When I was a kid in Sunday school, we often sang a song called, "The B-I-B-L-E." If you grew up in church, I really don't need to share the words. If you didn't grow up singing it, I'll mention that it contains this line: "I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E."
That's an excellent line, one that I'm glad we're still teaching to our kids. The concept is that the Scripture is our primary source of revelation about God and instruction about how to follow Christ. It's ultimately a statement about authority. My authority for faith and practice derives from God's Word.
As I've been preaching this semester about heaven and hell, though, I've been wondering if the preposition should change slightly. Instead of saying that I stand on the Word of God, perhaps I should say that I stand under the Word of God.
I know that sounds weird (should I put a Bible on my head?), and probably doesn't make for the best song -- Sunday school teachers shouldn't change all the lyrics. However, there is a subtle shift that occurs in my thinking when I imagine being underneath God's Word.
Because of my theological training and ministry background, I find that I bring a great deal of systematic baggage to the Bible at times. So the Bible is my source of authority, but if I'm not careful it simply becomes a means by which I can justify the things I already believe. In other words, I worry at times about using the Bible to promote my own system -- whether that's dispensationalism or a particular position on sovereignty and freedom or a conservative viewpoint on various social issues.
Lately, though, I've been trying to let God's Word speak to me as it's written, just soaking in the words on the page. Of course there is a valid place for systems of theology. At Grace we teach our students and interns a basic theological system that hopefully helps them to better understand the flow of Scripture. I don't plan to abandon that any time soon.
BUT...there are times to simply hear God's voice and be confused, amazed, and overwhelmed that He doesn't fit within our systems. (And yes, I've also studied enough to know that we can never completely rid ourselves of preconceptions and biases. But I do think God's Spirit is strong enough to help us hear his voice apart from them at times).
As I've begun the attempt to stand under God's Word, I've been reminded of how much I don't know. I've also been reminded of how I often resist or deflect those concepts that live outside my systems. But I've also been convicted to consider issues from different points of view and to become more comfortable with my own finitude. This has been most apparent as I've read through the Gospels this semester in my own personal time. I really can't make sense of Jesus at times, and sometimes His meaning is all too clear in ways that make me really uncomfortable. But that's alright -- I'll keep trying to understand, but I'll keep reminding myself that He's God in human flesh and I'm just one guy.
So I'm praying for salvation from the know-it-all stance toward the Bible that creeps into my heart at times. Standing under the Word is a scary and uncomfortable place to be, but it's also a liberating and wonderful place as well.
What about you? Do you struggle with the concept of standing underneath the Word? If so, what factors make it difficult?
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It's no secret that in the past few years a prominent movement of Calvinist preachers has dominated theological discussions in evangelical circles. Men like Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper boldly proclaim the Scripture. They reach tens of thousands of people each week through their podcasts, and to a lesser degree through their books. They've captured the hearts of college students and young adults across the country with their emphasis on God's absolute sovereignty, unconditional election, and the necessity of good works as a proof of election.
In many ways I'm grateful for the work of these men because they highly value the Scripture and they challenge their listeners to boldly share the Gospel and to passionately pursue Jesus.
I am not strongly Calvinist, but that doesn't lessen my appreciation for those who read the Scripture carefully and come to different conclusions than I do. My church happens to fall between the two poles of Calvinism and Arminianism. We're solidly within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, yet it often feels like we're a minority voice in the broader stream of evangelicalism these days. (Although I suspect that's an illusion -- I think it's just that the loudest voices these days are strongly Calvinistic).
Sometimes students engage me in discussions about Calvinism, Arminianism, and the related topics (election, sovereignty, limited atonement, the relationship between faith and works, etc.). I LOVE conversations like that, and am so grateful for students who actually think carefully about the issues.
BUT...in recent years I've noticed that when I begin to discuss the Bible with strongly Reformed college students, they often respond by telling me the words of some prominent Reformed leader rather than the words of Scripture. I want to be careful here -- I'm not blaming these leaders for the responses of their listeners, but I am a bit baffled. The Protestant Reformation was launched by a guy named Martin Luther, who stood before the Catholic emperor and insisted that he would only listen to reason and the clear testimony of Scripture. That's our tradition, and theological discussion works best when we return to the Bible as our primary support for whatever position we take.
