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Can each man guide himself aright, without the aid of any external authority? It inay well be doubted if such a condition has been attained. A certitude is needed other than the speculations and convictions of individuals.
What is the nature of religious authority? It is the authority of truth ; nothing more than that, and also nothing less than that. It is an authority which is without external coercion. The authority of the state is supported by the arm of power, and many laws which are moral are thus enforced, such as the laws which pertain to life, property, reputation, and the like. In former times religious beliefs had the sanction of the state, and heresy or forbidden forms of worship were punished. But coercion, in respect to religion where it has existed or still exists, is an anomaly. For religion pertains to those higher aims of life which transcend civil relations in which alone the state properly has control. It is the authority, then, of truth, of objective truth, which is the same for all, and of which all may have certain knowledge; of truth, the sanctions of which reside in the constitution of man and of society, and in such anticipations or apprehensions as may be awakened concerning the future. That book is an authority on astronomy which accurately describes and explains the actual movements of the heavenly bodies. That man is an authority on geology who is believed to have correct and extensive knowledge of the rocky frame of the earth. Jesus spoke as one having authority, because He spoke as one who knows. That source which can give us correct knowledge of the truth is authoritative, and religious authority in the only proper sense resides in the truth which can thus be known.
The interest of our inquiry is, therefore, the interest of certitude concerning the truth which pertains to belief, character, and destiny. Can we gain such certitude ? Is there such truth which has been preserved in knowledge? The inquiry may be still further limited by the assumption that in Christianity, if anywhere, such truth is to be looked for. Whatever truth there may be in other religions is embodied or implied in Christianity. And it will not be disputed that whatever religious truth may be found in the constitution of man and in the structure of society is taken for granted in Christianity. If our religion has not, certainly no other religion has the character of finality and universality. Jesus Christ declared the truth, and was the truth. Are the sources of our knowledge of Christianity trustworthy sources ? The truth is the truth, whether we know it or not. But it can have authority over us only if we know it. Enough may be known of Jesus to convince us that He taught the final and sufficient truth, but we may think that in many respects our knowledge of Him is inadequate, or even that we are mistaken as to His person and words, and so we may feel that, after all, there is no authoritative source of knowledge concerning Him, which is the same as having no definite, objective, infallible religious authority.
There are only three possible sources of knowledge concerning primitive Christianity, namely, the Bible, the Church, and tradition. Reason, as a source of such knowledge, is excluded. It apprehends truth. It tests new truth by existing knowledge or need. But it creates no truth. It is not the objective reality, except as it is one fact among others, a fact of the human constitution. Reason is not a source of religion, as it is not a source of astronomy. As a source of knowledge concerning Christianity, tradition need not be considered, because, practically, there is, now, no tradition. For a time it was the only dependence. The Gospels embodied the traditions, and, as they came into circulation, were relied on as sufficient sources of knowledge, and no independent traditions were preserved as authoritative. The Church has authority only as derived. It preserves the Scriptures, translates, teaches, interprets, but is in no sense an original source of truth. It does not profess to have
other revelation than that recorded in the Bible, unless in some matters of ritual, or the like, but which are not considered as essentials of Christianity. The Bible, then, is the source of knowledge concerning Christianity. It is the earliest body of writings, and has long been accepted by the church. But is the Bible an authoritative source of knowledge ? Do we find in it the objective reality of the truth? Does it give the only perfect rule of faith and practice ? Can we accept it as our religious authority? Protestantism says, Yes. Nothing is to stand between the Bible and the man.
The assumption of Protestants is that the Bible has authority because it contains the Word of God, and that this can be understood by plain people as truly as by scholars. But now, increasing knowledge of the conditions under which the books of the Bible were composed seems to many to weaken if not to destroy its authority. We shall, therefore, compare a theory of the Bible which is of long standing with the theory which is replacing it, in order to show that the principle of authority is unchanged, and that the Bible, with all the knowledge we have of it, is authentic source of knowledge concerning Christianity, and therefore still the sufficient source of religious authority.
The theory which is slowly giving way, in the face of incontestable facts, a theory which became definite not long after the Reformation, and in consequence of the enthronement of the Bible in place of the Church, is the theory that the Bible is true in every part, that its every statement may be relied on as correct. But it is maintained that inerrancy is indispensable to the authority of the Bible. It might, perhaps, be admitted that a specific error here and there would not destroy the authority of the book, for those minor errors could be bracketed, and would not impair the integrity of the whole, though even then, in popular apprehension, its authority would be somewhat weakened. But any larger concessions would be fatal. This is a fair account of the theory which has commonly been held.
There are, therefore, two things to be considered. One is, the inerrancy. Can this be maintained ? If it can, the Bible would be the kind of authority described. If it cannot, does the inference follow that the Bible would virtually lose its authority ?—which is the other thing to be considered. The recorded history of the ancient peoples has shared the fortune of all historical records. Some of the historians did not have the historic sense, some of them exaggerated the past, as in the later narratives of the Chronicles, the name of Moses covers much he could not have written, the completed system of ritual was not given in the wilderness. With all minor deviations of modern Biblical critics, some such conclusions must be accepted.
