These days we are over-awed by the rapid progress of science and technology. Where will the computer age and the information super-highway really lead us? To read of the experiments of Benjamin Franklin – attaching the legs of a frog to an iron gate and flying a kite from the gate into an electrical storm – is to enter quaint history, though fairly essential to the beginnings of our modern progress.
Yet the origins of what has been called the necessary forerunner of civilisation itself is shrouded in mystery. There are more of them in the world than all the computers put together, yet who was it that invented… the wheel? With or without an axle, the wheel depends on a relationship to its centre. If the rim isn't equidistant from the centre and the geometrical centre doesn't coincide with the centre of gravity, the wheel cannot run true. It will be less than helpful in moving heavy loads. With an axle at that centre, many other possibilities begin to open up. It is true that technology can also deliberately plan the use of wheels (cams) that are "off-centre" (eccentric). But by far our greatest use is for the wheel that is balanced and true to its centre.
At the Centre
What is at the centre? Very often scientific progress has been hindered by false assumptions. It was once assumed that the earth was the centre of the universe. That false assumption led to extraordinary formulae to try to explain the strange movements of planets and constellations with respect to earth. There was strong resistance to Galileo and Copernicus when they wanted it accepted that the Sun was the centre of the solar planetary system.
Who is at the centre? It has been said that humankind is incurably religious. In every race and every age people have had some kind of religion, have believed in gods, one or many, and this belief has shaped the lives of individuals and societies. Even people who say they have no religion end up believing something. Much of what people have believed is grossly wrong and we see in people, their societies and history itself the effects of wrong belief.
Who is at the centre? We call ourselves a multi-cultural society and 1995 has been the International Year for Tolerance – so we are not supposed to ask that kind of question. It is assumed either that everyone is right (a foolish and impossible assumption) or that the question is just irrelevant. If people feel helped by their religion, that's their personal business! Let them be!
If there is a personal infinite God, we may well make deductions about him from the clues evident in an orderly universe. If we are designed to relate to him and to know him, our question for personal meaning will include a religious quest. But we can only know him as he chooses to make himself known to us. This is how things are when we try to know any other person – we know them by revelation. Do you know Queen Elizabeth II? We certainly know about her! There is excellent evidence that she does exist, that her parents were George and Elizabeth, that Philip is her husband… Those are not rumours, but well-founded and well-known facts. We might well recognise her from the photographs. To be able to say that we really "know" her, of course, there would need to be a further stage of revelation – face to face! Remember Howard Hughes, the billionaire? He hid himself away. Nobody but a very few had seen him for years. The only photograph of him that the newspapers could use when he died was grossly out-of-date. People could be pardoned for wondering, "Is he still alive? Is he still about?"
God has Spoken
At the heart of the Christian faith is an affirmation that God has revealed himself. The Bible is not the record of the human intellect's exploration for ultimate meaning, nor of the human psyche's search for personal and emotional fulfilment and satisfaction, nor of the human spirit's quest for spiritual enlightenment. If this were the case, we would welcome the Year of Tolerance and acknowledge the relative validity of all religions and their quests to know god, the divine, the spiritual, the wholly other… All would have the same claim to consideration.
But if God has made himself known, then we are all called to that one sure source of knowledge of him. As John Wesley wrote in the introduction to his Forty-Four Sermons,
I want to know one thing – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: "Lord, is it not Thy word, 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God'? Thou 'givest liberally, and upbraidest not.' Thou hast said, 'If any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.' I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will." I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, "comparing spiritual things with spiritual." I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.
In recent times, a great deal of study and effort has gone into probing and understanding the background, interests and characteristics of the human writers of the Bible. Scholars have tried to grasp the ways in which Biblical stories might have been used in the life of the early Church (their Sitz im Leben or life-situation). A number of them have made an implicit assumption that the human writers have (or would have) adjusted the stories to their own interests or that the Sitz im Leben of stories within the believing community has shaped and changed the record to emerging needs. The effect has been to put the scholar above the Word rather than under the Word. In practice, Biblical authority is greatly reduced. I take to myself the right, not so much to understand, interpret and apply what the Bible says, but to decide for myself what is the Word behind the Bible and then to modify it in response to my present situation. It is in the light of these issues that we reflect on the meaning of para. 5 of the Basis of Union
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which she hears the Word of God and by which her faith is nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, her message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom man's salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon her members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits her ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.
