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What Is the Standard of Truth?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
July 17, 2023 12:01 am

What Is the Standard of Truth?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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July 17, 2023 12:01 am

Ever since the garden of Eden, Satan has been sowing doubt in God's Word. Today, R.C. Sproul examines these assaults on the truth and appeals to the trustworthiness of Scripture.

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Luther was saying that the only written source in this world that has the level of authority to actually bind the conscience of a person is the Bible. No written document of men, no confession of faith can bind the conscience absolutely. The only person that has that kind of authority to simply utter the words and say, so let it be said, so let it be done, is God Himself. Since the Garden of Eden, the serpent has sought to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of what God has said.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther fought the battle. Is our standard the Scriptures or church tradition? In more modern times, liberalism has dissected the Bible, stripping the meaning from essential portions. And even practically, you and I day to day, we can be tempted to look elsewhere other than the Bible as we navigate and live the Christian life. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind as we begin a week of teaching considering the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible. When it comes to what we believe, how we should live and the decisions that we make, it's vital for us to know by whose authority, by what standard we rely on. As we begin this new area of focus this week, R.C. Sproul takes us back to the 16th century to help each of us see how important your answer is to this question, what is the standard of truth?

Here's Dr. Sproul. The Christian church has been on this planet now for almost 2,000 years. And for the first 1,800 years of church history, the church has enjoyed virtually universal confidence about her primary source of written authority, namely the sacred Scriptures. But for the last 200 years, the church has endured an unprecedented period of crisis, a crisis that reaches to the very root of the life of the church as it relates to the question now, can we trust the Scriptures? So much academic and scholarly criticism has been leveled against the trustworthiness of sacred Scripture in the last 200 years that we've experienced not only in the church but in the culture an evident loss of the whole sense of authority. One theologian at the turn of the 20th century made this observation.

He said, the days of biblical criticism have reached such a peak that where we are now is in a period of biblical vandalism. Now to understand this question of the crisis of biblical authority, I'd like to take us back a little bit for a historical reconnaissance and go first of all to the 16th century to the Protestant Reformation. I think that most church people realize that the central issue of the 16th century Protestant Reformation was Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone. The slogan of the Reformation, because justification was the central point of the debate, was this simple Latin phrase, sola fide, which means by faith alone. We've heard the story of Luther on All Saints Eve tacking up the 95 theses at the church door at Wittenberg, and we follow then the rapid expansion of the controversy beyond the confines of that university sweeping across all of Germany and producing such an uproar and ultimately ending in the greatest fragmentation of the body of Christ conceivable. In fact, when Luther was finally excommunicated by the pope in Rome, the papal bull that announced Luther's excommunication was entitled Ex Surge Domina, which means in Latin, rise up, O Lord. Those are the first words of the papal encyclical followed then by this observation, there is a wild boar loose in your vineyard.

Well, this wild boar, of course, was Martin Luther who turned the world upside down over this controversy of justification by faith alone. But what is often overlooked about that dispute in the 16th century was that there was another controversy that perhaps was as serious to the life of the church and to future generations as was this debate over justification. In fact, the church historians like to use an old archaic distinction that was first introduced by Aristotle in ancient Athens, a distinction between what is called form and matter.

The matter is the stuff of something and the form, of course, is the structure in which this stuff is poured or is molded. And so we make a distinction in philosophy between the formal and the material. And the historians when they look at the 16th century say the material issue of the Reformation, the stuff of this controversy was the debate over justification. But the formal issue of the 16th century, the structure in which the whole debate ensued was the question of final authority in the life of the church and of the Christian. After Luther posted his theses at Wittenberg and attracted the attention and notice of the authorities of the church in Rome and got himself in no small amount of ecclesiastical hot water, he pled for an opportunity to engage in debate and even to be involved in what was called public disputations, and as the word disputation suggests means to involve himself in a theological dispute with representatives from the church to try to arrive at a peaceable solution over this issue that was threatening the unity of the church. And of course during that period Luther had two such disputations with perhaps the two greatest Roman Catholic theologians of the 16th century, Martin Eck and Cardinal Cajetan. But what happened interestingly at least to me in these controversies is as they were disputing the question of justification, these great theologians of the church pointed out to this Augustinian monk from Wittenberg that his views on the subject of justification differed significantly from some of the official teachings of the church. And these authorities reminded Luther of what the church had taught in their great councils when many minds of the church came together and mulled over theological questions and they came to an official definition of a doctrine and set it forth as they so called defeat a explanation which made it binding on any constituent member of the church. And not only did these theologians call attention to former church councils, but they also stood up and gave their recitations of papal declarations related to questions of justification. And they were able to show that Luther was disagreeing with the pope and with church councils both. And at this point in the deliberations, Martin Luther was perceived by some of the clergy of the church to be the most presumptuous, arrogant person imaginable. And they were asking the question, who do you think you are that you know better than church councils or the holy pontiff who is in Rome?

