The Bible is Not Just Another Book

Another year has come. In our culture, that means learning to write a different last two digits when you write checks, sign paperwork, and fill out forms. This is also a time when people set new goals for the year to come, often planning the accomplishments they hope to see complete before we have completed another trip around the sun. Other people, reject the notion and simply continue on as they go.

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What is both most encouraging and disheartening to me is the number of people who commit to reading the Bible through each year and fizzle out long before the end. It’s discouraging to me because often when I talk to the people who have missed their goal, they simply give up when they miss a few days here or there. It’s a hard thing to get into Scripture every day without fail, and even those who regularly finish all 66 books in a year often miss days. At the same time, it is encouraging because people are trying.

There is nothing magical about the New Year. January 1 has no more significance on a cosmic scale than August 15th. But it offers a cultural pattern for new beginnings, for the initiation of attempts at self-improvement or sanctification. Though there is nothing eternally unique about the date, using the culture’s momentum to get moving in the right direction.

This year, if you commit to nothing else, consider committing to reading all of Scripture through.

Why Scripture?

Is the Bible just another book like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shakespeare’s plays, or a modern novel?

Some would answer yes, but those people are unlikely to be convinced by a blog. And yet, many will respond that the Bible is unlike all other books, but will perhaps be unable to explain why.

The Bible, a volume with 66 books written over thousands of years by dozens of different human authors is a book like no other book because it has one divine author behind every word of every page.

As the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says,

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

Our only hope for salvation is discussed in its pages. It is God’s revelation of himself to us. It is all a testimony of Christ, our only hope. It is the standard by which all our thoughts, beliefs, and actions should and will be judged.

So many of us will confess something glorious about the Bible on Sunday and live like it is just a bunch of fairy tales when Monday comes. This year, make a commitment to treat Scripture like what it is: the very word of God, revealed through the ages, given to us by God’s divine grace, and intended to point us toward holiness in Christ.


From Early Posts at Ethics and Culture

“A Plea for Reading the Bible”
”Bible Reading Plans for This Year”

Encountering God in the Psalms - A Review

Most books get reviewed when they are first out, generally within two years. Sometimes, there are classics that people will “review” years afterward, but this is generally a way of introducing people to an older book, with little intent to provide feedback to the author for his next work. This review falls more into the latter category than the former, since the author is deceased, but I make no claims that this book is a classic, merely that it is a worthy piece of scholarship that could be helpful to more than have likely encountered it. It is a book that is useful in building up the body of Christ.

Michael Travers’ most important book is a 2003 volume, Encountering God in the Psalms, which he published with Kregel shortly after he arrived at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, though the majority of the volume was authored while he was at Mississippi College. The book is about reading the Psalms. More specifically, it is about reading the Psalms both for their literary quality and their devotional power. It is in this dual purpose, well executed, that gives this book its unique quality and enduring value.

The first part of the book teaches the reader how to read the Psalms. The first three chapter of the book are dedicated to teaching readers about the nature of poetry, the structure of Hebrew poetry, the concepts of theme, genre, and musical quality. While the book is focused on a particular subset of poetry, there is a great deal of general wisdom in these chapters that teach the reader how to read poetry better.

Part Two is longer, consisting of ten chapters that walk the reader through reading select Psalms. The section begins by presenting Moses’ encounter with God as a narrative exemplar that shows the setting that is, to some degree, present for all of the various authors of Psalms. The remaining chapters deal with Psalms that are sorted by theme. Travers moves through Psalms grouped under headings that consider God as creator, covenant maker, Messiah, redeemer, way of wisdom, and other themes. Each chapter shows how the method for reading the Psalms laid out in Part One can be applied to Psalms that fit those themes.

This is a useful book because it is a book that points people toward something beyond itself or the author. In this way, Travers is much like C. S. Lewis. When Lewis wrote he was always trying to get people to see where he was pointing. In this case, Travers is pointing people through his own work toward that Psalms that are, in turn, pointing people toward the Triune God. This is, therefore, just the sort of book that will help people become better Christians.

Michael’s early research was on the devotional poets, especially John Milton. His skill with poetry comes through in this book as he brings readers to a deeper appreciation for the power of language through poetry. This is the sort of book that will shape the mind by equipping it for later study. It is not a flashy volume, but its chapters are filled with solid wisdom.

Encountering God in the Psalms is a book that will most benefit those who love Scripture and want to learn more about God through his word. It is the sort of book that requires diligence and careful reading of the text of Scripture alongside its own pages. However, it is also a book that will sharpen the reader, deepen their love for the Psalms, and likely point them to a deeper understanding of the God who inspired the psalmists. It is, in fact, a book that many pastors should pick up and that lay people should aspire to.

