Another Missing ‘A’ Word: Authority

The dean of evangelical theologians during the post-war period, Carl F. H. Henry wrote his magnum opus, God, Revelation and Authority, between 1976 and 1983. The six-volume master-work was a compelling defence of authority: the authority of God and the authority of God’s revealed Word.

The very first line of that magisterial work is this: “No fact of contemporary Western life is more evident than its growing distrust of final truth and its implacable questioning of any sure word.” He traces this malady back to its roots: no, not just back to the French Revolution or the Enlightenment, but back to the garden:

“Why is it that the magnificent civilizations fashioned by human endeavor throughout history have tumbled and collapsed one after another with apocalyptic suddenness? Is it not because, ever since man’s original fall and onward to the present, sin has plummeted human existence into unbroken crisis of word and truth? A cosmic struggle between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, shadows the whole history of mankind. The Bible depicts it as a conflict between the authority of God and the claims of the Evil One. Measured by the yardstick of God’s holy purposes, all that man proudly designates as human culture is little but idolatry. God’s Word proffers no compliments whatever to man’s so-called historical progress; rather, it indicts man’s pseudoparadises as veritable towers of Babel that obscure and falsify God’s truth and Word.”

Henry is right on target in focusing on the core issue: the rebellion against authority. And that rebellion has especially targeted the revelation of God, the truth of God, and the idea that there is a “sure word”. And there are consequences to such rebellion:

“More is sacrificed by defecting from the truth of revelation than simply the truth about God and man and the world; loss of the truth and Word of God plunges into darkness the very truth of truth, the meaning of meaning, and even the significance of language. . . . It is man who dies, not God, when the truth of truth and the meaning of meaning evaporate.”

The examples of cultural madness and moral suicide that I chronicle here on a regular basis all flow from this war against authority. One of the more recent phases of this war, the 60s counterculture, was essentially all about the rejection of authority. Whether it was the police, parents, or priests, all forms of authority were targeted. I know – I was part of that rebellious culture.

The sad news is, those rebels who were on the fringes of society during the 60s are now part of the mainstream. They have captured the institutions of power and influence, in true Gramscian fashion. Those who still hold to truth and authority have been pushed to the margins. We are in fact the new counterculture.

But what is so tragic in all this is that this flight from God and this revolt from reason did not just stay in the secular realm. It also influenced the churches big time. Indeed, that was partly what Henry was reacting to 25 years ago. He knew that the churches were caving in fast, and only a return to biblical absolutes and Scriptural authority could save the day.

But unfortunately his words mostly went unheeded. Thus we have the need for things like the Jerusalem Declaration, to get us back on track. We need to reproclaim the very basics of the Christian faith, as so many contemporary believers seem to have such a weak and slippery grasp of the basics of what they believe and why.

Indeed, observant readers will note that increasingly my articles on this site are doing just that: getting back to some biblical basics. That was what people like Henry were trying to do just a few short decades ago. Of course Henry was not the only voice crying out in the wilderness back then. There were others, most notably, Francis Schaeffer.

I can only plead with contemporary Christians to get hold of any of his important works. And grab Henry’s works as well. Both authors had so much to offer. Indeed, their works serve as a stark contrast to so much of what passes as Christian thinking and writing today.

And I can nicely illustrate this with a story. Two days ago I bought eight books. For those of you who know me, there is nothing unusual in that. It is a regular – and expensive – practice of mine, much to my wife’s chagrin. Seven of the books were brand new, and one was a second hand volume. I must say, the used book is the best of the eight. It is a superb volume which I have long been meaning to pick up.

I refer to the 1969 volume by another important Christian thinker and prophet of last century, Harold O. J. Brown. This particular volume, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant, was an incisive critique of where modern theology had been heading, fuelled by the spirit of the age. Nearly forty years ago Brown was warning the church to get back on track with truth, with sound theology, and with the authority of God’s word. The entire book is full of sober warnings and wise counsel. Let me just offer a titbit:

“Unfortunately, as Western culture has moved farther and farther from its Christian base, all too many Christians have swallowed the persuasive suggestion that biblical authority is somehow oppressive and a constraint on human freedom. Objectively speaking, such a suggestion is false. To accept it is to abandon the whole biblical message, which is convinced that it is precisely the authority of God and of his Word which makes human freedom possible.”