How dare you teach your doctrine of justification when you're on a collision course with how the church has defined these matters officially in the past? And so in these debates, Luther was asked, do you stand against the pope and church councils? And Luther admitted to the shock of those who were present that he indeed did question some of these teachings of the church. And he admitted to those who were gathered that in his opinion, which did not appear to many to be a very humble opinion, that in his opinion church councils can err. Church councils can make mistakes.

And not only can the church in council make an error in theology, but the pope himself can be wrong. Well, at this point, of course, Luther was likened to the Bohemian heretic John Haas who had been burned at the stake for similar observations a century or so earlier. At that point, Luther was excommunicated and a price was put on his head as he was a wanted man.

Finally, because so much fur had spread throughout the whole world now, an attempt was made for one final resolution and the imperial diet was convened at Worms in Germany where the officials of the church together with the officials of the state gathered for one last opportunity to discuss these matters, Luther was given a safe conduct pass, meaning that he could come freely to this dispute without fear of being arrested or of being killed. And so the ban on him was lifted momentarily and he made his way to Worms and you know the historic moment when he was called upon to recant of his position on his teachings of justification and so on, Luther made this statement. When they said, Brother Martin, will you recant? He said, unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason. He said, I will not recant. And then he went on to say these words which have had such an impact on the world ever since, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God.

And to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no further, God help me, and so on. He rides out into the night, gets kidnapped by his own friends, goes to Wartburg Castle and translates the Bible into German. But in any case, at Worms, at this historic moment, the second slogan of the Reformation became established. In addition to the sola fide that I already called attention to, now came the banner sola scriptura.

Again, the word sola means alone, and scriptura obviously refers to the Bible or the Scriptures. And so this slogan, something is by the Scripture alone. Well, what is by the Scripture alone? Luther was saying that the only written source in this world that has the level of authority to actually bind the conscience of a person is the Bible. Luther had enormous respect for the insights, the wisdom, the collective teaching of the great theologians of the past. He said we can certainly be instructed by church tradition. We can be led by church councils. The creeds and the confessions of our faith are not to be despised.

And one would indeed be unspeakably arrogant to just simply create their own theology without any reference whatsoever to the work of the past. But he said as much as we respect those things, and as much secondary level of authority they may have to regulate the affairs of the church and so on, no written document of men, no confession of faith, no creedal statement, no conciliar expression can bind the conscience absolutely. The only person that has that kind of authority to simply utter the words and say, so let it be said, so let it be done, is God Himself. And only the Word of God carries that kind of weight and authority.

And so what we see here now is a crisis of authority. Is the authority vested in a book, or is the authority vested in the institution, the church? That was the formal issue of the Protestant Reformation.

And of course the debate went on from that point. The Roman Catholic Church responded to Sola Scriptura in two general ways. In the first place they reminded Luther and Calvin and the other Reformers of the 16th century that the church wouldn't even have the Bible except for church councils early on in church history that defined what the Bible really is when the canon of the Bible and of the New Testament was established by church councils. Now we're going to have a separate lecture on that question of how the canon of Scripture actually became compiled in church history. But the point that Rome was making now in response to Luther was this, that since the Bible is established by the authority of the church, then the church must have at least equal authority to the Bible it establishes, or as some argued, even greater authority than the written documents of sacred Scripture.

Do we see how that question now is getting developed here? If the church is the institution that declares the Bible to be the Bible, wouldn't that indicate that the church or the institution that does that would have at least as much authority as the Bible or even more? Of course, both Luther and Calvin responded somewhat indignantly at that and reminded the authorities of Rome that the key word that the church historically had used when it did indeed define the contents of the Bible was the Latin word resipimus, which means, or being translated, we receive.

That is, when the church declared the list of books that were to be included in the books of the New Testament, the church said, we receive these as sacred Scripture. Let me just make an analogy here in the way Luther would do it and Calvin would do it. The New Testament uses the term receive with respect to the believer's relationship to Jesus. We are called to receive Him. As many as receive Him, to those He gives the power or the authority to be the children of God. Now when I receive Christ as my Lord and Savior, my reception of Jesus certainly doesn't give any authority to Jesus. Jesus has that authority whether I receive Him or not receive Him. He's the Lord whether I acknowledge Him as Lord or don't acknowledge Him as Lord.

Is that not obvious? And what the 16th century reformers were reminding the church was this, that in earlier church history when this word was used, resipimus, actually what the church was doing was simply humbly acquiescing and acknowledging their submission to the authority of the Bible. Now the second response of this came in the middle of the 16th century after the Protestant Reformation began and swept across the world.

