The enduring authority of the Bible in the world of Post-modern relativism and Post-truth

The enduring authority of the Bible in this changing world

Our world is racing ever more rapidly away from God. God calls His church to be the people of the future but too often we are living as people of the past. We need to recognise the challenges we face in a rapidly changing society and respond to them. Howevcr, in doing so, many churches and many Christians are in danger of drifting away from God’s revelation of Himself as it has been handed down to us through the centuries in the Bible.

The changing world

Almost 40 years ago we were set an essay for the Sociology of Religion course at LBC with the title, “why is it the church has good news which nobody wants to hear?” We have watched the answers to that question become more and more true. The world we live in is rapidly changing. People are generally much more mobile – they may move homes and cities and change jobs many times. Family life is breaking down. Television with hundreds of channels and streaming on demand, together with the internet, has transformed leisure time just as smartphones, texting, instant messaging and social media have revolutionised communications. All these advances have produced a much more fragmented society as people’s lives have become increasingly insular and individualistic.

Secularisation describes the dramatic decline in the influence of the church and Christian values. We live in a disenchanted world, where worship of God has been replaced by science and technology. Sociologists also talk about privatisation, by which they mean that our lives are becoming more and more isolated. Local community activities and even family life are being lost in the anonymity of “society” where many people no longer know their neighbours. Privatisation also describes the way that faith is being squeezed into people’s private lives and out of the public sphere of politics and commerce, as the media portray Christianity as outdated and irrelevant. Britain has become much more a multi-cultural multi-faith society. This is given the label of religious pluralisation. Christianity is no longer the only or even the dominant faith. It is now seen only as one option amongst many on offer in the supermarket of beliefs.

Contemporary western culture is dominated by consumerism: people expect the right to choose and they demand satisfaction guaranteed every time. These expectations extend to shopping between religions. Christianity is now only one stall in the spiritual marketplace. Faced with the difficulty of making an informed decision about which religion to believe in, many people take the easy option of not believing in anything at all. People may say, “I don’t buy into any of that”. One effect of this consumerism on Christians has been the way in which the false gods of Money and Entertainment and their false prophets the Celebrities hold sway in many churches. Another effect is the rise explosion of niche churches.

Post-modern relativism

The emerging culture in society is often labelled as post-modern. Understandings of the world dating from the Enlightenment are being rejected. There is a wide distrust of authority and ‘the establishment’ in education, politics, law and order, and even in religion. Certainty is replaced by questioning. The only thing post-modernists are allowed to be certain about is that nobody is allowed to be certain about anything anymore. Ordinary people and many scholars are rejecting any idea of absolute truth – everything now is relative. Post-modernism insists that everybody is entitled to their own version of the truth and their own understandings and beliefs. In a world of pluralism and consumerism, it is easy to see how relativism would appear to be correct. People are accustomed to exercising choice and so they assume they have the right and the ability to choose for themselves what is true or false and what is right or wrong. Political correctness then insists that all opinions are equally valid and that it is rude (and in some cases even a crime) to challenge the views of other people. Many people have lost sight of truth.

Many of these changes in society are being fuelled and sometimes driven by the rise of the internet and the proliferation of information which is not subject to any objective scrutiny. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok now make it possible for people to operate totally within their own bubbles. Algorithms feed people with persuasive content which fits with their existing bias, which they accept uncritically. That convinces them that they are experts in topics in which they, and the sources and influencers they rely on, actually have no education or expertise.

The last decade has seen one further very unhelpful development. In 2016 Oxford Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as their word of the year. Post-truth describes circumstances where people share their own heart-wrenching personal experiences to promote a particular cause and these emotional appeals carry more weight than any objective facts about the matter in question. There are many obvious examples of post-modern relativism and post-truth having a dramatic influence on society, from changes in laws surrounding marriage, divorce, abortion and euthanasia, to the rise of extremist political parties and various responses to the Covid pandemic.

One illustration of how these changes in society affect the church is in their impact on Christian approaches to evangelism and to apologetics. 30 years ago you could invite people to consider the life and claims of Jesus and answer a rational question. “Was Jesus mad? Was Jesus bad? Or was Jesus truly God?” Most people were prepared to think logically about matter of faith.  Nowadays many people would consider such questions irrelevant. In this post-modern, post-truth world reasoning is not important. What matters instead is plausibility: whether something appears to be true, or feels like it is true, Image counts for everything and any facts are irrelevant.[1]

Post-modern relativism and post-truth in the church

At least in popular opinion, many corners of the church are now under the spell of post-modern relativism and post-truth. Some western Christians are abandoning theological understandings which have been believed through the ages and are still held across the world church in important matters, from the nature of salvation to the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation to the Christian definition of marriage. Denominations are splitting over ethical issues. In contrast, I remain convinced that there are still some facts which are true and not just a matter of opinion. Equally, there are some opinions which are definitely not correct, however plausible they may appear and however persuasively they are presented. Wrong does not become right just because lots of people believe it. I believe there are some issues where emotional appeals do not and should not be allowed to override objective truth.

Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). God within Himself is truth, even though that absolute truth may be inaccessible to mere mortals and in this life we will “know only in part and see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:9,12). Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, would teach them all things and lead them into all the truth (John 14:26, 16:23).

The Bible must remain central

If we want to know the truth about God, or about the world, or about ourselves, we will need to turn to the Bible. We need God to reveal the truth to us – we cannot work it all out for ourselves. God has revealed himself to us supremely through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Bible.  So I am convinced that the Bible, correctly interpreted, needs to remain central to Christian faith and Christian living.

