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Scripture Under Suspicion


Some members of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) assume that the problems currently besetting the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) are the direct result of a defective doctrine of Biblical authority in the Basis of Union (Basis). This is hardly surprising. In debates on controversial issues it is often claimed that paragraph 5 (Biblical Witnesses) must be interpreted in the light of paragraph 11 (Scholarly Interpreters) – the implication being that many beliefs and practices in Scripture should be rejected by contemporary Christians.

Evangelical, Liberal, Charismatic

Surprisingly, perhaps, evangelicals, liberals and charismatics are all prone to be suspicious of the authority of Scripture in para 5.  Evangelicals worry that it isn’t strong enough to withstand post-modern attacks. Liberals worry that it is too strong to accommodate progressive thought. Charismatics worry that dry theories ignore the heart-warming work of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals accuse liberals of watering down the truth. Liberals accuse evangelicals of a narrow interpretation of faith. Charismatics accuse both of being coldly rationalistic.

Evangelicals are prone to reject modern methods of studying the Bible, treating it as the 'verbally inspired,' 'infallible' and 'inerrant' Word of God in every detail. While liberals accept scientific methods of inquiry, they are prone to regard it as a series of time-conditioned writings and refuse to call it the ‘Word of God.’ Charismatics are prone to give ultimate authority to their personal experiences untested by Scripture. 

In shedding light on what the Basis says about the authority of Scripture, we must examine paras 5 and 11 in the context of the Basis as a whole. Otherwise, texts will be used selectively to justify favoured views on personal salvation, social justice and spirituality.

Pre-Union Controversy over Scripture

The Joint Consultation on Church Union prepared a credal statement on which the three churches would have to agree if unity were to be achieved. The 1970 edition was revised at the request of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The agreed revisions were incorporated in The Basis of Union 1971 upon which the churches voted.[1]

As the status of Scripture was a major cause of disagreement leading-up to union, para 5 underwent three significant changes:

  • The word “unique” was placed before the words “prophetic and apostolic testimony” to ‘make doubly clear the authoritative character of the canon of Holy Scripture.’
  • The general phrase “The Word of God addressed to men (sic)” was changed to “the Word of God on whom man’s (sic) salvation depends …” This strengthened the connection to para 4, where Christ is referred to as the ‘Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise would not exist,’ thereby making it clear that ‘what is found as the centre of Scripture is not random information on a number of subjects, but the Word of God on whom man’s (sic) salvation depends.’
  • The 1970 ed. had said that “The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, (and) commits her ministers to preach from these texts.” The 1971 ed. omits ‘texts’ to remove any ambiguity that might lead preachers to think that, instead of studying the whole text of Scripture, they could select a few ‘favourite texts’ to suit their evangelical, liberal or charismatic faith. Thus, ‘texts’ must be read in ‘context’ to safeguard the unity of Scripture and the integrity of the church’s faith.

The Threefold form of the Word of God in the Basis

  • The Basis intentionally does not say that the Bible is the verbally inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God. Unlike the first article of faith in the Youth for Christ creed (and similar confessions of faith), which says: ‘We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible authoritative Word of God,’ the Basis does not put a theory about Scripture before the UCA’s confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Thus it follows the pattern of the Nicene Creed which affirms the resurrection of Jesus Christ ‘in accordance with the Scriptures.’
  • The ‘Word of God’ in the Basis is not a unique written document but a unique person. The phrase ‘Word of God’ must be understood in relation to para 4 where “Christ who is present when he is preached among people is (described as) the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist.”

As expressed throughout the Basis, the Word of God is the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord in whose ‘completed work’ (par 3) God was reconciling the world to himself (para 4). The Word of God is not a sacred book, but a unique person – the fully human Son of God. Jesus Christ is the Word of God who is to be listened to because he, who embodies the sovereign saving grace of God.

