Not long ago I had two LDS missionaries in my home. It was our fourth meeting and seeing we were not progressing they requested this be our last time. Then one of the missionaries in tears told me that he believed with all his heart that the Book of Mormon was true and that if I would just be open minded and pray I would too. I thanked him for his sincerity, but I also pointed out the problem we faced. He had an experience which led him to believe the Book of Mormon was true. My experience with that same book had led me to the conclusion that it was false. Now whose experience was right? They couldn’t both be true or they would both be false. It came back to this issue of authority and where we ground our experience. We need something beyond experience to enable us to interpret our experience. Without that then we are left to a competition of experiences which never ends well or coherently for that matter.
Last week we looked at two foundational doctrines (God and man) and the implications they have for us in how we articulate the Christian faith. In truth, each of these chapters is looking at a foundational doctrine and this one is no exception. Here we are considering the authority by which we make claims about Christianity. Where do we get our information? Everyone claims to have Jesus on their side. How can we figure out who is right?
God speaks to us
Machen begins by giving the two types of ways God reveals himself to us. First, God reveals himself to us in creation. By observation of the created order, we know that God exists. Yet we need more specific information than that which is disclosed to us in the stars. So God in his kindness spoke to us in scripture. As he has in earlier chapters, Machen highlights that Christianity is founded upon the narration of a specific event: the death and resurrection of Jesus. Something happened which changed the world. And this is chiefly what separates Christianity from other religions. He writes,
“All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not on a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event” (70).
Machen is saying that even if there are points of overlap between Christianity and another religion (ex: Golden Rule), that without the death and resurrection of Christ it is not true Christianity.
The right use of experience
The objection is made that we should not need some book documenting what happened so long ago. What we need is a”salvation that is independent of history, a salvation that depends only on what is with us here and now” (70). Thus we are brought back to the primacy of experience. Machen argues the error made with respect to experience is not that we have it, but that it is pitted against doctrine and, in this case, the Bible. He writes,
“But at this point a fatal error lies in wait. It is one of the root errors of modern liberalism. Christian experience…is useful as confirming the gospel message. But because it is necessary, many men have jumped to the conclusion that it is all that is necessary.” (71).
Experience is not a substitute for doctrine or divine revelation. Experience cannot become the substance of gospel truth. But this doesn’t mean our experience is irrelevant. Machen writes,
“Christian experience is rightly used when it helps to convince us that the events narrated in the New Testament actually did occur; but it can never enable us to be Christians whether the events occurred or not” (70).
Illustrating his point he says, “[Experience] is a fair flower, and should be prized as a gift from God. But cut from its roots in the blessed Book, and it soon withers away and dies” (72). Experience, then, is to be interpreted in light of special revelation from God (Bible) and not with respect to itself.
Machen defends the doctrine of plenary inspiration from common misrepresentations and attacks. The doctrine is simply that the Bible is a true account of what God wants communicated to us. It has been divinely preserved free from error in all that it teaches. Quoting the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Machen says the Bible is the “infallible rule of faith and practice” (73).
He rejects dictation/mechanical theory where God took over the consciousness of the writers placing them in a sort of trance. Rather it is believed the Holy Spirit “so informed the minds of the Biblical writers that they were kept from falling into errors that mar all other books” (74). Christians do not believe the Bible teaches everything. Rather we believe that the Bible is true and free from error in all that it speaks about. We recognize this is a supernatural claim, yet hold it to be true for a whole host of reasons which cannot be examined here. One central reason we argue for plenary inspiration is that God is a God of truth and it would be contrary to God’s nature to produce for us scriptures which are riddled with errors.
It is noteworthy that Machen addresses a category of people who believe the gospel despite their rejection of the inspiration of the scriptures. He says that these folks are Christians for they have trusted the correct message though we would argue they are in error with respect to the Bible.
Jesus versus the Bible
It is often argued by those who reject the inspiration of the Bible that they are really the faithful Christians because they are following Jesus. They say that the Bible is indeed divine, yet is full of error. So where do they claim their authority to say the things they do? Well, theological liberalism appeals to the authority of Jesus. They aren’t going to appeal to an ancient error-laden book, they are looking to Jesus and there can be no higher or better authority than that, right? In doing this, theological liberals end up pitting Jesus against the Bible which will not work for it ends up destroying their own position.
First, Machen points out that Christianity is based on more than just the words of Jesus in the gospels. The book of Acts and the epistles expand upon and interpret the person and work of Christ for the church. Second, Machen argues that those who say they only need the authority of Jesus don’t really mean it because they don’t actually accept all the words of Jesus even in the gospels. Thus the Jesus they hold to is one who himself has said erroneous things. One critical example is that Jesus said he came to give his life as a ransom for many. This, however, is rejected because theological liberalism doesn’t believe in sin or at least has a very different definition of sin than Jesus. What we get from Jesus, instead, is isolated and misinterpreted statements from the gospels. Machen concludes,
“It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection of Jesus’ recorded teaching is made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are the teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas” (78).
In other words, for theological liberalism the actual authority is modernism and Christian experience not the Bible. But an authority based on experience is not an authority because there is no inherent truthfulness, only subjectivity. Thus one of the chief differences between Christianity and liberalism is that Christianity is founded upon the word of God in the Bible while liberalism is “founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men” (79).
Each of us needs to consider what the authority is we follow and the foundation upon which we build our beliefs about God, the world, and ourselves. If we say we are Christians then our foundation must be the scriptures; not just a book, but a divine account of what God has done for his people. If we say we follow Jesus but we reject the Bible as inerrant or as our authoritative foundation then how does this not erode our claim? Is the Jesus we claim to follow the one of the Bible or one of our imagination? These are important questions for any professing Christian to ask and answer.
When I was in seminary one of my professors, who was also a pastor, said, “All my best sermons have been ruined by the Bible.” He meant that he had some great idea he wanted to preach on, but when he studied the Bible he realized his profound thoughts were wrong and he couldn’t preach it after all. It is true that too many and too often Christians bring pre-conceived notions to the scriptures. There are far too many pastors who preach this way, who do little to no exegesis and use the scriptures as a prop to preach their own opinions or current church trends. But for Christianity, the antidote is built in for the scriptures will press back against us and prove we are wrong. We are held accountable by the word of God. Does theological liberalism have the same tool? It seems that the function is found not in the Bible, but in individual experience, our ever-shifting culture or the groupthink of the mob.
The further along I get in this life and ministry the more grateful I am for the scriptural record. I am continually encouraged, challenged, comforted, convicted by God’s word. Not only am I grateful for the account of Jesus’ life and ministry, but also the account of the life of the church which came after his earthly ministry. The scripture is the foundation upon which Christianity is based for unit we find the promises and fulfillment of God in Jesus Christ. Our churches, our preaching, our lives will be evaluated by that divine standard. The Bible interest my experience as well. I feel many different things, I experience many highs and lows. Truth cannot be determined by what I feel. It is scriptures which have and continue to guide me as I experience life in this world. The Reformation rediscovered the Bible in the 1500s and there is even today a need for a similar Reformation. Men cannot be our only authority. Institutions cannot be our only authority. They may be an authority but that authority is derived and subject to the true divine authority of God’s inspired word. Truly the Bible is the only infallible rule for us for faith and practice and that brings us great comfort, correction and hope.