Editors’ note: Christians in the West, face a number of explicit threats to the authority of Scripture. But explicit threats alone don’t weaken our trust in the Bible. Subtle threats—those that creep in unnoticed—also foster skepticism. Writing for Themelios, TGC president Don Carson outlines 10 ways we subtly abandon the authority of God’s Word. Below are some excerpts from his timely essay.
On the danger of appealing to selective evidence:
The most severe forms of this drift [appealing to selective evidence] are well exemplified in the teaching and preaching of the HWPG—the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. Link together some verses about God sending prosperity to the land with others that reflect on the significance of being a child of the King, and the case is made—provided, of course, that we ignore the many passages about taking up our cross, about suffering with Christ so that we may reign with him, about rejoicing because we are privileged to suffer for the name, and much more. These breaches are so egregious that they are easy to spot. What I’m thinking of now is something subtler: the simple refusal to talk about disputed matters in order to sidestep controversy in the local church. For the sake of peace, we offer anodyne treatments of hot topics (poverty, racism, homosexual marriage, distinctions between men and women) in the forlorn hope that some of these topics will eventually go away. The sad reality is that if we do not try to shape our thinking on such topics under the authority of Scripture, the result is that many of us will simply pick up the culture’s thinking on them.
The best antidote is systematic expository preaching, for such preaching forces us to deal with texts as they come up. Topical preaching finds it easier to avoid the hard texts. Yet cultural blinders can easily afflict expositors, too.
On the avoidance of embarrassing passages and issues:
Not infrequently preachers avoid certain topics, in part because those topics embarrass them. The embarrassment may arise from the preacher’s awareness that he has not yet sufficiently studied the topic so as to give him the confidence to tackle it (e.g., some elements of eschatology, transgenderism), or because of some general unease at the topic (e.g., predestination), or because the preacher knows his congregation is sharply pided on the topic (any number of possibilities), or because the preacher simply really does not like the subject even though it surfaces pretty often in the Bible (e.g., hell, eternal judgment). In its ugliest form, the preacher says something like this: “Our passage this morning, Luke 16:19–31, like quite a number of other passages drawn from the life of Jesus, depicts hell in some pretty shocking ways. Frankly, I wish I could avoid these passages. They leave me distinctly uncomfortable. But of course, I cannot ignore them entirely, for after all they are right here in the Bible.” The preacher has formally submitted to Scripture’s authority, while presenting himself as someone who is more compassionate or more sensitive than Jesus. This is as deceptive as it is wicked—and it is easy to multiply examples.
On misappropriating Scripture to legitimize an unorthodox position:
Recently Zondervan published Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church; this book bills these two views as “affirming” and “non-affirming,” and two authors support each side. Both sides, we are told, argue “from Scripture.” If the “affirming” side was once viewed as a stance that could not be held by confessional evangelicals, this book declares that not only the non-affirming stance but the affirming stance are represented within the evangelical camp, so the effect of this book is to present alternative evangelical positions, one that thinks the Bible prohibits homosexual marriage, and the other that embraces it.
All who read these lines will of course be aware of the many books that proffer three views or four views (or two, or five) on this or that subject: the millennium, election, hell, baptism, and many more. Surely this new book on homosexuality is no different. To this a couple of things must be said.
(a) The format of such volumes, “x views on y,” is intrinsically slippery. It can be very helpful to students to read, in one volume, perse stances on complex subjects, yet the format is in danger of suggesting that each option is equally “biblical” because it is argued “from Scripture.” Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses argue “from Scripture,” but most of us would hasten to add that their exegesis, nominally “from Scripture,” is woefully lacking. The “x views on y” format tilts evaluation away from such considerations, baptizing each option with at least theoretical equivalent legitimacy. In short, the “x views on y” format, as useful as it is for some purposes, is somewhat manipulative. As I have argued elsewhere, not all disputed things are properly disputable.
(b) Otherwise put, it is generally the case that books of the “x views on y” format operate within some implicit confessional framework or other. That’s why no book of this sort has (yet!) been published with a title such as “Three Views on Whether Jesus Is God.” We might bring together a liberal committed to philosophical naturalism, a Jehovah’s Witness, and a confessional Christian. But it’s hard to imagine a book like that getting published—or, more precisely, a book like that would be tagged as a volume on comparative religion, not a volume offering options for Christians. Most books of the “x views on y” sort restrict the subject, the y-component, to topics that are currently allowed as evangelical options. To broaden this list to include an option that no evangelical would have allowed 10 years ago—say, the denial of the deity of Jesus, or the legitimacy of homosexual practice—is designed simultaneously to assert that Scripture is less clear on the said topic than was once thought, and to re-define, once again, the borders of evangelicalism. On both counts, the voice of Scripture as the norma normans (“the rule that rules”), though theoretically still intact, has in fact been subtly reduced.
