do we have confidence in God’s word, or not?

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4

The NIV‘s heading for this section is entitled, “A Final Charge to Timothy,” and includes this well known important passage:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Something I’ve noticed in my lifetime is that often the word isn’t preached. I think I’ve been blessed with the churches we’ve been a part of to be used to the exception. But as a rule, it seems like an appeal to the word is only from something other than the word itself. Somehow there just doesn’t seem to be adequate confidence in scripture as the written word of God.

I’m not referring to a lack in expository preaching. That can be good, but it’s interesting when you read the sermons in Acts, that actually none of them is preaching a text expositionally as at least was popular in many evangelical and fundamentalists circles, and you still find a few holdouts here and there. I think it’s alright. In fact I think it’s probably safe to say that such a method is much better than much of the pablum which passes for sermons today. Somehow it seems like the goal is to get people’s interest and keep it, and somehow through that, get in something of the word of God.

My question becomes, Do we really have confidence in the word of God itself, because it is God’s very word? And is that a measure of our confidence in God?

Scot McKnight has an excellent post that hits on this very subject in what is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (“The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?“). He states that the Reformers were marked by their deference to scripture, by opening the Bible and reading it. I think it’s good to refer to theological concepts which point to the truth about scripture (or what Richard Wurmbrand said is “the truth about the truth.”). And there’s no doubt that the art of biblical interpretation, which includes kind of a science to it, as well, is important. And we need to reject the Cartesian Modernist, scientific approach (Rene Descartes) as in relentless examination and induction of the biblical text (see John Locke). I am rusty when it comes to philosophical figures, not that I was ever heavy into them, but they are important in helping understand the times in which people live.

Our appeal must be to scripture, and it must start with ourselves. If we don’t see it as vital, and of central importance in our own lives, then we certainly won’t see it that way for others. Of course it points us to God’s final word in Jesus, and the good news in him. But we must be in the written word itself to find the Word himself.

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4

And so the measure of our actual faith and confidence in God will in large part be our confidence in scripture itself, the word of God. To be biblical we must get back to the Bible like the people of God in the Bible did, including even Jesus himself. We need to have the utmost confidence in scripture as God’s word first for ourselves, and then for everyone else. And live with that in hand, in and through Jesus.

think biblically

In the firestorm of today’s news, some of which is exceedingly sad, and perhaps all the more in the political climate of today, and any day, for that matter, we need to aspire to learning to think biblically.

Just to look at the Bible alone, as if we could do so, as it were, in a vaccum, which is impossible, but again, just to consider the Bible alone is challenging. I resort to what has been called a redemptive hermeneutic (hermeneutic essentially means interpretation), so that the Bible is a story which points to an ultimate conclusion, which is a fitting end to the beginning, but takes seriously everything in between. So that, while there’s harmony in the sense that the story follows a certain path, we find unexpected twists and turns along the way, even in the First Testament alone, but especially so in the Second, Final Testament, when Jesus fulfills all of scripture in ways which were not anticipated by those who lived during that time, or prior. But the seeds of which one can arguably clearly enough find in the First Testament.

From there, we have to consider present day thinking, where that came from, how it is entrenched in society, and in our own thinking. If we’re beginning to get the first goal of arriving to good Biblical thinking, true to that text and its fulfillment in Jesus, then we are ready to consider how we really think in everyday life, what our thinking actually is, which likely will be a reflection of the thinking of the world in which we live. And we have to critique that in the light of biblical thinking.

Where I live, the United States, our language and thinking is derived from the Modernist Enlightenment. Even how we think biblically is in large part impacted by that, so that we actually end up imposing the understanding of the age upon the text of scripture. Rather, we need to remain in the text of scripture, so that we can more and more think truly biblically, and be able to critique our present day thought.

Does that mean we expect the world to conform to biblical thinking? Certainly not. But we in Jesus are not to be conformed to this world, but rather, transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might come to understand what is the good and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2). That is not something we’ll arrive to overnight, indeed it involves a lifelong process together with other believers.

I believe this is critical, mainly because I think we think in ways that are not so much informed and thus formed by the Bible, but more by society, with especially profound, and too often, I think, egregious/tragic results, especially seen in the political realm. Like everything else in life, this is surely a mixed bag. We do get some things more or less right even on this track, but are amiss in other things, I’m afraid. A big problem from our inheritance of the Modernist Enlightenment on which the United States was largely built, is the emphasis and insistence on individual rights. So that the rights of the individual, however that is manifested politically takes priority over everything else. While “rights” and the individual surely arguably have their place, we have to ask ourselves if that has the same place in scripture that it has in our world. And if not, then what informs it, or what context in scripture might we say it exists, its place.

