Biblical Authority in Life and Ministry with Dr. John Woodbridge (Part Three)

Professor-John-Woodbridge-Trinity-Biblical-Authority-and-Evangelism-200x300This is Part Three of a series interviewing church historian Dr. John D. Woodbridge on biblical authority. Read Part One sharing the history and a definition of biblical authority or Part Two about biblical authority’s implications for missions and evangelism.

How should the Bible’s authority affect the pulpit and pastoral ministry?

Dr. Woodbridge: One has to be careful how biblical authority is applied in the pulpit and other places, because people can ask the Bible questions that it doesn’t answer. I’m thinking about it in the area of counseling. The Bible gives very helpful comments about counseling. But this should not mean in the pastoral ministry that we don’t turn to psychologists and doctors and others to give help. God’s creation is open to understanding by people who may not be believers, but they do know something about our bodies and minds. So as we use the Bible, we have to be careful to apply it in a way that doesn’t backtrack us into cul-de-sacs by asking the Bible to speak to things it doesn’t speak to specifically. Nor is the Bible, as Charles Hodge and others have said, a scientific textbook. It talks about the world in a way that is truthful, but we have to be careful about juxtaposing it with things that people do in science. I don’t believe in evolution, and I think the Bible is pretty clear about creation, Adam and Eve and so forth. There are realms where the Bible is applicable, but we don’t want to push it beyond what it claims for itself.

What I’d also say though is that individuals who are in the pulpit—and those who have been to seminary—they have to watch out for seeing the Bible as an object they dissect. The danger is that they might know Hebrew and they might know Greek and bring a lot of knowledge to the Scriptures, and in some respects tame the Bible by their knowledge. Calvin and others make it very plain—and they’re right—that to open Scripture and preach it is a great privilege, but we shouldn’t run over it with our knowledge. If you start to do that, you become the arbiter of Scripture.

The Bible’s authority doesn’t depend on us. We don’t make Scripture the Word of God. Scripture has its own authority. So, one problem that pastors confront is that they can domesticate the Bible. The other point is that we can get caught up in fancy-dancy programs for renewing church life. We are very good at having all kinds of programs, but in the history of Christian thought, people like Spener are absolutely right: the way the churches are renewed is through the preaching of the Bible; and the way people are renewed is to love the Bible.

Now how does that occur? In the history of Christian thought, one of the keys is Scripture meditation—Psalm 1. If, in point of fact, we have people who come in and out of our church services who are not meditating on Scripture and having their lives changed, then, in one sense, they are just going from one week to another week. The real transformation in a person’s life comes when Scripture seeps into the very pores of a person’s thinking. Paul Meier, who taught here [at Trinity] a while ago, is a psychiatrist who did a study seeking to learn about the psychological and spiritual lives of students at Dallas Theological Seminary and Trinity. Meier was surprised when he noticed the factor that made the greatest difference between the healthy and unhealthy students was the practice of daily Scripture meditation. The students who studied Scripture but didn’t meditate on it didn’t have changed lives.

[You can read more about this study in the book Dr. Woodbridge edited: Renewing Your Mind in a Secular World.]

We had a fella who was in my formation group a couple of years ago. He had been in the Navy. I asked him, “How did you survive all of the temptations of the Navy?” He said that fortunately he had been led to the Lord by somebody in the Navigators and that he memorized Scripture. It flowed through his mind. He said that is what kept him out of difficulty with all of the temptations of Navy life. [Transformation through meditation on Scripture] is not play-stuff.

Sometimes in ministry we can domesticate Scripture by the way we study it. We can forget about its power. We can forget that Scripture distribution is good in of itself. And we can forget that the very reading of Scripture is very important. The killer issue is that we don’t have our people understand that if they don’t meditate on Scripture, their lives will not be transformed. When we say we don’t want to have our devotions, it’s not just an issue of a personal decision, the evil one doesn’t want us to read Scripture. Luther says when you read Scripture, you shouldn’t read it necessarily straight through in the sequence of a year, you should read Scripture until the Lord stops you. Then when the Lord stops you, you think about that passage. And then after you think about that passage, you meditate on it. That’s when you will have to ask for the Lord’s protection, because the evil one will go after you when Scripture really starts to transform your life.

Leadership Resources: You said that preachers can sometimes “domesticate” God’s Word. Would you agree that sometimes that can be done when we put our own terms on the Bible instead of taking it at its own terms?

Dr. Woodbridge: That’s exactly right. Or not having a humble spirit in approaching Scripture. My colleague Scott Manetsch gave a presentation on Calvin’s view of Scripture and said that Calvin had a sense of awe and saw the privilege it was to open Scripture. The routine of a pastorate—where you have to come up with a sermon—and the routine of the Christian life can even, with well intentioned people, overwhelm them.

This is why we have to pray and we have to have the Holy Spirit’s help, because the evil one wants us to domesticate [the Scriptures]. When Scripture is elevated, a church is healthy. When Scripture is not key, you have it imprisoned. Scripture really is the key for the advance of the gospel. Graham knew that, all of the great evangelists knew that, and often we forget it.

Leadership Resources: Thank you Dr. Woodbridge for sharing with us, and may we all faithfully and wisely proclaim God’s powerful Word—first in our own hearts, and then to a world in need.

Leadership Resources is committed to equip and encourage pastors to preach God’s Word with God’s heart. We train pastors in biblical exposition and meditate on God’s Word in community in our Fellowship of the Word program. Visit our website to find out how you and your church can make a difference strengthening the global church with the Scriptures.

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.