Is Holy Scripture Sufficient?

The expanse of 2000 years of Church history means that one is forced to be more precise and specific than some prior ages might have required, because as Thomas Schreiner has written, “controversy is the furnace in which clearer theology is formed.” Distinguishing between the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of it is one of those furnaces, and indeed, while both are doubted, there is a need to parse the implications of saying Scripture is neither primary nor enough for our knowledge of Jesus. I recently interacted with a few people on Twitter after something I said about Scripture. My statement was this:

Have you heard someone say that the incarnate Word is greater than the written word?   The only way we know about the incarnate Word is from the written word.

My intent with this was to counter what has become a common sentiment with some, that Jesus is greater than Scripture, and that the true Word of God is Jesus Himself, with an intent to downgrade the Scriptures as a way of knowing Jesus. Of course the Son of God is the fullest revelation of God to us—but this does not imply a contrast with Scripture. This is what I object to. I did get some questions asking whether Jesus is not known through the sacraments, or in the worship of the church. In these cases, it is still an appeal to Scripture, because the establishment of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are grounded in Scripture, as well as how we know how to worship. The person posing this question agreed that these do not represent different ways of knowing about Jesus, only derivative ways (from Scripture) of knowing.

An example of the position I am critical of is expressed by Brian Zahnd, in his foreword to Keith Giles book, Jesus Unbound. “With Sola Scriptura as a defiant battle cry there always lurked the temptation to place more weight on the Bible than it could bear, or worse yet, a temptation to deify the Bible and make an idol out of it… So while pretending to ‘take the Bible as it is,’ the fundamentalist reads the Bible through thick lenses of cultural, linguistic, political, and theological assumptions— interpretive lenses they are unaware of wearing.”[1]

(I cite Zahnd only because he has spoken publicly, but there are many others expressing the same or similar views.)

As one reads on, one sees that “placing more weight on the Bible than it could bear” seems to be interpreting Scripture in ways Zahnd disagrees with. Moreover, everyone comes to Scripture with many assumptions, including Zhand. Stating it as he has gives the impression that while others are blind to their own biases, he is not. If he believes this, it is as much hubris as he avers proponents of biblicism to hold. I am reminded of the illustration of the 3 blind men feeling their way around an elephant, each describing it differently. Every person only has a limited perspective on the truth, and we are blind to what we don’t see. What is needed is a perspective that sees the whole of it. Tim Keller exposes the folly of this, however. “The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?”[3] Are critics of “biblicism” alone able to see the whole elephant?

Identifying false dichotomies

Zahnd goes on to say, “we don’t start with the Bible; we start with Jesus and the church. Why? Because Jesus is Lord, not the Bible. Christians worship Jesus, not the Bible. Jesus is the head of the church, not the Bible.”[2] To say that Jesus is the true Word of God while Scripture is not, or is in some lesser sense the Word of God is to embrace a division that is both unnecessary and unhelpful. A variation on this theme is to say that it is the Spirit that guides us into the truth, and the Spirit was of course doing this before the canon of Scripture. Both of these positions create a false dichotomy that makes no sense. One wonders in saying, “Jesus is Lord, not the Bible” whether Zahnd means to affirm that the Bible does not carry the authority of Jesus, or that he is not, through the Holy Spirit, speaking in and through the Scriptures? The contrast Zahnd draws is a false one. The church he encourages us to start with has always believed Scripture to be the revelation of God not in contrast with Jesus,

Consider the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. At the conclusion of it, the rich man, in torment in Hell, begs Abraham to send Lazarus—dead as well—to warn his brothers. Abraham counters that they have Moses and the Prophets, “Let them hear them.” It isn’t too much to say that the rich man asks for a miracle, indeed, for a demonstration of the supernatural, of the working of the Spirit.

But Abraham again demurs, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:27-31) In other words, the Scriptures and the witness of them are able to convict and convert them, apart from seeing someone rise from the dead. The Scriptures are the means of conviction and indeed, conversion. What the rich man desires, the Scriptures are able to do, indeed, by the Spirit’s enabling.

The book which Zahn wrote the foreword to contains more such downgrading of Scripture. Keith Giles casts doubt on the idea the only way we can know God is through the Scriptures.

“If the Word of God is Jesus, and if Jesus now lives within me, then I have the Word of God inside of me. Maybe this means that we can know Christ the way we know our own voice, or our own heartbeat, because He is alive within us. The Scriptures also tell us that we “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) right now and that we can discern “the things that come from the Spirit of God…because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:15) and this Spirit is now alive within us.”[4]

Again the question is whether the voice we hear within us will lead us in ways that are contrary to Scripture? There have been many throughout history who have claimed to speak for God. Is Islam, with a view of God that is very different from what we read in the Christian Bible, an example of hearing God’s voice? Mohammed believed God revealed truth to him. Joseph Smith, too, received a revelation he believed to be from God. Is the Mormon view of God one we should embrace? What criteria would one use to determine this?

Giles also suggests, “not only can we all hear our Master’s voice individually, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit who “leads us into all truth” (John 16:13), as Jesus promised us.”[5]

But this is at odds with what Zahnd says in his foreword—that was start with the church. Starting with the church means listening to the witness of the church as to the truth of Scripture and of whom it speaks. Affirming that the witness of the Spirit within believers will work apart from Scripture runs counter to what the church has always believed.

