Dependence on Sources

There are a variety of views on how we should treat sources: 1. There are those who believe that the only real source we should use is the Bible. 2. Others think that the Bible should be the main source, and we should use only a few other sources. 3. Still others believe that the Bible is the only infallible source, and that we should nevertheless use lots of non-inspired sources. 4. There are also those who believe that some sources are just as important as the Bible, assuming that the Bible is infallible. 5. Lastly, there are those who think that the Bible should almost never be used as a source, and that most other sources are more reliable. There are probably a few more that could be mentioned, but for our purposes in this post, I want to focus on views 1, 2, and 3.

Views 1 and 2 (which are sometimes indistinguishable in practice) are actually untenable. We cannot avoid dealing with uninspired sources even when we treat the Bible. For instance, if we use a translation of the Bible, we are dependent on a fallible translation of an infallible book. If we want to take the source back to the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek original, then we will be dependent on the grammar books and lexicons that help us to understand the ancient languages. This does not derogate in any way from the infallible authority of the Bible. Rather, it is simply an indication of how weak our understanding is, and how much help we need to understand. Does this mean that a person who only reads the Bible in English, and no other books, will be cut off from understanding the Bible? Of course not. Even in translation, God’s Word is God’s Word, and even in translation, the authority and clarity of God’s Word still gleams through with regard to the things we need to understand for salvation. Also, we have the Holy Spirit, who has promised to lead us into all truth. Many people have to rely on translation to have access to God’s Word. This is not a problem. But it is a factor that we have to recognize.

The point I wish to make is that some people have a “me and my Bible and Jesus” mentality which is thoroughly unhealthy, not to mention inconsistent. They will rely rather dogmatically on a very few (usually bad, unweighed, non-mainstream, and often downright sectarian) non-biblical sources, all the while claiming right and left to be holding to the Bible alone. The lack of self-awareness is usually quite stunning. They tend to look down on people who rely on lots and lots of sources, claiming that such people are not dependent on the Bible, but on what everyone else thinks.

The irony of it all is that the one who depends (and I use this word loosely of someone who holds that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice) on many sources is actually much less dependent on any one source than the person is who claims to be relying on the Bible alone. Take commentaries as a concrete example. Many people seem to despise commentaries. They will claim that people who rely on commentaries are just parroting what other people say. Now, it is, of course, quite possible merely to parrot what other people say. However, it is equally possible to peruse the vast range of commentaries, and critically take what is good, and spit out the bones. In this way, a person makes critical use of sources. The difference between these two views is that the person who claims to hold only to the Bible is actually highly reliant on a very few sources in a way that is non-critical and non-self-aware, whereas the person who reads lots of sources critically is able to avoid dependence on any of them. Personally, I appreciate commentaries on the Bible more than any other kind of theological book. In commentaries, I get to have a very long-running discussion with dozens of people about what the text of Scripture means.

The first two views are actually unbiblical, ironically. The Bible says that just as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. The Bible understands that we need one another. Furthermore, nothing about that verse in Proverbs limits the sharpening to people who are alive. Why should I avoid having dead people sharpen me through their books? Which is more humble: to think that I don’t need this sharpening? Or to think that I need all the help I can get? The problem with views 1 and 2 is that extreme arrogance and over-confidence in one’s own views and a supreme reliance on one’s own understanding are the result (and this is also unbiblical!). A person then speaks only with one’s own voice. Allowing the voices of the past to sharpen us means that we can speak with many voices all at once. Can the vast majority of church history be mistaken? Surely, for we are fallible creatures. Nevertheless, to deny that we need anyone from the past to correct us is the very height of arrogance. Also, we need to respect the majority of church history, and not shove it under the rug. Did God give gifts of understanding and teaching to the giants of the past? Did they understand themselves to be reading the Scriptures? Did they have anything valuable to contribute to our understanding? What makes us think that our theologizing is of a fundamentally different nature than the giants of the past? If we will not stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past, then we will not see past their knees.