The Roman Catholic Church did not go to sleep or decide to disband. The Roman Catholic Church engaged itself in a rigorous response to Protestantism called the Counter-Reformation. One of the things incidentally that the church did in the Counter-Reformation was take seriously some of the criticisms that had been made about the moral scandals that were ghastly in the church, and there really was a genuine moral reformation of the Roman Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation.

It was very important and it's often overlooked. But probably the most significant event of the Counter-Reformation was an ecumenical council called by Rome at a place by the name of Trent. This council of Trent was the Roman Catholic Church's official theological response to the Protestant Reformation, and several issues were discussed in great depth and in great detail at this council, not the least of which of course was justification by faith alone. But before they even discussed justification, which took place in the sixth session, in the fourth session of Trent, a question of authority was addressed. And in this fourth session, the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent made it quite clear that there are two sources of divine authority in the world today. Those two sources, I won't go into the details here, I'm doing another lecture series and I don't think it's on video, it's on audio on Roman Catholic theology, but the two sources are Scripture and Latin of the council at, at, you know, the past tense of eat.

My grandmother says, are you at your dinner? You know, Scripture and tradition. So this indicates what we call a dual source of special divine written revelation, as you can find it here in Scripture and in the tradition of the church.

Now, what does that mean? It means this, the Roman Catholic Church has always had an extremely high view of the Bible. Roman Catholic Church was by no means denying the authority of the Scripture. Roman Catholic Church then and now officially holds that the Bible is nothing less than the Word of God, inspired, infallible and so on. And we're not denying that. But they said in addition to that source, we have another infallible source of the truth of God, and that infallible source is tradition.

Now here's where the catch comes. What if there appears to be a conflict between the teaching of the tradition and the teaching of Scripture? This is what Luther was going through. He said, I know what the tradition teaches, but I can't see how the tradition squares with what Paul teaches on justification in his letter to the Romans. The church responded that it is the function of the tradition to give not only a source of information that's not found in Scripture, but also to give the infallible interpretation of the Bible. And so that Luther, by denying the tradition in Rome's view, was also denying the Bible because Rome says the tradition and the Bible agree. And that dispute, of course, goes on to this day.

Now the few minutes I have left, I want to do some more groundwork for this series. You can see here that what this debate is all about, and I've spent this much time on the 16th century because it's the same basic debate formally today. The debate in the life of the church is, what is the authority? Is it every man for himself? We embrace cultural relativism, philosophical relativism, even this morning's paper I read one of the editorials by Charlie Reece saying that we live in a society today that has no morality.

It's not immoral, it's amoral. There is no standard, no absolute authority. And that's the crisis that we're having today. Is there an authority? When I was in college, I read a little book, but it was a profound book, a heavily philosophical book with a simple title that's a question. It's this title, was the title of the book, By What Standard?

I don't know how many times I've thought about the title of that book since I read it as a college student. By what standard do we determine who is speaking the truth? Or is there a standard?

Is there a test? Can we know anything absolutely? Or have all standards perished from our midst? Again, the question is a question of authority. And before we pursue this question of the authority of the Bible, I want to spend the last few minutes I have in this segment on some brief definitions of the meaning of the word authority. What does the word mean, authority? Let me write that on the board.

This board is getting a workout here, and I hope you'll excuse all the chalk dust that's blowing your way. The simple definition of authority is the right to impose obligation, the right to impose obligation. We use authoritative language all the time in our culture. We say, you must, you should, you ought. And the thinking person, when they hear someone say, you ought to do this, or you must do this, or you should do this, the thinking person, at least in their mind, is thinking, says who?

Why should I? Why am I going to let you impose an obligation upon me? By what authority do you try to direct me and hold me accountable or responsible for any behavioral pattern or action? That's the question.

By what standard, by whose authority do we answer the question? That's what's at stake in the question of the authority of the Bible. May each of us be able to say with Martin Luther, my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.

Here I stand, I can do no other. Today's message on Renewing Your Mind was from R.C. Sproul's series, Hath God Said. You'll be hearing messages from that series all week, but you can request the complete two DVD set with your donation of any amount. When you give your gift at, you're helping keep Renewing Your Mind and all of Ligonier's podcasts freely available to countless people around the world, some of whom may be hearing Dr. Sproul and this kind of thoughtful teaching for the very first time. In addition to receiving the DVD set, you'll also receive digital access to all of the messages and the study guide. So give your gift today by visiting or by giving us a call at 800 435 4343. Why do we trust the Bible and have it as our authority? Well, because it is God's Word, and that's what we'll consider tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-17 02:44:58 / 2023-07-17 02:53:23 / 8

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