Church services were held around our country yesterday, with people all over attending for a variety of reasons. Some may have attended to worship and learn, others may have entered the church out of desperation, still others to ‘tick the box’. In each service though, the approach to the Bible would have differed. After moving a year and a half ago, we visited numerous churches trying to find one to call ‘home’. It surprised Dave and me just how different churches were, even within the same denominations. It then should be of no surprise when we hear that many people outside the church, question the truth and relevance of Jesus when there are so many views within the church. So what do all these differences come down to?
Sure, some differences come down to preference of style. Dave and I have been involved in music teams for over 10 years in a number of different denominations and believe me, if you want to know how people’s opinions differ, all you need to do is join the church band. Some people like the guitar loud, others quiet; some like music during communion, others don’t; some people like hymns, other people prefer more contemporary music. While these issues may seem major (and may often get blown out of proportion), greater issues within the church come to matters of theology or doctrine.
Due to us knowing God (theology) and doctrine through His Word, how a church (including the pastor and members of the church body) approaches the Bible is of utmost significance. Theologian RC Sproul (2009) writes:
If you have read the whole Bible, you are in a small minority of Christian people. If you have studied the Bible, you are in an even smaller minority. Isn’t is amazing that almost everyone living in the West has an opinion to offer about the Bible, and yet so few have really studied it? Sometimes it seems as though the only people who take the time to study it are those with the sharpest axes to grind against it. Many people study it to find possible loopholes so they can get out from under the weight of its authority.
p.21, Knowing Scripture, IVP
How much weight does the Bible then have in terms of authority on issues related to life and faith? As pastors and churches weaken their stance on contemporary issues of faith and doctrine is it because they don’t like what the Bible says? Or do they feel that actually the Bible doesn’t have the final authority on all issues? A few years ago, you would have found me to know very little about key aspects of doctrine, simply because I wanted to major on Jesus, and just accepted that there is diversity within the body of Christ. What I came to realise though, was that for me, this was laziness. I didn’t know what I thought on the smaller issues because I didn’t take the time to read, pray and study the Bible and work through the differences. It is so easy to just float along, until culture comes smack bang up against the church, or you start feeling something may be wrong with what you are being taught from your Pastor, Bible Study Leader or close friend that you realise- hey, it would have been helpful to have known what I thought on that issue. So where do we start? The Bible- the inspired Word of God, for it contains everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-5).
Kevin De Young in Taking God at His WORD (2014:IVP)(yes, I know I am referencing his book lots lately!) argues that the greatest reason there are differences in theological ideas (examples here are vast and range from who God is, the roles of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the role and gender of the pastor and leadership) comes down to how people approach the Bible. De Young writes:
“The three main branches of Christianity in the West- traditional Roman Catholic, liberal Protestant, and evangelical- do not agree on how to adjudicate competing truth claims. We don’t answer the question “What is our ultimate authority?” in the same way. Every Christian acknowledges that in some sense our theology and ethics must “accord with Scripture.” But when push comes to shove in theological wrangling, to whom or what do we appeal to make our closing arguments?”
To help provide a guide for the way those three main branches approach the Bible (and to give you a good guide on assessing how you personally approach the Bible), De Young quotes three significant theologians, one from each branch.
Roman Catholic- Peter Kreeft (writer of Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Church Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ignatius, 2001)
The Church gives us her Tradition like a mother giving a child hand-me-down clothing that has already been worn by many older sisters and brothers. But unlike any earthly clothing, this clothing is not made of wool or cotton but truth. It was invented by God, not man. Sacred Tradition (capital “T”) must be distinguished from all human traditions (small “t”).
Sacred Tradition is part of “the deposit of faith”, which also includes Sacred Scripture. It is comprised of the Church’s data, given to her by her Lord.
in De Young (2014, p.77).
In this quote, we see that of importance to the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity is ‘Sacred Tradition’, which includes the Bible. Tradition then is just as important as the Bible.
Liberal Protestant- Gary Dorrien (expert on American liberal theology)
The essential idea of liberal theology is that all claims to truth, in theology as in other disciplines, must be made on the basis of reason and experience, not by appeal to external authority. Christian scripture may be recognized as spiritually authoritative within Christian experience, but its word does not settle or establish truth claims about matters of fact.
in De Young (2014, p.77).
In the quote above, we see that liberal Protestants generally approach Scripture with a clear importance placed on experience. When a Bible passage is studied or preached from, it is regularly interpreted according to ‘what this passage means to me’ or ‘how I have seen this to be true in my life’.
Evangelical Westminster Confession of Faith
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF 1.10)
in De Young (2014, p.77).
In the Westminster Confession of Faith, it clearly shows that EVERYTHING is subject to the Holy Spirit as speaking in the Bible. All experiences and traditions must come under the authority of the Word of God.
So, where do you sit? Do you read the Bible and then interpret it in light of experience or tradition? Or do you read the Bible as the final authority? Do your experiences and traditions come under the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Bible? It is a tough issue but one that will get tougher as the Day of the Lord approaches (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) . If we neglect being taught, rebuked, corrected and trained in righteousness because we neglect studying the Word of God(2 Timothy 3:16), we will be unable to provide a defence for the hope we have when culture and society most demand it.