We may well ask, What is meant by "the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments…"? In what sense does the Church "hear the Word of God" in the Scriptures? By what means is the Word of God "heard and known from Scripture"? What is meant by saying that the Church's message is "controlled by the Biblical witnesses"?
J. Davis McCaughey in his Commentary on the Basis of Union seemed unwilling to spell out specifically the answers to some of these questions.
The authority of scripture is in a sense indirect. The books of the Old and New Testaments contain the witness of prophet (here clearly implying the whole of the Old Testament) and of apostle (implying the whole of the New): as the Church listens to these voices, she hears a Voice not of human origin, the Word of God. She knows herself to be addressed: faith is quickened, obedience is made possible. Her life is nourished and regulated. She can recognise no authority which transcends this (pp.29-30).
In practice we are faced with the situation mentioned earlier. We do well to ask whether as a Church we seek to be under the Biblical Word or over it, determining for ourselves and our own needs (or desires) what is the Word behind or within the Biblical Word. There can be a real danger in viewing the authority of Scripture as being "indirect". The question of hermeneutics – the appropriate ways in which Scripture is to be interpreted – is very important. The quotation from Wesley exemplifies his approach as one who accepts the direct authority of Scripture. But Davis McCaughey's "no authority which transcends this" seems to be a reference to the Word behind the Biblical Word. In practice we are the ones who are to discern this Word and so, as noted earlier, Biblical authority is greatly reduced.
Knowing this is important in understanding what the Basis of Union says in para. 11 –
The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left his Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to his living Word. In particular she enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and thanks God for the knowledge of his ways with men which are open to an informed faith
The question is, Which scholarly interpreters? Conservative evangelical scholars have been (and continue to be) significantly involved in "the literary, historical and scientific" enquiry into the Scriptures. Are we thinking of Bruce or Bultmann? of Stott or Spong? All of these writers make use of human reason in reading and understanding the Scriptures, but do they come with presuppositions of rationalism or of faith?
The Word of God Written
The Bible bears witness of itself that it is the Word of God written, preparing the way for and setting forth Jesus Christ the living Word.
The Old Testament prophets attested that "the Word of the Lord came to me" and they spoke their messages as if directly from God. Strikingly, however, the Hebrew Old Testament is called "The Law, the Prophets and the Writings" and we discover that the section "the Prophets" is divided into two, the first section of which – "the Former Prophets" – contains what we would have called the historical writings. God is seen to be revealing himself in and through the history of his chosen people, the Israelites – through obedience and disobedience, through kings good and bad, through wars and struggles… as well as through special spokesmen who bring the Lord's word of guidance, warning and promise.
In the New Testament we note the great respect in which Jesus held "Scripture". Note carefully what Jesus said to the Jewish authorities who were angry at his healing on the Sabbath (John 5). He cites three witnesses to his authority. The first is John the Baptist (vv.33-35). And second, "the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me" (v.36b). But there is a third witness – "the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent" (vv.37-38). But if they "have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in them", how has the Father testified concerning him? This cannot be a reference to the events of his baptism. In any case, there is no evidence that anyone other than Jesus and John the Baptist heard or understood the voice from heaven. However, we note that the evidence that the Father's word doesn't dwell in them is that they don't believe in the one he sent (i.e. Jesus). Jesus goes on, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (vv.39-40). Jesus is saying that the Scriptures are the Father's testimony concerning him. They have been diligent students of the Scriptures for the purpose of framing their life-style, rather than for the purpose of recognising and welcoming the one through whom alone there is life.
Following the Easter events, we hear the stranger on the road to Emmaus saying, " 'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Lk.24.25-27).
