Brian Zahnd and Biblical Epistemology




“I accept the Bible as authoritative in Christian faith and here’s how it works:”

Brian Zahnd has made the news in my blog-world yet again. Only this time it’s not for the usual reason (attacking Penal Substitution). Rather, he made noise on my Twitter feed in a peculiar way (you can follow my brief exchange with him here.)

Zahnd has been flirting with Eastern Orthodoxy for some time. This is fitting because that tradition rejects Penal Substitution like Zahnd, and has convinced him that most of the early church did as well. Along with many other things, Zahnd seems to be drifting toward the religion more and more. This time however, he took a small detour and started arguing like a Roman Catholic, claiming that the Scriptures derives its constitution and authority from the Church herself. Zahnd denied the charge of arguing like a Roman Catholic, but there is no doubt the notion that Scripture derives its authority from the church is thoroughly Roman Catholic, and has been the argument used by Roman Catholic apologists since at least the time of the Reformation. Zahnd is borrowing Rome’s famous argument to try and make sense of Scripture his low, liberal view of Scripture. As seen in the screenshots above, Zahnd has alleged that the Scriptures derive their authority first from Jesus, and then from the Church, and it is those arguments to which I turn for interaction.

“I believe in Jesus. I believe in Jesus because I have encountered him as the risen Lord.”

The idea that one ought to accept the authority of the Scriptures on the basis of Jesus is problematic because no one can encounter Jesus apart from the Scriptures today. What Zahnd is actually claiming is that after reading the Scriptures, he encountered Jesus, who told him to believe the Scriptures, which is circular reasoning.

It is possible to encounter Jesus without the Scriptures per se, but it is not possible to encounter Him separate from the data of Scripture. In other words, an evangelist can preach the Gospel to a person, and that person can see the glory of Christ and be saved even if a physical Bible was not laid open before them. But the Gospel presented would have to be the biblical Gospel, and the Jesus presented would have to be the biblical Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:1-4). Muslims believe in a Jesus that Zahnd would not claim to have encountered. Mormons believe in a Jesus Zahnd would not claim to have encountered. The biblical Jesus is the true Jesus, and thus, the biblical Jesus is the one we encounter when the Spirit testifies in our hearts of the Gospel we receive. The Holy Spirit’s subjective testimony is tied to the objective testimony of God’s Word. We do not have a Spiritual encounter with Christ, and then find God’s Word afterword. Instead, God’s Word (Scripture or oral) is the objective testimony tied to our confirmatory, subjective, spiritual encounter.As Romans 10:17 puts so eloquently,

So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (NKJV).

Zahnd can (and did) claim some extra-scriptural revelation of Christ, but this does not help his case. Are we really supposed to believe that a Demascus road conversion, wherein one sees and converses with the risen Christ, is required for every believer? Is this really supposed to be the normative experience of conversion? Clearly not. That means what is allegedly true for Zahnd (though I deny it) is not relevant to the normative way people “encounter” Christ today.

2. But my all-important faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord is not unmediated. My faith in Jesus is made possible by the faithful witness of the church. So now I have come to have a deep and abiding respect for the witness of the church.

This is not altogether untrue. All Christians are greatly indebted to the church catholic for our faith. God has used His people to write Scripture, protect it, translate it, etc. And there are many other ways Jesus has used His church for the good of His people in every age, and we are indebted to our brothers and sisters of the past in many ways. That said, Zahnd’s argument is not bolstered by this reality, for the word “church” needs to be defined. More on that in a moment.

However, it is sad that after confessing a love for and knowledge of Jesus Christ, Zahnd immediately goes on to add how that faith is mediated by the church. It seems that God’s very Word, His very revelation, His own self-disclosure ought to be, by definition, the primary way in which our faith in Jesus is mediated. In that sense, our faith in God is mediated first and foremost by God, which is self-evidently preferable to any other alternative.

3. Then the church says, “Hey, [Brian Zahnd], we have a canonical text that we regard as authoritative, it’s called the Bible.” I say, “OK.” So I accept the authority of scripture, but it’s a 3 step process:
1. Jesus 2. Church 3. Bible

This is really where the rubber meets the road. The problems with this conclusion are fivefold:

First, I ask the question: what does Zahnd mean by “church?” Which “church” gave him a canonical text? Rome has a different biblical canon than Protestants. Which canonical text was given to Zahnd, and by whom? When was this “Canon” settled and passed on to the others? And among those involved in that process, do they represent the “church” in the 5th century? 10th century? 16th century? I fear Zahnd’s understanding of both church history and canonical development are grossly oversimplified in order to avoid a high view of Scripture.

Second, one also has to wonder if there is anything this “church” has additionally supplied which Zahnd rejects. What doctrines of the church does he not embrace? Does he maintain baptismal regeneration? Infant baptism? Prayers to the dead? The Papacy? Bishoprics? Eternal torment of the damned? Many would claim that there is strong evidence of these ideas throughout church history. Why is the Canon of Scripture something he is willing to gladly take from the “church,” while denying other doctrinal data “the church” has to offer?