This is not a proposal to imagine that biblical thinking can be imposed on the world, but to seek to be true to it ourselves, so that we can better live in it, through learning to think and therefore live according to what scripture teaches, and its fulfillment in Jesus, rather than what any political party of this world insists on. The new way of thinking and living in the grace and kingdom that is ours in Jesus.

humility in reading scripture

Over on Jesus Creed there is an interesting post (part one of two, so I await the second) apparently challenging Bible reading as being at the heart of the problem behind our multitude of divisions within Protestantism. I am not sold on what Paul T. Penley is saying so far. But I will say that there needs to be much humility in our reading of scripture. I like the thought of one the comments on the post that scripture read devotionally as opposed to formulating doctrine should be encouraged. Lectio divina comes to mind.

What is missing today among too many of us evangelicals, I’m afraid is a high regard for the church both on a local level and at large. And with that some naive understandings of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s reading of scripture. So far I doubt the writer’s proposition as I understand it at this point, that there should be less reading of scripture. But the point that our reading should be more tethered in the understanding of both our local church and the church at large would be well taken.

But that further begs the question, what about all the differences among churches themselves? There are indeed significant differences, to be sure. As one comment suggested, this is not only a Protestant thing, Catholics are divided as well. This is an ongoing issue that can’t easily be resolved short of an enforced magistrate of some sort. Do we really see Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Methodists, etc., etc., as actually divided? Even if we don’t see such bodies as divided, in practice isn’t that virtually the case?

I for one will be watching for the follow up post.

theologians, yes, but keep reading scripture

I am not a believer in the idea that if you just read scripture and depend on the Holy Spirit, then you will be given the right interpretation of any given passage, including and sometimes in that statement emphasizing passages which are interpreted differently among God’s people. Yes, the Spirit enlightens, indeed the Spirit who gave the revelation is needed to understand that revelation, indeed. I do believe in an emphasis in which we say that it is the entire church which is to read scripture together, and from that reading will become evident both the main thrust at least of the message as a whole from any given passage, as well as the rich diversity in levels of meaning within each passage.

Where there is disagreement I tend to think is in areas which are not only hard to nail down, but also are being done so in terms which may overstate or understate what the text actually means. This should be an occasion to cause us to become all the more humble, knowing that we know in part now, and that none of us have it all together in our understanding. We continue to work at it, hopefully with increasing humility.

Part of reading scripture well both individually and corporately together as church is to consider the work of scholars. Of course the Bible we hold in our hands (or on our phones) is the work of scholars no less, who have worked to give a faithful rendering of scripture into another language, here, English. And we do well to read gifted scholars and their work on scripture in terms of exegesis of the biblical texts and theology both of the biblical and systematic kind. That is good. These are gifts to the church, not to be despised. At the same time we should do so with Bible in hand, or in thought so that we weigh what is said or written in accordance with that. And keep doing so, not just by ourselves, but also along with others.

One case in point today: the “New Perspective on Paul,” which is especially hot right now with N. T. Wright’s latest tome: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. There will be those who continue to hold to the old perspective more steeped in Luther. And others like myself opt more for the new perspective. But it ends up being more complicated than that. It’s really not a matter of choosing sides on this issue, and it’s especially not a matter of following everything one theologian (no matter how gifted or well known) has written or said. We put them on a pedestal and we also can be unfair to them and not understand what they are saying (as well as not saying). We do have to continue to be in scripture. It would be nice to be in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, but using at least one faithful translation and better yet, two or more is sufficient to weigh what has been said. And to think and live according to what is read in scripture itself. That is the bottom line where we all must go, individually and together. As we seek to be faithful to God’s calling in Jesus.

our theology versus the text

There is no substitute for reading the text of scripture, studying each part in context, and of course considering the biblical background as much as we can derive. Of course we all depend on scholars. The Bible translations we have are dependent on their work. And we gather from various sources in trying to understand the background of each text, say for example a book like Ephesians.