They went back to Jerusalem to the eleven disciples and Jesus appeared to them. "He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are wit-nesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high' " (vv.44-49).
There is no reasonable question that Jesus and the apostles regarded the Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (of which Psalms is the first book) – as the Word of God given through the words of men. The process by which this revelation became Scripture – this revelation through history and prophetic utterance, through vision and dream, through parable and poem – has involved what we call "inspiration". This is not a question of what we find "inspiring", but rather the work of the Holy Spirit within the personalities of the human writers to produce the Word of God written.
Peter has been writing about the experience he had, with James and John, on the mount of transfiguration. "We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain," he writes (2 Pet.1.18). He then goes on to say, "And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (vv.19-21). The expression "carried along" in v.21 is also used, for example by Luke in Acts 27.15 and 17, where they "let the ship be driven along".
Peter is saying far more than does the poet or artist or painter or composer who "gets a bit of inspiration". He is describing the much more profound and compelling work of the Holy Spirit so that the final writing is in the truest sense the Word of God.
The Letter to the Hebrews begins, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs" (Heb.1.1-4).
The letter highlights throughout the superiority of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, in relation to angels, Moses and Joshua, priesthood, covenant, and sacrifice. The letter begins by portraying Jesus as the final revelation of God. "God has spoken…" The diversity of times and means of the earlier part of God's self-revelation is alluded to, but the fullness of the revelation "by his Son" (lit. "in [one who is] Son") is graphically highlighted – "the radiance (lit. 'the shining forth') of God's glory and the exact representation (or 'the very stamp') of his being."
Yet now that the complete revelation has come, the validity and importance of the old is still affirmed – "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will" (2.1-4).
Paul writes to Timothy, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim.3.16). The NIV gives the literal translation of Paul's Greek word as "God-breathed" (theopneustos). Our English word "inspiration" seems to imply God "breathing into" the writer or writing. The force of the Greek word is of God "breathing out" – which is, in fact, the normal way we speak. This does not mean that the human writers were like type-writers, or that their personalities, interests and styles became invisible. Rather, the product of their work is the result of God's Spirit, the Divine pneuma – it is the Word of God.
These statements, of course, were written specifically about the Old Testament Scriptures, but they apply equally to the New. Indeed, within the New Testament period we already begin to see the letters of Paul regarded as Scripture. For instance, Peter is writing about the Second Coming of Christ – "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Pet.3.15-16). Paul's letters are not just to be viewed as the letters of Paul – they are Scripture and the consequences are serious if they are not treated appropriately.
In modern times, much study has gone into the human element in the Scriptures – seeing them as human discovery of the divine (or of spirituality) rather than as divine self-revelation to humankind. As a result, the Scriptures come in many ways to be viewed as products of their particular times. This has led to a radical (and tragic) change of teaching in which we then set out to discover our own spirituality and to make our own "picture of God". This is not the historic Christian faith which has strongly emphasised the Word of God written and the Word of God incarnate.
God has spoken. This self-revelation has come through history and prophet "at many times and in various ways". Through the movement of the Holy Spirit, the human writers have produced the Word of God written.
The Bible does not "become" the Word of God when it is read and used. Indeed, we will be judged both for our neglect of it and for our misuse of it. However, it is not just the Father's Word to us. Bible prepares the way for, sets forth and expounds Jesus the Son of God – the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. The Father continues to tell us, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Mt.17.5). The Bible is the Word given through the Spirit, brought to our remembrance and applied to our lives.
Word and Spirit
There is a close relationship between Word and Spirit in the historical view of the Scriptures.
Already we have noted that it was the Spirit who "bore along" the people who spoke from God. Peter has been talking about "Scripture" and so is presumably including what was written as well as spoken. He writes, "No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation." These words were used by the Roman Church to assert that the Church itself was the custodian of the true interpretation of Scripture – in the words of the Council of Trent, to the Church alone "it pertains to judge concerning the true sense and interpretation of Holy Scripture." It was therefore taught that there was danger in lay people (not having been seminary-trained) having free access to the Scriptures. Today it is not so much popery as academic (and liberal) snobbery that has tended to close off the written Word to the ordinary Church-member. Who can read it for themselves when we have found new ways of getting round what is so clearly and plainly taught?
