The illness of the church today is largely self-induced. Nothing makes this clearer than the important question of the authority of Holy Scripture. However much she may in practice have been unfaithful to this principle, historically the Church has acknowledged that the Bible, as the Word of God written, is the fountainhead of all saving truth. The attitude of Christ and his apostles to the authority of the Old Testament is unmistakably plain. And the attitude of the post-apostolic Church to the authority of the New Testament is seen most strikingly in the recognition of the Canon as constituting that unique deposit of revealed truth to which all the Church’s teaching and worship should conform. It is through the writings of his apostles that Christ still instructs and guides his Church in the way of truth and holiness.
This great principle the Reformers of the sixteenth century reaffirmed, and in so doing they aligned themselves with the Christians of both the New Testament and the post-apostolic periods. They did so, moreover, not merely as a matter of historical realignment, but because it was through Scripture that God had spoken powerfully, in the Holy Spirit, to their own souls. What they did, in effect, was to reaffirm the uniqueness of the canonicity of the biblical writings. Hence their assertion that “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written.”
Last century, however, saw the rise and progress of a radical form of biblical criticism that, coupled with the evolutionistic theories of the “history of religions” school (according to which all religions are explained as relatively true and none as unique), led many in the Church into a position of skepticism and even unbelief as the historic confidence in the authority and authenticity of the Bible was progressively undermined.
The consequences of this are seen in the tragic disarray of contemporary Protestantism. The spectacle it presents is in general that of a religion without authority. The assured proclamation of the Word of God (“Thus saith the Lord!”) has all too commonly been replaced by the fumbling speculations and surmisings of men. The theological “experts” are happier when explaining what they do not believe than when explaining what they do believe. Christian pronouncement is crumbling into nondescript humanism, and Christian ethics into sentimental humanitarianism.
No one will deny for a moment the great debt that is owed to the textual criticism of modern times. Not only the study of manuscripts but also the painstaking examination of contemporary linguistic usage, particularly as revealed in sources of a non-literary nature, has thrown a flood of light on the language of the New Testament and afforded an understanding of the koine that was not available to commentators of a hundred years ago.
It is not here, however, that the problem lies; for textual criticism belongs to the sphere of objective scientific investigation. The problem arises in the realm of the so-called higher criticism, which approaches the text with certain presuppositions (or, it may be, prejudices) concerning, for example, what Jesus could or could not have said and done. In the nature of the case this approach is highly subjective, and can be described as scientific only within the framework of the presuppositions that have been brought to the task. Hence the wide variety of “results” that has been propounded in this field of investigation.
In effect, then, what is happening is that the canonicity of Scripture is now being supplanted by the canonicity of “modern knowledge,” shifting and subjective though its “findings” are. Accordingly, the person who wishes to accept the pronouncements of the biblical “expert” and at the same time to retain a belief in the objective authority of Scripture finds himself in a very real dilemma.
Thus Dr. Alan Richardson, writing in the recently published first volume of The Cambridge History of the Bible, acknowledges that “there were losses as well as gains amongst the consequences of what we may call the new historical control of biblical exegesis”; and among these losses must be reckoned, he says, “the gradual decay of the ordinary Christian’s sense that he can read the Bible for himself without an interpreter and discover its unambiguous meaning. He suggests that “one factor at least in the decline of Bible reading on the part of individual Christians must surely be that the Bible came to be regarded as a book for experts, requiring an elaborate training in linguistic and historical disciplines before it could be properly understood.” At the same time he asserts that “it is of course agreed that the prophetic and apostolic understanding of the meaning of the events of the biblical history is entirely due to the revealing action of God.” “Revelation is a mystery,” he adds, “like all the miraculous works of God. It is God alone who can open the eyes of faith, whether of the prophets and apostles of old or of those who read or hear the biblical message in subsequent generations.” This is certainly a statement that the evangelical can applaud. At this important point he will feel a strong bond of affinity with Dr. Richardson—though he will be surprised at the affirmation that this view of Scripture is “of course agreed” today. Would that it were!
What is still essential today, for expert as well as layman, is that dynamic transformation, that opening of the eyes, which comes when the Holy Spirit unites us by faith to Christ and assures us in our hearts that the witness that comes to us in Holy Scriptures is true and faithful.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more