World Vision created quite the stir this week when they changed, then reversed the change to their policy standard for allowing “legally” married homosexuals to work for their Christian organization. The initial change in policy occurred on Monday and was portrayed as a way to “unify” Christians on a “divisive” issue. While the organization attempted to establish an umbrella policy under which Christians of diverse theological opinions on the subject of homosexuality could coalesce, they actually generated a more vocal divide. World Vision’s reversal on Wednesday evening followed two full days of impassioned response from evangelical Christians who took the policy change as a compromise of biblical standards. Richard Stearns, World Vision’s president said, “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”
The reason I bring up this particular issue in today’s post regards the issue of biblical authority. Stearns and the board at World Vision did not foresee the ramifications of their policy shift as an infringement on biblical authority. Many Christians took it that way. My aim for today’s post is to highlight at least one of the historical developments that have influenced the refusal to acknowledge and submit to biblical authority. Let me say, I don’t believe World Vision was intentionally attempting to defy biblical authority. But, as their waffling this week illustrates so poignantly, at least some in the leadership at the organization have come to a different understanding of biblical authority than has been historically true of Christianity.
I believe the main issue at stake in this debate, and indeed within contemporary culture’s minimization of Christianity in general, relates to hermeneutics (the interpretation of Scripture—knowing and understanding what the Bible means). At the risk of over generalization, several historical developments have greatly influenced the manner in which Scripture is interpreted today. Let me relate three of them—a Middle Ages transition, the Enlightenment critique, and a Postmodern turn.
By way of foundation, a summarization of biblical authority and interpretation will help. Throughout the Old Testament and for the first 1,000 years or so of church history, God’s Word was understood as Revelation. In essence, the Bible was/is both true and authoritative because God is its author. Generally speaking, this is also the foundational principle for biblical interpretation that has been consistent through much of church history (and would be true for much of contemporary Christianity today). Now, we must look at the historical developments.
First, in the Middle Ages a transition took place that provided a crack in the understanding of biblical authority. The crack began innocently with the addition of classical studies and philosophy to the precursor of modern day higher education (the Middle Age University). The transition was simply a recognition that theology and philosophy should be studied separately. Theology remained the queen of the disciplines, but she nevertheless became just one of the disciplines to be studied. This transition provided the separation between theology and philosophy that was necessary for the Enlightenment critique that followed.
The second historical development came from the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment critiqued what had been historically been accepted regarding Reason and Revelation (particularly with regard to Revelation as truth). The Enlightenment Age followed many of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and eventually pitted science against faith. In reality, the Enlightenment provided the framework and arguments for much of the contemporary culture war. Enlightenment philosophers gave authority to Reason (science/facts) while demoting Faith (values). John Locke believed in the Bible, but also argued that biblical revelation should be interpreted in light of Reason. David Hume naturally assumed the irrationality of miracles and dismissed them entirely based on scientific laws. And Immanuel Kant offered the prevailing dichotomy of facts (science) and values (faith) that formed the foundation for the worldview shift that was Modernism.
While this generalized history may not be of supreme interest, its importance for hermeneutics and the understanding of biblical authority can hardly be overstated. Christian belief in the authority of Scripture (see absolute truth, the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, universal authority of the Bible, among others) has been relegated to the realm of Faith (values) and out of the realm of Reason (science/facts). For example, in the academy or in politics or in the public square, facts have influence and issues of faith have been subordinated to one’s “personal” life. In essence, the Enlightenment did not create a scenario where biblical authority had to perish, but where it could only have influence for those who “believed.” By personalizing faith (making it a value as opposed to a fact or truth), the Enlightenment challenged the authority of the Bible.
The third historical development was the Postmodern turn which is a response to the Enlightenment infatuation with science and facts. We’ll address the Postmodern turn in next week’s post.
The fact (pun intended) of the matter is that science does not hold a monopoly on the truth. More than that, the Christian worldview does indeed find its foundation on the authority of biblical revelation. But that does not mean Christianity is irrational or in contradiction to scientific facts. Rather, Christianity as a worldview uniquely combines biblical truth with the scientific evidence underneath the rule of an omnipotent God. As a worldview, Christianity offers a rational explanation for questions like “Where did we come from?” “Why are we here?” and “Why is the world like it is?” The Enlightenment critique may have provided the secularist a way to understand the world apart from God, but left the world in a hopeless state of uncertainty as the realm of facts (science) has been unable to explain the great questions that interest humanity.