A Few Words Before I Go: Scripture’s Farewell Speeches

What do we learn from the farewell speeches recorded in Scripture? If we compare the parting words (or nearly so) of Joshua, Samuel, and Stephen, there are common themes. Noting these, are there lessons for believers in these discourses? There are at least two important things that as Christians, one never outgrows.

Remember Your Redemption

Joshua 24 finds him gathering all the people at Shechem. He rehearses the history of the nation, beginning with the call of Abraham, and then into the Egyptian slavery. The exodus from Egypt and their deliverance feature prominently. If we pause at this point in the story, fast forward to Samuel, and he too presents similar themes. Samuel is not near death, but as the last judge of Israel, his time of leading the nation is coming to an end, because the people had asked for a king. “And Samuel said to the people, “The Lord is witness, who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Sam. 12:6) He, too, hearkens back to the exodus and to their deliverance from slavery. Fast forward still more to the New Testament and Stephen’s testimony in Acts 7. Stephen’s speech is much longer than either Joshua’s or Samuel’s, but it includes the same theme: deliverance from bondage by the hand of God. “This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.” (Acts 7:36)

The common theme in these addresses and the important one for us is this: Our relationship with God is tied to our redemption, our deliverance. When Israel left Egypt God said to them, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months.” (Ex. 12:2) The clock restarted, it was a new thing. So it is for the Christian. The one who trusts in the Lord Jesus has a new beginning. Israel was in need of frequent reminders about their deliverance, about the redemption God effected on their behalf (hence the annual Passover.) We do not outgrow our need to dwell on our deliverance from the bondage of sin. Indeed, it is safety to dwell upon that deliverance and the deliverer. We do not move on from the gospel, from what brought our redemption.

Remember Your Tendency to Sin

The other aspect of these speeches is that they all contain reminders of the people’s propensity to sin, of their wayward hearts. Joshua charges the people to choose whom they will serve, but when they say “We will serve the Lord” his immediate reply is “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” In other words, God is holy, you are not. Part of their history was the wandering in the wilderness, which was due to their lack of trust in God’s word. Samuel, too, rehearses the many deliverances of the people through the years of the judges. These deliverances were necessary because the people had turned from following the Lord.

Finally, Stephen also reminds the people that the Golden Calf was idolatry. The culmination of that speech is Stephen’s bold confrontation: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7: 51)
In all these instances we can see that the speaker draws attention to the sin of the people. We are, as Luther said, both justified and sinner at the same time. If we think we have outgrown the need for vigilance against sin, we have lost the battle. If we think we have no need to guard our hearts because we are “mature” we have fallen into the same trap as the Israelites did. Israel was warned as God’s people, to beware of their tendency to idolatry, of looking to the surrounding nations for any pattern to follow. Instead, the surrounding nations were the example to Israel of what not to do, what not to pursue. Similarly, the warning passages of the New Testament are addressed to Christians to be watchful, careful, and to put no confidence in the flesh. Believer, remember your redemption from sin, but remember as well that we are yet striving to become holy, and that our hearts are prone to sin, as sparks fly upward.

Hymns are Hyperlinks to God’s Truth

One of the things that hymnology does is to reinforce our doctrine and theology. That’s not the only thing it does, but it is an important thing. As Christian worship has become more experiential in its expression, one of the dangers is that this undergirding of doctrine gets diminished. For the hymnwriters of previous eras, many of whom were steeped in Scripture, their words were a kind of precis of biblical truth. The writer expected singers of these verses to also be familiar with the references. The familiar Come Thou Fount contains such an example.

Here I raise my Ebenezer
hither by thy grace I’ve come.

Ebenezer refers to 1 Samuel 7:12. Nearing the end of his life and ministry, we read of him, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” Ebenezer means stone of help. The hymnwriter expects us as singers to know this reference and to link to it, as it were, as we sing. We are to recall God’s faithfulness to Israel through all their trials, and recall he is the same God today. Another example of that is less reference and more allusion comes from Horatius Bonar.

No blood no altar now
the sacrifice is o’er
No smoke, no flame ascends on high
the lamb is slain no more.
But richer blood has flowed from nobler veins!
To cleanse the reddest spots and purge the deepest stains.

Bonar gets at the truth that our redemption is a finished work, accomplished by the death of the Lord Jesus. His reference to the altar, the smoke and flame, these get back to the early chapters of Leviticus, where God had provided instructions on the various offerings. The burnt offering, the sin offering, and others all portray some aspect of the sacrifice of Jesus. Bonar is doing something of application in referring back to this, even though it is implicit rather than explicit. But he expects his readers/singers to follow.

This sort of agreement between hymnwriter and worshipper is a feature of Christian worship that we should cultivate. Christian songwriters, trust your audience to come along with you when you make references and allusions to Scripture in the words you write. Even if your allusions are not overt, continue to make them, because part of your job is to bring singers to the truth. If they don’t fully understand at first, they will. They need to come to where you are.

Every generation writes its own songs; they retell the story of redemption in words and music that reflects the culture they inhabit. That is normal and expected. But we can do so without becoming untethered from Scripture as the substance of our song. Many of the psalms are experiential, but they are experiences informed by God’s revelation. Staying moored to Scripture is a way of ensuring our experience is shaped by God’s Word. In short, experience can never be our authority; God’s revelation is. Our singing should reflect that. We best do that by infusing our song with Scripture, by singing God’s words to one another, and back to God.

Is the Law Our Tutor?

One of the common assumptions about the law of Moses is that it is our tutor or schoolmaster. That is, the law leads us to Christ. For this reason, it remains useful to us. In Galatians 3, Paul explains the temporary nature of the law, and contrasts it with the promise to Abraham. The promise given to Abraham was by faith, and came prior to the law, by 430 years. But the natural question in the minds of the Galatians may be, “Why then the law?” If the law is inferior to promise and is temporary, why did God give it? Paul answers, “the law was our guardian until Christ came.” The word rendered guardian here in the ESV is translated as schoolmaster in the KJV. No doubt this translation led some to believe that the law was a teacher, one who in fact led us to Christ. But that translation is deficient, and masks something of Paul’s meaning. The word is paidagogos, (pedagogue.) In the ancient world, the pedagogue was one who had charge of the underage heir, and the responsibility to keep them out of trouble. But the pedagogue was not a kind teacher.

“These pedagogues had the bad image of being rude, rough, and good for no other business . . . the figure of the pedagogue is looked upon as a hard but necessary instrument in bringing a person to achieve and realize virtue.”[1] “Their name, consequently, had a stigma attached to it.”[2] If the law performs a function of training, or of leading one to Christ, why would Paul speak negatively about it, using the words “imprisoned” and “captive”? Louis Martyn likewise doubts Paul’s intention to present the law as our teacher. The law “is not a pedagogical guide, but an imprisoning warden,” he says, in that “six of the ten times Paul refers to humans being ‘under the power of’ the paidagogos, he identifies that enslaving power as the Law.”[3] Moreover, if the law had such a teaching function, Paul would not have considered it limited to a certain time in history. Das puts it this way: “If the pedagogue were fulfilling a positive educational function in leading people to Christ, it would be unclear why Paul would consider the pedagogy to have ended with Christ’s coming.”[4]

Paul says that the law was added because of transgressions. Does this mean it helps to control sin? Such a view is inconsistent with Paul’s other pronouncement on the purpose of law. In Romans 5:20, he is even more explicit. “the law came in to increase the trespass.” Given what the apostle says in both Romans and Galatians, we cannot say that the law is our tutor to lead us to Christ. While Paul always says the law is good, he also says that we are not. Our flesh never responds positively to it. The images of imprisonment and captivity that Paul uses in Galatians 3 reinforce the fact that the law was temporary in purpose, and only until Christ came. The law was not contrary to God’s purpose, but neither is it necessary now that Christ and faith in him have come. What the law teaches is the knowledge of sin. To walk worthily in Christ, the law is not our teacher. The spirit-enabled believer walks by faith, and as Paul has said at the earlier in the chapter, “The law is not of faith.”For a fuller discussion, see If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.

