Wilson’s 3 Ways of Distorting the Bible and My 3 Options For Reading It Without Chucking It

andrew wilsonLast month Steve Chalke wrote a piece over at Christianity.com about the way we’ve been misreading Bible. It wasn’t terrible, but I definitely wasn’t a fan. Then he and my buddy Andrew Wilson had those fun debates over at Premier.TV about the Bible. As you may remember I had an opinion on one of those as well. Well, Christianity.com has just posted Andrew’s piece responding to Chalke’s on the nature of the Bible, and whether or not we can call it the Word of God. He knows the difficulties involved with that:

Most of us know what it’s like to read a section of scripture and find ourselves thinking, I wish that bit wasn’t there.

Sometimes that’s because the Bible contains puzzling details (like when people start swapping sandals in the middle of a love story, or holding each other’s thighs when they’re agreeing a deal). Sometimes it’s because we feel embarrassed about the easy confidence with which it talks about impossible things (parting the Red Sea? Really?). Sometimes it’s because we’re genuinely confused by a difficulty, either within the text (how did Judas die, again?) or outside of it (did a flood really cover the entire Earth, and if so, why isn’t there any geological evidence for it?).

And often, it’s because we simply don’t like it. It’s ancient, different, challenging, scary, radical, courageous, provocative. We live in a world where many of the things the Bible says – God made everything, human beings are responsible for the world’s problems, God chose Israel as his special people, sex is only meant for one man and one woman in marriage, Jesus is the only way to God, the wages of sin is death, God is going to judge the earth one day, and so on – are profoundly unpopular. Saying them out loud may get you labelled a bigot or an idiot; saying them on a reality TV show means either you get kicked off or the show gets cancelled.

But what can we do with those sections?

The question is: what do we do when that happens? Do we stand as judge over the Bible, and decide which bits we will accept and which bits we won’t? Or do we sit under the loving authority of God, expressed through the scriptures, and allow him to shape us, correct us and challenge us? Do we let ourselves edit the Bible, or do we let the Bible edit us?

He helpfully lists three typical distortions one can make when it comes to approaching the Bible.

  1. First, we can make the mistake of “literalism”, essentially ignoring the context and, in general, a sloppy hermeneutic so that, in a misguided attempt to accept it all as true, we accept what it isn’t saying.
  2. Second, we can make the mistake of “liberalism”, which boils down to only accepting those bits we find acceptable according to our own modern reason and sensibilities.
  3. Third, we can make the “mix and match” mistake of selectively appropriating those bits we find lovely and wonderful and chucking out the rest.

That third one is the bit that seems to resemble Chalke’s approach most, which Wilson goes on to elaborate about at length. I’d highly encourage you to read the whole thing because it’s gold.

Also, interestingly enough, I had a post in the queue about 3 options we ought to consider when approach difficult, offensive texts we run across, before concluding it’s wrong and chucking it out.

Well, before we chuck them away in disgust, I would like to suggest at least 3 possible options to consider before you come to the conclusion that the Bible is wrong on a given subject:

  1. The verses you’re reading don’t say what you think they say. Honestly, a good commentary can clear up a lot of heartache by pointing out linguistic confusions and socio-historical factors that show you’re not reading the thing properly. Read carefully. If something disturbs you, don’t just chuck the Bible away in disgust, but wrestle with it and read it charitably, like a letter from a friend that initially reads offensively. Give it the benefit of the doubt and then try to understand it. Whether it’s Sabbath sticks, or the Conquest in Joshua, or maybe even slavery in the New Testament, there are often-times contextual issues at work that need to be considered when you’re reading an ancient text.
  2. The verses say what you think they say, but the problem is not with the Bible, but your own cultural presuppositions. I mean, let’s just be honest and say, this wouldn’t be the first time you were wrong about something, right? Sometimes we don’t stop and consider the finiteness or our intellectual horizons, both at the personal or the cultural level. It should give us pause that the very texts that we appreciate most on the Bible, (equality, forgiveness, grace), are some of the most culturally-offensive in other parts of the world, while the text that give us pause (judgment, wrath), are the ones quickly accepted in other parts of the world. As Keller points out in The Reason for God, if the Bible is the transhistorical truth of God, it makes sense that it would offend and correct some part of every culture throughout history.  You may just have to consider the fact that a dusty old book might get something right that our current culture gets wrong. Humble yourself and be open to your own fallibility.
  3. The verses say what you think it says, but the application is up for grabs. The Bible very clearly condemns adultery and divorce. Nobody’s going to argue that one. There’s still a difference of opinion amongst Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians as to what the state should be doing about that. Should the state make/enforce adultery laws? How hard should divorce be? Should non-Christians be held to the standards of the church? These are all legitimate questions that people who agree about what the Bible says on the moral issue still can discuss. Applying the text is not always a straightforward affair. My buddy Alan Noble has some good reflections on misguided Christian appropriation of the Bible for political rhetoric over at Christ and Pop Culture that are worth considering in relation to this.