The Edge Cases: We shouldn’t make the exception the rule

I want to say a word about those views which I believe are the edge cases, but don’t represent any kind of commonly held position among evangelicals, and which may in fact be little more than poor expressions of a truth. A friend tweeted that “the Bible is not God”—and promptly got a few people who did insist no, “the Bible IS God.” I think these people are, in the main, likely expressing a view on the authority of Scripture, but expressing it very poorly indeed. They know that Scripture is God’s Word, and want to affirm that, but to say the Bible is God is nonsense. Consider a legal affidavit that is signed and notarized, specifying the wishes of one who issued it. Assume it is for the disbursement of funds, yet the agent will not accept the affidavit, wanting to hear from the owner himself. We would say that the affidavit carries all the authority of the one who issued it, and in the affidavit, you do hear from the owner. I suspect those equating the Bible with God are trying to avoid such a situation—one, in fact, that Zahnd’s position can indeed lead to: Scripture is not as authoritative as God.

Moreover, I have doubts that those expressing this are in fact worshiping their Bibles, bowing down to them, praying to Scripture. It is as ridiculous as it is unlikely. This, too, makes me think that saying God is the Bible is but a ham-handed attempt to affirm Scripture. This is not to say we shouldn’t correct wrong thinking such as this.

The other edge case bears hardly a mention, but those who equate God’s word with only one translation of Scripture also fall into a kind of idolatry. It is foolish, but here, too, the solution is not to downgrade the authority or sufficiency of Scripture, but to correct this misunderstanding, while affirming what is true of the Bible.

Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?

When the disciples were with Jesus and he spoke some hard sayings, many drew back. He asked the Twelve if they also wanted to go away. Peter answered that they knew Jesus alone had the words of eternal life. How does one go to Jesus today for the words of eternal life? The eyewitnesses are long gone from the scene, and in their stead we have what Peter calls “the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” (2 Pet 1:19)  That Peter is speaking of the Scriptures is clear from what he next says. “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” (2 Pet 1:20)

Paul, also, speaks of the same sure ability of Holy Scripture to guide us when he says to Timothy, “you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:15-16) In both cases, Peter and Paul are speaking of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament. If this power is there for that part of Scripture, does anyone believe it is not the case for the New Testament?

Perhaps the largest unanswered question with an approach that says Jesus is the Word of God rather than Scripture is this: Where does one turn to know about Jesus? Where do I find his promises, his warnings, his imperatives? How might I know him? Giles and Zahnd have no cogent answer if they dismiss the sufficiency of Scripture in the life of Christians. While they say Scripture is very important, they also repeatedly affirm Jesus is known apart from and outside of Scripture. But Jesus himself pointed to the Hebrew Bible as the foundation of what he did and said. On the Emmaus road,  he said to the two, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:26-27) The apostle Paul did the same, “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass.” His ministry and message were ground in the Hebrew Bible. Here, too, we find no division, no false choice of Jesus or Scripture. Rather, Jesus through Scripture.

The approach that says we can or should know Jesus apart from the Bible, that we should demote its place in the life of the Christian, such an approach doesn’t solve any of the challenges in reading Scripture, and indeed, few deny the challenges are there. Rather, it shifts the locus where we look for truth to something other than God’s revelation in Scripture. Whether it’s the inner voice, or other people, these are ultimately not as trustworthy as God’s Word. This approach doesn’t clarify, it only adds one more voice to the interpretive din.

 

[1] Keith Giles. Jesus Unbound. Quoir. Kindle Edition., p. 11.

[2]Ibid. p. 13.

[3]Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 9.

[4]Giles, p. 43.

[5] Giles, Loc. Cit.

 

Read Your Bible Slowly

The statistics on Bible engagement among Americans are not encouraging. They have not been for several years. The latest research from Barna shows that the number of Americans who are “Bible Centered” dropped from 9% down to 5%. Bible-Centered is defined as those who “Interact with the Bible frequently. It is transforming their relationships and shaping their choices.”[1] That is a subjective measure, but the category next to that one, “Bible Engaged” has a similar definition. “It is transforming their relationship with God and others.”[2] (It is odd that the more engaged category would not list a transformed relationship with God.) Nevertheless, one of the key points is this. “More than one-third of adults (35%) reports never using the Bible in 2019, a 10 percentage point increase since 2011 (25%).”[3] The use of Scripture by the general public is decreasing, which puts a greater burden on Christians.

As the public knows less of Scripture, and has no shared heritage rooted in Scripture, the task of evangelizing and apologetics becomes more difficult. One cannot count on hearers agreeing with things such as God is holy, or that he is just. One cannot count on agreement with the Bible’s definition of sin, or of salvation. All of this means that a thorough understanding of God’s redemptive plan is not just a nice thing to have, but it is an essential part of the equipment every believer needs. That redemptive plan, the unfolding of salvation history, is what some know as biblical theology. This, as opposed to systematic theology. The latter takes a subject, collects all the verses in Scripture about that, and formulates a doctrine. Biblical theology looks at the whole plot line of Scripture and locates within it what God has done to advance his kingdom, his purposes, and it locates our place within that plan.

