Some Thoughts about the Bible (I)

Martin Luther the great reformer, once wrote this:

The word of God is seldom retained in its purity in any one place beyond the period of twenty or at best forty years. The people become accustomed to it, grow cold in their Christian love, and regard God's gift of grace with indifference.

Currently we seem to be in a period when the word of God is not being "retained in its purity". Devaluing the "written" word of God is a key factor in this process. So perhaps from time to time I should write something on issues relating to "the Bible" and its authority. I shall start off with some history.

The Reformation period

For the first fifteen centuries of the Church's history there was little public contention. But things came to a head at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. The Continental and English Reformers were accusing the Roman Church of being "unbiblical". They said Rome was putting church Tradition "over" the Bible. This led to defying the Bible by adding to the mediation of Christ the mediation of Mary and of priests; to ignoring its teaching on the Holy Spirit; and to contradicting its teaching on justification by faith, the sacraments (especially Holy Communion) and the nature of the Church itself.

J.I.Packer analyses the debate in these terms:

In that [Reformation] debate the main issues were the extent, clarity and sufficiency of Scripture.

On the first issue Rome said: "The canon of Scripture is known through the church's decision, which when conciliar is infallible (as when the Council of Trent defined the Old Testament apocrypha into the Canon, something never before done)." Protestants said: "The authority of church use and definition, though weighty, is not final nor divine; recognition of canonical Scripture depends ultimately on the covenanted inner witness of the Spirit, whereby the divine source and authority of those books which the church has historically attested to (not, therefore, the apocrypha) is made evident to faith.

On the second issue Rome said: "Scripture is not self-explanatory, and the Bible reader who does not let the teaching church tell him what the book means will err to his soul's hurt." Protestants said: "Though it is true that God has appointed the preaching of the Word as the prime means of Christian understanding, yet all things necessary to salvation are plain in the biblical text, so that the one who reads attentively, seeking the Spirit's help and comparing Scripture with Scripture, will not be led astray."

On the third issue Rome said: "Scripture needs to be supplemented by traditions which the church hands down." Protestants replied: "The absence of traditional items (papacy, penances, pilgrimages, what have you) from the Bible argues their non-necessity and probable unsoundness.

So the debate at the time of the Reformation was fundamentally over the relationship between Scripture and Tradition.

But it wasn't long before the debate was over the relationship between Scripture and human Reason. The Reformers had stressed the right of private judgment. For them they wanted the freedom to be "under" the Bible and not "under" church Tradition. But there was a danger in this quest for freedom. It came from the assumptions of some Renaissance humanism that produced a loss of the doctrine of sin and a gain in confidence in human potential. This lead to the desire to be free "from" the Bible altogether, rather than to be free "for" the Bible. So it lead to the freedom to disagree with it when you wanted to!

Liberal Protestantism and the modern era

Human Reason and neither the Bible nor Tradition was becoming the final authority. Less and less was it said that the human mind needed to be steered by the Bible's teaching. Rather it could sit in judgment on the Bible and work out religious truth for itself.

And so in the 17th century there were the deists. These said God may have created the world, but he no longer was involved in it; rather it ran under its own natural laws and with no need of any interventions from a "miraculous" God.

In the 18th century there were the rationalists and Enlightenment philosophers. These denied the possibility of knowledge about the spiritual world. So God couldn't possible reveal himself. The Bible, therefore, whatever else it may be (so they taught), is not primarily God's revelation to this world; rather it is human reflection about God - some of it good, and some of it not so good.

Then in the 19th century there were the liberals. The "father" of these was Schleiermacher. To side-step the rationalists of the 18th century, he argued that Christianity is essentially not something of the mind or reason at all. Rather it is a feeling of dependence on God. It is an experience. Christian "doctrine" is simply an attempt to put that experience into words. But those words are merely the words of a given age. So they cannot be permanent and theology is not about God but about human feelings concerning the divine.

And so you come to the 20th century. And sadly many of the leaders in the wider Church today have been indoctrinated in this post-Reformation liberal Protestant tradition. They then confuse (and horrify) many faithful people.

But happily this century there has been a recovery. Karl Barth is one of those who led the way. He may not have gone far enough but he was hugely important and so has been one of the most significant theologians of this century.

At one time Karl Barth was a faithful follower of the liberal nineteenth century theologians who had successfully de-gutted the Christian gospel. They held that there was no heaven or hell, sin or atonement and that Christ was not really divine. Richard Niebuhr summed it up when he said they taught that ...

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) was a good example of these views and Barth happened to be his pupil. Harnack believed that Christianity was a valuable religion; but it was to be summarised in two catch phrases, "the Fatherhood of God" and "the Brotherhood of man". "Let's not fuss about the Resurrection or the empty tomb. Forget the plain record of the Bible. Jesus himself didn't really believe he was the son of God. And the idea that Christ was both God and man is too complicated. Originally there was a simple Galilean gospel - 'the religion of Jesus'. Then Paul came along and complicated it. He made it into the 'religion about Jesus'." These were the sort of the ideas Karl Barth had absorbed as a student.

A change of mind

But suddenly Karl Barth changed his mind. He rejected the liberal theology of the nineteenth century and did a complete 'U'-turn. Why did he change? It was not that he first looked afresh at the New Testament evidence and saw that it seemed to contradict the ideas coming from the academic theologians. That wasn't the first thing that happened. No! What happened was this: he discovered one day in August 1914 that almost all of his admired liberal Protestant teachers were supporting the war policy of Kaiser Wilhelm II. These theologians had signed a declaration issued by ninety-three German intellectuals supporting the Kaiser's policies. Among the signatories was none other than Adolf von Harnack. There were also others who were Barth's theological teachers. Here is how Karl Barth recalled this event in later years:

Among the signatures I found to my horror the names of nearly all my theological teachers whom up to then I had religiously honoured. Disillusioned by their conduct, I perceived that I should not be able any longer to accept their ethics and dogmatics, their biblical exegesis, their interpretation of history; that at least for me the theology of the nineteenth century had no future.

That doesn't answer all the questions. But it underlines the wisdom of Charles Simeon of Cambridge, the great Evangelical leader at the beginning of the 19th century. His attitude to the Bible was as follows:

Where the inspired writers speak in unqualified terms, he thinks himself at liberty to do the same; judging that they needed no instruction from him how to propagate the truth. He is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the holy Apostles, and has no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken.

The believer is to go to the Bible to learn from God. And it was Jesus himself who said: "Father .... you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children" (Matthew 11.25).

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