I was standing in the Chicago O’Hare Airport early one morning waiting to pick up a friend when I overheard two men chatting about Christians …
They were standing with name placards waiting to transport some business travelers. One fellow was describing a group that still practiced the Old Testament laws, and he told his friend that they held rape victims accountable for sexual misconduct — a misreading of Deut 22:13–30, which actually defends women who were innocently raped.
But his comment about this group was particularly striking: “Christians only read the nice parts of the Bible — so they can finish it in 20 minutes.”
I don’t know the group he mentioned or what they actually believe, so I can’t address them, but this man stereotyped a much larger mass of people: Christians. Does his comment represent Christians fairly? Do we only skim the Bible, which we call our authority for faith and practice, to get something out of it quickly and avoid anything that’s difficult?
Clearly his overgeneralization doesn’t hold up for all Christians. I’ve known many pastors and seminary students who have devoted their lives to understanding the holy Scriptures and communicating it to others, and I’ve known many lay Christians who daily open the Bible, mining God’s written revelation so that Christ might transform them.
Yet despite my certainty that several Christians are committed Bible students, I’ve also known many who have desired to make Scripture a priority yet at times in their lives have struggled to do so. Mea culpa. And then there are those Christians who have never really taken the written Word of God seriously. A churchgoer once told me, “The only thing I read is car magazines.”
This brings us back to our chauffeur’s question. Could he be on to a trend in evangelicalism today? Does the Bible serve as an authority in our theology and life?
My church recently began a series that our pastor, Mike Woodruff, developed for the whole church to go through together, complete with sermons, a few weekend seminars, and a small group curriculum. The series will explore the church’s statement of faith intermittently over a period of three years. The first series addressed revelation, looking particularly at God’s written revelation, the 66 books we call the Bible.
Pastor Woodruff introduced four sources of authority for our small group to discuss: reason, experience, tradition and revelation. He gave us this question to answer: How would you rate these sources in terms of their authority in your life? In my small group, made up of committed evangelicals who regularly attend the church, not even half the members said revelation was their top authority. Some gave supreme authority to reason because “there has to be proof or evidence”; some to experience because “it’s got to be real first”; and others to tradition because their parents significantly shaped their beliefs.
Reason, experience and tradition are all legitimate sources of authority, but that doesn’t mean they should be given top billing. Reason’s evidence is not always as clear-cut as some claim, especially if it’s limited to natural phenomena, an assumption that traverses Christians’ belief in the supernatural. (If you believe in the resurrection, you don’t believe in strict naturalism.) Experience is limited by individual perception and fickle feelings; can that really be the arbiter of truth? And while tradition can pass on truth, it can also pass on misinformation and even deceive.
But this is not to lay fault on the small group members necessarily. Any number of reasons could lead to them attributing ultimate authority to something other than Scripture, including the failure of churches in their past to adequately teach them why the Bible is authoritative and what the Bible actually says.
Traditionally, the Bible has been given top authority among Christians, particularly among Protestants. As one example, the Westminster Confession (1646) devotes its first section to “the Holy Scripture,” showing the preeminent place it holds in Christian theology. The Confession states:
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.”
The Westminster Confession goes on to describe the Bible as the chief source of authority: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” The Confession recognizes the need for the Holy Spirit’s illuminating work, but opposes anything that challenges Scripture’s authority.John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 193–196.
Many other examples could be given, but perhaps the best place to look is the Bible itself, which makes bold claims about its authority and value. Christ said in His high priestly prayer to the Father, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17) — not just “true,” a descriptor of the Word, but “truth” itself. It is truth because it comes from God, who never errs. “For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov 2:6).
The Bible’s source is divine since no prophecy of Scripture was produced by man’s will, but “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The whole Bible is inspired for “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). Since Scripture’s source is divine, it can claim ultimate authority that reason, experience and tradition cannot.
And if we Christians want to take the God we worship seriously, then we need to take his Word seriously too.
Taking Scripture seriously means, on one level, reading the whole thing — even the parts that may seem difficult. The gospel message is simple, but the Bible as a whole is not. No one could master it in a lifetime because its subject is the infinite God. Yet pursuing mastery is worth every minute. It will require help from commentators, pastors, small group leaders and other Christians seeking to understand it together, but will yield rewarding results.
Not only must we explore the whole of Scripture, we must also spend good time in the Bible — not just 20 minutes a week on Sundays, but daily time drinking from the well by which God refreshes us.
Psalm 1:2 says that blessing comes to the person whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” and who meditates “on his law … day and night.” Similarly, the Jews in Berea who heard Paul and Silas preach the gospel are described as “noble” because “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). A fervent daily engagement with Scripture gives the Holy Spirit fertile ground in which to cultivate healthy vines that bear a good reputation for the name of Christ.
As we work our way through another new year, people are throwing all kinds of resolutions around. Exercise daily. Eat less. Save more. Whether you’re into New Year’s resolutions or not, perhaps now is the right time to start a plan for taking the spiritual discipline of Bible study seriously.
So how do we get started or jumpstart a stalled heart? If you want to engage the issue of Scripture and why we believe it is authoritative, you can check out the series on the Bible that my pastor gave this fall.Look at the “FencePosts” series, starting with the sermon dated September 7, 2008 and ending with the sermon dated October 26, 2008.
Another option is to read Psalm 119 once a day for a week. This psalm highlights the value of Scripture and can help motivate us in keeping up a plan of Bible reading. It teaches us to live this vision: “I will meditate on Your precepts and fix my eyes on Your ways. I will delight in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word” (Ps 119:15–16).
Of course it’s not enough to study the Bible. We also have to live out what we learn, as Psalm 119:1 states, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” But in order to walk in God’s way, we first have to know what it looks like.
Perhaps the comment I heard at O’Hare points to a real apathy about the Bible amongst evangelicals. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can counter biblical illiteracy together by devoting ourselves to reading Scripture daily, consulting those who have studied it far more than we have, and reaching toward understanding better the One of whom the Book speaks and toward living a more faithful life that honors God our Creator and Redeemer.
Copyright 2009 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.
About the Author
David Barshinger has a Ph.D. in Church History/Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), where he wrote on Jonathan Edwards’ engagement with the book of Psalms. He has served with the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS and Christ on Campus Initiative, and he is currently teaching as an adjunct professor. David lives in Illinois with his wife, Allison, and their four children.