Much has been written, mostly as lament, about the state of Christian life and thought. I have contributed my own fair share to the conversation.
Here’s a question: Where is it that most Christians seem to be missing the boat when it comes to how the Christ life is meant to be carried out? Is there one, significant area where we are most adrift that carries enormous ramifications for how we live and think?
I think there is.
It’s the authority of the Christian faith.
First, let’s detail what that authority is; here’s an “authority statement” that was passed on by my theology professors of old, in one form or another, and that I have long passed on as well:
“The authority of the Christian faith is the triune God, as revealed in Scripture, as conveyed in a heritage, as made real in experience, both corporate and personal.”
You’re thinking, “Whew!”
So let’s unpack it.
The authority of the Christian faith lies in God Himself, who is triune: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but three Persons who are one God.
This God has revealed Himself to us through Scripture. Yes, the primary revelation was Christ Himself, the second Person of the Trinity incarnate, but how do you know of this Christ today? Largely in one way: the inspired Scriptures known as the gospels.
The very idea of revelation, captured in the Latin word “revelatio,” is the pulling back of a curtain to reveal what could not be known otherwise. God has revealed Himself and truth about Himself to us through His revelation, captured in the Bible – itself inspired by the Holy Spirit.
This revelation has been conveyed in a heritage, meaning over 2,000 years of Christian history. For those who would disparage history, simply remember that history is nothing more – and nothing less – than walking back through time listening to our better minds.
While Protestants may not share the Roman Catholic view of how the Holy Spirit has worked through history (they tend to elevate it to the level of Scripture), we can certainly say that while it may not be normative, it is highly informative.
Suffice it to say, if the Christian church has had a settled mind about something for millennia, it’s worth noting what that settled opinion is.
All of this is, of course, then made real in experience. It is first made real corporately, through the community of faith (the church), and then through our own personal relationship with God through Christ.
So why is this foundational understanding, this “authority statement,” the heart of what ails us?
We’ve inverted it.
You see, the authority statement really is in the order in which it was given. It begins with God and His revelation, which stands over heritage, which stands over current corporate experience, which then stands over individual experience.
Thus an end to the “God told me” stuff that is often pure and simple heresy (or delusion) condemned by the church, condemned through church history, and condemned in the Scriptures.
Yet today, we have made personal experience everything. What we think and feel, what we emote and choose, is placed above the stated orthodoxy of the community of faith of which we are a part.
And if our church or denomination decides to buck the rich streams of church history on a matter, not to mention the clear teaching of Scripture – in the name of the all-important corporate experience – then so be it.
Suddenly truth and practice is whatever we want it to be.
There is no authority beyond our selves.
Today, the authority of the Christian faith is not the triune God as revealed in Scriptures, but the individual man or woman as determined in his or her own mind.
To my thinking, that is what is at the heart of the decline and, yes, eventual fall of Christianity that is happening in the West.
Invest what you will in current debates about the inerrancy of Scripture, or Calvinism vs. Arminianism. These are secondary to whether or not we understand the authority of the Christian faith itself, and submit to it.
In systematic theology, we would call it “prolegomena.”
In common words, it’s called “how to think.”
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.