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FROM the OFFICE of the PRESIDENT of WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
Let me put this in terms that Machen used in the 1930s. In his series of radio addresses given in 1935–1936, now published by Westminster Seminary Press as Things Unseen, Machen railed against what he called “the tyranny of experts.” “For my part,” he wrote, “I do not believe in the infallibility of experts, and I think the tyranny of experts is the worst and most dangerous tyranny that ever was devised” (p. 273). What did Machen mean, and why did he speak so strongly?
By “the tyranny of experts,” Machen meant the power of those who claim authority simply because they are specialists in a given area, such as education, or politics, or epidemiology. The idea is that we’re bound to submit to experts, no matter what our faith or conscience has to say about it. The experts rule. And the masses submit. Machen was adamant that our faith in the self-revealing Trinity should always be our highest authority. We submit because God said. Experts have their place, but that place is never to stand in authority over God’s revealed Word.
In our day, however, we don’t just have a tyranny of experts. There’s also a tyranny of non-experts: influencers who sway the masses on social media with that potent blend of ignorance and confidence. While very different from the experts, non-experts have the same altar call: “Heed my voice. Follow my lead. I know. Trust me.”
We’re facing a crisis of trust in the modern West. And that crisis has everything to do with authority. Who’s in charge? Who really has the truth? Where do we look for guidance and direction in weighing government policy, dissecting cultural trends, or responding to conflict in our daily lives? This is all about trust. And, again, everyone chooses. Everyone trusts in something or someone.
Tyranny—from experts and non-experts alike—leads to a forced violation of conscience. And for Christians, our conscience is held captive by the word of God. There is no higher authority. In fact, Scripture is our sole and soul authority. In matters of great importance, we’re called to open a book and read, not open Instagram and scroll. In the latter, we’ll find tyrants. In the former, we find the Trinity, the only true and eternal authority. Gloriously and for our benefit, he has spoken.
Of course, most people you meet today claim their own authority. In theology, we call that claim “autonomy,” but only God has it. For creatures, authority is divided on the surface between two parties: the God who has a claim on your life and the people in the world who don’t. The latter are tyrants. The former is the only being worthy of our trust. Why? Because our crisis of trust was met definitively by the cross of Christ. We can trust the God who gave himself for us in love and grace. And we can trust what he’s said about himself, about who we are, and about how we should conduct ourselves as his image bearers in a broken world—a world looking for trust in all the wrong places. The Trinity, in his self-giving love, is the only one worthy of our trust. And so his word is trustworthy as our highest authority.
What happens when we disagree with each other about what that word says and how we should apply it? We take our direction from the final three chapters of Romans, where Paul talks about neighborly love and the role of conscience. Our call is to walk in faith and love, using the strength of our God-given and Spirit-driven conscience never to lord over others or cause them to stumble, but to serve them in love and humility.
At this very moment, every person on the face of the earth is choosing either a tyrant or the Trinity. There is no third option. And only one of them is worth your trust. The cross of Christ tells us so. Who better to trust than the one who let go of his life so that we could find ours?
The cross of Christ is the only thing that answers our crisis of trust. It’s to him we cling, as he clung to every word and work of the Father (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4; John 4:34). We trust in the truth of the Trinity. Let tyrants tread alone. Their authority is a fiction in the face of God.
Yours in the Faith,
David B. Garner
Chief Academic Officer, Vice President of Global Ministries, and Charles Krahe Professor of Systematic Theology
Westminster Theological Seminary
P.S. Want an example of what it can look like to trust in God’s word in the midst of cultural chaos? Check out this video from David Owen Filson: “On 21st Century Sexuality.”