Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Sola Scriptura

I remember reading Francis Schaeffer's The Great Evangelical Disaster in the late 1980's. Little did I realize at that time, just how relevant that book would turn out to be.

If you haven't read the book, it's Schaeffer's caution that the evangelical world had started down a dangerous path in the early 20th Century: that we ceased to regard the Bible as the infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. Obviously I can't articulate in a couple hundred sentences what someone much more intelligent and better educated than I articulates in a few hundred pages: but his caution is that, once we no longer have a received standard of objective truth, we have nothing. In typical Schaeffer style, he illustrates the dangers of unbounded subjectivism and Christian mysticism. One interesting point he makes is the dangers of statements like "The Bible contains the Word of God", rather than "The Bible is the Word of God."

It is a terrible "sign of the times" that Christians in the 21st Century don't accept the absolute authority of Scripture. I met this, of course, when I was in University: that's just the sort of place one expects to meet this sort of thing. But the sad thing is, I've found through painful experience this sort of thing isn't just "out there". It's not only on University campuses, or in liberal churches. It's not just in the "seeker-friendly" postmodern churches---this sort of error has found a serious toehold in "conservative churches," including so-called "brethren" assemblies.

Of course, it's hard to believe that someone in "assembly circles" would actually stand up and say "Well, the Bible contains the Word of God" or anything else so overtly heterodox. "Brethren" are too conservative as a race to say something so untraditional. "Brethren" don't attack what is traditionally held; and Satan doesn't work that way. Satan doesn't start where he intends to finish. Let's not confuse the two. Sodom and Gomorrah didn't start with rampant immorality. Romans 1 is clear that the Gentile path to depravity started in ungratefulness: everything else was a development.

Similarly, attacks on the authority of Scripture start small. Consider the medieval Roman Catholic Church: they never attacked the authority of Scripture directly; rather they undermined it much more successfully by raising up other---supposedly equal---authorities. Those authorities were given their place, because the people were considered incapable of understanding the Holy Scriptures. Eventually, of course, the "co-authorities" displaced Scripture entirely.

I suppose we could generalize those who deny the authority of Scripture into two groups modelled after the opponents of Christ:
  1. the Sadducees: "the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both." (Acts 23:8, KJV); and
  2. the Pharisees, who "have... made the commandment of God of none effect by [their] tradition". (Matt. 15:6, KJV)

There are two different paths frequently traveled to undermining the authority of the Word of God: the Sadducee path, which denies its truthfulness, and the Pharisee path, which simply buries the Word of God under traditions and "other" authorities. Liberal theologians follow the former path, the Roman Catholic Church followed the latter.

As a side note, I find it interesting that the High Priest in the Acts was a Sadducee (Acts 5:17). Apparently the time of Christ was much more like today than we might realize: the highest religious office in Israel was occupied by someone who denied the Scriptures, didn't believe in spirits, nor in the resurrection.

I'm afraid that we in "assembly circles" are following the Pharisee path. That's the path of ostensibly holding and defending the authority of Scripture, but burying it under other authorities. The Pharisees had the "traditions of [their] fathers"; the Roman Catholic Church had a myriad of creeds, dogmas, and papal bulls; the "brethren" have some interesting traditions too: perhaps examining them will be worthwhile.

First, there is the authority of extra-Biblical writings. There are some books that are held up as infallible by "brethren", here are just a few titles: Synopsis of the Books of the Bible by JND, Some Facts and Theories as to a Future State by FWG, Bible Treasury W. K. (ed.), and Notes on the Pentatuech by CHM. Of course this isn't an exhaustive list, but I think it's fairly representative.

Second, there are schools of thought, or common doctrines. These doctrines are probably correct, as far as they go; but they are not Scripture. Teachings like the pre-Tribulational Rapture, a literal Millenial Kingdom, or the Ruin of the Church. All these doctrines are based on Scripture (and I personally hold all three), but they are not---in and of themselves---Scripture. We need to learn to distinguish the words God spoke from what we understand them to mean. A failure to do so essentially elevates our understanding of Scripture to the same level as Scripture: it makes our understanding of Scripture infallible, rather than allowing God to be true, though every man be a liar.

Third, there are the "brethren" proverbs and pithy sayings. Sometimes these might even be Scripture, but wrenched so violently from context as to make them meaningless. One favourite example of mine is: "Association with evil defiles." This saying is held as Scripture by most in the circles where I fellowship, but it is wanting in several ways (just one example: it uses three terms "association", "evil", and "defile" with no real definition---and the first is not even in the Bible!). Another common one is [ostensibly] from Proverbs: "a man's gift maketh room for him". This one is used to mean that as a man (or woman) uses his (or her) spiritual gift, opportunities for ministry open up. Of course, a look at the context in Proverbs reveals that the word "gift" is a euphemism for "bribe". At best, this is Scripture out of context.

