The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 13:2 (Summer 1995)

The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture

Evangel 13:2 (Summer 1995)

I was recently asked to preach on 2 Peter 1:16-21 and, in preparation for it, was sent some guidelines on the meaning of the passage and how to preach it that had been prepared by a well-known evangelical publisher. The notes informed me that Peter deliberately appealed first to experience and then to Scripture, that this was the correct (but not the ‘western’) way to approach the text of Scripture since to start with the Bible was likely to prevent us from recognizing where God is at work today.

  Alongside of this (and at the same time) I found myself immersed in several situations in which conscientious and spiritual Christians were unable to come to agreement as to whether God had been at work in one situation or another; unable to determine the validity or otherwise of this experience or that! All this didn’t seem to add up; the plausible (and widely endorsed) methodology didn’t appear to work!
 
  One supposed way out of this impasse is, of course, to appeal to the witness of the Spirit; unfortunately, however, it appears that the Spirit sometimes tells different Christians different and contradictory things! A friend recently shared with me that it was strange how the occasions in which he had been most subject to criticism by other Christians (and in areas where he believed he was following God’s will for himself) were usually accompanied by the comment that such had only followed much prayer and fasting.
 
  All this emphasizes the confusion within contemporary evangelicalism and raises sharply the epistemological question; how do we know what we know to be God’s will or what he is doing?
 
  Perhaps I can point the way ahead by developing the points I made in the sermon mentioned above. First of all, I made the point that Peter actually teaches the opposite; experience is validated by the prophetic witness.
 
  Secondly, it is popular to oppose ‘western rationalism’ to other ‘isms’ and to assume the validity of the latter over against a traditional evangelicalism which is perceived as having been dominated by a (negative) enlightenment heritage. Yet nothing is ever as simple as this!
 
  It is easy to demonstrate areas in which Christianity in the west has been enslaved by false philosophical ideas. This is not the same as saying either that such premises are entirely wrong nor that I should rush after an existential, oriental or animistic alternative. To do so is to walk straight into the arms of the New Age (something which some Christians seem to be doing in unnatural haste).
 
  So how can we escape from such confusion?
 
  The answer is, thirdly, a return to a belief in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
 
  Evangelicalism has consistently affirmed that the Scriptures alone are the believer’s supreme authority. God has spoken and revealed his will to the extent that everything necessary to the making of objective judgments, to ‘testing the spirits’ is, in principle, given to us by him.
 
  It is, of course, true that we often understand and interpret the Scriptures inadequately; but just because it is sometimes done incorrectly is scarcely reason to abandon the endeavour altogether!
 
  Interestingly, it is precisely in those areas of the world or at times in history where spiritual phenomena abound that the church has come to see this most clearly. This is, perhaps, demonstrated supremely in the works of Jonathan Edwards.
 
  Equally of interest is the fact that it is in a situation where biblical judgments are most urgently required that the one secure basis for making the judgments is being rejected. Sadly, those who ask, ‘Is it biblical?‘ are answered by, ‘But we must be open to the Spirit’s work’; the implication clearly being that the very asking of the question is likely to make the questioner quench the Spirit. In reality, of course, to reject the Bible’s authority and sufficiency is to make us incapable of testing the spirits to see whether they are of God.
 
  This objection is sometimes countered by a claim based (again!) on subjective experience (identified as the voice of the Spirit) rather than objective revelation with the result that we are sucked ever deeper into the mire of uncertainty, claim and counter-claim where the person who claims most loudly to have heard the Spirit wins the (divided) day.
 
So what do we need to be doing? Gently, graciously but firmly we have to teach the Bible’s own self-testimony as to its authority and sufficiency. This will necessitate that we deal with the failure of many to understand sufficiency. Thus, it does not tell me whether to buy a car which runs on unleaded rather than leaded petrol; but it does offer principles upon which I can make my decision. More relevantly, it may not describe every possible ‘spiritual’ phenomena but it does offer clear guidelines as to the characteristic marks of a biblical spirituality and of a genuine encounter with God. We may even need to point out that there is an openness to the Spirit which delights the Devil; where we are biblically undiscerning he can easily appear as an angel of light!

  It is at this point that the rubber hits the road! We ourselves need both to understand Scripture sufficiently well as to be able to offer convincing biblical grounds for our beliefs and, perhaps above all, we need to demonstrate in our own lives the fact that the biblical way does generate lives characterized by a genuine and warm (even self-evident!) spirituality.

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