There is something deep within the psyche of the modern, born-again, “praise God and pass the contribution plate” Christian that cannot leave bomb-proof, unassailable, “put the atheists in their place” kind of scientific evidence alone. (How is that for incorporating generic identifiers?) What is mean is this – you cannot hardly turn on your computer today without someone, somewhere “proving beyond a shadow of a doubt” that some such thing once doubted is now finally, beyond any shadow of a doubt, proven to be real or historical or some such thing. It might be the age of the earth, or the hypothesis that humans shared living quarters with dinosaurs, or the exact, precise, down-to-the-minute day and time that Jesus was: born, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and/or will come back to earth. The number of things that science can supposedly prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” is truly staggering. And, call me a skeptic, but I wonder if even a fraction of the claims are even remotely scientifically accurate.
Let me illustrate with a couple of stories. It is very definitely true that during certain times within history, Christians would travel great distances and pay money to visit “relics” of saints. So, pieces of holy objects such as the cross or Noah’s ark, or bones, hair, blood – you name it – from all sorts of “saints” started showing up with quite startling frequency. It is said, for example, that if you had every single piece of the wooden cross upon which Jesus was said to be crucified, gathered back from all the sales of “genuine cross relics” dealers, you could take those tiny little shards of wood and rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Not bad for two beams of wood.
As a very real example of devotion to “relics” today stop and consider the veneration given to the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth of Jesus. Never mind it has never passed a test that dates it older than the middle ages, many believe it to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.
The one story that just always leaves me shaking my head that so-called intelligent people will accept it is the story that EVEN TO THIS DAY gets retold regarding NASA, a special clock, and the missing day of Joshua 10:12-14. As the story goes, in order to go to the moon, NASA had to develop a clock with incredible accuracy. It was so accurate, so the story goes, that the developers made it go BACKWARDS in time to verify its accuracy. They kept going back, back, back, until, LO AND BEHOLD they discovered a missing 24 hour period in the age of the earth – Joshua’s missing day!! Are you kidding me?? Intelligent people cannot see through this? But they can’t, because (1) they do not want to see through it because it purportedly proves a point they want proved and (2) what self respecting American patriot would question the National Aeronautics and Space Administration?
Has anyone who believed this story ever wondered why NASA did not just keep going back to find out PRECISELY how old the earth is with their wonderful clock? Has anyone ever heard of a clock that can tell time BACKWARDS? Yet, this story gets repeated ad infinitum by otherwise intelligent people and, because they tell it, it gets believed by an entire new generation.
Those who demand bomb-proof, unassailable, “beyond any shadow of a doubt” proof only prove one thing – how fearful and shallow their faith truly is. God did not allow the Israelites to know where Moses was buried lest his grave become a shrine. God did not allow Noah’s ark to survive lest it become an idol. God did not allow the ark of the covenant to survive for the exact same reason, as with the cross, the tomb, and anything else related to critical events in the Bible. Those relics are just raindrops in the overwhelming ocean of world history. We do not know nor can we calculate the day of Jesus birth, death, resurrection (beyond the “first day of the week”), or ascension, and we certainly cannot figure out the day of his return. Those who claim to be able to do so are charlatans – or are the mistaken minions of such charlatans. They either have an agenda to push, or a book to sell. Be very careful of such spiritual snake-oil salesmen.
Just stop and think – seriously think – about one question. If you cannot believe that God can raise his Son, his incarnated self, from the grave, just exactly why would having a piece of the cross on which he was killed prove that fact to you? And, if you can believe that God did, in fact, raise Jesus from the grave, why would you need to prove Joshua’s “missing day” to buttress your faith? There are occasions when I fear that Karl Marx’s statement that religion is an opiate for the people to be far, far too accurate for my comfort level.
But, if you still want to believe in all this new scientific evidence that proves everything from the age of the earth to the exact location of Moses’s 70 palm trees please let me know. I have a piece of Jesus’ cross that I would love to sell to you.
In regard to my last post on the inspiration of Scripture a good friend posed the question of what I believe about “progressive revelation,” the idea (if I understand it correctly) that God speaks to successive cultures in ways that are meaningful to that culture that would have been meaningless to previous cultures.
I suppose I have to begin where I most frequently begin, and that is by asking what is meant exactly by that term, and how is the person using it? I would accept, for instance, that God “progressively” revealed His nature throughout history culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I believe this because I believe it is a sound biblical concept, taught most explicitly in the book of Hebrews. (“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Heb. 1:1, RSV) In this sense “progressive” can mean both chronology and content.
If, however, the idea is that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, continued to modify or “progress” his revelation even during the writing of the New Testament then I have to say “No, in no way do I accept the idea of ‘progressive’ revelation.” I have a number of reasons for making this stand.
1. In order to accept that God revealed some truths early in the writing of the New Testament, and a fuller, more complete, and more “Divine” expression at a later date we must have an air-tight, definitive, unimpeachable sequence of the composition of the New Testament writings. At least at this stage of our knowledge that is simply beyond us. But, having said that, I believe this is one of the major and “unsurvivable” errors of progressive revelationists. They want to suggest that one writing of Paul has more weight, or is more inspired, or is more authoritative, than other writings of Paul due to this concept of “progressive revelation.” But one of the primary writings that they identify as being “more progressive” is uniformly understood to be written earlier than the writings that these interpreters want to dismiss. Therefore, Paul was not a progressive thinker, but a regressive thinker, and if he was writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then that ultimately makes God to be a regressive source of inspiration.
