Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Can the Authority of Scripture be Affirmed While the Words are Denied?

There are all kinds of churches and denominations that teach very different things and yet all claim to have the same source of authority. In some of these groups, I've noticed that although the authority of Scripture is claimed, the actual language is not used. In mainline liberal Protestant churches baptisms are sometimes done in the name of the "Mother, Child, and Womb," or "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier." Most "conservatives" would agree that the shift in language away from the Scriptural language also means that they are teaching something completely different from what the Scriptures teach.

When I was a Calvinist, I noticed that when I was in forums debating with Arminians, some would actually get quite angry if you just posted a passage of Scripture. The very posting of the Scriptures would send them into attack mode. I started noticing this even within Calvinism. There would be disputes within Calvinism and one group would simply quote the Scriptures and the other group would attack them for not adopting the confessional language but merely quoting the Scriptures.

After becoming a Lutheran, I started noticing this even more. The Bible would say, "baptism now saves you" or "baptism is for the forgiveness of sins" and if I said these things among Baptists and other groups that deny that baptism is salvific they would say, "Baptism doesn't save you," and "Baptism doesn't forgive sins." I wasn't adding my own commentary or explanation, all I did was repeat the words of Scripture and they would be angry. But how in any real sense can Scripture be considered authoritative if its very words get you accused of heresy?

There are times when theological controversy necessitates the use of non-Biblical words. The word "Trinity" is not found in the Bible but it doesn't contradict the plain teachings of Scripture either. You would never hear someone say, "The Bible doesn't teach that we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches we are baptized in the name of the Trinity." That would be absurd. But various theological traditions have in fact adopted terms and phrases that have taken the place of the Scriptural phrases in such a way that the Scriptural phrases are only used if they are read from the pulpit and the pastor spends half the sermon explaining why those words don't mean what they sound like they mean. Phrases such as "sign and seal of the covenant of grace" or "outward sign of an inward reality" or "the believer's first act of obedience" are not used to summarize what the Scriptures say but used to deny what the Scriptures say. Anyone who tells you that baptism is the believer's first act of obedience is going to deny that "baptism is for the forgiveness of sins" and "baptism now saves you." The use of the words that come out of the theological tradition actually surplant the Scriptural words and phrases. If you go to a liturgical Christian church that confesses the Trinity you are going to hear "the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" far more often than you are going to hear the word "Trinity" used but if you go to a church that denies that baptism is salvific you will never hear them say that baptism now saves you but you will hear them tell you the opposite. The Biblical authors speak differently because their theology is completely different. Peter would never speak like the Baptist and the Baptist would never speak like Peter. Rome speaks differently than Paul on justification because Paul's theology is different from Rome's.

When the Nicene Creed says "We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ" it would be foolish for someone to confess this if they do not believe in Jesus. In the same way it is ridiculous to claim to subscribe to the Nicene Creed and deny that there is "one baptism for the remission of sins." If you read the church fathers who composed the creed, it's pretty clear that they saw no separation between water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptural passages that stand behind the creed see no division either. Yet, I've attended Reformed baptisms at churches that claimed to subscribe to the Nicene Creed where it was made very clear during the sermon that baptism does not save you. Does the Nicene Creed have any real authority in such a church?

Man-made traditions that are contrary to Scripture are most difficult to break when people are convinced that these are not man-made traditions but what the Scriptures teach. After hearing enough times that Romans 6 teaches that we merely identify ourselves with the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism, people really think that's what it says even though the passage clearly states that we were buried with Christ in baptism. After hearing enough times that "Baptism now saves us" means "Baptism doesn't save you" people believe it. No church body is immune from mistaking traditions which are contrary to Scripture for the very Word of Scripture. But if you interpret "is" as "isn't" and "saves" as "doesn't save" then you can't claim to have the same Gospel as Jesus as the Apostles no matter how much you may claim to be a "bible-believing" church. The Scriptures are not a puzzle to be deciphered and interpreted as teaching the opposite of what its words say. The Words of Christ are to be clung to and believed or they have no authority at all.


Anonymous said...

FWIW, Paul and Peter don't even seem to agree with each other fully on justification! I was reading 1 Peter the other day and noticed this. Paul can be read as a proto-Lutheran (though that's not the only possible interpretation of him) but Peter comes across as more Eastern Orthodox. There's got to be some way of reconciling or synthesizing the two views, though, just like we do with the four different gospels.

Chuck Wiese said...

I think the canonical order provides a helpful interpretive lens for understanding the Scriptures. Also, although I don't believe the Scriptures support the full-fledged Eastern Orthodox view of theosis, I do think there is a legitimate way of understanding the Scriptures as teaching theosis. I think this article is pretty helpful: