We live in a polarized world. And it isn’t getting any easier. But really, we should not be surprised that we are where we are.
I first heard the terms ‘pluralism’ and ‘subjective truth’ in High School at youth group in the late 1990s. These were used to describe the ‘post-modern’ era: an era that challenged the certainty of enlightenment belief that human reason and science could lead us to ultimate truth, only to be confronted with its failure to do so over and again. This new way of thinking posited that there is no such thing as absolute truth: nothing can be proven with absolute certainty. Instead, it creates space for us all to form our own ‘truth’ by adopting our own worldview that is not subject to the critique of others: “what’s true for you isn’t true for me, and that’s okay. I won’t judge your truth if you don’t judge mine … as long as you don’t try to impose your truth on mine”. It sounds wonderful – like the way forward for us all to just ‘get along’ because we can create our own realities and stay away from controversy. Only this, too, is proving to fail in practical terms.
With any major philosophical shift, it usually takes decades for it to find its way from academia to the general public – the true testing ground of anything. Today we are living in the midst of that, and we are seeing how the post-modern era has failed to resolve the problems of human suffering – it has simply allowed the space for the creation of new avenues of suffering. Our world may have evolved into a place where we are not only convinced of our own sense of truth, but we will vehemently defend it against all others, even in the face of facts to the contrary. Whoever shouts loudest gets to define what truth is.
In order for something to be true, in any sense, we need to be convinced of it. If we are convinced of it, then everything we say and do is built upon that truth as its foundation. If I am convinced that there is no God, then I will live however I please. If I am convinced that there is a God but there are multiple ways to a relationship to him, then I will pick and choose the elements from all the world’s religions that best suit me. If I am convinced there is only one God who has revealed Himself to us through the Bible and ultimately through Jesus Christ, then I will follow what the Bible reveals as necessary to live a fulfilling life. Truth and conviction go hand-in-hand. In a world where different people are convinced of different truths, inevitably those truths will come into contact and conflict with one another. And we realize they can’t both be true.
We should not be surprised that we are where we are.
Paul wrote about this in his letter to Timothy:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people … loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth … For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 3:1-7; 4:3-4).
If we take even a cursory look at our world today, we see these realities. A world full of people who are “always learning but never able to come a knowledge of the truth”, and “gather[ing] around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”. This typifies the mob mentality present in the myriad of protests we see over various issues. In that environment, how can one reasonably be expected to discern what is truthfully true?
As Christians, we believe that all truth is God’s truth. What is truthfully true is found in the words of Scripture. It is perhaps not coincidental that in that same letter, Paul writes to Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And so it stands to reason that we should know our Scripture and know it well, so that we can “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
Sadly, Paul’s prophecy does not only speak to the world outside the church, but it has come to find a home within the church as well. In all honesty, the Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries could have just as easily applied these words to their own context. The church had lost sight of its historical roots and exalted its own teaching and traditions over those of Jesus and the church fathers as recorded in Scripture. Hence, one of the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation was Sola Scriptura (through Scripture alone – over and against the traditions of the church). The Reformers (re)discovered the original texts of the Bible and sought to return the church to its rightful foundation.
Of course, Sola Scriptura was only one of five principles emphasized during the Reformation, along with Sola Fidei (through faith alone), Sola Gratia (through grace alone), Solus Christus (through Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (for God’s glory alone). Of course, these can’t be truly ‘alone’, otherwise there wouldn’t be five. However, if we understand ‘alone’ to be ‘over and against’ other interpretations, then we can hold these in tension. Yet of the five, I would say that the hallmark of especially the Reformed traditions has been Sola Scriptura. Over time, this came to present just as many challenges for the church as the enlightenment did for modernism.
Since the Reformation, the Bible (or at least certain interpretations of it) has been used and abused to forward agendas within the church and in society. The clearest example of this is the justification for slavery in the American South and other parts of the world during the 18th and 19th centuries. Clearly, we have moved beyond that, but not without leaving an indelible impression on culture and hermeneutics. Battles have continued to rage on within the church over (often petty) issues all relating back to how we might interpret and understand the Scriptures. We had elevated ‘interpretation’ to the level of ‘truth’ and thereby created our own microcosm of the post-modern era. So much so that many people have thrown up their hands, rebelled against Sola Scriptura and sought instead to focus on some of the other emphases of the Reformation, perhaps even to the detriment of others.