Why, having come up with God’s ultimate adjudication that there is no difference whatsoever between male and female in Galatians, would Paul then revert to the rejected and unworthy teaching that women must submit themselves to men, and that men are to exercise spiritual leadership in both the home and the church? (Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, Titus, and also Peter as well) It makes no logical, nor specifically does it make any theological, sense.
2. The writing of the New Testament occurred in a relatively compressed timeframe. From the death of Jesus to the death of Paul was a period of about 35 years, give or take a few. The time frame from the conversion of Paul until his death is even more tightly compressed. That means if Paul was to experience any “progressive” revelation it would have had to occur very quickly, and yet even though we can see Paul’s writing change (as any writer changes over a period of 25-30 years), his fundamental theology never does. So, exactly when does this “progression” take place? I just do not see the chronology that allows for this change to occur – and combined with point #1 above I simply cannot accept the concept that Paul “progressed” from one idea (male spiritual leadership) to another, radically different one (no gender separation at all, men and women are allowed to serve equally).
3. Taken to its ultimate extreme, those who argue the most vociferously for “progressive revelation” would have to accept the concept of an open canon. Why, if God worked in the first century to “progressively reveal” his complete will, would he stop with the death of the last apostle? If a person argues that God needed to progressively reveal himself throughout the writing of the New Testament, and at the same time argues for a closed canon, it seems to me that person is arguing out of both sides of his/her mouth. After all, cultures and society did not stop evolving in 100 A.D., so it seems to me that it would be incumbent upon God to keep on revealing his will “progressively” if he was to keep up with technology and other issues.
4. Clearly, the early church fathers rejected the idea of an “open canon.” I am not knowledgeable enough about the church fathers to know what their opinion was regarding “progressive revelation,” but they had the sense enough to figure out that God spoke through his apostles, and when they died the canon of authoritative Scripture was closed. We have what we need for spiritual guidance, through the knowledge of Jesus, and that is enough (2 Peter 1:3).
Now, I must say that not every person who is an egalitarian believes in the concept of “progressive revelation.” These folks interest me, in a confused sort of way. I’m not exactly sure how they work around the passages that clearly teach male spiritual leadership (both directly and indirectly). Well, that is not exactly true – I read about it all the time but I still cannot get my head around it. They have to (1) remove or dismiss clear passages that contradict their conclusion, (2) redefine words that mean what they do not want them to mean and (3) appeal to obscure references and emotional arguments that tend to obfuscate more than clarify. I also know that they HAVE to put 99 out of their 100 eggs in the Galatians 3:28 basket. As I have said ad nauseum, that is taking one passage out of context and is exegetically impossible to defend.
Thus hath the knuckle-dragging Troglodyte spoken.
I have previously discussed this subject here, but in light of recent articles I feel a need to reiterate some propositions that I feel are fundamental [foundational, necessary].
- Our understanding of the concept of inspiration is the beginning, not the end, of our understanding of Scripture. It is a fundamental presupposition. That is to say we do not read a passage of Scripture and then decide whether it is inspired or not. It is either inspired or it is not, and that reality was established long before we came to the text.
- We cannot “cherry-pick” those passages we like or that support our personal or cultural norms and declare those to be authoritative and inspired, and then relegate other passages, often in the same book and sometimes within the same chapter, as being “culturally limited” and therefore non-authoritative and non-inspired. If a section of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is his own creation, to be limited strictly to the church in Corinth and having absolutely no continuing authority, then the content of ALL of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are limited strictly to the church in Corinth and none of what he had to say to that church has any validity beyond the death of the last Corinthian church member.
- Although God used human beings to “put pen to paper and write the Bible,” if we understand the concept of inspiration to go back to the deity of God himself, we cannot excuse certain writings as being a “mistake” or a “misunderstanding” or a “limitation of the author” due to cultural biases. If we persist in doing so what we are ultimately saying is that God Himself misunderstood His own intents and purposes, that God Himself perpetuated these mistakes, and that God Himself is limited by the cultural norms that man created, and therefore in an incredible twist on Biblical theology, God is now limited by man.
- Please note: I am not speaking of every cultural expression of an authoritative principle, but I am speaking of the obedience to that principle itself. For example, I can already see people disagree with me and say, “oh, yeah, wise guy, what about the ‘holy kiss’ and the ‘wearing of the veil.'” Those were cultural expressions of a biblical principle – the love and fellowship of Christians and the submission of female to male in matters of spiritual guidance. To answer a snarky question posed to me in another place, no, my wife does not call me ‘Lord’ (the example of Sarah to Abraham). But she does look to me for spiritual leadership, and she submits to the all-male leadership in our congregation. Cultural expressions may change, biblical truth does not.
I really do not see any other way around these, what I consider to be “self-evident,” propositions. I could certainly be wrong – I’ve been wrong more times than I care to admit. But I simply do not see how we can say we have a “high view of Scripture” and then in the next breath or paragraph say (or write), “of course, Paul is limited by his culture here, so we can disregard what this passage appears to communicate.” Inspiration simply does not work that way.
