As usual this is posted here and also on my Facebook page – feel free to comment here or there.
It seems that these notes
are still getting a fair amount of traction, at least by the intensity of the
last discussion. If it's possible I'd love to finish this up by the end of the
week with notes 4 and 5, but I'm not going to promise anything, as a preliminary
look at my calendar tells me that might be an optimistic perspective.
I will warn you in advance that this may be the longest of the notes yet –
partially because I have a lot of thoughts on this and partially because I
think it's the one where I could get myself in the most trouble, so I may have
to qualify a lot of what I say. But hey, that never held me back before, so….
(4) That quoting the Bible as an authoritative source doesn't hold much weight
for someone who's not convinced of its authority.
Before I felt God was calling me into pastoral ministry I went to college with
the dream of becoming a lawyer. I worked hard in High School, scored well
enough on my SAT's and entered a pretty highly esteemed liberal arts college.
It was certainly not a faith-friendly environment, and it was honestly one of
the most challenging (and rewarding) times in my life of faith. The environment
forced me to determine whether or not I was convinced of the validity of my
faith, or if I would jettison it in favor of another philosophy of living.
By my sophomore year, I had already decided to transfer to a Bible College to
pursue vocational ministry. Since I knew I wasn't going to continue with
preparation for law school, I felt the freedom to explore different classes. So
my first semester I took an Old Testament Survey course, and then my second
semester took a New Testament Survey. Both of the classes were taught by a
professor who had a brilliant mind when it came to the mechanics of Scripture.
For the first time I was exposed to a historical/critical approach to the
Scriptures that was very, very different from the way I had read them before.
It was quite an eye-opener for a 19 year old kid.
The OT survey class relied heavily on what is called the documentary hypothesis
to explain the makeup of the books. The NT survey class had as a text a book
called "The Five Gospels", which was a publication of the Jesus
Seminar – the mission of which was to go through the gospels and determine
which of Jesus' words were authentic, and which were later adaptations.
In both cases, however, I was struck by one assumption that lay underneath
everything I read. The assumption was that God COULD NOT have spoken to human
beings in any shape or form that would have been recorded in the Old or New
Testaments. The heavy reliance on oral tradition made the OT suspect for these
scholars, and the underlying assumption of Jesus as Son of God made the NT
practically irrelevant for them as well. But I kept feeling like there was a
logical fallacy. After all, if you assume that Jesus is not God, then won't all
your reasoning lead you back to that conclusion anyway? And if that's the case,
then you haven't really proved anything about the New Testament, you've just
confirmed the assumption you made going into the question. If you assume that
nothing supernatural happens in the natural world, then you will look at the
Old Testament as a relic of mythology woven together through the centuries to
explain the peculiar history of a peculiar people.
Jumping right from there into Bible College was like (to use a previous
analogy) jumping from classes with Keith Olbermann as professor to classes with
Sean Hannity lecturing. There was an enormous gap. From both professors and
peers I felt there wasn't enough attention to a scholarly look at the
Scriptures, but more of a devotional outlook that really was a result of
laziness and lack of disciplined thought about the Scriptures.
And while it wasn't expressly stated, the essence of what we were taught of the
nature of the Scriptures was that they somehow magically dropped from the skies
into the pages we have today (complete with verses and everything). They
assumed we all believed in the authority of the Scriptures, and didn't prepare
us to deal with a postmodern world in which belief in the Bible as ultimate
authority really didn't (doesn't) hold much water. They assumed that it would
be enough to say, "well, the Bible says" and hold a convincing
discussion with someone who doesn't buy the Bible's authority. It didn't make
sense to me then, and now, ten years into my own ministry as a pastor, it makes
even less sense.
It was (and is) my hope to find a way between the two. Perhaps in navigating
that trail I could inspire you to at least think through some of your
assumptions about the Scriptures, from whatever angle you come, and allow
yourself to challenge them. One of the best articles I’ve read on the topic,
and one I’ll refer you to is by N.T. Wright and can be found here.
