The root idea of modernity is the overturning of all authority outside of the self. In the 18th century European ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers insisted that the modern person must question all tradition, revelation, and external authority by subjecting them to the supreme court of his or her own reason and intuition. We are our own moral authority.
In spite of this tectonic philosophical shift, modern society nonetheless continued to be dominated by relatively stable institutions for a long time. People still were able to root their identities to a great degree in family and clan, in local civic communities, and in their work or vocation. All that seems now to be passing because of the ‘acid’ of the modern principle, namely that individual happiness must come before anything else. Marriage and family, workplace and career, neighborhood and civic community—none of these institutions now remain stable long enough for individuals to depend on them.
People live increasingly fragmented lives, no longer thinking of themselves in terms of basic roles in communities (“Christian, father, lawyer.”) Instead, their identity constantly shape-shifts as they move through a series of life episodes that are not tightly connected to each other. They are always ready to change direction and abandon commitments and loyalties without qualms and to pursue, on a personal cost-benefit basis, the best opportunity available to them.
The thread that ties all this together is the inconceivability of a moral order with an authority more fundamental than one’s own experience. Sociologist Christian Smith has written a book called Souls in Transition which profiles the beliefs of young adults under the age of 25. He finds that most of them believe it is the choice of their beliefs that make them true, not their truth that leads to our choice of them. He notes how even young adults who go to conservative churches and identify as Christians often refuse to believe Christian prohibitions against premarital sex and other Biblical norms that conflict with their feelings and intuitions.
Smith relates how he often interviewed people and asked them if their moral convictions (some of which were very strong) were mainly subjective feelings or really true to reality. He found that most had difficulty even understanding what he was asking. He concludes: “They simply cannot believe in or sometimes even conceive of a given objective truth… that is independent of their subjective self-experience (p. 37).
Many years ago as a young Christian my attention was arrested by an article on ‘Authority’ by John Stott. Stott asked, “Why should people believe that the Bible is God’s Word written, inspired by his Spirit and authoritative over their lives?” (The Authority of the Bible, IVP, 1974,p.6) This was a big question for me. I had decided that I believed in Jesus Christ, but I struggled with the idea that I had to believe everything in the Bible. Stott answered that we do not believe it simply because we want to be dogmatic and certain about our own beliefs, nor because the church has consistently taught this (though it has), nor because we just ‘feel’ the Bible is true as we read it. “No. The overriding reason for accepting the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture is plain loyalty to Jesus…Our understanding of everything is conditioned by what Jesus taught. And that includes his teaching about the Bible. We have no liberty to exclude anything from Jesus’ teaching and say, ‘I believe what he taught about this but not what he taught about that.’ What possible right do we have to be selective?” (p.7)
What did Jesus believe about the Bible? He said that not a ‘jot or tittle’ (i.e. not the smallest letter or even a part of a letter) would pass away from God’s Word until all was fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18 cf.
John 10:35.) In Matthew 19:5, Jesus tells us that in Genesis “God said” that “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” But when you go back to Genesis 2:24 you discover that it is only the human but inspired author of Genesis who wrote that. So, to Jesus, what Scripture says, God says. And Jesus did not simply believe the Bible, but he guided and regulated every step and detail of his life by it (cf. John 19:28.)
Stott’s question—‘what possible right do we have to be selective?’—is like a hammer blow to our contemporary way of life. We feel strongly that we have the right, even the obligation to select what parts of Jesus teaching we can accept and what parts we cannot. But that makes no sense. Why should you trust in him as Savior if you are wiser and smarter then he is? Either he is who he said he is, and his views judge our views, or he was lying or deluded about being the Son of God. So Jesus’ authority and the absolute authority of the Bible stand or fall together. If we believe he was who he said he was, then we must accept the entire Bible as God’s word.