In this session of Secret Church 17, Pastor David Platt introduces common objections to and critical questions about the authority of Scripture. Recent trends and surveys indicate that the Bible’s influence in our culture is decreasing.
In this series, Christians will have an opportunity to consider what level of authority the Bible should have in our lives, in the church, and in the world. Every Christian needs to have confidence that the Bible is divine, true, clear, sufficient, and good. God’s Word must be our authority in an age of increasing skepticism.
- The Word Before Us
- The World Around Us
- Common Objections We Must Consider
- Critical Questions We Must Answer
It is good to be together around the Word of God, which is the topic we’re going to dive into tonight: this book, the Bible, Scripture, authority, in an age of skepticism. That’s what we’ll be thinking about for the next six or so hours. I was preaching from Acts a couple weeks ago up at McLean Bible Church outside of Washington, D.C., where I’m serving for a time as teaching pastor. I was reminded of Acts 20, when Paul was teaching the Word at Ephesus. Acts 20:7 says Paul “prolonged his speech until midnight.” That’s good! Just so we’re clear, it is biblical to prolong preaching until midnight. I’ve got a verse for that!
Now, of course, you know what happened next in verse nine: “A young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer.” I love that. The word there in verse nine literally means he was slowly lulled to sleep. That’s the word Scripture uses. You can just picture poor Eutychus just fighting, fighting…and then he’s giving in and he’s gone. So it’s the first man we ever know of to fall asleep in church.
Many people have since followed in his footsteps. But he is forever remembered as the first. Poor guy. We’re going to see Eutychus in heaven. All of us are going to meet him at different points. And every time he introduces himself, we’re going to say, “Ah! You’re the guy….” He’ll say, “I know.” For all of eternity, when we meet him we’ll say, “You fell asleep!”
You remember the rest of the story: “Being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead.” So if you need some advice tonight, ah, stay away from the windows. Or else we can try to pull a Paul and raise you back to life. But what happens next is my favorite part of the whole story. What does Paul do after Eutychus dies and he brings him back to life? The brother keeps preaching all the way to daybreak. You’d think the guy would get the hint. When people are being lulled to sleep and falling over dead as a result—because of your preaching—it’s time to land the plane. You can’t stop Paul, though.
Anyway, all that to say, we’re not going to daybreak, I don’t think. But we will prolong, Lord willing, until midnight. So I hope you’re rested and ready. I hope you’ve chosen wisely the person you’re sitting next to, just in case you need some help with the blanks in your booklet. You’re going to need that person. And if they’re pulling a Eutychus, they’ll be no help to you whatsoever.
All right, hopefully you’ve got that booklet. Let me invite you to open it up to the first page. I want us from the very beginning to listen to how the Bible describes itself. And I want us to actually read this out loud together. So, here in this room and at different sites—there are thousands of sites around the world, in different states and countries—let’s just read Psalm 19:7-11 out loud together:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
What does the Bible say about the authority of Scripture?
So is that true? Is the Bible all these things? Does the Bible do all these things? What I want us to do tonight is to consider the Word before us and ask these questions.
What level of authority does Scripture say the Bible has in my life and your life?
Is this just a book to put on the shelf, to be read every once in a while, or is it to be digested, read, studied, memorized and obeyed every day of my life?
What level of authority does Scripture say Bible has in the church?
Is it just something we reference periodically when the church gathers, or does it drive everything the church does?
What level of authority does Scripture say the Bible has in the world?
How does this Book relate to people outside the church? Is it only authoritative for us in the church, or is it authoritative for every single person in the world?
The World Around Us
This leads us to think about the significant trends in the world around us. We live in a world of increasing skepticism. Much of what I have to say here comes from a six-year Barna study I came across that they did with the American Bible Society on “The Changing Landscape of Bible Perceptions and Engagement.” Based on that study, there’s no question that more people have more questions about the origins, relevance, and authority of the Scriptures today in America than they did 50 or 100 years ago—or even five or ten years ago.