Fourth, there are men (and women) who are given unquestioned authority in matters of doctrine and practice. Sad to say, in a group that claims to eschew the practice of clergy, there is a tendency to elevate certain men to infallibility. There are men in "assembly circles" that make statements bolder than any "clergyman" in an evangelical church would dare to utter.

Fifth, (and this is more of a problem in "exclusive" circles), "personal exercise" is given a level of authority that vies with Scripture. I struggle with this, because I spent years among purely "objective" Christians: people who lived strictly by the letter, and had no clue that there could be something more. But the sad truth is, that as much as I value and believe in a subjective reality to our Christianity, it must always be under the authority of Scripture. In other words, there is undue weight given to personal conscience, and not enough examining it in the light of Scripture. There is no doubt in my mind that the Scripture teaches a Christian life full of personal conviction and exercise; but it's not our authority: our authority is the Word of God.

All of these conspire to undermine the authority of Scripture as the infallible Word of God.

If you've been in "assembly circles" for any length of time at all, you eventually hear a lament that sounds more or less like this: "Brethren used to be known for how well they knew their Bibles. Alas! we're not known like that anymore!" Eventually, one gets tired of hearing that; but there is perhaps some truth to the statement. At any rate, whether the statement is fundamentally true or not; I have become convinced that our weakness---our lack of Scriptural knowledge and understanding---is not due to our laziness in study, nor our failure to teach the Word, but is a result of our low view of Scripture. Like it or not, we don't treat the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. It's systemic: it comes out in public ministry, in personal exhortations, in comments in the Bible Readings.

There are, I suppose, many examples I could give; and it seems wrong not to give any at all. Nevertheless, I am wary of "airing dirty laundry" in public. Thus, I think it's better to exercise discretion on this head. Suffice it to say, my experience in "brethren" has taught me that (in practice) they hold Scripture as a "co-authority", rather than the sole authority.

I suppose that means, we see the Scripture as infallible, but not sufficient. This is very much the position of the medieval Roman Catholic Church: the Bible is the Word of God, but it's not enough by itself---you need us to help you understand it.

As I have commented elsewhere, I once tried to read all of the writings of J. N. Darby. JND (for those who don't know) is the heaviest of "heavies." He is to "brethren" what Luther is to Lutherans, or Spurgeon to Baptists. Darby was a great man, and reading his books is a great experience. But he's not God. Nevertheless, I sank a lot of time into reading Darby. I never finished, but I've read well over half of his total writings.

At any rate, as I was reading Darby, I was struck by his constant assertions that Scripture is both authoritative and sufficient: he repeatedly said that Scripture was given to be read and understood; that a normal, common Christian can pick up a Bible, read it, and learn what God has to say. It took me quite some time to realize I didn't actually believe that. Oh sure, I knew that it was the "right answer", but I didn't act like it was true. (That's the difference between knowing the answer and actually believing it, right? What we believe actually affects us...)

There is an irony here that hasn't escaped me: JND is the one man above all others that "brethren" have vaunted to a place of co-authority with Scripture. And yet he most strenuously taught that the Scripture is infallible and sufficient: we need no other book, no other guide. (See Scripture, the place it has in this day by J. N. Darby, as one example.)

At any rate, it was when I was reading JND that I realized I had fallen in the Pharisaical error: I had begun (slowly, unintentionally, unconsciously) to "make the Scriptures of no effect through the traditions of [my] fathers." Perhaps the most telling experience for me was when someone made a point in the assembly. I can't remember who it was, or what they said, but they were wrong. Rather than quoting the Scripture, I quoted JND. What is that? That is (very simply) appealing to the writings of man, rather than the words of God.

Obviously this ties closely with my comments about Nehushtan---I'm sure idolatry is closely related to ignoring the authority of the Word of God. How can it not be? But I think this is a problem wide-spread enough to deserve special attention.

In conclusion, I have observed the same problems in "assembly circles" many others have. Like them, I have lamented our lack of power, our sad spiritual state. And I by no means believe that a grasp of the authority of Scripture is our only problem. But it's certainly one of them. We all give the correct answer when asked: the Bible is the infallible, authoritative, sufficient Word of God. But we oh-so-subtly undermine its authority in so many ways. As we see this in ourselves, may we make every effort to give the Scripture the place of authority in reality, not just in our dogma.

1 comment:

Rodger said...

"Whoever hinders the direct authority of the word of God upon the heart is meddling with God's rights. If I send a message to my servant, and someone prevents his getting it properly, it is not merely hindering my servant, but it is meddling with me. We are told to read the fathers, but they were not "from the beginning"; that would be what God said and taught, and then I know from whom I have learned it. To say the fathers were "very early" is more or less true, but that is not the "beginning."" (JND, Notes and Jottings, page 17)