I see this most frequently in the discussion on women’s role and authority in the church, but I might also say it extends to other subjects. The most common exegetical fallacy that I read and hear today is this, “Galatians 3:28 is God’s first and final declaration on the equality of men and women, period, and anything and everything that appears to contradict this verse is culturally biased and therefore inconsequential in the teaching of the church today.”
One verse, taken horribly out of context, is the definitive statement on one given subject, and many more addresses on the subject, penned by different authors, which just happen to be written after the verse in question, are mistakes, misunderstandings or intentional lies.
Wow. If that is a person’s concept of a high view of Scripture, I sure would hate to hear what his or her low view of Scripture would be.
I have been reading on this subject quite extensively lately, and to be honest I am growing weary of the subterfuge of those who are trying to promote a radical feminist agenda on the church. If you promote egalitarianism, fine – don’t let me stop you. But at the same time do not promote yourself as an advocate of conservative biblical inspiration. Come right out and be honest with yourself and your readers. State your position clearly – Paul was NOT inspired, we CANNOT trust what he wrote to be the mind of God, the words he wrote are merely suggestive and not authoritative, we in the 21st century are NOT bound to follow his or any other New Testament teaching if it conflicts with what we want it to mean.
But, at the same time, just remember that your logic must apply to Galatians 3:28 as well.
Another (set, as they are kind of all related) of the penetrating questions that my benevolent antagonist posed to me was this:
How do you know the Protestant Bible is inspired? How do you know the canon is closed? … Why aren’t the earliest scripture copies under your sect’s protection?
Let me begin by saying I am the wrong guy to be hitting with these heavyweight questions. But, as Andy Griffith once said concerning football, I have studied on it, and I think I can point my readers in a healthy direction. My answer will take the structure of several bullet points for clarity.
1. The history of the development of the Canon of Scripture is at the same time rich, diverse, fascinating, and at times confusing. The best I can do is to direct the interested reader to the best in “recent” scholarship regarding this topic. The most erudite book on the subject is Bruce M. Metzter, The Canon of Scripture: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). A very valuable, yet probably a little more for the common man is F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988). Yet even more directed to the common man, and specifically for church classes, is Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible 3rd Ed., Revised and Expanded, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003). All of these books cover the same material, to greater or lesser degrees of academic precision, and I highly recommend obtaining all three books if you want a well rounded discussion.
2. I do not believe that one “church” created the canon. I believe that God created the canon of Scripture, and that many scholars and theologians, over several hundred years beginning with the original audiences and continuing up through the 4th century, recognized those books that were to be considered inspired and authoritative. There is a big difference between creating something and recognizing that which has been created.
3. I do not accept that there is a “Protestant” Bible and a “Catholic” Bible. In terms of authority and “dogma,” the same 66 books are used by both the Roman Catholic church and most “Protestant” churches. The main difference (as I understand it, and I may be wrong here) is that the Roman Catholic church also includes books that are useful for edification that many Protestant churches do not use. These books are referred to as the “Apocrypha.” There is yet a third distinction, that of “Deuterocanonical books” that are even outside this middle distinction by the Roman Catholic church. [Note: please read the comments below, as a friend accurately challenged my nomenclature here. I apologize to those who clearly know better.]
4. I accept by faith that the Bible, or the the 66 books universally accepted by virtually every Christian group, is inspired because those books either indicate that they come from the mouth or pen of an inspired author, or another book within those 66 books makes reference to them in such a way as to indicate inspiration. The acceptance of this witness was done within a very short time of their original creation, and so, as someone who is separated by some 2,000 – 4,000 years from the original composition I must accept and trust the guidance of those who have recognized those writings as inspired and who have collected and treasured those inspired writings.
5. I hold that the canon of Scripture is closed because, once again, the witness of the earliest writers is that after a certain point (the death of the last apostles, to be sure), no other writings were ever elevated to the status of “Scripture.” Many were treasured (the “Shepherd” of Hermas, the Didache, the writings of various early church fathers), and some of those were even accorded the status of Scripture in certain parts of the Christian world. However, for reasons both simple and complex those locally accepted writings were ultimately viewed as valuable, but not inspired Scripture, by the overwhelming majority of the church leaders. Therefore, since the end of the first century, no writing has ever been accorded the value of “Scripture” by universal acclaim.
6. It does not bother me one bit that the earliest manuscripts of the 66 books of the Bible are not under the control of my “sect.” (I don’t own one, by the way, but I get my questioner’s drift.) The manuscripts that we have (over 5,000 of the various New Testament writings alone) are all safely housed where scholars of all different beliefs can study them. This is how it should be, and no other “religion” can even come close to this type of openness and transparency. If it was proven that my beliefs depended on one single manuscript (or even one family of manuscripts) I would seriously question that belief. Hence my largest and most insurmountable disagreement with groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The manuscripts which contain the documents that I consider to be Scripture are open to everyone to study – and I am secure in the belief that if any major changes must be made to that corpus of documents that such decisions will be justified by a large and diverse number of scholars from a wide variety of theological belief systems.
