Our sole and sufficient authority 1
By J.P. Thackway
Someone once said to a well-known preacher, “I have learnt an enormous amount from you today.” The preacher replied, “Then tell me what you are going to do with it.” It was a reminder that the privilege of hearing God’s word is also a responsibility. “Take heed therefore how ye hear” (Luke 8:18) said our Lord; and “be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” wrote the inspired apostle (James 1:22).
Obeying God’s word, whether by embracing its doctrine, heeding its warnings, or fulfilling its precepts is another way of saying that Scripture is authoritative. It has the right to command us. Graciously totalitarian, it governs our beliefs, choices, preferences, rights, service, actions, ways in life — for time and eternity. It calls us to a Bible-shaped life.
Writing to the Thessalonian church, Paul reminds them of their conversion, “when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). These converts did not just hear men speaking: they heard God Himself; it was “the word of God” which entered and conquered them (cf Ephesians 4:21). They were enabled to act upon the message and a new authority came over their lives.
The authority of scripture is something that is with us from the beginning. Born again, our new nature engages and accepts God’s word. It is engraved upon our hearts. Bowing to Holy Scripture is not an intellectual problem, nor merely a theological matter, far less a controversial one. It is spiritual and experiential: “subjection unto the gospel of Christ” (2 Corinthians 9:13; cf 10:5). We “tremble” at the word and God loves us for it (Isaiah 66:2).
That is ideally true for us all. If afterwards genuine difficulties arise, they are always overcome by the persuasive application of Scripture. A soft heart, teachable spirit and submissive will mean the Holy Spirit will clarify and convince. He reveals what human reason can never see (Psalm 119:18; John 4:45). The Spirit of truth blesses that truth to the soul and we bow to its sweet teaching and gracious rule.
Is this happening with Christians today? Is God’s word enough to quicken obedience? Is sola scriptura (scripture alone) the only and final authority for everything? Is the instinct of their souls always to ask, “What saith the scripture?” Given the many evangelical trends and fads these days, we could be forgiven for wondering if this is the case.
A give-away is the word “new.” We are wearily familiar with modern movements that include this prefix: New Calvinists, New Evangelicals, the Missional movement’s “new way of doing church,” “New Covenant Theology,” new Bible versions, New Christian Hymns, New Perspective and so on. When things are proclaimed “new” it begs the question what is the “old” that has been left behind. We confidently assert that what has gone is walking in “the old paths” of subjection to Scripture authority, alone and sufficient.
To demonstrate this would mean examining each of the above-mentioned in turn, which is beyond the scope of this article. Readers who would like to pursue this will find relevant articles on the Bible League web site http://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/articles/.
Also, please see < href="http://www.newcalvinist.com">http://www.newcalvinist.com
Our purpose here is to look again at the authority of scripture. This is the bar to which everything must always be brought. Yet so often these days it is not the first consideration in the clamour for what will “work” and get results. Principle not pragmatism is the need of the hour. Ultimately, it comes down to our view of the Bible. What gives scripture its right to demand our principled obedience? What is the extent of this authority? And, what is the application to us?
1. WHAT GIVES SCRIPTURE ITS AUTHORITY?
1] Its unique origin.
Scripture comes from God, its divine Originator. As (literally) “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), it emanates from God, it is an extension of Him. Like a man who speaks – his words flow out of him, on his breath – so we cannot separate God from what He has spoken, and caused to be written. As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it: “the Old and New Testaments are the two lips of God’s mouth whereby He speaks to us.” And Calvin before him said that scripture should be: “…received in authority and reverence as though God made Himself visible from heaven.”
Ultimate authority resides in God, as the Creator, sustainer, governor of all. None is supreme but He, “There is no power but of God” (Romans 13:1) … “There is one lawgiver” (James 4:12). Because scripture has come from God, it shares this inherent authority. The Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard confirmed this: “The Holy Scripture has God for its author, through whose direct inspiration the prophets, evangelists and apostles wrote. So on this ground it possesses authority.” And the Westminster Confession: “The authority of holy scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.”
We can demonstrate this. There are two classes of Bible verses where God is clearly identified with scripture. This shows clearly that scripture shares the same authority as God Himself.
a] Scripture is equated with God.
In Romans 3:2; Hebrews 5:12 and 1 Peter 4:11 the Scriptures are called “the oracles of God,” i.e. the divine utterance, the voice of God.
Again, in Romans 9:17 Paul quotes Exodus 9:16 “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, etc.” Whereas Moses records God as saying, “for this cause have I raised thee up.” Scripture equals God. Therefore, when scripture speaks, God speaks; when scripture is read, God reads; when scripture is preached, God preaches to us.
b] Also, God is equated with scripture.