For some men and women, the issue of Calvinism becomes a dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. In other words, you're either Calvinist or you're suspect -- probably a liberal in sheep's clothing. Strangely, though, sometimes the same young men and women who so strongly support this theological position admit to me that they haven't read the entire Bible. They've taken their cues from podcasts and books. A few have closely studied the issues from Scripture, and I respect those men and women even if I disagree. Those who parrot what they've heard without reflection make me sad. I have a deep desire to see college students and young adults look to the Scripture and deeply engage with it. That's one of the primary reasons I became a college pastor.
SO...whoever you are, I encourage you to hold everything up to the light of the Word of God. Even what I say. Even what your favorite podcaster says. Even your favorite book.
That's hard work. It takes years of thought, and reflection, and reading. But it's worth the effort to know what God's Word really says instead of simply taking your theology from the dim reflections of people like me (or Piper, Chandler, Driscoll, or Chan).
If you are a student or young adult, what barriers do you face as you try to construct your theology from God's Word? How can you overcome them?
If you are a minister or leader, how do you approach this issue with those in your care?
Earlier this semester I wrote a couple of posts on the subject of biblical inerrancy, and I continue to receive comments on the topic. In particular, a couple of biblical scholars who do not hold to inerrancy have challenged my statements as overly simplistic. They have argued that I am (1) drawing a false distinction between God's authorship of the text and the reader's interpretation and (2) that I am underestimating the extent to which the human authors were involved in the text and overemphasizing the divine authorship of the Bible.
(I perused the website of one of these critics and ran across the following statement: "A liberal is a fundamentalist who got an education." The implication, of course, is that those who disagree with the liberal position on Scripture do so out of naivete and poor education. The only "real" education, then, is the liberal one. Excuse me while I gag.)
OK, I'm back -- beware of anybody who dismisses his critics by calling them naive, stupid, or poorly informed. That's generally an easy way to avoid interacting with the actual ideas being presented by one's critics.
Let me clarify my position a bit. This might be a long post -- be warned.
First, I do not deny that the reader is an active participant in understanding and interpreting the text. It's for this reason that we do careful exegesis and instruct on the process of Bible study method. To be honest, I can't understand why exegesis or Bible study method makes any real difference if a person doesn't hold to the truthfulness of the text itself. Why bother to research the field of meaning of Paul's exact words if we deny verbal inerrancy? It might be nice to know Paul's subjective judgment, but if his judgment is in error, then it carries no authority.
The reader's job is to find the meaning that is already present in the text, not to create meaning absent from the text. Nonetheless, readers will have different interpretations because we are finite human beings. The problem, then, is not that the text has no definable meaning or even that the text is in error. The problem is that we are often in error.
Second, I don't make a false dichotomy between the human and divine authorship of the Bible. In my opinion, it seems that the liberal position is more guilty of that than the inerrancy position. Why? Because the liberal argument is that the Scripture is riddled with errors (made by men) but still speaks in some sense authoritatively as God's Word. In other words, the parts that are theological and divine speak to us with authority, but the parts that are human can't be trusted. The Bible is God's Word to the extent that God speaks through it in the present day, but the human authors made too many mistakes, it is claimed, to be trusted.
I've been reading a book by Francis Schaeffer called How Should We Then Live in which Schaeffer chronicles the rise and fall of Western culture. In his discussion of Karl Barth (a Swiss theologian who sought to preserve Scripture's authority without holding inerrancy), he mentions that Barth held an essentially existentialist understanding of Scripture.
In other words, in the realm of reason, the Bible cannot be trusted, but we can still view it as the Word of God in the way it interacts with the individual in the realm of "non-reason," as Schaeffer puts it. So Barth argues that we seek in the Scripture an experience of God, but it doesn't really make a difference if that experience is grounded in anything historical or technically accurate.
While this position supposedly frees us from the need to defend the Bible's inerrancy while allowing us to use as a guide for Christian faith, it creates a whole new set of problems. And here is the key of what I've been trying to articulate.
If the Christian faith is not grounded in history, then it has no ultimate hope. The resurrection of Christ is a bodily, physical, historical event. It is not merely a spiritual event or a moral story that gives me an idea of God's character. Physical resurrection, literal resurrection, is critical to the Christian faith. And yet the resurrection is one of the more difficult aspects of Christianity to believe in. It always has been -- read Acts 17, for example (assuming you think Acts 17 chronicles a real event).
