Do you worship the Bible?

Precisely twice in my life a conversation partner has warned me lest I be guilty of worshipping the Bible. It’s an interesting warning and, depending upon the context, there could plausibly be some merit to it. By and large, however, it’s a red herring. In my case, there is rather more danger to be had from worshipping popular interpretations of the Bible than worshipping the Scriptures themselves.

Ours is an age not given to the discipline of reading. We are functionally literate. We can complete forms. We can read and respond to emails. We can read one to two verses from the Bile or a page from a classic. We can follow printed instructions to assemble a new stand for our flat screen television. Beyond this, however, our literacy is sadly lacking. We haven’t even the most rudimentary knowledge of the classics of Western Civilization, let alone other races and cultures. And the Bible? The Bible demands way too much from us in order to understand it. Better to simply follow the guidance of someone who will confirm your pre-existing bias.

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Source: http://franklinchurchofchrist.com/blog/
  
John Stackhouse makes precisely this point in his recent post at the blog of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The wave of evangelical defections to affirm and endorse GLBT+ as normative is based not a new and closer reading of the Scriptures. There is virtually nothing in any of the documented “conversions” that evince a careful study of the Bible. Rather, most come from a reorganizing of the Scriptural witness to place a higher and broader value on Biblical witnesses the affirm values consistent with those predominant in culture today: unconditional love, acceptance, inclusivity, etc. 

These verses and witnesses become the lens through which other, more specific witnesses are dismissed as somehow inconsistent with Jesus’ message of unconditional affirmation. To borrow the title of a book by J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus have I loved, but Paul…? 
Everyone loves Jesus; some get bent out of shape when the apostle applies Jesus message to the specifics of messy lives in the ancient church.
And once your favorite pastor has endorsed the GLBT+ message then those who follow him–who, incidentally, rely upon him for their knowledge of the Bible–immediately and easily turn the corner to believe as he does and in line with the culture. It’s as easy as stopping swimming against a current. Off you go; it feels so easy, so natural. And yet it is so wrong.

If we consider briefly what the Bible says of itself, we may set aside some of anxiety some have regarding our esteem for it.  The Bible’s purpose is to provide guidance in our belief and practice (2 Timothy 3:16). It is a rod that prompts us to remain faithful as we follow our risen Lord. This guidance isn’t arbitrary or entirely culturally bound. The Bible’s guidance flow from it’s source, which the Bible itself and the earliest church affirm is God himself. 

The Bible is a efensive weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Paul refers to the Scripture as “the sword of the Spirit.” It is the weapon the Spirit uses to do his convicting and sanctifying word. When wielded toward us this sword is and any wound is superficial and short-lived. Wielded against the world, the flesh, and the devil the blade cuts through to the heart of the matter delivering us the counsel of God and the grace to persevere.

The Christian who uses the Bible often and as the source of his beliefs shouldn’t be too concerned about the charge of worshipping it. It is, after all, the word of his master and his lord and should be esteemed as such.
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Inerrancy: an Augustinian view

One of the interesting things about my life is that I have the pleasure of inhabiting a number of intellectual worlds that, by and large, don’t often come together. As an employee of a moderately evangelical campus ministry, a teaching elder in a mainline presbyterian denomination, a chaplain at a university, and someone who lives in the South I regularly interact with people right across the theological spectrum. It’s invigorating and, sometimes, frustrating.

Take the issue of the inerrancy of the Bible, for example. In its simplest form the doctrine holds: “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1994). This assertion, simple though it might appear, is actually quite a difficult proposition to establish. It has at least three constituent elements: (1) establishing the original manuscripts, (2) establishing the affirmation, and (3) establishing fact. These three elements bring in textual criticism, hermeneutics, and historiography. What seems, on its face, a simple affirmation has turned into a complex interdisciplinary exercise largely beyond the scope of the average Christian. Of course, this complexity certainly doesn’t negate the importance or the validity of the doctrine. It does, or at least it ought, to give us pause before using the term.

In my denomination and on the university campus the term “inerrancy” is closely associated with fundamentalism of the Jerry Falwell variety. In my campus ministry the term is rarely mentioned. Among evangelical in the south the term is widely used and often closely associated with fidelity to the gospel.

The recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society featured a panel discussion featuring several theologians and biblical scholars. Of the several who participated, the presenter whose views fall closest to my own at are those of Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’ve enjoyed his writing for a while now and had the privilege to have his daughter Emma, herself a scholar and also a poet, as a student in Graduate Christian Fellowship.

His views are presented in this video. His proposal is a form of inerrancy that he refers to as Augustinian. At the end of the day it is difficult to establish whether or not the Bible is demonstrably inerrant. Perhaps the wiser choice is to follow the lead of Gerald Bray. In his systematic theology God is Love (Crossway, 2012) he argues that the Bible ought to be treated as “functionally inerrant.” 

10 Evangelical Distinctives

I recently wrote a post asking whether–and if so, how–the Presbyterian Church (USA) is evangelical. This generated some interesting conversations about what the word evangelical really means. In light of these conversations, I thought it worth exploring the variety of perspectives on the evangelical movement.

One of the most significant leaders of modern evangelicalism was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman, served for many years as Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London.

ImageIn 1971, Lloyd-Jones preached a series of messages at the Conference of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He had, for many years, been involved with the British Inter-Varsity Fellowship, itself associated with IFES. Note: my employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, is the American arm of IFES.

During this time Lloyd-Jones had grown concerned with what he perceived as a watering down of the gospel message. He took the opportunity to address this when spoke.

Years later his messages were published by Banner of Truth as What is an Evangelical? 

Lloyd-Jones argued that there are ten distinctives that provide definition to the notoriously fuzzy word, “evangelical.”

Here they are with my commentary added in italics. Note: Lloyd-Jones represents a conservative, separationist evangelicalism. On the other hand, John R W Stott (whom we’ll look at later) represented a more moderate evangelicalism that was able to survive and thrive in a mixed (broad) church.

  1. Entirely subservient to the Bible. The evangelical attempts to live his life in submission to Scripture as thoroughly as possible. He is, as John Wesley put it, ‘A man of one book.’ 
  2. Evangelical before all else. The evangelical has a great loyalty to the evangelical way of following Christ than to the denomination of which she may be a part. If forced to choose, the evangelical will always follow his convictions.
  3. Watchful. The evangelical is aware that she has to evaluate, discern, and measure all teachings in the church against the rule of faith, the Word of God. 
  4. Distrustful of reason. The evangelical places a higher value on revelation than reason. He sees the work of the philosopher as necessarily limited since it does not have access to the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
  5. Always takes a low view of the sacraments. Evangelicals recognize only two sacraments, not allowing things like marriage or ordination to become sacraments.
  6. Takes a critical view of history and tradition. Lloyd-Jones writes, “The evangelical believes in the principle of discontinuity.” In other words, the church has a tendency to fossilize spirituality and many of the divisions are the result of evangelicals removing themselves from bodies who life and practice was no longer compatible with evangelical belief and practice.
  7. Always ready to act on his beliefs. The evangelical finds it impossible to compromise or to remain in a place that requires him to compromise his beliefs.
  8. Always simplifies everything. Lloyd-Jones contrasts the evangelical with the Catholic. The reformed belief in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture holds that the Bible can be read and understood by the ordinary reader. There’s no requirement to read the Bible through the church’s magisterium or through some other interpretive lens. There is, according to Lloyd-Jones, a “plain meaning” rooted in historical context and authorial intent.
  9. Always concerned with the doctrine of the church. The chief purpose of the evangelical is finding a denominational body that is theologically pure: “His idea of the Church is that it consists of the gathered saints.”
  10. Emphasis on re-birth, personal holiness, and the Christian life. “He is not interested in dead orthodoxy, he is not interested in Protestant scholasticism.” Instead, he cares about being re-born of the Spirit and following Christ as his disciple.

Lloyd-Jones’s list is longer than mine would be. However, I think it is helpful to consider that his position is representative of many evangelicals today. This can be helpful in understanding why some evangelicals find leaving a denomination that appears to them to be corrupt, a no-brainer.