When we take a step back and look at it, however, we cannot understand faith, grace, Christ, or God without Scripture. At least not the Christian faith. To separate these from Scripture is to posit a purely theoretical and fluid religion that we can alter to suit our own needs and desires. We can emphasize certain principles that, for example, Jesus upholds, to the neglect of others. We like to talk about God’s love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness; but we’d rather leave out the judgment, punishment for sin, or discipline. To do so is perfectly consistent in a worldview where Scripture does not have ultimate authority – only it’s a worldview where human authority is the ultimate authority. It is still all about how we wish to interpret and understand the text more than it is about what the text actually says.
If, as we said at the beginning, ‘all truth is God’s truth’, then it would also stand to reason that ‘all truth is revealed truth’. We cannot know anything unless God chooses to reveal it to us. God ultimately revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Everything we know about Jesus is recorded in Scripture. To separate Christ from Scripture is to create an abstraction – someone about whom we can know nothing because we do not see the history of his life as recorded in the Gospels as authoritative. So, we cannot strip Scripture of its authority. But we also cannot exalt Scripture to the level of God – which is an unfortunate consequence of Sola Scriptura thinking.
I am not here (intentionally anyway) delving into the concept of an “open” or “closed” canon of Scripture. Yet I do wish to highlight that how strongly we understand “closed” has a significant impact on how we live our lives in the world today. Speaking facetiously, it is not as if God came down after the council of Rome (382 A.D.) and said “looks good to me, my work here is done” and walked away from the world, leaving us on our own to figure things out (that’s called Deism). The Bible is not like an ancient instruction book that if we follow it to every jot and tittle that we will live fulfilling lives. The Bible is still just as much “alive” today as it was when it was first penned.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13, emphasis added). Now granted, the “word” here refers not to Scripture per se, but God’s revealed will and communication of himself to his people (the same word ‘word’ is used to describe Jesus in John chapter 1). What this text does point to, however, is the reality that God is just as actively revealing himself today as he was when Scripture was written. One of the primary means he does that is through Scripture.
Now comes the most important question of all: So what? What does this mean for us as a church in Canada in the 21st century? I’ll offer a response in summary form and then push us to reflect on that impact:
- We cannot exalt our experience, our interpretation of Scripture, or our concept of what we think God is like over and above what Scripture teaches and reveals to us about God. This means we must hold in tension God’s grace and God’s judgment. This means we must approach the text and our world with humility AND authority – not denying the truth contained in Scripture while at the same time being willing to admit our understanding could be flawed. To approach the text in this way is to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.
- We cannot exalt Scripture to the level so as to be equal with God himself. God reveals himself through Scripture but is not to be equated with Scripture. The Bible is not an instruction manual that we follow under our own strength in hopes of being blessed by God at the end of all things. To approach the text in this way is legalism.
- Scripture does and should have the authority in everything we say and do as Christians. As such, we should take it at face value, using the simplest reading possible, while at the same time asking God to reveal himself and his truth to us through its words. This is the work of the Holy Spirit (what theologians call “Illumination”). Without Scripture we have no foundation, we have nothing to look to for wisdom and guidance. Without Scripture we have no way of knowing anything about God, but can only know of a god whom we make in our own image.
I write these things because we live in a time and place where Biblical literacy is at an all-time low, and yet claims of ‘truth’ (or ‘being right’) I would argue are at an all-time high. As we navigate the various challenges we face individually and as a church, we must keep in mind who really is in charge. We should be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20). When someone has a different understanding of God’s will than we do, we do not berate, ridicule, or look down on them, even if we know we are right. We must also be willing to admit that we could be wrong, but not necessarily to the point of doubting or distrusting what the church has believed to be true for millennia.
I’ll close with the verses that immediately follow that text from James 1 because I believe they fit well. Note the strong connection between knowing the word and doing the word, and how that prevents us from being led astray.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:22-27).
 The Council of Rome is where the church finalized the decision of which books would be included in the Bible and which would not.