Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life by J.I. Packer
Authority is a word that makes most people think of law and order, direction and restraint, command and control, dominance and submission, respect and obedience. How, I wonder, do you react to such ideas? Have they any place in your vision of the life that is good and sweet? If so, you are unusual. One tragedy of our time is that, having these associations, authority has become almost a dirty word in the Western world, while opposition to authority in schools, families and society generally is cheerfully accepted as something that is at least harmless and perhaps rather fine.
How is it that so many today will tolerate expressions of defiance and disorder in society that a century ago would have been thought intolerable? Whence came the passionate permissiveness that has made a shambles of so many homes, schools and individual lives? What is going on here? What is happening to us?
The Quest for Freedom
The answer to these questions is pinpointed by the fact that freedom is today almost a magic word. Since World War II, when those who fought the dictators defined their war aims in terms of Four Freedoms (freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of religion), freedom in one form or another has been a worldwide passion, encouraged and catered to at every level. Therapists labor to induce freedom from inhibitions. Playboy carries the torch for sexual freedom (“free love” as it was once called, though there is little enough real love in Playboy sex). Campaigning politicians promise freedom from this or that social evil. Young nations seek freedom from the domination of overbearing neighbors. Artists pursue freedom from conventions of form and style that bound their predecessors.
Longings for freedom from restrictions, from the dead hand of the past, from disliked pressures, obligations, systems and whatnot are for many people the strongest of life’s driving forces. Freedom — “getting out from under” as we say — has become modern society’s obsession. And freedom is always seen as involving rejection of authority! Authority is equated with fixed limits; freedom with cutting loose from all that. Hence the crisis of authority that marks our time.
This way of conceiving freedom has its roots in philosophy: in dreams of the perfectibility of humanity, in Rousseau’s idea that civilization squeezes you out of shape, in the educationists’ fancy that inside each little demon is a little angel waiting to come out as soon as external pressures relax and interest is wooed. It is rooted in experience too. Bad experiences of harsh and stifling authority at home, at school, in church, with the boss, with the police or elsewhere in the body politic have fueled fires of revolt. It is no wonder that rebels are hostile to what hurt them. The effect is that all forms of authority are seen as cell walls, which makes the quest for freedom feel like a great escape from some ideological prison camp. Undisguised contempt for restrictions and directions, and truculent defiance that bucks all systems when it is not busy exploiting them, have become almost conventional, and anyone who respects authority stands out as odd.
Modern men and women may claim to have come of age, but from this standpoint humanity seems to have regressed to adolescence. (Adolescents, of course, are always the first to insist on their own adulthood.) Surely today’s rebellion against authority is a sign not of maturity but of its opposite. It is a form of folly, not of wisdom. It leads only to decadence and spoiled lives.
The truth, paradoxical yet inescapable, is this: there is no freedom apart from external authority. To say “I am my own authority, a law to myself” is to enslave myself to myself. And that — as Seneca, the Roman moralist, said — is the worst bondage of all. Only as I bow to an authority that is not myself am I ever free. Let me explain.
What is authority? A relational word, authority signifies the right to rule. It is expressed in claims and is acknowledged by compliance and conformity. The word is used abstractly for the commanding quality that authoritative claims have, and also concretely for the source of such claims — “the authority” in each case. There are various sorts and sources of authority. Documents and authors are “the authorities” for scholars, statutes and past decisions for lawyers, parents for their young children, governors and law-enforcement personnel for us all. In realms of belief, truth has authority; in realms of behavior, authority belongs to the moral law. In every situation it is wrong, and we know it is wrong, to disregard the form of authority that applies.
When historic Christianity receives the Bible as an absolute authority for creed and conduct, it does so on the basis that since God is a God of truth and righteousness, the instruction that He lays before us in writing must have the same qualities. The inerrancy debate about whether we should treat all Bible teaching as true and right is really about how far we can regard Scripture as authoritative.
Exercise of authority in its various spheres is not necessarily authoritarian. There is a crucial distinction here. Authoritarianism is authority corrupted, gone to seed. Authoritarianism appears when the submission that is demanded cannot be justified in terms of truth or morality and actually harms those who submit. Nazism, Communism, Jim Jones’s cult in Guyana
and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco are examples. Any form of human authority can degenerate in this way. You have authoritarianism in the state when the regime uses power in an unprincipled way to maintain itself. You have it in churches and other religious groups when leaders claim control of their followers’ consciences. You have it in academic work in high school, university or seminary when you are required to agree with your professor rather than follow the evidence of truth for yourself. You have it in the family when parents direct or restrict their children unreasonably. Unhappy experiences of authority are usually experiences of degenerate authority, that is, of authoritarianism. That such experiences leave a bad taste and prompt skepticism about authority in all its forms is sad but not surprising.
Authoritarianism is evil, antisocial, antihuman and ultimately anti-God (for self-deifying pride is at its heart), and I have nothing to say in its favor. Legal and executive power may be present to enforce authoritarian demands, but nothing can make them respectable or praiseworthy. Even when unprincipled requirements have legal right on their side, as they sometimes do, they remain demands that it was morally wrong to make.
When Christians affirm the authority of the bible, meaning that biblical teaching reveals God’s will and is the instrument of his rule over our lives, part of what they are claiming is that Scripture sets before us the factual and moral nature of things. God’s law corresponds to created human nature, so that in fulfilling his requirements, we fulfill ourselves. The gospel of Christ answers to actual human need, as glove fits hand, so that all our responses to God work for our good, and no touch of authoritarianism enters into his exercise of authority over us.
We talk about authority in order to sort out what factors in a situation should determine our attitudes and actions. The goal of such talk is to ensure that right decisions, properly reached, do in fact get made. Whenever we credit something with authority — a textbook, a ruling, a document or whatever — we mean that in its own sphere it is more or less decisive as a guide to what should be said or done. When the risen Christ
told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18), one implication was that all people everywhere should recognize his reign and treat his words as having decisive force for their lives. So he continued, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (vv. 19-20). When Christians debate whether Christ’s authority attaches to what the church teaches or to what individual Christians think or to what the Bible says, they are not suggesting that these three never coincide or that two of them have no authority at all. What they are trying to decide is which of the three is decisive. The giving of decisive direction is what authority is all about.
Authority in human lives. Clearly, then, authority principles will have formative and integrative effects on the communities and individuals that embrace them. By imposing a consistent method of decision making, they dispel haphazardness and to that extent unify one’s living. Those who acknowledge them as binding are left feeling that in trying to observe them you are doing what you should and that this makes life meaningful and worthwhile. To Christians, non-Christian authority principles often seem ruinously wrong — the Marxist authority principle, for instance, which requires everyone to work on a materialist basis for the socialized society that lies beyond the revolution; or the cultists’ authority principle that their leader (Sun Myung Moon or Jim Jones or David Koresh or whomever) should be listened to as God’s infallible spokesman; or the authority principle that prescribes the Buddhist, Hindu or Islamic way of living. Yet it remains true that any fixed authority gives life a goal and shape, a target, a program and a yardstick of achievement, which it would not otherwise have. Only the Christian authority principle leads to our chief end (glorifying and enjoying God, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it). Yet just as drugs with lethal long-term effects, such as heroin and cocaine, will for the moment make one feel brighter, so any authority principle, however dubious, will in the short term make its devotees feel brighter — more integrated, more purposeful, more in shape — than they would feel with no such principle to hold their lives together.
