We have come to the point in our discussion of the resurrection of Jesus where we can see clearly what is involved in a reasonable and responsible decision to believe and adopt the Christian faith and life. If we’ve studied the first disciples’ recorded memories of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death, if we’ve listened to the testimonies of Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and many others to the resurrection, if we’ve been favorably impressed with the way of life of the early disciples, if we know and admire some contemporary believers, and if we are attracted to the Christian hope, I believe our decision to enter the Christian way can be reasonably and responsibly made. This transition is not best described an inference from premises to conclusion or an inference to the best explanation or a decision about the level of probability that a narrated event really happened. It is certainly not a blind leap of faith or a careless fall into wishful thinking. It is best described as the deepening of a personal relationship from respectful listening to trust and love for those who are in a position to know what we do not.
As a personal relationship of trust and love, faith makes a decisive commitment. It does not deny the possibility that it could be wrong, that it could be deceived. But it will not accept an obligation to withhold commitment while it anxiously seeks more evidence to confirm its trust. Nor does faith proportion its commitment to the weight of probability on each side. Genuine trust and love pushes aside the whispering voice of doubt that says, “But what if you are wrong?” Faith asserts in response, “I understand that I cannot know absolutely that I am right, but I believe that I am right. And I have decided and am determined to live as if I am right, even if I am wrong!” I shall have more to say about daily living in faith in future essays in this series. We are focusing here on the initial decision to believe.
Beyond the Fourth Decision Point
We have made the decisive move beyond the fourth decision point, that is, the division between mere theism and Christian faith in God. Now what? What are the implications of this decision? The first result of this move is a dramatic change in our relationship to the apostles and other early disciples. As seekers and enquirers, we treated the apostles’ writings as we would other historical documents. We gave them no advantage, no special deference, no authority above other texts. But once we come to believe that the apostles experienced Jesus’ conquest of death in his resurrection, everything changes. Now we are eager to know everything they can teach us about Jesus Christ and how we too can become his disciples. Because of their special relationship to Jesus, we accept them as our teachers, exclusively authoritative for what it means to believe, love and, hope as Christians. As a matter of historical placement, no other teachers, no other texts can guide us. But this way of understanding the authority of the Bible may seem new to many, so I want to deal briefly with that concern.
The Bible Tells Me So?
The children’s song says, “Jesus loves me! this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” A wonderful thought! Comforting to adults as well as children! But this line in the song does raise a question. Do Christians hold all their Christian beliefs simply because the Bible tells them so? Should nonbelievers be urged to believe in Jesus simply because the Bible tells them so? But why should a nonbeliever feel obligated to believe what the Bible says simply because it says so? Should believers attempt first to convince nonbelievers of the Bible’s divine authority and then argue from the Bible’s authority to the truth of everything the Bible teaches? In my view, it would be a serious mistake to place a decision about the authority of the Bible before a decision about Jesus and the apostolic testimony to his resurrection. Such a stance presumes either a culture in which the Bible is already held in high esteem or it obligates us to argue from historical and rational evidence to the Bible’s divine authority. Neither option is very promising. We no longer live in culture where we can assume that people will accept a claim just because the Bible says so. And most contemporary people view as implausible and unpersuasive arguments to the divine authority of the Bible from its historical reliability or internal coherence or its sublime teaching. Such arguments raise more questions than they answer.
As I argued above, I believe the proper basis for an individual’s recognition and acceptance of the authority of the Bible is the act of faith in the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Acceptance of the Bible’s authority is implicit in this act. In future posts I will continue to develop the implications of this thesis, attempting to place particular Christian teachings in their proper order in relation to the central Christian claim, that is, that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
I love the direction we are headed in! Two things I would love to see as we move into considering the authority and interpretation of the Scriptures:
1) I would love to see you consider the idea of Sola Scriptura and write about your view on it. I found it remarkable and admirable that you ground the authority of the Scriptures in the Resurrection, rather than the other way around. While that view is certainly not in contradiction with Sola Scriptura, many public defenders of Sola Scriptura tend to proceed from establishing the authority/sufficiency of Scripture to the truths contained therein, such as the Resurrection. I, for one, am sceptical of this approach to grounding the truth of Christian doctrine in general, so I would love to see this topic explored further.
2) Is the Scripture best to be understood/interpreted as having a single message, through which each of the books is to be read like a lens, or is it better to see Scriptures as representing a diversity of viewpoints on God and His people? I have often heard teaching to the effect that everything in the Bible–every book, chapter, and verse–is only properly understood in reference to Christ, either pointing forward to or backwards to Christ. There is a book called The Scarlet Thread through the Bible which I was made to read in High School that basically represents this idea. However, the more I have learned about the formation of the Scriptures we have and the exegesis of each book in its unique context, the more I have come to see the Bible not as a book but as a library. Personally, I find it beautiful and most edifying to see Scriptures as containing a whole panoply of different angles on the one true God. Each author of the books of Scripture wrote from a unique historical situation and had a specific individual perspective, just as each member in the Body of Christ does today.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these, whether now or in the future, and thank you for the thoughtful posts as always!
I do indeed plan to address the questions you so presciently ask. Briefly, of course sola scriptura became an important concept during the Protestant Reformation. But it was not used, for example, in the second century during the controversies with the various Gnostic groups. It seems to me that the core truth it contains is related to something I said in the present post: we are dependent on the first witnesses for our knowledge of Jesus. Their authority is exclusive. No Roman Catholic theologian in the Protestant era argued that the church could just make up dogmas; rather they traced the RC doctrines not found in Scripture to an unwritten tradition stretching from the apostles to the present. So, all admit that the church must submit to the authority of the apostles in matters Christian because of their historical placement and their commission from Jesus. The question of sola scriptura is whether all of that authoritative teaching is preserved in the canonical scriptures alone or some of it is preserved in the unwritten traditions. The Protestant doctrine of Sola scripture rejected unwritten tradition as a second source from apostolic teaching.
Yes, that seems right to me as a preview of the question. For the most part, RC doctrines that are part of the rule of faith but not contained in Scriptures deal with how the church implements the regular observance of Christian practice as a religious church. While it could certainly be argued that some RC doctrines drawn from tradition have theological implications (the Marian doctrines, for example), even they tend to have their genesis in various worship and ritual practices of Christianity, which Scripture underdetermines in its pages (bearing only the command for such practice to be edifying and orderly). I definitely look forward to further exploration on the subject!