Does it therefore follow that the Bible is not the highest and final authority, and is not an authority which can be understood and appealed to ? By no means. On the contrary, the same principle of authority holds under a correct knowledge of the Bible, as under the inerrant theory, and, moreover, the principle is disencumbered of conceptions which limited and perverted it. That principle is the intrinsic truth and the saving power of essential Christianity, a principle which depends on no external support, on no particular theory of inspiration, or of absolute inerrancy. This principle, as has been intimated, was really accepted under the former theory. That theory did not hold to the equal authority of all parts of the Bible. There was discrimination. Grades of authority were recognized. That is, there was comparison, discrimination, a spiritual estimate. The most spiritual truths had the highest authority. Yet, all the while, there was the burdensome task of showing that all the parts are absolutely free from error, or even of finding a permanent value in the
transient elements of the writings, and so, much fanciful interpretation. The spiritual authority of the Bible was thus weakened, because the claim of inerrancy had a tendency to obscure the important thing, the relative degrees of value and authority.
The authority, then, under the old theory, was in the spiritual saving truth of the Bible. And there it must be found on any theory. There it is found more surely than ever under the new theory. Prophets and Apostles have discovered God's truth, and have declared it with such clearness that it shines in its own light. If it were not so, the Bible could never have had its unsurpassed power. The critical sense does not disturb, but aids the spiritual sense by guiding, and in some respects by correcting it. Criticism shows the historical grades of culture which conditioned the spiritual grades of knowledge. Criticism shows that ignorance and error, in some respects, were inevitable in certain ages, and that they are important signs of the reality and verisimilitude of that which is narrated, that we should suspect later tamperings if modern knowledge appeared in ancient writings, that such freedom from error would be unnatural rather than supernatural.
Now, then, what shall be said to the people? How can we refer them to a Bible, part of which is no better than other books, and all of which has been subjected to the vicissitudes of time? There is only one thing to do. Tell them the truth. The honest course is the only safe and wise course. They already know the facts in part. It is useless, and worse, to keep on saying that there is no error and no imperfection. In a word, invite discrimination in the use of the Bible, a discrimination of the spirit from the letter, of the permanent from the transient. The letter of inerrancy killeth. If the truth which has authority is not there, it is useless look for it. If it is there, no fear but that it will be found and felt. The magnitude of truth as it stands reported in the New Testament is in no danger of being overlooked, or of being seriously misunderstood.
Then it will be asked (since not the whole, but only part of the Bible is true), whether each individual may not take what he likes, disregarding the rest, and so recognize no objective authority after all, but follow his own fancy alone? Will not every one accept only the truth which he approves ? Will he not decide for himself ? Ultimately, yes. Certainly no other can decide for him. But it may be assumed that the truth which is essential will be approved by honest minds. And the truth remains true, whether misguided man approves it or not. Let God be found true, but every man a liar. The individual must take the consequence of disregarding truth. No outward power coerces him, but he will be an unrenewed man, and will suffer the loss which comes from disregarding the law of God, which is the true law of his own being. Under the old theory of inerrancy there is no power which can oblige any one to believe the truth, and the final appeal for acceptance of it is to the reason and conscience of the individual. And when he has assented to the theory of infallibility, he has still to discriminate the spiritual from the literal. But certainly, while reason and conscience have no authority as sources of truth, they are the authority to which the final decision of all beliefs and practices must be taken by the individual man.
We again emphasize what we have been glad to affirm more than once before, that preachers do more than any other class of men in maintaining the authority of the Bible, by impressing that truth which has spiritual power. It is their function to study the Bible for that purpose. The desire for a book which is superhuman throughout, and therefore free from all human error and imperfection, is the desire for some external sign of authority which is no real part of essential saving truth.
THE SEAT OF AUTHORITY IN RELIGION. By the Rev. MARCUS Dods, D.D. (The Christian Union).—No apology is needed for inviting attention to the question, What is the seat of authority in religion ? At the Reformation there was no question regarding the source of authority in religion. All alike believed then, as all alike believe now, that the voice of God is authoritative. The question between the parties was, How are we to know what is God's word, and where is that word to be found ? Luther's claim was that the individual can deal directly with God apart from the mediation of the Church, and that God's word verified itself in the conscience of the individual, apart from the authority of the Church.