The one who knows no obligation to do anything lives the saddest, most aimless, most distracted life of all.
So the anti-authority syndrome now current in the West, leading as it does to lives of haphazard hedonism in which my feelings of like and dislike are the only authority I recognize, is a major human tragedy. We could hardly get further from the way we were meant to live.
Nor is the tragedy merely personal; it touches society too. History shows that many of the values basic to what we call civilization, as opposed to savagery, are biblical and Christian in origin. The world never knew them till it started living by the Christian authority principle, and without that principle these values are unlikely to survive, at least in the decadent West as we know it. Take two examples.
First, we have inherited a belief in the dignity of womanhood and in the duty of men to honor and protect what Peter calls the weaker (more vulnerable, sooner hurt) sex (1 Peter 3:7). This is founded in the scriptural teaching that both sexes bear God’s image and share the same vocation as deputy governors of his world (Gen 1:26-30), but it derives most directly, it would seem, from the unfailing courtesy, respect and goodwill toward women shown by Jesus (compare Mk 7:25-30; 14:3-9; Lk 7:11-15, 36-50; 8:43-48; 10:38-42; 13:10-17; 23:27-31; Jn 4:7-26; 8:2-11; 11:20-44; 20:11-18; and so on). In the ancient Jewish and pagan world, as in Islam today, however important the woman’s role as childbearer, nurturer and homemaker, it was taken for granted that she was the male’s natural inferior as a human being. By changing that, Christianity did more to raise women’s status than any other movement in history. When advocates for women’s rights censure biblical Christians for their doubts as to whether the fulfilling by women of historic male-leadership roles in church and state is pleasing to God, they usually forget that the starting point of their own arguments (the equal dignity of man and woman) is itself a Christian insight that can only be expected to fade when the authority of Christian truth is denied. It will be a small gain for women to have achieved professional interchangeability with men if meantime men lapse into thinking that the height of masculinity is to treat women as playthings,
each one fair game for male marauders.
Scripture knows the world of lust well (compare Gen 34; 35:22; 2 Sam 11, 13) and seeks to wean us from it (Mt 5:27-30; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:3-6; and so on). But any generation that devalues Scripture may be expected to revert to living on that level. Indeed, we see it happening already. The Playboy philosophy, with the rest of the pattern of decline that Paul vividly pictures in Romans 1:21-32, Ephesians 4:18-19 and Colossians 3:5-8, is more familiar and socially acceptable today than it has been for centuries and looks as though it will become yet more so in this era of supposedly “safe sex.”
Second, we have inherited a belief in the sanctity of human life. This reflects the biblical insistence that we honor God by protecting and preserving the life he gives to us His image-bearers and that we dishonor Him if we snuff that life out (except in judicial execution and war, which Scripture sees as special cases: see Gen 9:6; Ex 20:13; 21:12-17; Josh 8:1-29; Judg 15:14-19; Rom 13:4; and so on). Paganism, by contrast, has always held life to be cheap. Pagan philosophers, ancient and modern, have advocated suicide. Pagan communities, ancient and modern, have regularly placed babies out-of-doors to die. The Romans enjoyed watching gladiators kill each other and seeing Christians chewed up by lions. Widows in India were traditionally burned on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Other twentieth-century pagans besides the Nazis, notably in Africa, Russia, Bosnia and Cambodia, practiced forms of genocide. Current arguments for abortion on demand and euthanasia by agreement show that some among us have already gone back to paganism at this point, and there is really no reason to expect that life will continue to be held sacred when the Bible is no longer revered. Pragmatic arguments for quietly killing those who can make no useful contribution to society, as the Nazis quietly killed off the mentally disabled, are at times obvious and appealing, and only Scripture has ever given any communities anywhere motives for protecting the weak and helpless. Take away Scripture and there is no telling where neopagan pragmatism will stop.
Today’s drift from the authority of Christian truth — indeed from acknowledging
any external authority at all — is producing disintegrated and distracted individuals and a disordered and anarchic society. And it will continue to do so, with domestic, political and economic consequences that can hardly be happy. Can the decline be arrested? Unfortunately, great numbers in our churches have so lost touch with the Christian authority principle that even when they see which way things are going (which they often do not), they can do nothing to stop the rot. Whether the forces of biblical faithfulness can reverse the steady secularizing of the West is something only time will tell. The sole certainty is that, apart from biblical faithfulness, such a reversal is not possible. A church in which scriptural teaching is no longer authoritative is already going with the world and has no ground on which to stand against it. If today’s trend cannot be reversed, then the outlook for tomorrow’s world is bleak indeed.
Such is the position regarding authority. Now we must discuss freedom.
What is freedom? As was said, freedom has become a word to conjure with. It is modern people’s way to treat freedom as the supreme value in life. Everyone wants more freedom than he or she has, and the quick way to get a following is to lay claim to a formula whereby freedom may be increased. It makes Westerners feel good to see themselves as the “free world,” just as it must have made the late Bertrand Russell feel good to announce his anti-Christianity in an essay entitled “A Free Man’s Worship.” Politicians, lawyers, educationists and social planners, if asked in public what they are after, will certainly reply in terms of maximizing personal freedom. Many hail today’s permissiveness as a social virtue because it gives freedom for deviant behavior that less tolerant ages would not have countenanced. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” was the war cry of the French Revolution, and the testimony of liberation movements, literature, pop songs and political rhetoric all over the world is that liberty is no less vehemently sought today than it was in eighteenth-century France.
But what is liberty? Under what circumstances are we genuinely free? Ask this question, and the solid-looking front of freedom seekers breaks up at once.
There is no agreement on the answer.
Basically there are two ways of conceiving freedom, and we have pointed to the first already. It is to view freedom as secular, external and this-worldly. It is essentially a matter of breaking bonds and abolishing restrictions and hardships. It seeks freedom from or freedom not to. Those who think thus of freedom have different ways of pursuing it. Some break out and, as they say, act out. These are the revolutionaries, social, moral, political and aesthetic, who constantly strive to stymie and overthrow “the system.” Others drop out. These are the 1960s-style hippies, the counter-culturists, those who hole up in rural communes and farms, do their own thing and never mind what the rest of the world is up to as long as they are left alone. Still others throw out. In the name of humanism, these jettison Christianity with its supposedly dehumanizing restraints on conduct. Such also are those who seek to advance women’s liberation by decrying the leadership role of men. The idea common to all these endeavors is that you gain freedom by negating something else.
The results are unimpressive. Revolutions turn out to be an exchange of one tyranny for another. Hippyness is found to be no passport to happiness. The self-styled “freethinker” spends his strength denying what his parents or some other authority figure once tried to teach him, and he never gets beyond it. Women challenging exclusive male leadership end up mannish and loud. Is any of this recognizable as the freedom for which we all inwardly long? The idea that freedom is what you have when you have thrown off all that represses or constrains you is a false trail that leads nowhere but to puzzlement and disillusioned bitterness.
