Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Implications of Biblical Authority

As a follow-up to a previous post about hate speech, I feel the need to comment on the implications of Biblical authority, or, what we mean when we say that we think the Bible is actually true. "Authority is the right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine or judge." (Elwell, W. A. (2001). Evangelical dictionary of theology: Second Edition (153). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic). Do Christians believe this? Have Christians historically believed the Bible to be true, but still struggle throughout history with what that truth implies? Or, is it more like theologian David Wells asserts, that the Bible is held in high esteem, but "rests lightly" upon the church today? If one takes time to read statements of faith, doctrinal statements, "what we believe" notices on church websites, it appears that many, if not most churches, really do believe that the Bible is the "infallible Word of God" (or some phrase like it). But one must wonder if many within these same churches know what the Bible actually says, or what conclusions may be drawn from the Words.

I recall a Sunday school class I was teaching over 30 years ago; teenagers, reading their Bibles in class. What struck me was their ability to read all the words of a text with no difficulty or stumbling, without coming away with a grasp of what that text meant. I don't mean they were just shy and didn't want to talk about it; even after a simple, straightforward explanation of the paragraph (from the Gospels), none in that large class could tell me what the main point was, the "big idea," theme, whatever. It was almost as if reading the text was an exercise in reading

Now these teens may have suffered from an inadequate education, one in which they learned to pronounce but never to read. But Christians have a responsibility to hear or read, understand, and submit to the authority of the Word. Failure to comprehend and accept the idea of authority will result in a failure to be shaped and formed by Scripture. Reading the Bible without considering how it impacts our lives, and will certainly impact the lives of all people, everywhere, at all times, is little more than reading words with no connection.

In the marketplace of ideas, the Bible, and the Christian faith it forms, is one voice among many. As long as Christians accept this description, they will find themselves in no serious trouble. But problems will arise when Christians understand two things:

1) the rest of the world sees the Bible as one voice among many equally valued and cherished views;

2) that view #1 is nonsense if one is a Christian, Biblically defined. The Bible's own self-description is that it is authoritative for believer and unbeliever alike. This dissonance will be a part of the Christian's existence all of his or her life.

The Bible, as the Word of God, cannot be true only contextually. It is true, even when it chafes against social/personal/psychological/ethical/moral norms. This is why the Bible may be deemed "hate literature." It is not because it has been changed to be hateful, but because some cultural contexts now see its doctrines and values as hateful. This is not new, for even in the 1st century, the church preached the Gospel in a milieu that would receive it as "hate speech." The difference between that time and now is that in the first century, the "victims" of Christian "hate" had the power and authority to dispatch the Christians quickly. The Bible has not changed, but society has, and will continue to do so. In Europe and North America, we are experiencing the decline of Biblical faith and the ascendancy of secularism, which is a chauvinistic, bigoted, and intolerant view as any of the fundamentalisms it chooses to vilify.

So we watch aghast as Anglican (Episcopal) churches take church properties away from congregations that built and maintained them, sometimes for over a century. The reason is that the congregations had the nerve to commit to a form of Biblical Christianity, instead of the apostasy from the historical faith, an apostasy led by the church's bishopric. In this case, the church has become the authority that replaces the Bible.

By today's standards of secularism and liberal Christianity, the Bible must be seen as hate. To try to be a secularist or liberal Christian, and not see the Bible as hate literature, is to be intellectually dishonest. Reinterpretation, denial of the plain meaning of Scripture, denial of authority, are musts for this anti-Scriptural stance. For example, although the Bible is clear about the nature of marriage, and equally clear in its warnings against other "preferences", a workaround is sought in Jesus' teachings. It is sometimes suggested (strongly) that since Jesus said nothing (!) against homosexuality, we must likewise make no rule but be willing to embrace this sexual view even to the point of same-sex marriage. But did Jesus say nothing at all about homosexuality? Did He not enforce, and deepen, the meaning of adultery (heterosexual intercourse outside of the bonds of marriage) (cf Matthew 5:27, 28)? And where does the Bible ever describe marriage in any other terms than male/female? Because Jesus said nothing explicitly on homosexuality, do we really believe He was giving a pass on same-sex marriage? Did Jesus teach on polygamy? Did He offer a firm condemnation against child brides? Jesus' words on adultery make it plain that marriage is to be honoured, and no sophistry can make Him intend other than what He does: marriage is male/female. Other formulations, sexual preferences, are, as the Bible says, sins.

Thus, marriage hasn't changed; it was instituted by God, and there is no indication in His Word that it is to change. Societal norms have changed, and will always do so, and governments will make laws. As these laws are not rooted in the reality of God's word, they are, as far as their authority goes, unreal. The real question is, to which authority will one submit? That is a very old question, and is the dividing line between Christian and pagan. It isn't really a matter of taste or preference, it just is.

Western civilisation is now headless. It flops, falls, careens, and runs about aimlessly. Perhaps God in His mercy will restore the mind of a Judeo-Christian universe to this chaos, or in His judgement allow a different kind of order to fall upon us. One thing is certain: some authority will prevail.


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