(August 2005 – Volume 11, Issue 8)
Perhaps the most important issue facing the church today is the matter of authority. Who or what has the right, the authority, to determine what we believe and how we are to live? The answer to that question, not so very long ago, was quite uncomplicated—at least to evangelical Christians. The Word of God was the final authority over all areas of faith and practice. One of the battle cries of the Reformation was sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. This simply meant that the ultimate basis of authority and truth was Scripture. Scripture had the final say over all we believed and how we lived those beliefs. More than that, the Bible was seen as sufficient. That is, what the Word had to say was adequate to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). No one claimed that Scripture exhausted every subject—or even addressed some (e.g., mathematics). But where it did not give direct teaching it gave principles by which we could examine and evaluate all things “pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). That Scripture claims for itself such authority and sufficiency was widely accepted based upon numerous passages (e.g., John 17:17; Mark 12:24; Luke 11:25; 16:27-31; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:25; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 20:20-32; Psalm 19, 119; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:3; Matthew 5:17-20; 12:18-27; 26:52-54; Luke 10:25-26; 16:17). But, for the most part, the evangelical church today does not believe this. The authority and sufficiency of God’s Word is being supplanted at every turn. However, before we observe the modern church, let’s back up and look at the recent past. What is transpiring today has a familiar ring to it. This has all happened before—and not that long ago.
The issue of authority largely deals with epistemology, that is, how we discover and determine truth. Without racing down philosophical rabbit trails of which there are many, the answer is that our knowledge of truth must come from a source. When reduced to “basic” possibilities the sources of truth are limited to three:
If one believes that humans are the final source of truth we are still left with the epistemological question of how we discover this truth. James Draper and Kenneth Keathley give this helpful overview:
The person holding to human reason (or rationalism) believes he is his own final authority. The question then is which method that individual will use in testing truth claims. The options available to him can be grouped under three headings: rationalism, empiricism, and mysticism. The rationalist believes he or she can determine what is true by reason alone, because of innate or natural abilities within the human mind. The empiricist places confidence in experimentation and in the observation of sense phenomena, affirming as true only that which can be physically demonstrated. Finally, there is the mystic, who rejects rationalism and empiricism because he recognizes that the individual is not capable of arriving at ultimate truth either by reason or observation. The mystic, however, believes that the individual does possess extrarational abilities that enable him to intuit truth. Truth, the mystic contends, cannot be known objectively; it can be encountered only subjectively. No matter which of the three approaches are employed by human reason, they all have this in common: They make the individual the final arbiter of truth. 
Within the Christian tradition this is best represented by the Roman Church. According to Catholic theology, it is the Church that has given us the Bible and, therefore, final authority rests with the Church. The Roman Church would technically not claim to hold views contrary to Scripture, but it is the Church which interprets Scripture and is free to add to it. Therefore, any apparent contradiction, say for example praying to Mary or the saints, is resolved by Rome’s claim to authority.
If God exists, it is not difficult to believe that He has communicated to mankind. The Bible claims to be that revelation. Conservative Christians throughout the ages, and especially since the Reformation, have recognized the exclusive claim of Scripture to be the complete and final Word of God for this age. This is not to say that there have not been many usurpers to this claim.
Yesterday and Today
One of the great challenges faced by Christians in the not too distant past drew from a number of sources: German rationalism, higher criticism, enlightenment thought, etc., ultimately evolving into what we call Christian liberalism today. The father of liberalism is usually recognized as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), professor of theology at the University of Berlin. Joining many popular philosophical systems with Christianity, Schleiermacher came to distrust any form of authority. But he did not want to reject Christianity, recognizing that mankind needs religion. He reasoned that propositional revelation about God may be faulty or even nonexistent but, since man needs religious experience, the outer shell of Christianity must be retained. The Bible may be untrustworthy, shot through with error, unreliable for developing a living framework, but it is still possible to experience God through religious expressions. The foundation may be gone, but somehow the walls are still standing. Such people are convinced that they encounter God as they connect with the “divine spark” found in every human, or through mystical practices, or through subjective experiences. They are unconcerned with the authority of Scripture—to them the Bible is riddled with errors, but that does not matter as long as they can have an existential relationship with God—or at least, so they think. William James, certainly no evangelical Christian, made an astute observation over one hundred years ago about the encroachment of liberal thought within Christianity:
The advance of liberalism, so-called, in Christianity, during the past fifty years, may fairly be called a victory of healthy-mindedness within the church over the morbidness with which the old hell-fire theology was more harmoniously related. We have now whole congregations whose preachers, far from magnifying our consciousness of sin, seem devoted rather to making little of it. They ignore, or even deny, eternal punishment, and insist on the dignity rather than on the depravity of man. They look at the continual preoccupation of the old-fashioned Christian with the salvation of his soul as something sickly and reprehensible rather than admirable; and a sanguine and ‘muscular’ attitude, which to our forefathers would have seemed purely heathen, has become in their eyes an ideal element of Christian character. I am not asking whether or not they are right, I am only pointing out the change. 