The second approach to freedom is distinctively Christian. It is evangelical, personal and positive. It defines freedom persuasively, that is, in terms that (so it urges) all should recognize as expressing what they are really after. These terms relate not to externals, which vary from age to age and person to person, but to the unchanging realities of the inner life. This definition starts with freedom from and freedom not to — in this case, freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and freedom not to be dominated by tyrannical self-will — but it centers on freedom for; freedom for God and godliness,
freedom to love and serve one’s Maker and fellow creatures, freedom for the joy, hope and contentment that God gives to sinners who believe in Christ. The essence of freedom (so the claim runs) lies in these inward qualities of heart, of which modern secularists know nothing.
This approach sees freedom as the inner state of all who are fulfilling the potential of their own created nature by worshiping and serving their Savior God from the heart. Their freedom is freedom not to do wrong but to do right; not to break the moral law but to keep it; not to forget God but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavor and relationship; not to abuse and exploit others but to lay down one’s life for them (compare Jn 15:12-13; 1 Jn 3:16). Freedom for such free service and self-giving is beyond the capacity, even the comprehension, of fallen human nature. At first sight few can recognize it as freedom at all. Though it is really the way of life for which we were made, it so negates the self-absorbed lifestyle that we all instinctively choose that it seems to us antihuman and frightens us off. In fact, the only way anyone comes to know it at all is as the gift of the risen Christ, who affirms his penitent disciples in their self-denial and imparts his life to us as we give away our own.
One aspect of this freedom is integrity, that simplicity and purity of heart that, as Kierkegaard analyzed it, consists in willing one thing, namely, the will and glory of God, so that one’s motives are freed from the taint of self-regard. A second aspect is spontaneity. Unlike the rule-ridden Pharisees, whom Jesus pictured living (as it were) by numbers, the free person in Christ invests creative enterprise and resourcefulness in the task of pleasing and praising God and doing good to one’s fellows. Where the Pharisee’s concern was simply to avoid doing wrong, the free person seeks to make the most and best of every situation, thus becoming lively and sometimes breathtaking company. A final aspect is contentment, the fruit of God’s gift of a joy within that increases all life’s pleasures, stays with one whatever is present or lacking in one’s outward circumstances, and enables one to accept without bitterness the most acute forms of suffering and pain. In short, the real Christian — for that is
the person I am describing — is free for holiness, humanness and happiness — a freedom that surely merits its name.
Where does this freedom come from? Jesus Christ, the one perfectly free person that history has seen, is its source as well as its model. He himself said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36; for biblical development of the thought see Rom 6:1-7 and Gal 4:21-6:10). The exchange from which this promise comes is worth noting. Jesus had said, “If you hold to my teaching . . . the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31, 32). His Jewish hearers, bridling, had protested (with pathetic unrealism, in view of the Roman occupation), “We . . . have never been slaves of anyone” (Jn 8:33). Their protest showed them to be thinking of freedom in the purely external terms whose inadequacy we noted. But Jesus replied that he was talking of real freedom, freedom by comparison with which mere external nonservitude is not freedom at all. The real freedom is freedom from sin, which brings with it a place in God’s family, which is the place of permanent external security. Jesus tells them that only those whom He Himself has freed, as they have entrusted themselves to Him, are free in this full sense. If you read the whole passage (Jn 8:31-36), you will see this at once.
Jesus did not say, nor do I, that freedom from external pressure is not worth seeking or should not actually be sought by those for whom true freedom has become a reality. That is a different issue. My point, rather, is that while enjoyment of external freedom does not guarantee a free heart, the freedom that Christ gives can be enjoyed — praise God! — whatever external pressures there may be.
Freedom, authority and Scripture. It must be plain that the second view of freedom is the profounder of the two, and since this freedom is bound up with personal salvation, social usefulness and the praise of God together, we should want to see everyone’s feet set on the road to it. But that road takes the form of accepting authority — first, the authority of God the Creator, who designed and sustains our human nature and alone can tell us what best to do with it. Second, that road takes the form of accepting the authority of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the risen, reigning
Son of God to whom all authority is given, who frees and keeps free those who continue in his word. In addition, it takes the form of accepting the authority of Holy Scripture, which, as we will see, is not just a witness to Christ’s universal reign but is actually the instrument of it so far as human beings are concerned. Finally, it takes the form of accepting the authority of the Holy Spirit, who so opens and applies Scripture to our hearts that we discern Christ’s will and are enabled to do it.
We saw earlier that accepting some external authority principle is the precondition of order, integration and stable purpose in one’s life. What I am saying now is that the only authority principle that imparts these blessings in a way that brings final satisfaction and salvation is the personal divine authority of “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), mediated by the Holy Spirit in and through the Bible. An ancient prayer addresses God as the one “whom to serve is to be free” (“whose service is perfect freedom,” as the Anglican prayer book renders it). That is the truth we must face. We cannot have the freedom we want until we receive it on God’s terms, that is, by giving up our rebellious independence and letting God be God to us. Real freedom is found only under authority — God’s authority in Christ, authority that reaches us via God’s written Word.
Once our society knew this well, but for a century now the Bible has been so much in eclipse, even in the churches, that the formula may well strike some as novel and others as incredible because of the high view of Scripture that it implies. So far from being novel, however, that high view is authentic Christianity; and so far from being incredible, it has as strong a claim on our acceptance as has any Christian truth. To show this is my next task.
Authority and Scripture
Built into Christianity is a principle of authority. This is because Christianity is revealed religion. It claims that God our Creator has acted to make known his mind and will, and therefore his revelation has authority for our lives. Biblical religion is marked by certainty about beliefs and duties. The diffidence and indefiniteness of conviction that thinks of itself
as becoming humility has no place or warrant in Scripture, where humility begins with taking God’s word about things. All through the Bible God’s servants appear as folk who know what God has told them and are living by that knowledge. This is true of patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, apostles and other lesser lights, and is supremely true of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
Certainty and authority. Let us focus on Christ for a moment. He was the Son of God incarnate and as such had no will of his own. It was his nature, as well as his duty and delight, to do his Father’s will in everything. He is on record as having said, “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me . . . I always do what pleases Him” (Jn 8:28-29; compare 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:26; 12:49-50; 14:31; 17:4). Jesus knew that His authority as His Father’s messianic agent depended on His remaining subject to the Father in this way. (He commended the Roman centurion for seeing that — Mt 8:10.)
That he was in his Father’s will was to Jesus a source of tremendous strength, as became very plain in the last week of his earthly life. One day he rode into Jerusalem at the head of a cheering crowd like a king coming to be crowned. The next day, alone, he went through the temple like a hurricane, wrecking the bazaar in the Court of the Gentiles, kicking out the stall holders, upsetting the bankers’ desks and dazzling onlookers by the fury with which he denounced the business routines he had thus disrupted. The authorities huddled. Two big demonstrations in two days! What for? And what next? The day after, “while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked” (Mk 11:27-28). Jesus replied, in effect, that his authority was like that of John’s baptism. It was from God. He was doing his Father’s will and knew it, as he showed again two days later in Gethsemane: “Not as I will, but as you will . . . Your will be done . . . It must happen in this way” (Mt 26:39, 42, 54). His Father’s will was the shaper of all his life.