So what does Peter mean? It is so clear, really. Prophecy is not the prophet's personal opinions or personal spiritual "high" which we are at liberty to take or leave as we will. "Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man." The prophet was being impelled by the Spirit of God.
In Jeremiah 20 the prophet gives us an insight into what it is like to be a prophet. He has no delight in the message of divine judgement he is called to bring – nor in the unpopularity and ridicule it brings him. "But if I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (v.9).
Or we think of the scroll that Jeremiah dictated to Baruch for him to read in the Temple (ch.36). Eventually the scroll was read to King Jehoiakim who thought to destroy the effect of the prophecy by cutting it off as it was read and burning it in the fire. But even if the scroll is burned, the Word of God which was written on it is still in effect. So the scroll was rewritten with additional judgements added to it.
The Holy Spirit and the Reading of Scripture
The Holy Spirit who was thus at work in the writing of the Scriptures, continues to be at work when the Scriptures are read today.
Paul recalls the situation in Moses' time – the people were afraid when Moses came from talking with God because his face was shining (Ex.34.29-35). But he says, "We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor.3.13-18).
We are reminded again of the tragedy of the Scribes and Pharisees who were so very diligent in their reading of the Scriptures, but so closed to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in leading them to faith in Christ (Jn.5.39-40).
As we have said, the Holy Spirit who was thus at work in the writing of the Scriptures, continues to be at work when the Scriptures are read today. This does not mean that you cannot understand the Scriptures until you are a Christian. The Holy Spirit is at work before people come to faith. He is at work to bring people to faith.
Jesus said to his disciples, "When he [the Counsellor] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned" (Jn.16.8-11).
We can jump in so quickly with all our preconceived (or deduced) ideas about "conviction of sin" and fail to hear what Jesus is saying here. The word "convict" (NIV, Gk. elengch{) has been variously rendered – from King James with "reprove", RSV "convince", GNB "prove wrong"… Büchsel, writing in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, states, "The word does not mean only 'to blame' or 'to reprove,' nor 'to convince' in the sense of proof, nor 'to reveal' or 'expose,' but 'to set right,' namely, 'to point away from sin to repentance.' It implies educative discipline" (II, p.474).
Leon Morris points out the three principal ways in which the Greek underlying these verses may be taken. "It may mean 'He will convict the world (of wrong ideas) of sin, in that they do not believe', 'He will convict the world of its sin because they do not believe' (i.e. their unbelief is a classic illustration of their sin), or 'He will convict the world of its sin (which consists in the fact) that they do not believe' (i.e. their unbelief is their sin)." He inclines to the second and goes on to say, "The world is guilty, but it requires the Spirit to sheet this home. The Spirit convicts the world in two senses. In the first place He 'shows the world to be guilty', i.e. He secures a verdict of 'Guilty' against the world. But in the second place we should take the words to mean also that the Spirit brings the world's guilt home to itself. The Spirit convicts the individual sinner's conscience. Otherwise men would never be convicted of their sin" (The Gospel according to John, p.698).
So the Spirit is actively at work to bring people to repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ. And the person who comes to repentance and faith undergoes a "new birth" – described in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus as being "born of the Spirit" (Jn.3.1ff). (Incidentally, I have always found the desire to find a reference to Christian baptism a distraction here. I was present for the birth of two of my children and know well that they were born "out of water" (Gk. ex hudatos). The reference in v.5 to being "born of water and the Spirit" parallels the statement of v.6 – "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit".) Whether we regard vv.14-21 as the words of Jesus or the reflections of the evangelist, these verses clearly present "faith" as the only necessary human precondition by which the promised "eternal life" is received. Paul's statement in 2 Cor.5.17 – "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" – likewise sees the transformed life in the context of faith in Christ (though even here the sacramentalists would want to interpose a reference to baptism).