Another way to say this is that Christians need to rely less on proof-texting, and more on this overarching plot line.  Proof-texting does have its place. There are verses that speak clearly and definitively on a subject. The exclusivity of salvation in Christ is there in John 14:6. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But it’s also notable that this verse is found in John’s gospel. The beloved disciple is the one who spoke of truth far more than any other evangelist. His gospel uses the word 27 times; Matthew and Mark 3 times each, and Luke uses the word 5 times. The word “life” as well, John uses nearly 3 times more than any other gospel writer.

When we note this, we begin to construct a biblical theology. We see that this verse doesn’t appear in isolation, but is part of the Johannine portrayal of the Lord Jesus in a unique way. We start to notice how one writer uses words in a way the others do not. We fit this verse into a biblical context. That allows us to see how that book and its author fit into the sweep of biblical theology, and the unfolding of God’s plan. We move beyond what some view as glib answers to questions they may have about God, Scripture, and importantly, their own relationship to God. This sort of biblical theology comes by slow reading, it comes by turning back a few pages to see what has come before, and it comes by reading more than just a few verses each day.

If Christians are going to meet the challenges of the world we inhabit, if we are going to be able to demonstrate the authority of Scripture and of the God who authored it, we need to be slow, careful readers of the text, and do the hard work of constructing this sort of understanding of God’s Word. Formulating this sort of biblical theology takes time, and can’t be rushed. But it’s vital for Christians to grasp this overarching sweep of God’s revelation that Scripture reveals. It is this centering on Scripture each of us needs.

 

[1] Barna Research “State of the Bible 2019: Trends in Engagement” https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible-2019/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

The Fallacy of Red Letterism as an Interpretive Grid

Most people have heard of “Red Letter Christians.” Who are they and what do they believe? According to redletterchristians.com, 

“Red Letter Christians is a movement that holds the teachings of Jesus—which are highlighted in red letters in many Bibles—as central to our understanding of the Bible. Christ is the lens through which we interpret the Word — and the world. Not only do we have words on paper, but the Word becomes flesh — in Jesus.”

This is not much different than what one person expressed on social media: 

Jesus’ actual life and teaching preceded the epistles, the contents of which were in circulation orally prior to being recorded in the gospels. We all have a functional canon within a canon, and a red letter one makes most sense since we are Christians, followers of Jesus.

This sounds fine, until you begin to work through the assumptions and implications of it. At a basic level, we need to recognize that the decision of which letters to make red is an editorial one—made by the people publishing your Bible. John 3 is a good example of how it is difficult to tell exactly where Jesus’ words may end, and where John’s words begin. It’s possible that the most famous verse in Scripture, John 3:16, are not words Jesus spoke, but what the apostle John recorded as commentary on the interview Jesus had with Nicodemus. However, it makes no difference whatsoever in terms of the authority of these words. To be fair, the demarcation in most places where Jesus speaks is clearer than the John 3 example. But one also has to contend with the synoptic differences. That is, in the same incidents, Jesus’ words differ slightly from one gospel to another. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus states them as, “Blessed are those who…” while in Luke’s version they are in the second person: “Blessed are you when…” 

The point is that the gospels represent the words the Holy Spirit wanted recorded about the life and ministry of Jesus. He used the four evangelists to do so, but quite clearly, the Holy Spirit is an editor, since there are slight differences in each gospel. If one’s view of inspiration is “these are the exact words that Jesus spoke” then it leads to difficulties in explaining the variations. If, on the other hand, one sees that these are the words that God inspired the evangelists to record, it is a truer representation of what we have in the gospels. The Holy Spirit was not active only in these four accounts of the life of Jesus. Luke wrote a gospel, but also the book of Acts. Is Acts less the Word of God than his gospel because it contains far fewer words of Jesus?

The usual way in which this sort of hermeneutical principle is presented is that the words of Jesus have priority and thus a controlling influence on how we read the rest of Scripture. Some have in particular called attention to the epistles of Paul, to set these in contrast to Jesus’ words. In an interaction with someone espousing this, I asked for concrete examples, that is, which texts in Paul’s letters are being misunderstood, or misapplied because we are paying insufficient attention to the words of Jesus? No examples could be cited. Another person offered the case of German Christians appealing to Romans 13—submission to authorities—as such an example. By privileging this over what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount against violence, this violates the principle of reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus. But this is not a compelling example. One can go back just a few verses into Romans 12 and find plenty that would represent a renunciation of violence. 

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Rom. 12:17-19. 

This is just as much a case of not reading all of Paul coherently, rather than ignoring the words of Jesus.

None of this is to say that the words of Jesus are unimportant. But it is sometimes the case that what we mean by the words of Jesus are not what is recorded in the gospels, but our inferences of his words. It represents a kind of Midrash on these words. We may extrapolate from our sense of the ethics of Jesus, and where no commentary is made on a matter directly, we construct what seems to us to be in harmony with this ethic.  “If Jesus were on the earth today, I think he’d _______.” This may mean we affirm something the epistles denounce, with the justification that Jesus cared more that people are compassionate toward one another than that they are doctrinally correct. To cite one example, Jesus told the Jews that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) There is some doctrinal content that is necessary. It defines who Jesus is, and if one redefines Jesus outside the biblical parameters, one cannot say they believe Jesus’ self-revelation.

