OUR AUTHORITY: SCRIPTURE OR EXPERIENCE?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at 1:38pm
QUESTION: How do we know God is in control? We say, during tough times, that “He is on the Throne.” But the question always haunts us: “If God is really in control, why is the world in such a mess? Why are all these bad things happening in my life?” How can we be sure He is really reigning over all things?
ANSWER: How we answer this is the ultimate test of whether we really believe the Bible is our final authority or not, rather than our own experience being our final authority.
I have been thinking a lot about this point recently, after having read an article by Luke Timothy Johnson called “Homosexuality and the Church” (Commonweal, June 6, 2007, online). Johnson is trying to explain why he rejects the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual behavior. He realizes that “something sacred is at stake,” namely, “the authority of Scripture.” He does not do what many try to do, namely, reinterpret the Biblical passages against homosexualism. “The exegetical situation is straightforward,” he says; “we know what the text says.” So how can we justify “standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture”?
Johnson’s answer is that we have to recognize that there is another authority that is higher than the authority of the Bible, namely, our own experience: “I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality . . . .”
What we are experiencing, he says, is the continuing working of God in the lives of individuals, giving us new insight into his will. “We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts.” If there is a conflict, “then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.”
Now, I want to explain that I am not at this point discussing the issue of homosexualism, and I do not cite this material from Johnson for that purpose. I am using it rather to illustrate the fact that each one of us, at some point in our lives, has to decide what is going to be our ultimate authority on all issues. At its deepest level, this decision usually boils down to a choice between either the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, or our own experience. Here “experience” means the circumstances with which we have been confronted in our lives and which have affected us in very personal ways.
Many of life’s circumstances are neutral and even positive, and do not involve any real tension with Biblical teaching. It is easy to accept the Bible’s authority in such cases. But for all of us, there are other circumstances that affect us in negative ways, situations that seem to conflict with the Bible’s teaching, and which shake the foundations of our (up to that point) comfortable convictions and assumptions. These present us with the crisis of authority. Shall we continue to submit to whatever the Bible says, because we still accept it as the inspired and inerrant Word of God? Or shall we abandon that foundation on the grounds that it is no longer consistent with our life’s experiences?
The circumstances that present this crisis of authority may be different for each of us. For L. T. Johnson, it may have been the fact that one of his daughters was a lesbian. For others, it may be the widespread presence of evil in the world in general, such as suicide bombings or devastating earthquakes producing tsunamis; or it may be a particularly jolting personal experience such as one’s child being killed by a hit-and-run driver, or one’s wife dying of cancer, or one’s house burning to the ground. These are the kinds of situations that can raise the questions given above, namely, how can we be sure God is really in charge or in control of the world? How can we be sure that he is on the throne?
The fact is this: if we were to base our answer solely on the circumstances which we have experienced or of which we are aware, we would probably find it very difficult to believe in a sovereign, loving Creator-God who is fully in control of his creation. How can God be in control, in view of (for example) my son’s death, my wife’s cancer, my house burning down, or the Japanese tsunami?
In the final analysis, we simply have to decide whether to allow such circumstances to point us to a negative answer, or whether to accept the testimony of Scripture: “The LORD reigns!” (1 Chr. 16:31; Ps. 93:1-2; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; Isa. 52:7). “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Ps. 103:19). He is the “great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2). He is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Regarding my personal testimony, I decided long ago that my final authority in all things is the Bible; thus I accept this clear, unequivocal Biblical teaching concerning God’s absolute sovereignty over all things.
I admit that there are times when I must believe this in spite of my own experiences. But in such cases I take refuge in God’s promise: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). After I wrote my book on God’s providence (What the Bible Says About God the Ruler), I prepared a Scripture index for it. When it was completed I found that I had quoted Romans 8:28 more often than any other Biblical text (15 times).
Two other Biblical teachings must be kept in mind as we are trying to come to grips with the many negative situations which we encounter every day. First, we must remember Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:18-23, that the whole universe is presently under a curse until the New Heavens and New Earth are born (Rom 8:18ff.). This explains why even in the world of nature many things happen that are in fact not “natural,” i.e., not a product of the world as God originally created it. These “unnatural” things include tsunamis, disease, and human death. If we did not understand how these things came to be present in the world, their presence might indeed raise questions about God’s Lordship. But when we see them in the light of the curse of Genesis 3, and realize that they are unnatural and also temporary, we see that they are not a threat to the divine sovereignty.
Second, it is also important to remember that God’s sovereign decision to create free-will beings lies behind the abundance of sin in the world (see my chapter on the problem of evil in God the Ruler). Mankind’s misuse of the blessed gift of free will (especially the original trespass of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) is the source of many of the negative experiences that raise questions about God’s being in control.
I will mention one last point relevant to such questions. As I interpret it, the very last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, was written for the very purpose of driving home this very point: “God is in charge!”—in spite of all the seeming evidence to the contrary. The various sections of the book, in sequence, present symbolic descriptions of the kinds of circumstances that challenge the authority of God, and each section raises the question: “Who’s in charge here?” But each time, in section after section, the emphatic answer is set forth: “God is in charge!” The whole point of this last Biblical book is to comfort us in the face of negative experiences of all kinds. (See my book, The Faith Once for All, pp. 488-94.)