the Bible and the world (even the news)

John R. W. Stott wrote what in my lifetime was considered a classic, or at least a must read book for those training for the ministry, entitled, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. The idea, written in 1982, is something like for a pastor to be effective in his sermon preparation, he needs to have both a Bible (certainly with necessary helps when preparing the sermon) in hand, and a newspaper. Stott and colleagues used to go to landmark films together, and then discuss their meaning afterward.

I think Stott gets to a most important point. I may want to simply escape the world, and live in some kind of monastic order, thinking that I would actually do the world more good to do so. While there’s a grain of truth in that, there’s also, I think, some error. I live in the real world which has an overwhelming influence over all of us in all sorts of ways, most of which we take for granted, and are hardly even aware of. I think of the Modernist Enlightenment heritage of my own country, the United States. And just one result of that is an entrenched individualism which at best means we each take responsibility, and at worst that we’re not our brother’s keeper. Another strong emphasis coming out of that is the falsity which again has a grain of truth, but with what ends up a poisonous admixture of error, that all the world needs to overcome “evil” is simply knowledge. We need more education, another staple of the Enlightenment.

We don’t live in a vacuum in which it’s just us and God. We live in a real world, with definite issues, which can end up defining or at least impacting individuals and societies. And at the same time, we have a word from God, word meaning written scripture, and preeminently meaning the gospel pointing to God’s final Word, Jesus. That word speaks into our lives, but into them where we live, no less. The word is often called “timeless,” but a better word for it might be timely. It initially spoke into a specific time, place and culture. And it continues to speak to every generation and place. It is the ancient word, to be sure, but at the same time God’s word for the world.

And so we need to be those who major on listening to God through his word. And that word will speak into the world in which we live. Even as it spoke into the world of its original recipients. God’s word in Jesus bringing in God’s grace and kingdom in him, yes right into the world in which we live. Living in “this present evil age” as we look forward to the world to come when Jesus returns and heaven and earth are made one.

Modernist Enlightenment priorities

At the heart of the American experiment, the United States of America, is the influence of the great Modernist Enlightenment which was sweeping the world just prior to the nation’s founding. It was a break from established authority such as the church into the new world of great human achievement. In a sense, it wasn’t new, having come on the shoulders of the Renaissance and not without some impulse from the Protestant Reformation. Although the Reformation itself may have had some, at least backing, from this wave. One can’t include the Reformation as part of Modernism or the Enlightenment, though the world can influence the church for ill, as has been seen beginning in the 19th century with Mainline Protestantism.

The goal of this post is not to talk about the Modernist Enlightenment of which my own knowledge is limited, but to mention some of the basic tenants of it, which I think have infiltrated our thinking and priorities even as Bible believing Christians, quite apart from the people and churches in Mainline Protestantism who practically deny the truth of the Bible itself, and thus the truth of the gospel.

Autonomy is at the heart of a value we’ve imbibed from the world. It is rooted in certain human/humanistic ideals, to be sure, often more or less universally accepted like the rule of some kind of law based on an accepted form of morality, not far afield from the obligations to humanity in the Ten Commandments, which through general revelation can be more or less found in other moral codes of the ancient world.

Autonomy here means an emphasis on the individual, and on freedom, on individual liberty. Every person theoretically is taken seriously within the accepted framework, and has certain rights grounded in what is called natural law. The idea of individual rights is so pervasive in our society, that it has impacted our worldview as Christians, and affects even how we understand and fail to understand the faith.

Jesus’s ethic, and thus the ethic for Christ followers and Christians is grounded in the call to love God with one’s entire being and doing: the call to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. No longer is one operating from merely individual freedom and rights. Instead one’s considerations our shaped by the necessity, indeed imperative to love one’s neighbor as themselves. It is a community consideration, rather than a mere individual one. It’s not about what I want, what I like, or what I choose to do. It’s grounded in God’s will, what God wants, God’s calling- all in Jesus.

So we do well to step back, stop and think about what drives our thinking and corresponding actions. Are we conformed to this world, the spirit of the age, or are we being transformed by the renewing of our minds into the image of God in Jesus? Whatever that difference might look like in civic life is secondary to what it is to be steeped in: the life of the church in making disciples through the gospel. Something we both become and are becoming, as well as being a light in the world to help others into this same life. A life that is about loving God and one’s neighbor, and laying down all of our rights in the way of 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.