[NOTE: The following is a version of my commencement address, given to the graduating class of 2014 at the Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC, on May 10, 2014.]
The Protestant Reformation commenced with a commitment to sola Scriptura, “the Bible alone.”
The Restoration Movement commenced with this slogan (among others): “The Bible, and the Bible alone, is our only rule of faith and practice.”
Today is another kind of commencement. You are commencing your career of ministry with a similar commitment to Biblical authority, after many hours and years of studying the Bible in a faithful school under faithful teachers.
Most often, we trust that students who have had the kind of experience you have, will have come to believe in the truth and authority of the Bible more firmly than ever. But sadly, sometimes the college experience—even in a Christian university—has the opposite effect. Good beginnings do not guarantee good continuing progress and good endings.
Either way, once you finish your higher education and begin your life of Christian ministry (in whatever form), you can be sure of this: As you continue in ministry you are going to be faced with situations that cause you to question your comfortable faith in the full authority of the Bible.
For example, this can happen when you come face to face with tragedy: your house burns, or your child dies, or your spouse leaves you, or you contract a deadly disease. It can happen when you begin to be haunted and challenged by difficult doctrinal issues, e.g., do the lost really suffer eternal punishment in hell? How can the unevangelized be eternally condemned? Does God’s foreknowledge cancel out free will? Why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? Or the questioning of Biblical authority may happen when you find yourself having to deal with church leaders who are hypocrites and who treat you unfairly.
In such cases the issue will not so much be whether you understand the Bible correctly, as this: “I know what the Bible says about such things, but it just does not seem to make sense any more.”
Somewhere along the way – maybe you have already done it – you have to make a firm decision: “For myself, for my life, and for my ministry, THE BIBLE and the Bible ALONE is the Word of God and my final authority in all matters.” You need to ask yourself right now: “Am I fully committed to Biblical authority or not? Do I accept it as the very words of God or not?” (See Romans 3:2.)
I will let you in on a secret—well, I guess it’s not really a secret: On many occasions when I am addressing issues of the day, or receiving questions from my students, I find myself prefacing my answers thus: “Long ago, I made the decision to accept the teachings of the Bible as absolute truth, no matter what the subject, no matter how much pain it causes me, no matter how much I would like for it to be otherwise, no matter if I am in the minority, and no matter how much it costs me.”
This is what I am asking and encouraging you to do right now: “SAY YES! TO THE BIBLE!” Here I will walk you through three steps that can help lead you to that decision.
THE BIBLE: DIVINE OR HUMAN?
The first step in saying YES! to the Bible is settling this question in your mind: Is the Bible divine or human? Is it from God, or from man?
Actually, this is kind of a trick question. Many see it as an “either/or” question, where there are two exclusive answers, one at either end of the spectrum. Some say it is completely divine, with no human element. They see it like Muslims view the Qu’ran or like Joseph Smith says the Book of Mormon came to him: dictated word for word. Others say the entire Bible is entirely human, with no divine element. This view is found in all kinds of liberalism.
The fact is, though, that this approach is wrong. This question is not “either/or”; it is “both/and.” I.e., the Bible is BOTH divine AND human. But you have to be very careful to understand this correctly. This does NOT mean that some parts of the Bible are divine in origin and thus authoritative over us, while other parts are human in origin and thus have no authority over us. If we take this approach, ultimately a serious problem will arise: we will begin to decide for ourselves which parts are divine and which parts are human. Then we will submit ourselves only to the parts of the Bible we have decided are the “divine” parts, and we will set aside the “human” parts and reject their authority over us. Say NO! to this approach!
If you are going to say YES! to the Bible, you will see that every part of it has BOTH a divine AND a human element. In what sense is the Bible human? It has human writers who were fully conscious of what they were writing. In fact, much of what they wrote came from their own minds and hearts, and from their own experiences. The human authors were fully engaged in the process of bringing the Bible into existence.
Does this mean that the Bible must have ERRORS in it? Some think so. After all, “To err is human.” Therefore how can the Bible NOT have errors in it? This argument, however, commits a serious logical fallacy. We agree that “to err is human.” But we cannot simply turn that around and say, “To be human is to err.” Such is not necessarily the case! “All A is B” does not logically entail “All B is A.” We will remember that Jesus had a human nature, but he never erred morally or mentally. You might say, “Yes, but remember, Jesus also had a divine nature.” Exactly! And that is just the point about the Bible! The Bible also has a divine nature, just to make sure that it does not contain errors!
Just because the Bible was written by human authors who COULD err, the Holy Spirit was guarding and supervising every word they wrote just to make sure they did not do so. Thus every word of the Bible had divine approval. This is what we mean when we say the Bible is DIVINE as well as human: its human authors and their written product were INSPIRED (influenced, protected) by the Holy Spirit. Also, much of the Bible was actually revealed to its writers by the Holy Spirit even as they were writing it. This is what we call REVELATION. But even the parts that are not revealed are inspired, and thus are fully true and authoritative.
