There are two ways of discussing matters of faith: that you are right and everyone else is wrong, or that all beliefs are equally valid because whatever a person’s beliefs are, they are “true” to that person. The first approach takes the historical position that truth is absolute. The second assumes the politically correct notion that truth is relative, particularly in matters of cultural diversity.
Those who take this second position tend to assume a superior, egalitarian attitude toward those who claim that their faith alone is the truth. They use terms such as fundamentalist, backward, close-minded, intolerant, ignorant, bigoted and hateful to describe anyone whose beliefs are absolute and apply universally to all people, everywhere.
In discussing matters of faith, my basic presupposition is that all beliefs are subject to evaluation by a straight-forward examination of the authorities for those beliefs. But the concept of authority offends those who see humanity as being adrift in some great soup of theory and imagination, grabbing onto whatever beliefs come their way and attract their attention. They see beliefs as nothing more than preferences, based on taste and influenced by one’s culture.
He who rejects authority is a rebel. Rebels seek to establish their own authority, which only supports my contention that the authority for one’s beliefs is of primary importance in discussing matters of faith. I invite you to take a moment to consider the reasons why people believe what they believe, and weigh for yourselves the authority those reasons carry.
Science vs Magical Thinking
I’ve heard atheists say that people of faith can only support their beliefs with magical thinking. The core of their argument against belief in God is that religions have failed to scientifically prove the existence of God. Atheists and skeptics insist that “Science” should be the authority for everything, including spiritual matters. This is the cleverness they use to insist that the supernatural does not exist: It can’t be proven scientifically.
The fallacy in this argument is that methods used in the investigation, measurement and testing of natural phenomena are not capable of examining supernatural phenomena. Thinking science is appropriate to examine religion is like thinking you can tune a piano because you’ve graduated from law school. Moreover, even science itself falls prey to subjective thinking. Much of “settled” science is not pure science at all, but driven by consensus and political correctness, as witnessed by scientists who are shouted down for questioning such popularly held beliefs as evolution or anthropogenic climate change. As an authority for spiritual beliefs, “science” is not qualified.
Feeling good is a wonderful part of life. And there are lots of different things to make a person feel good. It can be something as simple as the smell of the air in the morning, a refreshing swim, a smile and a hug from that special someone, or just whistling a tune you haven’t heard in a long time. We all love these moments of feeling good. They’re like kisses from God, easing our pain, calming us down, restoring and reenergizing us.
To describe the experience of feeling good isn’t as easy as you’d think. It’s like enthusiasm — an inner sense of something wonderful. Interestingly, the root word of enthusiasm is theos (Greek for god), which carries the sense of being inspired by or possessed by a god. It is easy to see why believers credit their moments of genuine enthusiasm to being touched by God.
Of course, although feeling good is highly valued by everyone, not everyone believes in God. Those who don’t believe in God simply ascribe value to the feeling, itself. But among the religious, there are those who place so much value on feelings that they use them as the authority for what they believe. This is a mistake because feelings, no matter how wonderful they are, can in no way be authoritative for spiritual beliefs. Authority, in whatever form it takes, must be constant and unchanging, yet feelings are reactive and transitory.
Because the essence of faith is spiritual, or supernatural, human thought tends to be distracted by its nebulous, amorphous qualities, so that one’s feelings about it tend to take on greater significance. However, the authority for one’s faith is the foundation that establishes and maintains a cognitive structure and stability to one’s belief systems. Without authority, faith is susceptible to the winds of circumstance, and would vanish like smoke, if we were to simply rely on our feelings.
Feelings may come and feelings may go. Those who choose to base their beliefs on how they feel are being foolish. They may be temporarily comfortable in their beliefs, as if walking barefoot on a luxurious rug. However, as soon as that rug is pulled out from under them, neither they nor their beliefs will stand. Feelings are not the foundation, not the authority for faith. Nevertheless, many seem to opt for this most tenuous path.
But when someone says, “I just feel that way,” what can you say? You can’t argue against feelings. Feelings are personal. When someone insists on using their feelings as the authority for what they believe, they are disengaging from any accountability to others. They do not permit others to examine their authority, which in effect is a denial that they need any authority at all, because real authority can always be proven or established. And in that sense, believing whatever you want, based on whatever you feel is no better than not believing in anything at all.
Reasons People Give
If you were to ask people to cite the authority for their faith, they might point to things such as:
“It’s what my religion teaches.”
“It’s part of my culture (or my people).”
“It’s what my family believes.”
“I experienced a miracle.”
But all such authorities in turn are subject to the theology and doctrines established by their particular religion, the founder of that religion and the sacred writings of that religion. Examining the authority for any faith boils down to examining the writings that faith considers sacred.
As I mentioned above, feeling good is a wonderful part of life, and from time to time we all have those wonderful moments. I believe such moments are gifts from God, but others may not. And for all the different beliefs, each of us can point to our various authorities, some having nothing but feelings to rely on. Personally, I point to the Bible as my authority. And this is my purpose here: to lay claim to the Bible as the unassailable authority for the truth about God and life.
An Unassailable Authority
Why do I say unassailable and how can I make such a claim? Because there are only two ways to deny the authority of the Bible. Either you must ignore it or confuse its message. Those who do not accept the authority of Scripture fall into two groups: the ignorant and the deceived. It’s easy to trick people into false ideas about the Bible when they don’t study it themselves or when they don’t think for themselves. The lazy or complacent don’t care enough to pay attention, and those who are not familiar with the Bible are prone to believe lies about it. But, the better you understand the Bible, the better you will be able to recognize it as God’s authority for faith.
In Genesis 3, the serpent drew Eve into sin, beginning with the question, “Did God really say …?”, confusing Eve and planting doubt in her heart. When she repeated exactly what God did say, the serpent lied about what God had really meant, saying, “It is not true…”. Eve then acted on the serpent’s lie, and ignored God’s command. In all the millennia since, the principles of deception have not changed. First deny what God said, then insist he really meant something else. The only way the truth can set you free is to believe it. And you can’t believe it unless you know it.
The Bible will always differentiate right from wrong, always represent God’s authority. Jesus himself used his own familiarity with Scripture to fend off Satan’s temptations. Only if you know the Bible can you understand the essential perversion of the truth that Satan used to tempt Jesus, and uses to this very day to tempt humans. Satan quoted the verses accurately, but twisted the implications of their meaning. Jesus was able to answer Satan’s misrepresentations because he knew the Bible. The same is true for anyone who takes God at his word. Only when you let someone else tell you what the Bible says are you open to Satan’s deceptions.
Knowledge vs Ignorance
One popular criticism of the Bible is that it produces ignorance, and that anyone who believes in the Bible is small-minded, backwards and superstitious. This criticism is born out of ignorance of the contextual teachings of the Bible itself, and it fosters a bigoted, bullying attitude toward Bible believers that is unjustly tolerated by many in our society today. In fact, if the LGBTQ crowd were held to the same standards they expect from Bible believers, they would be shamed into silence.
The Bible teaches the value of learning, understanding, discernment and wisdom. From this one Biblical teaching Western Civilization developed, with its institutions of higher learning in science, technology, literature and the creative arts. There was a time when the glorification of God was at the root of all learning disciplines, and educated men were expected to be conversant in Scripture.
There have always been disagreements concerning Biblical points of doctrine. Some of these differences were heretical, resulting in dogmas outside the established Biblical norm. But most differences have focused on style of worship, structure of leadership, eschatological views, and rules about baptism and communion. These differences, which have no effect on Christ’s death and resurrection, produced a variety of Christian denominations, who generally accept one another as members of the Body of Christ, or the Church.
The point to be made is that in spite of so-called “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1) Christian scholars agree on the fundamentals of the gospel of salvation through Christ. There is a problematic exception to this if you consider groups like the Jesus Seminar to be Christian scholars. Anyone can call himself a Christian. It’s troublesome to include some nominal Christians within the Body of Christ, especially when they look beyond the Bible for authority or when they decide that some parts of the Bible don’t merit their approval. There are many people who call themselves Christians who are wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), such as anyone who espouses Liberation Theology, as does Jeremiah Wright.
