Q&R with Brad Jersak – “Is the Bible our final authority?”
Question: Is the Bible our final authority?
My church (and denomination) has a doctrinal statement (or statement of faith) in which it says that “The Bible is our final authority for faith and practice?” How would you respond to that?
This is sort of question I run into frequently with pastors who’ve challenged my last two congregations. They object that we have not included a statement on Scripture in our doctrinal statement … when our doctrinal statement was actually the Nicene Creed and Apostles Creeds. My counter challenge was to point out the irony of a ‘conservative’ creating his own statement of faith (which he had).
The two issues I see:
1. That nowhere does Scripture claim to be our final authority, but it does in fact address the question of final authority and ultimate truth. My own conviction is that Scripture proclaims that Christ alone is our foundation (1 Cor. 3:11). A Person, not a book, is our final authority and that Person, not a book, is called the Word of God.
How then do we ensure that we are practically living under his authority? By our adherence to three “intersubjective” witnesses: the Scriptures, the Church and the Spirit. The Scriptures (rightly interpreted, which is to say, understood as testifying to Christ) are indispensable to our knowledge of the life of the Word Incarnate.
But the Scriptures are never “Scripture alone” or even our “final authority.” They tell us about a second witness: that “the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). That’s quite a strong and shocking statement given the state of the church. But in fact, the Church is regarded as Christ’s appointed steward of the gospel (“the canon of faith”) or “faith once delivered.” Indeed, the Bible is a product of the church, not visa versa, and that by at least a generation!
Along with the Scriptures and the Church, we have the words of Christ concerning the source of “all truth.” Not the Bible, but rather, “I will give you the Spirit who will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-15). These three witnesses–the Scriptures, the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit–taken together and attended to with diligence lead us into a practical experience of Christ being our final authority.
So in my mind, ironically, the frequent reference to the Bible as our sole or final authority seems dismissive of the teachings of Scripture.
2. Making up our own individualized faith statements? The other issue from my perspective is even more problematic. That is, I cringe at the practice of writing faith statements after the 2nd ecumenical council had finalized the Nicene Creed as the dogma of the church universal that defined Orthodoxy vis-a-vis heresy. The Latin Church likewise adopted the Apostles Creed, probably in that same century. These were to be the authoritative well from which ALL Christians drank and their confession of faith at their baptism. They deliberately brought together representatives of the whole church to inquire of the Scriptures, one another and the Holy Spirit (the three witnesses) what all believers everywhere would confess … and conversely, not confess as doctrine. I.e. What they did NOT confess gave freedom of thought and debate without labeling every disagreement a heresy. Beyond that, imposing further dogmas would have been considered schismatic or heretical. As an aside, the Nicene Creed came to completion before the final canon of the New Testament was even formally ratified (by about a decade).
But then, with the Protestant Reformation, we see this new practice of sects creating their own faith statements and specifically accumulating their theological opinions (theologoumena) as necessary doctrines for adherents to confess or comply with. And specifically, this was done to assert in-house distinctives, which is to say, erect us-them walls that violate the very Spirit of John 17 or Philippians 2. It also became a way to assert religious control and keep the gurus’ followers on the straight and narrow. Rather than a unifying well from which we all drink, the faith statements have consistently fueled divisiveness by requiring faithfulness of pastors and their flocks to opinions that the church historically (and wisely) refused to embrace as dogma.
So from my perspective, while I might find your group’s faith statement about the Bible obviously unbiblical, this second concern is a bigger problem for me and more so, for any denominational leader. While I can dismiss it as a common error among sectarian groups and to be expected, what is a regional superintendent or bishop to do when he’s inherited such a faith statement?
I don’t think it’s realistic that he could expect his whole denomination to just drop it. He might be able to ask for the national synod or conference to revisit and revise one point (they almost never do except when they want to get even more heavy handed). Probably at best he or she can simply allow individuals to interpret the point according to their conscience. Since we aren’t honestly going to unravel and redo history, that seems like the most gracious and least disruptive approach to a problematic point that is so firmly embedded. Perhaps a cheeky version of “final authority” would be to say “not only, just final,” given that they can also consult the Body and the Spirit first …
… with the important proviso that every appeal to Scripture also puts us at the mercy of our own theological and hermeneutical lenses. Those who appeal to the “Bible clearly says” are instantly disqualified as interpreters because they are obviously in serious denial of the biases they bring to the text, which in many Western traditions include modernism, literalism, Evangelicalism and one’s own personal church, family and personal history, the nature of one’s training or lack thereof, and so on. So when we say “Scripture,” we need to also admit that the moment we open our Bibles, we now have a subject (me) and an object (the Bible) in a dynamic relationship… and there’s then no such thing as “the plain meaning” apart from all my baggage (which is why we need the Body and the Spirit too, to perceive Christ’s ultimate authority).
The best hope is to attempt (together) to “undergo” Scripture by making it the subject speaking to us, the object of its gospel. Easier said than done, for me at least. Perhaps that will give us pause to pray for help from God and ask for help from others whenever we puzzle over this marvelous, and yes, inspired text.