After 9/11, security efforts at airports intensified drastically. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” the saying goes. So our vigilance in preventing another hijacking seems warranted. At the same time, it would be foolish to think that heightening airport security makes us altogether safe from terror. Most likely, future terror attacks will exploit what is currently a blind spot in our counterterrorism efforts.
But this article is not about terrorism. It’s about the sufficiency of Scripture, a doctrine near and dear to most readers. Seeing liberal or mainline churches drift away from confidence in the Scriptures, we have fortified our defenses against liberal inroads that would undercut our confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. I’m deeply grateful for these efforts and for the many churches that continue to hold the line against liberal drift. But I worry that our focus on this one front may leave us susceptible to drift in other ways. Most likely for the people reading this article, a move away from the sufficiency of Scripture will come from what is currently a blind spot to us.
This article is my counterterrorism effort. That is to say, this is my effort to open our eyes to various ways we can drift from the sufficiency of Scripture. By “the sufficiency of Scripture” I mean the conviction that everything God thought we needed to know he put down in the Bible. As such, the Bible is “our only rule for faith and practice.” Or as the reformers framed it, Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone. Some need to be convinced that Scripture’s sufficiency even matters; this article isn’t for you. This article is for those who are already part of Border Protection.
In our “counterterrorism,” we would do well to guard against all four of these attacks on the sufficiency of Scripture.
At the core of liberalism is the conviction that the way to make the gospel most attractive to the world is to strip it of the non-essential entrappings that might be unpopular. If miracles are hard for the modern mind to believe, deny all the miracles but the resurrection. If gender distinction is a non-starter today, find ways to negate what the Bible says about gender distinction. And on it goes.
When we find ourselves tempted to alter or negate an unpopular biblical teaching so that we can better propagate the gospel, it is the siren call of liberalism. We can follow those seductive notes only after we’ve cut ourselves loose from the anchor of Sola Scriptura.
Legalism typically arises out of a noble desire to guard against certain moral or theological drift. In our vigilance, we construct an extra-biblical set of rules or standards that keep us on the straight and narrow. This vigilance is not bad until we start equating our manmade standards with the Bible. Jesus addresses this tendency in Matthew 15. He says that when we “teach as doctrines the commandments of men” we “make void the word of God.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Legalism is a vicious threat the sufficiency of Scripture. It’s a sad irony, then, that most who stumble into legalism come from the crowd who boldly uphold Scripture’s sufficiency.
What ways might we be tempted to legalism? Are there ways we take our own outworking of a certain biblical principle and make it tantamount to “thus saith the Lord”?
Pragmatism takes its goals from the Bible and its methods from man. If the Bible teaches us that healthy churches are good, we conduct a study of a thousand churches and identify seven traits of thriving churches and seven traits of dying churches. If the Bible tells us to bring the gospel to non-Christians, we find a church that’s reaching thousands and mimic their methodology. For many of us, this sounds intuitive. It just makes sense. What could be wrong with that?
Here’s what’s wrong with it. The Bible doesn’t just give us goals; it also gives us methods. When we look to human wisdom for methods instead of looking to the Scriptures, we have made the exact same mistake as liberalism. We’ve sidestepped the Bible’s teaching in favour of what we think will make us most successful in our gospel efforts.
Before we chase the latest trend or consult an expert on “best practices,” have we taken the time to search the Scriptures carefully to determine what our methods should be? Do the Scriptures govern all that we do, or do they merely set the general parameters?
Pietism is a reaction against an over-intellectualized faith. It emphasizes personal experience with God. When reacting against a dry, academic brand of Christianity, pietism is needed and important. But the pendulum can swing too far, elevating personal experience at the expense of Scripture. In its contemporary form, such unhealthy pietism comes in two forms.
High Pietism takes personal devotion, Scripture memory, and seeking God’s will very seriously. But the Scriptures are studied as detached verses wrenched from their context and left to mean things they never could have meant within their context. God’s will is sought diligently but when it is tied to the Scriptures (which isn’t always the case), the Bible is treated like a sort of fortune cookie – crack it open, stumble upon a phrase, and behold God’s will is found. Careful concern for what God meant when he inspired that verse is cast off in favour of how that verse engages with one’s own personal experience.
Low Pietism chases scintillating emotional moments as the height of spirituality. Feelings are king. So a stirring chord progression played in a dark room by an expert band will always trump robust theology sung simply (“dryly,” they might say), regardless of the theology of the former. Or the communicator’s ability to stir and move is valued above his ability to unpack a passage of Scripture in a way that stays true to its original intent.
While adherents of High Pietism and Low Pietism are quite different from one another – they likely both look down on the other – they share this in common: they both elevate personal experience with God (or what they’ve perceived as such) over a careful understanding of the Bible in its context.
Pietism is tricky because it seems so, well, pious. How could such moving and spiritual experiences be anything but good? The answer: they can when they become the de facto authority in our lives. In such cases, our rule for faith and practice becomes something different than the Scriptures, rightly understood.
A brief article like this is only intended to raise awareness that there is more than one way a person or church can drift from Scripture’s sufficiency. Space is too limited to qualify each point or answer every counter-argument, and that is not my intent.
My thesis is simple. I write to people who agree that the sufficiency of Scripture is critical but who might think that simply by guarding against liberalism, we’ve successfully protected it. To borrow a phrase, I’m suggesting that it’s possible for us to be so focused on the speck in the mainline churches that we’ve lost sight of the log in our own.
Counterterrorism is effective when we start anticipating the attacks coming in our current blind spots. I pray this article will be used to that end.