 

[1] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1979), 177.

[2] Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1953), 146.

[3] J. Louis Martyn Galatians (New York, Doubleday, 1997), 363.

[4] A. Andrew Das, Galatians (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 375.

How Faith Upholds the Law

In the early chapters of Romans, Paul the prosecutor has summarily indicted all of mankind; Jew and Gentile, as guilty before God. Part of his case has been a dismantling of the Mosaic Law as having any part in providing humanity with a right standing before God. The law cannot do this for at least two reasons. First, no one keeps the law. “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10) Second, the law reveals sin, it does not overcome it. “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (3:20) It is not all bad news, however. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” (3:21)
Given this setting aside of the law of God, some of Paul’s readers, particularly Jewish ones, were apt to ask whether Paul has set aside the patriarchs themselves, and the history of God’s dealing with them. Was all of that for naught?
Paul anticipates the argument with his question at the end of the chapter. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” But he quickly answers, “By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (3:31)
 
From this verse, some have taken the apostle to mean that Christian living by faith is moral living, that is, that it conforms with and indeed upholds God’s law. Christian living is not in conflict with the law of God, but this is not at all what Paul here claims. Law can be used in more than one sense, and to restrict it to the moral law, or the Ten Commandments, or any statute of the Old Covenant is to overly constrain the meaning. The law can mean the Pentateuch. “…everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
It can also mean the commandments that comprise the entire body of statutes given to Israel. “…the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law.” (Luke 2:27) Finally, it may be restricted to the Ten Commandments. Paul affirms, “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.” Clearly, the apostle is not talking about the entire Pentateuch, but only the last of the Ten Commandments, which he refers to as “the law.”
In what sense, then, does Paul use the word law here at the end of Romans? If he means it as the commandments of God, those statutes given to the nation of Israel, then perhaps it is true that faith “upholds the law.” But Paul does not use the word in this meaning. Rather, it is clear from the following chapter that the apostle means the broadest sense of law possible—the law and the prophets. Paul is making no commentary on holy living by believers here. He is instead showing that the history of God’s dealings with the patriarchs does, in fact, demonstrate justification by faith, the thing he insists on in this epistle. He begins with Abraham.
 
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. (4:1-3)
 
Abraham was justified by faith, entirely apart from works, and his circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” (4:11) The law upholds faith because it shows our father Abraham was justified by this very principlePaul goes on to David.
“David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered” (4:6-7)
 
He, too, attributes righteousness to faith, apart from works. If we look previously in chapter 3:21, we can see a hint of this. In the first half of the verse, law is in lowercase. This denotes the use of the word as synonymous with the commandment and adherence to statutes. Paul has said that God imputes to us his righteousness apart from such law-keeping. But the second half has the word Law in uppercase, and with the additional phrase “and the Prophets.” The editorial decisions of the English Standard Version thus show these different senses of the word law. In short, verses 21 and 31 are in full agreement, showing that the Old Testament contained justification by faith, and is no novelty with Paul. Paul has not undercut the witness of the patriarchs in the law, he has upheld it.
 
Christian living is not lawless living, but Romans 3:31 is not the place to look for such doctrine. Paul will show in many other places how the Christian fulfills the law, even without striving to keep it. For a fuller discussion, see If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.

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.
 
 
 

Did Peter call for faith in his hearers?

The book of Acts is a transitional record, and in those transitions, we can learn something The birth of the Church comes about at the day of Pentecost, and from that moment, until chapter 28, there are profound developments in the life of the Christian community. The question I address is, what can we learn from how the gospel is presented, particularly in the earlier chapters? Are there patterns we should emulate, or are there cultural or epochal details that we need to understand, that would, in fact, change our presentation of the gospel?

 
Peter preaches Christ to several audiences. In the first encounter, he tells them:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
 
Peter proclaims the central facts of the gospel – the suffering and death of Jesus, and his resurrection. Indeed, there is no occasion of gospel preaching in Acts where the resurrection is not part of it. A gospel of “Jesus died for your sins” that does not go on to say he is risen from the dead is no gospel at all.
 