Within the Christian life the Spirit brings to mind the word of Christ – Jesus said to his disciples, "All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (Jn.14.25-26) and "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you" (16.12-14).
We notice here the very close interconnection between the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Spirit's work is not independent but interdependent with the work of Father and Son. There was, of course, special fulfilment of these promises in the apostolic period in the recording of the words and works of Jesus Christ and in the emerging understanding and interpretation of the significance of his ministry (including his death and resurrection) and of the nature of the Christian life. In this the Holy Spirit was fulfilling a role similar to that in the production of the Old Testament Scriptures.
For us, the Holy Spirit is not now producing new "scripture", but continues to take the written Word and to apply it to our life and situation. As the hymn (AHB335) reminds us,
We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind…
the Lord has yet more light and truth
to break forth from his word.
The Word is deep and rich. As we read, we need to be open and teachable. We are reminded in Heb.4.12-13, "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." Paul, in his description of the Christian's armour, names the Word of God as "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph.6.17b).
Of course, the Spirit does not simply use Scripture to attack sin and unbelief in the world. The Word is also his tool in cleansing us from sin and in bringing about Christ's character within us. It is for good reason that he is known as the "Holy" Spirit. He works to produce his "fruit" in our lives – "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal.5.22-23).
Beyond the Word?
Mention was made earlier of the practice of liberal theology to look for the Word behind the written Word. But there are other groups who fall into the trap of looking for the Word beyond the Word.
At its simplest level this involves allegorical interpretation of the Word. What the Word plainly says is seen to be less important than a hidden "spiritual" meaning. Into this category come some of the lengthy studies on the Tabernacle, drawing spiritual significance from every thread and fabric and colour… and making application to our Christian life. Such studies tell you all the things that you didn't know were there. Many of these things you didn't know about because they really weren't there in the first place, or if they were, they received no emphasis at all in the Biblical account!
Other studies take the whole story of the Exodus and entry into the Promised Land as a picture of the Christian life. There are, of course, some striking parallels which may rightly be made, but there is a problem when it is insisted that this is the "true meaning" of the Exodus. It becomes an easy way to avoid the difficult questions raised, for example, by the mass killings that took place when the forces under Joshua entered the land. But the tough issues are part of the record and are not to be side-stepped by an allegorical interpretation. If we do that, we will be unable to relate Biblical truth to the tough issues that confront us in today's world. How do we relate the fall of Jericho to the My Lai massacre? In fact, we face the pain of a fallen, broken world today. We may well do so with greater realism and relevance by acknowledging the pain that was present in the Biblical era too.
In a slightly different category is what is known as "typology". Typology is an exegetical method by which an event, series of circumstances or aspect of the life of an individual or nation is seen to find a parallel and deeper realisation in the incarnate or heavenly life or ministry of Christ. The name comes from the Greek word typos which is used some fifteen times in the New Testament. In almost every case the word simply means either "pattern" or "example". The tabernacle had to be built according to the "pattern" (typos) that Moses had been shown (Heb.8.5). The things that happened to the complaining Israelites in the desert "occurred as examples (typoi) to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did" (1 Cor.10.6, also v.11). Only one example approaches the typological approach – "Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern (typos) of the one to come" (Rom.5.14). In 1 Cor.15, Paul refers to Christ as the second Adam (vv.42-49), but there is a strong measure of contrast in his words as there seems to be also in Romans 5. The letter to the Hebrews probably gives closest support for typology, especially with the references to Melchizedek (ch.7). We note that the Hebrews use involves strong emphasis on the historicity of characters and events so used. While there is some ground for this approach to Biblical interpretation, there is wisdom in using it sparingly and with caution.
As we seek the mind of the Lord on the major issues facing the Church today, we need to address consciously what is clearly written and what the Lord has clearly said through history and prophecy and through the historical incarnation of the Son of God and the inspired apostolic word. If we contend against the loose use which others might make of Scripture, we need to eschew our own loose use of Scripture! Perhaps we are not self-critical enough to recognise what we do as being "loose use". It has always been easier to see the speck of dust in a brother's eye than the log in our own.
