What could possibly be wrong with Jesus being our 'sole authority in all matters of faith and practice'?
The written word of God has been given to us as our sole authority in all matters on which it speaks. This doctrine is not an invention of the Protestant Reformation, but goes right back to the early church, as it is clear from Patristic literature (Christian writings from the first few centuries after Christ) that the early church regarded Scripture as normative in a way that nothing else was. Scripture itself asserts that it is authoritative in this way.
However, in some parts of the church today which formerly held to the authority of Scripture, the idea that the Bible should be our sole authority has been disputed, ostensibly for the following reasons:
To anyone who is a Christian, those might sound like excellent questions. But there is a catch here, a subtle one, and the real reasons for the shift away from regarding Scripture as authoritative are not as reverent of the Lord as they might first appear.
Some words of Jesus himself ought to settle this issue:
'If you love me, you will keep my commandments.' (John 14:15)
'All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and I am with you always, even to the end of the world.' (Matthew 28:18-20)
To offer a longer response: Underlying the view that Jesus and not Scripture is our sole authority lies a faulty way of thinking about what surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus actually means. I would like to quote an excellent point made by J.I. Packer on this issue:
But, it is objected, does not the Christian stand directly under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and is not Jesus Christ Lord also of the Scriptures? And if so, how can the Christian be said to be bound to the authority of the Bible?
The answer is very simple. The antithesis is a false one. Jesus Christ is Lord of the Scriptures in the same sense in which any absolute monarch is Lord of the laws and proclamations which he sees fit to issue for the government of his subjects. The ruler's laws carry his personal authority, and the measure of one's loyalty to him is the consistency of one's observance of them.
But Holy Scripture...is Christ's instrument of government: it comes to us, so to speak, from His hand, and with His seal upon it, for He Himself commended the Old Testament to us as having His Father's authority, and He Himself authorized and empowered the apostles to speak in His name, by His Spirit and with His own authority. So the way to bow to the authority of Jesus Christ is precisely by bowing to the authority of the inspired Scriptures.
It is not legitimate to attempt to separate the authority of Christ from the authority of Scripture. Surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus, and his authority over us, is absolutely the correct thing to do. But to attempt to drive a wedge between Jesus and his Scriptures, and then say we are still bowing to Christ even when we rationalise away what Scripture teaches, this is folly.
About The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy
The Council was formed in the late 1970s by around 300 Bible scholars, academics, and theologians, and in 1978 produced the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. In 1982 approximately 100 scholars met for a second time and produced 'The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics'.
From Article I, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics:
WE AFFIRM that the normative authority of Holy Scripture is the authority of God Himself, and is attested by Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church.
WE DENY the legitimacy of separating the authority of Christ from the authority of Scripture, or of opposing the one to the other.
Norman L. Geisler:
This divine authority of Old Testament Scripture was confirmed by Christ Himself on numerous occasions (cf. Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 24:44; John 10:34-35). And what our Lord confirmed as to the divine authority of the Old Testament, He promised also for the New Testament (John 14:16; 16:13).
The Denial points out that one cannot reject the divine authority of Scripture without thereby impugning the authority of Christ, who attested Scripture's divine authority. Thus it is wrong to claim one can accept the full authority of Christ without acknowledging the complete authority of Scripture.
The influence of post-modernism
The move in some parts of the church to regard Christ as our sole authority, rather than regarding his Word as being the sole authority, is arguably because of the influence of the epistemology of post-modernism. Epistemology is concerned with how (or whether) we can know things, and post-modernist epistemology asserts, when considering any text, that either:
In some parts of the church, there is even a kind of pride in the notion that 'we don't have lots of doctrines or wordy statements of faith, which is good because it leaves everyone free to believe differently'.
If we think this way, then we will have no way of knowing for sure what the Bible really means about anything. Everyone has his or her own interpretation, and who's to say which is right or wrong. Everyone can claim to still be following Jesus as Lord, no matter what they twist Scripture to mean. Everyone can have his or her own personal 'Jesus', and nevermind what the Bible actually says about the real Jesus. When we get to a part of the Bible we don't like, we can just decide to interpret the Bible differently at that point, and our interpretation is as valid as anyone else's. This is nonsense.
Correct doctrine matters!
The epistemology of post-modernism is based on assumptions
But suppose those assumptions are wrong... Suppose there is a God, suppose that God created us to know Him, and chose to reveal Himself to us. Suppose Scripture is inspired by God and given to us by Him. Suppose God wanted to communicate truth about Himself to his creatures, and chose to speak to them. It ought to be obvious that in that case the relativism of post-modernism, with its denials that truth can ever be known, must be wrong. The epistemology of post-modernism assumes that there is no God, or that if there is, that He has not spoken to us, or not done so in a way that is clear. But a post-modernist cannot prove any of his or her underlying assumptions, they are making a leap of faith in choosing to believe what they believe about truth. We need to be clear about that, because there is a tendency for some people to assume that post-modernism is unquestionably correct in everything it asserts. Not so.
Yes, believing in God, following Christ, is a matter of faith. There is good historical evidence for the Bible, and most importantly for the resurrection of Christ, but I can't give anyone absolute proof of these truths. I know that Christ is risen not least because I have met Him by faith, but I can't prove that to you. However, believing that there is no God, or that if God exists he is silent, or that if God has spoken we can't know for sure what he meant when he spoke, are all equally beliefs based on assumptions. We need to be clear that those who deny the Christian faith are also making a leap of faith in choosing to believe what they believe, that they have their own set of assumptions too.
A multitude of theologies, all equally 'helpful' and 'informative'?
A person who leads a church made this comment to me (in an email exchange between us) of the theologies in the list below: 'All of these different readings and more can be very helpful to our own understanding of Scripture, to limit ourselves to one view or another is a mistake that is far too often made.'
