THE DILEMMA OF A FALLIBLE AUTHORITY

 

 

By Rick Barker

 

It is my contention that when it comes to theological authority, the idea that this authority can be fallible is oxymoronic, whether we are talking about the Bible, the Early Church Fathers, church councils, Papal edicts, confessions, creeds, or prophet writings. In other words, if we call a source “authoritative”, it must be true. If, on the other hand, a statement may or may not be true, can we truly call that statement “authoritative”?

If we conclude that an authoritative document may contain errors, we have immediately called into question whether the content of the document is authoritative at all. For instance, if we conclude that the Bible may have errors, which parts are in error? Can we be sure that any passage that we are currently reading is completely true, or must we now decide whether each passage is true or in error? What, then, is the basis for this decision? Do we look to a specific church to tell us what is truth and what is error inside the Bible? Do we turn to a Pope, a prophet, a pastor, or even to ourselves to pick and choose which aspects are true and which are not?

Once we conclude that a statement in Scripture may be in error, then we no longer have to conform our theology or our actions to scriptural statements. If the idea of having an orderly worship doesn’t fit your plans, for example, that’s OK; Paul was writing errors when he instructed the Corinthians in having orderly worship services.

In other words, as soon as we conclude that there are errors within Scripture, we take the authority away from Scripture and place it in something else—and usually that something is ourselves.

This same problem of authoritativeness and errors exists for all writings. Some people try to have an authoritative Bible that is without errors and an authoritative set of writings for their denomination that may have errors. Who decides which part of the denominational writings are accurate and which part are errors? And functionally, doesn’t this view of the denominational writings demote the statements to an individual’s whims?

 

Views of authority

There are several different views of scriptural authority.  The first is sola Scriptura. This is the belief that Scripture is the only authority on spiritual/doctrinal matters. This view is traced to the Reformation and followed by most conservative Protestants to this day. There may be other valuable sources and people who went before us who were careful students. But these works do not hold any authority. In order for something to be considered “in agreement” with Scripture, the document’s teaching would have to be found in, or directly derived from, Scripture.

The second view of Scriptural authority, prima Scriptura, is slightly different, although it is commonly confused with sola Scriptura. Prima Scriptura teaches that Scripture is the final or primary authority on Spiritual/doctrinal matters. This belief does not preclude other authorities such as confessions, traditions, Popes, or prophets. In fact, this  belief is the historical view of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. It is also adopted, at least informally, by certain Charismatic churches in how they view modern prophets. Within this framework, in order for something to be considered “in agreement” with Scripture, the concept must simply not be directly contradicted by Scripture. It does not require that the teaching originate in Scripture.

A third view of Scriptural authority has arisen in the last millennium. This view teaches that Scripture is not an authority at all; rather, it is simply a means for us to draw near to God. This view is made popular in the emergent church.

 

How is Scripture “inspired”?

First I will look at what the Bible says about itself. Jesus declares that Scripture is the “word” of God. 

But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:4).

He need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God (Matt 15:6).

Thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do (Mark 7:13).

But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”( Luke 8:21).

But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28).

If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— (John 10:35).

Since Jesus repeatedly describes Scripture as the word of God, if Scripture is not literally God’s word, do we have to start questioning how accurate everything is that Jesus has told us?

2 Tim 3:16 makes it clear that the inspiration of all Scripture is the same.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

All of Scripture is the word of God.

How does this understanding of authority leave room for Scripture to be perfectly accurate in some areas but not in others? And what does Scripture say about the word of God?

If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).

And now, O Lord GOD, you are God, and your words are true (2 Sam 7:28a).

This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him (2 Sam 22:31).

Every word of God is pure (KJV) Every word of God proves true (ESV)  (Prov 30:5a).

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever (Isa 40:8).

The Scripture can not be broken, and the word of God, every word of God is true. The problem, of course, is that if Scripture isn’t completely true, then perhaps these statements aren’t completely true. If Scripture can fail and be broken, some words of God may not be true.

The inspiration of Scripture comes through the Holy Spirit. 2 Pet 1:21 tells us that

“no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”.