  • The influence of the great Twentieth Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth is evident in this formulation. He shows the close connection and mutual interaction between the Word of God who is Christ, the written Word of God in Scripture and the Word of God proclaimed.[2] He says that, because the revelation of God’s Word is an event, not a theory, these three forms must be understood together. While the first form of revelation establishes the other two, it never meets us in abstract form – that is, apart from Scripture and preaching.

a) The Revealed Word of God

 ‘A church dogmatics must, of course, be christologically determined as a whole and in all its parts as surely as the revealed Word of God, attested by Holy Scripture and proclaimed by the Church, is its one and only criterion, and as surely as this revealed Word is identical with JC.[3]

The primary form of the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, true God and true man who became flesh to reconcile sinful humanity to God. However, “The revealed Word of God we know only from Scripture adopted by Church proclamation, or from Church proclamation made possible by revelation.”[4]

b) The Written Word of God

“The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which makes proclamation possible, or through the proclamation made possible by revelation.”[5]  As Scripture witnesses to this revelation of the Word of God it is not identical with him. Yet, insofar as the Bible mediates the revelation of God’s Word to us, it is the written recollection and deposit of the proclamation of the Word of God. The ‘written word of the prophets and apostles’ is fundamentally distinct from and superior to ‘all other words spoken later in the church and needing to be spoken today.’[6] The statement that the “The Bible is God’s Word,” is a confession of faith, a statement made by faith that hears God Himself speak in the human word of the Bible.”[7]

c) The Proclaimed Word of God

Proclamation of the Word of God is the Word of God. It is human language through which God speaks his Word of divine judgment and acquittal and we hear in faith. “The proclaimed Word of God we know only by knowing the revelation attested through Scripture, or by knowing the Scripture which attests revelation.”[8]

The unity and particularity of these three forms of the Word of God are expressed in para 5 of the Basis. The Word of God is an event in which the primary form is the Incarnate Son of God who is attested in Scripture and made known in preaching (and the sacraments).

The Authority of Scripture in the Basis:

Scripture is a unity of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible, like the ‘script’ of a play, must be understood in its entirety. A person who leaves after the first act or arrives for the finale will miss the complexity, ambiguity and intrigue of the whole story.

As part of the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ (para 2) the UCA ‘acknowledges’ that the Church ‘has received’ the books of Scripture so that the ‘Word of God’ continues to be ‘heard and known’ through her preaching, worship and study.

a) The choice of ‘acknowledge’ is consistent with what the Basis says in paras 1-8 and 11. At the Thirteenth Assembly of the UCA (2012) there was lively debate about how best to describe the UCA’s doctrine of marriage. Eventually, ‘noting,’ ‘reaffirming’ and ‘recognising’ were set-aside in favour of the much stronger ‘acknowledging’ which means ‘recognising the truth of what is disclosed to us, rather than us determining its validity according to our views.’[9]

b) In 1 Cor 11:23 and 15:3, Paul speaks of ‘handing on’ the tradition of faith that he had ‘received’ from the Lord, as a matter of the highest importance. By using this language, the UCA affirms her participation in a living communal tradition that has been formed by, and is grounded in, events and beliefs from which she is not free to pick and choose according to individual taste.

c) Scripture is ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony.’ In its various historical and cultural contexts and theological expressions, Scripture as a whole presents a singular, incomparable witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

d) As such, it ‘nourishes, regulates and controls’ the church’s faith, preaching and theology. The Bible is to be ‘received’ as we might enjoy a nourishing meal. In order not receive unhealthy food, quality control and health regulations are essential. Big Mac theology is no substitute for the bread of life!

d) By referring to ‘the Biblical witnesses,’ the Basis encourages us to take account of the diverse voices that constitute its united ‘testimony’ in pointing to Jesus Christ as ‘the Word of God on whom man’s (sic) salvation depends.’  The use of ‘Scripture’ (singular) and ‘Biblical witnesses’ (plural) in para 5 aptly expresses the Reformed principle that Scripture must interpret Scripture.