But it can also define compassion differently than a full reading of Scripture would support. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, the Proverbs says.  Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” In other words, love and truth belong together, and are never set against one another in any kind of hierarchy in Scripture. We are not more compassionate toward others if we withhold the truth from them. As many have noted, Jesus spoke more of hell than just about anyone else in Scripture. Believing it insensitive or lacking in compassion to speak these truths is not, in fact, loving.

We also need to recognize the genre differences between the gospels and other writings of the New Testament. The gospels are mainly narrative, and while they do contain direct teaching, they contain much that isn’t, or that is parabolic teaching. The epistles, on the other hand, are exhortation, encouragement, correction—all of which was suited to the local congregations that received the letters, and by extension, any and every congregation. It can be challenging to take narrative sections of Scripture, attempt to draw out a principle, and set it against parenesis that is clear. Indeed, sometimes it ends up creating a conflict where one should not exist, and the result is that those clear passages in the epistles are reinterpreted by the narrative sections in the gospels; sections which may (or may not) contain the principle someone insists is there. 

We need gospels and epistles, history and apocalypse. We need all of the New Testament to understand God’s will and plan for believers. Paul insisted his words were the words of the Lord, not secondary, but God’s true word. As I haven’t really seen good examples of where this is happening, I have to conclude that Red Letterism is a solution in search of a problem.

 

 

Biblical Theology Comes from Reading More of the Bible

Most Christians at least acknowledge the fact that reading through all of Scripture is something they should do. One hears complaints about the great difficulties of making it through Leviticus, the implication being that it is so far removed from our contemporary experience that it is rough sledding indeed to push on. I recall being part of a study a few years ago on the last four books of the Pentateuch, and one participant remarked at how good the study had been for him, because “I’ve always been a New Testament kind of guy, and didn’t really read the Old Testament.”

This is less surprising than it should have been to me. In 2018, Crossway publishers surveyed readers about their Bible reading habits and found some startling responses.

Among 6,000 readers (and one assumes since they are signed up to receive Crossway emails that they are Christians) about a third of them have read Numbers, 1st and 2nd Chronicles, or Ezra in the last three years. Among some of the minor prophets, nearly half of readers have read these books only in the last three years. Judging from the graphic, it appears about 15% of readers have never read some of the minor prophets.

The result of this is an impoverished understanding of God’s truth. If we are reading infrequently (or not at all) we will have a poor grasp of the plot-line of Scripture, and of what God is doing, what he has planned. That theological and biblical illiteracy are at high levels within the professing church is without question. Those levels are attributable to a failure to read all of Scripture. Proof-texting one’s way to a view of some particular teaching is common, but a whole Bible understanding of how a doctrine fits in with all of revelation, much less so. Biblical theology, (as distinct from systematic theology) is the understanding of this plot-line of Scripture, the unfolding of all that God has done, is doing, and will do.

In his book, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, John S. Feinberg writes about his father, Charles Feinberg. The elder Feinberg is not so well known as he should be, but he served as the first president of Fuller Theological Seminary. On his father’s Bible reading habits, Feinberg noted this:

“For my father didn’t read just a few verses or even a chapter or two each day. Rather, it was his habit each day to read ten pages in the OT and five pages in the NT. Dad had seen a Bible reading plan that showed that if one reads the aforementioned number of pages each day, one would read through the whole Bible four times every year! As a result of following this strategy, during his lifetime my father read through the whole Bible well over one hundred times.”[1]

Some Christians commit to read through the Bible each year, but Feinberg’s plan takes it beyond this. Rather than measuring by chapters (you can get through the whole Bible in a year by reading about 3.5 chapters per day), reading 15 pages a day means that you get a greater portion, and indeed, a grander sweep.

What you notice by reading larger portions are the overarching themes, the detail that appeared 7 chapters back, but had you read it two days prior, you might have forgotten. Reading in a larger portion promotes biblical theology. It promotes a drone’s-eye view of the unfolding drama of redemption. I’ve been following Feinberg’s plan, and I have seen these benefits. I can’t see going back to reading less of God’s Word each day. This, too, is one of the effects of the living Word of God—it increases your appetite for God and his plans. If you’re putting in here and there, reading piecemeal, it’s more difficult to get these benefits. If you struggle with Bible reading consistently, the solution may in fact be to read more. I recommend this method for your consideration.

 

[1] John S Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, (Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2018), 763.

When Deconstruction Becomes Destruction

It is, I think, an unfortunate choice of words that some speak of examining their belief system as “deconstructing faith.” It is unfortunate because the origins of deconstruction are in literary critical theory, a theory that has no particular regard for objective truth. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of deconstruction is that there is no such thing as truth, there is only culturally conditioned understandings of our world.

One should distinguish between this and revising the tenets of a belief system because we find something to be unscriptural or unreconcilable with Scripture.

For example, if I through my upbringing am led to believe that a minister of the gospel must wear special vestments while performing his ministerial duties, yet I come to see through research and investigation that such was never part of the early church, I should revise this to say I no longer believe it necessary for a minister to wear such clothes. Is this a “deconstruction” of belief? Perhaps it is, but most of the deconstruction one sees is not as innocuous as this.

