Thursday, October 19, 2006

Al Mohler and Biblical Authority

Occasionally I sneek over to Al Mohler's blog just to see what is going on in the SBC, or more accurately, what is going on with good ol' Al. He recently posted on an interview with John Stott conducted by someone else. Now, usually I'm content not to engage Mohler too much because, in a lot of ways, I find much of what he says somewhat comical. Every now and then he puts his finger on something important, but more often then not its pretty much highly charged rhetoric. However, as my wife can attest, his latest statement in regards to Stott's comments, brought me to some highly charged rhetoric of my own. Consider the following:
We believe in the authority of the Bible because Christ has endorsed its authority. He stands between the two testaments. As we look back to the Old Testament, he has endorsed it. As we look forward to the New Testament, we accept it because of the apostolic witness to Christ. He deliberately chose and appointed and prepared the apostles, in order that they might have their unique apostolic witness to him. I like to see Christ in the middle, endorsing the old, preparing for the new. Although the question of the New Testament canon is complicated, in general we are able to say that canonicity is apostolicity. (John Stott)

There is much good here as well -- but there is also a nagging question. What access to Jesus and the apostles do we have apart from Scripture? The "apostolic witness to Christ" is found in the New Testament -- not outside of it. Where else could it be found? Furthermore, Jesus does not merely prepare for "the new" -- He is the new.
I think we are on very dangerous ground when we speak of the authority of Christ and the apostles outside of Scripture. The New Testament is our authority for knowing Christ and the apostles. (Al Molher's reply)

I found Stott's statement to be one of the highest endorsements for biblical authority that I have recently read. Mohler's nagging question is a complete misunderstanding of what Stott is saying. To reply for Stott, to Mohler's question -- what access to Jesus do we have apart from Scripture -- let's say, well, none. The fact that the apostolic witness to Christ is found in the New Testament is precisely what Stott is saying, that in these documents one finds the authorized and endorsed witness of the apostles, given this task by Jesus himself, and presumably carried out in the power of his Spirit. Such an understanding of biblical authority is robustly Christocentric, pneumatological and missional, something I find exceptionally engaging.

What I find nagging is Mohler's own position, that Jesus Christ is himself the new. New what? I ask. In the context of the post it can only be assumed that Jesus Christ is the New Testament. Such a position seems, on the face of it, to elevate the pages of Scripture above Jesus Christ himself. Not only that, if Jesus is understood as being completely contained within the pages of Scripture such that who he is simply is the New Testament then this can easily be taken to undercut any claim for the historicity of Jesus. What matters is the kerygmatic Christ, for on Molher's view the Christ of the New Testament, or more accurately, the New Testament itself is all that matters. Sure, one could argue that history really matters, or that the New Testament is historical, but on what grounds? For Mohler to be right, it doesn't really have to be history, even if he wants to maintain that it is. At least in Stott's view there has to be someone historical to whom the apostles can give witness. I'm not so sure that has to be the case with Mohler.

Finally, one might ask Mohler why we even need the Old Testament if Jesus is, as he seems to claim, simply the New Testament? I detect a bit of Marcionism in this brief statement, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he does indeed have a reason for keeping the Old Testament around, I'm just not sure what that reason could be.

By standing in the middle, as Stott says, Jesus Christ authorizes the Old Testament witness in terms of being the fulfillment of that which was longed for, and authorizes the New Testament as the unique witness to himself in his Spirit by the commissioned apostles. And, it is only through such a witness, authorized and endorsed by Christ himself, written in the power of his Spirit (inspiration) who continues to witness to Jesus Christ even now, that we could possibly know our God in Jesus Christ. Far from undermining the authority of Scripture, Stott's position proclaims the Bible's authority all the more forcefully, and not just the New Testament, as Mohler seems more apt to do. While people like Mohler may want to claim they alone have the highest view of Scripture, and that all evangelicals ought to follow their lead, Stott says otherwise, and I for one am grateful he does so.


At 4:51 PM , Anonymous jes said...

Last time I checked, the latter portion of my bible was not labelled, "Jesus Christ," but rather "New Testament," and for good historical and theological reason. As I was reading Mohler's strict mapping between Jesus and the NT, I knew that was where you were going to attack, even before I read your response.

On another note, I'm not convinced that "apostolic witness to Christ" cannot be found outside the NT, whether we're speaking of the so-called "non-canonical texts" (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, whose importance for historical Jesus reconstruction is roundly admitted, whether or not the "Thomas" behind it is "apostolic"), or the tradition of ongoing apostolic witness by virtue of the ecclesial offices that emerged as early as the second century.

Perhaps an interesting topic of discussion for CB's, where we should pretend to be Emergent.

At 4:55 PM , Blogger Erik said...

Ah yes, ecclesial office. I suspect that is what Mohler was trying to protect against, but in the process, I don't think he realized he undercut his own argument. Being a good low-churcher, I'm not convinced the apostolic witness can't be found anywhere but the NT. Yes a good CB's discussion.

At 5:33 PM , Anonymous Archibald Alexander said...

The last time I checked (ok, just now), the latter portion of my Bible (NRSV) was labelled "The New Covenant Commonly Called the New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ".

At 10:13 PM , Blogger Tom said...


You’re right on as to the issue of Biblical authority. I would agree that Mohler likely did not realize the way in which he was usurping his own position. It amazes me how many well-intentioned theologians are ready to deify the Bible and in the process cut it off from the deity of Christ.

In response to what you wrote on my blog: You are quite right in the fact that I should consider addressing this issue from the perspective of Jesus Christ as true Imago Dei, and I have considered it. It is not that I don’t consider this a better way. There are places and times however, where you fight by others rules and with others weapons. To the issue of pointing to Jesus Christ as the standard by which the ethic should rest in applied reality I agree, it should be radically Christo-centric. You need to understand though that my purpose in writing this blog is grounded in a very difficult internal struggle with the direct support of certain political actions. It is not that I have made this argument outside of Christo-centric thought, rather it is such thought that has lead me to this conclusion on its most basic levels. It is the fact that God sent Jesus Christ, despite humanity that lies at the heart of this ethic. It is the fact that he chose us that motivates me to write.


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