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One of the more dominant themes I see in society (increasingly in younger generations though it can be evidenced in some form or fashion in all) is the complete comfort of asserting to be a Christian while being well at-odds with the clear ethics of Scripture. I don’t mean coming to different conclusions because of honest exegetical work. That kind of sincere dissonance is par for the course in the church and witnessed throughout her history. I’m talking about individuals or groups who consider themselves part of the historic, orthodox Christian faith but reject the historic, orthodox teachings of Scripture (e.g., sexual ethics) and have no substantive answer to the challenge of their positions outside of the regularly subjective speak-your-own-truth retort – which is packed with terminology and phrases from culture but absent of Scripture in any substantive sense.

This came to mind while reading a selection from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, which is a systematic theology of the Christian faith. Writing about the Holy Spirit and the Bible, Bavinck notes,

And the testimony of the Holy Spirit with respect to Scripture as Scripture consists in the fact—not that believers receive an immediate heavenly vision of the divinity of Scripture, nor that they immediately infer its divinity from the marks and criteria of Scripture, or, even less, that on the basis of the experience of the power that is unleashed by it they conclude that it is divine, but – that they freely and spontaneously recognize the authority with which Scripture everywhere asserts itself and which it repeatedly expressly claims for itself. In this connection it is not the authenticity, nor the canonicity, nor even the inspiration, but the divinity of Scripture, its divine authority, which is the true object of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. He causes believers to submit to Scripture and binds them to it in the same measure and intensity as to the person of Christ himself. 1

Bavinck asserts that the Spirit of God not only testifies to the authority of the Word of God for Christians but “causes [them] to submit” to it as he does them to Jesus himself. One implication of such thinking is that a frank unwillingness to submit to the clear ethics of Scripture, and even more so an outright rejection of them, might less indicate a Christian’s hardness of heart as much as a lack of authentic faith to begin with.

This seems to be the same line of reasoning Scripture itself takes. For example, 1 John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments…” Recognizing and submitting to the authority of Scripture is a mark of a person’s love of God in Christ – a characteristic of genuine faith. This isn’t some kind of slavish or forced submission for the Spirit recalibrates our hearts to obey our new king in Christ. This is why the rest of v.3 says, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” This doesn’t mean followers of Jesus won’t struggle to obey or need to grow in their obedience. They most assuredly will. But that is far different than someone who professes to be a Christian yet refuses to recognize, much less submit to, Scriptural authority.2 That type of “Christian” is like a unicorn: non-existent.3 No wonder Jesus himself said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

It’s because of the clear biblical teaching about authority, the Bible, and faith, that I so deeply resound with this thought from Bavinck:

…far from gradually outgrowing this authority, Christian believers rather progressively learn to believe God at his word and to renounce all their own wisdom. On earth believers never move beyond the viewpoint of faith and authority. To the degree that they increase in faith, they cling all the more firmly to the authority of God in his word.4

Recognition of and submission to biblical authority may be seen as optional for many who claim to be followers of Jesus but for those who have been genuinely converted, a growing submission to the Word of God isn’t just part of their initial step in the faith, but of every one afterwards. Bavinck reminds us this is so because the Spirit has promised to work in us for these things. And it is also why you can’t claim Jesus if you won’t submit to the Scriptures that proclaim him.

Renowned Old Testament scholar, Dr. Bruce Waltke, in his critically-acclaimed An Old Testament Theology, suggests five different prepositions describing how professing Christian groups understand the Bible. It won’t be surprising, as an evangelical Christian5, that the last view is presented as the one preferred. Still, while admitting the breakdown may represent a “cartoonish presentation” due to its hard distinctions, Waltke hopes these generalizations will help us “recognize and remember the various, and sometimes confusing, approaches ‘Christians’ take to the Bible.”6 Maybe you surprise yourself in seeing where your view of the Bible fits?

Liberals Stand ABOVE the Bible

Makes reason, including experience, the ground floor of theological reflection. Reason is placed above revelation and, as they embrace historical criticism, liberals set another “bible” above the Bible. Liberals read the Bible under the canon7 of skepticism, coherence (only “natural” explanations of biblical events), and analogy (this assumes nothing happened in the past that doesn’t happen in the present). With these assumptions, liberals read the Bible to discover what they believe “actually” happened once they strip away what is believed to be tradition or mythology.

