When it comes to deciding how to follow Jesus Christ in our time, the Bible often takes a backseat even for evangelicals, who have long held a high view of Scripture.
Sometimes the desire to preserve relationships at all costs prompts us to ignore scriptural teachings. Other times, we have an ill-defined feeling of how the Lord is “leading” us, never mind that the leading contradicts scriptural teaching.
And when we do pull out the Bible, we are tempted to focus on one biblical theme to the exclusion of others, or treat it like a self-help book. We scour it only for verses that will bolster our sagging spirits or help us to love our spouse better.
This is not a new insight, but it is especially pertinent in light of this issue’s cover story, as the Bible is at the heart of evangelical theology and ethos.
Decades ago, Harold Lindsell, then editor in chief of this magazine, called for a “battle for the Bible.” He took to task evangelical institutions whose definition of biblical authority was, in his view, inadequate. His book of that title was divisive and unhelpful. Yet his basic concern cannot be faulted. Today we need a new battle for the Bible—not for a precise definition of biblical authority that all evangelicals can agree on, but a simple return to the Bible as the final authority in matters of faith and practice—and especially Christian doctrine.
Going Deeper Than Nicaea
As Justin Holcomb notes in our cover story, the Nicene Creed is a significant standard that helps us determine whether a teaching is orthodox or not. But as he notes, it’s not merely important because it won a majority of votes back in A.D. 325.
Quite the reverse: The Nicene Creed has won the day, century after century, because it is the best summary of the biblical teaching on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the major theme of the creed.
Yet as helpful as consensus is, it is not sufficient. Evangelicals in particular recognize that the larger community can be wrong for a long time.
Take the Nicene controversy. Even though the orthodox party won at the council, the Arian party had more political clout overall, so its views continued to spread. As the political battle raged, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius, was expelled from his bishopric in Alexandria on five occasions. Athanasius fought contra mundum, “against the world” and the current consensus. When he died, it appeared he had lost; the Arian party had firm control of much of the empire. In the ensuing decades, Arianism only spread, in part because some of the church’s earliest and most successful missionaries—like Ulfilas, who evangelized the Goths—were Arians!
Today, however, Arianism can be found only in small sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. What happened? The church slowly and surely recognized that Arianism was not the best way to integrate the Bible’s many teachings about the person and work of Christ. Nicene orthodoxy was. The history is complicated, involving politics, war, and sometimes nasty behavior by orthodox Christians. But theologically speaking, this is what happened: The church recognized the biblical truth of the Nicene Creed.
Consensus, as important as it is at times, cannot be the final rule of faith and practice, certainly not for evangelicals. The Bible is. Evangelicals recall that at times it is only a remnant who remain faithful to God (Rom. 11:1–5). It is crucial, despite a consensus to the contrary, that we remain faithful to what we believe God has revealed in his Word.
Fidelity to the Bible has long been an essential part of evangelical identity. More specifically, we are inclined to take the Bible literally. We believe it crucial to adhere to the plain meaning of the text unless overwhelming evidence suggests otherwise. We have heard, for example, the theological arguments that conclude that Jesus rose from the grave only in spirit, in the hearts of the disciples. But the textual and historical evidence supports our conviction that Jesus really did, literally, rise bodily!
Further, we are reluctant to declare an obscure passage or hard teaching outdated. If the passage seems to contradict other biblical teachings, we will work to come to a deeper understanding. And if we cannot immediately discern that, we are willing to live with the tension, and trust God through the Holy Spirit to reveal that to us in his time.
We believe that the Bible has the very fingerprints of God all over it, and we describe it as inerrant or infallible especially in all matters of faith and practice. We argue with one another about what exactly terms like inerrancy mean, and how to rightly read certain passages given their genre. But underneath those arguments is our strong bias to grasp and apply the plain meaning of the text.
Unfortunately, we have to deal with many false teachings today. Each misreads the Bible in crucial ways.
Parsing Orthodoxy Today
Some currently teach that “You shall not murder” does not apply to human life in the womb. Others that true faith leads to physical health and financial prosperity. But perhaps no false teaching is more confusing or divisive than that the church should bless same-sex relationships. It’s a good example of the doctrinal challenge before us.
Some scholars and popular writers have tried to make a biblical case for this teaching. But they are grasping at straws. As Richard Hays, former Duke Divinity professor who wrote the now-classic The Moral Vision of the New Testament, puts it, the biblical passages that deal with this issue “are unambiguously and unremittingly negative in their judgment.” In a 2010 study commissioned by the Episcopal Church, even revisionists acknowledged that same-sex marriage “exceed[s] the marriage practices assumed by Scripture,” justifying the new ethic because it “comports with the mission of God celebrated by the Spirit in the body of Christ.” Or, as those revisionists put it elsewhere, “The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing.”
Naturally, we remain unconvinced that the Holy Spirit would reverse course from a divinely inspired biblical teaching.
Whatever serious false teaching we are facing, the Bible is uncomfortably clear: When false teachers persist in their views, they will be subject to divine judgment (see especially 2 Peter 2). For the sake of these false teachers (that they might avoid God’s judgment) and church health (that we might flourish in God), we believe we need a shift in how we teach the Bible. In short, we need to spend more time teaching the Bible as first and foremost the revelation of God.
We understand the temptation to talk about the Bible mostly in terms of “what it means to me” and its “practical application to daily life.” But when this hermeneutic dominates—as it does today—Christianity becomes little more than self-help therapy. And it leaves people ignorant of Scripture’s deeper meaning, and therefore unable to spot false teaching.
The Bible is the Word of God primarily because it reveals the nature of God—who God is and what he has done for us. And that in turn shows us what it means to be those created in his image. Yes, it includes practical teaching for daily living. But most biblical ethical teachings reflect God’s general revelation and so can be found in many philosophies and religions (e.g., "Do to others as you would have them do to you"). The Bible’s unique message, its special revelation, is the revelation of the God who has brought us salvation in Jesus Christ.
Pastors, teachers, and small-group leaders would be wise to spend more energy showing how the Bible is the source of the great church doctrines—which are so often about God and his saving work. It’s time for our main pedagogical question to be not, “What difference does this make?” but, “What does this tell us about our good God?” To help churches answer that question, CT recently joined Zondervan Publishing, HarperCollins, to produce the NIV Understand the Faith Study Bible. This is but one of many resources that makes these crucial connections.
To emphasize theology will entail a battle, as any pastor will sense. It will be a battle against those who have fed too long on the milk of therapeutic Christianity, and who will demand immediate application. It will be a battle against false teachers, who will react defensively. It will be a battle against our own sloth, as this type of teaching requires more intellectual labor than “10 ways to improve your marriage.”
But it is a battle well worth fighting. It will no doubt create scars, but God will also give us many a victory. Some false teachers may be saved from their pernicious ideas, and the church will have an ever-clearer picture of the beautiful God whose nature it is to save the world.
Which, really, is about the most practical thing we can offer it.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.
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