God is not the author of confusion, as Scripture tells us (1 Corinthians 14:33). But confusion nevertheless reigns in many corners of the modern evangelical church. When it comes to understanding the truth of God’s Word, too many believers are content with subjective interpretations and fluid doctrinal statements. And even churches that claim to have sound convictions can quickly descend into a hermeneutical free-for-all.
Scripture Without the Authority
I was briefly a member of one such church. In a region dominated by liberalism, it proudly submitted to Scripture’s authority in all matters of faith and practice. But the façade of biblical fidelity came crashing down when the senior pastor explained that I shouldn’t talk about sin in my evangelism. “People already know they are sinners,” he contended. When I asked if we could discuss this matter by reasoning from Scripture he shut down the conversation immediately, seeing only futility in further discussion. I will never forget the last words he spoke to me: “You can make the Bible say what you want it to say and I can make the Bible say what I want it to say.”
For all I know, he still professes allegiance to the authority of Scripture. But what real authority can God’s Word have if you don’t believe its meaning is clear?
Because God Said So
That’s not to say the Bible does not contain passages that are difficult to interpret—it does. Some prophecies are mysterious. Some instructions are shrouded in cultural obscurity. And sometimes our English translations bury the profundity of the original languages. But when it comes to matters of essential doctrines, Scripture could not be clearer.
The fundamentals of the Christian faith are not only fundamental because they are biblical, they are also fundamental because the Bible sets them forth clearly. John MacArthur makes that point in his book Reckless Faith:
If an article of faith is to be regarded as fundamental, it must be clearly set forth in Scripture. No “secret knowledge” or hidden truth-formula could ever qualify as a fundamental article of faith. No key is necessary to unlock the teaching of the Bible. God speaks clearly in His Word—it has perspicuity.
The truth of God is not aimed at learned intellectuals; it is simple enough for a child. “You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25). The Word of God is not a puzzle. It does not speak in riddles. It is not cryptic or mysterious. It is plain and obvious to those who have spiritual ears to hear. “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19:7). John MacArthur, Reckless Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994) 110.
The Whole Bible Tells the Whole Story
But what about fundamental doctrines like the Trinity? The word is not mentioned in the Bible, nor will you find a comprehensive statement on it from any single passage of Scripture.
In that particular case, God’s Word teaches the doctrine of the Trinity with clarity because it is a doctrine that can be deduced from what the whole of Scripture clearly says about God. There is one God and no other (Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 4:35; 6:4; 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:2; 1 Kings 8:60; Isaiah 44:6–8; Isaiah 45:21-22). That one God is a plurality of persons (Genesis 1:26; Genesis 11:7). And the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God (Genesis 1:1; Matthew 28:19; John 1:1; John 10:30; Acts 5:3–5; 1 Corinthians 8:6). The totality of how the Bible presents who God is would make no sense without the fundamental doctrine of the Trinity.
God’s Clarity Is Not a Democracy
Those with a strong ecumenical bent tend to put the cart before the horse when it comes to defining which doctrines are fundamental. Rather than treating Scripture as the source of fundamental doctrine, Scripture is subject to the consensus of church denominations. This issue has not escaped John MacArthur’s attention:
Some would argue that the only test of whether something is essential to true Christianity is whether it is affirmed by all the major Christian traditions. Perhaps this is the very idea behind appeals for ecumenical unity. But as Witsius points out, according to that rule, hardly anything of any substance would remain to distinguish the Christian Gospel from the “salvation” offered by pagan morality or Islamic theology. “There is much truth in the remark of Clement of Alexandria; ‘No Scripture, I apprehend, is so favourably treated, as to be contradicted by no one.’” Reckless Faith, 111.
Fundamental doctrines are not obscure, nor are they defined by ecumenical consensus. They are fundamental because they represent what Scripture clearly teaches, and as we’ll see next time, they represent everything essential for salvation.