Through the years, Christians have debated what authorities should be followed when it comes to religion. The Catholic church, among others, teaches that the traditions of the church hold equal weight with the Bible when deciding matters of faith. Most Protestant churches have insisted that the Bible alone is sufficient authority.
Many today are advocating a new source of authority, though few are open about it. This authority is experience, be it personal experience or observed experiences. Luke Timothy Johnson, an accomplished New Testament scholar who is a member of the Catholic church, expressed this new outlook on authority in a 2007 article published in Commonweal magazine. Let me quote an important passage:
I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to…
Johnson is more open than most when choosing experience over the biblical revelation. But his position is a common one, particularly when discussing two main issues: homosexuality and gender roles in the church. It boils down to this: if you can show that people are hurt, demeaned, frustrated by a certain doctrine, then that doctrine has to be changed in light of the experience of these people. It’s not a matter of going back and restudying something; it’s about elevating human experience over the written Word.
I don’t buy it. I’m not ready to give up on the Bible as a sufficient authority in matters of faith. Yes, we need to wrestle with how to apply today instructions that were given two thousand years ago. But let us not be found guilty of the chronological snobbery that leads us to believe that we in the twenty-first century understand God better than fellow Christians who lived centuries before.
Let us hear the voice of the hurting. But let’s offer them more than a sympathetic ear. Let’s offer them the wisdom of God’s Word speaking time-tested truths.
Please note, none of this is about unclear biblical teachings or questionable interpretations. Johnson is talking about looking biblical teachings square in the eye and telling them they are antiquated.
Hear another quote from Johnson:
I suggest, therefore, that the New Testament provides impressive support for our reliance on the experience of God in human lives—not in its commands, but in its narratives and in the very process by which it came into existence. In what way are we to take seriously the authority of Scripture? What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives.
Again, I don’t buy it. Let us be shaped by both narrative and command, led to live lives that stand in stark contrast to culture rather than following its every mutation. Ask the hard questions, do the deep study, but don’t give up on God’s Word. All of it. Let every jot and tittle shape our experiences and not vice versa. Let the Bible change how we live rather than daily life changing the Bible itself.
Sola scriptura. Let’s not be too quick to give up on that standard.