After quoting more Scripture in support of his gospel proclamation, his hearers reply “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Why is there no mention of faith in Peter’s message? I submit that it is because he is speaking to Jews. They address Peter and the eleven as “brothers,” a reference to their ethnic identity as sons of Jacob. In his final crescendo, Peter says “Let all the house of Israel, therefore, know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) As Jews, the house of Israel, they already believed in God, they already knew him as the creator of the heavens and the earth, and they already had an expectation of the Anointed One, the Christ.
 
This pattern is repeated when Peter speaks in Solomon’s portico, after healing the lame man.
Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-15)
 
Peter speaks of the “God of our fathers,” and tells them “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:19-21)
 
The Jewish audience had the necessary background to understand all that Peter was saying, and an appeal to “believe in God” while not superfluous, nevertheless didn’t get at the true issue for these Jewish hearers. They needed to repent, to turn from their stubbornness and to embrace the promises in the Scriptures that they knew were from God. It wasn’t so much unbelief, but disobedience that Peter calls them to renounce.
 
Faith or belief, trust—whatever words we want to use—is inherent in this message Peter proclaimed to his fellow Israelites. To repent was to believe. In our presentation of the gospel to various audiences, we cannot assume our hearers have any sort of background such as Peter’s audience had. It is likely otherwise, especially in a culture where biblical illiteracy prevails and other assumptions about the nature and person of God are far from given.
Compare Peter’s methods with Paul’s when he preaches to the Athenians and the difference is striking. Rather than quote Scripture, Paul actually quotes Greek poets to them.
 
What can we learn from these early gospel proclamations? The salient elements of the gospel must be present: The suffering and death of Jesus, and his resurrection. These things are the substance of the Law and the Prophets, the Torah. He is the fulfillment of these prophecies. But, not finding certain words, such as faith or believe, does not indicate these concepts are not there. On the contrary, for these early Jewish audiences of apostolic preaching, repentance includes belief.
 

The Great Tradition and Interpretive Diversity

Among the many fault lines within evangelicalism is the question of certainty. In David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral,” Biblicism is a shorthand for the Scriptures as the final authority. But it’s too facile to point to a passage of Scripture and say “There, you see?” When two equally sincere and honest believers have a disagreement about what those Scriptures mean, then the problem just moves elsewhere.

In a prior post, I discussed the rule of faith, which for some is a key to solving this problem. (It isn’t.) Here, I want to discuss a wider body of tradition, which, some look to as the way to understand the Scriptures rightly. Would adhering to the “Great Tradition” provide the interpretive guidance Christian’s seek?

In the last several decades, a group of theologians and historians who identify as evangelicals have urged a more intentional engagement with history and the patristic heritage. D. H. Williams has written of his dismay over evangelicals’ disregard and, in some cases disdain, for history, and how God has led the church. For Williams and others such as Thomas Oden, the solution is for evangelicals to recover the “Great Tradition,” which they believe will provide the guidance that evangelicalism has cast off in reaction against the hierarchical church: “It is time for evangelicals to reach back and affirm a truly ‘catholic’ Tradition by returning to the ancient sources, to correct the former correction.”[1]

The former correction was, of course, the Reformation, and in Williams’ estimation, evangelicalism has gone too far in its disregard for history and tradition. Williams likewise highlights many of the problems others too have noted. I, too, share those concerns. Much of contemporary evangelicalism is theologically muddled and cares little for doctrine. “Theology is disappearing in the churches because the drive for truth, and the significance of ideas, has been replaced by an emphasis on technique.”[2] Later, he laments the sectarianism he finds to be a persistent problem within evangelicalism. “Evangelicals and Free Church believers need to hear again the great Protestant historian Philip Schaff, who warned us 150 years ago of the ‘poisonous plant of sectarianism which has grown so ponderously upon the ground of Protestantism.’”[3] But Williams’ theories as to the causes of this doctrinal dereliction rest on assumptions that are incorrect. The first is that the divisions and sects of evangelicalism have arisen due to a lack of regard for tradition. For this to be valid, one would expect to see unanimity and cohesion within the Great Tradition’s adherents, but this is not the case.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found that 22.5% said that a person could be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4] Similarly, a survey of US Catholics a few years later by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University asked them about all aspects of their faith.[5] About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.