And he pinpointed the crisis of a church without truth: “The church may conceivably exist without this or that doctrine, but it cannot exist without truth. That is to say, it cannot exist as a Christian church. What we are facing today is an attempt to ensure the survival of the church as an institution even at the cost of the principles it is supposed to embody. Some theologians, prelates, and church officials are completely sincere in their attempt to preserve ‘the church’ in this limited and un-Christian sense; having lost the sense of what truth is and means, they are trying to save the structure which seems to have so many secondary values and cherished associations.”

Hmmm, one can think of a few very good modern examples of this very thing. Brown, like Henry and Schaeffer, was deeply concerned about truth and authority, and could see how both were under severe attack. All three men sounded warnings, like good watchmen on the wall, but for the most part were ignored or went unnoticed. But the message they proclaimed needs to be heard loud and clear today more than ever.

We as a culture have rejected God, rejected truth, and rejected authority, and are now paying a terrible price for it. But regrettably, the churches have in many ways followed suit, heading down this destructive path as well. That is why things are in such bad shape today.

Now the remedies are various: repentance, prayer, worship, revival, and so on. But part of the remedy is surely to regain this lost prophetic word. So I challenge my readers: if you still have copies of Henry, Schaeffer or Brown, dig those volumes out, blow off the dust, and read again their timely words. Otherwise, head to the second-hand bookstores, or amazon.com!

But the message that these men presented decades ago needs to be shouted from the rooftops. I have offered a taste of their wisdom and insight here. I hope the reader will go on for the whole feast. The church badly needs to change course, and these authors offer part of the way in which this can take place.

[1312 words]

9 Replies to “Another Missing ‘A’ Word: Authority”

  1. Bill,
    Here, here! As one who can remember well the book and film series by Schaeffer, “How should we then live?” I am struck continually by the accuracy of his prophecies about the collapse of Western culture. Alas, I also remember the conceited replies of Christian academics who in lordly disdain rejected his analyses of the revolutions of the C17th to the C20th. Those dismissals of Schaeffer tended to carry the day and now Schaeffer has been largely forgotten. Never before has it been so imperative that we rediscover him and observe how our culture not only is collapsing, but in many respects, as you document on an almost daily basis, has already collapsed. All that remains is for another more militant “culture” to move in an complete the process, and Western civilization will be history.
    This collapse is a one-way street, however. There is, I fear, no turning back, no “swing of the pendulum”, in which some vainly trust. In mathematical terms, it is exponential decay, not a sine curve.
    In vain did Roman Christians try to revive the all but defunct Roman civilization in the C5th and C6th, but time marched on into the Middle Ages. The Roman culture was gone, and no amount of nostalgia could perpetuate it.

    Where does that leave us? Three things:
    1. The Christian cannot trust in civilization. That should be clear from all the judgment passages in the OT: Isaiah 13-23; Jer.46-51; Ezek.25-32. It is also clear from the NT: I believe that the four horsemen of Rev.6 represent the collapse of civilizations, from the glory days of the white horse to the death as in the pale horse. Yet all too often Christians have done just this: trust in civilization. it was a Christian, Jerome (of Vulgate fame), who exclaimed in horror at the sack of Rome in 410 A.D. that the world had collapsed. Many saw it as the end of the world. But life went on. All that had collapsed was the Roman world, which Christians had mistakenly made their world. It was Augustine’s “City of God” which provided the proper framework for a Christian outlook in such troubled times. We need another dose of Augustine.
    2. We need to hold on to all that is good about e.g. our British heritage. And despite the many vociferous detractors there is much that is good about it. Read the great literature of the past, and think through the aspects that made it great. Listen to the great music of the past with the same thoughts. So much of what passes for music and literature today is sheer trash by comparison. Above all, read the history of the great Christian leaders of the past, and the way that God used such seemingly mean instruments to such great effect, to accomplish such great results.
    3. Be all the more zealous for the Lord’s Coming in glory. I believe in the light of the prophecies of Daniel (for example) that the empires and civilizations foretold there, which last until the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven (7:13) have largely run their course. What remains is the advent of the great world-wide antichrist, beyond which is the glorious Second Coming of our Lord. You may say this amounts to date predicting. No, it’s not! It is simply observation of past and current trends. I make no predictions as to how things will develop in the future, plus I am quite prepared to be proven wrong. However, I insist that we must be ready for that great event as at no other time in our lives, or in human history.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  2. It’s articles of this quality that reinforce to me why I consider this blog to be the premier Christian blog in Australia.

