THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 79
The authority of Scripture
The one sure inheritance of the Christian Church is scripture. This collection of sixty-six books – showing us the before and after of Jesus Christ – is the vital basis for every valid Christian Church or Body of Believers across the world. It is only scripture we can rely on in such a way. It takes precedence in the thinking of all of us.
If you come across some group, which calls itself Christian, and you want to decide whether it is really is part of the Body of Christ, ask whether they have another book alongside the bible, in their faith. If they add some other book as equal and necessary, alongside the scriptures, then you can be sure that they are off beam and not genuinely of the Body of Christ worldwide.
Scripture has always been and always will be the basis of our faith – without scripture, where would we be?
The authority of scripture is undoubted for the Christian. Parts of it are over two thousand years old and none of it is more recent than two thousand years ago. How relevant can such a document be? The answer is that it is the most relevant and up to date document that we could possibly have.
It is certainly true that all through the centuries men and women have grappled with trying to understand the scriptures. This is not easy, partly because there is so much material in them! Partly also because they represent pre-Christian times, followed by the effect of Christ’s life and teaching. That shift was revolutionary. There is the world of difference between the old Jewish religion and the new Christianity that Jesus revealed to us.
There have been innumerable misunderstandings of the bible and sometimes these have taken numbers – sometimes large numbers – of people off down a sidetrack. Examples abound, but one current illustration will suffice. There is, in some quarters, an emphasis on what is called the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. There are millions of Christians who are led into believing that God wants to give them financial prosperity and that they can achieve this by donating money generously to the church. Of course that is mostly the church of the preacher! This is an up to date example of how scripture can be manipulated and mishandled – sometimes for ignoble purposes and sometimes simply in ignorance.
The authority of scripture is established beyond doubt. There is no Christian church in the world that would ignore or set aside scripture. The parts they emphasise may differ. Their attitudes to it may differ, and their application of its principles may vary, but all Christians revere and honour the scriptures.
Having said this, it is necessary to add an equally important fact: it is the Holy Spirit who interprets scripture to us. The Holy Spirit is in each person leading and guiding towards the truth. When a person reads the bible the Holy Spirit informs his mind insofar as he is open to being led and informed. Of course, if he goes with his own ideas ands shuts out any idea of learning from God, and then he will receive little. But if a person opens the bible in a genuine attempt to know more of God, then the Holy Spirit enlightens his mind as he reads the words.
So there we have the heart of it: the existence of a book called the bible, and the reality of the guidance of God to the open mind and heart.
When those two come together – as they do all the time, all over the world – then you have a book bearing an authority that is greater than any other.
We all look for authority in our lives. The desire for it is sometimes almost overwhelming. At times when everything is changing and in flux, and all the old landmarks seem to be disappearing, we look especially for some source of authority.
I have seen little children look for authority when they are frightened or anxious. They look for a parent or some other figure of authority – such a person represents safety for them.
When teenagers start rebelling they are really testing the boundaries – seeing how far they can go. They are testing out the authority of their parents – where will they draw the line on what is permissible? In by 10.30? Or midnight? Or 3.30am? Or out all night?
We all look for and depend on authority. Have you ever been out on the street when it looks as though a brawl was about to start? At such a point most of us look around to see if, by chance, there is someone like a Policeman around!
Or sometimes, when we are really perplexed by difficulties in some intricate matter, and wonder whom we can ask for help, we look for someone in authority – someone we feel confidence in.
And when eventually parents die, isn’t one aspect of the tremendous sense of loss that they are no longer there for us, with that authority they have had over a long lifetime?
Or what about when you come to some really difficult and knotty technical problem – you turn to someone to guide you. But not just anyone. Someone who is an authority in that area.
The bible is like that – it is an authority on our relationship with God for us, with all its myriad facets – poetry, history, biography, law, and letters. And the stories that it tells are timeless for they deal with human nature at its deepest level. God has provided the bible for us and it supplies all we need to know.
We don’t need the bible to be ‘word perfect’ any more than we expect the expert to know every answer to every question. Sufficient that it is the tried and trusted book that has helped the millions down the centuries. From it we can discern God’s plan and purpose and, above all, we can hear his voice reaching us through the text. It is God’s word to us.
So I don’t mind a bit if Chapter 5, verse 4 conflicts with Chapter 10, verse 17. It was written, copied, translated, printed by men who were just as fallible as I am. Their mistakes, their limited vision of things, even their pre-modern world views are not important beside the priceless witness of God’s dealings with us all down the centuries.
What matters is that this priceless collection of documents, provided by a loving Father, is interpreted to us by the Holy Spirit as we read and study.
I treat the Ordinance Survey maps in the same way. I know it is the best guide to what is on the ground that I could possibly have. It guides me as I go on my walk and I follow its directions without fear or anxiety. If suddenly I come to an unexpected embankment and, looking over it, see a new motorway with cars running along it, and another embankment on the other side, I don’t pretend that the map is right and that what is on the ground is not really there! Instead I turn the map over and look at the date it was prepared. Maybe it was over three years ago! In that time the contractors have built a motorway across the countryside and the map needs updating.
Likewise, when the bible talks of homosexuality I recognize that the situation on the ground has changed since the time when that part of the bible was written. They have driven a road through the previous concept of human sexuality. I cannot pretend that that has not happened. I cannot pretend that the motorway is not there. I recognize that the map needs to be related to what has happened since it was written.
The bible is the light of God, a lamp unto our feet. We need to read it with all the erudite knowledge we can muster. We must listen to every expert opinion about the text. As we read we shall come across parts that we treat as stories, and other parts we treat as historical fact. The stories inspire us, because they are stories of God’s dealings with man. The historical facts impress us with the reality of the gospel message.
Always, always, always we listen for the direction of the Holy Spirit as we read. Whether it is poetry or law, story or history, we listen for the quiet voice within that validates what we read to us and which sheds light on the inner meaning, leading us into all truth.
So this is not just a book about a nomadic tribe and how it settled down and became a nation. It is rather the story of a people chosen by God to bring to birth the idea of a holy God who has moral standards – a God who wants to communicate and interact with human beings. And these people brought forth one of their sons who turned out to be the Son of God. By his teaching and life and death and resurrection we are brought into a new world where God is our Father and where all men are brothers. And the bible tells that story. What is written is earth shattering. If you let yourself believe it then it can change your whole life.