The two extremes are
problematic. On the one hand are
the Christ-followers who sincerely want to honor the Scriptures and live by them. However, in their haste and maybe even
good intentions, they have sought to make the Scriptures into something they
were never meant to be. I’ve heard
many sermons and teachings that referred to the Bible as some kind of
instruction manual for life. The
problem with this is that if it’s an instruction manual for life, it’s woefully
lacking. There’s no index of
topics and subjects that I can look to that will help me solve various
challenges I face (i.e. “how to discipline your children” cannot be found on
It is not arranged like a
good textbook with answers to all of life’s questions. It does not lay out like a systematic
theology book with all the categories nicely and neatly aligned. It addresses big questions, like where
in the world did the universe come from (a creative, intelligent designer), but
doesn’t provide a detailed scientific breakdown of how it all happened. It lays out much more like a story than
It’s the story of a God who
creates something filled with goodness and beauty and then fills it with a
diversity of life that is stunning in its complexity and extraordinary in its
design. It’s the story of how
human beings choose to live out of step with that creative, good design, and
instead begin to frustrate the Creator.
It’s the story of God’s desire to bring all of creation back into step
with his good, creative design, and his choice of an obscure, nomadic tribe of
people to start the mission with.
It’s the story of this tribe of people who, to varying degrees, succeed
and fail at articulating that there is one true God who wants to live in
relationship with human beings.
And in the climactic act of the story, we find a perfect, human representation
of this one true God who shows up walking, talking, healing, teaching and
ultimately dying a vicious death only to be (impossibly) resurrected three days
later. The Scriptures tell us that
somehow this man saw his death as having the effect of restoring the
relationship between human beings and God, and the letters that follow from his
disciples show us this is what they believed too. From there the story goes on to follow his followers and
their successes and failures at living out the things he taught and the life he
modeled. They wrestle with
questions and doubts and fears, and they write about those wrestlings in
letters which we can still read today.
This story does have implications for the way we live our lives, but it
cannot be reduced to a matter of a few simple propositions to believe
sprinkled with a few five-steps-to-life-change applications. If we read
the pages thoughtfully and by engaging both our hearts and our minds, I
do think it will read us, and in the process will lead us to
transformation; to a deeper connection with the God who created all of
it, and set the story in motion.
But, this story does speak
to the current worldview that is skeptical of anything that can’t be proved or
rationally explained. Not only
that, but it doesn’t fit our concepts of fairness and justice, or our desire
for tolerance and inclusion at every turn. Here I want to turn to the article I referenced above to
articulate the challenge the Scriptures offer to the current cultural
worldview. Here is N.T. Wright:
undermining its entire view of what the world is, and is for, and are offering,
in the best way possible, a new world-view, which turns out (of course) to be a
new God-view. We are articulating a viewpoint according to which there is
one God, the creator of all that is, who not only made the world but is living
and active within it (in opposition to the dualism and/or deism which clings so
closely, even to much evangelical tradition), who is also transcendent over it
and deeply grieved by its fall away from goodness into sin (in opposition to
the pantheism which always lurks in the wings, and which has made a major new
entry in the so-called New Age movement—and which often traps Christians who
are in a mode of reaction against dualism or deism).”
Some time ago I had a
conversation with a Christ-following person who was railing against the evils
of the Harry Potter series of books.
This particular person was concerned that these books were destructive of
Christian values and were dangerous to us and our children, and thought I
should spend some time educating my congregation on the dangers of the
book. It was what I would call a
stereotypical Christian response to the books. So I asked what I thought was a simple, but revealing question: have you read the books? Well, of course, you know what the
answer was, right? No. I said that I felt like it would be
irresponsible of me to formulate an opinion about books I had not read. (Now, I know there are limits to that –
you don’t have to read/watch everything to determine its value).
The reason I share the story
is because I believe that many who are on the other side of the argument about
the place of the Scriptures have not really engaged with them on any personal
level at all. It simply will not
do for you to have an opinion of the Scriptures based solely on what someone
else has told you about them. This
is reactionary and irresponsible, just as much as the story I told above. You may need to read them yourself,
removing the presuppositions, and see what you find. I challenge you to do this, and would be glad to give you
some thoughts on starting points if you’re up to the task.
Well, if you’ve read this
far, I commend your perseverance, and invite your comments.