mormon” or the Vedas or the Qur’an et cetera) using any reference outside of it is doomed to fail; not because of a conflict of faith and reason or evidence, but because a person’s word about themselves is the final authority – as long as they are telling the truth and know what it is.

So our belief about what is God’s word must ultimately be taken on faith. The problem is that these sacred books too often conflict on too many subjects – not just differences of interpretation or of language but conflicting assertions about reality: one Scripture says God = A; another Scripture says God = not-A. So how can we know which of them, if any, is actually God’s word? Outside of faith, we can’t; but faith won’t settle the question (except for us personally). No matter how fervently we believe something is true, neither our faith nor its intensity means that what we believe is true. We might believe that God spoke to us but that doesn’t mean He did. There’s the whole ‘Satan can transform himself into an angel of light, and his messengers can appear as teachers of righteousness’ and so on.

Outside of faith, the best we can do is to look at the evidence for and against each book. This is an instance of what Augustine (or was it Anselm?) described as “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum).

Our faith causes us to interpret our experiences in favour of our beliefs; although this bias doesn’t mean that people with a religious faith can’t be objective. Joseph H. Thayer, the scholar of Greek who was also a Unitarian, is a case in point. He didn’t believe in the deity of Christ, yet he was honest in his interpretation of the word theotētos as meaning (complete and full) deity; noting that it was applied to Christ in Colossians 2:9.

With many issues of this kind, we may find a statement that appears to conflict with current understanding but later developments may prove the book right in the end, as has more than once been the case with the Bible: archaeology for example. So we should look for areas that have been explored as exhaustively as possible, and for which the evidence cannot be rejected on the basis of “incomplete pending further investigation”; otherwise, it should be given the benefit of the doubt.

If and when we find such evidence, what do we do? Firstly, it depends on how the evidence affects the message we believe: is it an issue about which we can admit “we were wrong” but that doesn’t affect the essentials of what we believe? Or is it a central issue? I know that for many people the unassailable discovery that life came about through billions of years of evolution or through fiat creation (although this is, by its nature, scientifically unprovable) would shatter their faith because it is central to their Christian belief. For me, if there was undeniable evidence that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, my faith would suffer the same fate (again, this is scientifically unprovable).

If it is a central issue, we must choose between the only two options: truth or comfort. We can face the facts head on, or we can cling to our belief despite the facts. If we believe we haven’t any other option, it takes courage to do the first – but it doesn’t automatically mean we can’t seek hope anywhere else. But whatever has influenced us to believe what we believe, it is healthy to reassess our beliefs in the light of evidence.