The authority of Scripture can be forthrightly denied; “I don’t believe that!” But, amongst Christians who claim to believe in biblical authority (including scholars, preachers and pastors) there can be more subtle types of denial.
So writes D.A. Carson in this recent piece in Themelios. What follows is a precis.
1. Appeal to selective evidence
This is clearly at work in advocates of the ‘prosperity gospel’, who cherry-pick texts that appear to support their message, while ignoring those which speak of cross-carrying and suffering with Christ. But there are more subtle versions of this error, as when we avoid talking about disputed matters in a misguided effort to ‘keep the peace’.
The antidote is systematic expository preaching. This will force us to face up to the ‘whole counsel of God’, and make it harder for us to avoid the hard texts.
2. Embarrassment before the text
A preacher may avoid a topic for various reasons: maybe he hasn’t studied it in sufficient depth, or he may be uneasy about the topic or finds it distasteful, or he knows his congregation is sharply divided on it.
In such cases, the preacher needs something of the straightforward integrity of Paul (see 2 Cor 4:1f).
3. Legitimating what God condemns
When evangelical publishers offer books that purport to argue ‘from Scripture’ two or more contradictory viewpoints (on homosexual practice, for example), the effect is to say to the readers, ‘we cannot be sure what Scripture teaches on this issue – you choose for yourselves which approach you prefer’). ‘Not all disputed things are properly disputable.’
4. ‘Imperious ignorance’
Mike Ovey talked about ‘the art of imperious ignorance’. The idea is that certain Bible passages are confusing, and good Christians cannot agree about their meaning. It is all too mysterious. Thus we criticise Scripture for not being clear enough (on the doctrine of Christ, for example), while allowing people to adopt the positions they want. On the question of homosexual practice, for example, ‘progressives’ questions the long-standing consensus of the church and then accuse ‘conservatives’ of drawing lines and refusing to ‘agree to disagree’. Quite often, those who take such a stance want, very understandably, to assert the priority of love for one another. But, as someone has said, we need to love one another enough to tell them the truth. And, as someone else has remarked, if simple, undefined ‘love’ is the answer, why don’t we expand the categories of permissible behaviour to include polygamy, say, or incest?
5. Using the categories of systematic theology to domesticate exegesis
This is not to say that systematic theology has no place in shaping and controlling exegesis. But it should not be used to herd and tame scripture to fit into our neat boxes. When, for example, Scripture juxtaposes divine sovereignty and human responsibility, let us beware of too facile a reconciliation.
6. Neglect of reading, especially of older works
There are those who read only contemporary works, and those who read mainly older works (such as the Puritans). But we need to be in touch with both if we are to avoid the merely faddish, on the one hand, and the antiquated, on the other hand. If a preacher has a diet of only modern reading, then he will tend to major on modern emphases, such as self-identity, ecology, tolerance, money management and divorce recovery. But if he digs more deeply into the past, he will be prompted to deal with topics such as
7. Failure to be bound by both the formal and material principle
It is not enough to affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do that). But we must also cleave to what the Bible actually says. On the other hand, there are those who refuse to affirm the Bible’s inspiration, but claim to ‘just let the Bible speak for itself’. But that too tends to lead to a drift away from the authority of the Bible.
8. Too much, or too little, respect for the technical
It is possible to be so preoccupied with using the technical tools of Bible study that we fail to actually listen to the word of God. Conversely, some people disdain such tools to the extent that they rely on private, impressionistic readings. Either way, the Bible’s really authority is undermined.
9. Undisciplined confidence in today’s philosophical agendas
Thus, for example, a philosophical stance might insist that the biblical text carries no timeless truth, and that its authority lies in its ‘usefulness’ to its readers. But such agenda exploits the text, rather than exegeting it. In every age, the church has had to work hard to listen to God’s word and to allow it to stand over prevailing philosophies – be they Aristotelian, Platonist, Gnostic, Thomist, Cartesian, or Rational.
10.Anything that reduces our trembling before God’s word
Our own attitudes and behaviours may drive us away from the Bible. ‘It is hard to imagine those who are awash in porn, or those who are nurturing sexual affairs, or those who are feeding bitter rivalry, to be spending much time reading the Bible, much less trembling before it.’ But the Lord looks with favour on those who tremble at his word (Isa 66:2).