Who saves us? A word of caution

I’m a big proponent of theological formation for Christian living as well as confessional orthodoxy amongst the ordained officers of the church. At the same time, I’m aware of the subtle trap that can lead us to believe that our doctrine saves us. Jesus saves us–our responding to His grace offered in the Gospel is what reconciles us to God. Theology is the work of interpreting our spiritual experience in light of God’s revelation in Scripture.

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Dogmatic theology is a very dangerous science. Its elevation to a necessary mediator between God’s Word and the believer amounts to an idolatry and testifies to a fundamental misconception concerning its real character and position. If our salvation be dependent on theological dogmatics and exegesis, we are lost.”

Herman Dooyeward in Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (169).

[Updated] What do Norman Geisler and Rudolf Bultmann have in common?

Update: Some have asked, does this critique of Geisler and Bultmann include a great like C. S. Lewis? To some extent, yes. In Mere Christianity Lewis attempts to justify Christian belief without appeal to revelation. By doing that, he’s following Thomas Aquinas’ second form of theology, that revealed by nature. He does something similar in The Abolition of Man where he appeals to the tao, an objective and universal source of morality. Where I’m unsure is about where Lewis locates belief or faith in the process of knowing.

Methodologically, both Normal Geisler and Rudolf Bultmann appeal to an authority that is higher or more ultimate than the revelation of God in Christ and in Scripture through faith. Both appeal, albeit in different ways, to reason as a neutral arbiter and path to truth (rather than to divine illumination). In this sense then, both are working from a thoroughly modern epistemology–we know through reason and we validate through reason.

Jamie Smith notes, “[The] Thomistic model of the relationship between revelation and reason (and hence grace and nature) informs a diversity of other models, directly or indirectly, ranging from Rudolf Bultmann’s and Paul Tillich’s correlationist theologies to what is often described as classical apologetics in the evangelical tradition. All of these models remain colonies of Tübingen insofar as they concede that there is an objective or neutral reason that determines the shape of truth concerning finite existence and then attempt to demonstrate Christianity’s consistency with this rational account (as in Bultmann and Tillich) or to demonstrate the truth of Christianity’s account by appealing to neutral principles of truth that are common to all humanity (as in classical apologetics).”

James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, 158.

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What if secular reason, the neutral reason alluded to in Smith’s description of classical apologetics, does not exist? What if secular reason is, in reality, something that stands in opposition to the Christian gospel as expressed in revelation? What if positing the existence of secular reason was the very philosophical misstep that led to the decline of Christendom and the rise of modernity?

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Concludes Smith, “Things are not anything ‘in themselves’; therefore, they cannot be understood ‘in themselves’ but only by reference to that from which they are suspended–their Creator. As a result, no secular account of things could possibly be true.” (160).

How do you read the Bible?

I’ve just started an intriguing book that Anna recommended to me: Ellen F. David and Richard B. Hays (eds), The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans, 2003). The result of a series of consultations, the book attempts to address the critical issue of how we are to read the Scripture. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, how Christian’s engage with Scripture is critical to the church’s fidelity to it’s mission in the world.

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From the introduction,

…In postmodern culture the Bible has no definite place, and citizens in a pluralistic, secular culture have trouble knowing what to make of it. If they pay any attention to it at all, they treat it as a consumer product, one more therapeutic option for rootless selves engaged in an endless quest of self-invention and self-improvement. Not surprisingly, this approach does not yield a very satisfactory reading of the Bible, for the Bible is not, in fact, about ‘self-help’; it is about God’s action to rescue a lost and broken world.

Of course locating the Bible in the life of the individual Christian and the life of the one holy catholic and apostolic church is also very complicated:

Is the Bible authoritative for the church at the beginning of the twenty-first century. If so, in what way? What practices of reading offer the most appropriate approach to understanding the Bible? How does historical criticism illumine or obscure Scripture’s message?…The Church’s lack of clarity about these issues has hindered its witness and mission, causing it to speak with an uncertain voice to the challenges of our time. Every where the Bible’s authority is acknowledged in principle, many of our churches seem to have lost the art of reading it attentively and imaginatively.”