So, in a nut-shell, my beliefs in the collection of writings we call the “Bible” are based on a history of recognition and proclamation that dates back at least as far as Moses and Joshua, and orally even further back than that. Outside of the proclamations within those sacred writings themselves I have no immediate knowledge of the creation or transmission of those writings – but my faith does not depend upon my own ability to verify every single truth claim made in Scripture. I trust in the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit, and just as I can believe in many truths although not independently verifiable by my own intellect, I trust they are true because other individuals who DO have that knowledge can verify them, and such has been the case for the Bible for well over 3,000 years now.
This has just been the “Confession of Faith” of just one individual, and in no way to I intend my words to be universally held by every member of the Church of Christ. But, I hope they are helpful, and if so, then all glory to God. If anyone has any additional questions I would love to hear them and perhaps I can be more specific in a future post.
Once again, I thank my conversation partner, and I hope I have treated his question fairly. I trust he will respond in kind if I have not.
Because this list is organic in nature (it just kind of grew from a little seed) and was not systematic (I did not sit down one day to create a list of 15 Undeniable Truths in any particular order), it might seem a little disjointed. One of the disjoints occurs here with #10.
10. Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.
What I am addressing here is the inseparable connection between thought and action. If we have the attitude that our race is superior to another race, we are going to act out that air of superiority, even if it is subconsciously. If we believe our particular religious belief is correct and every one else is wrong, we are going to act out that air of superior righteousness even if it is subconsciously. Every belief that we hold has an ultimate consequence. If we believe all human life begins at conception, if we believe that all war is wrong, if we believe that all humans are sinners – all of these beliefs will cause us to act in certain ways, or at least support those actions. On the other hand, if we believe human life begins at birth, if we believe that some wars are necessary, if we believe that all humans will eventually be saved to live in eternity with God then we will have, or at least support, opposite actions.
Moving up one level on the scale of emotional attachment, once we verbalize our beliefs those consequences become even more entrenched and we are even more likely to put our beliefs into action, and the consequences are evaluated more severely. Why do you think that prior to every significant or solemn occasion there is an oath or confession given? Witnesses in legal proceedings begin their testimony with an oath. Police officers, military enlistees, our elected officials – all high and powerful positions are inaugurated with an oath of loyalty and a promise to abide by the highest code of ethics. Even the athletes at the Olympic Games are required to take an oath promising to compete fairly (a lot of good that does for the integrity of the games, by the way). That is why we hold our officials, police officers, and athletes to a higher standard. We say, “But the promised on oath that they would follow the Constitution…” or whatever standard they are using for their allegiance. We just hold a couple to a higher standard if they stand before a minister or priest and promise to love, honor and cherish one another until death does separate them.
Now, moving up yet another rung on the ladder of emotional attachment, when we use our words to convey spiritual truths, those words have eternal consequences. This, in my mind, is what makes theology such a “heavy” endeavor. We are not simply speaking our opinions (although we do that to be sure). We are using our human intellects to form and fashion words that, if they are to be believed, will have eternal consequences for those who follow them. And, if they are not to be believed, why are we using the words to begin with? We can say with absolute impunity that “the best cake mix in the world is ……” or we can suggest that “the best football team in the NFL is the Minnesota Vikings” (true, by the way) and if someone agrees or disagrees with us there is no lasting implication. But the moment we say, “Thus says the Lord…” we enter into another realm. We are no longer speaking as a baker or sports fan. We are no longer operating under the umbrella of plausible deniability. Those who dare to speak of God must accept a higher level of accountability.
This, I believe, is what James is referring to in James 3:1. He is not saying we have to have perfect knowledge (no one can attain that) nor is he saying we have to be a certain age, or pass a certain test of orthodoxy. What he is saying is that once we offer words on God’s behalf, those words can be used to either draw people closer to God or drive them away from God. That fact is at the same time a harsh reality, an awesome responsibility, and an incredible opportunity. James is commenting on the fact that many people want to take advantage of the opportunity, and thereby make a claim to human glory and praise, without carefully considering the harsh reality and the awesome responsibility.
There is a prayer in the Bible for would-be theologians. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful prayers in all of Scripture. It also happens to be one of the shortest. It would do all of us who have the desire to speak of the Holy things of God to memorize this prayer, and to recite it every time we get up in front of an audience to speak or in front of our keyboard to type a blog. These are the words of one who was inspired by the situation in which he found himself, and although humbled with the prospect, did not flinch from the responsibility. The words are these, and may we make them our own –
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)
Some people have suggested that I have a profound grasp of the obvious. For example: rain is wet, ice is cold. I’m not exactly sure if they mean that as a compliment or a criticism, but since I can choose I will say that their comment is most complimentary. I like reducing things to the most fundamental level possible, and if necessary, building up from there. For me, life just works better that way.
My third undeniable truth for theological reflection might seem, on the surface, to be yet another pronouncement of the blatantly obvious. Let us repeat it here:
3. The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.
In reality, however, I’m not at all convinced that this truth is as obvious as it might appear. For some rather inelegant examples, how many of you have ever heard a lesson or a sermon on Psalm 23 that ended with a call for repentance? Or how many of you have heard a sermon on Ephesians 2, in which Paul clearly states that we are saved by grace through faith, only to have the preacher spend 20 minutes talking about how we are not really saved by grace, but that we need x number of “works” in order to really be saved. I have been that preacher or teacher. I am speaking to myself first here – I am the one who made this list and I am fully qualified to plead guilty to violating these principles. Please do not accuse me of being self-righteous.
