by Randall J. Harris
January - February, 1993
It is one of the most riveting scenes from church history. Martin Luther stands before the Diet of Worms with not only his career but his very life at stake. The pressure to recant his views is overwhelming. His answer in part was, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason ... I do not accept the authority of popes and councils ... my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything ... God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise."
As I have been striving to come to grips with the heart of the plea for undenominational Christianity I have come to reduce it to a very simple concept - an open Bible. But while the concept is simple, the implications are profound and Scripture ironically becomes a two-edged sword - the principle of both unity and division, as the above illustrates. It was Luther's commitment to following Scripture wherever it led that made reconciliation and unity with the Catholic Church impossible.
The pledge to be answerable to Scripture and only Scripture can be a powerful source of unity, to be sure. Many of the sources of division among religious denominations disappear when one repudiates any source of authority other than the Bible. Many points of contention are rooted in different historical developments, liturgical traditions, and creedal formulations of some particular assembly of church leaders.
It was part of the real genius of the leaders of the American Restoration Movement to see the possibilities for unity if one could replace loyalty to a particular religious heritage with loyalty to Scripture. And indeed, the effort was at least partially successful in breaking down factions and unifying Christians from a variety of religious traditions around the Bible as the only religious authority.
This, then, is the heart of our movement. No man (whether pope, priest, guru, or preacher), or group of men (whether teaching office, society, or school faculty), or institution (whether church hierarchy or publishing house) has the right to compel the rest of us to accept their conclusions as the norm of faith. We answer to no one but God as he speaks through his Word. Every person has the awesome responsibility of answering to Scripture for himself or herself.
This is what it means to really have an open Bible. I sometimes fear that the most precious legacy of our heritage is in danger. Let me illustrate.
I once heard a thoughtful man reflecting on the changing whims of public opinion. He commented that during the segregationist days of the early and mid-1960s when he insisted that any child ought to be allowed to attend the school of his or her choice, he was considered a liberal and race-mixer. When he said exactly the same thing during the busing days of the late '60s and early '70s, he was called a racist and a bigot. While his views never changed, they sounded very different given the changed context.
This reminded me of the story of one of my heroes from church history, Athanasius, who was involved in the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. While Athanasius never changed his view, he was exiled time and again as the opposing faction came into and then fell out of power. Unwilling to compromise for the sake of position, he paid the price as the political and theological winds shifted, as they so often do.
There will always be those who are so concerned with being "politically correct" that their views will be as changeable as the latest fad. We must be ever vigilant to see that our convictions are based on a sound reading of the Word of God and not the whims of the day.
Reading Scripture with purity of heart is not easy matter. One ought always to be suspicious when the interpretation of a text only serves to confirm one's prejudice rather than speaking a word of judgment or calling for transformation. Too often our reading of the life of Christ does more to transform him into our image than to call for renewal within our life and world.
But being co-opted by our culture is not the only threat to the open Bible heritage. We can also be co-opted by our own religious heritage. It is not enough to repudiate papal control over biblical interpretation. We must be equally critical of the interpretive tradition of our own religious group. Commitment to an open Bible demands that even the most cherished views passed on to us by our spiritual forefathers must be subjected to the harsh light of Scripture. If faithfulness to Scripture means refusing to accept some doctrine on the authority of Augustine or Calvin or Barth, it must also mean refusing to do so on the authority of Campbell, Lipscomb, Wallace, or any other person.
Our movement began with the idealism that people could become simple New Testament Christians and that all Christians could be unified on the basis of the Bible if all human creeds were repudiated. It has now become apparent that this idealism was overly optimistic. Men and women of good will, equally serious and talented in their study of Scripture, have not been able to come to total agreement. So what are we to do? Surely the answer is not to return to what we originally deplored. That is, we dare not ask that people abandon their own study of Scripture and blindly accept our conclusions so that there will be no disagreement. This would surely cut us off from the source of continual spiritual renewal. An open Bible never can mean that we study the Bible and show how everyone else is completely wrong and how we are totally right. The Bible doesn't just correct and rebuke others. It must speak to us.
No, I prefer to retain as the most central aspect of our religious identity, a truly open Bible, and with it a tolerance for diversity of interpretation. It may well be that in the discussion among spiritual people with a deep reverence for Scripture we may all come to a clearer understanding and more transforming encounter with the God of Scripture. If the Bibles are closed, and the conclusions are set in stone, where is the hope of God's transforming power?
I am appalled at how much we take for granted today. The public reading of Scripture has largely disappeared from our assemblies, and biblical literacy appears down. Worse still, among some, familiarity has bred complacency if not contempt. We are so sure we know what the Bible says that our ears are dulled to hearing God's Word afresh. If spiritual renewal happens among us, it will begin with renewed zeal to hear the Word.
I am well aware that an open Bible is a threat as well as a blessing. When people truly study the Bible with an open heart and open mind, we cannot guarantee they will come to the same conclusions we hold. But it is the fundamental conviction of my ministry that if the Word of God is allowed to dwell freely in our midst, it will work with power. "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise."
Randall J. Harris