We also live with a new moral code that rejects external moral authorities. “Who are you to say how I should live or what I should do? Who are you to say what’s right and wrong? That’s up to every one of us to determine on our own.” It’s a rejection of any external moral authority. In its place, there is a reliance on internal moral autonomy. “I do what I want to do. I live how I want to live. I define right and wrong, based on what looks and feels right to me.” This is really part of the thrust behind our topic tonight, “Scripture and Authority in an Age of Skepticism”, because to many people today it seems absolutely ridiculous to submit their life to any authority outside of themselves, much less to submit to an antiquated book that was written 2,000 years ago.
Then on a related note, a huge and significant trend today is our digital access. Think about a thousand years ago when hardly anybody had a copy of the Bible, particularly in their own language. And now the Bible is more accessible than ever before—in many parts of the world. Not every part of the world, as we’ll talk about. But here in North America, for example, the YouVersion Bible App is familiar to many people. In one month alone, people in the United States accessed the Bible in 554 languages and pulled up more than half a billion chapters of the Bible on their phones. A thousand years ago, followers of Christ could never have dreamed of having the Bible in their pockets at all times.
Even though the Bible is more accessible to more people than ever before, at the same time everything else is more accessible as well. So there’s a lot of competition for our attention. When we pull out our phones, are we drawn to the Bible or to a million other things that vie for our attention? So I thought it would be helpful to set the stage with some survey results, some data that I think will give us a picture of these trends at work and the changes that are taking place around us. I know we’ve gathered from all parts of the world, but just to give us a picture in America right now, here are some statistics.
Survey Results about the authority of the Bible
In America, 81% of the people believe the Bible is a holy Book. But what’s interesting is that of the Elders in this study—that is, people who are born prior to 1946—88% believe the Bible is a holy Book. But with Millennials—who are classified as people born between 1984 and 2002, but this survey only involved people who were at least 18 years old—71% believe the Bible is a holy Book. So you can see a pretty significant difference, a difference that will become all the more clear as we look at some other numbers from the survey.
The survey found that almost 90% of Americans have a Bible in their home, averaging three Bibles in each home. They also wanted to find the top Bible-minded cities in America, based on the number of people who reported reading the Bible in a typical week and on the number of people who believe the Bible is accurate. It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s surprising, that all eleven of the most Bible-minded cities in America are in the South.
- Chattanooga, Tennessee is first.
- Birmingham, Alabama is second. What? Birmingham was first last year. Come on, Birmingham. We’ve got to get back up there!
- Roanoke/Lynchburg, Virginia
- Shreveport, Louisiana
- Tri-Cities in Tennessee,
- Charlotte, North Carolina
- Little Rock/Pine Bluff, Arkansas
- Knoxville, Tennessee
- Greenville, South Carolina
- Asheville, North Carolina
- Lexington, Kentucky
Then the bottom ten Bible-minded cities in America are mainly in the West and Northeast:
- Salt Lake City, Utah
- Phoenix/Prescott, Arizona
- Hartford/New Haven, Connecticut
- San Francisco, California
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- Buffalo, New York
- Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Interesting, that’s the only one in the Midwest.)
- Providence, Rhode Island
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Albany/Schenectady/Troy, New York
Next, look at the numbers for individual Americans who read the Bible at least once a week. I just want you to see the decline from 1991 to 2016—over the course of 25 years. In 1991, 45% of Americans said they read the Bible at least once a week. In 2009, it was 46%, which is pretty much the same. But then in 2016, it was only 33%, a significant drop over the last seven years. And notice the difference on this question between Elders and Millennials: Elders, 49%, and Millennials, 24%. So Millennials are less than half as likely as Elders to read their Bibles.
Look at the difference over just five years in Americans who believe there is no God behind the Bible. In 2011, 10% believed there is no God behind the Bible. In 2016 that number was 22%. It’s doubled in five years. For Americans who strongly believe the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles, it teaches—in 1991 it was 46%, and in 2016 it was 33%. So only about a third of Americans today believe this Book is true. What about Americans who believe the Bible is sufficient for meaningful living? Look at the differences here. For Elders, it’s 65%, but for Millennials, it’s only 27%. That is not an encouraging trend, is it? Makes you wonder how many of our children will actually believe the Bible is sufficient for their lives?