So let us return to our third undeniable truth for theological reflection. When an inspired author sat down to record the message God intended for him or her to write, he or she wanted that message to achieve its intended purpose, and nothing more. In the Psalms we read great poetry expressing joy, sorrow, repentance, confusion, pain and delight. We do not get a three point sermon on the steps of salvation, a detailed history of the creation of the world, and certainly not a 10 point outline as to have a better marriage. To force those foreign ideas upon the pages of the Psalms would be to violate the very intent of the writers – dare I suggest that would be the equivalent of speaking falsely of the Holy Spirit.
The same is true of any genre of Scripture. This is at it most basic level one of the principles of honest hermeneutics. We must first identify the genre of literature we are dealing with, and then ask ourselves, “what is this passage intended to communicate?” Especially for a group of people who claim to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” this step cannot be minimized. But, at the same time this is one of the most difficult steps. We have come to expect certain things from a class or a sermon, and so in order to make the text fit that “mold” of sermon or class we bend, twist, and sometimes even break the text. We might end up with a really motivational lecture or class, but it is woefully deficient in terms of being biblical.
The solution to the problem is that we need to jettison our contemporary concept of what makes a “biblical” or “Scriptural” class or sermon. We are just so accustomed to the “three points and a poem” kind of preaching that we have lost sight of the power of the text itself. As just one example, why must every sermon end with a passionate plea for repentance and baptism? If we are preaching from a text that in itself calls for repentance and baptism that is natural and biblical. But what if we are preaching from a text that calls for prayer? Or what if we are preaching from a text that calls for joy? Or what if we are preaching from a text that calls for us to enter into our community and to “wash the feet” of our neighbors? To make every text a pretext for repentance and baptism is to distort the meaning of the text – exactly what we accuse others of doing and exactly what we exempt ourselves from being guilty. It’s time we looked in the mirror before we look down the barrel of our theological cannons.
I am reminded of the story of the country preacher who started his sermon thusly: “Our text this morning is Genesis 1:1-2:3. I have three points this morning – #1, What God Said. #2 What God Did. And #3, a few words about baptism.”
Lest I be misunderstood here – I am not denigrating the teaching of repentance and baptism. No one, especially those who have heard me preach or teach, can get away with suggesting that I minimize the importance of surrendering to the beautiful and deeply significant act of baptism. And when I preach or teach on Matthew 28, Mark 16, Acts 2, 22, 26, Romans 6 or a whole host of other passages I make that emphasis very clear. Or, consider my series of lessons on the meaning and purpose of baptism in which I take the topic of baptism and look at the New Testament teachings systematically. But, that having been said, I just do not see how you can move from Psalm 23 to the baptistery without doing significant damage to one or the other.
Let us live out the motto that we advertise. Let us speak where the Bible speaks, and with the intended purpose of the authors of the Bible. Let us use their words to achieve the purpose that God and the Holy Spirit intended. Let us fall under the text instead of standing over it a position of superiority. And then it can truly be said of us that we are a people of the book.
Many of my “Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection” are positive statements correcting negative beliefs that really disturb me. One statement I hear frequently enough that I know it is not just an aberration is the belief that the Bible is full of obscure rantings and ravings of some long dead group of mystics and weirdos. In other words, you cannot understand most of what is in the Bible, and even the parts you can understand don’t make any sense today.
Hence, my second undeniable truth for theological reflection: 2. The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.
I have two main points in making this statement. One is that the Bible can be understood today, and two, we must be careful not to make the Bible mean anything that we want it to mean.
This truth could be illustrated by many biblical writings, but perhaps nowhere is it more obvious than in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of John, or the book of Revelation. Probably no book of the Bible has generated as many interpretations as has the book of Revelation. Every author honestly believes that he or she has “cracked the code” and knows exactly what the book means. Never mind that with so many conflicting interpretations the overwhelming majority of them will be simply mistaken at best or positively and dangerously wrong at worst. But, publishers have learned that the more far-fetched the better the sales, and so we have some truly bizarre interpretations of what should be some fairly benign readings in the book. Not to mention that every generation has a new candidate for the “beast” who as the mark of “666.” My favorite suggestion here was President Reagan, because each of his three names had six letters: Ronald Wilson Reagan. Whew. How is that for careful exegetical Bible study?
But it just seems so simple as to be impossible to ignore that if the book had no meaning to the original audience, it has no meaning for us today! This is not to say that it does not have a richer meaning (the “fulfillment” that many New Testament writers discuss, especially Matthew) for us today. But each and every history, prophecy, law code, gospel or letter was written with one specific audience in mind. And that audience could – and I dare say did – understand what was written to them.
When the original readers and hearers of Isaiah 7:14 read or heard that prophecy they did not all gather around in a circle and say, “You know what, in 700 years (give or take a few) this prophecy is going to come true and a little baby is going to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.” No. They knew that Isaiah was speaking to them, and that whether it was written immediately or some time after the fact it was originally given, Isaiah was speaking to their immediate situation and that within a very short time period they would not have to worry about Syria and Israel. In like manner, in his apocalypse John was not talking about the United States and the Old Soviet Union or the new European Union or some President of the United States who simply had a phonetically balanced name.