If any institution can claim long tradition, it is the Roman Catholic Church, yet though they may be part of the Great Tradition, it isn’t effective in holding Catholics to aspects of teaching that, at least according to church leaders, are very important to the faith. Whatever one may say about the Eucharist, the resurrection of Jesus is certainly part of the Great Tradition, and can scarcely be more important to Christianity.

Thomas Bergler’s research in The Juvenilization of American Christianity covers many denominations, but with regard to the Roman Catholic Church, he summarizes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[6]

All of this demonstrates that in those churches and traditions where the Great Tradition prevails, it has done little to produce a cohesive faith or to stave off theological free agency. Reciting the creed every week doesn’t keep believers from going their own way, and it doesn’t help answer the question of “what does this passage of Scripture mean?” Depending on where the parameters of the Great Tradition are, it may also contain elements that are themselves riddled with uncertainty. (Teachings about Mary, the implicit authority of the church, to name a couple of examples.)  The Great Tradition represents an elevation of the doctrine of ecclesiology above all others, even soteriology. It’s important to remember that the church is not the conduit of salvation, but the result of it. The church upholds the truth, it doesn’t originate it. The Great Tradition has too often gotten this backwards.

If those who take their place as part of the Great Tradition themselves manifest division and diversity of views, then the explanation that evangelical schism is due to a lack of regard for tradition is a non sequitur. Asked differently, would a return to tradition, as Williams suggests, provide a solution to the theological variety that he identifies within evangelicalism? Will this both heal the sectarian breaches and provide the theological cohesion that he claims is now lacking? Again, the fact that those who are close adherents to tradition have these same issues argues against this providing unity or theological integrity. The hard work of interacting directly with Scripture (utilizing the resources of historical research, to be sure) is still the best way forward.

 

[1] D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 15.

[2] Williams, p. 24.

[3] Williams, p. 202.

[4] Gallup Poll of Catholics, http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GALLUP05_CB.asp.

[5] Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[6] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

Where Poor Theology Can Lead Us

Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the importance of the local church in bringing believers to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) That urging is every bit as important today as it was in the first century. The danger of remaining immature, or poorly instructed in the teaching of the gospel, can have profound consequences. I recently read William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America–and Found Unexpected Peace. I can’t summarize all his arguments for departing from the faith here, but one thing is clear, he did not begin with clear instruction about the message of Scripture.
 
Lobdell was raised in a bland Episcopalianism that, not surprisingly, involved no personal faith. He says he had screwed up his life in early adulthood by some poor decisions, but then in his late 20s, at the urging of a friend, he started attending a Southern California megachurch. Lobdell’s description of the teaching there is important.
 
The secrets had been there all along—in “Life’s Instruction Manual,” as some Christians call the Bible. Most of the lessons of Scripture were just common sense, but they carried the weight of God. Among them: Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Forgive and even love your enemies. Honor your wife. Be open and honest. Take care of the poor. Don’t gossip. Don’t run up financial debt. It all sounded good. And the Bible’s promise—God’s promise—was that it would lead to a fulfilled life. (p. 12)
 
Viewing the Scriptures in this fashion, as a kind of guidebook for life, is not unusual, but it’s a very truncated view of God’s revelation. While I disagree with his underlying diagnosis, Christian Smith wrote about this in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. He questions this very thing, of presenting Scripture as life’s instruction manual, which ends up supporting a rather self-centered theology.
 
As one who had no knowledge of Scripture, it would not have occurred to Lobdell to question this, but imbibing this sort of theology leaves one unprepared and unable to deal with the substance of theology, which is most properly, the study of GodIt further leaves one unable to deal with trial and suffering, which are an inevitable part of life. As Lobdell’s subsequent story shows, he wasn’t able to deal with his experiences through a biblical lens, and eventually gave up any claim to being a Christian.
 