The deconstruction we see most frequently is, at the core, a hermeneutical enterprise. That is, it gets at our approach to the text of Scripture, and at its authority. If I am convinced that there is no reading of Scripture that is not culturally conditioned, and that the biases and presuppositions we each bring to the text color our understanding, I may conclude that a true and accurate understanding of Scripture is not possible. Indeed, this is where some arrive when they have thoroughly “deconstructed” their faith.

But such a sharp dichotomy is far too facile an understanding of what is possible. Our understanding of language and text is rarely such that we say we understand absolutely everything, or absolutely nothing.  D.A. Carson comments on such a misconception.

“Although none of us ever knows any complicated thing exhaustively, we can know some things truly. Our confidence in what we know may not enjoy the certainty of Omniscience, but it is not condemned to futility. Even a child may believe and understand the truth of the proposition “God loves the world,” even when the child’s knowledge of God, love, and the world is minimal, and her grasp of Johannine theology still less (John 3:16). With patient study and increased learning and rising experience, a believer may come to understand a great deal more about the proposition “God loves the world” than does the child.”[1]

And it is here where many assume that through their deconstruction they are freeing themselves from oppressive or wrong-headed beliefs of their former community. Thus “Exvangelicals” point a finger at abuses within the evangelical world and stand apart from it. But it’s less often considered whether this is but an exchange of one culturally-conditioned understanding of Christianity for another. If one cannot know anything with certainty, then one cannot know that the new interpretive community is any truer than the last. Indeed, by the principles of deconstruction, one can in fact affirm it is not truer—only different.

The outcome of much deconstruction is a backdoor scuttling of both the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The line of thinking proceeds something like this: Scripture may be inerrant and infallible (or not) but our interpretations of it are certainly fallible. For this reason, no interpretation of Scripture is to be favored or privileged over any other. They all have equal validity. The personal experience of readers then assumes an outsized role in how we understand God’s Word, or whether God has spoken authoritatively at all. But all readers haven’t done the same work or study of the text. To say that someone reading John’s gospel for the first time has an interpretive position of equal validity to one who has studying the text for decades is ridiculous. We treat no other human endeavor in such a way

There are revisions to our understanding of Scripture we can undertake. But we shouldn’t confuse the setting aside of human tradition or of cultural accretions with an embrace of uncertainty and confusion. Deconstruction leads to destruction if we think that our limitations in understanding mean that God has not given us a revelation, has not spoken with an intent that we do understand him.  John writes that “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Revelation as a basis for faith, and the knowledge of God—this is why John wrote. Luke, also, told Theophilus he was writing “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4) None of us knows exhaustively, but Scripture is given such that we may know sufficiently and confidently. If your deconstruction leads you away from this, it’s taken you in the wrong direction.


[1] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 121-122.

Notes from the Resistance: How the Old Testament Continues to Assert its Value

I have written before about the “unhitching” of the Old Testament from the New, and the furor caused by some suggestions Andy Stanley made in his preaching. My previous post considered some statements he had made in public speaking. Having now read his book, Irresistible, I want to consider some of what’s in it and whether it offers a better explanation of his public preaching. There was a strong reaction against Stanley, and the invocation of “Marcionism” over what he was saying. I don’t believe he has embraced full blown Marcionism. Stanley is not claiming there is a separate God in the Old Testament from the God of the New, but at the same time, I can’t go with him in his suggestions that Christianity does not need the Old Testament.

The Mosaic Covenant and the Christian

Stanley is absolutely correct in highlighting the differences between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. He enumerates the long centuries of Judaizing that have plagued the church, including some discontinuities between Old and New Covenants. “Why do some churches have priests?” (p. 90) Stanley points out the temporality between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. (“Jesus had come to put in place something designed to fulfill and replace all that had been in place before.” (p. 77) The types and shadows of the law find their fulfillment in Jesus, as Hebrews explains) and the Mosaic Covenant is brought to an an end by Jesus, as 2nd Corinthians 3, among other places, explains. Stanley also is right in saying that the Old Covenant is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can’t cherry pick it. (p. 143) (Though this is indeed what many people do with the laws of the Mosaic Covenant.)
He correctly notes the real continuity is between the Abrahamic Covenant (a covenant that preceded the Mosaic) and the New. “The inauguration of a new covenant signaled the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.” (p. 85)

The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian

Earlier in the book, Stanley writes, “I’m not discounting the importance of the Jewish Scriptures. When it comes to Jewish sacred texts, I’m with Jesus, his view is my view.” (p. 69) But the later parts of the book undercut this statement, and indeed, demonstrate a view that is quite different from the one Jesus had. At the core of much of what Stanley worries about is the way in which the Old Covenant can “get in the way” of our evangelizing. (This is my paraphrase of his concern.) In short, if we have to explain why there is so much violence, arcane rules, in short—defend the harmony of both Testaments, it is something that too few Christians can do in a way that convinces non-Christians or new believers. The result is that those who hear the gospel balk at so much of what is in the Bible, while new Christians can end up “de-converted” because the tension has become too great for them to reconcile.