Inevitably, there have been some articulate voices that insist that adopting an “affirming” stance on homosexual marriage does not jeopardize one’s salvation and should not place such a person outside the evangelical camp. For example, in his essay “An Evangelical Approach to Sexual Ethics,” Steven Holmes concludes, “Sola Fide. I have to stand on that. Because the blood flowed where I walk and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice complete, once for all offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.” But this is an abuse of the evangelical insistence on sola fide. I do not know any Christian who thinks that salvation is appropriated by means of faith plus an affirmation of heterosexuality. Faith alone is the means by which sola gratia is appropriated. Nevertheless, that grace is so powerful it transforms. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone issues in a new direction under the lordship of King Jesus. Those who are sold out to the “acts of the flesh . . . will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19–21). The apostle Paul makes a similar assertion in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (emphasis added).
In the context of Paul’s thought, he is not saying that without sinless perfection there is no entrance into the kingdom, but he is saying that such sins—whether greed or adultery or homosexual practice or whatever—no longer characterize the washed, sanctified, and justified. In other words, it is one thing to affirm with joy that sola fide means that we appropriate the merits of Christ and his cross by faith alone, not by our holiness—that holiness is the product of salvation, not its condition—and it is quite another thing to say that someone may self-consciously affirm the non-sinfulness of what God has declared to be sin, of what God insists excludes a person from the kingdom, and say that it doesn’t matter because sola fide will get them in anyway. The Scriptures make a lot of room for believers who slip and slide in “failures and confusions,” as Holmes put it, but who rest in God’s grace and receive it in God-given faith; they do not leave a lot of room for those who deny they are sinning despite what God says. Sola gratia and sola fide are always accompanied by sola Scriptura, by solus Christus, and by soli Deo gloria.
On the failure of too little reading, especially of older works:
[The] failure of too little reading contributes, of course, to some of the paths that tend with time to hobble the authority of Scripture. . . . Too little reading, especially the reading of older confessional material, not infrequently leads to in an infatuation with current agendas, to intoxication by the over-imbibing of the merely faddish.
Of course, the opposite failure is not unknown. Many of us are acquainted with ministers who read deeply from the wells of Puritan resources, but who have not tried to read much contemporary work. Their language, thought-categories, illustrations, and agendas tend to sound almost four centuries old. But that is not the problem I am addressing here, mostly because, as far as I can see, it is far less common than the failure to read older confessional materials, not least commentaries and theological works.
The problem with reading only contemporary work is that we all sound so contemporary that our talks and sermons soon descend to the level of kitsch. We talk fluently about the importance of self-identity, ecological responsibility, tolerance, becoming a follower of Jesus (but rarely becoming a Christian), how the Bible helps us in our pain and suffering, and conduct seminars on money management and divorce recovery. Not for a moment would I suggest that the Bible fails to address such topics—but the Bible is not primarily about such topics. If we integrate more reading of, say, John Chrysostom, John Calvin, and John Flavel (to pick on three Johns), we might be inclined to devote more attention in our addresses to what it means to be made in the image of God, to the dreadfulness of sin, to the nature of the gospel, to the blessed Trinity, to truth, to discipleship, to the Bible’s insistence that Christians will suffer, to learning how to die well, to the prospect of the new heaven and the new earth, to the glories of the new covenant, to the sheer beauty of Jesus Christ, to confidence in a God who is both sovereign and good, to the non-negotiability of repentance and faith, to the importance of endurance and perseverance, to the beauty of holiness and the importance of the local church. Is the Bible truly authoritative in our lives and ministries when we skirt these and other truly important themes that other generations of Christians rightly found in the Bible?
The problem with reading only contemporary work is that we all sound so contemporary that our talks and sermons soon descend to the level of kitsch.
On losing awe before the Word of God:
The things that may sap our ability to tremble before God’s Word are many. Common to all of them is arrogance, arrogance that blinds us to our need to keep reading and re-reading and meditating upon the Bible if we are truly to think God’s thoughts after him, for otherwise the endless hours of data input from the world around us swamp our minds, hearts, and imaginations. Moral decay will drive us away from the Bible: it is hard to imagine those who are awash in porn, or those who are nurturing sexual affairs, or those who are feeding bitter rivalry, to be spending much time reading the Bible, much less trembling before it. Moreover, our uncharitable conduct may undermine the practical authority of the Bible in the lives of those who observe us. Failure to press through in our studies until we have happily resolved some of the intellectual doubts that sometimes afflict us will also reduce the fear of the Lord in us, a subset of which, of course, is trembling before his Word.