Thus God was fully active in the origin of every part of the Bible. In one sense or another, it all originates from God. This is why we call it the WORD OF GOD, even “the very words of God” (see Rom. 3:2). This is why the Bible says that all Scripture is GOD-BREATHED (2 Tim. 3:16). This leads us directly to our next point:
THE BIBLE: ALL OR PART?
Our second step in saying YES! to the Bible requires us to make this decision: Shall I accept ALL of it as my absolute authority, or just PART of it?
We are always under some kind of temptation to distinguish the parts of the Bible we will regard as authoritative, from the parts we will ignore or treat differently. For example, we in the Restoration Movement have often called ourselves “the New Testament church.” There may be some sense in which that is true, but sometimes it leads us to neglect or disregard the rich teachings of the Old Testament. We know the OT is part of “the Bible,” but we sometimes make improper distinctions between OT teaching and NT teaching.
A much more serious problem, brought about in our day under the influence of Liberalism, is the common attempt to elevate the teachings of Jesus—the red-letter sections of the Gospels—to a higher level of authority than the rest of the Bible. This is something I have warned my students against for my entire teaching career. I have given it the name of “the Christological fallacy.” None of us is immune to this temptation.
This fallacy comes into play especially regarding important social and ethical issues of our day. The assumption is that Jesus came into the world to show us how to live a good life; thus the Gospels should be our main source of inspired information about issues such as homosexualism and gender roles. But when we examine the Gospel records, we see that Jesus did not make any specific references to the homosexual lifestyle or gay marriage. Thus it is assumed that he had no problem with them! It is also assumed that Jesus opened the door to complete egalitarianism within the church, because of certain things he said, e.g., to Mary and Martha (Luke 10:41-42), or to the women at the tomb after the resurrection (Matt. 28:10).
But then when we turn to the writings of the Apostles and the rest of the New Testament, we will see that the Apostle Paul (for example) gave specific teaching on these subjects that is not “politically correct” by modern cultural standards. Then the temptation is to say that Paul’s teaching conflicts with Jesus’ teaching or Jesus’ silence on these subjects, so we must accept Jesus and reject Paul. Many have split the Bible apart in this very way.
Let’s try this: Let us examine Jesus’ own “red-letter” teaching about the rest of the Bible, and see what kind of authority he ascribes to it. When we do this, we will see that Jesus himself testifies to the absolute authority of the whole Bible, especially because of its divine origin. Concerning the Old Testament he declares that he did not come to “abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18). Confirming the authority of the Old Testament Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken!” (John 10:35).
Jesus said the same kind of thing about the coming New Testament writings when he spoke to his Apostles about their future teaching: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26). Also, Jesus describes their teaching as Spirit-inspired truth: “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak, and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you” (John 16:13-14).
As we often say, if you want a New Testament with the words of Jesus in red, you must print it all in red. We must guard against treating the “red-letter” words of Jesus as having higher authority than the rest of the Bible.
Another way we divide the Bible into authoritative parts and non-authoritative parts is to distinguish teachings about what is meant to apply only to ancient cultural situations, and what is obviously transcultural. Everyone recognizes that this must be done in some cases, but the temptation is to label as cultural any teaching we do not want to be bound by.
The ultimate result of dividing the Bible into divine and human parts, into what is authoritative and what is not, is that in the end NONE of the Bible will have absolute authority. That is because, when we start making these kinds of distinctions within the Bible, in the end WE, THE READERS, will become the arbiters of which parts we will accept and which we will not. That means we have chosen ourselves as the final authority, not the Bible. If we see something with which we do not agree, we can say, “That’s just the culture speaking,” or “That’s just Paul’s opinion”; and we ignore it. We see this constantly regarding Biblical teaching on gender roles, for example.
In his writing “Against Faustus” (17:3) Augustine says this about studying the gospels, “To believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.” It is often quoted thus: “If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you do not like, it is not the Gospels that you believe, but yourself.” We can say the same thing about the Bible as a whole: “If you believe what you like in the Bible, and reject what you do not like, it is not the Bible that you believe, but yourself.”
My challenge to you is this: Say YES! to the ENTIRE BIBLE, as your ONLY authority.
THE BIBLE: PERSPICUOUS OR AMBIGUOUS?
Here is one more step we must take in saying YES! to the Bible: Do we regard the Bible as PERSPICUOUS or as AMBIGUOUS? Let me say that again — “The Bible: is it perspicuous or is it ambiguous?”