The problem with this approach is that it is not the way Jesus or the apostles dealt with the Jewish Scriptures. Stanley too often conflates Old Covenant with Hebrew Scripture. “Christianity has a compelling, verifiable, historical story to tell. The moment we anchor our story to an old covenant narrative and worldview, we lose our case in the marketplace.” (p. 158) Perhaps Stanley is just being inexact here, not distinguishing enough between Mosaic Covenant and Hebrew Bible, but it does bring the mind what Jesus himself said in Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” While the reference to Moses includes the history of Abraham, the inclusion of “all the Prophets” makes it very likely that Jesus spoke of all 5 books of the Pentateuch and the rest of Israel’s history, too. That is, he leveraged the Jewish Scriptures to demonstrate that he, the Christ, is found throughout. That is even more undeniable by what Luke records later in the chapter. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Lk. 24:45. The Lord Jesus himself shows how even in the law—obsolete as it is—points us to him.
Paul wrote that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully. Without question, there is a lot of unlawful and unwise use of the law today, but Paul also showed how justification by faith is found in the “law” as well, that is, in Moses. But Stanley dismisses this sort of use of the Hebrew Scriptures with such statements as “The Jewish Scriptures describe God’s activity in connection to one particular people group.” (p. 161) This is at odds with apostolic use of the Jewish Scriptures. When Paul writes that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to justification by faith, and that this justification is for both Jew and Gentile (Rom 3:21-23) it is not a description of God’s activity only with the Jews.

How do you know what you know?

A lot of Stanley’s method is to get beyond a mere reliance on things like “the Bible says” in order to convince unbelievers of the truth of the Christian gospel. “As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture, and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people beyond Scripture.” (p. 314) But this is wordplay. How do we know what Jesus said, or what Paul said? We only know it because of what we have written in Scripture. Appealing to eyewitnesses was valid as long as there remained living eyewitnesses. But now we have the record of those eyewitnesses, and to suggest the written record is somehow less valuable, less trustworthy, is dangerous. I can’t help wondering about Stanley’s view of the power of God’s word. That is, in his concern to be relevant to the surrounding culture with the gospel, he seems to dismiss God’s ability to use his word to convict and convert, as if our time and culture are unique. I don’t believe they are, nor do I think the gospel somehow faces longer odds than it ever has. God’s word is still powerful, living and active. We don’t need to accommodate it to the culture, we need to preach it.

Love above all

One of the things Stanley points out in the stark difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant is that love is the guiding principle of our ethic now. How do we treat others? With love. Why do we not murder? Not because the 6th Commandment says not to, but because as followers of Jesus it is wholly unloving to do so. Indeed, Paul exhorts us “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Eph 5:1-2. All of this is true, but if we cast aside the authority of Scripture, what keeps us from applying the love principle not as God defines it, but as we do? In other words, what prevents someone from saying that just as the Hebrew Scriptures have no lasting applicability to believers now, in fact, neither does the New Testament have any such applicability. What matters above all else is love, and if we want to win in the marketplace of ideas, we have to go to what they understand. Much of Western culture is decrying Christianity and the ethic that accompanies it as intolerant and unloving. I see no reason at all for someone who takes Stanley’s logic about the Hebrew Scriptures from doing the same thing with the New Testament. Indeed, there are examples all around of many who have done just that.

Stanley hints at the proper solution to the dilemma he addresses, and that is, to rightly divide the Word; to see what is applicable to Israel, and what is applicable to Christians. But that is not the same as casting aside the Hebrew Bible as no longer relevant. Paul wrote to Timothy that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 3:15) Paul is talking about the Hebrew Scriptures when he says that are able to make wise unto salvation. In other words, there is gospel in the Old Testament.
No one doubts that reconciling the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament presents challenges, but the solution to this is not capitulation, but further study. The faithfulness of God to his people in the Old Testament is a vivid portrait to us of our promise-keeping God. The sentiments expressed in the Psalms, while not all of them are those we can echo, are yet a rich trove of praise to the God whose lovingkindness endures forever. Christians today need encouragement that there is inestimable value in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are as surely God’s Word as the latter 27 books.

The Counterpoint of Truth

One of the delights of musical training is to see the connections between the discipline of music and that of other areas of life, most notably, theology.

I thought about this recently with regard to the fugue. A fugue is a musical form that has distinct parameters, and which great composers have exploited. Bach was, as in most things, the master.
A fugue begins with a single voice, playing a melody, called the subject. That very same melody comes in a few measures later and joins the first voice, which continues on. A third voice, and possibly a fourth joins as well. The “Little Fugue” in g minor is an excellent example of this.
The composer will do various things with the subject of the fugue, such as change it to major if it was in minor, or vice versa. Perhaps it will be inverted—turning the intervals of the subject upside down.

What does this have to do with theology? Scripture presents various themes; repeats and develops them throughout the books of the Bible. Consider the theme of redemption. In Genesis 3:15, we get a hint of the gospel in the promise of the “proto-evangel” when God tells the serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.

This is the first “sounding” of the subject of redemption. In Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac, the theme recurs and is a little more developed. There we have the ram caught in the thicket, taking the place of Isaac. As Abraham answered his son, “God will himself provide the lamb,” Similarly, in Isaiah 53 we have the theme again repeated. One could find other themes, such as the Kingdom of God, or the covenant with the nation of Israel that are similarly “sounded” and developed throughout Scripture.

If we find a “melody” that clashes with the previous, perhaps there’s a wrong note. If one were to say “I have found a spot in Scripture that teaches we must work for our salvation” that would be inconsistent with the rest, and thus suspect. I don’t want to push the analogy too far, but the fugue subject has to be consistent with the others.  Another way to look at this is the difference between systematic theology and biblical theology. We need both to ensure we’re faithful to God’s revelation.

