We are living in an age that rejects the certainty and absolutism of the rationalist and empiricist. No metanarrative (overarching story), whether of religion, reason, or science is accepted. Truth is local, which implies that ethics are relative and open to change. Religious revelation and experience are accepted, but they, too, are constructs of personal experience and the community, and only “semi-authoritative.” That is, they are true, but only true for you.
As Evangelical Christians face these historical and philosophical realities and their implications for church, ethics, and culture, we return to the question “What authority will we cling to?”
The Bottom Line
Evangelical Christians agree that the Bible is inspired, authoritative, dependable, and trustworthy, with all that is needed for faith and life. We may define and debate the exact meaning and mode of inspiration, for example, but we agree that God’s word is our final authority for guidance, direction, and decision making in life. We may disagree on our hermeneutical approach, the specific exegesis to a passage, and the application of a particular teaching to our lives, but we agree that the starting point is the written word of God.
This bottom line should engender both confidence and humility. We are confident that God has spoken and spoken to us, and that we can know accurately, if not exhaustively, what the truth is. We are humble because we are aware of textual difficulties, translation differences, different hermeneutical methods, and especially of our own sinfulness and limitations. The evangelical Christian, therefore, appeals to the authority of Scripture based on Pre-modern, Modern, and Post-modern understandings of authority.
With the Pre-modern we agree that the Bible is the revealed word of God. That word was revealed in many ways: prophets “spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21), Jesus spoke the words God gave him (John 17:8), Paul wrote letters recognized as Scripture (2 Pet.3:16), John experienced a direct vision of the risen Jesus (Rev. 1:1, 12-13). In every case it is an authoritative word, applicable to the first hearers/readers and applicable to us today. We may struggle with understanding the original meaning and its current application, but we must cling to the Bible as the ultimate authority that judges all other claims to authority.
With the Modern we agree that reason and experience are real and are to be used as tools. God gave us the ability to think and analyze (Lk. 14:28-32), to design, plan, and build (see the tabernacle, the temple, Solomon’s projects, and the walls of Jerusalem), and to observe and measure the world (1 Kings 4:33-34). Unlike the Modern, however, we do not cling to reason and experience as ultimately authoritative. They are to be understood and practiced as derivative from God and within his sovereign rule. They are gifts from him and not inherent in us nor inherently good. With the preacher of Ecclesiastes we know that all reason and experience is vain and “wearies the body” (Ecc.12:12) if not grounded in the fear and obedience of God (12:13).
This “moderated” Modernity thus rejects the blind authoritarianism of the Pre-modern, which was often grounded in the politics, intrigues, and power of church leaders rather than in Scripture. It does not mean an acceptance of the Modern autonomous individual. Faith and the discovery of truth are individual; however, in the Bible the individual is always understood to exist in community, whether family, clan, tribe, nation, or as a member of the Body of Christ. Faith and truth are best discovered and practiced in community.
We also agree with the Modern that there is absolute, objective, and certain truth. There is a metanarrative – a story – which encompasses all reality and answers all ultimate questions about life. That is God’s story as revealed in his written word and manifested historically, particularly, and perfectly in the life of Jesus Christ. This is the authority we cling to.
With the Post-Modern, however, we agree that we are all, to some degree, constructs of our environment and our community, whether family, race, culture, or nation. Although there is an objective and absolute truth we strive to comprehend and practice, we are not objective. As fallen human beings we must humbly acknowledge our limitations, our biases, and our perspectives. Therefore,
- Absolute truth is a reality. It is found in the revelation of our Trinitarian God. God acted in the history of Israel, the incarnation of the Son perfectly revealed the Father, and the Holy Spirit inspired the writing and subsequent recognition of the sixty-six books of the canon.
- Absolute truth is not just information about God. Absolute truth is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This means we can hold to the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and argue that his story is the story or metanarrative that answers all stories.
- We can know truth sufficiently, correctly, and with certainty. We cannot know truth exhaustively or perfectly, because our sinfulness, our culture, and our experience get in the way. This is not reason for despair, but reason for faith and humility.
- We cling to the authority of the Bible with confidence. We acknowledge textual, translation, and interpretation difficulties, but we can trust the Bible in our hands.
- Although we hold to the priesthood of all believers and the freedom for each believer to read and interpret the Scriptures, we believe that the best reading, interpreting, and application is done in community. We need each other. On the one hand, we must avoid incorrect hyper-individualism. On the other hand, we want to avoid group-think. Trusting in and listening to the Holy Spirit, respecting and listening to others, and letting the plain sense of Scripture judge all of our perceptions, perspectives, and interpretations, we move closer to the true understanding and the best application.
As we are moved closer and closer to the margins of society and culture, we will have to make a decision about ultimate authority. Will it be something in humanity, whether reason or experience? Will it be culture itself – the prevailing mood, the preference of the majority, or the path of least resistance? Or, will it be what the marginalized church has always clung to: the living, authoritative, trustworthy word of God. We must cling to it and its authority, always willing ourselves to be judged, rebuked, and corrected by its teachings. We learn from other sources of authority. We listen and consider the claims of other authorities. But in the end, when push will come to shove, we cling to the authority of the Bible, no matter the cost.