In our contemporary world, we can learn a great deal from the prophet Habakkuk: “I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected” (Habakkuk 2:1). Habakkuk doesn’t say to God, “Let me hear what you have to say to me – and I’ll go away and think about it and see if I agree with what you have said.” No! He says something very different. He says, “Let me hear what you have to say to me – and I will be corrected by Your Word to me.” It’s our thinking that needs to be corrected by God’s Word – not God’s Word that needs to be corrected by us.
The moment we speak about our thinking being corrected by God’s Word, we hear voices being raised – “The Bible was written such a long time ago. The world is very different now.” Yes! The world is very different now – but we must ask the awkward question, “How many of the changes have come from the fact that we have stopped listening to what the Bible has to say to us?” Have we stopped listening to what the Bible has to say to us? We may read the Bible – especially the passages that we like – but what happens when the Bible challenges us to change our way of thinking? Do we begin to speak about “liberty of opinion”?
The words - “liberty of opinion” - are used in the Church of Scotland in connection with our attitude to our subordinate standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith. The words – “liberty of opinion” – are followed by the words “in matters that do not enter into the substance of the faith.” When we set the words – “liberty of opinion” – in this context, we see that “liberty of opinion” is hardly a rallying call which says, “We can think whatever we like.” When in our reading of the Bible, we use the expression - “liberty of opinion” – we must remember that we are lifting this phrase out of a “subordinate standard” context. We must also note that “liberty of opinion” is set in this context: “in matters that do not enter into the substance of the faith.” When we look more closely at the context within which the expression – “liberty of opinion” – is used, we note that subscription to the Westminster Confession is called for at the ordination of ministers and elders. This suggests that the faith and life of ministers and elders is to be closely associated with our understanding of the expression – “the substance of the faith.”
In making these points about the Church of Scotland’s use of the phrase – “liberty of opinion”, I am not suggesting either that interpreting the Bible is easy or defining “the substance of the faith” is easy. I am simply making the point that, whatever meaning we attach to the phrase – “liberty of opinion”, we must take care that we don’t end up in the situation where “everyone does what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). We may say that we have not reached that desperate situation. We must, however, ask whether, by a careless use of the idea of “liberty of opinion”, we are removing any real reason why people should not conclude that they should “do what is right in their own eyes.”