Jesus declared to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide His followers into all truth (not just some or most truth). John 16:13a

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Furthermore Jesus promises that the Spirit will provide an accurate remembrance of all things. John 14:26

“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 have said to you.”

Was Jesus’ promise less than completely true and accurate?

If a prophet attributes something to God that is not completely true, God commands that this prophet be put to death. Deut 18:18-22 (see also Deut 15:1-5)

18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. 20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

Does God hold himself to a lower standard than He demands of the prophets? Notice also that Deut 18:18 clearly tells us that God will put His words in the prophets mouth. Many modern theologians deny that Biblical inspiration works through God’s direct words, but this verse seems very straightforward!

Now we continue with the logical reasons why Scripture must be without error. One of the best arguments I have heard on this subject is from mb-soft.com. Rather than try to summarize the argument and potentially reduce the impact, I will quote it directly.

“Scripture uses Scripture in a way that supports its inerrancy. At times an entire argument rests on a single word (e.g., John 10:34 – 35 and “God” in Ps. 82:6), the tense of a verb (e.g., the present tense in Matt. 22:32), and the difference between a singular and a plural noun (e.g., “seed” in Gal. 3:16). If the Bible’s inerrancy does not extend to every detail, these arguments lose their force. The use of any word may be a matter of whim and may even be an error.”

R.C. Sproul make the following argument for Scriptural inerrancy:

  1. Do you believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God?
  2. Do you think God inspires errors?
  3. Is all of the Bible inspired by God?

The attack of Satan in Eden was about whether the word of God is completely true. Gen 3:1-4 says,

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.”

Questioning the absolute accuracy of God’s Word is the foundation for sin entering our world.

Inerrancy of Scripture was basically accepted without question among theologians until the 18th century. With the so-called Great Enlightenment, questions about the absolute accuracy of God’s Word began to arise. A number of older, mainline churches rejected Scriptural inerrancy. The fruit of this theology can be seen among those churches today: rejection of the creation account as literal, ordination of homosexuals, and sermons that are entertaining stories or recaps of self-help books instead of the Word of God. The fruit of this theology is sufficiently widespread in our society that we can certainly judge the teaching by its outcome.

When claims that the Bible contains the word of God but is not the word of God are made, it is done so usually because the critic of inspiration wants to assert that the original documents in the Bible contained errors. The problem is that this undermines the very trustworthiness of God’s Word. How are we to decide what is and is not inspired, and therefore true, if the very breath of God moving through a sinner results in documents with mistakes? Does this inspire trust in God’s Word? Does it promote security and rest in believing God’s Word? Obviously not.

This undermines the faith of Christians and is, naturally, a dangerous and false teaching. See CARM: The Bible isn’t the Word of God. It contains the Word of God.

When we look at Scripture, it becomes clear that the concepts of authoritative and infallible are inseparable. So when one begins to apply the term “authoritative” to denominational writings, it carries with it the same implications and issues as when applied to Scripture. If authoritative documents can have errors, can anything we read be 100% trusted?

And what about the idea that denominational writings are a secondary authority, that merely provide a lens through which we can properly view and understand Scripture? The denomination’s proponents might wish to claim that they are still honoring the concept of sola Scriptura, and that these “other authorities” are subject to Scripture. But in practice, just the opposite is true. If these other authoritative writings are used to rightly understand what Scripture really means, these writings have become the highest of all authorities. The meaning of Scripture has become subject to the conclusion of these “other authorities” rather than the other way around.

The church today has strayed quite far from the infamous statement of Luther,

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

 

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Rick Barker

Rick Barker

Rick Barker is a native of Southwestern Ohio and facilitates a weekly Bible study for former and transitioning SDAs in the Dayton, OH area. More information on this study group can be found at www.gracediscovery.org. Rick graduated from Andrews University in 1987 and received a Masters degree from the University of Dayton. He previously served on the staff of the Thomas Bilney Institute for Biblical Research and is an active member of his local Lutheran church. Rick was a volunteer on the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry website for 6 years and remains a participant on the discussion boards. Rick and his wife Sheryl formally left the SDA chuch in 2004. Prior to this they had been active in the Miamisburg and Wilmington Ohio churches.
Rick Barker

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