I wasn’t sure how to label this point, since these words are rather daunting. Maybe I should have made it simpler: The Bible: cloudy or clear? The Bible: closed or open? But I decided to stick with “perspicuous or ambiguous,” mainly because the Protestant Reformers spoke of the perspicuity of Scripture, which (ironically) means the CLARITY of Scripture. The Reformers emphasized this in response to the Catholic Church, which taught that the Bible is too deep and complicated for the average person to understand; only the trained clergy could be trusted to understand and explain it. The Reformers saw this as a Catholic device to hold the average members captive to the Church, so they said NO! The Bible CAN be understand by the average Joe. It may take work, but the Bible is not inherently closed to the minds of human beings as such.
Today Christendom is facing a similar challenge regarding our human ability to UNDERSTAND Scripture. Though not completely so, this is coming largely from the influence of the school of philosophy known as postmodernism. Postmodernism is the strongest contemporary form of relativism, i.e., the denial of absolute truth. A major aspect of postmodernism’s teaching (ironically!) is the idea that attempts at interpersonal communication are bound to fail because our main instrument for communication—human language—is simply too frail and fragile to represent our thoughts clearly enough for anyone else to really understand them. This is true especially in view of each person’s own unique set of historical circumstances.
The bottom line is our inability to make ourselves understood in human language, and our inability to understand any communication coming to us from others. When someone says something, he or she may have meant something specific; but the hearer can never be sure what that meaning was. The speaker’s meaning is necessarily ambiguous; all we can do is decide what we want it to mean for us.
How is this applied to the Bible? Here is what it would mean: Even if the Bible is accepted as the inspired Word of God, we cannot be sure what God MEANT when he said any part of it, or what Isaiah meant, or what Paul meant, etc. And if this is true, as far as we are concerned, there can be no one right interpretation of the Bible. Thus we are stuck with the Bible’s AMBIGUITY, which leads to its RELATIVITY, which leads us to DIVERSITY of doctrine. There is no one right way to understand the Bible; which actually means that all understandings are OK. Everything is “just your opinion.”
About two weeks ago I had a student in my office who was questioning the whole enterprise of Biblical study and Christian ministry. He was taking classes under a professor who is an avowed postmodernist, and the above ambiguity and relativity are what he was being taught in the classroom. His heartfelt question was this: why should we even study the Bible, if there is no one right way to understand it? How do we know what to preach? And of course, he is right! If the Bible of postmodernism is ambiguous, it may as well be blank! Why study it? Why even open it?
We are actually seeing this more frequently in our younger preachers: doctrinal agnosticism, doctrinal relativism, but perhaps even more so—doctrinal neglect. Many are becoming content to assign more and more serious Biblical issues to the category of “opinion”—things we don’t need to waste time wrestling with. I used to think this doctrinal neglect was the result of just plain laziness. But I am coming to the conclusion that it is actually the consistent fruit of the postmodern tree. Why waste our time trying to find truth about doctrines such as eternal security, divine foreknowledge, the meaning of baptism, the millennium, etc., if we cannot be sure what the Bible is actually saying about such things?
In the end we may as well just believe what we WANT, and let the will dominate the intellect.
But I am imploring you today: SAY YES! TO THE BIBLE! Say NO! to its alleged ambiguity! Say YES! to its perspicuity, to its CLARITY. The Bible CAN be understood! You CAN understand it! Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). To KNOW the truth is not just to be aware of it, but to UNDERSTAND it. And Jesus said, “You WILL know the truth.”
Here is the crucial point. If the Bible IS God’s inspired Word, then it is God’s means of communicating with us human beings, even in our SINFUL states. Thus the question doctrinal agnosticism raises for me is this: Has God FAILED in his effort to communicate with us? Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “GOD HAS SPOKEN TO US!” Has he spoken in vain? If the Bible is inherently beyond our ability to understand it, then yes, God has failed. He has spoken in vain. Are we willing to say this?
Such an approach ignores some of the most basic Biblical teaching, e.g., God created mankind in his image, with an innate ability to understand Him when He speaks to us. Also, God has spoken to us, using human language, something which he himself brought into existence. Surely it was his intention to be understood by us. Also, God has preserved his words for us in Scripture, via revelation and inspiration. Finally, God in his special providence will bless our efforts to understand these words.
In conclusion I urge you: Say YES! to the BIBLE! Use it! Believe it! Study it! Submit to it! Teach it! May the people to whom you minister know you and your ministry for being BIBLE-BASED! You are not taking away from the Glory of God and the Lordship of Jesus and the Ministry of the Holy Spirit when you focus attention on the Bible, because the Bible is THEIR WORD. It is part of who they are. It is the main way the Trinity relates to us. Say YES! to the Bible, because when you do, you are saying YES! to God.