Neoorthodox8 Stand BEFORE the Bible

Believes the Bible becomes the Word of God as the listener encounters them in the written “witness” to Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Bible isn’t the locus of revelation as much as how it meets the human audience.  Waltke writes that, according to neoorthodox thinkers, “one hears the Word of God in the Bible as one hears music on a scratched record. In this way they tend to set up the canon of the message of Jesus Christ (i.e.– The music) as more valuable then the whole canon of Scripture (i.e. — the record); a canon within the canon. This dichotomy creates an unstable theology — evangelical and unorthodox regarding the authority of all of Scripture. A canon-within-a-canon theology ultimately places authority in the audience.”9

Traditionalists Place Traditions ALONGSIDE the Bible

Finds authority in the text and the tradition that accompanies it. For example, in Roman and Greek Orthodoxy, it is commonplace to affirm that revelation is understandable only through the authoritative tradition of interpretation. Can place systems of doctrines, confessions, or creeds over the Scriptures themselves. While deeply appreciative of written formulations of the Scriptures, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, Waltke concludes, “When dogma rules, the church is in danger of ceasing to be self-critical.”10

Fundamentalists Stand ON the Bible

Presumes the biblical writers, though writing in an ancient environment, will not have any different or stray thoughts, ideas, or concepts from their modern understanding of the way things are (especially in matters of science and historiography11). For the fundamentalist, the only qualified standard for which the Bible can be measured is the logic of contradiction. Walke writes, “What I have in mind here is that fundamentalists do not ‘stand under’ the Bible long enough to ‘understand’ it.”12

Evangelicals Stand UNDER the Bible

Accepts the inerrancy of Scripture as to its Source and its infallibility as to its authority. Needs the inspired revelation of the divine reality to judge wisdom or folly, right or wrong. Waltke writes, “I dare not presume to understand what this revelation means before coming to it on its own terms. I must allow the Bible to dictate how it seeks to reveal God’s truth. I study how it writes history; I examine and learn to recognize the different forms of literature: poetry, narrative, prophecy, and so on. I consider the Bible utterly trustworthy and I commit my life to it, but I do not presume to know beforehand the exact nature of its parts. With this posture, I must allow myself to be taught and corrected by the Bible.”13

If I could give one piece of advice to spiritual seekers (or believers for that matter) who have nagging questions about Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity which keep them from embracing Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, I could summarize it in two words: work hard. If there are troubles, doubts, or a lack of clarity keeping you from a deeper engagement or commitment to knowing and following God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ then I would encourage you to be industrious about finding the answers. If you attend a local church you might utilize her leaders or journey along with a small group of believers for help. Furthermore, you could read books from the best and brightest biblical scholarship over the decades if not the centuries. You could also see if the Church Historical has already encountered and answered your questions (I mean, we’re talking roughly 2,000 years here). Regardless how you pursue the answers to your questions, the point is to actually pursue them.

Far too often when I hear of someone’s journey for answers it seems less a journey and more an extremely abbreviated stroll…to their computer to google a question. Unfortunately for many, the “search” amounts to finding within the first page or two of results an answer which merely serves to reaffirm biases and preconceived notions14, and that’s it, they’re done. Back to binge-watching on Netflix. Or maybe the journey abruptly concluded because of a Facebook fake news post blasting long-held truths of orthodox Christianity that the reader assumes is legitimate simply because it’s on a webpage. Hear me, both illustrations are examples of those who aren’t looking for answers as much as wanting to retain excuses for unbelief. Real searching takes real work. Frankly, how hard we work at our search tends to indicate how genuine our search really is. In other words, working hard can be a litmus test for what constitutes a real question we’re hung up on versus something we just tell people we struggle with because we don’t want to come across spiritually shallow or lazy.

The 1992 Academy Award-nominated Lorenzo’s Oil tells the true story of a family with a child, Lorenzo Odone, who begins to show neurological problems, such as loss of hearing, tantrums, etc. The boy is diagnosed as having adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), which is fatal within two years. Augusto, Lorenzo’s father, an economist who worked for the World Bank, couldn’t find a doctor to treat their son’s rare disease, so he took it upon himself to find a treatment to save his son’s life. In their quest, the Odones clash with doctors, scientists, and support groups, who are skeptical that anything could be done about ALD, much less by laypeople – remember, he’s an economist, not a doctor. But Augusto is undeterred. He sets up camp in medical libraries, reviewing animal experiments, enlists the aid of a professor, presses researchers, question top doctors all over the world, and even organized an international symposium about the disease. And yet, in spite of research dead-ends and the horror of watching his son’s health decline, Augusto persists until he finally discovers a therapy involving adding a certain kind of oil to their son’s diet. The movie ends with his son’s improvement and future brighter than when it began.15

Why all the work? Why all the blood, sweat, and tears to get the right answer? Well, for Odone family, getting the answer was literally a matter of life and death. But is our spiritual quest amidst questions and doubts any different? On the contrary, I would argue it’s even greater, for the stakes are infinite. The consequences being eternal life or eternal death (cf., Heb. 9:27). This is why each of us should do whatever it takes to reduce the doubts we have by working hard to get the correct answers, even if we don’t like the answers we find.

Don’t settle for living a life where your “doubts” are really excuses in disguise. Think deeply about the questions you have and work hard to find the answers. Run to the real “oil” of truth and be honest with what you find, even if you don’t like it. Doing so will aid you in your spiritual journey for the present and hopefully for the life to come.

Work hard.