The message of Scripture is the revelation of God’s glory in Christ. The Son of God gave himself on the cross to redeem sinners who deserved death and hell. The collection of those redeemed sinners, the church, exists to show forth the glory of him who called us out of darkness and into light. What is missing in Lobdell’s description, as it is from so much contemporary preaching and teaching, is that a fulfilled life is not God’s design for us—unless we define fulfilled as conforming us to the image of his Son. That quite often involves the sort of trial, opposition, and suffering that much of the New Testament describes as part of a disciple’s life. But that is also what is missing from a theology that makes the Bible into a traveler’s guide for making one’s way through life.
 
Local churches are the place where the sort of teaching, correction, admonition, and building up need to occur. An anthropocentric theology that puts us at the center of God’s plans will leave people impoverished and immature. Believers have a responsibility to hold forth the gospel, not a guidebook. Indeed, if we keep the Lord’s glory at the center of our theology, an abundant life (as defined by God) will follow. Brothers and sisters, make it your aim to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. The message of the cross remains foolishness to the world, but it also remains the power of God.
 
 
 
 

The Books and Parchments are not a Screenplay

In a few days, a feature-length movie on the life of Paul will premiere. Paul, Apostle of Christ is a biopic of sorts, but when we come to a biblical persona, this is different than other such efforts to tell a faith-based story. The New Testament gives very little material to construct any sort of “life of Paul.” We only have the broad outlines of where he went, when he was there, and who was with him. We have his epistles, which contain his teaching, and indeed for us, are the most important part of Paul’s life and work.
 
I understand the desire to put together something like this, and I don’t doubt that the people behind the film are believers motivated by their faith. (This movie is a product of the Kendrick brothers, who also put out Fireproof and War Room.) But those films are different in that they are dramas telling the story of faith in contemporary life and present an application of Christianity in difficult situations.
 
With Paul, we enter the realm of speculation to guess at his feelings in many situations or to say what he thought at many points in his life. The effect of that is to blur the lines between revelation and reflection, between the record of Scripture, and what is not found there. Just as with The Passion of the Christ, films like this are ultimately not strengthening to faith, but subversive of it. Too many people are unaware of the details of Scripture to say, “That’s there, that isn’t.” In short, they don’t stick to the text, and in doing this, such films contain an implicit (if unintended) message that the text of the New Testament is but one avenue of knowing Christian truth.
 
Images are powerful enough so that when people see a depiction based on biblical events, some are unable to sort between what is interpolated and what is factual. They don’t have the grasp of the New Testament to see the differences. They can too easily think that the Paul depicted in a film like this is the same Paul we find in the New Testament. He is not.
 
I have quite enough material in the Acts and epistles to fuel my study of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and I’d rather keep to what the Bible does say rather than speculate on what Paul might have thought. I’ll be taking a pass on this film. I encourage believers who want to see it, or who may think it’s a good evangelistic tool to consider whether it’s a good idea to obscure the borders this way. Could it move someone to read more of the New Testament as a result of seeing this movie? Certainly, it could. But it could also lead them to believe that we know things about Paul that we don’t. The Holy Spirit has left us records from his pen. As much as we might want to know what’s behind this man, he instead wanted us to know who was behind him. The New Testament record is sufficient for this.

The Limits of Tradition as a Hermeneutical Aid

Interpreting Scripture is sometimes a challenging endeavor. I previously considered whether the Rule of Faith or regula fidei provides a guide to believers. Here, I consider the role of tradition as an aid to interpretation.

Members of hierarchical church communities have sometimes chided evangelicals for their disregard of tradition, saying that tradition should not raise an objection for anyone because we find the principle in Scripture itself. Paul tells the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. “ (2 Thess. 2:15). The word for tradition is paradosis, or handing on.

