Does Our Use of the Bible Determine Its Authority?

In current discussions and controversies about the Bible both in our immediate church circles and in the wider Christian world this question is coming to the surface as a most important one: Does the way we use the Bible determine what authority it has? While some would answer, “Of course, it doesn’t” there seems to be much confusion and uncertainty in the minds of many people about how the question should he answered.

A Revealing Book

A year ago my attention was directed to a book on this subject entitled, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology. Professor John Frame considered it so important that he devoted 25 pages of the Spring, 1977, Westminster Theologicnl Journal to its review, calling it, “possibly the most Significant writing on the subject since Warfield.” The author is David H. Kelsey, professor at Yale University. (The professor informs us that his private title for his work had been Text, Context and Pre-text, but that he had discarded this for the other which he considered more bland but more accurate. One can understand his being intrigued with this alternate title since it does suggest clearly the diverse ways we see people using the Bible, some concentrating on a text, others stressing that a text must always be used in its larger context, and still others making an ostensible appeal to the Bible as a mere pretense to gain support for ideas which may not be biblical at all.)

Its Purpose and Starting Point

The author points out that although traditionally protestant doctrines are based on Scripture authority there has been confusion on what this really meant. The book is about the meaning of “proving a doctrine from scripture” (p. 1). Setting out from some “theological position neutral” he attempted “to examine . . . ways in which theologians have . . . used scripture . . . to help authorize their theological proposals” trying “comprehensively” to include in his survey all views which call themselves “Christian.” Not only does he propose to make an “objective” survey from an assumed “neutral” position (which already tells us a good deal about his own unself critical assumption). He goes on to state frankly, “It is no part of our purpose to set up standards by which to decide when a theological position really is in accord with scripture. On the contrary, part of our thesis is that any question put that way is meaningless” (p. 5). In other words, his “neutral” position assumes that the only authority that has any meaning at all is that authority which people give the Bible in the way they choose to use it.

The Gist of the Book

The book proceeds to show us the various ways in which a number of theologians use the Bible. They all date from the 1920s and 30s with one exception. That one exception is B. B. Warfield whom the writer calls “far and away the ablest mind defending Calvinist orthodoxy in the U. S. in the 1880s and 1890s” (p. 16). Among the other more recent theologians the writer finds some holding that the revelation is in the events, not in the Bible’s account of them or in its doctrines or concepts (p. 32). They tell us that the revelation is in acts, not words, “dynamic,” not “substantialistic” (p. 37). Karl Barth explained “that sometimes . . . the ordinary human words of the biblical texts will become the Word of God . . . in a Divine-human encounter” (p. 48). Paul Tillich considered the authority of the Bible to be in its symbols with the distortions and exaggerations of “expressionist” painting (p. 69). Bultmann saw the authority in what he called the “Christ-event” through which man gets “self-understanding” (p. 78). While Warfield’s view might seem to differ from these others since he said that the Bible was authoritative because of “an inherent property,” “its inerrancy created by God‘s inspiration of its authors” (p. 91) not because of its function, the author summarily dismissed Warfield‘s idea because here too he considered the authority of the Bible to be only “functional,” in the way men use it. He found men using the Bible in various ways as (1) conclusion of an argument, (2) as data, (3) warrant, (4) backing or even (5) rebuttal of arguments (p. 144). He objected to the traditional Protestant claim that the Bible is the only authority (sola scriptum, p. 146), feeling that beside it one must place the results of historical research, aspects of contemporary culture and the church as authorities (p. 147). The author stated repeatedly that how one used the Bible as authority depended finally on ones imagination. Doesnt making imagination decisive turn the Bible into a mere “weathercock” (p. 170)? The writer answered his question by observing that that imagination was influenced by the church and changing cultural influences!

Warfield‘s way of construing Scripture was dismissed as “simply no longer seriously imaginable” to “many American Christians.” “The passage of time has not so much disproved him as make him seem terribly culture-conditioned. And to insist that a Christian community now adopt his hypothesis might seem to demand that it archaize itself into a culture now gone . . .” (p. 172). The author went on to admit that “In being conditioned by limits culture sets on what is seriously imaginable, theological proposals may turn out to be merely restatements of what is already imagined in the culture quite apart from Christianity’s central reality” (p. 173).