Likewise, the use of the Scripture texts out of context in some circles, while bringing some immediate edification or encourage-ment, can cut at the vital nerve of Biblical authority and undermine the ability to confront Biblically the issues of the day – especially when it becomes the major form of Biblical input. The divine Word has come to us in a certain historical and literary context. The inspiring Spirit will continue to use that context in applying its truth to the context of our own life and society.
It was significant for the life of the early church – and for ours – that "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2.42). In no sense do we leave "the apostles' teaching" behind as we seek to be open to the Spirit's word to us today. Such an attitude would stand in contrast to what Jesus himself said about the Spirit and the Word.
Likewise, we reflect on Hebrews 6.1-2 – "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement:" The writer is indicating that, in writing his letter, he does not intend to go over these things. The "elementary teachings" are the "word of the beginning or origin" (Gk. arch}) – translated "first principles" in ASV. He describes these doctrines as foundational. In every sense they continue to be important for the Christian life. They are, in fact, the basis on which Christian maturity will be built.
What does this have to say about the spiritual gift of prophecy in general and what are called "words of knowledge" in particular? We do well to heed what C. Peter Wagner writes on this subject – "I believe God continually desires to reveal His words to us, although not on the level that we find enscripturated in the Bible. Furthermore, any revelation through word of knowledge or other prophecy must always be tested for validity against Scripture" (How to have a Healing Ministry in any Church, 1988, p.231).
Again, we note what Jesus said about the Spirit and the Word. In my experience, valid utterances of "prophecy" or "words of knowledge" come through people who continually steep themselves in the written Word. Sadly, there are too many situations in which confirmation is sought in the "spiritual witness" of some other person present but there is an unwillingness to apply the test of Scripture. The real danger is that we cease to be able to handle Scripture properly, to use it in our own lives and to apply it in the life of the Church. Paul wrote to young Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim.2.15). The word "correctly handles" (orthotomeo) literally means to "cut straight" – in other words, to impart the word of truth without deviation, straight, undiluted.
Biblical Authority in the Uniting Church in Australia
Reference has already been made to the strong statements of the Basis of Union concerning Scripture and the controlling place that Scripture is said to have over the doctrines of the Church, the councils of the Church in their deliberations and decisions, the Ministers of the Word and lay preachers in their preaching and in evangelism and in the life of individual confirmed Members.
They are statements that reflect the strong Biblical backgrounds from which each of the three uniting Churches came, the diversity of theological opinions within those former denominations, yet the commitment to Biblical truth in general as the basis on which we would come together and move forward together. Different groups within the Uniting Church have placed a variety of emphases on these statements as together we have seen them as a basis for mission.
The Fellowship for Revival has specifically stated concerning para. 5 (on Scripture), "The Fellowship accepts these precepts with the utmost seriousness noting in particular words such as 'received', 'controlled', 'lays upon' and 'commits'. The Fellowship holds that the Bible is the Word of God while reflecting the personalities and times of the inspired writers. The Bible does not merely 'contain', 'witness to' or 'become' the Word of God but is objectively God's authoritative self-revelation in written form. The Fellowship holds to the authority of Holy Scriptures as the supreme rule for faith and practice" (Constitution).
Such a statement expresses what is sometimes called the "conservative evangelical" position. It represents today what has been generally accepted throughout the history of the Church. We recognise that we belong to and work in a Church with a measure of diversity of doctrinal opinion, stemming in large part from diverse understandings of the Scriptures. Para. 14 of the Basis describes the various ministries that have come into and continue to develop within the Uniting Church. One of the conditions is that people "adhere to the Basis of Union", a term which is described as "willingness to live and work within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as that way is described in this Basis. Such adherence allows for difference of opinion in matters which do not enter into the substance of the faith." This recognition of diversity is reasonable, provided it does not mean that "anything goes". To this point the Church has been reluctant to define what is "the substance of the faith" – though the question of the ordination of women has been placed in that category.