Jesus was divine. We are not. So it might be expected that Jesus’ followers would be less certain about the Father’s mind and will than he was.
In the New Testament however, it is not so, whatever may be true of some professed Christians today. “Know” is a New Testament keyword; “we know” is a New Testament refrain. The writers of the New Testament claim that Christians know God, His work, His will and His ways because they have received revelation from Him. They tell us that God’s self-revelation has taken the form not only of action but also of instruction. God, so they say, has spoken in and through what Jesus said (Heb 1:1-4;2:3). He has made known to apostles and prophets the secret of His eternal plan (Eph 1:9-10; 3:3-11; compare Rom 16:25-26; 1 Cor 2:6-11). Apostolic preachers relay his message “not in words taught … by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:13). We receive this as “sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:3; Tit 1:9; 2:1), “the truth” (2 Thess 2:10, 12-13, and so on), “the word of God” (1 Thess 2:13, and so on). We thus gain sure and certain knowledge of God’s mind. Modern theology will oppose the authority of Christ to that of Scripture, but in the New Testament, bowing to Christ’s lordship and believing God-taught doctrine entail each other.
Believing and obedience. Believing must lead to obedience. Christians have constantly been in trouble for defying human authorities and challenging consensuses. Peter would not stop evangelizing when told to (Acts 4:19-20; 5:27-42) and was in and out of prison as a result. Christians risked persecution in the early days by refusing the formalities of Roman state religion, just as latter-day African Christians have courted martyrdom by rejecting tribal rites. Athanasius sentenced himself to exile by standing against the Arian world in the fourth century. Luther jeopardized his life by refusing to recant at the court of Worms in sixteenth-century Germany. Christians today make themselves unpopular by opposing such social realities as the pornography trade and such social conveniences as abortion on demand. These are samples of the costly nonconformity that Christians have practiced down through the ages.
Why do Christ’s disciples behave so outrageously? Because, standing under God’s authority, they are sure that his revelation requires them to act as they do at whatever personal cost. Luther said at Worms, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God; to go against conscience is
neither right nor safe; here I stand, there is nothing else I can do; God help me; amen.” The privilege of knowing God’s truth with certainty and precision carries with it the responsibility of obeying that truth with equal precision. Christianity is no armchair faith but a call to action.
The problem of authority. But here a difficulty arises: whose version of revealed truth should be accepted? Imagine the perplexity of the Galatian Christians the day they first had read to them the blistering sentences in which Paul goes after some who “are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:7) in part by championing circumcision as a spiritual necessity. “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal 5:12). Imagine, too, how the Colossian Christians must have gulped when they heard the words of Paul (whom they had never met) cutting down the teacher who was delighting in “false humility and the worship of angels” and who was puffed up “with idle notions” (Col 2:18). In each case Paul was squelching respected men whose teaching on faith and duty had hitherto been treated as true. Whom should they follow — Paul or their local pundits?
This problem is still with us. Roman Catholics, for example, say that Christians should treat the pope as chief pastor of all Christendom and that his ex cathedra pronouncements, along with those of the church’s councils, are infallible. They say that Christians should pray to Mary and see the Eucharist as in some sense the church’s sacrifice for its sins. With this Protestants and Catholics disagree. What now should the plain Christian do when he or she finds fellow believers at odds about the truth and will of God, some saying one thing, some another? What procedure should be followed in order to determine one’s own belief and behavior? Three alternatives are available to us.
1. The church as authority. Some people treat the consensus of the church as decisive, making ecclesiastical tradition and consensus their authoritative guides to the authoritative will of God. This is what the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, with some Anglicans, tell us we should do.
The implications of this rule of procedure will vary for individuals according to what they mean by “church” (church of Rome, early church, their own denomination, or whatever), but the principle is clear. You should approach the Bible as a product of the church and equate mainstream church teaching with the biblical faith. You should study Scripture by the light of that teaching and make Scripture fit in with it. Where the church has not pronounced, you may freely speculate, but you should take as from God all the definite teaching the church gives. What the church says, God says. Therefore the Holy Spirit’s first step in teaching us is to make us docile under church authority.
2. The individual as authority. Other people may, by contrast, treat their own ideas as decisive, whatever dissent from the Bible and the historic church they may involve. With this view, Scripture and church teaching are essentially resource material to help us make up our own minds. Both should be known, but neither need be endorsed, in this view, for neither is infallible and both include chaff as well as wheat. The theologies found in Scripture and Christian history are uneven attempts to verbalize a religious awareness in such terms as different cultures provided, and each is a mixture of facts and fancies, insights and mistakes. Our task is to sort out what seems lastingly valid and express that in contemporary terms. The implied principle is that what our own spirit says (that is, what our reason, conscience and imagination come up with under the stimulus of the Bible and the church’s historic ideas), God says. The Holy Spirit’s work is to sensitize our spirit for the task of picking, choosing, selecting, correcting and adjusting the witness of Scripture and tradition in whatever way we think to be right.
3. The Bible as authority. A third viewpoint is that the Christian must treat Holy Scripture as decisive, according to the dictum of the seventeenth-century Westminster Confession: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.10). One who takes this
line departs from the second view by receiving the Bible as God’s authoritative instruction for all time, and from the first view by subjecting the church’s teaching and interpretations to the judgment of the Bible itself as a self-interpreting whole. He or she will look to the Holy Spirit, who gave the Scriptures, to authenticate their contents to God’s people as God’s truth and to show how this truth applies to life (compare 1 Jn 2:20, 27). The believer’s constant aim will be to have Scripture judge and correct all human ideas, including his or her own. The believer will value the church’s doctrinal and expository heritage but not give it the last word. The believer’s heart will echo Augustine’s breathtaking words to God: “What your Scripture says, you say.” Believers will view the Spirit’s teaching role as, first and foremost, one of keeping our minds humbly and eagerly attuned to Scripture, the divine textbook, so that we are willing to have Scripture change our minds where it finds us wrong.
To illustrate how these alternatives might work, let us imagine a debate about abortion on demand. An adherent of the first approach (call him a traditionalist or an ecclesiasticist) would oppose the practice because the church has always forbidden it. An adherent of the third approach (call her a biblicist or an evangelical) would oppose the practice because Scripture forbids killing innocent people and will not let us see the fetus as anything less than a living person. The adherent of the second approach (call him a subjectivist or a relativist), however, might well dismiss the biblical and churchly view of the fetus as unscientific and prohibitions based on it as groundless and inappropriate. He might defend abortion on demand as compassionate to women, urging that unwanted babies are a bad thing and that modern medical technology makes the operation fairly safe. He thus takes his ideas not from the Bible or the church but from the world around him.
