So, we had a hole in the wall. I don’t mean the tiny urban apartment we shared in the first year of marriage, but a literal gap in the plaster. We had to call maintenance to patch it up. (I could try to do it myself, but then we have to pay for my goofs. If maintenance goofs, management pays the bill. Or so I’m told.) One of their workers came over with some spackle and patched it up nicely. Now, if it were a deeper or larger hole, then the use of that same spackle would have been sloppy and ineffective. You need to use the materials that the job demands.
There is a similar problem in the world of evangelicalism. Really, it is the whole problem of modernity and postmodernity. With apologies to Babylon 5, “There is a hole in our mind.” Specifically, there is a knowledge gap. Faced with philosophies that question the possibility of religious knowledge—or any certain knowledge at all—the Christian often reaches for any spackle at hand to fill the gap. And too often, we are tempted to use the concept of authority to shore up—or shut up—our anxieties about knowledge and certainty. But that distorts the actual purpose and role of authority in the framework of Christian faith and practice. And if we use the doctrine of Scripture (or the Magisterium for our Catholic friends, or the Fathers for the Eastern Orthodox) simply as a bulwark against critical epistemology, we misuse it to our overall harm.
The authority of Scripture is an important doctrine for a great many reasons. The same is true with the distinct-but-related doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration. But there is one thing they are not: a theory of knowledge. They have implications for epistemology. Different accounts of knowledge and its basis can be more or less compatible with these doctrines. The divine authority, origin, and reliability of the scriptures mean that the Bible gives us a true and certain hope in the promises of God. Faith is not just a good feeling or a desperate scramble; Christian faith is a gift of grace that lets us know and trust what God has revealed. But the doctrine of scripture does not tell us how we have certainty, or even a general account of what “certainty” means. It is not spackle for the hole in your mind.
Neither does that other favored recourse of young evangelicals, namely the flight to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy. But pointing at the Holy See or an ecumenical council is no better an answer to the critics than pointing at a book. Whatever promises the Magisterium or the Great Church may seem to offer, they can’t spackle the holes in the truth-wall any better than the doctrine of scripture.
Because that is not the main purpose of authority and revelation. God did not forge covenantal bonds between Himself and us, send us prophets and apostles, and finally come personally to reveal Himself and open the door to salvation, in order to answer the problem of the criterion. For the great work of salvation and restoration, God does not leave us at the mercy of liver quivers and guesswork, or even rigorous reasoning from first principles. He sends messengers, including the Son and the Spirit, to publicly proclaim the message. The work of the whole Trinity also starts to correct the damage to our faculties that worsen the limits of our finite nature. He works with and within our human limitations to lead us into His truth. But the epistemic implications of that work are, in the scheme of salvation, at best second or third level implications.
So, the fullest answer to the critic’s doubts about Christianity is the proclamation of the Word, the illumination of the Spirit in the faithful reading of the Word, and above all the gracious workings of God’s effectual call. The answers to the skeptic’s questions about truth in general, or about religious knowledge in general, come from the philosopher’s corner. They are questions of natural reason, and natural reason can settle honest questions within its scope and competence. God’s gracious revelation certainly has something to offer in that field; the distinction is not absolute. But it is the difference between using the right material to fix your wall, or a material that’s not made for that purpose.
When we use the authority of Scripture (or the authority of the Church, or modern prophetic voices, etc.) to cover the gaps in our epistemology, our knowledge about knowledge, we ironically end up breeding more of the same cynicism and doubt. Our answers, our ideas, our confidence start to bubble up and crumble like bad wall plaster. (Alas!)