A helpful insight from C. S. Lewis:
Beware of the argument “the church gave the Bible (and therefore the Bible can never give us ground for criticizing the church).” It is perfectly possible to accept B on the authority of A and yet regard B as a higher authority than A. It happens when I recommend a book to a pupil. I first sent him to the book, but, having gone to it, he knows (for I’ve told him) that the author knows more about the subject than I.
Source: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 3, ed. Walter Hopper (HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 1307-8.
This captures well the carefully nuanced position articulated in Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture…
10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
In sum, the testimony of the church counts for something; it serves as a lesser (fallible) authority pointing us to a greater (infallible) authority. And since the second is a higher authority, it can stand in judgment over the first, correcting it where necessary. There’s nothing incoherent about that position, as Lewis’s helpful analogy illustrates.
“There is nothing outside the text” is arguably the most famous (and most debated) pronouncement of Jacques Derrida.
Suitably reinterpreted, I suggest it would serve as a good motto for aspiring preachers — and perhaps for some seasoned preachers too!
Who knows: maybe the French provocateur would have approved of this gratuitous reconstruction of his maxim. Vive la différance!
“Great Doctrines of the Reformed Faith” is the title of the 2018 Thornwell Lectures hosted by First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC.
I was honored to be invited to contribute to this year’s lecture series and I spoke on the topic of Scripture’s Self-Attestation.
The entire series is available on sermonaudio.com. Previous speakers include my RTS colleagues Ligon Duncan, Guy Waters, and Kevin DeYoung. Lectures from earlier years, going back to 2012, are also available.
“The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not on that of the Church.”
(Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:183)
In chapter 5 of Politics – According to the Bible, Wayne Grudem explains the US system of government, its “separation of powers”, and the proper role of the judiciary. He goes on to argue that while the system has “worked quite well” for most of the history of the United States, there is a problem that has become increasingly evident and damaging over the last 50 years or so, namely, the judiciary moving beyond its legitimate role of interpreting and applying the law into effectively creating new laws (and without any public accountability).
[T]here was a weakness in the system that the justices on the Supreme Court discovered over time. . . . If a case came to the Supreme Court and the Constitution did not say something that the Supreme Court justices wanted it to say, or thought it should say, they could claim to “discover” new principles in the Constitution, and no one would have power to overrule them. Whenever they thought it was important, they could simply create a new law and call it an “interpretation” of some part of the Constitution, and suddenly it would become the highest law in the land! In this way the Supreme Court justices discovered that they could become the most powerful rulers in the country. (p. 132)
After citing Roe v. Wade as a prime example, Grudem continues:
As the Supreme Court offered more and more decisions of this nature — decisions not grounded in any law that had been passed by any Congress or any state legislature, and that were not part of what the Constitution originally meant — it became, in actual functioning, the highest governing authority in the nation. The justices discovered that they had the freedom to make up new constitutional doctrines whenever they could get a majority of five persons to do so, and they could always claim to “discover” the new doctrine in some vague principle of the Constitution or other. (p. 134)
The Supreme Court . . . not only interprets the law and judges according to the laws, but also makes new laws in the sense of new provisions it claims to find in the Constitution, based on what it thinks is good for the nation. As former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judge says it is.” (p. 135)
Grudem proceeds to discuss several other prominent examples of judicial activism before delivering his conclusions about the significance of this political issue:
I believe that the battle for the control of the judicial system is now the single most important issue for the future of the United States. On the one side of this issue are liberal judges who insist that they will continue to make and uphold new laws as they think best, calling them “interpretations” of the Constitution, and also liberal politicians, who are determined to support the actions of these activist judges. . . . On the other side of this issue are those on the more conservative end of the political spectrum, including many judges who have decided that their task is only to interpret and apply the Constitution and the laws of the nation and the states according to the original intent of those documents at the time they were written. (p. 150)
As a non-US citizen and a relative newcomer to American politics, I’m hardly qualified to evaluate the details of Grudem’s argument, although I believe he’s quite right about the illegitimacy of judicial activism and about the rotten fruit it’s bearing in the United States. My purpose in this post is not so much to discuss Grudem’s analysis as to share a simple thought that occurred to me shortly after I read his chapter:
What has happened in the US system of government almost exactly parallels what happened in the government of the Christian church over the course of many centuries, a development that finds its fullest expression in the Roman Catholic Church.
A family friend asked me to comment on an article entitled “The Accidental Catholic”, which was recently posted on the Called to Communion blog (run by converts to Roman Catholicism from Reformed churches). Below are my comments (edited and slightly expanded).
The author’s basic argument can be summarized simply as follows:
- If Sola Scriptura were correct and the Protestant churches were led by the Holy Spirit, there wouldn’t be many doctrinal disagreements between Protestant churches.
- But there are many doctrinal disagreements between Protestant churches.
- Therefore, it can’t be the case that Sola Scriptura is correct and the Protestant churches are led by the Holy Spirit.
The most serious problem with the argument is that there’s no good reason to accept the first premise. Here are some reasons why, along with some other related comments: