Creed, authority and freedom

To what extent can a church Biblically require conformity to its understanding of doctrine?

Edward Heppenstall is professor emeritus of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

 

Should a teacher in a Christian school or a preacher in the pulpit expect freedom to promote concepts of truth that differ from the church's? To what extent can the church Biblically require conformity to its understanding of doctrine? The answers may be found in the meaning of such words as creed, authority, interpretation, infallibility, and inspiration.

A creedal religion should involve no denial of freedom and no real question as to the truth of Holy Scripture. Doctrines held by the church as authoritative are valid insofar as they are based on divine revelation. Authority is the right to re quire belief and obedience. This right should not be confused with the power to enforce obedience. The power to do that is not an attribute of Christian authority. Authority rests on divine revelation.

Christians think in terms of the claims of an external authority of the Scriptures and also the right of private judgment. The Reformers affirmed belief in the "priesthood of all believers," the right of the individual under the Holy Spirit to be led into all truth. The inherent right of the individual to discuss every phase of truth should not be suppressed. But to believe in private judgment as the ultimate authority means relativism, with as many interpretations of Scripture as we have individuals. Man becomes the measure of all things. We have the right to our own body of religious ideas and interpretation insofar as they do not deny or contradict the revealed Word of God. To this extent, reason is subordinate to divine revelation and to the Holy Spirit. The right of private judgment does not necessarily mean the right to ignore or despise the church's position or to think differently from other people. Rather it means the right to think for ourselves.

One of the weaknesses of the church through the centuries has been to consider that a man is no longer safe if he differs with the hierarchy; that to allow truth to be examined in its bare and Biblical essence, and to allow dissent, carries too much risk to the church. Consequently, sincere men in the church easily communicate disapproval and alienation.

The spirit and practice of persecution in one form or another toward those who disagree with us is never far away. There is great peril in shallow thinking on the Bible and in the importance that men attach to themselves by virtue of their religious position and authority. Such men can easily reject and condemn those who differ with them. But people who disagree with us theologically are not our enemies.

Religious oppression in any form is an ignoble, un-Christian practice, often based upon the passions and selfishness of men who easily feel threatened. Sub ordination is required in order to secure conformity with the accepted pattern.

The history of the Christian church reveals that religious leaders, in order to advance and protect the beliefs and creed of the church, have frequently violated human rights. Luther, Calvin, and a host of other Christian reformers fell into the same trap. Luther and Calvin were among the most enlightened and dedicated men of their age as to liberty of conscience. But both were persecutors and suppressors of religious liberty. They considered themselves under obligation to protect the church from the terrible blight of what they considered heresy.

Their ministry and leadership in the church were marked by censure and personal animosity toward those they regarded as heretics. It never seemed to have dawned on them that a theological opponent might be a sincere Christian; that a man who disagreed theologically with them might be right.

We ourselves need to understand what constitutes religious freedom, and practice it with those both inside and outside the church. We must never suppress religious freedom by seeking conformity to what we ourselves believe. Such intolerance cannot be harmonized with the Spirit of Christ.

Biblical interpretation

At this point it is important to distinguish between God's Word as revealed in Scripture and man's interpretation of that Word. If the church undertakes to deduce truth simply by reasoning, then the supernatural revelation of truth can be set aside as unnecessary. Granted that the church will interpret its creed of doctrines; but such interpretations are not infallible in themselves. For in the history of our church, interpretations have undergone change while basic truths have remained.

All truth tends to get colored by the human media through which it passes. Making the church's interpretation alone the final test of religious truth is like measuring water with porous vessels. The very truth we try to establish seeps away from us in our efforts to preserve it. There must be some infallible norm by which we can test our religious beliefs and experience; otherwise, every man will be a law unto himself.

The basic truths of the Bible do not come to us by human interpretation or by human reasoning. Christianity was not invented by man. No subjective discovery or experience can be an adequate substitute for truth revealed by God. God alone is a sufficient witness of Him self in His own Word.

Christianity claims to be the religion of revelation. The Christian faith stands or falls with this claim. Faith cannot dispense with revelation, by which it is awakened and from which it receives its creed and contents.

The only alternatives open to the church are either to maintain doctrines in their scriptural purity or to insist upon their acceptance as tests of fellowship. The church must dare to say that human thinking is wrong if it rejects or contradicts divine revelation; otherwise, it must admit that these doctrines cannot claim to be true.

Infallibility

The Bible as the Word of God must be either infallibly right or infallibly wrong. Jesus believed the Old Testament to be the Word of God. He declared that "the scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). The infallibility of the Bible as God's Word means that it guarantees special information about the supernatural realm as truth from God.

The Word of God speaks for itself. It carries within itself the evidence of its own authority, while at the same time it speaks to human reasoning and con science. Should the church reject authority based on divine revelation, it fol lows that we can deny the infallibility of supernatural truth from God.

