Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Can we say the same? Or do our evangelical heroes carry more authority than we care to admit?
Have you ever had this experience?
You are discussing some important issue with a Christian friend, and you find yourselves thinking about it differently. You bat a few arguments back and forth, and the discussion proceeds at a lively, though friendly, pace. After a while, you begin to feel (though modesty forbids you from saying so) that you are having the better of it. Your line of thought seems to have more weight, and to make more sense of the biblical evidence.
Then your friendly opponent delivers a low and painful blow. “Did you know that Don Carson and J. I. Packer take the same view on this as I do?”
Devastated, you beat a rapid retreat, mumbling something about it being a complex issue after all. All of a sudden, the citadel of your argument doesn’t seem so invincible. Its foundation has turned to sand. If only you could come up with some names as good as that to quote in your defence …
Having an evangelical ‘name’ on your side of an argument is undoubtedly a comfort. It gives security. It lends authority. It quietens the murmurings of our hearts (that we really don’t know what we’re talking about). To know that Calvin agrees with me, or that Thomas Aquinas doesn’t—this gives us strength to go on.
However, one thing that Calvin would certainly not have agreed with is this very attitude towards human authorities. In the face of Roman Catholicism, the reformers fought for the principle of Sola Scriptura—that there was only one authority that could be trusted, and that was the Word of God. They knew that councils could err and that popes and churches could err. Only the Scriptures were infallible. And only the Scriptures could finally establish any point of doctrine or settle any argument, no matter what the whole world might say. They took their stand on the Word of God. They could do no other.
In this they followed the Lord Jesus himself. His method of teaching was not like the teachers of the law, who could only quote first one great rabbi and then another. He was that rare phenomenon, so marvelled at by the crowds, a teacher who spoke with authority. His words resonated with the power of the truth. He knew only two ways of introducing an argument—one was to say, “Truly, truly I say unto you”, and the other was to say “It is written”. Both statements of course meant the same thing, namely that God had spoken and that was an end of it.
One of the defining principles of evangelical belief is that God has spoken clearly, finally and enduringly in the Scriptures. Thus the evangelical method of argument is always to say, ‘What does the Bible teach on this?’. Evangelicals reject any human claims to authority, whether from popes or cardinals or councils.
We can see this easily in relation to the Pope and Roman Catholicism, but what of our own evangelical ‘popes’? What an irony it would be if we made the reformers themselves into ‘popes’, to be quoted and revered as authorities.
There are no popes. It matters little whether it is Martin Luther, John Wesley or George Whitefield. However great these men were, and however much help we gain from their wisdom, we must not trust them. We must keep reminding ourselves that they were human and fallible, just as we are.
We could well question, for example, Luther’s doctrine of the eucharist; or Wesley’s unusual views on health and healing; or Whitefield’s stance regarding slavery. Some would say John Stott leans rather too far towards annihilationism. A great many evangelicals believe that J. I. Packer made a terrible blunder when he signed the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ document.
The list could go on. We all have blind spots. We all make mistakes. Like Augustine, we could all fill a book of ‘Retractions’ at our life’s end. If the Apostle Peter could get it wrong (as he did in Antioch), why do we think that any of us is immune from error? The principle is very important, and we must keep it always before us: there are no popes. No-one can be trusted.
This simple principle has a number of important implications.
First, we must come to terms with the simple fact that even the people we know, love and respect make mistakes. We must learn not to accept blindly the pronouncements of our friends, our pastors, our bishops, our theologians—anyone. This is a nasty fact of the real world. We are all frail human beings and we are all affected not only by our sin and imperfection, but by all kinds of influences—intellectual, social, emotional and relational. Is it possible, for example, that Charles Colson’s enthusiasm for joint evangelical-Roman Catholic initiatives has something to do with the fact that his wife is Roman Catholic? This is not to condemn Mr Colson (after all, we are only writing this article because our wives let us), but it is to say that we must not be naïve in assessing why they believe what they believe. The simple fact that someone is ‘one of us’ is no guarantee of the truth of their words at any particular point. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that “even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:30-31).
Second, we must not judge people by their background, credentials, or past achievements, but by what they say and do. The current Archbishop of Canterbury is a case in point. That he has some background in evangelicalism, or that he once called himself an evangelical, means very little for weighing his current stance on a range of issues. Recently, for example, there has been controversy in England about a service held in Southwark Cathedral commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. Some evangelicals spoke out against the idea that homosexuality should be celebrated and affirmed in this way, but the Archbishop of Canterbury (like several others) had little sympathy for their viewpoint. Instead, in a press release late last year, he described those opposed to the service as “bullying, loud-mouthed controversialists” whose “disapproving view of life has slammed the doors of the Church in the face of many who might have found a way in”. Whatever his heritage or background, at this point the Archbishop has left biblical Christianity behind. In the end, it matters not whether it is an archbishop, a theologian, or an angel from heaven—if they preach a gospel different from the one we have received, we must not follow them (Gal 1:6-9).