I think Eugene Peterson once noted that even as we read the Bible, the Bible reads us–telling us our story and helping us to recognize our true place in the cosmos over against our self-created narratives.

In order to read the Bible well, Hays et al. offer two requirements:

That we read with imagination – God is disclosed as an imaginative being who delights in engaging with His created order in novel and imaginative way. Indeed, the grand narrative of Scripture is an imaginative masterpiece.

That we read in the company of one or more master interpreter. Like artists, we need to learn the art of reading Scripture in the company of one who has gone before and learned and given embodiment to a faithful life of engagement with Scripture.

Later this week I’ll discuss the nine theses that Hays et al. offer in order to learn to read and be read well by Scripture.

The question behind the question

Take a theological question or an issue that divides the church and dig into it you will find behind it another, deeper question: what is the nature and method of theological inquiry? Below the surface disagreement is a disagreement on the what and the how of doing theological reflection for the church.
It’s often difficult for teaching and ruling elders to discern the deeper questions that lay beneath disagreements because they don’t have doctoral degrees in the theology or Biblical studies. The literature is so immense that it takes no small effort to become familiar enough with it to be a reliable guide for the body of Christ.
If you wish to become more acquainted with the various paradigms for theological reflection, a good place to start is Rollin Grams’ (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) book, Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry: Mapping Baptistic Identity (2005). Grams borrows the approach used by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his well-known Gifford Lectures, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. And while the subtitle of Grams books reveals he is writing in a baptist context, the paradigm is helpful for a broad range of churches.
I recommend the book for teaching and ruling elders who wish to understand more deeply how the method of our theological inquiry produces very different outcomes in the way we understand and give expression to Christian discipleship.

Evangelicals – the same mistakes all over again?

Over the last five years I have seen a gradual growth of interest, especially from people under 35, in more ancient practices and expressions of the Christian faith. When I say ancient, I mean “pre-Reformation.”

There has been a corresponding growth in suspicion toward the theology and hermeneutics of the Reformers. This is, I think, a reaction to more recent expressions of Reformed theology that have, at points, strayed into incivility and theological pedantry.

One of the influences in this movement, I think unwittingly, has been the work of Tom Wright who has encouraged us to read the Bible and to encounter the Bible’s Jesus as a first century Jew rather than a 16th Century European.

To be sure, there is great value is Wright’s (and other’s) asking us to encounter Scripture in a way that allows Scripture to be what it is rather than something it isn’t. However, my sense is that Wright’s influence is becoming so significant that it’s almost reminiscent of Paul’s reference to Jesus in 2 Corinthians 2:14 — he is leading his followers in triumphal procession, deconstructing and debunking the theology of the Reformers brick by brick.

James K A Smith shares something of this frustration when he reviews Wright’s most recent book How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Read the review here

This whole business of revealing the new, deeper, truer meaning of Scripture that has somehow been lost to us thanks to the Reformers poses a deeper question. One of the greatest critiques of modern evangelicalism is it’s infatuation with the “new.” On it’s face, this would seem to preclude practices of the early and pre-Reformation church. How can something be new when it’s old?

I sometimes wonder and worry that what we are encountering today as a return to the “ancient paths” is simply another form of evangelical infatuation with the new–or, “the new to us,” “the newly new.”

Could it be that we are infatuated with old things not because they are better or older, but conversely because they are new to us?

How do you understand the Bible?

Scot McKnight has posted a link to a hermeneutics quiz he developed for Leadership Magazine. Take the quiz to give you some feedback on how the ways you interpret the Bible relate to others in the evangelical community. I scored low (67/100) on  the progressive side (66 was the cut off). I’d encourage you to sit with several of the questions and answer them honestly. For me it was the foot washing one. I get the spiritual significance of foot washing (intellectually) but in reality the way I treat the text doesn’t match. At the installation of The Rev Canon Sam Wells as Dean of Duke Chapel, the service included his washing the feet of members of various constituencies that form the Duke community. I admittedly felt a real internal dissonance at the thought of doing that, which provoked (short lived) reflection. Try it for yourself.