For example, in Matthew 19:4,5 our Lord quotes Adam’s words (or Moses’ inspired comment) in Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, etc.” However, our Lord attributes those words directly to God: “he which made them at the beginning … said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, etc.” Therefore, God is equivalent to scripture. We find the same is in Acts 4:24,25 citing Psalm 2:1; and in 1 Chronicles 10:13.
God, then, is the Author of scripture; scripture has the very authority of God.
2] Its divine inspiration.
This ensures that Scripture carries the authority of God. By “inspiration” we mean that the Spirit of God acted through chosen penmen to write down His revealed word (2 Peter 3:21). God was the Author, the men were (in Calvin’s words) “the scribes and secretaries under the mouth of God Himself.”
A question arises here: were the penmen of scripture inspired, or were the words of scripture inspired? The distinction is sometimes made, and we can guess why. If just the writers, it means they could express the revelation in entirely their own words. This would allow for mistakes, and even falsehood.
The answer is that both the penmen and their words were inspired: “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet.3:21) and “all scripture is given by inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Holy Spirit-inspired men and Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture has guaranteed “the scripture of truth” (Daniel 10:21). This means the verbal inspiration of scripture, possessing divine authority in every word. This is not, of course, to suggest that God suppressed the human personalities of the writers; simply that inspiration is so complete that no human fallibility could enter.
3] Its providential preservation.
The distance between the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments and our own day is very great. The prophets and the apostles wrote the originals by inspiration, but they perished long ago. Centuries of copies and translations separate these autographs and us. The question is: Do we have God’s authentic word now? Is the divine authority the same as in the originals?
We believe He has providentially preserved His Word in the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament and the Received Text of the New Testament. He has ensured that an uncorrupted stream of copies have come down to us, and are best translated in our Authorised Version. We could argue this from scripture itself. And we could confirm this by believing textual scholarship showing us the historical transmission of the text. Abundant evidence exists to support the belief that we have the same Word today that the Church has always had.
However, we can also see this as something that inevitably follows our previous points: unique origin and divine inspiration. If the Bible came from God, through inspiration, God’s veracity, name, salvation and glory are bound up in it. Not to say, our salvation, holiness, comfort and eternal life. That being so, does it not follow that He must preserve these divine oracles entire and intact until the end of the age? “By His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, (and) are therefore authentical” (Westminster Confession)?
This was what historic Christianity believed until the 18th century. It was almost universally accepted that Scripture is unique, coming to us invested with the authority of Almighty God. Textual criticism might be applied to secular literature, for example Homer’s Odyssey: what were his sources, its conversion from oral to written form; do we have the authentic text? Further research would discover the answer to these questions. However, such investigation would never apply to the Bible because its divinity and authority meant it was not like any other book. Thus, there was a barrier between the Bible and the critic.
Midway through the 18th century, however, the Enlightenment gradually brought this barrier down. One man notorious for popularising the new approach was the French Roman Catholic priest Richard Simon (1638-1712), called “the father of biblical criticism.” His publications did much to open the way for higher critics of the following century such as Eichhorn, Wellhausen and Schleiermacher. So much so, that by 1860, Professor Jowett in Essays and Reviews wrote that one could now “interpret the Scriptures like any other book.”
And of course men have done this, and continue to do so, and this is liberalism. One offshoot of this is the plethora of modern Bible translations based upon a text that owes more to liberal critics than the view of scripture held by the Authorised Version translators. However, we believe that providential preservation is God keeping the Scriptures entire, so that they come down to us losing none of their divinity and authority.
Undermining the Bible’s authority like this has opened the floodgates of unbelief and endless moral consequences. Not at first, of course, but gradually because, like a crack in a dam, things hold up for a while. But over the generations, low views of scripture enabled Christian leaders and those who followed to become bolder in their new attitude to biblical authority and divine truth.
I wish to conclude the first part of this article by citing the testimony of C.H. Spurgeon. He called the liberalism of his day “modern thought” and “the New Theology.” We perhaps are not aware of how shocking and offensive liberals were at that time. In his The Downgrade Controversy, Spurgeon wrote,
The most conclusive evidence that we are correct in our statement, that ‘the new theology’ is rampant among us, is supplied by The Christian World. To this paper is largely due the prevalence of this mischief; and it by no means hides its hand. Whoever else may hesitate, we have in this paper plain and bold avowals of its faith, or want of faith. Its articles and the letters which it has inserted prove our position up to the hilt; nay, more, they lead us into inner ‘chambers of imagery’ into which little light has as yet been admitted. What is meant by the allusion to the doctrine of the Trinity in the extract which is now before us? We forbear further comment, the paragraph speaks very plainly for itself:—
‘We are now at the parting of the ways, and the younger ministers especially must decide whether or not they will embrace and undisguisedly proclaim that ‘modern thought’ which in Mr. Spurgeon’s eyes is a ‘deadly cobra,’ while in ours it is the glory of the century. It discards many of the doctrines dear to Mr. Spurgeon and his school, not only as untrue and unscriptural, but as in the strictest sense immoral; for it cannot recognize the moral possibility of imputing either guilt or goodness, or the justice of inflicting everlasting punishment for temporary sin. It is not so irrational as to pin its faith to verbal inspiration, or so idolatrous as to make its acceptance of a true Trinity of divine manifestation cover polytheism.’
