Let me first start off on a positive note by saying that I believe the Bible, produced in its original form, is infallible and inerrant. I base this belief off the words of the apostle Paul who wrote to his friend Timothy these words: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God . . . ” (2 Tim. 3:16 KJV). The word translated from the Greek language (theopneustos) as inspiration literally means “God-breathed” or “breathed out from God.” Paul is here saying the text of Scripture (all Scripture that is) is the product of the divine, life-giving breath of the Almighty—breathed out through the secret operation of the Holy Spirit by which he produced the Word of God from the word of men. In other words, since it is from God, it is, de facto, without error and incapable of error.
So this brings us to our evangelical dilemma. How do we know our understanding of Scripture is correct? What if we are grossly mistaken, so much so that our understanding of the gospel is really no gospel at all? If we cannot guarantee assurance that what we believe is true, would it not seem reasonable to suggest we need, for the sake of our eternal destination, some external authority to properly interpret the Bible for us?
The issue here is whether or not we are truly capable of discerning the truth of God’s Word apart from a divinely sanctioned interpreter. To be honest, I admit, I think it sounds fairly comforting to be in the know, if you will, to know that what I believe with the utmost certainty is true. That’s what God intended, correct?
I believe there is a perfectly plausible response to the “How do you know?” question. For starters, we appeal to the Bible. In so doing, we find an apostolic injunction for determining religious truth claims. For instance, the apostle Paul informed his readers, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8–9).
Here we have a clear instance in which Paul’s readers are commanded to judge any and all teachings regardless of the messenger (which included the words of the apostles themselves). The same principle holds true for believers today. What we can recognize from this is that all people, even today, are to use their God-given faculties in attempting to discern truth from error. Paul does not here permit his readers to accept blindly the teachings of the church leaders, but insists they must exercise discernment when evaluating certain claims. And the only way to accomplish this is by exercising . . . private judgment—fallible, private judgment, that is.
Does the text of Scripture give us any indication that the Galatians were hopelessly lost in a maze of theological confusion and disruption? Were they told to push the “I believe” button since Paul was an apostle? Did Paul refer them to an infallible magisterium in a distant city founded upon an apostle?
No, not even close.
Instead, if anyone (including Peter, Paul, John, and so on) preaches another gospel, “let him be accursed.” The believers in Galatia—and elsewhere for that matter—were to develop their own discernment and reasoning skills in applying truth claims with the inscripturated Word of God. What’s more, Paul’s instruction in this manner presupposes or assumes mankind’s ability to exercise private judgment soundly (not perfectly) and reach a knowable conclusion without the slightest hint of the need for an infallible interpreter. (This, naturally, makes me wonder how the church, first established at the time of Abraham, functioned and understood truth apart from an infallible magisterium).
“But how do you know you will exercise the proper private interpretation to reach this knowable truth?” one might retort. Again, we must look to Scripture—as Paul commanded us to do—to answer this question. There, we find God’s promise to preserve His people through the effectual working of the Holy Spirit so that they will not be deceived by the world to the point of soul-destroying error. False teachings and teachers rise up “to deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (Matt. 24:24). Here we are offered comforting words that God’s people, studying the Bible in God’s way, cannot be prevented from knowing true truth about God and redemption. (Let’s also not forget about the thief on the cross who, so far as we can tell, had no access to the Scriptures yet was eventually saved by God’s grace in the end). The point, though, is that the elect cannot be finally and totally deceived into believing a lie (though they can—and do—often believe some really bad stuff). God’s people are capable of discerning truth from error that ultimately leads to perdition. John the apostle penned, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13, emphasis added).
Does this, then, mean every Christian will have the same understanding of truth? No, of course not. But nowhere in Scripture are we led to believe God promises us infallible knowledge of all matters relating to faith and practice that transcend the bounds relating to salvation. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind we are talking about believers in the first place. God’s elect cannot be prevented from knowing the truth that leads to salvation. Again, that is not to say we all agree on the peripheral issues, matters that are inconsequential to the salvation process. The elect, though, will always agree on the essentials of the faith, the core of the gospel message—the very truths that lead to salvation.
Some may then ask why evangelicals are not united on every doctrinal point since, after all, we accept the idea in the Bible alone. (Of course, we could ask the same question of the believers who look to the Bible plus an infallible interpreter). Again, the truthful answer is that we live in a fallen world and are all tainted from the stain of original sin. Our natural inclination toward sin, cultural shaping, theological biases, and sinful prejudices all factor in to how we understand Christian doctrine. All of these factors collide and prevent us from being able to observe the entirety of God’s revelation as we should. I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). One day we will understand the things of God far greater than any of us could ever imagine. In the meantime, we are given a divine imperative to examine the Scriptures, constantly seeking to improve our understanding of Him. In other words, we are always in need of reforming.