Christian controversies and disagreements often reveal different attitudes to the authority of the Bible. It is not so much that people want to reject the Bible as an authority, they would rather appeal to another authority as well as the Bible. This inevitably places the Bible under an alternative ultimate authority and so undermines the authority of the Bible. The most frequent alternative authorities that people appeal to are Experience, Church or Reason.
Evangelicals wish to interpret, explain and understand their life and behaviour in the terms of the Bible, so that the Bible has total authority in all matters of faith and life. On the other hand, there are those who wish to be led by their experiences of God so they seek to be obedient to whatever way the Spirit moves them. A third group will see that the teachings of the church or institution to which they belong, is authoritative in all matters of faith and life. Thus if their church or priests or bishops or whatever, direct their behaviour or their theological understanding they will adopt it and fall into line. The fourth group wish to base their understanding of God purely upon that which can be discerned by human reason. Whatever can be demonstrated to be sensible, reasonable and intelligent is to be accepted and that for which there is no reason is to be discarded.
A Theological Understanding of God
Each of these views comes out of a theological understanding of God. The first view is based upon the God who speaks. God reveals Himself to mankind through His Word and can only be known in His Word. The second is based upon a God who moves in the life and affairs of people now and can be experienced directly today. The third is based on a God of order who has called out a people of his own who are to act in unity. The fourth view is based upon a God who is reasonable, rational and true and therefore will always be found in that which is reasonable, rational and true.
However, nobody will really adopt any one of these four extreme positions. The God who speaks, still moves in human hearts and has called out His own people by the Gospel of truth. Consequently, everybody's theological position is a mixture of all four viewpoints. The Christian can Biblically appeal to their experience, their church’s teaching and their reason to understand and explain their behaviour (1 Corinthians 11:13-14, 1 Corinthians 10:32, 2 Timothy 2:7). Indeed it is impossible to live solely and only under the authority of the Bible as reading is a matter of rationality, and the Bible has been printed by an institution and it is about the experiences of life.
The fact that we do not have a point of authority but rather an area of authority leads to very great confusion amongst Christian people. We wish to argue on the basis of the Bible alone but keep on finding ourselves using reason or experience or even appealing to the traditions of our church and its teachers. Furthermore, others who do not ultimately accept the authority of the Bible will still appeal to the Bible. They may even argue against the Bible’s view and yet claim to hold the Bible as an authority. Add to this the confusion of the grasshopper eclectics who jump from authority to authority with total inconsistency; and theological debate can get swallowed up in confusion.
Some people even remove any distinction between the authorities. They argue that the church has given us the Bible or that the Spirit who is giving us the experiences today is the Spirit who inspired the Bible or the God who inspired the Bible is rational and requires us to be rational – so there is no difference between following the Church or the Spirit or reason and obeying the Bible.
But there comes a point in each theological position where one has to choose between the competing authorities of Church, Bible, Reason or Experience. Which will you choose when your experience disagrees with the scriptures? Or when your reason disagrees with your church? Or when your church disagrees with your experience? It is at that point that the line is drawn between the competing authorities.
The Conflict of Authority
This conflict of authority can be blatant, as in the case of the Mormons who see that the Bible is full of errors which the book of Mormon is without; so that when the Bible and the book of Mormon contradict, then obviously the Bible is to be discarded. Or again a Jehovah's Witness worker who told me that the Watchtower and the Bible never contradict but that if they ever did, the Watchtower would be right.
More commonly the line is drawn subtly – even unconsciously. For example, the group called "the Socinians". An Italian family in the 16th century called Sozinni came under the influence of the Reformation to believe in the authority of the Bible. In their teachings they were fierce in claiming the authority of the Bible alone. However, they believed that God was both rational and moral. Consequently, they taught that everything in the Bible will be both rational and moral. Any interpretation of the Bible therefore which was either immoral or irrational must be a false interpretation of the Bible. Those passages then, that talk of the wrath of God and his anger must not be taken to explain the character of God for such anger is immoral. Furthermore, the conclusion that God is three and yet one, is irrational as it defies the normal mathematical understanding and therefore Jesus is not God. It was the Socinians who became the forbearers of the group that still exists in our community called the Unitarians.
Notice in this brief account of the Socinians that they upheld the authority of the Bible in their declarations but yet, at the same time, completely undermined the authority of the Bible by their greater adherence to rationality and morality. This is a fairly common pattern amongst Christian arguments. Nearly every group, even the heretical ones like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists and the like, claim to live under the authority of the Bible. But it’s not what people claim about the Bible but what they do with the Bible that demonstrates their authority basis. If, on an issue, they choose to observe some authority other than the Bible, to come to an unbiblical conclusion, then they have crossed the line away from the Bible. A simple illustration is the use of statues in Christian worship. The Bible's teaching on idolatry, on statue making and the use of statues to either represent God or as means of worship of God, is consistently prohibitive. However, when the issue is discussed in churches people, who claim to live under the authority of the Bible, put forward arguments that are based on how helpfulthey have found the icon has been to their prayer life. Or they will base their defence of the statues on the traditions of church life over the last thousand years or the character of God as the God of beauty or on the character of educational theory and people's needs for concrete, visual examples rather than abstract propositions. None of these set arguments can in any way compete with Jesus who is portrayed in the Scriptures as the image of the invisible God.
Interpretation or Reinterpretation?
A new area of persistent problem for Christians is the question of the interpretation of Scripture. This is classically brought out in the debate on women's ordination. The classic debate strategy is to move the issue out of the question of the authority of the Bible into the question of the interpretation of the Bible. So it is said that both sides believe that the Bible is authoritative, it is “just a question of its interpretation”. This strategy is also used in the Charismatic debate.