The Bible carries authority for believers because it provides us with a reliable record of God’s mighty acts of salvation, supremely in and through God incarnate, Jesus Christ the Son of God. The Bible provides us with a reliable record of God’s words to human beings, supremely in the words of Jesus and of the prophets. And the Bible brings us a reliable record of the theological interpretation of God’s saving acts and of God’s words as received by the people of God in the Old Testament and by the apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus in the New Testament. All this is confirmed by the agreement of the Early Church and the later generations of churches in recognising the canon of Scripture.Only the Bible provides Christians with these indispensable foundations of Christian faith. [2]

I am entirely convinced about the complete reliability of the Bible for all matters of faith, practice and ethics. Since the dawn of the Third Millennium, it has been very sad to see many Christians and churches losing confidence in the Bible as the source of authority for their own lives and for theology and for the church. Many have embraced the relativism of post-modernism and no longer accept the idea of absolute truth. Some no longer recognise that certain conduct is morally wrong. Post-truth emotional appeals are leading many to reject the authority of the Bible in a number of matters of theology and ethics.

The importance of correct interpretation

I remain convinced that the Bible, correctly interpreted, needs to remain central to Christian faith and Christian living. I say ‘correctly interpreted’ because throughout history so many misunderstandings and divisions have been caused by flawed interpretations of the Bible. Historically, the church has believed that God reveals the truth through particular channels. We begin with the word of Scripture. We then look to human reason to help us understand Scripture correctly, guided by the traditions of the church. The Methodist Quadrilateral added the fourth perspective of our personal experience of God’s grace in our own lives. We also recognise the revelatory ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church today. Although some church leaders and theologians seem to have lost that confidence in the Bible, I still believe that between them the five channels of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Personal Experience and the Work of the Holy Spirit in the church can lead Christians into all truth today. Four comments follow.

I am convinced that the Bible, correctly interpreted, is sufficient for all the needs of individual believers and of churches. “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 Tim 3:16-17). That does not imply that every kind of question we could ever ask about life, the universe and everything, is plainly answered in the pages of the Bible, because evidently that is not the case. What I do mean is that through applying the five channels believers will be able to discern answers to every important question we actually need to be able to answer about Christian faith, practice and ethics. The Bible, correctly interpreted, will always be sufficient for all our needs.

Secondly, I am persuaded that in any issue it will be possible, and in some cases very important, to discover which is the best interpretation of the Bible. God does not intend Christians or churches to be confused or arguing or divided. God gave us the Bible and the Holy Spirit still wants to lead us into all the truth. That said, discerning that best interpretation will require application of all the five channels, lots of prayer and often some hard work. Sometimes reason, tradition, experience and the work of the Holy Spirit will only lead us to parameters which still allow for several possible interpretations of Scripture. In that situation we should seek to discern the most preferable understanding. I strongly reject the post-modern assumption that everything is all a matter of opinion and all opinions are equally valid. When we apply generally agreed principles of interpretation, some conclusions are clearly not possible or defensible. In those cases it remains the responsibility of church leaders and theologians to challenge and refute false teaching.[3]

Thirdly, my understanding is that when we do reach what we consider to be the correct understanding of a Bible passage or on an issue in theology or ethics it is entirely appropriate to be “tentatively definite”.[4] This means we are allowed to defend vigorously our own interpretation in debate. We are expected to do so if the matter has significant implications for belief or Christian living. We should not be silenced by political correctness. Yet at the same time we are obliged always to remain tentative and humble in recognising that we may be mistaken and others may have grasped a truth which we have yet to see.

My fourth conviction is that it is never appropriate to say “the Bible got it wrong” on any issue. There are instances where interpreters generally agree that particular instructions in the Bible were ‘culture-bound’, only applicable to the original settings, and should not be taken to apply to the church or the world today.[5] This position is always reached by applying agreed principles of interpretation. However, in a variety of discussions, not least in debates around sexual ethics, a different approach has emerged in recent years. There are certain issues where attempts have consistently failed to argue that specific verses were culture-bound, or have been mistranslated, or on other grounds should be interpreted in ways very different to their plain meaning, In such circumstances, some readers end up taking a position which boils down to saying that the Bible got it wrong on that particular point. They argue that because the lived experiences of many individuals are at odds with those Bible texts the Bible writers must have been mistaken. I reject the post-truth notion that a coherent and defensible understanding of an issue, which has been formed on the basis of correct principles of interpretation, is automatically trumped by an individual’s personal experiences, however tragic or emotionally expressed. Yet that post-truth approach is encouraging people to erase whole passages from their Bibles on the grounds that those texts make some people feel uncomfortable. We live in a changing world but I believe that the authority of Scripture is unchanging. The whole Bible, correctly interpreted, still remains true today.

[1] I will say more about how our outreach needs to be shaped differently in the light of these factors in the next chapter.

[2] I explored the reasons why the Bible is authoritative for Christians in my 1995 MA dissertation, Is the Longer Ending of Mark Holy Scripture? An Exploration of the Nature of Biblical Authority (1995, LBC/Brunel)

[3] See my comments on false teaching and false teachers elsewhere, e.g. Stand up to false teachers

[4] I first met this phrase in a postgraduate seminar with the inspiring New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey.

[5] An obvious example would be the teaching  on women covering their heads in worship in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

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