Among these alternative methods of determining God’s will you and I must choose. They are not compatible methods, even when on particular points (say, on the desirability of some form of democracy in the state or the need for pastoral care in the church) all three yield coinciding convictions. The first and the third, which both view Scripture as
revealed truth that abides, are closer to each other than either is to the second, which treats biblical thought as a transient cultural product. Yet the gap between the first and third alternatives is wide, as the historic tension between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism shows. Individuals may and do bounce inconsistently among the three alternatives, but each in itself excludes the two others.
Which method, then, is right? Which is authentically Christian? Which squares with the teaching and purpose of Christ and his apostles? Which would Jesus and Paul and John and Peter approve, were they back with us today to guide us? I think the answer is plain.
Christ’s view of authority. Take Jesus first. There is no good reason to doubt the authenticity of what the Gospels say of him. They were evidently written in good faith and with great care by knowledgeable persons (see Lk 1:1-4; Jn 19:35; 21:24). They were composed at a time when Jesus was still remembered and misstatements about him could be nailed. They were accepted everywhere, it seems, as soon as they were known, though the early Christians were not credulous and detected spurious gospels with skill. The consensus of the centuries has been that these four portraits of Jesus have a ring the truth. It is easy to believe that so awesome and unconventional a figure as Jesus, with his divine self-awareness and claims, would be well remembered; he would, indeed, prove unforgettable. By contrast, it is beyond belief that such a figure would be no more than the product of overheated imaginations. We may be confident that in reading the Gospels we meet the real Jesus. From them, now, we learn the following facts.
1. Jesus’ authority. Jesus claimed absolute personal authority in all his teaching: “It was said . . . but I tell you . . . ” (Mt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-34, 38-39, 43-44); “he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Mt 7:29); “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mk 13:31). He said that our destiny depends on whether, having heard his words, we heed them or not (Mt 7:24-27; Lk 6:47-49): “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.
For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it . . . So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (Jn 12:48-50).
2. Old Testament authority. Jesus taught the absolute divine authority of the Jewish Scriptures. Some two hundred references in the Gospels combine to make his view of our Old Testament crystal clear. He saw the books as having both human authors and a divine author, so that, for example, commands that Moses presents as the word of God are indeed such (Mk 7:8-13), and an expository comment in Genesis 2:24 can be quoted as what “the Creator . . . said” (Mt 19:4). As God’s Word, disclosing his truth, purpose and command, Scripture has abiding authority (Mt 5:18-20; Jn 10:35).
It is striking to see how Jesus, while setting his personal authority against that of earlier rabbinic interpreters (which is what he was doing when he contrasted what “was said” with what “I tell you”), always bowed and taught others to bow to Scripture as such. He gave the key to his whole ministry when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17), that is, to be fully subject to them as they applied to him. From Scripture He resolved questions of doctrine (the certainty of resurrection, Mk 12:24-27; the intended permanence of marriage, Mt 19:5-6) and ethics (the rightness of letting need override Sabbath restrictions, Mt 12:2-8; the wrongness of legalism as a cop-out from the obligations of the fifth commandment, Mk 7:10-13). By Scripture he justified the acts of his ministry (cleansing the temple, Mk 11:15-17). By it he discerned his personal calling to be the Servant-Messiah who must enter upon his reign by the path of death and resurrection (Mt 26:53-56; Mk 12:10-11; 14:21; Lk 18:31; 22:37; 24:25-27, 44-49; compare Mt 4:4, 7,10). So, having taught and enforced Scripture throughout his ministry, he went up to Jerusalem to obey Scripture by being killed there. No stronger witness to the authority of Scripture, even for the Son of God, could be given. To him it was all God’s Word, and whatever it foretold must be fulfilled.
Jesus’ resurrection was his vindication, the Father’s seal of approval set publicly on all the Son had said and done, including what he said about Scripture and his going to Jerusalem to die in obedience to Scripture. It is surely significant that on resurrection day he appeared to two groups of disciples to explain how Scripture had been fulfilled in his dying and rising to reign (Lk 24:25-27, 44-47). It is also, of course, significant that Luke tells these stories so fully and carefully; he is anxious that his readers should see their point.
3. New Testament authority. Jesus conferred his own authority on the apostles to go out in his name as his witnesses and spokesmen. In appointing them his messengers Jesus promised them the Spirit to enable them to fulfill their task (Mk 13:11; Lk 24:47-49; Jn 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-15; 20:21-23; Acts 1:8), and he prayed for all his people, present and future, in just two categories: first, the apostles; second, “those who will believe in me through their message” (Jn 17:20, emphasis added). Thus he showed that the apostles’ witness would be both the norm and the means of all other Christians’ faith to the end of time. Permanent availability requires writing, so this was virtually a promise of a New Testament to come.
Apostolic authority. The rest of the New Testament is as we would expect in light of these facts. On the one hand, the apostles are conscious of their role as Christ’s commissioned representatives and of the God-givenness and divine authority of their teaching. This is especially clear in Paul and John, who both addressed situations where their authority had been challenged. In 1 Corinthians 2:12 and following verses, Paul claims both inward illumination and verbal inspiration for his message. In 1 Corinthians 14:37 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6, he insists that his directives must be taken as commands of the Lord whom he represents. In Galatians 1:8-9 he solemnly curses anyone who brings a message different from his own.
John calmly but breathtakingly states in black and white, “We [apostolic witnesses] are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize
the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn 4:6). Bolder authority claims could hardly be made. The apostles are no less sure than were the Old Testament prophets that their message was from God.
But on the other hand, with equal emphasis they claim the Jewish Scriptures as divine instruction for Christians, prophetically proclaiming Christ, the gospel and the realities of discipleship to the church. “The holy Scriptures . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17). Of what he calls “the prophetic writings” or “the oracles of God,” Paul declares, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we [Christians] might have hope (Rom 15:4; compare 1 Cor 10:11). Old Testament passages are quoted as God’s own speech in Acts (4:25-26; 28:25-27) and Hebrews (3:7-11; 10:15-17). Further, Paul’s phrases “the Scripture says to Pharaoh” (Rom 9:17) and “the Scripture foresaw . . . and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham” (Gal 3:8) show how completely he himself equated Scripture with God speaking — we might even say, God preaching. That the Jewish Scriptures have God’s plan concerning Christ as their main subject is everywhere taken for granted. In Hebrews the deity, humanity and mediation of Christ are the doctrinal themes, and every point up to the start of chapter 13 is made by expounding and applying the Old Testament. The New Testament view of the Old is consistent and clear.
So the Jewish Scriptures were held to be an authoritative, God-given witness to Christ, just as was apostolic preaching. In both cases the authority was seen not as human, the relative yet uneven authority of insight and expertise, but as divine, the absolute, oracular authority of God telling truth about his work and his will, and about the worship and obedience that we owe him. Not all that was said, whether by the Old Testament or by the apostles, was equally important, but all was part of the rule of faith and life since it came from God.
