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01 March 2010

The Basics: Christians earnestly to contend for biblical truth

The Basics: Christians earnestly to contend for biblical truth

In our series relating the Alliance's Practical Resolutions to the task of mission, we look at the fifth resolution...

We encourage all Christians earnestly to contend for biblical truth, since only as we are open to learn from others and yield fuller obedience to the truth will we be drawn closer to Christ and to each other.

In Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, John Stott makes the perhaps unusual suggestion that "the supreme quality which the evangelical faith engenders (or should do) is humility". Nowhere is this clearer than in Stott's own attitude towards the Bible.

His life and theology have been suffused with the idea that he was "under" the Bible's authority, which meant that he went wherever the Bible took him, even if at times that involved abandoning previously cherished beliefs.

We see this for instance in his 1975 work, Christian Mission in the Modern World, where he explains why he changed his mind in relation to evangelism and social action. Referring to his examination of the great commission in Matthew and the other Gospels, he wrote, "I now see more clearly that not only the consequences of the commission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility, unless we are to be guilty of distorting the words of Jesus."

If the Bible only confirms us in what we already believe, we are in a dangerous place

Of course, if we think about it, this is precisely the attitude towards the scriptures to which we should all aspire. We must avoid at all costs placing ourselves either over the Scriptures - in the sense of superimposing our beliefs on them - or even alongside the Scriptures - in the sense of seeing our own views as equally valid. Rather, we contend for biblical truth by placing ourselves under the authority of the Bible. But unless we are going to claim that our own interpretations and understanding of the Bible are infallible, then by definition we must be wrong regarding some of the things we currently believe.

I recall once hearing a very prominent evangelical theologian say that he thought about a third of what he taught was wrong - he just did not know which third. Surely, that is the kind of humility that Stott was talking about and that is desperately required today.

Challenge and change

Yet here is the test as to whether we actually go wherever the Bible takes us: do we allow the Bible to challenge and change what we believe? Indeed, when was the last time we shifted our opinion about some previously held biblical or theological point because the Bible itself led us to think differently?

I would suggest that if we ever find ourselves in the position whereby the only thing the Bible ever does is confirm us in what we already believe, then in fact we are in a dangerous place. "For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4.12).

As Stott put it, "We ask God to break through our defences, until we are ready to hear not the soothing echoes of our own cultural prejudice but the thunderclap of His Word. It is, I fear, this risky humility before the living God which is tragically absent in many biblical critics, and indeed in some evangelical preachers."

"Obedience to the truth" does not just mean that we obey those Biblical precepts that we already understand rightly, such as the requirement to submit ourselves humbly before the Word. It also means that we allow the Bible to shift what we already believe, simply because that is where the Bible takes us.

We must allow the Bible to shift what we already believe

As we contend for biblical truth, the emphasis must always rest on the biblical. It is not my understanding or my interpretation that matters: it is what the Bible teaches that is all-important. Once again, Stott makes this point: "It is unwise and unfair to use 'inerrancy' as a shibboleth by which to identify who is evangelical and who is not. The hallmark of authentic evangelicalism is not subscription but submission. That is, it is not whether we subscribe to an impeccable formula about the Bible, but whether we live in practical submission to what the Bible teaches, including an advance resolve to submit to whatever it may later be shown to teach."

Stott makes an extremely important point here. Frequently we misappropriate a call to contend for the truth into an excuse for dogmatism whereby our understanding becomes the only one that is valid. And unless others subscribe to our understanding then they are no longer considered as part of our club: the group of right-thinking evangelicals. But as Stott indicates, the real test of authentic Christianity has less to do with which particular doctrinal formulations manage to get our blessing and far more to do with our humble submission before Christ and His Word.

Of course, this does not mean for a moment that anything goes, that we can believe whatever we want to believe. The reason the Alliance has a Basis of Faith and these Practical Resolutions is precisely because we recognise the need to draw some boundaries. But now that they have been drawn, what matters most is our humble obedience to the Word, exemplified not least in a genuine willingness to learn from one another, and with one another, so that together in unity we may more effectively serve the one who is Lord and master of us all.

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