‘The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.’[10]

It would be a pity, therefore, if the choice of ‘The Biblical Witnesses’ for the heading of para 5 (there being none in the original) gave the impression that the diversity of ‘books …,’ ‘witnesses’ and ‘Scriptures’ is the most important thing about Scripture. A more apt heading would have been ‘The Biblical Testimony.’

The authority of the Bible can’t be determined in isolation from participation in the life of the church. What Scripture (as a whole) says about salvation will only be known when it is ‘appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church.’  That is why the Basis says that the Uniting Church ‘commits her ministers to preach from these Scriptures’ and ‘lays upon members the serious duty of reading the ‘Scriptures.’ 

The section on Scholarly Interpreters (para 11) mustn’t be read in isolation from para 5. Properly understood, para 11 expands on what para 5 means by ‘appropriating Scripture.’

a) The Basis encourages serious and faithful study of Scripture in the context of contemporary thought so that 'God's living Word' may be confessed in 'fresh words and deeds.' The church is reminded that the Word is not a dusty old book but the living presence of Christ whose reality must be expressed anew. It is misguided, however, to not only listen to contemporary voices, but to reject the living tradition that has been ‘received’ by the UCA and confessed in paras 2-5 of the Basis. This ‘newness’ is not to be understood as superseding Scripture as being'unique testimony' that has a decisive role in 'nourishing,' 'regulating' and 'controlling' the church's life, teaching and preaching of Jesus Christ.

b) Para 11 rightly focuses on the importance of ecumenical engagement with ‘literary, historical and scientific enquiry’ in order to have an ‘informed faith.’ Scholars, like evangelists, prophets and martyrs, are to reflect deeply upon ‘God’s living Word’ in order to be faithful to the sovereign purposes of God, as attested in the whole of Scripture. The importance of reading the Basis (as well as Scripture) as a whole is highlighted by the tendency of evangelicals, liberals and charismatics to appeal to ‘God’s living Word’ without reference to what it says about the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Jesus.

The Basis highlights the unique, indispensable place of Scripture in the life of the Church, without falling victim to narrow evangelicalism, dogmatic liberalism or free-floating spirituality. It is made clear that we are not called to ‘believe in the Bible’ or to dismiss the overarching unity of its diverse histories, cultures and theologies or to judge its message of salvation by our personal experience. We are to rejoice in the salvation that has been revealed to, and received by, us in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, as uniquely attested in Scripture and made known by the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the church.

It is a pity, then, that, despite what is said in the Code of Ethics and Ministry Practice (2000) about ministers having ‘a responsibility to represent accurately the teachings of the Scriptures and of the Church’ and ‘to live out the vision of the Basis (3.2), little has been done to ensure that the preaching, teaching and pastoral care of evangelicals, liberals and charismatics in the UCA is ‘nourished, regulated and controlled’ by the Word of God.

Rev Dr Max Champion

This article was first published in the July 2014 edition of ACCatalyst

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, references to the changes are from Preface to the 1971 edition by W.F. Hambly.

[2] In Church Dogmatics, Vol I/1, The Doctrine of the Word of God (T&T Clark 1936) Barth sets forth the doctrine of the Word of God in its threefold form – Revealed, Written and Proclaimed (pp 98ff).

[3] (CD I/2, p 123)

[4] (CD I/1, The Unity of the Word of God p 136)

[5] Ibid

[6] (CD I/1, p 115)

[7] (CD I/1 p 123)

[8] (CD I/I p 136)

[9] See G. Watson, ‘The Basis of Union – A Confessional Statement?’ in Forward Together: On What Basis? Essays on the Basis of Union in the Uniting Church 1994, ed. M. Champion, pp 25-27

[10] Article IX of the Westminster Confession of Faith here refers to interpretation, not textual inerrancy. The biblical texts which are referred to – 2 Peter 1:20-21 and Acts 15:15&16 – counsel against private interpretations of Scripture.