Third, Zahnd’s epistemology begs the question. Even if he personally accepted the Canon from “the church,” how did the church itself determine the Canon? Did they claim divine revelation? Did a golden tablet fall from heaven? Did they study the history? If the church which Zahnd inherited the Scriptures from was able to establish their position, why can’t Christians today do the same thing? To put it another way, if everyone is expected to merely inherit the Church’s doctrine of Scripture, then we would never have Scriptures. That logic would end in an endless regression. Every generation inheriting Scripture from the previous would go on eternally, which is logically absurd. The fact remains that “the church” was able to recognize certain books as being divinely inspired and authoritative, and that process of recognition is available to the church today.

Fourth, I do not think that Zahnd actually took the doctrine of Scripture from the church the way he claims to have done so. Zahnd readily admits to denying inerrancy (or at least redefining the term in a novel way). I think he would be hard pressed to demonstrate that his view of the inerrancy of Scripture is consistent with the “witness of the church” which he attests to admire so much. He really did not get the authority of the Scriptures from the church. It would be more accurate to say he kind of took it.

Last but certainly not least, in fact, this is probably the most important point of all, Zahnd’s three step process (Jesus – Church – Bible) is actually explicitly rejected by Scripture. And it is to that point I now draw special attention.

The House’s Foundation

Ephesians 2 is a beautiful chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. Most of the chapter is dedicated to explaining how Gentile believers are equal members of the people of God as the Jews. Paul explains how, through Christ, Jew and Gentile come together in a new family, as a new man, and stand as equal members in the New Covenant. Paul is explaining the mystery of the Church, this mystery being that it is comprised of Jews and Gentiles without hierarchy. Paul eloquently describes the process this way,

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:19-21).

Paul describes the church, and then goes on to speak to its foundations. How does Zahnd’s list compare to Paul’s? They both agree that Christ Jesus is the ultimate foundation; the cornerstone. But what comes next? For Zahnd it’s the church, and the Bible rests on it. The Scriptures stand on the foundation of the Church. However, Paul reverses that order. The household of God is built on the foundation of the “prophets and apostles” (who both stand on Christ). Thus, the Prophets started the foundation, and the Apostles finished it, and then the church was built on them. The prophetic and apostolic work then are set in contrast to the church, and placed underneath the church as it’s foundation.

How do we access the Prophets and Apostles today? It is through the Scriptures, both of the old (prophets) and new (apostles) testaments. It is them which provide the church’s foundation. While the Prophets and Apostles are members of the church, it will not suffice to claim they then represent the church, rather than the Scriptures. Otherwise the text would claim the church stands on the foundation of the church. Clearly, the revelational purpose the Apostles and Prophets had are made the foundation of the church, and their revelational data is contained for us today in their writings. As Stephen B. Chapman puts it,

The biblical canon is not a creation of the church, the church is instead a creation of the biblical canon.

The Scriptures created the church; she is a creature of the Word.

The Bible’s authority does not rest in the Bible.

This is the accurate conclusion of Zahnd’s train of thought, but is woefully false. For a full refutation of this, read Dr. Kruger’s book The Canon Revisited.

For starters, let us presuppositionally recognize that the buck has to stop somewhere. Someone’s authority must rest in and of itself. What Zahnd has done is simply replace the Scriptures as being the self-authenticating authority, with an undefined church as being the self-authenticating authority. What I mean by that is Zahnd believes the church to be trustworthy on its own merits, while the Scriptures need a letter of recommendation. He tries to link this to Jesus. Jesus is the self-authenticating authority, and Jesus gave him the church. But how does he know this? What church? He is smuggling in the concept of Jesus from the Scriptures, as well as the concept of Jesus’ established church from the Scriptures, to claim the chain of command bypasses the Scriptures and goes directly from the church to Christ. Thus, he really does not have a consistent answer to the question: Why is the church’s testimony self-authenticating and reliable in and of itself, but the Scripture’s are not?

Allow me to instead agree with Francis Turretin who said,

Scripture, which is the first principle in Supernatural order, is known by itself and has no need of arguments derived from without to prove and make itself known to us.

I likewise agree with Herman Bavinck who said, “In the church fathers and the scholastics, [Scripture] rested in itself, was trustworthy in and of itself, and the primary norm of for the church and theology.” And therefore Scripture is to be “believed on its own account, not on account of something else, which led him to elsewhere say that “Scripture’s authority with respect to itself depends on Scripture.”

The fact of the matter remains that the Scriptures themselves never speak of their own authority as being a derivative of the church.  And that makes a lot of sense really. For the Scriptures are God-breathed, the church is not.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The Scriptures are ultimately authored by the Holy Spirit, the church is not.

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19-20).

Thus, how can the inspired God-breathed Word lack authority until the fallible, man-breathed word gives it permission to have such authority? How can the fallible authority of an undefined church be established by Zahnd prior to the God-breathed Scriptures? If Scripture is God’s Word, then it does not sit on the floor at the table of men begging for validation.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:27).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s