Another statistic from the Millennials is this: 30% believe it has too little influence in society, but 34% believe it has too much influence in society. So more Millennials are concerned that the Bible is having too much influence in our culture right now. And look at how non-Christian Millennials describe the Bible: 50% describe it as story, 38% as mythology, 36% as symbolic, 30% as fairy tale—so one out of three think put it on the level of Beauty and the Beast. And close to three out of ten describe the Bible as a “dangerous book of religious dogma.”
One final statistic that particularly stood out to me was what senior pastors believe about the Bible. These are pastors who are responsible for leading churches. How many of them believe that an intentional, systematized study of the Bible is an essential element of spiritual formation? Only 64%. How many of them believe that an in-depth education about the Bible is essential to spiritual growth? Only 60%. Which means approximately 40%—almost half of all senior pastors today—don’t believe Bible study and teaching are needed for spiritual growth.
So you look at all this and you start to realize that the number of people who actually believe the Bible in America is decreasing fast—and they’re increasingly viewed as crazy, offensive, even dangerous. So, is it crazy, offensive, and even dangerous to believe this Book? Or is it dangerous not to believe this Book? These are questions we need to ask in light of the common objections around us.
Common Objections We Must Consider about the Authority of Scripture
The Bible is a human invention.
See 2 Timothy 3:16.
The Bible has dangerous implications.
This Book is talking about hell and judgment for people who live certain ways. See 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10.
The Bible is offensive.
I put Genesis 1:1 here, because I believe that’s the most offensive verse in the entire Book. We usually don’t think that way. If you look around our culture today, it would be increasingly common to find the Bible’s teachings on social issues, for example, to be seen as offensive. It’s offensive to an ever-expanding number of people to say that a woman who has feelings for another woman shouldn’t express love for her in marriage. It doesn’t take long for a Christian today to be backed into a corner on that issue—not wanting to be offensive, wondering how to respond.
I just want you to realize that a biblical view of homosexuality, for example, is not the greatest offense in Christianity. It’s nowhere close to the greatest offense in Christianity. Christianity’s offense begins with the very first words of the Bible: “In the beginning God…” The initial offense of the Bible is that there is a God Who is the Creator of all things, Who alone has the right to say how we should live, and every single one of us will give an account to Him. The authority of God booms across the first sentence of the Bible, which is a direct offense to the autonomy of man, who says, “I’m the master of my own fate. I’m the captain of my own soul.” The Bible says otherwise.
The Bible is outdated.
Others think the Bible is outdated and is out of touch with moral norms of the 21st century, for example, in the way it talks about the greedy or drunkards or those who practice homosexuality not going to heaven. That’s outdated. See 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
The Bible is full of errors.
Here’s just one example that we’ll dive into later. Second Samuel 24:9 talks about a census where in Israel, 800,000 men were counted and in Judah, 500,000 men. But a parallel account of the story in 1 Chronicles 21:5 says, “In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men,” not 800,000, like we saw in 2 Samuel, “and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword.” So is that an error in the Bible? If that’s an error, who’s to say there are not all sorts of other errors in the Bible?
The Bible is full of fiction.
People are thinking, “Are you serious? Do you really believe a guy spent three days and three nights in the belly of a fish—then he prayed, and the fish spit him out? (See Jonah 1:17-2:1.) Do you believe that? You’ve got to be kidding. The Bible is full of fiction.”
The Bible is insufficient for the church.
Many Christians and pastors might not say that out loud, but there was a day when worship services were filled with the Word of God—and now, we lack it in much contemporary so-called preaching in the church today. It looks a lot like we don’t believe the Bible is sufficient for the church.
Walter Kaiser has said:
Many pastors can preach whole messages with little more than a tip of the hat to a clause or two taken from a biblical context that few, if any, recognize. Even more pastors have decided that using the Bible is a handicap for meeting the needs of the different generations; therefore, they have gone to drawing their sermons from the plethora of recovery and pop-psychology books that fill our Christian bookstores. The market-forces demand that we give them what they want to hear if we wish them to return and pay for the mega-sanctuaries that we have built.
