Redeeming a sketchy Proverb

On Tuesday night we kicked off Graduate Christian Fellowship’s 12 week study of the InterVarsity Doctrinal Basis (DB). You can read the DB here. The study guide is available here. We’re grateful for the good people of Christ Church (Anglican) here in Winston-Salem who are giving us access to their building to host the study.

During our first time together, we spent some time looking at what might be called an infamous Proverb. Proverbs 29:18a is perhaps one of the most manipulated and abused Scriptures in our canon–“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The English Standard Version is more accurate, but sacrifices readability–“Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint.”

I have used this Proverb at least once as sort of a divine imprimatur on the process of ministry planning, a uniquely modern interpretation that sort of baptizes our infatuation with leadership. This usage tends to conceal the deeper meaning of the Proverb that emerges with a little study. Vision becomes “vision statement” and “perish” becomes “stagnates” or “declines.”

What is obscured is something more significant, a meaning that is more central and fundamental to flourishing as a Christian disciple. Trevethan et al paraphrase the Proverb as “Where there is no revelation from God, the people descend into idolatry, moral decadence, and spiritual ruin.”

The Proverb then is a commentary on what happens when Christians begin to marginalize God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture. Vision, in the sense used here, is the revelation of Yahweh given to the prophets to pass on to the Covenant Community (Amos 8:11). It is a divine disclosure of who God is and what God is calling us to do in light of that revelation.

Perish isn’t a reference to organizational entropy. It is a reference to running amok or going wild in the very real and very messy ways in which Israel pursued sexual license as they strayed into following other Gods (Ex 32:6). As Trevethan puts it, “Abandoning God’s revelation and turning to our own best thoughts, yes, our idolatrous thoughts, is always pathway to death.”

Of course the Proverb, using the parallelism so often found in Hebrew poetry, offers another outcome. The one who abandons God’s revelation carves a certain path to spiritual decline. The one who embraces God’s revelation (here in the form of God’s loving fatherly instruction in Torah) finds blessing.

So…why theology?

Theology is, at its basic level, what we think about God. It is how we make sense of our experience of life as followers of Jesus Christ in light of what God has revealed to us in Scripture. Theology is a conversation between experience and scripture where Scripture serves as our guide and our standard.

The goal isn’t simply to learn more about God. As J I Packer notes in his classic Knowing God, “A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about Him.”

It’s lamentable that there isn’t a greater hunger to both know God and know about God in the North American church. In many ways it seems that our indifference to the revelation of God in Scripture has caused us to stray–confusing a vision of the American dream with a vision of God. That dream isn’t limited simply to material success or affluence, but its wellspring is a sense of sovereign individualism. This individualism holds “personal choice” as an inalienable right.

Where we as Christ followers fail to hold to a vision of God that is deeply rooted in God’s story in Scripture we easily wander. We easily create God in our own image–in the image of our society and cultural values we create a god. That God, to borrow William Blake’s term, is Nobodaddy–a no-god.

Following this no-god can lead only to perishing in its fullest and deepest sense. However, blessing, richness, peace, and joy are extended to those who follow Yahweh–the God who reveals himself in Scripture.