The idea of passing truth from hand to hand finds no objection with evangelicals. This is further strengthened by Paul’s counsel to Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2). Some have focused on this “handing on” as a practice, something that was done very early in the life of the church, and thus the act itself is prescriptive. But this misses the point. The importance is not in the act of passing on from one generation to another, but in the content of what is passed on. The content of tradition becomes problematic when it is no longer the faith that was “once for all delivered to the saints” as Jude urges us to contend for, but includes an ever-increasing catalogue of practices and dogmas. Everett Ferguson notes this change.

 

In the fourth century, therefore, the usage of tradition was narrowed to what is transmitted in the church, and the distinction between written scripture and unwritten tradition became a standard formulation, but tradition was still primarily applied to church practices. Tradition came to prominence in a polemical context, first in response to Gnostic claims, and then in internal church conflicts. Like other successful arguments, the argument from tradition became a part of the doctrines it was designed to defend. But on many controverted issues it was a two-edged sword, with both sides claiming tradition in their favor.[1]

 

The irony is that tradition, presumed to represent a body of doctrine unchanged and unaltered, has itself become the object of repeated additions and amendments. Jaroslav Pelikan puts it this way:

 

Such an exhortation as “let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers” seemed to assume, by its use of “confession” in the singular and of “fathers” in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic. When an orthodox church father such as Gregory of Nyssa appeared to be in agreement with a heretic such as Origen on the eventual salvation of all men, it was necessary to explain away this agreement. When it appeared that there was a contradiction between two passages in Gregory of Nazianzus, closer study would show “their true harmony.”[2]

In other words, if we’re looking for a definitive “tie-breaker” for parts of Scripture that are difficult for us now, chances are they were difficult for previous ages, too. You can likely find people on many sides of an issue.

 

This is why a claim that tradition will solve our problems can be too facile. Christopher A. Hall presents a picture of evangelical exegesis that is not quite accurate. “Why bother about church traditions? Why do we need any authorities or authority outside of the Bible? Can we not simply affirm sola Scriptura and be done with it? Many Christians, including a vast number of evangelicals, would affirm yes. We have our Bible and the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit, and we attend an excellent church where our pastor interprets the Bible thoroughly, faithfully, and insightfully. What need for more?”[3] As I’ve previously noted, this is not a fair picture of the evangelical treatment of Scripture. Evangelicals interpret every bit as much in the context of the church as anyone. The difference is they do not hold that a college of bishops has ultimate say, nor church councils.

Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey address just such a misconception as Hall presents. “Even if one can deconstruct Protestantism this way, this radical democratization of interpretation is a principle only. It does not actually work out this way because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition that exercises considerable heft.”[4] Hall surely knows that the Reformers made their appeal to the fathers. Their plea was that the church had strayed from the apostolic witness and the body of biblical truth, as understood by the fathers. Halls spends the next several pages of his essay arguing for an interpretive model that locates itself within tradition, noting, among other things, that the fathers’ use of the regula fidei was a safeguard against exegetical excess. (I demonstrated in a previous post that it is not accurate to cast the regula fidei as an exegetical rule, but as a tool against heretics.) Yet he admits that tradition is not entirely reliable. How may we distinguish between authentic developments and invalid mutations? “The crucial criterion for evaluating the authenticity of a development, it seems to me, is whether the development faithfully, wisely, and coherently expresses the truth found in Scripture.”[5] In other words, when there is a determination to be made of what is true, Hall reverts to the same sola scriptura principle that he is so suspicious of. When he takes his own logic to its end, Hall must admit that despite his consternation over the diversity of interpretation he finds within evangelicalism, tradition does not provide anything in the way of a definitive guide. We must return to the biblical record itself.

[1] Everett Ferguson, “Paradosis and Traditio: A Word Study”, in Tradition and the Rule of Faith in the Early Church, Ronnie J. Rombs and Alexander Y. Hwang, eds. (Washington, The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), p. 28.

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[3] Christopher A. Hall, “Tradition, Authority, Magesterium,” in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman, eds. (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2007), p. 28.

[4] Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.

[5] Hall, p. 41