Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Ky., has been defending the authority of the Word of God for years. Recently he spoke with Decision about the challenges of an age in which many Christians are biblically illiterate and in which many people deny even the existence of truth.
Q: How do you explain the popularity of “The Da Vinci Code” book and movie, which have caused people to question the authority of God’s Word and the deity of Christ?
A: One of the most interesting aspects of this phenomenon is how a little bit of truth and a great deal of fiction has been mixed together in the context of a suspense thriller and has led millions of people to scratch their heads and wonder what in the world is going on. This is where Christians need to be ready to give a clear answer because what author Dan Brown presents in “The Da Vinci Code” is really just warmed-over heresies and conspiracy theories and a mash of arguments amounting to nothing. But he has tremendous skill as the writer of narrative, and when he puts it in the voice of his characters, it confuses a lot of people.
But frankly, these characters are speaking nonsense. For one thing, one character tries to explain that the Church didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus until A.D. 325, ignoring the fact that even the most liberal Bible scholars believe the Gospels, which clearly claim the deity of Christ, were written before the end of the first century. So this goes beyond the kinds of attacks that we’ve seen in the past.
Q: How did we become such a biblically illiterate culture?
A: There has probably never been a time in human history when the Word of God has been more accessible yet more unread. We’re living in a time of superficial Christianity on the part of many people, and the postmodern culture has invited persons to be on a spiritual quest of their own devising rather than to follow the path of biblical Christianity. Millions and millions of people have only some vague concept about the Bible. They know it’s about God, and some know it’s about Christ, but beyond that, they have no real understanding of what the Bible is and how they are to obey it and know it. I think the biggest issue here is the failure of the Church to teach its own people.
Q: Why has the Church found itself in this dangerous state?
A: There has been a sidelining of expository preaching and solid Bible teaching in many churches. After successive generations that seem to know less and less about more and more, we now have Christians who have only a vague awareness of the Bible. This is to our shame, and if we do not recover the centrality of the pulpit and of the Bible-teaching ministry of the Church, the situation will go from bad to worse.
I’m not at all surprised that untold numbers of secular readers of “The Da Vinci Code” find the novel interesting. I am greatly saddened beyond that to know that many regular church attendees know little about how to counter the arguments presented in Dan Brown’s book.
Q: And counter them, we must.
A: Absolutely. Because the central truth claims of Christianity are at stake here. It’s not as if this is some kind of attack on a peripheral doctrine. This gets right to the very heart of Christianity. Dan Brown’s novel claims that Jesus Christ was not divine and that He came for the earthly purpose of establishing a monarchy, a dynasty. You could not have a more direct assault upon the Bible’s presentation of who Jesus is and why He came.
Q: Don’t we begin by relying on the trustworthiness of Scripture?
A: The most amazing claim that we can make in this postmodern culture is that God has spoken. In the Old Testament in particular, especially in the book of Deuteronomy, we are introduced to the God who speaks. One of God’s greatest demonstrations of love for us is that He did not remain silent but has spoken to us so that we can genuinely know Him.
When we talk about the Word of God, we must be clear that we understand it to be objectively true. It’s not just a matter of our subjective reading and application to our own lives. It was true before we read it, and it will be true after we’re dead. Its truth is eternal, and its truth is not rooted in our own verification process or our personal affirmation–it is rooted in the very character and existence of the God who speaks. That flies in the face of postmodern ideas that all truth is socially or individually constructed. When we are reading the Scripture, we are not constructing truth–we are being addressed by truth.
Q: The Dead Sea Scrolls, which are currently being exhibited in the United States, are a huge attestation to the reliability of the Scriptures.
A: A lot of attention has been given to archaeological discoveries made in recent years, in particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered after World War II. The Isaiah scroll alone is virtually the same text that we have been using as the foundational text for modern translations. When you consider the fact that you are now looking at a writing that is more than 2,000 years old and that we are still using the same text for the basis of our modern translations, with very minor differences, this is a testimony to the fact that God has preserved His Word.
One central claim of “The Da Vinci Code” is that there are other Gospels that are more authentic than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That is an issue we need to hit head-on. We should not be surprised that there were all kinds of heretical accounts of Jesus from the earliest times. Consider what happens with modern figures such as the president of the United States and all the different views and perspectives on his performance after the fact.
It should be a matter of great confidence to us that the early Church was led to recognize very quickly the difference between the true witness and false witnesses. The Church had that responsibility in its earliest centuries, and the Church fulfilled that responsibility incredibly well.
So when we encounter these Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospel of Judas that was recently released by the National Geographic Society, we are finding the very documents that the early Church said were not authentic or authoritative. Rather than being confused by this, we ought to see it as a great testimony to the fact that God not only gave us the Bible we need but also gave the Church guidance in understanding the difference between true Gospels and false gospels. The criteria that the early Church used are exactly what we would want them to use. The writings had to be directly attributable to an apostle and had to be recognized as true and authentic universally throughout the Church. And that again demonstrates that the early Church had great confidence and knew who Jesus was on the basis of the authoritative witness in the Gospels.
Q: How can we expect to see cultural and spiritual transformation in a postmodern world that rejects any form of objective, authoritative truth?
A: Our options are fewer than many might wish. It’s not as if we have the Bible as Plan A and if that doesn’t work, we can move to Plan B. There is nothing beyond the Bible to which we can point. We are, by God’s own design, left with the Bible as our sole authority for faith and Christian living. The Church confuses its own members, as well as the larger world, if it suggests some other means of validating the Christian message or of grounding the Gospel. In the end, the Bible will show itself to be just as powerful in this generation as it has been in any time in the past because it is God’s living Word–living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). The Church’s task and authority remains the same–to teach and preach the Gospel on the basis of the Word of God.
Q: It’s imperative then, for believers to clearly understand and articulate the truths of Scripture in the face of such heresies as “The Da Vinci Code.”
A: If a cultural development like this can be a catalyst for Christians to dive deeper into the Word of God, that can only be good. But there is another responsibility tied to that, and that is for Christians to be ready, informed and able to defend the truth of God’s Word to our neighbors who may be asking some very serious questions in the wake of something like “The Da Vinci Code.”
This is a great opportunity for Christian witness, because as a result of a Hollywood movie millions of people are going to be talking about who Christ is and why He came. We need to be ready to give an answer to clarify and to point to the truth concerning Christ. We need to be ready to say, “The truth of Jesus Christ and His Gospel is far more exhilarating than anything one would find in a conspiracy thriller.”
Christians need to speak with humility but also with absolute courage and clarity in pointing people to Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Bible. In the end, we are left with only two options–either we believe in the Christ of the Bible or we leave everyone with the ability to create an imaginary Christ of his or her own wish. If the Bible is not our authoritative source, there is no authoritative source.
Q: How can we live in submission to the authority of the Word of God in such a way that it honors and glorifies God?
A: There is a clear biblical witness to our accountability to obey, to know, to study, to learn and to teach the Word of God. We are accountable for every single truth that is revealed to us in the Bible. We are not just readers of the Bible; we are being read by the Bible. The perfection of the Bible–its inerrancy, infallibility and total authority–is directly grounded in the perfection of God. When we read the Bible, God is speaking directly to us. Thus, we must read the Bible as reverently as if God were audibly speaking to us right here and now. That sense of gravity should shape the heart of the Christian to be receptive to what our holy God would say to us, and to be thankful that He loves us so much. He has not left us in the dark but has given us this authoritative Word so that we might know Him.
Heresy is always temporary and passing. It’s faddish and, more important, it’s false. The truth of the Christian faith is not only eternal but transforming. Heresy can be a matter of interest to the human curiosity. But the Gospel saves, transforms sinners into saints and brings life out of death. That is infinitely more interesting, exciting and exhilarating than anything any heresy could offer.