Since Jewish Scripture and apostolic preaching were on a par, it was as natural as it was momentous that Peter, having reminded his readers that Old Testament Scripture came as “men . . . were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21), then equated Paul’s sermons on paper (which is what his letters were) with “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16) and admonished his readers to heed both and not mishandle either. Here the Christian authority principle at last becomes explicit: the Old Testament read in conjunction with the apostolic presentation of Christ (or putting it the other way around, the apostolic presentation of Christ conjoined with the Old Testament) is a rule of faith for Jesus’ disciples. God now teaches, reproves, corrects and instructs in and by what is written in the two testaments together.
Despite the newness of the New Testament, the principle that the written Word of God must shape faith and life was old. The basis of Old Testament religion was that God had spoken in human language and had caused his teaching to be recorded for all time, and that the way to please him was to go by the book. All Jesus’ teaching and ministry assumed this. What follows, then? Should we say that he founded Christianity on a fallacy? Or should we not rather say that by endorsing this basic Jewish tenet he showed that it was true?
Here we reach a crucial point for our own faith. So far we have been appealing to the Bible simply as a good historical source, from which we may learn with certainty what the founders of Christianity taught. But if Jesus was God incarnate and spoke with personal divine authority, and if by sending the Spirit he really enabled his apostles to speak God’s word with total consistency, it follows that both Testaments (that which his Spirit produced as well as that which he knew and authenticated) ought to be received as “the very words of God” and as “God-breathed and useful . . . so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped” (Rom 3:2; 2 Tim 3:16-17). Only as we seek to believe and do what the two Testaments tell us do we have the full right to call ourselves Jesus’ disciples. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk 6:46). Scripture comes to us, as it were, from Jesus’ hand, and its authority his
are so interlocked as to be one.
Bowing to the living Lord, then, entails submitting mind and heart to the written Word. Disciples individually and churches corporately stand under the authority of Scripture because they stand under the lordship of Christ who rules by Scripture. This is not bibliolatry but Christianity in its most authentic form.
Biblical authority. So we learn from Christ to learn from Scripture as God’s authoritative Word. We may spell out the theology of that lesson as follows.
1. The Creator communicates. God made us in his image, rational and responsive, so that he and we might live in fellowship. To this end, he makes himself known to us. He enters into communication with a view to communion. Always he has caused his works of creation and providence to mediate some sense of his reality, righteousness and glory to all who are alive in his world, however little they welcome this. “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom 1:20; compare 1:32; 2:14-15; Acts 14:16-17; Ps 19:1-6). Moreover, God speaks in words, using his own gift of language to tell us about himself. We read that verbal revelation began in Eden before humanity fell (Gen 2:16-17) and that all that God has made known for salvation was revealed verbally to and through patriarchs, prophets, apostles and Jesus Christ, after which it was embodied in the Bible (Rom 15:4; Gal 3:8; Eph 3:4-5; Heb 2:3; 1 Pet 1:10-12).
2. God reveals salvation. The general formula is that God reveals himself so that people may know him. The specific formula is that God reveals himself as Savior so that sinners may know him savingly. Saving revelation, as in part we have seen already, is a fourfold divine activity, as follows:
First and most basic was God’s historical self-disclosure by redemptive deeds preceded and followed by explanatory words, a sequence of acts that began with the patriarchs and the exodus and reached its climax in the messianic ministry, atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus. In this, as Zechariah sang, God “raised up a horn of salvation for us in
the house of his servant David” (Lk 1:69). The good news of these acts is the gospel.
Second and distinct from this was God’s work of inspiring expository, celebratory and applicatory records of his words and deeds, so that all might know what he had done and would do, and what their response should be. The collection of these records is the Bible.
The third strand in God’s revelatory work is his providential action in bringing to each individual’s notice what Holy Scripture has made public and permanently available. He does this through his messengers who by whatever means spread the Good News. The generic name for this activity, which includes all forms of publication and instruction and is meant to involve all God’s people, is proclamation, or preaching.
Fourth and following on from the third is the giving of understanding so that those instructed come to believe the message and commit themselves to the Savior who is its subject. This inner enlightening is called revelation in Matthew 11:27 and 16:17 and Galatians 1:16, as we saw earlier, but the usual name for it is illumination, according to the imagery of 2 Corinthians 4:6 and Ephesians 1:17-21.
All four modes of divine action — redemptive revelation in history, didactic revelation in Scripture, relayed revelation in the church’s preaching and teaching, and illuminative revelation in the hearer’s heart — are necessary if we are to know God as Savior through Christ. The first two modes ceased in the first century A.D., but the third and fourth continue. The fourth is necessary because, although the Bible message authenticates itself as God’s truth by the light and power that flow from it, fallen individuals are unresponsive and indeed resistant to it, so that without illumination the gospel will only be doubted, devalued and finally ignored (Lk 14:15-24; 2 Cor 4:3-4). God must enable us to see what he has revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, or else we will remain blind to it.
3. God’s Spirit teaches through Scripture. The Spirit of Christ who indwells Christians never leads them to doubt, criticize, go beyond or fall short of biblical teaching. Spirits that do that are not the Spirit of Christ (1 Jn 4:1-6). Rather, the Spirit makes us appreciate the divine authority of Scripture,
so that we accept its account of spiritual realities and live as it calls us to do. As the Spirit gave the Word by brooding over its human writers and leading the church to recognize their books as its canon for belief and behavior, so now he becomes the authoritative interpreter of Scripture as he shows us how biblical teaching bears on our living. To be sure, what Bible books meant as messages to their first readers can be gleaned to some extent from commentaries. But what they mean for our lives today is something we learn only as the Spirit stirs our insensitive consciences.
Never does the Spirit draw us away from the written Word, any more than from the living Word. Instead the Spirit keeps us in constant, conscious, contented submission to both together. He exerts his authority precisely by making real to us the authority of Christ and of Scripture — more precisely, the authority of Christ through Scripture. This is what it means to be Spirit-led.
4. Scripture promotes ethics. Some fear that full acceptance of biblical authority must result in a legalistic lifestyle. The root of their fear seems to be a belief that God’s law in Scripture really is a code of mechanical, impersonal do’s and don’ts — in other words, that the Pharisees’ view of the law was essentially right.
But Jesus’ scorching comments on the Pharisees show that this view is wrong. The truth is that the moral teaching of Scripture focuses on the ideal of creative goodness that Jesus Christ actually lived out. It requires us not just to stay within the limits of specific commands and prohibitions but to stay within those limits so that we can make the best of every situation and relationship for the glory of God and the good of others. Lawkeeping must be love in action. This is the one truth embedded in the otherwise false scheme of “situation ethics,” which refuses to accept the law laid down in Scripture as the teaching of God. The ethical creativity that is always asking what is the best we can do is one dimension of that Christlike holiness to which we are called, and those who believe most strongly in the authority of Scripture should be manifesting more of this quality than anyone else.
5. Scripture controls Christian consciences. Consciences not governed by God’s Word are to that extent not Christian. “God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to his Word,” says the Westminster Confession (20.2). One thinks again of Luther’s statement at Worms: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God: to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” If conforming to ecclesiastical, governmental, marital or parental demands involves action contrary to Scripture, God can be served only by nonconformity at that point. This may put us out of step with others and prove costly to us, but nothing less will please God. Conversely, when we find Scripture requiring of us goals and standards that are not the way of the world (going the second mile, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies), we may not excuse ourselves by reflecting that nobody else behaves like that.