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of some of those who comment here, let me repeat some of Bill’s words and apply them to a specific example. The core issue is indeed a “rebellion against authority. And that rebellion has especially targeted the revelation of God, the truth of God, and the idea that there is a “sure word”.” As Bill also points out this problem is not confined to the secular realm but is also true of the church. In fact I would say that in some respects it was not the church that caught this disease from secular society but the converse. If the church hadn’t been so ready to accommodate certain secular un-biblical ideas then I doubt they would have gained such a strong hold in secular society. The issue more than any other where I believe the church long ago departed from scriptural authority and where much of it is still blind to the problem is with the issue of Creation. I’m not saying this to start an argument but out of a desire to see restoration and revival in the church. I hope it will be taken in that spirit.

    The other point that impressed me were the words of Harold Brown, an author I never previously heard. Specifically where Bill quotes him thus:

    “…..too many Christians have swallowed the persuasive suggestion that biblical authority is somehow oppressive and a constraint on human freedom. Objectively speaking, such a suggestion is false. To accept it is to abandon the whole biblical message, which is convinced that it is precisely the authority of God and of his Word which makes human freedom possible.”

    As one with an interest in politics and government, one of my convictions is that when the laws of the state are based upon the Judeo-Christian moral ethic, then maximum liberty is achieved for the maximum number of people. When secular libertarian (many are anything but libertarian) values become the foundation, then liberty can only be reduced. A point lost on those Christians who feel obliged to compromise on the matter of same-sex relationship rights.

    Ewan McDonald.

  3. One of the most perceptive, yet least quoted, lines in Jesus’s parables is Luke 19:11-14 told to warn his listener’s not to expect Him to immediately take His rightful place as King of Kings. A noble man goes into a far country, and verse 14 states: ‘His subjects hated him and send a delegation after him to say: “We don’t want this man to be our King”. True and rightful authority rejected.
    Stephen White

  4. Thanks guys

    Good one Stephen. A most appropriate passage. Well done. And thanks for the kind words Ewan. And Murray, yes, we need to keep plugging away. We dare not despair. And yes, we can take great heart from reading about past men and women of God.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Does anyone know whether the film series by Schaeffer mentioned by Murray is still available?

    Ewan McDonald.

  6. Ewan,
    You can still obtain it, now on DVD, through Amazon. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth the price. The accompanying book is also available from the same source.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  7. Thanks Murray. I already have the book. I also have Schaeffer’s book A Christian Manifesto which I also highly recommend.

    Ewan McDonald.

  8. I am in full agreement with you. I have been a representative in the Uniting Church at Tasmania Presbytery level for years now and I can tell you that there has never been a more dangerous trend away from adherence to solid Bible belief in the total verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture, than right now. The Live In Presbytery in Woodfield Lodge in days is going to discuss Change. But the Hierarchy of Vic/Tas UCA cannot be trusted with this change. It is a change away from the Basis of Union and into a more compromising Uniting Church. I for one will never support them in this sort of change.
    Geoffrey Dean, Tas ACC Sec.

  9. I’m fairly sure you can get the dvds from L’Abri Australia. Check out labri.org and follow links to Australia. I’m sure the Stootmans would welcome the enquiry.
    Janelle Hardy

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