Did Matthew see a “fulfillment” of the original prophecy? Absolutely, by the power of the Holy Spirit he saw that the words of Isaiah could have a deeper meaning. But that was not the original meaning, and we are foolish if we try to force that interpretation upon the text. Ripped from its contextual moorings, any verse or section of verses becomes the devil’s playground. Never forget that Satan quoted Scripture while tempting Jesus to forsake his calling. Attaching “book, chapter and verse” to some misquoted passage of Scripture does not give it legitimacy. Only when read in context does the passage complete its intended purpose.
So where does that leave us in the 21st century? With a lot of homework to do, that’s where.
The task of Bible study is not to search the Bible to give support to one of our cherished opinions, then turn to our favorite book of poetry to close out the lesson. The task of Bible study is to carefully and intentionally ask some very basic questions of the text, and then, if possible, to see if there is a legitimate parallel between the text and our situation. If there is a legitimate parallel, fine. But if there is not, then we cannot force a foreign meaning upon the text with a crow bar, a shoe horn and an can of axle grease.
I believe the Bible was written to be understood. I believe the original audience clearly understood the writings, and I believe we can too, if we take the time and do our work diligently. That means learning the original languages – Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament. Additional study in Latin and other ancient languages is also critical. We must also become aware of how ancient commentators read and understood the text, whether Jewish or Christian. We must carefully examine the history of the interpretation of a passage. And, last but certainly not least, we must have the courage and the strength to step back from our computers and ask ourselves if we are not imposing a 21st century grid of interpretive processes upon the text that would distort or mask the true meaning of the text. All of this, from the first step of translation to the last step of hermeneutical application absolutely demands the use of humility, as I posted in my first undeniable truth of theological reflection.
Just one more thought before I close. I am perfectly willing to jettison a belief that I hold if it can be proven to me that I am wrong in holding it. But, please, use exegetically sound arguments, not emotionally charged epithets fueled by post-modern opinions based on deconstructionist exegesis.
In short, the writers of the biblical texts intended for them to be understood. They were, and they can be – if we have the humility to do our homework diligently and honestly.
I don’t know why it is exactly, but I tend to think in dialectic terms. That is to say I will think of something and write about it, and no sooner than I complete the post I think of how the post could be taken to extremes and misused. So I come up with my own counter-point, or a post to balance the sheet, so-to-speak. So, this post is really a follow-up and extension of my last post, which is basically a lament that (within the Churches of Christ especially) we hire men to do our preaching and teaching for us, and then reject and ridicule his efforts because everyone in the pew is just as qualified as he is. Except, of course, they are not!
What is the reverse of the situation in which a preacher is accorded no authority at all? In my mind it is the man who is granted the authority that comes with education, age and experience and then abuses it by denying the fundamental doctrines that define the congregation for whom he works. He is, in the apostle Paul’s words, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This can be manifest in many different ways. I do not want to join the chorus of reactionary minds who reject the concept of “change agents,” because I believe our history is full of change agents, beginning with Jesus himself and continuing through Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb and a whole host of others. But, though I may not denigrate the term, I will say that there are individuals within our fellowship that should have the courage of their convictions and they should leave it. They do not believe in the vision or the principles of the Restoration Movement, they denigrate our past with their sarcastic speeches and books, and they actively attempt to lead others away from this spiritual movement.
I would even go so far as to say that a substantial number of them do not believe in the basic truths of Christianity: the virgin birth of Jesus, the resurrection, the miracles, the proclaimed second coming of Jesus. They may say they believe in the inspiration of Scripture, but to read their books you come away with the feeling that they believe Scripture is inspiring but a long way from inspired. Many have accepted without reservation the “assured results of scholarship” which need to be revised on a continual basis because the scholarship on which the results are based is flawed and the results are anything but assured. In short, many are obviously brilliant scholars and simply bereft of the Christian faith.
It is one thing to love someone or some group of people and work tirelessly to change and improve them. I know a host of ministers and elders who deeply love the church and who work tirelessly as “change agents” because they see their congregations and the members that make up those congregations as losing their first love and their devotion to Christ. My life has been a roller-coaster of emotions as I have loved, then hated, then loved, then hated the human manifestation of God’s chosen people on earth. I love the church with all my heart, and at the same time it drives me nuts. Anyone who feels called to ministry feels the same way.
However, it is another thing entirely to no longer hold to the basic beliefs of a group of people and yet continue to receive your living from those people and at the same time try to turn those people from their beliefs. I would say the same thing to a Catholic who no longer believes in the Magisterium, a Baptist, Presbyterian or Reformed who no longer accepts Calvinism, and the Lutheran who can no longer support Lutheranism. If you can no longer hold to your confession of faith, however formal or informal it is, you need to stand up, declare your independence, and leave that fellowship. The path of staying in your fellowship and masking your true feelings and intentions is the path of a coward, a traitor, a Judas.
In my opinion, within the Churches of Christ we have entirely too many Judases. We are paying men who no longer believe what the members in the pew believe and who no longer accept our vision of the church nor our vision of Scripture and the damage that they are causing is irreparable. If they stood in the pulpit and spoke their most heart-felt convictions they would be fired on the spot. They know this, so they preach just enough of what the congregation wants to hear to be kept on the payroll, but just enough of what they believe so that they can go to sleep at night.