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” wrote Paul, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:2). The phrase “test and approve” represents one Greek word, signifying the discernment of a consecrated conscience applying the generalities of God’s Word to the specifics of one’s personal life.
Scripture and freedom. We saw earlier that true freedom is found only under God’s authority. What we are seeing now is that it is found only under the authority of Scripture. Through Scripture, God’s authority is mediated to people, and Christ by his Spirit rules his people’s lives. Biblical authority is often expounded in opposition to lax views of truth. Not so often, however, is it presented as the liberating, integrating, invigorating principle that it really is. The common idea is that unqualified confidence in the Bible leads to narrow-minded inhibitions and crippling restraints on what you may think and do. The truth is that such confidence produces liberated living — living, that is, which is free from uncertainty, doubt and despair — that otherwise is not found anywhere. The one who trusts the Bible knows what God did, does and will do, what God commands and what God promises. With the Colossians, the Bible believer understands
“God’s grace in all its truth” (Col 1:6), for the Christ of Scripture has become his or her Savior, master and friend. Since Scripture shines as a lamp to one’s feet and a light for one’s path (Ps 119:105), the believer can pick his or her way through the pitfalls of our spiritually benighted world without stumbling and travel through life with what the title of a famous old tract called “safety, certainty and enjoyment.”
Such is the freedom (and the victory) found under the authority of the Bible. Such is the basic shape and style of the life in which the fullness of God’s power comes to be known. And who can do without that? There are few aspects of the Christian message with which the church and the world need so urgently to be faced as the truth — the precious, stabilizing, enriching truth — of the full trustworthiness and divine authority of the written Word of God.
Authority and Inerrancy
Is our argument finished? Not quite. One matter still calls for discussion.
The fashion in scholarship. I said at the start that in the realm of belief, authority belongs to truth and to truth only. I stick to that. I can make no sense — no reverent sense, anyway — of the idea sometimes met that God speaks his truth to us in and through false statements by biblical writers, any more than I can make moral sense of Plato’s commendation of the useful lie. Accordingly I have reasoned about the authority of Scripture on the assumption that it contains God-taught truth throughout.
But at this many eyebrows go up. For the past hundred years and more, among Protestants, most books published on the Bible, most teachers in most seminaries, and most clergy in most churches have told the world that scientific study of the Scriptures (called “critical” because it consciously evaluates its data) has made it impossible to believe all that the Bible says. Critical theories about the Bible have accumulated: for example, the critical theories of authorship, which view some books of both Testaments as spurious and so as spoofs; critical theories about composition, which see some of the historical matter in both Testaments as fanciful latter-day invention; and critical claims that Scripture is chock full of
irreconcilable contradictions. The impact of such theories has been to produce an atmosphere in which most ordinary people today seem convinced, on the say-so not just of unbelievers but of the Protestant academic establishment, that sensible persons must now treat the trust-worthiness of the Bible as an exploded myth.
I should be added, to complete the picture, that whereas Roman Catholicism officially held to full biblical inerrancy until the second Vatican Council (1962-65), its scholars have recently swallowed a great deal of Protestant skepticism. It thus looks as if the older belief will soon be a minority position in Catholicism too.
How should this state of affairs be viewed? I offer the following comments.
First, we should recognize the ingenuity of critical theories and the ability of their exponents. To think of these latter, as some have done, as if they were cretins and crooks lacking academic ability and integrity just as they lack some elements of Christian orthodoxy, is a mistake. They have in fact been individuals of rare distinction, and the current dominance of their viewpoint is testimony to the persuasive skill with which they have expounded it.
Second, we should understand that the critical approach is nowadays an accepted convention of professional biblical scholarship. Sociologists of knowledge distinguish between theories and paradigms, defining the latter as the presuppositional frame of reference within which theories are formed. Whereas biblical infallibility was once a paradigm for Christian scholars in all fields, biblical fallibility is the accepted paradigm today.
I once heard a British university professor of theology tell a conference of his peers that New Testament studies are currently healthy, for everything held by anybody is being challenged by somebody. Modern academics, like ancient Athenians, enjoy having new theories to dissect, and it is understandable (if regrettable) that a biblical technician should treat a rank growth of critical opinions as a good sign. Then, too, many theologians today seem to feel that they owe it to their non-Christian peers in other disciplines to doubt as much as they can of their own
Christianity and so escape the suspicion of being bigoted — a quixotic policy that seems as goofy as it does gratuitous. (Do Marxist academics behave like that?) But the fact remains that skepticism toward the Bible is in fashion as a paradigm of scholarship. It is regarded as an academic virtue. Your scholarly credentials become suspect if you disclaim it, and many teachers make a point of shoving it down students’ throats to deliver them from what is seen as naive credulity and the closed mind. Like other things taken for granted, it is not easily challenged. Anyone who threatens a sacred cow finds great crowds threatening him and is make to feel very much the odd man out.
Third, we should note that skepticism about the Bible, even in small doses, has effects that reach further than career academics in their ivory towers sometimes see. In principle, it marks abandonment of the axiom that what Scripture says, God says. Once that happens — once, that is, you give up the New Testament view of biblical inspiration — there is no limit on how far you will go in rejecting or relativizing biblical assertions. There is no limit apart from your own arbitrary will. Protestantism’s current confusion is largely due to the way its teachers have fanned out at this point, producing as many different subbiblical theologies as there have been thinkers to devise them.
Fourth, we should realize that this whole development of biblical study (“criticism”), however dazzling in detail, was and is unnecessary. Biblical criticism developed in Germany had skepticism built into it from the start in the form of Kant’s denial that God communicates verbally with humanity (a denial that strikes at the Bible’s main claim and message), plus the eighteenth-century rationalist assumption that miracles do not happen. Naturally, the skepticism present in its premises comes out in its conclusions. But today, as in the past, a responsible biblical scholarship exists with the full truth of Scripture as its basic premise. It keeps its end up convincingly (so I judge) when interacting with critical opinion. It copes with the phenomena of Scripture, including the apparent discrepancies, at least as plausibly as does scholarship of the skeptical kind. The works of reference and resource that it produces bear comparison with any
written from a rival standpoint. (Look, for instance, at the New International Commentary series and the various commentary series put out by InterVarsity Press, Word Books, Moody Press, and Broadman and Holman; also at The New Bible Commentary, The New Dictionary of Theology, The New Bible Dictionary, The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology and The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, if you want to verify that.) While Bible-believing scholarship thus maintains itself, the claim that Holy Scripture can no longer be regarded as wholly trustworthy is plain nonsense.
Affirming inerrancy. A further point arises. It concerns the word inerrancy, which Protestants and Roman Catholics have been using for more than a century to denote the quality of entire trustworthiness that Bible believers ascribe to the written Word. Those who hold themselves free to disbelieve details of what the Bible tells us naturally disclaim belief in inerrancy. Others, however, who claim to cleave to all that Scripture teaches, nonetheless object to the word and carefully avoid it when spelling out their faith in Scripture, as if they do not think it fits the facts. This is perplexing.