Dr. Allen Verhey Follows His Teacher

In addition to what this book shows about a common modern view of the Bibles authority it has further interest for us because Dr. David Kelsey of Yale is the professor under whose direction Dr. Allen Verhey wrote his doctoral dissertation, and to whom Dr. Verhey acknowledges himself to be deeply indebted. As most of our readers may know, we had to object to the way in which Dr. Verhey in his classical examination and other writings uses the Bible. Although he affirmed the Bible’s authority as the inspired Word of God, he uses and defends a method of interpreting it that permits him at will to deny what the Bible plainly says. Among the materials which plainly show his misuse of the Bible in a way that conflicts with the Bible and our Confessions, his thesis on l’he Use of the Scripture in Moral Discourse takes an important place. No one who compares that thesis with this book of Kelsey can fail to see how closely Dr. Verhey‘s argument and organization of material, line of argument; evaluations and conclusions follow those of his professor. As Kelsey’s book studies the use a number of modern theologians and Warfield made of the Bible, Verhey’s studies the use which Walter Rauschenbusch, an early modernist, and Carl Henry, a conservative, made of it. Like Kelsey, Verhey analyzed their use of the Bible as a data, warrant, claim, backing and rebuttal of arguments. Like Kelsey, Verhey maintains that one cannot move from the Bible to current applications without the use of warrants from outside the Bible for doing so, warrants that include scientific investigation, contemporary culture, etc. Like Kelsey he objects to the Protestants “sola scriptura” idea, the idea that the Bible is our only authoritative guide to faith and life. While Kelsey makes “imagination” decisive in how one is to use the Bible, Verhey in his thesis assigns that decisive role to “experience.”

Conflict with the Bible and the Creeds

A study of Verhey’s thesis made it obvious that such views cannot possibly be reconciled with the way the Bible and our Catechism and Belgic Confession teach that God’s law has direct authority to tell us what we may and may not do, and with what they teach (Belg. Confession, Article VII) about “THE SUFFICIENCY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES TO BE THE ONLY RULE OF FAITH.” In this latter article we confess, “Nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons ,or councils, decree or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all. . . Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule . . . .” Although Dr. Verhey says that he believes the Bible, believes that it is inspired and authoritative, believes what we in these creeds confess concerning it, he at the same time uses, defends and teaches a method of “interpreting” the Bible which lets him (and others) deny or set aside at will anything which the Bible says. Whether one says with him that “experience” or with his teacher, Kelsey, that “imagination” is what decides how the Bible is to be used, it is plain that the Bible has no real authority at all in such a procedure. Ones appeal to it is like ones use of a faucet which one can turn on or off to suit his own convenience. In Kelsey’s words, the Bible has indeed been turned into a mere “weathercock” to point in the direction of the prevailing winds of thought.

This is not merely the conclusion. It was already implied at the beginning of the studies. When one starts out by saying that he is not going to make any judgment about who is right and proceeds to put believer and unbeliever, Warfield and Tillich (with Kelsey), Henry and Rauschenbusch (with Verhey) on the same level to determine from their uses of the Bible what its authOrity means, it is obvious that the real right of the Bible as God‘s Word to command our submission and obedience has been rejected at the outset.

A Growing Assumption in Church Life

It becomes increasingly evident throughout our churches (as well as other churches) today that this notion that our use of the Bible determines its “authority” is not only the idea of a few exceptional processors. The notion is being more and more generally assumed and practiced.

The Women in Office Discussion

The official studies and general discussion of the issue of women in special church offices are increasingly revealing this assumption. Although the inspired Apostle Paul in his instructions regarding church offices plainly stated that the Lord had not assigned the offices of authoritative teaching and rule in the church to women (I Tim. 2:12ff.; I Cor. 14:32–38) we have now seen the majorities of three study committees report that the Bible gives us no plain teaching about this matter. When the Apostle Paul tells us that his injunction is “the commandment of the Lord” this is dismissed as his cultural, male chauvinism; when the same apostle writing about the way of salvation through faith in Christ says that “there is neither Jew, nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), this is declared to be the Word of God and a ground for reversing what He said was God’s commandment. Dr. John Vriend in the discussion of these matters at Calvin Seminary in the meeting of April 11 arranged by the Committee for Women observed that it was becoming increasingly apparent that such matters are not determined by (biblical} exegesis but by the historical and social situation. His observation was an accurate description of the present practice in our churches, although it flatly contradicted our claim that the Bible is our rule for faith and life. That appeal to the Bible by the committee majority in this matter is becoming, to borrow the apt expression of Dr. Kelsey, a mere “pretext.” This discussion is only the most recent of a whole series of inconclusive arguments, inconclusive because the church can no longer seem to make up its mind whether to let the Bible decide anything or not.