Is the Metaphor of God as Father Incorrect?

What are the limits of language when we speak of God’s person and essence? What can we say definitively about God that does not lapse into sentimental anthropomorphizing? These questions aren’t new, but they are recent news due to the remarks of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby stated that it is wrong to think of God as male or female.

“God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable. It is extraordinarily important as Christians that we remember that the definitive revelation of who God is was not in words, but in the word of God who we call Jesus Christ. We can’t pin God down.”

Welby is is correct that our human comprehension is limited, and thus our understanding of the infinite God is limited. And yes, God is not a father in the same sense as any human being is a father. But we should be careful that we don’t reject those places where God has given us a clear revelation about his person and work, telling us who he is and what he has done. Welby is on shakier ground in stating that God is not definable.

God has revealed himself in the Scriptures and given us warrant to use those metaphors that Scripture itself uses to refer to God. God is Spirit, we read in John 4:24. He does not have a body as we have, yet Scripture refers to him as a father, as he. That these are metaphors is beside the point. They are the metaphors he has chosen and recorded in Scripture. For many, this is the crux of the argument. As historian Diarmaid McCullough has argued,

“The reason God has been seen as male is simply the patriarchal assumptions of those societies . . . They reached for male terms as the people with power in that Greco-Roman world were male, so we use words like lord and king. The world is now different and we have to show that our view of God is wider than that and not get stuck with archaic terms.”

In other words, times have changed, and to refer to God as he or as a father just promotes the patriarchy. That’s entirely consistent with a view of Christianity that doesn’t see Scripture as authoritative. But for those who do, the sentiment can’t be squared with the revelation we have in both testaments.

Welby also goes down this road when he says that the definitive revelation of God was not in words, but in the person of Jesus. But how does the archbishop know anything about the person of Christ apart from the words of Scripture? He does not, nor can any of us. We have God’s record of his Son, his life, death, and resurrection recorded there for us. Scripture uses these metaphors of God as our father, our king, and that Jesus, the second person in the Trinity, came to earth as a man. Jesus referred to God as his Father, as “he.” The Holy Spirit chose to record the New Testament in Greek, where the pronoun αὐτος means he and αὐτὴ means she. The New Testament refers to God using the former. This is not an accident of history or a reinforcement of the patriarchy. This is the sovereign working of God to record his Word.

It is likewise a mistake to think that unless we use both “he” and “she” to describe God, our language is inadequate. Welby does not say this, but those who seize upon his words do, and that is part of the danger here. This is the language of accommodation, of demotion. It is imposing upon the infinite what fits into our interpretation, not of who he is, but of who we want him to be.

In short, it achieves just the opposite of what advocates of such language claim they want. If you are comfortable referring to God as “she” you’re not displaying a broad-minded and liberated understanding of the infinite God. You’re domesticating him to your own whims and ignoring the language Scripture itself has given us to comprehend him. If you struggle to understand the love of God unless you are able to refer to him as both father and mother, the problem is not with Scripture, but with your failure to grasp the richness of what the Bible has provided about him. Scripture teaches us how to refer to God. As with everything about him, our challenge and responsibility is to accomodate ourselves to his Word, not the Word to us.

Using God’s Words in Our God Talk

There is an ongoing conflict between what Americans say is important about their faith, and how we speak about it to the culture around us. This is, in part, what Jonathan Merritt says in his NY Times OpEd, It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God. I agree with much of what Merritt writes, but while he diagnoses a problem with our “God Talk,” he doesn’t offer a prescription to heal it. To be fair, his column is based on his book “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — And How We Can Revive Them.” It’s probable there is more in the book that gets to the recovery aspect of the problem, but from what is in the column, he seems to avoid some of the very things that would overcome this problem.

If we’re going to recover God Talk, we need to return to using the words God uses. Ironically, the desire to reach people with the gospel is in part responsible for the downgrade in how we discuss God. Recognizing that many Americans no longer have the biblical literacy of prior generations, the seeker-sensitive churches such as Willow Creek Community Church actively avoided using the words the Bible contains. Reporting about his visits to Willow Creek services, Gregory Pritchard says, “it wasn’t unusual for Hybels to use other terms to communicate the idea of sin, terms such as ‘dark side’, ‘shadow side’, ‘selfish’, ‘sin nature’, ‘evil thoughts’, ‘cosmic treason’, and having ‘not made the grade.'”[1]

Merritt does refer to sin, only to say that it, along with other words he had been accustomed to using, “now felt so negative that they lodged in my throat.” But this is exactly where the recovery of spiritual conversations must begin, by using the words God uses in Scripture to describe the cause of our separation from him. It is not our poor self-image, our social alienation, our lack of feeling validated or affirmed as human beings, it is sin that has separated us from God. Similarly, we should use the words found in Scripture for our relationship with him—reconciled, redeemed, loved.

The authority for our God Talk, the warrant for the words we use, is Scripture alone. All other sources are opinion and culturally situated, and culture of course changes. I recognize that Scripture itself comes with a culture and a set of assumptions, but this is just the point; if we are to have any spiritually worthwhile conversations about God, we must accommodate ourselves to the culture of God’s Word, rather than changing the words we use to fit the culture.