“ The Church,” said Luther, “cannot give more force or authority to a book than it has in itself. A Council cannot make that to be Scripture which in its own nature is not Scripture.” With that one word Luther established Protestantism, and set all generations free from the bondage of the Church. But Luther accomplished
Protestantism is not merely the substitution of one external guide for another; it is rather the exchange of what is outward for what is inward; of what is indirect for what is direct. It is the exchange of God's voice recognized by the Church and interpreted by the Church for God's voice recognized by the individual and inter. preted by the individual. And he is only half a Protestant who merely transfers his allegiance from the Church' to the Bible, and leans upon this new crutch as the Romanist leans on Rome. The Spirit of Christ is in the Church as truly as in the Bible, but who is for me to sift the human from the Divine and give me perfect assurance that here God Himself speaks to me? None but myself only. It is only the response of conscience which can so guide and determine me.
But in Scripture there is a distinctive characteristic which no merely internal warrant can assure us of. Scripture is not only authoritative, it is normative. It is not only, though mainly, God's word to the individual, it is God's word to all men collectively. God speaks to us through other channels than Scripture. He speaks in nature, in the external world, and in the conscience of man. How many owe their awakening to a sense of God's presence, to the example of a Christian, or to the remonstrance of a friend or preacher! The Spirit of God is not imprisoned in the Bible or limited by it. Yet Scripture holds a place of its own among all words of God. What, then, is the difference ? It is this which gives it its normative character. It is in some parts of it the very organ of God's revelation of Himself in that historical, objective line which led up to Christ; and in all parts of it, it is, if not the immediate organ, then the direct result of that revelation. It is in the Bible we hear that word of God which it concerns all God's people in common as a society or church to know.
Thus accepting the Bible, do we accept it as a whole? Or can we judge each part of Scripture as we judge the whole? Here Protestants divide. Some who admit the validity of the internal response as a test whether this or that book is the word of God, deny its validity as a test whether this or that passage is the word of God. They maintain that once you have ascertained that the Bible, generally, and as a whole, is the word of God, you must accept every word and letter of it as divinely authoritative. Christians are for the most part agreed that the Bible as a whole contains a message from God: difference of opinion emerges as soon as the same character of supernatural authority is claimed for every part of it. This is resolutely denied by many; and if asked how they can distinguish between what is divinely authoritative and what is not, they would affirm that you must apply the same test to each part that you apply to the whole; that is to say, you must receive as Divine all that finds a response in your heart and mind, or, more accurately, all that the Spirit of Christ within you recognizes as proceeding from Christ, and truly representing Him. The Reformers did not explicitly treat this point, but there are indications in their writings that show with sufficient plainness that they would have taken this ground.
It will be said, This is first to receive as from God a book, and then to determine how much of God's message I shall receive. It is not so. It is to determine how much of this book is God's message. And to any one who fancies this is to set our own judgment above the Word of God, Luther's scornful words are a sufficient reply: “A goodly argument, forsooth—I approve the Scriptures, ergo I am above the Scriptures. John Baptist acknowledgeth and proclaimeth Christ, therefore he is above Christ!”
But, as we found that Scripture as a whole could not be verified as the normative authority in distinction from all other words of God without the application of an external as well as of an internal test; so, in determining what authority attaches to each part of it, we must avail ourselves of the same external aid. These books are the media and the result of God's revelation in history. The New Testament writings, e.g., come to us as the utterances of those who were chosen and trained by Christ to represent Him to men. They come, therefore, with a prima facie testimony in their favour. Moreover, the truth of their writings has been verified in thousands of every generation who have found in them the salvation and the God they craved. No reverence can be too great to feel towards writings that come thus guaranteed. We are thus saved from all extreme of subjectivity. We are also saved from extreme individualism by the knowledge that Scripture is for the Church, and not for me alone; and that which seems to me little better than a stone may be to some other person the bread of life.
There are, then, two views current among Protestants regarding the infallibility or Divine authority of the Bible. The one view sees in Scripture universal infallibility in each and all of its parts; the other finds in it, taken as a whole, the infallible message of God. The one, consequently, puts each part of Scripture on the same level of Divine authority, and forbids all questioning or criticizing; all must be accepted, either intelligently or blindly. The other proceeds upon the assumption that all is true, but will by no means be staggered in its faith to find that certain statements must at any rate be received with modifications. On the view that in. fallible truth and Divine authority attach to each and every expression of Scripture, there is no room for discussing the relevancy of this or that argument, the accuracy of this or that quotation, the propriety of such and such an expression. The conclusion of all such discussion is a foregone conclusion; and the discussion is a sham. On the view that infallible truth and Divine authority attach to Scripture as a whole, we are not concerned to justify any particular argument or statement. On this view the infallible truth of Scripture consists mainly in this, that it will infallibly bring the honest and resolved seeker after truth into the enjoyment of the truth.
If not reasonable, it is certainly natural, that men should demand certainty in their knowledge of religious truth. It is also natural that they should seek for that certainty in some guide external to themselves, in some visible index which can be read by all and which is independent of all subjective variations.
This desire for an external infallible guide arises from two characteristics of human nature. The first is the shrinking from responsibility which is so patent in the majority of men. The second characteristic of human nature which leads men to crave an absolute, objective guide is impatience of other men's thoughts and beliefs.