Biblical Authority and Cultural Relativism
Some years ago I read a powerful book by the famed theologian Carl Henry entitled The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society. The book was quite prophetic, for it set forth plainly where the lines of a cultural battle were being drawn, and how far-reaching would be the fallout. Two ideas that he juxtaposed immediately caught my attention. The first was that "biblical truth, transcultural as it is, has an indispensable message for modern man."The statement is a very logical conclusion for anyone with a high view of Scripture. But then came the blunt portrayal of the contemporary scene in its relentless emasculation of truth, the hallmark of modern humanity. Carl Henry referred to this generation as "intellectually uncapped, morally unzippered and volitionally uncurbed."
This disturbing reality was recently driven home ever more painfully. I was speaking with a friend of mine, a professional actor who in his superb presentations dramatically narrates Scripture word for word. I asked how his last performance had gone at a college that prided itself in academic excellence. He said he had experienced something thoroughly unnerving. As he enacted the anguish of Christ in the closing moments of His passion, and then His death, there were students who mockingly laughed through the presentation, truly amused by the pathos.
This would not have happened in a Hindu or Buddhist context, where reverence is shown for anything spiritual even if it is not part of their creed. Clearly our context is different. How then does one communicate to a people who have bought into such a mindset as Henry describes, which openly rejects ultimate authority and ridicules the sacred? The answer is not simple, but we rob ourselves if we think it is therefore impossible.
Let us be absolutely certain that every generation at some time has in its own way resisted the truth that God has proclaimed. In Matthew 11, Jesus compared his own generation to children in a market place crying out, "We played the flute for you but you did not dance. We sang a dirge but you did not mourn."
The point of the illustration as expounded by Jesus is a staggering exposure of the human will. That generation wanted John the Baptist to "dance" because they considered his message — the demands of the law —too somber. On the other hand, when Jesus came with the message of grace and freedom they wanted Him to mourn because it was too merciful. Any message that threatens our autonomy is automatically rejected no matter what it is.
For that very reason, centuries after Jesus, we have become the impoverished inheritors of a culture that understands neither law nor grace, where absolutes are debunked as the gasp of an antiquated thought pattern, and forgiveness is branded a beggar's refuge. It is not at all surprising that in Toynbee's study of history we are the first of 21 civilizations to attempt "civility" without a moral point of reference. To compound this further, we have come to these conclusions through a process that only causes us to sink deeper into the abyss of nihilism, where life has lost all meaning. That process is where we now turn our attention.
In the biblical narrative, when the tower of Babel was being built, we are told that God sent a confusion of languages to stem the tide toward humanity's self-deification. The implication was that the uniformity of language would inexorably lead to a homogenization of tastes, and a celebration of evil. The human heart, being what it is, moves in a herd instinct, irresistibly drawn to the intrigue and allurements of perversions. The confusion of language was one fence that God put up to limit communication and prevent a moral landslide.
But that was millennia ago. Now, for the first time the whole world speaks the same language. Yet it is not propositional; rather, it is pictorial, literally focused on "flesh and blood." As a result, the whole process militates against reason because images have become the sum and substance of truth, and the written word is no longer user-friendly. For all practical purposes, truth has been relegated to technology, beauty has been subjugated to the beholder, and goodness is mocked night after night as millions are idiotized before a box. We have been left as expendable entities in a disposable world, and our experiences have become fragmented quantities in a disjointed world. Yet, the fearful symmetry remains, for at such a time as this we are called to proclaim, "It is written. . . ." Is the written Word the best method for an infinite God to have chosen to reveal Himself? Yes! Indeed, an emphatic yes!
As cultural fads ebb and flow, the inescapable truth emerges that century after century the power of the written Word has surpassed, and will continue to surpass, the exhilarations of momentary experience, which are conceived and die in an instant. We tenderly set a halo on the forehead of feeling or miracle, but in times of greatest loss it is the written Word that carries us through, not feeling.
The Apostle Peter himself in his epistle reminds us of this very truth. We must remember that this is the same Peter who experienced the ecstasy of the transfiguration — a sight that caused him to plead that he and those with him be permitted to permanently bask in its afterglow. It is Peter who, contrasting the temporariness of that experience with the eternal and unfading brilliance of the Word, says, "We now have the more sure word of prophecy." Inscripturation has a present and eternal point of reference, transcending mere flashes of feeling or of the miraculous.
The story is told of a young man defending his doctoral dissertation before a panel of academicians. When reprimanded for the number of allusions he had made to hearsay evidence, and challenged on the weakness of such a defense, he facetiously said, "Just because something is written does not make it any more certain, does it?" The chairperson had a brilliant comeback. "All right then, I just want you to know that we will be granting you the degree, but it will not be in writing. You can just take our word for it." The candidate quickly complied with the documentary demand.
Over the span of life, the Word can be tested time and time again and its truths will stand tall as our culture's fascination with the subjective proves itself to be hollow and false. By contrast, the biblical documents have withstood the most scrutinizing analysis ever imposed upon any manuscript and have emerged with compelling authenticity and authority. No other ancient literature demonstrates such a high degree of accuracy. Yes, repeatedly the Bible rises up to outlive its pallbearers.
Not only does the Word come persuasively inscribed on paper, but the effectual power of the Word is evidenced when that inscription proclaimed through the Spirit brings life changing conviction with it. That transformation is what regeneration is all about, when the letter of the Word is written on the heart of the hearer. But lest we slip into a fatalistic mode where the power is all in the letter, let us not ignore the imaginative power of anecdotes and pictorial and dramatic portrayals, used by Christ Himself to drive home the truth. And last, but not the least, let us never forget the very Incarnation itself, where the Word became flesh.
The Scriptures, the touch, the presence, and the love of Christ lived out coalesce the vital components of Word and deed, which become the sword of the Spirit to break down the armored resistance of a culture at war with His truth. For ultimately, all pursuits apart from God lead to alienation and loneliness that only the touch of Christ can resolve. The Christian, therefore, stands in the position to proclaim and live the truth that reaches the mind, stirs the heart and purifies the imagination. The regenerative power of the Word is what makes it indispensable to every culture in every century.
Luther, with his unique flair for forthrightness said it well:
"And tho this world with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him,
His rage we can endure,
For lo his doom is sure,
One little word will fell him.
That word above all earthly powers
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever."