The Bible Is Authoritative But Not Always Normative

Both the Old and New Testaments must be interpreted in terms of its respective historical contexts.

The Old Testament was written in the context of a Hebrew theocracy. The New Testament was written in the context of a small, persecuted church struggling in a pagan Greco-Roman culture. We do not live under the Old Covenant Theocracy, nor do we live as a tiny minority in a Greco-Roman culture.  Although everything is authoritative in the Bible, not everything written in both the Old and New Testaments are normative, i.e., true for the church in every age down through history.

 

The entire Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God.  The Bible is authoritative and fully trustworthy in everything it says.

In my book on the Revelation of John[1], I make the statement that the Bible was written “for us but not to us.” The New Testament (as well as the Old) must always be interpreted in terms of a particular historical context. No, this does not make me a liberal theologian!

As a simple example of the importance of historical context, Paul wrote, “When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments (2 Tim 4:13).”  This text was written to Timothy and not to me – not to Larry Ball – although it was written for me.

The Old Testament was written in the context of a Hebrew theocracy. The New Testament was written in the context of a small, persecuted church struggling in a pagan Greco-Roman culture. We do not live under the Old Covenant Theocracy, nor do we live as a tiny minority in a Greco-Roman culture.  Although everything is authoritative in the Bible, not everything written in both the Old and New Testaments are normative, i.e., true for the church in every age down through history.

In Professor John Frame’s book The Escondido Theology [2] he makes the following statement:

In 1 Peter 2:11, the context deals with the isolation of Christians within Gentile cultures, subject to particular temptations. But the passage does not suggest that believers are to accept the dominance of Satan in these areas as the status quo.

Modern day Pentecostals read the validity of the apostolic gifts into every church age, and modern day pessimistic prophets consider apostolic persecution as normative for every age, assuming we are true to the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” They forget, for example, that much of the experience of Christians in America has been quite different from the sufferings of the saints in the New Testament period.

New Testament persecution (which is more than tension with unbelievers) will vary at different points in history.  We have lived relatively free of persecution in the United States, but as the church ceases to be the salt of the earth, New Testament-era persecution may very well return. But it need not return.

The modern church has confused feelings with the work of the Holy Spirit, and substituted moralism for the Law of God.  I fear that our delinquency to preach the whole counsel of God is our downfall (the whole counsel being more than the Five Points of Calvinism – it is the application of the Law of God to every area of life.)

With the death of the baby-boomer generation, the ascendancy of identity politics (even in the church), and the increase of graduates from secular universities, the near future looks bleak for Christians in the United States. Socialism made great strides in the recent political election, and by the early third decade of this century, it will probably capture the whole prize.  Trump cannot save us.  Political conservativism (e.g., Fox News) is bankrupt, too, and the Church provides no option.

Two-kingdom theology and its theological relatives have removed the voice of the church from the public square, and they teach us to expect a thrashing in every cultural context. They believe that the New Testament is not only authoritative in everything it says, but also that the experience of apostolic persecution is normative for every generation.  We are called to lose every battle for the glory of God. We have consumed from the modern pulpit a Cross without a King. It appears that the power of the Holy Spirit and godly prayer are simply not sufficient to change the course of history. Tell that to God!  Sadly, even though there is a small revival of neo-Puritanism today, the Puritan hope has been lost.

We are still taught that our future is foreboding even though the early church was eventually victorious over the pagan Roman Empire.  Even though the Bible says, “For the earth will be filled with knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the water cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14), we are still taught that the future of Christendom on this earth is defeat.

No wonder, with some exceptions, older churches are dying.  No wonder the youth are leaving the church.  I have felt like leaving too!  May God put all of us on our knees in order to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  May our children’s children see, through the preaching of the gospel, all the nations of the earth bow their knees before Christ in worship and adoration.  May they love his Law.  May God’s Kingdom come to earth in all its fullness, and may his will be done on this earth as it is in heaven.

Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.

[1] Larry Ball, Blessed Is He Who Reads, (Victorious Hope Publishing, 2015), p. 7.

[2] John Frame, The Escondido Theology, (Whitefield Media Productions, 2011), p. 8.