Monday, May 14, 2012

The authority of Scripture or whatever

Reading both Louise Westfall’s sermon on the Covenant Network’s web site and John Vest’s devotional on his blog, I am struck by their low view of Scripture. Although both the sermon and the devotional, are seemingly about homosexuality, the substance of the matter is about the inspiration of the Bible.

There are all kinds of refutations that might be made about various ideas in these two documents such as the Bible and Paul advocating for slavery, but the real problem to confront is the issue of inspiration. The truth is that the denomination is not breaking apart over homosexuality but over the authority of Scripture.

Louise Westfall in her sermon, “A Biblical Perspective on Homosexuality,” writes:
The Bible reveals God’s Word (though notice that is NOT the same as saying the Bible is a record of God’s words). Presbyterians have always understood Scripture as a unique witness to the Word of God in the formation of the covenant community of Israel, the life and ministry, saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the birth of the Church.

Yet at the same time, Presbyterians have always understood that the words of Scripture must be interpreted (guided by the Holy Spirit) to become God’s Word for us.
John Vest in his devotional, “Paul’s Opinion on Marriage,” writes:
In a sweeping chapter on his understanding of marriage, Paul notes quite clearly that he is offering his own opinion rather than a direct commandment from God. Not only that, he offers this opinion based on his belief that the world would soon end with the second coming of Christ. Unless we missed a major memo, that didn’t happen as Paul (and most of the early Christians and writers of the New Testament) thought it would. There is no question that his teachings were influenced by this end-times mentality. What do we make of such thinking twenty centuries later? What else was Paul wrong about? What else was merely his opinion, not the word of God?

…It should teach us that what we now consider scripture was once the contextual and perhaps even provisional writings of real faith communities trying, as we are, to figure it all out. It should humble us to realize that even Paul was sometimes grasping for answers. …
Reading both of these together one at once sees that although both Westfall and Vest have some respect for some texts and words of the Bible they do not uphold the Scriptures as the written word of God.

Westfall adds a unique way of understanding authority; that is, she claims that until the Holy Spirit interprets the words of the Bible to the Christian community, the words are not the words of God. Meaning, I would suppose, that it is the interpretation that is inspired. Stating that the Holy Spirit interprets the word is not wrong but insisting the word is not the word of God until the Holy Spirit interprets is not only dreadfully wrong it fails to consider the Scriptures as the inspired word of God.

A better way of understanding what the Holy Spirit does is to say that the Spirit enlightens the mind and heart so that the reader and hearer will believe. As the Westminster Confession states: “…we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word ..” It is not the Holy Spirit’s interpretation that causes the word to be God’s word to us but the Spirits enlightenment for us of what is already God’s word. But as to the inspiration and authority of Scripture the Confessions are very clear—they are the word of God. The Second Helvetic Confession states:
We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the Fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures. 5.001
Vest does not begin with any particular method for distinguishing what could be called the word of God, rather he leaves us in despair of knowing what is truly God’s word and what is not. Once again, one could go through Vest’s devotional pulling out some of his attempts to prove that not all of the word is the word of God.

For instance one could suggest that Paul’s statement that it is his opinion about something rather than a command of God does not mean that Paul was wrong or that the words were not inspired by God. And, as for Paul and other Biblical writers concluding that Jesus would soon return and they were wrong- two points should be made.

First, many scholars have concluded that Paul was not referring to the coming of Christ, but rather he was concerned about some internal crisis that the Corinthian Church was experiencing. Secondly New Testament writers often speak of the soon return of Christ, as Vest points out with some disparagement, but surprisingly this point does not mean they were wrong, the Church must always be aware of Christ’s soon return. On this very point F.F. Bruce quotes John Henry Newman:
Though time intervene between Christ’s first and second coming, it is not recognized (as I may say) in the Gospel scheme, but is, as it were, an accident. For so it was, that up to Christ’s coming in the flesh, the course of things ran straight towards that end, nearing it by every step; but now, under the Gospel, that course has (if I may so speak) altered its direction, as regards His second coming, and runs , not toward the end, but along it, and on the brink of it; and is at all times near the great event, which, did it run towards it, it would at once run into. Christ, then, is ever at the doors.[1]
Bruce adds this, “In the Christian era it is always five minutes to midnight. But as ‘the course of things’ runs along the edge of the final consummation, that edge at times becomes a knife edge, and at such times the sense of it being the ‘the last hour’ is specially acute”[2] But, the main issue is still the Scripture as the word of God.

Without Scripture as ultimate authority the Church has no authority. That is not to say that Christ is not the head and the one voice that we must obey, but the Church only knows Jesus in and from Scripture. Any denomination that starts tearing away the authority of Scripture, picking here and there at various texts, will eventually end with a different Jesus, a Jesus that is made up of varying kinds of human experience including sin.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the process of casting away her reformation heritage, which includes sola scriptura, simply for the sake of sexual perversion and and an unholy unity based in a spirituality that has no center.

All Scripture is Inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

[1] Quoted from, J.H. Newman, “Waiting for Christ,” Parochial and Plain Sermons’, vi (London, 1896), 241, in  F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Eerdmans 1970).
[1] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Eerdmans 1970)65.

Dice picture by Christopher Juncker

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