To conclude, I know it’s a lot easier to look at the Bible and take the parts you like and scrap the parts you don’t like as it fits your own experience or judgments arrived at independent of the text, or simply “read” it and try to ham-handedly apply it to our lives no matter how awkward (or possibly wrong) we are in doing so. It takes a lot more effort to wrestle with the thing, struggle, read carefully, pray, be uncomfortable, struggle again, and submit to what the Lord says. Still, this is the call. May God give us grace to read carefully and read humbly.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Jesus is the ‘Word of God’ Can We Call the Bible the Word of God?

Even as a lover of books, this might be one of the most terrifying pictures I've ever seen.

Even as a lover of books, this might be one of the most terrifying pictures I’ve ever seen.

“The Bible is not the Word of God, Jesus is. John says he is the Eternal Logos, the true Word spoken from all eternity, and to put such a focus on the Bible as the Word of God is to take it off their point: Jesus. In fact, it’s tantamount to bibliolatry–elevating the Bible to the 4th person of the Trinity.”

Ever heard something like that before? It’s become a truism among many of the Christian internet set, and something like it has been popular in theological circles for some time now.

I must admit, when I first heard the slogan myself, I was thrown off a bit. I mean, John does identify Jesus as the Logos, the Word, of God from all of eternity–the truest and deepest reality Father is eternally speaking. What’s more, it’s true that from time to time you can run across someone in a fundamentalist church who treats the Scriptures as if they were dropped from heaven and yet remain utterly oblivious to its central content. I can begin to see what motivates some to adopt it.

However, after the initial appeal, it appears to me that this is a mistaken move that many (though not all) use as a lead-up to falsely pitting Christ against the Scriptures. In fact, I’ve come to see this as sadly little more than a rhetorical sleight of hand, passing itself off as serious theology.

A Word About Words – The first is concerned with the basic nature of language and the simple text of the Bible. It should be an obvious point that words or phrases can, quite comfortably, have more than one proper use, or an expanded lexical range. For example, the phrase “God’s will” can refer to God’s will of command expressed in his explicit commands, but it can also refer to God’s will of decree by which he governs history. Both meanings are appropriately designated by that phrase, and context will usually clarify any confusion on that point. It ought to be uncontroversial to say the same thing is true of the phrase “the Word of God.”

At the most straightforward level, the phrase “The word of God” just means “a word God has spoken.” We find hundreds of references to God’s speech (“the word of the Lord came to”) littered throughout the canon, whether in the Law, the prophets, or the wisdom literature. Every time God spoke to Moses, he heard “the word of God.” Every time a prophet prophesied and used the phrase “Thus says the Lord”, they were speaking the “word of God.” Over and over, we see the preaching of the Gospel in Acts described as the “word of God.” That Jesus Christ is the eternal Logos of God does not change the fact that it is entirely appropriate to speak of the utterances of Jeremiah or Isaiah as the “word of God.” How much more then for the totality of all that God has “breathed out” by his Spirit?

For those worried about confusion on this point, this is why sometimes theologians have gone out of their way to distinguish what they mean by the phrase, specifying “the Word of God incarnate”  (ie. Jesus) or “the Word of God written” (ie. the Bible). They know very clearly that one has certain properties that the other doesn’t. For instance, the Son of God doesn’t have the properties of being made up of 66 books by various authors over a period of a thousand years or so. On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t have the property of being eternally-generated by the Father, or being incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended in glory. Straightforward enough.

So when the author of Hebrews speaks about the Son’s unique revelatory function he says “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (1:1-2), it’s important note that he doesn’t follow that up with, “so now that we have this final Word let’s not call those previous communications ‘God’s Word.'” The conclusion simply does not follow.

Which brings me to the next point: the Word’s own view of the words. 

Jesus and the Bible

Christ himself presents us with the Word.