A Christian scholar should have a strong background in theology and linguistics. Any “scholar” in a position to “vote” on the authenticity of any given verse of Scripture should have the same standing required of translators who are granted access to the most ancient manuscript fragments. Any genuine Biblical scholar should be published and peer-reviewed. But most of the so-called scholars of the Jesus Seminar held degrees in other fields (math, science) and were either unknown or unrecognized for scholarship in the analysis of manuscripts. Their primary asset was in being crafty, like the serpent. They did a good job of asking, “But did God really say that?” and “Is that really what God meant?”
The Jesus Seminar has also been criticized by genuine Christian scholars for their biased presuppositions, the use of non-canonical books, and their flawed voting system. Basically, it was nothing more than a group of skeptics who accumulated a consensus of their previously held doubts. In effect, what they have done is taken a felt tip marker and blacked out all the verses in the Bible about Jesus that they don’t believe and highlighted any other verses that they are unsure of. The sheer audacity of this is an insult to authentic scholarship that has been applied to the study of the Bible for centuries.
If consensus of thought is important to you, if it really matters to you what the best minds in history have had to say about the Bible, read Evidence That Demands A Verdict, by Josh McDowell. My paperback edition contains 373 pages of documentation, if you care about such things. On page 40 (chapter 4, “The Reliability of the Bible”) McDowell quotes John Warwick Montgomery from History and Christianity, Inter-Varsity Press, 1971, “to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”
The authority of the Bible is unassailable. Some try to ignore it. Some try to cast doubts about it. But if you read it, study it and understand it, you will have an unshakable foundation for your faith.
One final thought: Reading the Bible is a spiritual exercise. It isn’t the same as reading any other book. If you are open to the Spirit of the living God, he will give you insight and discernment beyond your intellect. But the word of God is pure. It is not to be part of an eclectic mix with other authorities.
Do not add to or subtract from God’s words.
Throughout the Bible we are admonished not to add to or subtract from God’s words. Humans, in their own wisdom, are always trying to do just that — add a little here, take away a little there. We think we can pick and choose which of God’s words to heed and which to ignore. Perhaps your religion takes some authority from the Bible and adds other things from other books or founding leaders. If so, you are in error. Be warned: God says don’t do it. The following verses show that both the Old and New Testaments consistently warn against either diluting or adulterating God’s words:
Deuteronomy 4:2 — Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
Deuteronomy 12:32 — See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.
Proverbs 30:5-6 — Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
Ecclesiastes 3:14 — I know that everything that God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 — The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails — given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Isaiah 30:1 — “Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the LORD, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine…”
Acts 17:11 — Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
1 Corinthians 4:6 — Do not go beyond what is written. (referring to the Bible)
Galatians 3:15 — Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. (referring to faith vs legalistic observance of the Torah)
1 Thessalonians 5:21 — Test everything. Hold on to the good.
2 Peter 1:20-21 — Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
2 John 9-11 — Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
Revelation 22:18-19 — I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and of the holy city, which are described in this book.
People are free to believe whatever they want, for whatever reason they choose. The best choice is an informed choice. The truth will not make you free unless you know it (John 8:32). You’ll never find the truth if you think it’s relative, or if you use the wrong criteria to evaluate it, or if you base what you believe merely on how you feel or on what someone else tells you. Only when you have personally and thoroughly examined the authority for your faith, will that faith truly be your own, and not just another person’s faith.
As for critics who claim the Bible can mean whatever you want it to mean, I say, “Prove it.” Those who make this claim rely on twisted word meanings, taking passages out of context, or insignificant textual variations. Solid scholarship, study of the oldest manuscripts, knowledge of the ancient languages and cultures that produced the Bible, all continue to reinforce basic Biblical teachings that have remained constant for thousands of years. There will always be heretics. That doesn’t mean Scripture justifies them. Even now, those who are scrambling to assemble an argument to prove the Bible is wrong are doing so out of ignorance. Whatever they have to say can be refuted by anyone who truly knows the Word of God.