This is part two of our series ‘What is an evangelical?’. You can read the series opener here.
A few years ago, I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about certain topics in the Bible that I found difficult to agree with. My friend, who doesn’t share the same beliefs as me, made an honest suggestion for how I might get around these difficulties. His idea was that a group of people, including myself, should rewrite the Bible. In his view, why stick with something that you are struggling to align with, create something new that fits more where you’re coming from.
I have to admit that at the time I simply dismissed the idea, I told him you can’t rewrite the Bible. He asked why not? My response wasn’t particularly strong, “because it’s the Bible” I said. This conversation has stuck with me for a few reasons:
First, it reminds me how important it is to be having open conversations about our beliefs with people who think differently from us, because they challenge the assumptions we may hold, they help us realise that we don’t always know why we believe, what we believe.
Second, it helped me realise I needed to get better a understanding of why I can’t just rewrite the bits of the Bible I don’t like and what it means for the Bible to be an authority in my life.
Third, it continues to give me a good insight into how our culture encourages us to be our own authority and therefore create our own frame of reference for how we understand reality.
The Bible is important to all elements of the Christian faith, a distinctive of evangelicalism is the level of importance we put on the Bible. I think it’s fair to say that British evangelicals understand the Bible to be the trustworthy authority for faith and conduct.
This doesn’t mean we throw away other elements of our faith such as the Christian tradition, reasoned thinking and our experiences. But it does mean that the validity of insights from these other means of understanding our faith are tested against what we understand God to have revealed through the Bible.
Being born in the 80s I’ve grown up as a typically anti-authority type of person. As a child I didn’t like being told what to do (who does?) and as an adult I still have a natural recoil against people trying to tell me what I should do. My wife can share many stories of how I’m a typically stubborn person, who most of the time thinks I know best. These character traits, that are thankfully and painfully changing, have always felt more at home in the school of thought that my friend articulated about the Bible – I’d rather be my own authority, not this book.
Yet I do consider myself an evangelical, even though at times I’d like to lose the label, and so I’ve had to get to grips with what it means to say that the Bible is an authority for my faith and conduct. A person I’ve found particularly helpful in thinking this through is N T Wright. He helpfully points out that in the Bible the one who has authority above us all, is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. To understand the nature of the authority of the Bible, first we need to get to grips with the nature of God’s authority:
“God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.”1
If I understand God as an all-powerful puppet master, who forces his power and authority onto us, then I think it’s natural to recoil against this kind of authority. However, the God revealed in and through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension shows a very different kind of authority. Jesus shows “tenderness without weakness, strength without harshness, humility without the slightest lack of confidence. Unhesitating authority with a complete lack of self-absorption.”2
The God who in Christ reconciled the world to himself is one whose authority redefines our notions of authority. And it is this Christ-defined understanding of authority that he has then vested in the Bible.
So to answer my friend’s question of why we don’t just rewrite the Bible? Because, despite the parts that I still struggle with, the Bible reveals to me a story that cannot be matched. A story that challenges me to see beyond myself and my struggles, and to play my part in the extraordinary vision of a God who is making all things new.
- Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected answers to life’s biggest questions