Once again I want to thank the congregations where I have served. They have given me tremendous freedom to express my convictions, and in return I try my very best to give them every bit of evidence that I can for the conclusions that I hold. At times we have had genuine disagreements. Because of my education I cannot hold every teaching that was considered rock-solid certain back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My (admittedly limited) knowledge of Hebrew and Greek has opened doors of understanding to the text that I realize few will have the opportunity to walk through. But I do try my best to explain difficult concepts and my changing point of view. And one thing I do repeatedly: I am up front and very vocal about my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture and how my role as an exegete and theologian is to stand under that text, not to stand over it. My audience may disagree with me about some fine points about the text, but I hope that none have the idea that I doubt any of the truths recorded in the text.
So, my dialectical view of the position of authority and education within the church is this: One, if we are going to hire a man with a set higher degree of education we need to give him the freedom to share that knowledge. In fact, we should encourage him to obtain more. But two, if that man no longer believes what he knows his congregation believes he should confess that lack of belief and pack his bags and get out. Judas betrayed the Son of God, and then at least had the courage to kill himself.
We are plagued with church members who disparage education and do all they can to make sure the men who preach for them are only educated in a few narrowly selected “sound” Bible schools that only seek to promote a level of learning that was meaningful a century ago. On the other hand we are plagued with men who do not even have the courage to resign an affluent position as pulpit minister for a church they no longer love, believe in, or seek to promote.
I am really not sure which is worse. I do know the solution: we need highly educated men who are totally dedicated to Jesus Christ as their Lord and to the inspired Word of God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ as his very body here on earth. It has been done before, it can be done again. Do we have the faith to see that it is done?
(sorry for the length of this post – I guess I got a little preachy!)
As I have been carrying on a delightful conversation with several others regarding music in the worship service, it occurred to me that there are two issues behind the current discussion of worship styles. One is the visceral attachment we have to the form of worship we feel is appropriate. This is true whether you are speaking to a high church Catholic or a low church Pentecostal. How we worship has become every bit as significant to us as who we worship. I am not saying this is right or proper. I am just making a statement of fact as I see it. If you doubt me just erect a crucifix (a crucifix, not a cross) in your church building and note the response. If you are “high church” it probably is already there. If you are “low church” you will probably be looking for a new place to worship next week.
But the second issue that I feel is lurking beneath the surface of this discussion is the complicated topic of hermeneutics. For the uninitiated, I am using that technical term to denote “the manner in which we derive and apply the basic meaning of a passage of Scripture.” (Paul Smith definition). Hermeneutics differs from exegesis in this regard – exegesis is the process by which we determine what the text meant. We use grammars, word studies, and historical notes to figure out to the best of our ability what the author was saying to his (or her) original audience. Hermeneutics moves to the question, what does the text mean? Two individuals may agree in essence about the exegesis of a passage, and yet have profound differences of opinion about the hermeneutics of the passage.
The impasse of hermeneutics is the reason I believe so many people talk past each other and not to each other in this conversation. It is almost like we are using the same words, but we are using two different dictionaries to define those words. If that is the case no wonder we cannot come to a common point of departure, let alone a common final understanding.
Those who have been raised within the Churches of Christ are used to hearing a “command, example and necessary inference” (CENI) form of hermeneutics. This language basically comes from Thomas Campbell‘s Declaration and Address, where he states in his proposition #3,
That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them in terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent
Campbell was painstaking in his discussion that it was only by “express terms or approved precedent” that decisions ought to be made. Throughout the years the “necessary inference” idea has crept in, and now it ranks as high, if not higher, in some minds that the direct command and approved example. Such is the problem with any hermeneutic. It starts out as a human construct, and within a few decades it is equated with the word of God that it is supposed to interpret.
I would like to suggest before we enter into discussions that carry such heavy emotional baggage that we first sit down and discuss the question, “What is your view of Scripture, and how do you apply that Scripture to current issues?” If we can create a common “dictionary” by which to define our words, we might stand a lot better chance of coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion. Maybe not. Maybe I am living in a dream world. But I know for certain that starting the conversation with bullets and hand grenades has not provided a very healthy environment for solving complicated issues.
Within the New Testament we can see several types of hermeneutics – Matthew’s use of prophecy/fulfillment, the Hebrews author and his use of the “greater than/much more than,” and the apostle Paul’s use of typology seen especially in Galatians 4:21 and following. Jesus himself used the story of Jonah as a “prediction” of his time in the grave (Mt. 12:39-40). Personally, I would not feel comfortable in making any of those conclusions. But, that is where the inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes in, in my understanding of inspiration. In the intervening years there have been many attempts at arriving at a universal hermeneutic. The medieval scholars arrived at a four-fold hermeneutic, stating that each passage of Scripture had a literal meaning, a symbolic meaning, a moral meaning, and an anagogical meaning. Whew! And I thought CENI was confusing.
