[This post is a summary of an excellent yet lengthy piece written by D.A. Carson in Themelios, a journal for religious studies. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.]
Biblical authority is an idea that is slowly losing its grip on modern Evangelicals. It's a very simple proposition—it gives the Bible the right to form and correct a Christian's beliefs and behaviors. This has been one of the bedrocks of our faith, going back to ancient Judaism, with a renewed emphasis since the Reformation. With the onslaught of the post-modern "anything goes" mentality of our culture, some Christians seem confused about what biblical authority is, and how important is it for spiritual growth. Here are 10 signs you might be abandoning biblical authority without even realizing it.
1. You only focus on the parts of the Bible that appeal to you.
In order to avoid controversy, or perhaps in an attempt to be "peacemakers," some Christians overlook parts of Scripture that might challenge the cultural status quo and
offer more socially palatable opinions on issues such as homosexuality, pre-marital sex, abortion, and money. For example, proponents of the health and wealth "Prosperity Gospel" might connect scriptures about financial blessing with the significance of being children of the King, while passing over or explaining away scriptures that have to do with suffering, hunger, poverty, and the trials that believers are to rejoice in. Reading the Bible verse by verse, rather than topically can help insulate us from this type of picking and choosing.
2. You're embarrassed about certain parts of the Bible.
Certain topics the Bible speaks about like sexuality, gender roles, hell, and judgment can leave us feeling apologetic in a society that finds biblical views on such matters to be hateful or bigoted. Carson points out that this can reveal a deeper issue—do we think we are somehow more compassionate or sensitive that Jesus? We, like the Apostle Paul, should "not lose heart" or "distort the Word of God." (2 Cor. 4:1-2)
3. You open yourself up to re-interpret essential doctrines.
There's a reason you can't go down to your local Christian bookstore and buy a book called, "Three Views on Whether Jesus is God." This is an essential doctrine that has been affirmed since the birth of Christianity, and there is no need to re-visit or re-interpret it. Books that offer two, three, or even four or five views on various non-essential beliefs can be helpful, but we need to keep in mind that not all books in this format present positions that are actually biblical, let alone non-essential. Many Christians aren't even aware of the difference between essential and non-essential doctrines, which can make these types of books "intrinsically slippery."
4. You practice ignorance in the name of "mystery."
Recently dubbed "the Hatmaker Hermeneutic" by Kevin DeYoung, this stance proposes that the given verses on a particular subject are unclear or confusing, therefore we simply can't know for sure what the mind of God is on that issue. Usually, this means taking the passages out of the context of the Bible as a whole. Although there are certainly some peripheral issues that Scripture treats with a measure of ambiguity, lately there has been a push among progressive Christians to take historically essential doctrines and put them on an "agree to disagree" level. When Jen Hatmaker recently changed her stance on same-sex marriage, her husband Brandon communicated that they had examined the relevant verses, and concluded that monogamous same-sex marriage doesn't violate any clear directive of Scripture—thus relegating it to the "mystery" category.
5. You let your theology inform how you interpret the Bible, instead of letting the Bible inform your theology.
It can be tempting to form our own ideas about who God is and what He says about certain issues and then go to the Bible to try and illustrate or prove them. Instead, His Word should inform our thinking on what those views should be in the first place. Not every doctrine is going to fit in a pretty little box, but we can't manipulate Scripture to fit our pre-conceived theological ideas.
6. You don't read the Bible very often, and you focus primarily on contemporary writers and commentators.
I'm always stunned when I read a characterization of Jesus as some kind of sweet, meek, all-inclusive self-help guru. I always think: They must not have read what I read in Matthew's Gospel this morning! That's because the Jesus we find in the Gospels is radically different from the image contemporary culture has tried to refashion Him into. There are certainly some insightful contemporary writers, but also staying connected with older commentaries and theological works will keep us grounded in things like the beauty of the Trinity, the dreadfulness of sin, and the value of suffering. This, along with regular Bible reading will keep our primary focus from being pulled to more faddish topics such as self-identity, tolerance, ecological responsibility, and money management.
7. You fail to connect the Bible's authority with what the Bible actually teaches.
Groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons happily affirm doctrines such as biblical authority and inspiration. However, their understanding of what the Bible teaches is so unorthodox, that the reality of biblical authority has not actually transformed their thinking. Christians can be guilty of this when we say the Bible is authoritative in our lives, yet in practice, we fail to let it adjust our biases and inform our beliefs.
8. You either focus too much or too little on the intellectual side of Bible study.
When we study the Bible, it’s wise to take into account the original languages, context, genre and various other scholarly considerations such as text criticism and parallel sources. However, this can sometimes cause a coldness to sweep across our hearts when the more technical aspects of Bible study eclipse the sense of awe we should experience when encountering God's Word. On the other hand, disdaining careful study and exegesis in favor of an exclusively pious reading can be equally dangerous. Both extremes risk diminishing biblical authority, so it’s important to balance the heart and the head.
9. You interpret the Bible through a specific philosophical lens, rather than let the text speak for itself.
Any type of communication requires us to use certain devices that are philosophical in nature, but Carson's point here is simple: we shouldn't read the Bible with an agenda. Often readers are unaware they are doing this, but they inadvertently allow current social trends to dictate meaning. For example, in our highly individualistic culture, we might have a tendency to read Scripture as if we are the central character, rather than Jesus. This plays out when we make the confrontation between David and Goliath about us overcoming a great obstacle, or Jesus feeding the 5,000 into a morality tale about sharing. There's nothing wrong with being inspired by the courage of David, or finding value in sharing, but when we make these the main points of the narratives we are filtering our interpretation through the lens of modern individualism. We need to be wary of any "ism" that would impose itself on our understanding of Scripture.
10. You let things like pride, sin, or doubt keep you from grasping your need for the Bible.
Carson calls this "anything that reduces our trembling before the Word of God." Many things will drive us away from the Bible—moral decay, the influence of the world, and even our own doubt can blind us to our need to read, re-read, and meditate on Scripture. We should try to press through these obstacles, seeking to be the ones of whom God says, "These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isa 66:2).
We are living in a "generation that finds the Bible profoundly foreign to contemporary axioms," as Carson put it. He suggests that we take each of these 10 points and find the positive correlative and put them into practice. That's something I'm going to be focusing on as I continue to study the Bible. Which of these 10 signs did you find most helpful? Please comment below!
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