Now work backwards from that point. If God could accomplish something like the resurrection, then who is to say he couldn't do some of the more unusual miracles of the Bible (e.g. make an axhead float, create the world ex nihilo by His words alone, make a donkey talk, etc.).
I recently heard N.T. Wright speak at a conference (a British scholar who holds a high view of Scripture although he doesn't use the word inerrancy). He told a story that culminated with this line: "If God could raise Jesus from the dead, then the rest is just rock 'n' roll, isn't it?" That's basically what I'm arguing here. The historicity of the Resurrection (if it is indeed historical) argues strongly for the historicity of even the toughest parts of Scripture.
So are there challenges in interpretation? Of course. Are there places where textual variants and lack of manuscript evidence and poor knowledge of the ancient near east create problems for the inerrantist? Sure.
But again, inerrancy is not a naive position. We just believe that once you accept the historicity of something as bold as the Resurrection, the idea that God could use people to create a divine and perfect book...well, that doesn't seem so impossible anymore.
Last week I posted here on the importance of the inerrancy of Scripture and received a number of comments and personal messages regarding the nature of the Bible and how we are to relate to it.
About two days later I made a comment on Twitter/FB to the effect that the Bible is authoritative, but our theology is man-made. At least two people challenged my statement, insisting that an objective understanding of the Scripture is virtually impossible, because we all bring preconceptions and cultural biases into our reading of the text.
As technology has made the world smaller and we have become more aware of alternative interpretations of the Bible (and for that matter, of alternative religions), a popular refrain from certain theologians has been that we need to be extra careful not to assert anything "absolute" from the Bible. Doing so, it is claimed, marks us off as "modernists" who are intent upon using the Bible for our own diabolical schemes, to oppress the weak or to justify our own suppression of all contrary viewpoints. I had one seminary professor who would repeatedly remind us that "just me and my Bible" is a dangerous equation, since the community, culture, and historical situation to which we belong significantly affect our interpretations.
Fair enough. One positive contribution of postmodern thinking has been the realization that I can never completely separate myself FROM myself. I will always bring preconceptions to the text. Because I am finite, my interpretations and understanding of God's revelation will always be short of perfection.
It is possible, however, that we need to swing the pendulum back toward the middle of the spectrum a bit. Although I can never have perfect and exhaustive knowledge, that does not mean that I should throw up my hands and give up the search for truth. In his excellent book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, D.A. Carson argues for "critical realism" and describes it in the following way: "Critical realists hold that meaning can be adequately determined, over against both naive realists, who are inclined to think that meaning can be exhaustively determined, and non-realists, who hold that the objective meaning cannot be determined." In other words, truth exists; I might not be able to find it perfectly, but I can find it adequately in most situations.
Some would call this naive, but isn't it really how we operate most of the time? No, I can't prove exhaustively that vegetables are always good for me (the whole idea could be a power-play by greedy farmers), but I can know enough about their benefits to go ahead and eat them.
So how does this relate to the Bible?
-Admittedly, we cannot fully understand the author's intent (or the Author's intent) because I am limited and finite.
-However, our understanding of God is that He genuinely desires to communicate with us certain propositions, ideas that are vital and (gulp) absolutely true in all situations. (Why else is Jesus Himself referred to as The Word if God except that God intends to communicate something Real through Him?)
-That means my interpretive process primarily involves attempting to find the authorial intent of the Scripture rather than to first ask, "What does the Bible mean to me?" College students, if you want to understand why we use Inductive Bible Study Methods (observation, interpretation, application), this is why: we want to do our best to look at what the Scripture says before we impose meaning upon it or try to act in light of it. No, we can never completely remove our biases, but we can slowly become more aware of them and (hopefully) allow them to be challenged by the text itself.
Kevin VanHoozer, in his book Is There Meaning in This Text, argues that interpretation of texts is fundamentally an issue of authority. Will I submit to the authority of the Author of the text (and of Creation), or insist upon my own understanding and authority as I read?
So the Bible alone is inerrant and infallible. My theology and my interpretations are flawed, but they do have some value in the teaching and leadership of the Body of Christ. As long as humility is maintained as I interpret and teach, there is no real conflict between stating that only the Bible is absolutely authoritative but acknowledging that he uses fallible human beings to communicate the Bible's message.
Grace and truth...sounds strangely familiar.
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