What I would caution us against is an interpretation of the text which is driven by our theology, rather than our theology being driven by the interpretation of the text. I say interpretation, not precisely the text itself, because the text can be appropriated only through interpretation. In order for it to matter to us at all, we need to interpret it. I’m not suggesting we’re on our own in that. We need the Holy Spirit and the church to do that. We can make our contribution, but it is as one of the community. A large part of this has actually already been done just through the work of Bible translation alone. Translation is interpretation. And yet a significant part of interpretation, we undertake as we read and meditate on any text. As has been wisely suggested, I’m sure by many (N. T. Wright happens to come to my mind on this now), it has been well suggested that it is good to read an entire book in one sitting, or in as few sittings as possible (some are rather long, such as Isaiah) to get an overall feel for the book as a whole.

When it’s all said and done, it is naive to suppose that our theology won’t to some extent influence the text, or more precisely the interpretation of the text. We read nothing in a vacuum or without subjectivity. Nor are we meant to, part of the freshness of God’s word for each community, time and place through the Spirit coming through in one’s tradition, reason and experience. But our goal should be, insofar as possible, to let the text speak for itself. Of course in its context. Open to shaping our thinking, yes- perhaps reforming our theology. And with the goal of speaking into our day. One example:

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

We need to read that in its immediate context, and it helps when we have Biblical background. The NIV quoted from here is more literal, the NLT brings in something of that biblical background legitimately, I think, into the text:

If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.

We now understand better what Jesus meant when he spoke these words. But it remains for us to consider what this could mean for us today, or others in other contexts. In this case our theology hopefully derived from the text as a whole will factor into that. Our view of violence and the practice of Jesus’ followers in relation to that. Our view of church and state, even of whether or not this text speaks directly to us, or can be appropriated only in some secondary sense.

Without naively thinking we can come objectively to the text, our goal should be to let the text speak for itself. Even if that means our past interpretation, understanding, indeed our theology is challenged. And to try, insofar as it’s possible, not to import some pet teaching into it to make a point that either the text is not making, or is not making with the same emphasis we are making. That is the kind of reading, interpretation and teaching that is needed, something we need to strive for. In Jesus together in this and for the world.

approaching issues

I’m thinking here about issues which can be studied out in scripture, but probably also about issues which are brought up in society. Today an example being gay marriage. On that issue Christians approach it from all different kinds of angles. But to boil it down it would seem there are those on both sides (traditional and for lack of a better term, progressive) who appeal to scripture and an interpretation of it. There are those progressive Christians who appeal to scripture, but insist on giving different knowledges of the day some say, so that if something is demonstrated to be true, then something Paul says might not be true. Or more likely, they might say, it could not have taken into account all that is known today, so that what Paul says rightfully undertstood on the issue, is true, but he simply doesn’t cover it all. And I would think more variation among the progressives. This is not to say that the traditional view, which I hold to on this subject doesn’t have some variation, only to say, we would still hold to heterosexual sexual activity within marriage as what is according to God’s revealed will in scripture and therefore God’s will for human life. And then there are the liberals who see scripture as religious tradition, and put their weight entirely on an interpretation based from knowledges of the day (see these posts, first two).

Getting away from the specific example above, I believe that when we approach issues as Christians, we must take a stance within the grounding of scripture. However that doesn’t mean we pay no attention to the knowledges of the day, such as the sciences. And one avenue of knowledge which can have direct bearing on the text of scripture itself would be the kind of textual criticism which is not trying to undermine or throw out scripture, but is studious in regard to writings of the day in biblical times. Say writings in the Ancient Near East, so that we can compare biblical writings with them (as in the Genesis account of creation compared with other creation accounts either of, or known at that time).

In the end, as one who would be in the sphere and spectrum of the traditional, I would insist that scripture is the word of God from Genesis through Revelation, that all of it is true, properly understood, and that the truth of it is not far removed even from the face of what appears in our translations of scripture. In other words, though we’re sure not to get every jot and tittle right from our interpretation of the Bible, we will still be basically sound in where we stand, from a careful study of scripture. This last thought is rather naive, however, when one considers the history of hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation among those who are traditional, because we do vary on many counts with where we stand on biblical issues, baptism and the Lord’s Table being two examples. But even on those issues, if we set aside our differences, we can usually find common ground, which all has its basis in scripture.

Back to the drawing board briefly: scripture has primacy, followed by tradition (how the church has been led), reason and experience. Only scripture is infallible, but not our interpretation of it, it is not.

All of this should help us see both our need for humility demonstrated in dependence on God, and our commitment to keep working especially on what scripture itself is actually saying, its emphasis. Without ducking the hard issues on the table during the time in which we live. All of this done and taken in by us in Jesus for the world.