Another Example, the Homosexuality Decision

The denomination was still enough bound by its traditional morality in 1973 to declare that “Homosexual practice—must be condemned as incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture” (Acts 1973, p. 52). But it made the decision on the basis of a report which had said, “we cannot simply apply the Old Testament prohibition without considering whether our knowledge of homosexuality may not modify to some degree our moral judgment about the homosexual problems of such persons” (p. 619) and “again we need to ask whether the judgment of Paul applies to those who are homosexuals as we have defined them . . .” (p. 621) and “biblical injunctions and prohibitions are to be honored in every instance where they are not overborne by either external necessity or by a higher value” (p. 631). In other words, while on this matter our churches are still maintaining what appears to be the biblical condemnation of this increasingly common vice, they officially did so only after being plainly told by their advisory committee that not what the Bible says but the present church judgment on whether or how far we at this point see fit to follow its directions decides the matter! Obviously in this case the Bible is no longer accepted as the real “authority” at all.

What Does “Authority” Mean?

Complicating this confusion about the Bible‘s “authority” is the fact that the word “authority” is being used in two different ways. “Authority” in its primary and original sense means “legal or rightful power . . . to command” (Webster). Only in a secondary way is it used for “5. power due to opinion or esteem; influence of character, station, mental or moral superiority, or the like.” Now we ought to observe that what is happening throughout our present-day society is that this primary notion of “authority” as a “right to command” (especially God’s “right to command”) is everywhere being opposed and rejected. The only “authority” that is being acknowledged at all is this “secondary” or attenuated one of the esteem or influence that people deem fit to assign to those that they for the moment choose to follow. After all isn’t this the only authority that our “democratic” society, if conSistent, will tolerate, an “authority” dependent on the “consent of the governed”? In this secondary sense Dr. Spock, for example, was the “authority” for the training of a generation of children even though that doctor now reportedly admits that many of his ideas were mistaken. Now see this notion that the only admissible authority in todays world is this “secondary” kind which man himself assigns to what he chooses to follow, creating confusion in our talk of the Bibles authority. This assumption of only secondary human authority becomes plainly apparent in this book of Dr. Kelsey, in the way his enthusiastic student Dr. Verhey uses and misuses the Bible. and in the more and more of the decisions and policies of our synods and churches.

The “Modern” Problem of Authority Is as Old as Sin

We have been looking at this idea that our use of the Bible determines its authority as a modern development. It really isnt new at all. It is merely a more and more outspoken expression of something that is as old as sin and the Fall—man’s revolt against the authority or right of God to command him. Genesis tells of Gods command and of the devil’s temptation to our first parents to let them decide whether God or the devil could make the better case for deserving to be followed. This temptation of the devil to give man the right to decide against God really puts man over God. This is the essence of sin and has characterized the whole history of man’s sin ever since. Jesuscollison with the Pharisees and scribes always came back to this basic matter. They, like their forefathers “made the commandment of God of none effect” by their tradition (Matt. 15:3ff., cf. Is. 29:13ff.). That was why they became “blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:14), exactly like many later theologians and church leaders.

It was not only the leaders who were guilty of this revolt against God. We see it in the people who when the Lord fed 5000 of them with a free lunch “were about to come and take him by force, to make him king” (John 6:15). Notice that although in this situation Christ, it appeared, might be made “king” or “authority,” the real control was tacitly assumed to be with the people. They like today’s voters would tolerate his “rule” only on the condition and as long as he was providing the free food (cf. John 6:26ff.). That kind of following of Christ was really no surrender to Him as their rightful Lord and King, but a rejection. Similarly today’s Christianity and church life that follows Him only as long as it seems expedient and desirable to the sovereign people is no real Christianity at all but the anti-Christian apostasy from it. The Lord disowned that kind of followers, “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say” (Luke 6:46)? “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:23).