The irony here is that the person who sent me this email is using one single way of looking at Scripture - the one view they are limiting themselves to is the epistemology of post-modernism, and they are allowing that understanding of 'truth' to control and dominate everything they read. They are going with the flow of the spirit of the age, and the popular understanding in our society of what 'truth' is. Don't misunderstand this as a personal attack - I am sure the individual concerned is very sincere, and is certainly passionately interested in reaching out in caring ways to the local community. But the crucial question is, 'what is the message that the community is being reached out to with?'
Here's the list of interpretations which are supposedly all useful and helpful:
The person who sent me this list did also include Reformed theology as one viewpoint which was useful and helpful to include, but only as one view amongst all the others. The problem with this is that Reformed theology would contradict many of the above ideas at various points, in some places on vitally important issues. To suggest that Reformed theology can comfortably sit alongside all the others in the list is just not credible. The only way to believe that so many different (and contrary to each other) viewpoints are equally true is by redefining truth in a very post-modern way to assert that both 'A' and 'NOT A' can both be true at the same time. This might be true in quantum mechanics but it is most definitely not the way truth is defined in God's word!
I believe Reformation theology is indeed essentially correct, not because it imposes its own structure and content on the Bible, but rather because it takes its structure and content from the Bible. The Reformers did not invent a new way of looking at Scripture, rather they challenged the Church to return to Scripture, to reform according to what the Bible actually says.
I am not saying that there are no true believers outside of the Reformed camp. I recognise as a brother or sister in Christ anyone who has truly come to Christ in repentance and faith, who truly knows and loves the Lord. Such believers can sometimes be found even in the most unlikely seeming places. And on the other hand, a person can know Calvin's Institutes very thoroughly and still not know Jesus. We are not saved by our theology, we are saved by Christ.
There are varying degrees of error in many of the theologies listed in the above bullet point list, and some of them are so far from the true gospel that it's fair to describe them as dangerous. 'Evangelicalism' has become such a broad and all-inclusive approach that even this can be dangerous, for where the gospel is not believed and preached then the Church is not doing what it is supposed to be doing according to Jesus' own commission.
Freedom of religion, in the sense of people being free to practice their beliefs without being persecuted for them, is very important. But we cannot pretend that it does not matter what someone believes. False doctrine can lead people to their spiritual destruction, which is why in the New Testament Church the apostles were determined to defend the faith against heresy. These days it seems that the attitude in many churches is that the only heresy is to believe there is such a thing as heresy. That's the epistemology of post-modernism speaking, not the Scriptures.
Read the very strong words of Paul, of Peter, of Jude, and of Scripture in general, concerning heresies and those who spread them, and it becomes undeniable that sometimes we must take a stand and be set for the defence of the gospel. To do so is to risk being seen as argumentative and insulting, but Scripture itself has to be our guide - not post-modern political correctness which says everyone is right, don't upset others by saying otherwise.
If we buy into the epistemology of post-modernism then we are likely to say that all of the above theologies can help us to follow Jesus and 'reach out to those who do not yet know him'. But there is only one way to know Christ, that is by turning to him in repentance and faith, trusting in Christ alone for our salvation. And the Jesus we must turn to is the Jesus of the Bible, the real Jesus, which means that truly turning to him has to include believing and following what God's word says about Jesus, about the gospel, about the Bible itself, about what happened at the cross and why, about the sinfulness of fallen human nature and our utter inability to save ourselves, about the wonderful forgiveness and blessing for all who truly believe, but also about hell, about how we must turn to Christ in repentance and faith or face the wrath of God ourselves for our sin, and so on. These are truths you simply won't find believed or preached in many parts of the so-called church where some of the above interpretations of Scripture dominate.
In churches which have been taken in by post-modern epistemology, the question of whether the interpretations in the list above are true or false doesn't arise, indeed cannot arise, for in this way of thinking there is no longer any way of saying who is right or wrong in their interpretation. What we are left with is the idea that theology is a 'process', a 'conversation' in which everyone contributes, with all (or very nearly all) interpretations being equally valid. Interpretations are now spoken of as 'helpful', 'illuminating', 'bold', 'vibrant', 'challenging', 'informative', 'exciting', and so on. The question of whether any of them are actually true or false is not asked, nor can it be asked given the underlying epistemology. People who still believe in categories of truth and error are likely to be dismissed as 'narrow'.
The truth about viewing Scripture this way
If we buy into the epistemology of post-modernism we are also likely to regard the 'narrow' person as making the mistake of looking at scripture through one single lens, whereas we are far more wisely looking at scripture through a multitude of different lenses, to help us understand it. But this isn't true - the person who believes that so many different (and contrary to each other!) theologies are equally helpful and useful is also using one single lens to look at scripture - the single lens they are using is the epistemology of post-modernism. Look at scripture through that lens and you can find any meaning you like - but it's unlikely to be the meaning God put there.
True biblical scholarship
There is nothing wrong with biblical scholarship in which people who know and love Jesus use their academic training and understanding of biblical languages and history to help us to better understand the Bible. In fact, true biblical scholars are a gift from God to the Church. But true biblical scholarship: 1) requires that we know Jesus, 2) approaches scripture with the humility of regarding it as God's inerrant and infallible word, not presuming to master the word of God but rather wanting to be mastered by it, and, 3) believes, as did the apostles in their teaching and preaching of the gospel, that there is such a thing as truth and falsehood, and that, if we have the Holy Spirit to enable us, then we can know what the truth is - not exhaustively, but truly.
As for being 'narrow'...
On the subject of being narrow, it might be wise to consider the words of Jesus:
'Enter by the narrow gate, for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many are they that enter in thereby. But small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few are they that find it.' (Matthew 7:13-14)