If the words of the biblical culture have become laden with overtones and connotations, the solution is not to give up on those words, but to bring people back to what Scripture means when it uses them. We need to re-enter the lexical atmosphere of Scripture, where God has used words like justification, sanctification, righteousness, and yes, sin, to talk about the state of our souls. Evangelical populism has conflated many of these words with American civil religion, and that has made the task more difficult for Christians wanting to use God’s words in our conversations. Those who believe the gospel is the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinful humanity must patiently correct those who believe the church exists to further a political agenda.

Significantly, Merritt does not refer to Scripture in his column. Though he does mention the fruit of the Spirit, he says these are words Christians use, rather than saying these are what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5.  There is specificity in these words, and thus honesty in what God is saying about us. Understanding that God is the authority behind these things, that they are not simply good ideas, that culture does not affect truth, this is what provides both confidence and humility when we discuss God/ One of the basic exercises of the soul before God is repentance, which means quite literally, to change one’s mind. Coming over to God’s side of a question, thinking his thoughts, means using his words to describe something. Christians need to repent of their functional biblical illiteracy, of preferring words that are not the ones God uses, and of thinking we can improve upon what he has written in Scripture.  Only there will we find help for how we should rightly speak of God.

 

[1]G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Evaluating A New Way of Doing Church, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1996), 177.

The Old Covenant is not the Hebrew Bible: The Hitch in Andy Stanley’s Recommendation

A recent sermon by megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has a lot of people criticizing him for everything from poorly worded teaching to Marcionism. Stanley doesn’t have a single text he preached from but loosely bases his sermon on the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and Galatians 2. His points are not well stated, and this is the source of the trouble. He wants to echo the sentiments of the apostles to say that when Gentiles come to faith, it is not necessary that they keep the law of Moses. This was the judgment of the Council and the substance of the Galatian epistle. Had Stanley stuck to that, his message wouldn’t have raised much ire. But he goes on say some things that are untrue and unhelpful. I don’t think they rise to the level of heresy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic.
 
Christianity is tethered to the Hebrew Bible
 
Stanley’s ministry is a seeker-sensitive model, and that informs how he presents his teaching. For people who haven’t grown up in the church, the Old Testament is a foreign country. To provide a more pleasant journey, Stanley seems to want to stick to what’s essential and drop what isn’t. And this is where he first goes wrong. At 4:06 in the message, he says this:
“When the church launched, the foundation of the faith of the early Christians was not a book (they didn’t have one.) It wasn’t the Bible, (there wasn’t one). It wasn’t the Old Covenant, or what we call the Old Testament or what they called the Law and the Prophets, because that didn’t tell the story of Jesus. The foundation of the faith for the early church was an event, it was the resurrection of Jesus.”
 
This sets up a false dichotomy. The resurrection of Jesus is the founding act of the church, but that doesn’t mean that the Old Testament is not the foundation of the church. Indeed, when the apostles preach the gospel in Acts, they constantly appeal to the Hebrew Bible (which they had) as the proof for the gospel. It is untrue to say the Jews had no Bible. When Paul writes to Timothy about the Sacred Scriptures he knew from his youth, he is referring to the Hebrew Bible. And when Jesus himself speaks to the two on the Emmaus road, he says “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:47)
The church cannot do without the Hebrew Bible because every doctrine of Scripture is there. Without question, there is progress in revelation, but the New Testament completes and does not negate the Old Testament. At a time of widespread biblical illiteracy, Christians should pay more, not less attention to the Old Testament.
 
The Mosaic Law is not the standard for Christians
 
The ironic and sad part of this controversy is that Stanley’s main point is an entirely valid one. Christians do not relate to God on the basis of the Mosaic law. While there is a continuum of views on this point, to some extent all Christians agree with Stanley on this. We do not insist on circumcision as a Christian ordinance, we do not keep the dietary laws, and we do not keep the vast majority of the other parts of the Mosaic code. While it’s convenient to dismiss a large part of the Mosaic law by partitioning it into moral, civil, and ceremonial, the apostle Paul and the New Testament never do this. The law is a unit in the New Testament, and when Paul tells the Romans that they have died to the law, there is no caveat that of course, the moral law remains. This is what makes Stanley’s remarks unfortunate. He notes that the standard for believers is actually much higher than the law of Moses. That is true, but it got lost in his denigration of the Hebrew Bible as Scripture.
 
If we read apostolic teaching carefully, Paul affirms we are released from the law, but when he tells the Galatians, he argues for this by saying “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” (Gal. 4:21) What does Paul mean by the law? It’s clarified later in the chapter. “But what does the Scripture say?” (Gal 4:30) We need the Hebrew Bible as the foundation of our faith, but it’s equally true that the New Testament clarifies that our relationship to the law is not what it was for believers under the Mosaic Covenant. When Stanley says “Peter, James, and Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures” he conflates two things he should not. We are not under the law of Moses is by no means the same thing as dispensing with the Jewish Scriptures. We cannot do without with the Hebrew Bible and maintain the foundations of the Christian faith. In other words, the Old (Mosaic) Covenant is not the same as the Old Testament Scriptures. I hope Andy Stanley takes the opportunity to make this clear.