This discussion comes at the end of three centuries of “Enlightenment” in the Western world. The church has had to grapple with the implications of all aspects of the new discoveries about the world and ourselves since the dawn of the scientific revolution and the advent of highly critical attitudes toward received traditions and authorities.
The result has been decades of deconstruction of the Bible, the sacred authoritative text; of the church’s history; of the church’s faith; of the church itself. The main currents of Western culture have not been kind to the Christian church, especially in the last century.
Many worthwhile accommodations and concessions have been made: the Earth is not flat; the Earth is not at the center of the universe; the cosmos was not created literally in seven days; Scripture bears the imprint of the human social contexts of its authors; the final form of the biblical books is the end result of long and complex processes of historical development that we are oftentimes incapable of unraveling with any assurance.
Then there is the change of view occasioned by the rise of historical consciousness and its revisions in our understanding of history, the roles of women, of non-Caucasians, and the like. We concede that what we know and how we know it is in some degree the consequence of who we are and all those forces that have worked together to make us who we are.
In many ways, however, we have gone beyond what was necessary to accommodate ourselves to the new knowledge which has come into our possession. It is one thing to say that Scripture is much more complex than it appears to be on its face. It’s quite another to say that Scripture is simply a human work, to be placed alongside other human works containing human knowledge and wisdom, and weighed in the balance.
It is one thing to say that the Bible is encased in cultural forms that reflect its origins in patriarchially organized societies, but it is quite another to say that the Bible is a totally untrustworthy — even an unworthy — witness because of that fact.
It is one thing to say that God’s self-disclosure in Scripture as Father and Son — and Holy Spirit — is jarring to Western postmodern sensibilities. It is another to say that because some persons have been excluded or denigrated because of their gender, the Trinitarian Name revealed by Jesus should be eliminated from the language of faith except in a few exceptional circumstances.
It is one thing to say that biblical understandings of the Atonement — Christ’s sacrificial act — are difficult for some to bear because it reminds them of their own pain and suffering at the hands of others. It is quite another to say that the Bible’s witness must be put aside and rejected precisely because of that offense.
If Christology is the central issue for the modern world and for the church today — Who is Jesus and what do we believe about him? — then our understanding of Scripture and its authority is critical to our answering of this question.
If Scripture rightly interpreted is not in some way the very Word of God written — if it is not a reliable witness to the ultimate truth about God, the world and ourselves — then we will be thrown back on our own religious preferences and opinions with no ground of hope beyond our own vain imaginings.
But Scripture has authority, finally, not because the church says it is the ultimate witness to God’s self-revelation in ancient Israel and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — although the Bible is the product of the community of faith and has been preserved and interpreted by it down through the ages.
Finally, Scripture has authority for the community of faith because in it the Holy Spirit bears witness to the human heart that the ancient words are God’s own Word to us — even at the same time as they remain fully human words. In a similar way, Jesus himself was fully human at the same time he was fully divine. Also, the Lord’s Supper involves both human words and visible signs of bread and wine, and yet is the means by which divine grace is conferred on those who receive it in faith.
If what we believe about Jesus Christ is critical, then our understanding of the authority of Scripture for faith and life is critical, because Scripture, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, is our primary source for knowledge of God’s coming to us in Christ.
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