Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Is the Bible the Word of God? (Part 4)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

And all this works out in life, how?
Tim asks, what is the purpose of the Bible? For Mat, the Bible is much stronger "if we accept that God did not write it". I will have to disagree strongly with Mat here. The poet and writer Thomas Hardy professed Christianity for a time, but he abandoned the faith in despair because to him, God was mute. He was distant from his world. We find this theme throughout his books and poems. Tess of D’Urbervilles, possibly his most famous book, is a profoundly sad one. Tess suffers misfortune after misfortune before meeting a tragic end. Hardy’s worldview comes through bright and clear: "God’s not in his heaven, / All’s wrong with the world".

But the Bible is testimony to that amazing truth: God speaks! The beginning of the Bible assumes the speech of God; he speaks creation into being. Or according to Psalm 33:6: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth." God speaks, it is the idols who are dumb. More than that, God promises! He makes a covenant with Abraham and renews it with Israel, that He will be their God, and they will be his people (eg. Ezekiel 37:27). Most amazingly, the Word was made flesh! All God’s promises are found in Christ. Jesus says that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, in other words, God himself. The Message has a nice rendition of Hebrews 1:1-3:

"Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God's nature. He holds everything together by what he says—powerful words!"
Barthians and evangelicals agree that Scripture points away from itself to Christ. But conservative evangelicals also believe that the Bible does point away from itself to God, our Saviour-King, who nonetheless speaks to us through the words of Scripture. We know Jesus because Scripture itself gives us access to him, thus, there is no neat separation between the incarnate Word and the written Word. Neither can the Bible be interpreted properly apart from a living faith in Christ. Just as my words are distinct, yet not separate from me, so the analogy (I think!) applies here too. Our view of God impacts our view of Scripture and vice versa.

But Scripture is not there merely to impart information, but as an instrument in our transformation. "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). God’s word is active in the transforming of lives. It reminds us of God’s character and his trustworthiness. It gives us hope in a world of suffering. It gives us the big story, of creation defiled, redeemed, and one day restored to its full glory. Only if the Bible is Word of God can we be confident of this narrative.

Nicky Chiswell's song, Where else have to go?, captures it well:

We have come to see,
To know and understand
Things the very angels long to see.
God, who owes us nothing,
Has spoken to us all.
Christ the word of God Himself has been

Where else have we to go,
When you alone have words
Of eternal life?

Come all you who labour,
You who are weighed down,
You who thirst and hunger for the right,
There is truth and meaning,
Mercy , rest and hope.
True salvation comes through Jesus Christ
(audio sample, track 14)

In the Christian life, it will ultimately be the living and enduring word of God is that which sustains us.

Misc. observations
One of the saddest posts I read fairly recently is this one: Christian students struggle with Christianity. As I reflect on Mat and Tim’s post, it does seem as if mainstream evangelicalism has failed its young people on this one. The emerging and Reformed critiques are united on this front: contemporary (Western) Christian culture is overly shallow and consumeristic. There are times when I get very exasperated with McLaren et al. because it seems to me that his depictions of evangelicalism are complete caricatures, but there are other times when it does seem to me that he is spot on in his diagnosis, if not his treatment.

Scripture is not simply a moral handbook. I think Tim and Mat do get at this. Too much preaching simply picks verses out of context and construct a self-help pitch out of them. All of us can learn to read the Bible better, and afresh. This post is too long already and so there’s no reason to get into questions of biblical interpretation, but one safeguard against wild interpolations or radical relativism is to read it in community, as Tim does point out. All of us will see things in Scripture others miss, and we can help each other on this front as we come together as God’s people to worship him. There is no need to disavow the Bible as the word of God to investigate its claims. Rather, it is because I am confident that God’s words have integrity, that they are true truth, to use Francis Schaeffer’s words, that I am able to wrestle with them and ask honest questions of them. I share Mat and Tim’s concern that the church be a community where we can be honest with each other (and I admit that I all too easily prefer to wear a mask too) and pray that will be the case.

However, I should say that there is a false dichotomy between doctrine and story. As Dorothy Sayers once said: “The dogma is the drama”. The drafters of the Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry has got the balance right I feel. We read "along" the whole Bible, as we take in the whole plotline of God’s story of redemption, climaxing in Jesus Christ and pointing forward to the new heavens and the new earth. But we also read "across" the Bible, understanding that there are propositions found in the Bible and that the Bible holds right believing and right living closely together (eg. 1 John, and contra some in the emerging camp like Doug Pagitt).

We live in a culture that is inherently hostile to the notion of authority. I suppose in a world of corrupt politicians and pedophile priests, that is not surprising in itself, and yet, we should not extend those negative connotations to the Word of God. Mat suggests that it is only "authoritarians-who-don’t-like-to-be-challenged" who would affirm such beliefs. Mat is probably again being provocative and I believe, will agree with me that this is an overgeneralisation. Again, distinguishing between authority and authoritarianism is useful, and as Mat himself notes, we often submit to some kind of authority in many areas of life, as in the skill of the pilot. Jesus shows us how he utilises his authority, by humbling himself to become a man and death, even death on a cross! This is the kind of authority, the kind of leadership that Christian leaders have to aspire to. That God himself accommodates himself to human language also tells us again of a God who desires to be in relationship with his creation.