James’ assessment has a modern ring to it. Old liberalism has been waning in the last few decades, but certainly has not gone away. Rather, it has combined with other errant theological threads and morphed into a number of forms. Take for example the recent comments syndicated columnist and liberal Episcopal priest, Tom Ehrich, wrote:
Picture a prosperous suburban congregation, set among big houses and private schools, populated by professionals and young families, once known for its intellectual vitality, now caught up in stick-to-the-Bible orthodoxy…. Preaching there, says a member, rarely strays from a word-by-word explication of assigned texts. Adult education classes tend to be “led by people who regard the Bible as ‘inerrant’ and allow no questioning. We never hear an open, honest exploration of what it means to live as a Christian in today’s world.”… Clearly, some sort of retreat is under way. Like all retreats, it claims the moral high ground. But what I see in the “land of the free and home of the brave” is dogmatic conformity (fear of freedom) and intolerance (fear of the other)…. What concerns me is the emergence of a religious leadership cadre who don’t hesitate to turn fearfulness into rage, hatred and scapegoating. They, of all people, should know better. They should know that the answer to fear is faith, not hatred. They should know that Jesus didn’t name enemies, launch moral crusades or wage culture wars. He didn’t exercise thought-control with his disciples. He didn’t insist on one way of thinking or believing, He wasn’t legalistic or rigid or conformist (emphasis mine). 
This sounds like the rantings of old-fashioned liberalism—but wait! Many within evangelicalism are echoing the same tune. Taking a stand for the truth is long since out of vogue. John MacArthur makes the point, “It is no longer deemed necessary to fight for the truth. In fact, many evangelicals now consider it ill-mannered and uncharitable to argue about any point of doctrine.” 
Liberalism has joined forces with postmodernism to challenge the teachings of the Bible. Meanwhile, many in evangelicalism are sitting on the sidelines wanting to be tolerant and attempting to bully and intimidate any who advocate discernment. It is little wonder then that a new wave of liberalism is sweeping over Christianity. The seeker-sensitive church has been seen by many as just old liberalism in disguise, but that is not altogether true. The seeker-sensitive church has fudged on many biblical truths,  but it still embraces most of the cardinal doctrines and still seeks to proclaim the gospel, even if its message is often out of balance with the New Testament. But the seeker-sensitive church has given birth to a new movement being called the emergent church. The emergent church is taking to logical conclusion what the seeker-sensitive church began. All dressed up in post-modern religious garb the emergent church is rapidly rejecting and undermining almost all biblical theology. In other words the emergent church is the new liberalism. Evangelicalism is reaping what it has sown.
But what about all the spiritual interest that is evident. Christian books and music top the charts. Megachurches are bursting at the seams. Some are proclaiming that we may be in the midst of the greatest revival since Pentecost. In response, I agree with a Gallup poll evaluation from a few years ago. “We are having a revival of feelings, but not of the knowledge of God. The church today is more guided by feeling than by convictions. We value enthusiasm more than informed commitment.” 
If this is true why are so few noticing it? Let me make a few suggestions:
- Because the marketers of this approach to Christianity have become adept at giving people what they want. Michael Horton writes, “Throughout the prophetic literature, we notice a common theme—the false prophets tell the people what they want to hear, baptize it with God’s name, and serve it up as God’s latest word to His people.” 
- Because the centrality of the Word of God has been subtly replaced with inferior but pleasing substitutes. Systematic preaching and teaching of the Bible has been displaced in many churches with entertainment, drama, concerts, comic acts, and the like. For a number of decades psychological theory has been usurping the authority of Scripture. The purpose of many churches is no longer salvation and sanctification, but therapy. And, increasingly, mysticism and extrabiblical revelations are superseding the Bible.
- Because so many within evangelicalism are drifting with the tide of worldly thought and opinion. Pascal said, “When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops, he shows up the others who are rushing on by acting as a fixed point.”  Commenting on this statement Douglas Groothuis wrote, “The fixed point in a shifting world is biblical truth and all that agrees with it.”  Preceding Pascal’s quote Groothuis had this to say, “We are told that Christians must shift their emphasis from objective truth to communal experience, from rational argument to subjective appeal, from doctrinal orthodoxy to relevant practices. I have reasoned…that this move is nothing less than fatal to Christian integrity and biblical witness. It is also illogical philosophically. We have something far better to offer.” 
Peter informs us, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3a). How is this life and godliness found? “Through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (1:3b). And where is the knowledge of Christ found? In the precious Word of God. No wonder Peter encouraged us to be “like newborn babes, [who] long for the pure milk of the Word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Why feed at the trough of worldly wisdom or mystical experience when we have the final, complete, infallible revelation from God that is able to “make us wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15), “and equip us for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17)? I agree with Groothuis, we Bible-believing Christians do have something better to offer.
 James T. Draper Jr. & Kenneth Keathley, Biblical Authority (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001) pp. 2-3.
 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experiences (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1922) p. 91.
 Tom Ehrich, “Fear-based Faith Helps No One,” (Springfield, IL: The State Journal Register, May 22, 2005) p. 15.
 John MacArthur, Why One Way? (Word Publishing Group, 2002) pp. 47-48.
 See my book, This Little Church Went to Market.
 J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997) p. 19.
 Don Kistler, General Editor, Sola Scriptura! Michael Horton, Forward (Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2000) P. XV.
 Quoted by Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000) p. 265.