The Bible is irrelevant in the world.
Based on all the above objections, some people conclude that the Bible is irrelevant in our world today. Here’s a quote from the Barna study:
In a society that venerates science and rationalism, it is an increasingly hard pill to swallow that an eclectic assortment of ancient stories, poems, sermons, prophecies and letters, written and compiled over the course of 3,000 years, is somehow the sacred “Word of God.”
Critical Questions We Must Answer
All of these objections lead us to critical questions we must answer. I want to answer these in my own life. I don’t want to base my life, my family, my future and my eternity on a fictional book full of errors invented by men 2,000 years ago. I want to answer these questions about the Bible for my own life. I’m assuming tonight that we all want to answer these questions—and each of these questions will build on the previous ones.
Is the Bible divine, or did humans create it?
Is the Bible divine, that is, is it from God—or did humans make it up? In answering that question, it’s helpful to ask the next question.
Is the Bible true, and can we trust it?
Can we know that what is written in this Book is true?
Is the Bible clear, and can we understand it?
Even if it’s true, and even if it’s from God, is it clear enough for us to understand it? If we can’t understand it, then there’s nothing we can do with it.
Is the Bible sufficient?
Is the Bible the only book we need, or is it one among many books that we need to look at in our lives?
Is the Bible good?
Finally, even if the Bible is divine, true, clear and sufficient, I want to know if the Bible is good. Is it worth giving our lives for?
So our plan for the rest of our time tonight is to take these questions one by one. Some will take longer than others. But I want us to dive into these questions—and here’s the deal. If you are a follower of Christ, my hope and prayer coming into this night is that you would walk away from the next few hours with greater confidence in this Book than you’ve ever had in your life. I pray that you would walk away from tonight clinging to this Book as your life.
Then, if you’re not a follower of Christ right now, I want you to know I’ve prayed that God might open your eyes for the first time to the truth and the beauty of this Book in the next few hours in a way that would change your life—not just now, but for all of eternity.
Session 1 Discussion Questions
Study Guide pp. 7-11
1. What sources of authority does our culture look to when it comes to moral and ethical issues? Where does the Bible rank among these sources of authority?
2. What are some indications that a church does not view Scripture as authoritative?
3. On which issues are you tempted to follow your own opinions and wisdom over the teaching of Scripture?
4. Based on your experience, why do you think many people in our culture find it difficult to believe that Scripture is authoritative?
5. What is the most common objection you’ve heard concerning the authority of Scripture? How do you respond to this objection?
6. Respond to the following statement: “The Bible is clearly outdated because we have progressed as a society in terms of our views on sexuality.”
7. How do the mature Christians you know view the Bible?
8. What questions do you have about the authority of Scripture? Make a list.
9. How does this topic affect the rest of the Christian life? Explain your answer.
10. What role does the Bible currently play in your spiritual growth?
Key Terms and Concepts
- The Word Before Us …
- What level of authority should the Bible have in my life?
- What level of authority should the Bible have in the church?
- What level of authority should the Bible have in the world?
- The World Around Us (Significant Trends) …
- Increasing skepticism about the authority of Scripture.
- A new moral code that rejects external moral authority in favor of internal moral autonomy.
- Digital access has made not only the Bible more accessible than ever, but also everything else.
- Common Objections We Must Consider …
- The Bible is a human invention.
- The Bible has dangerous implications.
- The Bible is offensive.
- The Bible is outdated.
- The Bible is full of errors.
- The Bible is full of fiction.
- The Bible is insufficient for the church.
- The Bible is irrelevant in the world.
- Critical Questions We Must Answer …
- Is the Bible divine? (Or did humans create it?)
- Is the Bible true? (Can we trust it?)
- Is the Bible clear? (Can we understand it?)
- Is the Bible sufficient? (Is it the only book we need?)
- Is the Bible good? (Is it worth giving our lives for?)