We also live in a time where words are devalued. When every advertisement markets its product as the best thing ever, it is no wonder good words like “remarkable”, “astounding” and so on lose their meaning. When words are prostituted, we fail to see how important they are as relational capital. I hope I am not guilty of doing the same here! In the meantime, as an antidote to so much verbal diarrhoea, I’ve previously written a more reflective and doxological piece: On the Word as word.

Thanks for indulging me. I’ve undoubtedly said some things poorly, forgot to mention other things and probably been overly pompous. Mat, I hope you will find this fruitful and you can blame Tim if it isn’t! :-p I should say beforehand that I am happy to receive comments but I hope you’ll forgive me if I am unable to reply to them. I also welcome people more learned than me who might want to correct me. Maybe one day I’ll try to summarise this into one accessible post.

Addendum: Bibliography
I’ll be shocked if I had any original thoughts in my post. Well, apart from the chair eg. Here’s the giants on whose shoulders I stand. Warning: bibliophiliac tendencies on embarassing display! And sorry, too lazy to link!

I’ve already mentioned David Gibson’s essay above: ‘For the Bible tells me so?’, found in Encountering God’s word, Philip Duce and Dan Strange(eds.). The other 3 essays in that volume on the OT, NT, and a survey of biblical interpretation is also worth perusing.

Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth is a clear and simple handbook of Christian belief and is rightly popular with many students. It has a good list of further reading suggestions for those who want to go more in-depth. I used this for quick reference, and I think its section on the doctrine of Scripture is very good especially considering its brevity.

Peter Jensen’s At the Heart of the Universe is another Christianity 101 book I like. Unlike Milne’s book, which is organised in a more traditional textbook fashion, Jensen takes a more narrative approach. It has a section on the revelation of God.

Incidentally, Jensen has also written a much bigger theological tome, called, The Revelation of God! Much more scholarly and very insightful.

It’s really hard to find an entire book for the popular level on this issue. N.T (Tom) Wright is one those rare writers that has no problem writing for laity and the academy alike, and his little book Scripture and the authority of God (US Title: The Last Word) is pretty accessible. I don’t necessarily agree with Wright on everything, but this is very useful. For an appreciative critique of this book’s limitations, see John Frame’s review.

Christ and the Bible by the late John Wenham, is the book that first (well, in the 20th century anyway) carefully investigated what Jesus thought of the Bible. I’ve not read it myself, and it’s out of print now, but that’s the one if you come across it.

On canon, I haven’t read either, but the standards are F.F Bruce’s Canon of Scripture and Bruce Metzger’s book, whose title I can’t remember – it has canon in the title somewhere I’m sure.

On the reliability of the gospels. Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ is still a very helpful primer. F.F Bruce’s New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? has stood the test of time. Reinventing Jesus by Dan Wallace et al., which I’ve not read, has been reviewed very positively. Although written in response to the Da Vinci Code, the reviewers all agree that it’s value lies beyond that, and as far as I can tell, although they write for a popular audience, they include more detail than is normal. Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy’s book Jesus: Lord or Legend? treats some of the less common questions, especially on orality and myth. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg is more scholarly if you’re looking for that sort of thing, and if you want something ultra-scholarly, Richard Bauckham, currently at Cambridge, has a massive tome that was considered a bit of a mover and shaker in the academic world: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

On reading the Bible better. There are lots of good books that help capture the sweeping metanarrative, the drama of Scripture well. Actually, there’s a book with that very title: The Drama of Scripture, by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen. God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts is a great place to start. Some consider Graeme Goldsworthy to be the granddaddy of this particular genre of books, so you might want to look up According to Plan or The Goldsworthy Trilogy. Arty types would love New Way to be Human by Charlie Peacock.

I like Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks. It assumes nothing, and I suppose for some it might feel condescending, but it helps you be more confident in reading the Bible for yourself. Dig Deeper! by Andrew Sach and Nigel Beynon has a similar aim. On the question of genres, there’s the seminal How to Read the Bible for all its worth by Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart. Other books on biblical interpretation which I’ve not read include Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind by Tremper Longman, a highly-regarded OT scholar, and Let the Reader Understand by Dan McCartney. My friend said that he found John Stott’s Understanding the Bible a Godsend at a time when he was struggling to read through a particular section of the OT. See, you’re spoilt for choice!

I should mention the works of Kevin Vanhoozer. I didn’t utilise his favourite line of argumentation, those of speech-acts, in my post above, but he is a major figure in the field of hermeneutics. His books, both not for the faint-hearted, are Is There a Meaning in this Text? and First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics. The latter is too much for me to handle.

On Christian epistemology, that is, knowing how we know, the standard in the field is John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Not exactly bedtime reading, this! Another one I deem too tough to tackle at this stage. I am currently reading through J. Mark Bertrand’s Rethinking Worldview, however, and he’s got some very good thoughts on Christian epistemology that isn’t couched in jargon.

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Blogger Tim said...

i think rob bell's intention was not trying to summarise the doctrine of sola scripture within a paragraph, but to speak out against the problem of hierarchy and misused authority within the established Church, which is a theme you'll find running throughout Velvit Elvis (which I really enjoyed btw)!

apart from that, though, i was very impressed. will definetely be circulating your posts amongst friends and family ;)

5:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love bk.

and this is why.

7:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your wisdom pwns all.

7:09 am  

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