Third, we must resist the impulse to resolve any issue by lining up all the evangelical scholars who support our argument, as if that settles anything. John Woodhouse pointed this out in a recent speech to the Sydney Synod regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood:
A list of certain evangelical scholars has been represented to us as persons who would approve of what is proposed here tonight. However, the arguments, not the names, of such scholars need to be weighed. Paul Jewett has been mentioned. Paul Jewett was writing twenty years ago on this subject, and agreed entirely that the Bible texts mean what they appear to mean. He just believed quite simply that they were wrong (Man as Male and Female, pp. 112-119). David Scholer, who has also been mentioned, welcomed Jewett’s arguments as “both sensitive and powerful” (cover of The Ordination of Women). Jewett actually said that the text of 1 Timothy 2 is spelled out so clearly in terms that would forbid the ordination of women “that it defies hermeneutical ingenuity” (Man as Male and Female, p. 116). It was just wrong.
Since then Jewett’s words seem to have been taken by some as a challenge, and there have been very clever reinterpretations of these texts, the ingenuity of which Jewett could not have guessed. Most recently Dick France has a very sophisticated approach, different from, but reminiscent of, Paul Jewett. Dick France tells us that the Bible is apparently inconsistent on this question, which means that we have to decide which line of teaching we will give priority to.
In this instance, the arguments of Jewett, Scholer and France are decidedly un-evangelical. However worthy or great these men are, on this point they have erred (in saying that Scripture is either wrong, or else so inconsistent as to leave us free to choose which line to take). Their evangelical ‘name’ counts for nothing. We could well say with Paul: “… whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance” (Gal 2:6).
Fourth, and following on from this, we must not compile a list of what different evangelical scholars think in order to baptize any particular position as a ‘valid evangelical option’. This is a subtle but very damaging mistake. If you can’t prove your case on a particular matter from the Bible, it is tempting simply to quote a great one who supports you, and thus feel justified in holding your ground. However, this may be nothing more than an excuse for muddled thinking and an unwillingness to obey the Scriptures.
If there are to be different ‘valid evangelical options’ on a given issue, it must be on the basis that the Bible is silent on the matter, or else teaches freedom. The mere fact that evangelical ‘great ones’ disagree means very little. Some of them could simply be wrong. Further prayerful study may be needed for the truth to become apparent. But that different evangelicals have different views on a matter is not a licence to throw up our hands and each do what is right in our own eyes.
Fifth, if we cannot trust others to be free from error, neither can we trust ourselves. We must acknowledge the possibility of our own blind spots, prejudices, and ignorance. We must come to issues with both our Bibles and our minds open. To have either one closed can only, in the end, lead to error. If we have our Bibles open but our minds closed, we will see in the Scriptures only what we want to see, or only what we believe already. The Bible will become a source book for backing up our existing beliefs and practices. If we keep our minds open but our Bibles closed, we will be prey to every new and interesting idea that comes along. We will become friends with the world, and enemies of the God whose word we are not prepared to heed.
We must therefore come to the Bible prayerfully and obediently lest, like the Pharisees, we search the Scriptures yet fail to find Christ in them, or else like the fool become hearers only of the word and so deceive ourselves (John 5:39; Jas 1:22-25).This means being willing to repent of error. And in particular it means being willing to repent of actions. This is the hardest repentance of all. Once we have taken action on the basis of a particular belief, it becomes increasingly difficult to change that belief. Once someone has had a charismatic experience of some kind (such as ‘speaking in tongues’ or being ‘slain in the Spirit’) it becomes much harder to look at what the Bible says on the issue with an open mind.
Sixth, and somewhat paradoxically, as part of not trusting ourselves, we should pay careful attention to what other people do and say. As the proverb says: “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov 12:15). We may not trust other people, and we will certainly not defer to their reputation or the number of letters after their name, but we will listen with humble interest to their words. We will listen to what the world says, to what non-evangelicals say (both now and historically), and we will listen to what evangelicals say and have said. By listening to others, our own views are tested, qualified, challenged or confirmed. Our blind spots are exposed. The weaknesses in our thought become apparent. In listening to the biblical arguments of others, we are forced to ask ourselves: What does the Bible actually teach? Why do I think what I think?
The seventh and final implication concerns The Briefing. We are not under any circumstances to be trusted. That we now have 200 issues under our belt means very little. That we have a reputation for biblical faithfulness and trustworthiness is something we give thanks to God for. But a blunder is never more than a page away. You must expect us to make mistakes, and so you must read and weigh what is said carefully in the light of Scripture.
Under God we will of course do our best to remain faithful to the work he has given us to do for the next 200 Briefings and beyond. But be careful. 200 issues on, we still can’t be trusted.