The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 1)

Evangelicals today face a great paradox within their churches. On the one hand, Evangelicals take a strong position on the importance of the Bible. On the other hand, members of our churches have inaccurate and meager biblical knowledge, and no general penchant for gaining more and better information. Furthermore, preaching and teaching in the church today seems ineffective and lacking in biblical truth. We have a general church membership with a low level of biblical literacy, and church leaders who barely rise above it.

How did we get here? I know there are many exceptions to the generalizations above, but I doubt that anyone would assume today that if a person identified herself as a “Christian,” we could be confident that this person had a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible.

I remember an epiphany I had years ago when my daughter was old enough in school to begin having notes sent home in her backpack by her teacher. I was often appalled by these notes, which had spelling and grammar errors. These were my daughter’s teachers! English teachers! My epiphany was in realizing these teachers did not know English well, and this was because they had not been taught well. The result was a generation of students with inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of English, and then those students became teachers. This is somewhat parallel to the situation in Evangelical churches. The inadequately educated students are now the teachers.

How, though, did we ever get to a place of expecting our church preachers and leaders to have a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible? Or better, why should we expect this? Should we still expect this? More basically, why does the Bible have a privileged position of authority in the Evangelical church? Allow me to offer a couple of observations.

First, the idea of “Scripture” or “Sacred Writings” was inherited by the church from its Jewish founders. At the time of Jesus, the ancient writings of the Law (Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Former and Latter) were recognized as having authority that could command respect and obedience. One could win an argument or demand behavior if one could cite a verse of recognized Scripture. This trumped all opinions. To be sure, the Jewish community of the first century did not simply view their Scriptures as proof-texts to be used in argumentation. They also saw them as telling their story as a nation and giving them an identity as the people of God.

So, like the synagogue, the early church had Scriptures, roughly identified with what we call the “Old Testament” in the Evangelical church. The early church’s Scripture did not include the “New Testament,” because its books were still being written, collected, and recognized. When Paul writes in 2 Timothy that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …,” he is not talking about the New Testament, but about the Old Testament. Application of this verse to Christian writings is retroactive, perhaps anachronistic, maybe even circular argumentation.

One significant difference is that the early church’s “Old Testament” was the Greek translation we call the Septuagint (LXX). The idea of learning the Hebrew language to exegete the Hebrew text of Genesis would never have occurred to the Greek-speaking Gentile leaders of Paul’s churches. The authority of the text, as they understood it, was perfectly intact when using a translation such as the LXX. It would be hard to imagine a first century preacher telling his congregation that he had insights into Scripture they could not fathom based on his study of a Hebrew text. Such a claim would be little more than Gnosticism, touting a secret knowledge to gain authority and power. All this is to say that when we understand that the Scriptures of the early church were a Greek translation, our desire to have absolute exactitude concerning every word and its original meaning may be overly zealous today.

The earliest, documented use of Scripture by the Christian community comes in the writings of the New Testament itself. In the next installment of this series, we will attempt to understand not only how the New Testament writers use Scripture (the Old Testament), but how they understand its authority and how this established the tradition of biblical authority in the church that continues to this day.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advertisements

Future Church, Future Bible

Upheaval. Chaos. Questioning. Fear of Future. Disregard for Tradition. Distrust of Experts. Dismissal of Science. Alternative Facts and Truths.

A negative appraisal of the current situation in American politics and social life sees elements of all of these descriptors in play today. It is easy, however, to see these things confined to cable TV news, internet news sites, and Washington, D.C. We believe our lives are insulated from such turmoil, at least for the most part. Questioning? Haven’t we always done this? Don’t we have a right to question authority? Fear of Future? Who wouldn’t be afraid after living through 9/11 and the Great Recession? Disregard for Tradition? Isn’t it about time we jettisoned some of the archaic traditions that hold us back? Should we let our past control our future? Distrust of Experts? Can’t I look up anything on the internet and find a source I like? Aren’t we all experts these days? Dismissal of Science? Scientists don’t agree on anything, do they? And aren’t the answers of science always changing? Didn’t they tell us at one time that menthol cigarettes could heal our lungs? Alternative facts and Truths. Isn’t there a lot of fake news out there? Haven’t the major news agencies we trusted in the past shown themselves to be purveyors of an agenda I don’t like? Isn’t Walter Cronkite dead?

Where does this fearful and questioning environment come into the church? We are long past the days when we could believe the church was a “Fortress of Solitude” untouched by raging conflicts in the cultural and social world. Whether we admit it or not, our religious identity is at the core of this situation. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “Religion is the essence of culture and culture is the dress of religion.” What are the religious elements behind our cultural upheavals?

In a series of blogs over the next few weeks, I would like to explore a specific aspect of this, the religious identity of the church as expressed in current culture. What lies behind the cultural expressions our society experiences in the church today? More specifically, I want to look at the role of the Bible in the church’s religious identity. Then I want to play the role of a futurist and project a little. What will be the relationship between the Bible and the future church?

My father was a medical doctor (M.D.) and had been drilled about a couple of things in medical school that were essential to his profession. One was that he always was to sign his name with “M.D.” at the end. So he wasn’t “Charles E. Krause.” He was “Charles E. Krause, M.D.” His degree conferred upon him a unique status that he should take pride in and publish whenever he could. A second thing he was taught was that other medical people who claim to be “doctors” but were not “M.D.” were suspect, probably quacks. In my family, visiting a chiropractor would be grounds for disinheritance. These and other things were drawn from the culture of medical schools when my father was being educated, an effort to define an elite identity for medical school graduates at the top of the medical world’s influence hierarchy. This culture (from the 1950s) would be aghast at the idea that medical information could be accessed from the internet, that a person with a medical degree from a place like Pakistan could be a real doctor, and that (of all things) a person could receive a flu shot in a Target pharmacy given by a pharmacist (as I did last week). In the end, this wasn’t so much about competency and certainly not about consumer value. It was about “protecting the shield,” insuring that medical doctors were highly competent and appropriately respected.

I’m afraid my field of expertise, biblical studies, has some of these same tendencies. We distrust and dismiss opinions on the Bible coming from anyone who does not have at least a master’s degree from a reputable school. We cringe at the misinformation about the Bible and its interpretation that can be found on the internet. We are aghast at preaching that largely ignores the Bible, and misinterprets it when it is used. We, too, have been “protecting the shield” of our guild, PhDs who know the original biblical languages and talk to each other in terms no average church person could understand or appreciate. When we look into the future of the church’s relationship to the Bible, are we part of it? Are we part of a new synthesis or a lingering part of an old problem?

Here are the topics I want to look at in the next few weeks:

  1. How did the Bible come to have a place of authority in the church and what is the nature of that authority?
  2. How did the assumption of this authoritative role for the Bible form part of the essence of the Evangelical church, and how was this essence dressed in popular cultural expressions of evangelicalism?
  3. What is the “realpolitick” role of the Bible and biblical experts (like me) in the evangelical church today?
  4. What is the likely future role of the Bible and its experts in the future church.

I hope you are along for the ride!

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University