It is not surprising that evangelical Christians—and Christians in general—hold the Bible in high regard. It’s a vital book. It is a priceless record of God’s dealings with Israel and the mortal ministry of Jesus. But there are additional reasons they lean on it so heavily.
Let’s harken back to the times of the Reformation. It was clear to many priests and Christians that the Catholic Church had become contaminated. Doctrines had been distorted. Many leaders were corrupt. What could the reformers use as their authoritative guide? They could not turn to the Church leaders. They did not trust many of the doctrines and practices. Where could they turn?
The Bible, of course.The Bible became their guide. In a subtle but important way, it also became their calling, commission, and authority.
This was revolutionary. There is no precedent in the Bible for people being called to the ministry as a spiritual response to the written word. The reformers changed the whole idea of authority. As the reformers moved away from Catholicism, they popularized the idea of the “priesthood of all believers.” The power was no longer conveyed as in the Bible by ordination by a person in authority; now the power resided in the community of believers.
After all, when you cannot turn to your ecclesiastical leaders for power, where do you turn? The Reformation answer was that you turn to the Book and the community of believers.
The Bible in Ascendance
In the absence of continuing revelation-or even trustworthy counsel from church leadership-reformers turned more and more to their understanding of the Bible. It was a great blessing that the Bible was pushed to center stage to guide the people and settle disputes. Yet it is clear that the Bible was never intended as a comprehensive guide to faith and practice. If that idea were ever in doubt, we only need look at the conflict between the reformers. While all of them took the Bible seriously, each understood it very differently; they could not come to a unity of the faith in spite of their devotion to the Bible. Deep divisions continue to this day.
The doctrinal divergence is not surprising. The reformers’ interpretation of the Bible was filtered through a hodgepodge of Church Councils, their individual biases, and the prevailing philosophies of men-especially the opinions of Augustine and centuries of speculative theologians.
This doesn’t feel like the way God designed His church to be led and to settle doctrinal disputes.
In the last couple of centuries, the Protestant view of the Bible has added a new wrinkle. Some conservative Christians have argued that the Bible is inerrant.
For a believer in biblical inerrancy, Holy Scripture is the Word of God, and carries the full authority of God. Every single statement of the Bible calls for instant and unqualified acceptance. Every doctrine of the Bible is the teaching of God and therefore requires full agreement. Every promise of the Bible calls for unshakable trust in its fulfillment. Every command of the Bible is the directive of God himself and therefore demands willing observance. (“Biblical Inerrancy” in Wikipedia)
Some conservative groups also believe in biblical sufficiency. This view suggests that “the Bible contains everything that they need to know in order to obtain salvation and to live a Christian life, and there are no deficiencies in Scripture that need to be filled with by tradition, pronouncements of the Pope, new revelations, or present-day development of doctrine” (“Biblical Inerrancy” in Wikipedia).
These are very bold claims, claims that the Bible never makes for itself. They are also claims that good scholars find unsustainable (Ehrman, 2005, 2009).Some Protestant scholars have wondered if the elevation of the Biblehas gone too far. Floyd Filson, once aprofessor at McCormick Theological Seminary, made a brilliant observation about the Bible:
It is possible, however to stress the Bible so much and give it so central a place that the sensitive Christian conscience must rebel. We may illustrate such overstress on the Bible by often-used (and perhaps misused) quotation from Chillingworth: ‘The Bible alone is the religion of Protestantism.’ Or we may recall how often it has been said that the Bible is the final authority for the Christian. If it will not seem too facetious, I would like to put in a good word for God. It is God and not the Bible who is the central fact for the Christian. When we speak of ‘the Word of God’ we use a phrase which, properly used, may apply to the Bible, but it has a deeper primary meaning. It is God who speaks to man. But He does not do so only through the Bible. He speaks through prophets and apostles. He speaks through specific events. And while his unique message to the Church finds its central record and written expression in the Bible, this very reference to the Bible reminds us that Christ is the Word of Godin a living, personal way which surpasses what we have even in this unique book. Even the Bible proves to be the Word of God only when the Holy Spirit working within us attests to the truth and divine authority of what the Scripture says…Our hope is in God; our life is in Christ; our power is in the Spirit. The Bible speaks to us of the divine center of all life and help and power, but it is not the center. The Christian teaching about the canon must not deify the Scripture. (1957, pp. 20-21, emphasis added)
Latter-day Saints agree wholeheartedly. The Bible is vital. But it cannot replace prophets, or priesthood authority, or the Lord Jesus Christ. It fits joyously and uniquely in the great tradition of continuing revelation-which includes not only God’s revelation in the Middle East but also in ancient America and in upstate New York . . . and in Salt Lake City.
The Word of God
The idea of modern prophets scandalizes many of our Christian friends. It seems so bold, presumptuous, and idiosyncratic! Charles Dickens was amazed that anyone could imagine”seeing visions in an age of railways.”
This attitude has a wonderful precedent. The meridian Jews could stand in the presence of the Son of God and insist that they did not need His words because they had Moses. It has always been easier for people to accept the dead prophets than those relentlessly inconvenient living prophets. Yet God’s tradition has been to send prophets. Humans have rarely welcomed them but God still sends His personal messengers.
The LDS view is that the Bible is a sacred and cherished gift from God to His children. But it is not the only source of God’s truthfor His people. The Bible was never intended as the source of authority or the guide to all truth. We must not replace the works and Word of God with one set of the published words from God.
A new and expanded collection of Brother Goddard’s Meridian articles has just been published! The collection is entitled Modern Myths and Latter-Day Truths. You can order a copy here
(1851, July 19) “In the Name of the Prophet-Smith!” Household Words. P. 385.
Ehrman, B. D. (2005). Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Ehrman, B. D. (2009). Jesus, interrupted: Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them). New York: HarperOne. [See p. 81 for a discussion of the Johannine Comma.]
Filson, F. V. (1957). Which books belong in the Bible? Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
You can find many of Brother Goddard’s past articles by going to www.DrWally.org
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