On ‘the art of imperious ignorance’:
[“Imperious ignorance”] is the stance that insists that all the relevant biblical passages on a stated subject are exegetically confusing and unclear, and therefore we cannot know (hence “imperious”) the mind of God on that subject. . . . This art of imperious ignorance is not unknown or unpracticed today. For example, both in a recent book and in an article, David Gushee argues that homosexual marriage should be placed among the things over which we agree to disagree, what used to be called adiaphora, indifferent things. He predicts that “conservatives” and “progressives” are heading for an unfortunate porce over this and a handful of other issues, precisely because they cannot agree to disagree. He may be right. In all fairness, however, in addition to the question of whether one’s behavior in the domain of sexuality has eternal consequences, it must be said, gently but firmly, that the unified voice of both Scripture and tradition on homosexuality has not been on the side of the “progressives”: see especially the book by S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. As Trevin Wax has pointed out, on this subject the “progressives” innovate on teaching and conduct and thus start the schism, and then accuse the “conservatives” of drawing lines and promoting schism instead of agreeing to disagree.
A somewhat similar pattern can be found in the arguments of Jen and Brandon Hatmaker. Most of their posts are winsome and compassionate, full of admirable concern for the downtrodden and oppressed. Their recent move in support of monogamous homosexual marriage has drawn a lot of attention: after devoting time to studying the subject, they say, they have come to the conclusion that the biblical texts do not clearly forbid homosexual conduct if it is a monogamous commitment, but condemn only conduct that is promiscuous (whether heterosexual or homosexual), rape, and other grievous offenses. In his explanation of their move, Brandon testifies that after seeing so much pain in the homosexual community, the Hatmakers set themselves “a season of study and prayer,” and arrived at this conclusion: “Bottom line, we don’t believe a committed life-long monogamous same-sex marriage violates anything seen in scripture about God’s hopes for the marriage relationship.” Quite apart from the oddity of the expression “God’s hopes for the marriage relationship,” Brandon’s essay extravagantly praises ethicist David Gushee, and ends his essay by citing John 13:34–35 (Jesus’s “new command” to his disciples to “love one another”).
Among the excellent responses, three deserve mention here.
(a) Speaking out of her own remarkable conversion, Rosaria Butterfield counsels her readers to love their neighbors enough to speak the truth. “Love” that does not care enough to speak the truth and warn against judgment to come easily reduces to sentimentality.
(b) With his inimitable style, Kevin DeYoung briefly but decisively challenges what he calls “the Hatmaker hermeneutic.” To pick up on just one of his points:
I fail to see how the logic for monogamy and against fornication is obvious according to Hatmaker’s hermeneutic. I appreciate that they don’t want to completely jettison orthodox Christian teaching when it comes to sex and marriage. But the flimsiness of the hermeneutic cannot support the weight of the tradition. Once you’ve concluded that the creation of Adam and Eve has nothing to do with a procreative telos (Mal. 2:15), or the fittedness of male with female (Gen. 2:18), or the joining of two complementary sexes into one organic union (Gen. 2:23–24), what’s left to insist that marriage must be limited to two persons, or that the two persons must be faithful to each other? Sure, both partners may agree that they want fidelity, but there is no longer anything inherent to the ontology and the telos of marriage to insist that sexual fidelity is a must. Likewise, why is it obvious that sex outside of marriage is wrong? Perhaps those verses were only dealing with oppressive situations too. Most foundationally, once stripped of the biological orientation toward children, by what internal logic can we say that consensual sex between two adults is wrong? And on that score, by what measure can we condemn a biological brother and sister getting married if they truly love each other (and use contraceptives, just to take the possibility of genetic abnormalities out of the equation)? When marriage is redefined to include persons of the same sex, we may think we are expanding the institution to make it more inclusive, but in fact we are diminishing it to the point where it is something other than marriage.
(c) And finally, I should mention another piece by Kevin DeYoung, presented in his inimitable style as a “Breakout” session at T4G on April 13, 2016, titled, “Drawing Boundaries in an Inclusive Age: Are Some Doctrines More Fundamental Than Others and How Do We Know What They Are?”
I have devoted rather extended discussion to this topic, because nowhere does “the art of imperious ignorance” make a stronger appeal, in our age, than to issues of sexuality. By the same token, there are few topics where contemporary believers are more strongly tempted to slip away from whole-hearted submission the Scripture’s authority in our own lives.
Read the whole essay at Themelios.