What Did Jesus Say? I’ve written before that it’s rather misleading to pit Jesus against the OT, or the “red letters” against the black letter sections of the Bible, given his own view of it. Once again, consider:

Is it not written in your Law, “I said, you are gods”? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, “You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God”? (John 10:34-36)

Not only is Jesus not squeamish about equating the Old Testament Scripture with the “Word of God”, he re-emphasizes their inviolability and authority by adding that they can’t be “broken.” Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseam. In this he is followed by all of the apostles.

But instead of just repeating myself, J.I. Packer has some wisdom for us on this point:

But who is this Christ, the Judge of Scripture? Not the Christ of the New Testament and of history. That Christ does not judge Scripture; he obeys it and fulfills it. Certainly, He is the final authority of the whole of it. Certainly, He is the final authority for Christians; that is precisely why Christians are bound to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. Christ teaches them to do so.

A Christ who permits His followers to set Him up as the Judge of Scripture, One by whom its authority must be confirmed before it becomes binding and by whose adverse sentence it is in places annulled, is a Christ of human imagination, made in the theologian’s own image, One whose attitude to Scripture is the opposite to that of the Christ of history. If the construction of such a Christ is not a breach of the second commandment, it is hard to see what is.

“Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 61–62 (HT: Matt Smethurst)

In other words, if Jesus identifies the Scriptures as God’s Word, why are we so squeamish about following suit?

The Trinitarian Word – Finally, this approach is confused because in doesn’t see that the Bible is the Trinitarian Word of God. Michael Horton calls our attention to the Trinitarian coordinates of inspiration in The Christian Faith. Reminding us of the structure of all trinitarian actions he writes “In every work of the Godhead, the Father speaks in the Son and by the perfecting agency of the Spirit.” (pg. 156) The Bible is the “Word of God” because in all the Law, the narratives, the Psalm, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles we hear the Father testifying to the Son (John 5:39) by way of the power of the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

We can see something like this understanding in Heinrich Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession. After calling attention to the locus classicus establishing this doctrine (“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching,for reproof,” etc. (II Tim. 3:16–17), Bullinger puts it this way:

SCRIPTURE IS THE WORD OF GOD. Again, the selfsame apostle to the Thessalonians: “When,” says he, “you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God,” etc. (I Thess. 2:13.) For the Lord himself has said in the Gospel, “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of my Father speaking through you”; therefore “he who hears you hears me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Matt. 10:20; Luke 10:16; John 13:20). (Chap. 1)

In a sense, it is only as we acknowledge the Bible as the Word of the Father about the Son that we truly see the Son as the Father’s own True Word. It is through the testimony of the Word of God written that we recognize Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate. What’s more, given the current illumination of the text by the Spirit we ought say with Bullinger that “God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures” about the Son.

At this point I think it becomes clearer that to pit Jesus as the Word of God incarnate against the Bible as the Word of God written is a false choice. It’s not only confused both at the level of language, not the attitude towards the Scripture taught to us by Jesus, but at the deeper level I fear it leads many to denigrate the diverse testimony of God to Christ in Scripture all in the name of elevating him.

So then, is Jesus the Word of God? Yes and Amen. Should we still speak of the Bible as the Word of God? Of course we should–Jesus told us to.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are You Hungry Enough?

please-sirHave you ever been without food for long? I can’t say I have too often. I’ve fasted here and there for doctors appointments, but honestly, I’m usually nibbling on something every so often. Most of us are the same–except for those times when something has our attention, right? You know those moments when you’re so absorbed in a project, playing a game, or reading a book that you forget to eat? Or maybe something so urgent has come up, that you simply don’t have time to stop and eat? There are those occasions when, in a sense, another hunger leads you to forget bodily hunger for a while as you try to satisfy the deeper hunger you have.

This is what Calvin says is going on in the feeding of the 5,000 in John:

Here we see, in the first place, how eager was the desire of the people to hear Christ, since all of them, forgetting themselves, take no concern about spending the night in a desert place. So much the less excusable is our indifference, or rather our sloth, when we are so far from preferring the heavenly doctrine to the gnawings of hunger, that the slightest interruptions immediately lead us away from meditation on the heavenly life. Very rarely does it happen that Christ finds us free and disengaged from the entanglements of the world. So far is every one of us from being ready to follow him to a desert mountain, that scarcely one in ten can endure to receive him, when he presents himself at home in the midst of comforts. And though this disease prevails nearly throughout the whole world, yet it is certain that no man will be fit for the kingdom of God until, laying aside such delicacy, he learn to desire the food of the soul so earnestly that his belly shall not hinder him.

