The Authority of the Christian Faith (2022)
In a day when the very idea of truth, much less authority, is in such debate, it would be helpful for Christians, at least, to remind themselves of the nature of theological authority. What are our sources of knowledge? What is our basis and authority for knowing? What holds our own opinions and thinking to account?
Let me give it to you in a paragraph that I have taught to every seminary student I have had the privilege of teaching in one of my theology classes: 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 individual.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
First, the triune God. The foundation for Christian thought and truth is God Himself – the God who is there – both outside of time and space, and as the incarnate word, Jesus.
Second, as revealed in Scripture. The ultimate source of Christian theology is the Bible, the revelation of God. The Bible does not give us exhaustive knowledge about everything there is to know. It doesn’t even give us everything we need to know about theology. There are many theological issues that the Bible is silent about, or at least not definitive about. When we come to some issues, the Bible is very clear but in other places, we can only turn to the Bible for background help or leading insights, but not for clear statements. However, it remains our primary source and where it speaks, we have God’s revelation on the matter.
Third, as conveyed in a heritage. The Christian faith has a history that involves not only the writings and records of the Christian community throughout time, but also a history of its traditions. We have a rich heritage that can serve us, protect us, teach us—and we should take advantage of it. I’ve often likened it to taking a walk through the history of Christian community and listening to its better minds. We can and should learn from the accumulated wisdom of history, from the reflections and work of previous generations and eras. For example, if the church’s best minds have treated certain passages of the Bible in a certain way and come to the same conclusions over and over again, it’s worth taking a long hard look at what those conclusions were. Tradition may not be normative, but it can be highly informative.
Fourth, as made real in experience. This experience is both corporate and individual (personal). There are insights and accumulated knowledge that come from simply traveling through life, both with a group of people and as an individual. Christianity is not simply about ideas; it’s about our relationship with God, and the transformation of the inner life of the individual. It’s about walking with Christ, and with others who are walking with Christ, and the movement of the Holy Spirit through those experiences. Scripture judges our experiences and emotions, but experience should never be bracketed off as inconsequential, else we would never know where theology should be applied.
So again, our authority statement: 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 individual.
And it really must be in that order.
Personal experience matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as corporate experience—meaning the life and accumulated wisdom of the church. The corporate experience matters, but it must answer to tradition—to thousands of years of corporate experiences and learnings and insights. And while that tradition is critical, it stands under the ultimate authority—the revelation of the living, triune God, who has spoken absolute truth to our lives.
Among many other things, this keeps the “God told me,” “What Jesus means to me,” “What the verse says for me” statements in line. If someone says, “This is what I think, what I believe, what I think God told me in my quiet time today” – well that’s nice, but it’s not authoritative. It has to be brought to the community of which you are a part to see if that’s the settled opinion of the community as to what God might have actually said or is right for you to believe.
And even if an entire church affirms it, that community stands under the authority of the larger community of Christians, throughout time, that has spoken on the principal issues of the faith. And even that answers to the written word of God—what God has said, ultimately and authoritatively, to our lives through the Bible.
You cannot argue with someone’s experience, but you can say that it’s not normative for everyone and ask whether it’s congruent with Scripture. In other words, you can argue with their interpretation of their experience.
In a day when so many seem so unclear as to where to find truth, or where to place authority, grounding ourselves anew in the authority inherent within the Christian faith,
… is just the place to start.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.