In another place he wrote,
During the past year we have often had to look down from the royal road of the truth upon those craggy paths which others have chosen, which we fear will lead them to destruction. We have had enough of The Down-Grade for ourselves when we have looked down upon it. What havoc false doctrine is making no tongue can tell. Assuredly the New Theology can do no good towards God or man; it, has no adaptation for it. If it were preached for a thousand years by all the most earnest men of the school, it would never renew a soul, nor overcome pride in a single human heart. We look down into the abyss of error, and it almost makes our head swim to think of the perilous descent; but the road of the gospel, to which we hope to keep by divine grace, is a safe and happy way. Oh, that all would travel it! Oh, that our earnest pleadings, which have brought upon our devoted head so much of obloquy, would recall the churches to the good old way!
More than 100 years later his assessment has proved correct. The “new” was simply the old rebellion against the truth first found in the “father of lies” the devil. It comes back to the authority of scripture. Where God’s word is not the sole and sufficient authority, man’s proud and shifting notions will take over. Couched in scriptural language though it might be, it disguises rebellion against the very truth it professes.
Whenever the prefix “new” appears in connection with movements and methods it should put us on our guard. It was new in Spurgeon’s day and it is new again in ours. It is no coincidence that Wales Evangelical School of Theology, which promotes the new Calvinist Porterbrook Network, has a lecturer who espouses liberal views on John’s gospel (see BLQ last issue). Many who push the new agendas of today, perhaps without realising it, are encouraging the insidious progress of historic liberalism.
Our day differs from Spurgeon’s in that the liberalism of his time was more theological in character. In the biblically-literate 19th century, these issues were more understood amongst well-read Christians and church leaders. The battle raged around the rugged truths of the gospel itself. Although our day has its theological controversies, its liberalism tends to be more popular and practical in character. Never has the church has so many resources to understand the Bible – yet never has the church seemed so ignorant or indifferent to the Bible. Consequently, the battleground is the outward aspect of things: worship methods, evangelistic strategies, church growth models, the social application of the faith and so on.
We fear that the New Calvinism, New Evangelicalism, the “new way of doing church,” new Bible versions, new worship, and New Perspective are really new manifestations of the liberalism against which Spurgeon fought and against which every generation of Christians must oppose. Time will, I believe, prove the correctness of this assertion. Agenda for change and authority of scripture are mutually exclusive. It is one thing to believe the orthodox inspiration of scripture today – but if its authority is not submitted to, the next stage is to jettison the doctrine itself and go further down the road of unbelief.
To cite another example. Back in 1983, the evangelist John Blanchard (with Peter Anderson and Derek Cleave) wrote a book entitled Pop Goes the Gospel (revised and enlarged in 2000 and subtitled Rock in the Church). In it, the authors demonstrate the unscripturalness of using rock and pop music in evangelism and worship. Evangelicals of the day were alerted, including many in Wales. Blanchard was invited to speak at the annual Aberystwyth Conference in 1984. This was to an evening meeting, and also to a young people’s meeting. So many came to the latter that the venue was changed and the questions and answers continued until midnight (see Hear Me Carefully, John Blanchard a biography, Evangelical Press, 2012, page 57).
However, fast forward 1984 to 2014, and what has been done with this in Wales? There are few evangelical churches now, north or south, that do not employ music bands and contemporary worship music. Indeed, it is counted axiomatic that it should be so, and those who, because of their biblical principles, maintain reformed worship and evangelism, are virtually ridiculed. Such is the slide that time alone will tell where it will lead. Iain Murray, writing in the Banner of Truth magazine in 2010, raised a necessary warning with an article entitled, “Sensual Worship – a sign of developing apostasy.” Although assessing the wider scene, his concluding paragraph deserves to be heeded by us all,
Accommodating the churches to contemporary culture may increase numbers (for a time); it has never led to a spiritual awakening. Unless there is a God-given change, it is to be feared that we will see in evangelicalism a developing apostasy.
One thing is for sure: sitting loose to God-fearing submission to the authority of scripture will not have the favour of God or the real blessing of heaven. The fire of divine acceptance fell upon Elijah’s altar – the man who stood apart, reformed, obeyed, and prayed (1 Kings 18:30,36-38). This is where we must stand. May the Lord enable us to do so in our day, that we might see the God of our fathers arise and have mercy upon Zion!
To be continued