The question is, How is "the substance of the faith" to be determined? The "determining responsibility for matters of doctrine, worship, government and discipline" is in the hands of the Assembly" (Basis, para.15 (e)). What is to guide the Assembly? The Basis has, as we have noted made strong statements about the Scriptures controlling our message. We also note para.10 –
The Uniting Church continues to learn of the teaching of the Holy Scriptures in the obedience and freedom of faith, and in the power of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, from the witness of reformation fathers as expressed in various ways in the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and the Savoy Declaration (1658). In like manner she will listen to the preaching of John Wesley in his Forty-Four Sermons (1973). She will commit her ministers and instructors to study these statements, so that the congregation of Christ's people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture.
Davis McCaughey comments, "…the presence of more than one Confession in a good way relativises their value. Where a Church only has one 'subordinate" standard there is always a danger that it will absolutise its value: scripture may only be read through the eyes of this Confession. The Basis of Union tries to avoid that. The Uniting Church believes that many voices must be heard but that all should point back to Scripture and the gospel so that God's voice may be heard…" (p.53). So the paragraph ends with "the need for constant appeal to Holy Scripture."
It is of concern that on at least one current issue the Assembly Standing Committee, aware that the view of both Scripture and two thousand years of Christian tradition concur unanimously, referred to the Assembly Commission on Doctrine the question of how the authority of Scripture relates to such an issue.
It is noted that the Assembly Standing Committee has requested a Task Group to "prepare a statement on the status, authority and role of the Basis of Union in the church…" Among the matters to be considered were – "the role of the Basis in determining the doctrinal standards of the church", "the role of the Basis in determining the polity of the church", "the role of the Basis in determining the standards of discipline of church members, ministers and councils," "the meaning of the concept 'adherence to the Basis of Union' in the Basis of Union and in the liturgies of the church and the appropriateness of the continuing use of the concept in the liturgies", "the extent to which the church has moved from or developed the understandings expressed in the Basis of Union" and "any safeguards of the status, authority or role of the Basis of Union which the church should adopt including possible amendment of clause 39 of the Constitution".
The establishment of this Task Group can be viewed in a number of ways. Is it feared that the Basis might become what Davis McCaughey has warned against – a Confession which supplants the immediate authority of Scripture itself? On the other hand, the Basis provides some foundations and protection for the doctrine and life of the Church. Has the Church moved away from this and will the status of the Basis be downgraded in order to legitimise these departures – and to pave the way for others? We await the report of that Task Group.
We note that consideration is also currently being given to amending clause 39 of the Constitution which provides that –
On matters of doctrine and government which, by a two-thirds majority vote, the Assembly deems vital to the life of the Church, the Assembly shall seek the concurrence of Synods and/or Presbyteries and/or Congregations as the Assembly may determine.
The question is, On what basis does Assembly, with its final authority, determine that something is "vital to the life of the Church"? One of the previous denominations had a Barrier Act procedure which guaranteed that certain matters were referred back to the other Councils of the Church. Many felt that procedure was a somewhat cumbersome way of doing things. If we are a series of inter-related Councils – not a hierarchy of Councils – there needs to be, however, some principle and mechanism by which this referral can and will take place. There have already been too many instances in which Councils of the Church have passed resolutions that are less and less representative of the mind of the people of God the more "remote" they are from the Congregation and Parish.
Finally, the question of authority in the Church comes back to the Word and the Spirit. Those two words are in fashion just now. Yet they do not always mean the Biblical Word and the Holy Spirit in the sense that we understand them.
Paul gives a graphic (and instructive) picture of the Church. He writes, "It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph.4.11-16).
Under the authority of the Word and the Spirit, that is what the Head of the Church means us to be and calls us to be. And that is the only way in which the Church of Jesus Christ can ever fulfil its calling.

© Peter J Blackburn 1996
This paper was presented at the biennial Council of the National Fellowship for Revival, Belgrave Heights, Victoria, 14-17 August 1995. It was later published in March 1996 by NFFR as the second issue of The Cutting Edge.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptural quotations in the paper are from the
New International Version, Zondervan, 1984, © International Bible Society 1984.