From a distance, world religions appear monolithic. We speak of the Jewish faith, but closer scrutiny reveals numerous Jewish sects — orthodox, conservative, reform and more. Fundamental religious commonalities identify these sects as Jewish, yet their adherents deviate in belief and practice.
Despite Islam’s decided calibration to uniformity, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims comprise distinct sects and there are others. The devotion of Hindus to an array of gods and goddesses channels adherents toward distinct beliefs and practices. Three recognized schools of Buddhism reflect the same phenomenon.
How does one make sense of the innumerable iterations of Christianity? In his book, “Fundamentalism and the Word of God,” J.I. Packer provides a mile-high overview that benefits Christian and non-Christian alike as we encounter birds of differing feathers within Christendom.
Packer argues that Christians fall into one of three broad camps, each finding its identity in a distinct view of authority. Each group acknowledges the authority of Jesus and the Bible, but they do so in different ways and to different ends.
Christians in the traditionalist camp believe that authority is vested in the teachings and pronouncements of the institutional church. The duty of the faithful is to receive the church’s instruction. The Bible is viewed as an authoritative source of truth, but not a wholly sufficient source, nor a perspicuous one — that is, sufficiently understandable by the individual. A Christian must read the Bible through the grid of the church’s authoritative interpretation of its message.
The church is vested with divine authority to add to the body of truth beyond the boundaries of scripture. Religious truth is established, not merely because the Bible teaches it, and not merely because reason commends it (though well they may), but because the church says it is so. The church speaks with authority for Christ.
Christians of the second and wide-ranging subjectivist camp appreciate the Bible for its contributions to religion. However, they perceive themselves to carry forward the process of determining truth for today in the light of human reason and experience of the world as it now stands — including historical, philosophical, scientific and social progress.
From this perspective, the Bible stands as a record of what the early followers of Jesus believed, not as a record of what anyone must necessarily believe today. The authors of scripture were sincere, but sometimes sincerely wrong. Christians must follow the trajectory of the authors’ primitive thoughts to more evolved conclusions based on human reason and social progress. The Christian church must strive to liberate the Bible from any encumbrances of its ancient framework — its supposed patriarchy, misogyny, supernaturalism, xenophobia, and the like — so as to adapt, if not reconstruct the faith for our times.
Religious leaders in this camp tend to function as the mediator of the world to the church. They fairly chide the faithful to accept what enlightened minds have come to believe on any given topic, insisting this is where the biblical authors were pointing, if they had only known where the world was headed. This camp demonstrates robust confidence in the human spirit to rightly vet which parts of the holy scriptures to accept or reject.
A third camp of Christians posits that the holy scriptures are a revelatory deposit of the very words of God to his people and thus the sole authority for faith and practice. What the Bible says, God says. The Bible is a human product: Every word is penned by an author whose mind and literary skills were wholly engaged in the process. Yet the Bible is fundamentally a divine product: God so carried along the writers as to communicate through them all that is necessary for the belief and practice of his followers. The words of scripture are the God-breathed, life-transforming, absolute truth (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 1:23-25; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
This camp further argues that the Bible is wholly sufficient and perspicuous. It is sufficient to equip Christ’s followers to become all they must become in any age. It is also sufficiently clear that one may understand God’s revealed will without the necessary intervention of the church (traditionalism) or the correction of reason (subjectivism). While biblical instruction plays a vital role in the life of the church (1 Timothy 4:3; 2 Timothy 2:2), the individual Christian is equipped to discern the truth of God’s revealed word.
Two convictions qualify the last statement. First, hearing and understanding the Bible is an exercise of faith. One cannot plumb the depths of God’s thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-11), nor can human reason correct God’s revealed word. It is the duty of every Christian of every age to receive, believe and obey that word. Second, no one understands the scriptures unaided by the Holy Spirit who bears witness to the believer that it is indeed God’s objective, externally authoritative word to his people (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; Hebrews 8:10-12).