-Commentary on John 6:2

Calvin’s words cut deep here. These people were willing to sleep outside, weather the elements, go without food or drink, just to hear Jesus speak a few words. I can’t remember the last time I just sat, engulfed in the text, so drawn to Jesus that I could have tuned the world out, suffered discomfort without notice, as long as I could feast on the Word. Instead, I’m lucky if I make through my reading without a quick jump onto Twitter, or a break for a snack, or…you get the picture. I’m hungry all the time, but never hungry enough for the one thing that counts.

Thing is, and I don’t mean to assume here, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one out there with this. If Calvin’s complaining about this circa 15-whenever-he-wrote-this, I can’t imagine the situation’s improved. No, we live in a distracted age–even more, we live in an age where everything is offered up to satiate our needs. The problem is, most of it’s cotton-candy and we consume so much of it, our palates are ruined for the life-giving nourishment of the Gospel.

Take a moment and ask yourself “Am I hungry enough?” And then, if you’re like me, ask God to give you a hunger–the proper hunger that would lead you to a desert mountain to follow him, to know him, to hear from him. Or, at least one strong enough to ignore your cell-phone for 15 minutes and pray in the midst of all the distracting cotton-candy delicacies of modern life.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Word of Sauron, The Word of Tolkien, and the Word of God

sauronA long time ago, I used to argue with people on blogs. Wait…yeah, I guess I still do. But the story I’m setting up was a long time ago. One of said blogs I argued on was that of my buddy Mike, an old youth pastor of mine who was going the way of the Bell and McLaren (pre-the really, really lame stuff). He’d post some controversial thought to ‘ask a question’ and I’d be the little gadfly college philosophy student who’d jump in and jostle with him. (Also, this was pre-Reformedish days. I would have laughed in your face if you’d have told me in 6 or 7 years I’d be quoting Calvin.)

In any case, he had raised the issue of Scripture one of those posts. Among other questions he was asking whether ‘all’ of the Bible was the Word of God, or only some of the parts, especially those where Divine Speech is specifically denoted, such as in the Prophets. Are the horrifying narrative sections, or the sections where the thoughts and emotions of the prophets, the psalmists, or the god-hating pagans with speaking parts, are speaking truly God’s Word?

In response to this, I came up with an analogy, on the fly, once again Lord of the Rings-related, to answer how I thought, at a minimum, even those sections could be considered the ‘Word of God.’ Once again, remember this is my 21-year old, still-really-piecing-it-together self:

“One way that I think about the way that the whole Bible is the Word of God, is thinking about it much like I think about The Lord of the Rings being the word of ‘Tolkien.’ It is at least all the Word of God in that he is its Divine Author. (I don’t mean to imply some kind of dictation theory of Scripture. I think its possible to have more than one author of a text at different levels. See Wolterstorff or Vanhoozer on this.) That said, not every word spoken in the text can be taken as his direct ‘word’ revealing his thoughts and desires in normative sense–certainly not those uttered by Sauron or Saruman. But, at the same time, those words are there in the text at Tolkien’s prerogative and are part of the overall “Word” that he speaks through the text and so can be taken as his Word.

In the same way, the words of the pagans in Scriptures are God’s Word in the same way that Sauron’s words are Tolkien’s word. There is a way that Tolkien can show us something about or say something about the nature of evil, through the evil words and actions of Sauron, which Tolkien himself would never do or say. In this way, the words and actions are properly Sauron’s, but they are also Tolkien’s in the context of the larger story he is authoring. In an analogous way God says things through these texts in a way that accounts for and does not reduce the multiple human voices, genres, etc, but also accomplishes his specific purposes in the world through the Text as its over-arching Author. Of course, this is an analogy and it kind of breaks down, but I think captures part of the picture.

A few years on, I’d probably massage a few phrases here and there, but in the main, I still find the analogy useful. God’s authorship of Scripture is a nuanced and layered one. That I affirm the Bible as God’s Word in its totality, does not mean I’m proposing a flat reading of the text, that fails to take into account narrative or genre dynamics. Far from it. In fact, it means I have to take care to read it even more carefully, not brushing past or carelessly dismissing any of God’s words, in order to discern just what exactly the Spirit is communicating through the inspired Word.

Soli Deo Gloria