A Possible Objection

Someone might object to stressing this “authority” in the primary sense as “legal or rightful power to command.” When Jesus said that the Jewish dealers “made the commandment of God of none effect” was He not acknowledging as a fact this secondary kind of authority to nullify God’s commandments? (Dr. Verhey in his thesis, p. 219, claims that “The inability or unwillingness to be consistent with a recommendation [for the use of Scripture] counts against it.” “The recommendations here are that the first-order recommendations which the Christian community is unable or unwilling to act on consistently be disestablished.”) We need to notice that the word translated in the King James Version “made . . . of none effect” is more accurately translated “transgress.” Man imagined (and still does) that he can get away with setting aside the commandment of God. This, as Psalm 2 and a multitude of other Scriptures warn us, is his foolish arrogance. The Lord‘s unchanging Word condemns and brings judgment upon him unless he repents.

Compromise of the Bible’s Authority Threatens Ecumenical Relations

Our compromising course of letting our practice obscure the Bible’s authority is bringing division within our churches and dividing us from other churches with whom we are supposed to share a common faith. I observed in last month’s review of the Synod Agenda (p. 174; cf . OUTLOOK, June 1978, p. 11 ) that our Interchurch Relations Committee frankly admitted that in our relations with other members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) it has become “evident . . . that we do have different approaches to the Bible and different ways of reading the Word of God.”

A Protest and Proposal for Toleration

Dr. Harry Boer who in his book, Above the Bible? has attacked the inerrancy of the Bible (and his gravamen has attacked the biblical doctrine of election as expressed in our creed) in the March, 1978 Reformed Journal deplores our affiliation with the organization of Presbyterian and Reformed churches (NAPARC) who believe in an inerrant Bible. He Rays the hypocrisy and double-talk of our synods who have tried to cover up the deep rift that exists within our churches regarding their views of the Bible. He wants to have this radical difference frankly recognized and tolerated throughout our churches as it is in our seminary.

This “Toleration” Is Intolerable

This radical difference in belief regarding the Bible does need to be recognized and exposed. But it may not be tolerated. The notion that our experience or imagination may decide what authority we will permit the Bible to have must be rejected as a heresy which no Christian and no church may tolerate. Christ forbids us to exercise that kind of toleration. He said, “No man can serve two masters.” Therefore we arc compelled to press the charges against the views of Dr. Verhey. The Neland Avenue Church after having those charges before it for a year has judged his views permissible although it has not answered the objections to them. Therefore the case has now been brought to Classis Grand Rapids East which has appointed a committee to study it. Some fifty-five years ago Professor Ralph Janssen was deposed from office in our churches because although he claimed to believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible he taught and practiced a “critical” way of using that Bible which contradicted that claim. Today our churches must exercise the same kind of discipline against such views if they are going to be faithful to the Lord who has called them.

And we need to seek closer ties with all who share our common, biblical faith at the same time as we reject those who reject it.

Needed – A Back-to-the-Bible Reformation

Important though these activities are, there is something just as important and much more extensive that needs to be done throughout our denomination. The present confusion and discussions about the Bible expose that need although I fear that it has been with us for a long time. The notion that our use of the Bible properly determines its authority gains plausibility and toleration because, as a matter of fact, many of our members and our leaders have evidently been operating with it.

Why have we throughout our churches been teaching and following our traditional doctrines and way of life? Have we been holding them because we understood them and obeyed them as the plain teachings of God’s Word, the Bible? Haven‘t they generally been accepted and passed along rather as church traditions accepted without much question or study regarding why we held them? Now many are attacking the beliefs and practices in an anti-traditionalist reaction against the old traditionalism. The trouble is that in many cases neither the attackers of the tradition nor the maintainers of it have really been going back to the Bible which is supposed to be our only authority for faith and life. Failing to begin on biblical ground, much of the discussion is inconclusive. The crisis situation into which we arc entering demands that like our Reformed fathers who faced a similar crisis we get back to serious study of the real reasons why we must hold to Christian beliefs and practices the reason that God has revealed and commanded them in His Word. That’s the way our Reformed fathers found, maintained, defended, and formulated their way of faith and life. As now all of these things come under question and attack, if we are driven back to the Lord and His gospel as the source and ground of that faith and life, the result may in the mercy of God be a real Revival and Reformation. That with its biblical enthusiasm and zeal, could revitalize the training of our families, preaching and teaching of our churches, and missionary and social influence in a way our churches have not known for generations. Some of our Missouri Lutheran brethren are speaking of that kind of revival among them. Let us pray that the Lord may give that also to us as we trust and obey Him and His Word.