But we are not left to ourselves. We can know the truth that makes us free. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in leading us into Bible truth involves the recognition of, and respect for, our God-given power of decision. Were it conceivable that the Holy Spirit or the church would ask us to believe at the expense of our intellectual integrity, we would feel under obligation to reject such a position.

Certain beliefs are requisites if we are to be Christians. In the Bible we lay hold upon these basic fundamentals. A man may say, '-'I do not care about the judgment. I do not believe it." No, perhaps not; but the time will come when he will stand before the judgment bar of God to find that judgment has gone against him, and that nothing that has value or meaning is left to him. If there is no divine court of appeal by which our beliefs and interpretations can be tested, then unbelief and skepticism are as justifiable as faith. Religion becomes altogether subjective.

Furthermore, once we hold the belief that the objective historically revealed truths of the Bible can be different in religious experience; once the Jesus of history recorded in the Scriptures differs from the Christ of faith, we have no roots left. We have shifted the authority to our human experience.

Inspiration

The Bible, inspired by God in a unique sense, is His written revelation to men. We may differ, however, as to the exact mode of inspiration; we do not know how far the Holy Spirit controlled the Bible writers. We cannot be sure that God has seen fit to reveal all His processes of inspiration. Belief in any particular mode of inspiration cannot be made the acid test of one's faith. But the Bible does constitute divine revelation. It is a chart to which men can turn with supreme confidence.

We must refuse to regard as essential what is not firmly rooted in the Scriptures. The absolute truths of Christianity came not from Augustine or Calvin, or from Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther, or from the Adventist Church, but from the Holy Bible.

The doctrine of sacred Scripture, miraculously inspired and authoritative, is indispensable to the Christian faith and to the church itself. As a body of divine truth, the Scriptures came by the voice and authority of God not as a dictated mechanical communication but as a living utterance through His prophets and apostles.

The nature of man as revealed in Scripture also constitutes a fundamental doctrine. The Biblical position is that the sinful state of men, universal in its ex tent, is a result of a lapse from a state of original righteousness in which man was created by God. This sinful state was brought about not merely by each individual's choice, but by what has come to every son of Adam through Adam's original rejection of God's will.

The Bible further declares that this sinful state of every member of the human race can be changed only by divine grace, supernatural in its method, wholly distinct from anything that men can do for themselves. This position contradicts assertions that man is basically good at heart; that by human effort and progress through eons of time man can escape the pit of sin.

Further, the authoritative Divine Word centers in the everlasting gospel of the redeeming God. Christianity is a historical religion. It is inseparable from its Founder, Jesus Christ. The God of the Bible is the God of history. The claims of the Bible as the Word of God depend upon the fact that God is preeminently revealed in Biblical history. Jesus Christ stands forth as the central figure of that history.

The Scriptures teach that man's redemption is effected by one historical Person, Jesus Christ. They also declare Jesus to be the Son of God, the second member of the Trinity, being of heavenly origin and superior to the angels. He came to earth on a rescue mission to seek and to save the lost. To this end, He gave His life on the cross as a ransom for many. He was resurrected, and He re turned to heaven. He will come again to judge the world. In Christ, God has made a revelation of His righteousness. Through Christ, this righteousness is offered as a gift to replace man's unrighteousness. No other Jesus than this ever lived or will live. To strip Jesus of these divine claims is not a matter of interpretation. It is a denial of the Christian faith. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). Christianity stands or falls upon this historical fact.

To become a Christian, one must con fess from the heart and bear witness in the life that "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). For "every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God" (1 John 4:3).

The heart of the creed is Christ. Such a creed means that the church knows just where it stands; that it has an eternally true message to give to the world. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Rev. 19:10). Old Testament prophecy can be understood only when set in relation to the revelation in Jesus recorded in the New Testament.

Unfortunately, few today really study and understand the Bible. People who join our churches and attend our schools must be properly instructed in the Scriptures, and under the Holy Spirit brought to an intelligent and wholehearted acceptance of divine truth.

Today, there exists a hunger for the Word of God. Yet many professed Christians are content to remain ignorant or take only secondhand information about the Scriptures. Those who know little or nothing of the Bible themselves will inevitably feel little or no loyalty to it. Skepticism grows out of ignorance and indifference to Bible truth.

Often there is fear of holding positive convictions. Men seem to be afraid that wholehearted commitment to belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God means surrender of freedom. They argue for their right independently to deter mine what is truth, and to communicate their version. But the right to teach or preach what one pleases regardless of what the church or the school stands for cannot be defended. It is no denial of academic freedom if a man who occupies a chair of religion in a Christian college or the pulpit in one of our churches is not permitted to deny or undermine the truth that the Bible affirms and the church proclaims.

We must expend our best endeavors to express, teach, preach, and bear witness to the truth of God's Word. The religion of Jesus Christ is indeed a creed for heroes.

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Edward Heppenstall is professor emeritus of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

April 1979

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