December 15, 2005

Reflections on the Authority of Scripture

In recent dialog with a pastor involved in the Emergent Church movement, it soon became clear that he had a limited view of scriptural authority. This was revealed in subtle (and not so subtle) ways by making various statements about its "cultural context," its authors and "editors," its containing "some truth," its lack of concern for "factual accuracy," and God giving us "new understanding." But as with most theological liberals, he was not willing to reject it as meaningless, or deny that God was to be found in it in some way.

The most common point of departure from full biblical inerrancy is to say that Scripture is only inerrant in matter of "faith and practice." And this fellow granted that it "contained all things necessary for salvation." Now, I am not going to argue here the larger issue of biblical inerrancy in all matters in which it speaks, though I do not wish to suggest that a hearty defense cannot be made for this position. I only now want to comment on the problems faced by those courting a liberal view of the authority of the Bible.

The first thing to acknowledge is that a minimalist view of the Bible is a license to discard any difficult, divisive, or distasteful passages of Scripture. This is demonstrated by the fact that so many of those who profess the Bible's authority in matters of faith a practice do not, in practice, hold to some of those plain things it does teach in these areas. Doctrines such as hell, the exclusivity of Christ in salvation, and matters of sexual purity are like the molting skin of a snake ready to be sloughed away by any friction with the culture.

Even if there were some sorts of historical, scientific, or cultural flaws in Scripture my question is, "How do you know what to throw out and what to keep?" The answer to this question, in my experience, is usually some combination of reason, human experience, and the leading of the Spirit. But now comes the problem of knowing when you've got your reason and leading right, and when you've done violence to the word of God.

It seems to me that any subjective interpretive method would be just as "fallible" as the Bible that biblical minimalists wish to amend. The only difference is that they seem willing to assume for themselves the responsibility for any potential theological errors rather than leaving it with the authors of Scripture (and, dare I say, the Holy Spirit).

And what does it say about us when we supersede those things we find in Scripture with our own better judgment or new understanding? If it is not the hubris of substituting our own rules for those of the playbook we claim to follow, then what is it? Do we imagine we are helping God along by fixing the pesky errors in Scripture that those fallible authors might have allowed in or that might have been introduced by some possible editor along the way? Are we afraid we might be getting God's truth fouled up because we've taken that corrupted and outdated Book too literally? What do we fear that God will say to us at the pearly gates?
"I am disappointed in you my flawed and faulty servant. You took the words of my Son too far. You had too much confidence in the memory and objectivity of my scribes. You failed to realize that I was just speaking to a primitive people and not your modern and enlightened society. You failed to hear your own inner voice and your clamoring culture in order to amend my revelation."
Is it so unreasonable to think that in the face of possible doubt, God will forgive us for erring on the side of the Scriptures?

Even if some portion of Scripture is merely "Paul's understanding" or "John's interpretation," this is still no warrant for departure; for these men were "witnesses to His majesty" and surely had a greater helping of the Spirit than do we. If I could sit down with the average pastor and St. Paul and ask them about evangelistic outreach to the local community, or coordinating a multi-media Christmas Eve extravaganza, perhaps I would find the pastor of more use to me. But if I had questions on matters of theology, morality, and end-times prophecy, I would take St. Paul every time. Surely even Paul and company's most strained "opinions" are better than our most brilliant guesses.

If God is anything near like He is portrayed in Scripture, then I have great fear and trembling at the thought of shrugging off biblical doctrines. And if He is not very much like the portrait of Scripture, then He/She/It is either an impotent dispenser of revelation or is not even behind the Bible at all. In either case, it renders Scripture of little more value than a repository of interesting ideas and bed-time stories. We may just as well put Aesop's Fables in our pews.

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At 12/20/2005 11:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would disagree. Check out:

It is a discussion we have been having

your doctrine came up

At 12/21/2005 8:45 AM, Blogger The Hedonese said...

Amen, bro! Sola Scriptura and biblical inerrancy needs to be affirmed in a fresh way in our pomo culture...


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