It is true that sometimes the difference between Christians is not a difference of the authority under which they are living but the understanding and application of what the Scriptures teach. For example, there is little agreement between Bible believers on the subject of what to do symbolically with the children of believers, to incorporate them into the Christian community (to dedicate, baptise or do nothing). Here we can have people who genuinely are committed to the Bible as being authoritative but yet who cannot agree on its understanding and application to our situation.
However, this inability to always agree is being used by those who do not want to live under the conclusions that Scripture clearly teach. A key way of arguing this is to claim it is all a matter of interpretation. There are only two parts of the Bible that teach about the appointment of elders in the congregation, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Whatever Biblical warrant we have for ordination and for the ministry of elders comes from this part of the Bible and yet it is clear that in this part of the Bible, more explicitly than in any other part possibly, the ministries of men and women are different. Both unmistakably talk in terms of male eldership. Furthermore, it is explicit, in this part of the Bible that a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man. The obvious straightforward conclusion that Christian churches of all persuasions for the last eighteen hundred years have followed is that the ordination to eldership should be restricted to men. The differentiation of men and women was certainly the rule in the apostolic churches (1 Corinthians 11:16, 14:33).
To challenge this conclusion requires one either, to dispense with the authority of Scripture, which in evangelical circles is unacceptable, or to reinterpret Scripture so that it can be seen not to mean any restriction on the ordination of women. This process of reinterpretation has been applied with some vigour for the last twenty years. Each word, such as 'authority', 'silence', 'teaching' or 'headship', has been carefully analyzed and scrutinized. The social background of men and women and church practices of the 1st century has been examined in detail. The authenticity of the phrases and of the chapters and of the books themselves have all been questioned. In one sense all this activity is fair game but if the aim and motivation is dissatisfaction with the conclusion of the Scripture then already, in the heart, people have rejected the authority of the Bible. They are trying to use as much reason as is possible, without stepping over the line of rejecting the Bible, in order to reject the Bible. Some throw in the towel and say, "Paul was mistaken. At the end of Galatians 3 he understood there was no distinction, but later in his life, if indeed he wrote the epistle to Timothy at all, he fell back to a less than Christian view." Others say that Paul did not have the same authority as Jesus and therefore is not to be followed. Some people say, "I do not care what the Bible says, God has called me or called my sisters to this ministry and I am not to stand in the way of God". Others say, "God's Spirit is leading the church on in this matter and as the church approves of the ordination of women, so it is right." But most frequently, people argue that Paul was writing to the culture of his day and-because the culture of our day has changed significantly therefore he is no longer applicable in this area. Unfortunately, such an argument will not stand up to close analysis. The arguments that Paul uses are not based on culture but upon the very structure of creation and the relationship between men and women, stemming from Adam and Eve. His appeal is to the family as the church is the family of God. The authority structures of the family are to be reflected in the church.
The Authority of Scripture or the Authority of the Interpreter
However, the appeal to an issue being a difference of interpretation rather than authority strangely and unwittingly raises a new issue of authority, i.e. the authority of the interpreter. Frequently, people name drop, mentioning all the interpreters on this side of the argument and all on the other side of the argument. Here is a Protestant appeal to the authority of the church or the lay popes: If F.F. Bruce, John Stott, Billy Graham and Jim Packer all hold one viewpoint, then they all could be wrong. More astonishing still is the appeal to throw in the towel on the basis of all texts being disputed. The argument runs, "If all the great scholars cannot agree then there is no point appealing to these passages." Or, alternatively, it runs "the passages are all disputed and therefore there is no point appealing to them.'' This is a total misunderstanding of the authority of the Scriptures. It is a naive belief that there is such a thing as an undisputed text in the Scriptures. It is a sinful belief that the Scriptures themselves are unclear rather than the readers confused. You see this in the footnotes of the Revised Standard Version where it keeps on speaking of the Hebrew text being uncertain. The Hebrew text is never uncertain – the translator is uncertain how to translate it. But the text itself is perfectly clear.
Whenever there is a disputation within the Christian community there will be disagreement about the meaning and application of passages of Scripture. That does not give us the right to ignore those passages but calls upon us to work harder at understanding them properly. That the Jehovah's Witnesses dispute the meaning of the passages that relate to the divinity of Jesus does not for a minute mean that I am to dismiss all those passages that relate to the subject on the grounds that they are disputed texts. What has taken place in this line of argument is the attempt to remove the issue from the authority of the Bible to the interpretation of the Bible and then to move the issue from the interpretation of the Bible to the irrelevance of the Bible. Thus we can make our conclusions on other bases all together such as the present cultural norms or how the Spirit is leading me or what the church thinks.
Finally, the authority of the Bible will not be maintained unless it is maintained alone. Recognizing the subsidiary roles of reason, experience and church in our understanding and application of the Scriptures it is still crucial to establish that there is no alternative or equal authority to the Scriptures. The Bible is sufficient for making God's mind known in order that Christian people can live in obedience to Him – in all cultures, in all ages, until the Lord returns. Nothing that has been left out is of any significance or importance. Nothing that has been left out should be laid upon the consciences and wills of other people. Nothing that has been left out can become normative for Christian life. Therefore whatever spiritual experiences, church traditions or rational reflections teach us, beyond the realm of Scripture, are unimportant in Christian living. Those who do not want to live under the authority of the Bible, frequently do not deny the authority of the Bible but rather add an alternative authority to the Bible. This alternative authority teaches them other "truths" than those found in the Bible and which soon take on an importance and prominence in Christian thinking and understanding that will undermine the Bible. It is not just that the Bible is authoritative, but also that the Bible alone is authoritative.