For my own part, I have wrestled with the idea of the interpretation of Scripture, and my own feeble attempt at a “hermeneutic” can be seen in my “Fourteen Truths of Theological Reflection” on a separate page of this blog. It is by no means binding, but it lets folks know where I am coming from, and if they want to engage me in conversation I am up-front with how I view Scripture, and how that Scripture is controlling for me. I am deeply indebted to the Christological hermeneutic of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (See his Creation and Fall, and Christ the Center). But I am a mere human, and I know that ultimately it is not what I say that matters, but it is what the Scriptures say. It is my duty as a theologian, however, to make that message as clear and understandable as I can.
If you have been confused about my posts on music, or any other post for that matter, I hope this helps you understand at least a little more of where I am coming from, and where I want to go. After all, any pilot who will be flying in the fog had better have a very precise idea of how he plans on navigating to his destination and landing once he gets there, or it is downright suicidal to take off. Having survived some real scares in the aviation world, I don’t want to do that in the world of theology.
(Next Post – the use of “Necessary Inference” and the problem of binding human deductions upon others).
What does it mean to listen to the text of the Bible? That question, of course, has been answered in many different forms throughout the centuries. With the arrival of the scientific revolution the answer to that question took a significant turn to the left. Prior to the 18th century (give or take a decade or two) it was generally understood that the text of the Bible had multiple meanings, but whatever meaning that was assigned to it, the idea that the text had life changing meaning was not seriously questioned.
But when man started questioning everything about his existence and then put the Bible under the same microscope the voice of the text was forever changed. Suddenly if there was a historical question or mathematical problem the validity of the entire text was questioned. The message of Genesis was discarded because of the difference in creation accounts in chapters one and two, and also because of the different names for God. The Pentateuch itself was marginalized because of some evidence that pointed to editorial reworking and a late date of writing. Isaiah suddenly became a mishmash of three different authors writing over a period of about 300 years. Daniel was moved to a post exilic date of composition, thereby negating the prophetic nature of the book. The gospels became heavily edited compositions of dubious character, many books that bore Paul’s name were actually 2nd century forgeries. It is a wonder that anything of the original Bible survived.
Of course, with this challenge came the expected backlash. “Fundamentalism” declared that every word of the text was inspired and inerrant (according to human definitions, not textual definitions), and every jot and tittle had to be explained and justified, regardless of some of the ridiculous explanations that were more far fetched than the original problem. A basic misunderstanding of the nature of the writing under consideration led to many of these well intentioned but never-the-less false defenses of the text (see Gen. 1-3).
What the non-believer (or even a Christian) faced in the early 1800’s was a bewildering array of opinions concerning the text of the Bible. On one extreme the book was simply a collection of myths and fairy tales, on the other it was a copy of the veritable handwriting of God. Over the past 200 years we have learned more about the world of the original authors of the Bible, and we have clarified many of the misunderstandings of previous expositors. For the statement of my own examination and study, I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, true and complete in every aspect as determined and defined by the text itself. That is to say I do not want to place a 21st century understanding over the text that forces it to be something it never claimed to be. I want to let poetry be poetry, prophecy be prophecy, gospel be gospel, letter be letter, and apocalypse be apocalypse. That does not sit well with liberal reconstructionists nor fundamentalist hyper literalists. That is fine with me because I believe both extremes to be in error, and of the same basic type of error.
Both liberals and hyper fundamentalists place a human rubric over the text that tells the text it must conform to their own human understanding. The goals are 180 degrees opposite to each other, to be sure, but the process is identical. The liberals want the text to be the result of human composition. The fundamentalists preach a divine origin, but they expect that divine inspiration will fit their human estimation of what the divine inspiration should be. Neither side wants to admit it, but they are both saying the same thing. Ultimately, what matters to both the liberals and the fundamentalists is that the human mind can control the text. That, in my opinion, is the sin of human pride.
Let’s go back to how the text was viewed from the birth of Christ through, say, the 1600’s into the early 1700’s. Yes, man was still pre-scientific. But in this dark and even barbaric time the divine word was still allowed to be the divine word. I am touched by the deep and abiding faith of an Anselm or a Thomas a Kempis, or of Ignatius of Loyola, or of Francis or of Bernard. They simply read the text, listened to it as if they were hearing the word of God, and then went out and obeyed it. They didn’t dissect it, analyze it, put it under a linguistic or cultural microscope. When Luther read Romans he felt like God was speaking to him directly, just as with Augustine. And, I might add, just like the apostle Paul felt when he read the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s word was not a text book, but a life book. It was a record of God’s voice, and it was meant to be heard and obeyed.
This has been a rambling post, I admit. Perhaps I can flesh out some of my ideas more in future entries. I just wanted to share what I feel like is a huge need in the church today – the need to listen to the text, and not turn it into a scientific problem. I have to admit my own hubris in this issue. I am somewhat of a textual nerd, and even though I am not an expert by any means, I all too often find myself relying on my analytical skills more than my ears and my heart to discern the meaning of the text. This is wrong, and if we are to revive the church we must begin by listening to the text and not dictating to the text.
Unlike many in the church today I do not want to discredit or throw stones at my religious forebears. They were struggling with issues that I do not fully comprehend, and their struggles with the text have served to advance my own understanding by light years. But I do not want to build a temple where they pitched their tent for the night. God’s word is living and active, and I want to listen to that text and allow it to shape and reshape my life in Christ.
I appreciate any feedback you may have – as many before me have said, I am just an apprentice in the life of Christ, and I depend upon many for guidance.