The fact is that these folks run scared. They are frightened of certain mental attitudes and stances with which they feel the word inerrancy is now inseparably linked and which in their view tend to obscure the Bible’s main message and bar the way to the best in biblical scholarship. Specifically, they hear the inerrancy claim as challenging all comers to find mistakes in Scripture if they can — which, so they think, is an improper diverting of interest from the great issues of the gospel to the minutia of Bible harmony, and from believing proclamation to rationalistic apologetics. Also, they hear the inerrancy claim as implying that the Bible can be proved true by secular inquiry and as centering attention on questions of its scientific and historical correctness. They think the claim leads to a sort of interpretation that overlooks the width of the cultural gap between Bible times and our own, and the extent to which our criteria of truth and accuracy fail to apply to biblical material. Because they wish to dissociate themselves from these tendencies, they decline to speak of inerrancy.
I sympathize. Yet I wonder if they have chosen the wisest and most fruitful course of action. I say this as one who over the years has moved in the opposite direction. Once I too avoided the word inerrancy as much as I could, partly because I had no wish myself to endorse the tendencies mentioned and partly because the word has a negative form and I like to sound positive. But I find that nowadays I need the word. Verbal currency, as we know, can be devalued. Any word may have some of its meaning rubbed off, and this has happened to all my preferred terms for stating my belief about the Bible. I hear folk declare Scripture “inspired” and in the next breath say that it misleads from time to time. I hear them call it “infallible” and “authoritative,” and find they mean only that its impact on us and the commitment to which it leads us will keep us in God’s grace, not that it is all true.
This is not enough for me. I want to safeguard the historic evangelical meaning of these three words and to make clear my intention as a disciple of Jesus Christ to receive as from the Father and the Son all that Scripture, when properly interpreted — that is, understood from within, in terms of its own frame of reference — proves to be affirming. So I assert inerrancy after all. I think this is a clarifying thing to do, since it shows what I mean when I call Scripture inspired, infallible and authoritative. In an era of linguistic devaluation and double talk we owe this kind of honesty to one another.
Asserters of inerrancy, however, need constantly to be making two points if misunderstandings are to be avoided. The first is negative, the second positive.
First, the assertion of inerrancy does not bear directly on the task of exegesis. Exegesis means drawing from each passage the meaning and message that it was written to convey to its writer’s own first readers. The exegetical task is to read everything out of the text while taking care to read nothing into it. Biblical interpretation comprises exegesis, followed by a synthesis of findings within a biblical frame of reference, followed by application of the truths about God and humankind that have emerged to questions of faith and life today. Moreover, it must be done throughout
in a way that can be justified from biblical data and is free from prejudices imported out of the thought world of today’s culture. Belief in inerrancy will affect the rigor with which one synthesizes and applies, but in exegesis the question is not yet one of truth, only one of meaning, and the assertion of inerrancy is not a shortcut to determining what texts mean. We can do that only by studying the flow of thought to which each text belongs. In this, inerrantists and noninerrantists are on exactly the same footing.
Second, the assertion of inerrancy bears directly on our theological method. In formulating my theology I will not consciously deny, disregard or arbitrarily relativize anything that I find Bible writers teaching, nor cut the knot of any problem of Bible harmony, factual or theological, by assuming that the writers were not consistent with themselves or with each other. Instead, I will labor to harmonize and integrate all that is taught (without remainder), to take it as from God (however little I may like it) and to seek actively to live by it (whatever change of my present beliefs and behavior patterns it may require). This is what acceptance of the Bible as wholly God-given and totally true requires of us.
Following God’s Freedom Trail
In Boston, Massachusetts, there is an official Freedom Trail, a tour of key sites connected with the War of Independence. Christianity knows another freedom trail, which the foregoing pages have sought to point out. The Boston freedom trail celebrates the gaining of political independence through fighting the British. The Christian freedom trail has to do with surrendering personal independence as one ceases to fight God. The point I have sought to make is that the freedom for which we were created is enjoyed only under the authority of God in Christ, and the only way we come under that authority and stay under it is by submitting in faith and obedience to what is in the Bible. The path to true personal freedom under God is acknowledgment of the authority of the Bible and its Christ. The gospel finds us rebels, guilty, lost and hopeless, and leads us for salvation to the feet of Christ, who teaches us to live by Scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The importance of recognizing biblical inerrancy as a fact of faith is that, on the one hand, it reminds us that all Scripture is instruction in one way or another from the God of truth. On the other hand, it commits us to consistency in believing, receiving and obeying everything that it proves to say. The more completely heart and mind are controlled by Scripture, the fuller our freedom and the greater our joy. God’s free servants know God and know about God. They observe God-taught standards and restraints in living and in relationships. They trust God’s promises and in the power of Bible certainties live out their days in peace and hope. Modern people need to hear more of this message of freedom. The church needs to learn again how basic to that message is the truth of the inerrancy of Scripture, on which the fullness of biblical authority depends.
We have reached a place in the history of our culture where stable relationships based on respect, goodwill, fidelity and service are breaking down, and alienation is becoming commonplace. Husbands and wives, parents and children, students and their instructors, employers and their employees, are increasingly estranged from each other in lonliness and hostility. A new and nasty feature of this eroding of relationships is that it is often justified in the name of freedom, meaning the abandoning of commitments, restrictions and restraints. Actually, the idea that freedom requires uncommittedness or an adversarial relationship toward other people is a sign of how far our society has drifted from its former understanding of what it means to be truly human and (equally important) godly. Our negative attitudes in relationships and our insistence on doing our own thing, pursuing personal pleasure no matter who gets hurt, show that we are not really free at all. We are estranged not merely from people but also from God and are in bondage to the grim perversion of nature that the Bible calls sin and diagnoses as willed disregard of God and his Word.
“When you were slaves to sin,” wrote Paul to the Roman Christians,
you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God [which is what becoming a Christian means; when you put
your trust in Jesus Christ you become God’s slave through repentance and are freed from sin’s dominion by regeneration], the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:20-23)
True freedom — freedom from spiritual ignorance and sin, freedom for God and righteousness — is found where Jesus Christ is Lord in living personal fellowship. It is under the authority of a fully trusted Bible, however, that Christ is most fully known, and this God-given freedom most fully enjoyed. Any degree of skepticism about the portrait of Christ, the promises of God, the principles of godliness and the power of the Holy Spirit, as biblically presented, has the effect of enslaving us to our own alternative ideas about these things, and thus we miss something of the freedom, joy and vitality that the real Christ bestows. God is patient and merciful, and I do not suggest that those who fall short here thereby forfeit all knowledge of Christ, though I recognize that when one adopts a skeptical attitude toward Scripture this may indeed happen. But I do maintain most emphatically that one cannot doubt the Bible without far-reaching loss, both of fullness of truth and of fullness of life. If therefore we have at heart spiritual renewal for society, for churches and for our own lives, we will make much of the entire trustworthiness — that is, the inerrancy — of Holy Scripture as the inspired and liberating Word of God.