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June 2019 Credo

Many churches across the different traditions and denominations acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and doctrine. A quick survey of the confessional statements of the mainline Protestant churches would reveal their high regard for the Bible.

For example, Article VI of The Thirty-Nine Articles – the doctrinal standard of the Anglican Church – reads:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary for salvation.

In similar vein, the Westminster Confession of Faith of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches underscores the authority and sufficiency of Scripture thus: ‘The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture …’

The views of Scripture expressed so eloquently in these texts are not only based on the teachings of the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century. They are grounded more fundamentally on what Scripture says about itself. For in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, we read that ‘All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’.

However, throughout the history of the Church, the Bible has been subverted by different groups within the Church and manipulated to support doctrines and practices that have no scriptural warrant whatsoever. Scripture is subverted when it is used against itself to support false doctrine.

Allow me to cite just a couple of examples to illustrate this.

One of the most influential movements in charismatic-evangelical circles today is, arguably, the Prosperity Gospel. In her captivating book entitled Blessed, which tells the story of the successful spread of prosperity theology in America, Catherine Bowler cites a number of surveys that demonstrate its influence.

According to a recent Time poll, 17 per cent of Christians identified themselves with the movement, while 31 per cent believed that God wants to bless believers with health and wealth. In another survey, 43 per cent of respondents believe that faithful Christians will achieve financial success and enjoy good health.

The purveyors of this heresy subvert Scripture by their erroneous interpretations of certain passages, distorting their meaning and making them say what their authors had never intended to say. Scripture is hijacked and used to substantiate the erroneous theology of the prosperity preachers and support their spurious practices.

One example is the sleight-of-hand hermeneutics of the prosperity preachers. In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus said:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Prosperity preachers zoom in on the promise of a hundredfold return to the exclusion of everything else, and interpret it in financial terms. Thus Gloria Copeland could say that according to this text, if we give $1 for the work of the kingdom, we will receive $100 in return. That is God’s promise to Christians!

Her husband, Kenneth Copeland, sums up this piece of prosperity teaching very well when he writes in his book Laws of Prosperity: ‘Invest heavily in God; the returns are a staggering 100 to 1! … Every man who invests in the Gospel has the right to expect the staggering return of one hundredfold’.

That Christians could embrace this teaching uncritically (no one seem to question if they would literally get 100 biological mothers in return if they left their mother for the sake of Gospel!) is troubling indeed.

The second example of the subversion of Scripture is the revisionist hermeneutics of LGBTQ scholars.

Recent decades have seen a steady stream of books penned by revisionist scholars whose main contention is that traditional interpretations of the passages in the Bible that deal with homosexual sex are mistaken. They have been influenced by social mores that marginalize and discriminate against people who are same-sex attracted.

According to these revisionist writers, the Bible prohibits and condemns only certain forms of homosexual intercourse – like pederasty and cult prostitution – but not others.

The appearance of these revisionist writers can be traced to the sexual revolution that erupted in the West in the 1960s, abetted by the controversial studies on sexuality conducted by Alfred Kinsey.

One of the most prominent revisionist writer, John Boswell, whose book entitled Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality appeared in 1980, employed the idea of sexual orientation to make his case. Boswell argues that in Romans 1, the apostle Paul was condemning heterosexual persons who engage in homosexual intercourse, not persons who are naturally homosexual.

Making the distinction between ‘perverts’ and ‘inverts’, Boswell maintains that the New Testament does not explicitly or implicitly prohibit inverts (persons who are by nature homosexuals) from engaging in same-sex intercourse. Boswell insists that when Paul uses the word ‘natural’ (Romans 1:27), he was referring to sexual orientation.

Expanding on Boswell’s thesis, Jay Michaelson in his book entitled God vs. Gay?, published in 2011, argues that in Romans 1, Paul is

… not referring to gay people as we understand them today (who cannot be ‘given over’ to homosexuality), not referring to loving and sacred forms of same-sexual expression (since he specifically describes the lusts as ‘shameful’), and possibly not referring to adult homosexuality at all …

Here we see another variety of the sleight-of-hand hermeneutics of the modern subverters of Scripture. The writers give the impression that the apostle Paul, who lived in the first century AD, was acquainted with the notion of sexual orientation, a social construct that appeared only in the nineteenth century.

The subversion of Scripture by revisionist scholars like Boswell and Michaelson must be taken seriously today because there is a growing attempt by LGBT advocates to normalise same-sex attraction and behavior. Even sincere Christians may be led by them to think that the Bible does not forbid all homosexual relations.

The problem here is that both the prosperity preachers and the gay revisionist scholars can claim that they believe in the supreme authority of the Bible. They can use the language of the Reformers and maintain that their teaching on prosperity and their understanding of sexuality are based on Scripture alone (sola scriptura).

That is why apart from acknowledging the primacy of Scripture as the Church’s authoritative text, Christians must also recognize the indispensable role of the universal Church as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. Christians (especially evangelical Christians) must learn to read Scripture with the Church as their guide.

However, unlike the Roman Catholic Church that has the magisterium to adjudicate on matters of doctrine and practice, Protestant Churches do not have one authoritative body on which to depend for theological guidance. But this does not mean that Protestant Churches do not have any resources to enable them to remain true to the faith once delivered to the saints.

In the first place, there are the great ecumenical or catholic creeds of the Church, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The magisterial Reformers hold the creeds in very high regard and saw them as accurate and faithful summaries of the teachings of Scripture. In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther gave this assessment of the Apostles’ Creed:

Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words. In them all our wisdom consists – a wisdom which transcends all human wisdom … The Law of the commandments does not make us Christians, for God’s wrath and displeasure abides upon us because we cannot fulfill his demands. But the Creed brings us full mercy, sanctified us and makes us acceptable to God.

Sadly, many Protestant and evangelical churches here no longer recite the Creeds. Pastors and church leaders must give more attention to the creeds, not only by according to them a place in Sunday services, but also by expounding the rich theology they contain to their congregations.

Secondly, we have the writings of the Reformers themselves. Martin Luther has published the Small and Large Catechisms that carefully unpack the different doctrines of the Christian faith. In similar vein, John Calvin has written the Institutes of the Christian Religion. These important writings are invaluable resources for contemporary Protestant Churches.

In addition, Protestant Churches have produced a number of important confessions and catechisms that are profound statements of orthodox Christianity that are still valuable and relevant to the contemporary churches. In the Reformed tradition, there is The Westminster Confession and the Catechism. The Lutheran tradition has its Book of Concord among others, and for the Methodist Church, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes serve as its doctrinal standard.

Together, these documents form a ‘canon’ of theological literature by the early Church, the magisterial Reformers and their theological heirs that articulates and expounds the Biblical faith. They provide the important doctrinal grid and hermeneutical lens through which we can read and understand Scripture aright in the wake of its many modern subverters.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.