Encountering God in the Psalms
By Michael E. Travers

Note: This volume will be discussed in greater detail in an essay in a forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis: Essays in Honor of Michael Travers (Wipf and Stock, 2019).

Numerical Statistics and the Path to Liberalism

There is no question that mainline Protestant denominations are in numerical decline in the United States. Year by year, those denominations that have affirmed the tenets of theological liberalism are dying off.

Many theologically conservative Protestants tend to highlight the numerical decline of liberal denominations as proof of their rightness in standing for truth. Some of the less combative theological conservatives occasionally use the decline narrative as a basis for not being combative: let it go, the false religion will die out one day.

The argument that numerical decline is a necessary result of bad doctrine is, however, a bad one. In fact, it is one that has tended to enable doctrinal distortions and sociological abuses among some of those most active in theologically conservative circles.

Explaining the Decline

There is little doubt that the lack of vitality in theological liberalism is a part of reason for the decline of denominations characterized by it. In simplistic terms, the main project of theological liberalism is to strip away objectional parts of Christian orthodoxy until the end result can be accepted by someone without abandoning any important cultural beliefs.

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This has been the project from the beginning. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the father of theological liberalism, was earnest in his desire to remove barriers to modern humans to convert to Christianity. As a result, he engaged in the process of redefinition of difficult ideas and excision of theological truths that conflicted with naturalistic, minimally supernatural worldview.

His project has continued, with scholars and pastors in the liberal tradition arguing against central Christian truths, like the resurrection of Christ, his divinity, and the possibility of his miracles. In the end, there are some members and leaders in mainline Protestant denominations who believe so little that is vital to orthodox Christian doctrine, they have no business calling themselves Christians.

Theological liberalism is, when it is lived authentically, an entirely different religion than Christianity. It may use some of the symbols and share some vocabulary, but when the core meaning of these signs is stripped away, it is hard to say that they are the same things.

When one takes away the power of the cross to bring about redemption, for example, then the entire power of the gospel has been denied. It is the gospel that makes the Church and not the Church that makes the gospel.

Historically, the Christian churches around the world have been animated by the power of the gospel. It is what enables Christians to not simply endure persecutions, but to thrive in hostile environments. It is the power of the gospel that has grown the church throughout history.

When theological liberalism is sufficiently advanced (which is not in all cases), it alienates itself from the very thing that makes the Church a coherent and vital reality. At that point, especially when everything that is uniquely Christian and differentiates believers from the culture around them has been stripped away, there is little reason to remain in a church. In fact, there are many more reasons not to abandon the hassle of the local congregation when the gospel is absent.

Consider this: the local church should be a collection of people that have no business being socially united. It should be ethnically heterogenous (or open to it, since some communities are essentially homogenous). It should represent people from various economic classes, educational backgrounds, political interests, etc. The Church is a messy community. That takes hard work, and it is only possible when the strong nuclear force of the gospel holds the nucleus together.

When you strip Christianity of the very thing that makes it distinct from culture, there is no reason to meet anymore. If the essence of Christianity becomes simply doing “good” things for the community, then that can be much more easily accomplished by joining an association with fewer social entailments. In other words, why bind yourself in community with a bunch of weirdos when you can just casually and conveniently work at the soup kitchen on occasion. You get the benefits without the inconvenience.

The power of the gospel is what animates Christian congregations and denominations. When that is stripped away, then it makes sense for the numbers to decline. The weirdness of a community with the entailments of a church is not worth it without the gospel.

Resisting the Opposite

Our desire to be justified in our own eyes often tempts us to crow over the decline of theologically liberal denominations. Often theological conservatives will try to argue that their own stagnant or rising numbers are a sign of God’s blessing on their continued faithfulness to the gospel.

Sometimes faithfulness to the gospel and to the central truths of historic Christianity is a sign of God’s blessing. Passages like Acts 2:41 are exciting. The gospel is preached and three thousand people are converted. Clearly, we might think, God is blessing the faithful preaching of his word. The numerical growth is an indicator of (1) truth and (2) faithfulness.

As exciting as Acts 2:41 is, how many of us would see the rapid shrinking of the local gathering of believers in Jerusalem, described in Acts 8, as a sign of their unfaithfulness or abandonment of the truth? To the contrary, had Stephen abandoned the truth in Acts 7, he probably would have lived, and the persecution of the church might have been forestalled at least for a while. The denial of the gospel might have extended the period of numerical growth.

In our contemporary contexts we need only look at the rapid growth of the Prosperity Gospel movement to see that abandoning the real gospel can lead to an increase in numbers. In other words, numbers don’t tell the whole story and they often don’t tell much of a story at all. Or, they don’t tell a story about the things that matter most.

All Growth is Not Healthy

Every numerical increase is not a sign of God’s blessing. It is exceedingly dangerous to use numerical growth (or stagnation) as an indicator of either truth or faithfulness.

Consider that the Church is a body. This is not a hard leap, since the Apostle Paul used the analogy in 1 Cor 12:12-31. All growth in a body is not healthy.

Ask the morbidly obese individual whether an increase in size is a healthy thing. Or, perhaps more tellingly, ask someone with cancer whether all growth is healthy. Both will tell you that size and growth is not directly tied to health.

Although there is good evidence that the abandonment of the gospel by many theologically liberal denominations and congregations has contributed to their decline, it does not follow that growth among theological conservative denominations has been healthy.

In fact, when we consider the number of people who identify in public polls as “evangelical” and yet fail to demonstrate any meaningful signs of conversion in their own lives, we begin to recognize a symptom of a deadly problem.

I have a working theory that while many theologically liberal denominations have abandoned the gospel in pursuit of cultural acceptability, many supposedly theologically conservative denominations have abandoned the entailments of the gospel in pursuit of numerical growth. I think this is an outworking of the bad logic that comes from seeing that numerical decline is often the result of the deletion of the gospel.

Numerical Growth as the Source of Liberalism

I am concerned about theological liberalism because it represents an anti-gospel masquerading as truth. I am more concerned about a conflation of gospel power with numerical expansion because (a) it is happening in my own theological tribe and (b) it is the first stage of theological liberalism.

The original intent of theological liberalism was not to abandon every truth that matters. Nor was it to reject the gospel. Rather, theological liberalism began with a belief that (1) the gospel matters a great deal, (2) that some things make the gospel harder for people to believe because it is so different than modern beliefs about the world, and (3) we can help more people get the gospel by stripping away the extras around the gospel that are holding people back. Though they typically lacked the elaborate head counts and well-analyzed statistics that we have today, liberalism began over a concern for numerical growth.

The main issue with liberalism is that when the truthfulness of Scripture is denied, or at least the truth about the hard parts of Scripture, then it really does create a slippery slope. A low point in theological liberalism was when a bunch of non-believers sitting in a room in Berkeley, California using colored beads to decide which parts of the gospels represented things the real Jesus would say. One need merely look around to see how individuals, congregations, and denominations are all finding ways to affirm and celebrate immorality in contrast to Scripture and in the name of numerical growth or cultural cache. One need also not look far to see cases where the pursuit of numbers and cultural cache have encouraged a minimization of the gospel, “unhitching” one’s faith from the documents of the faith, and the diminution of orthopraxy as a central aspect of the Christian life. All of these are ways that Scripture is diminished for a non-gospel purpose, even when they occur under the banner of a robust doctrinal statement.

To draw a general conclusion, which deserves a lengthier investigation some other time, it seems that the beginning of doctrinal decline is found when making something other than worship in spirit and truth becomes the purpose of a group of Christians. An advanced symptom of doctrinal decline is the redaction of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. The beginning of the decline, however, is when something other than the gospel of Christ becomes the animating force of a group of Christians.

Historically, it seems that the decline of doctrine often begins when numerical growth and the social clout that goes along with it become the focus.

Judge Not, But Look for Fruit

Matthew’s Gospel offers some insight that may be helpful in drawing some conclusions to this already lengthy discussion.

Within a single chapter, which by all accounts represents the core of Jesus teaching, Matthew provides two passages that are sometimes held to be contradictory, such that often only one is acknowledge at a time or by a given group. One is the key passage of much of socially progressive Christianity: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Mt. 7:1) The other is the key passage of many combative theologically conservative Christians, “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit.” (Mt 7:15-16b).

If we are to take Scripture seriously, then we have to recognize both simultaneously and seek to obey them both. On the surface (and I have heard this argument made against the coherence of Christianity), this appears contradictory. However, it is not.

We are clearly called to be on our guard against false prophets. There are a lot of people who spew a lot of words that aren’t gospel. Sometimes they sound a lot like gospel, but they really aren’t. Jesus uses the image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As a theological conservative, I’ve got that down. I see how theological liberals torture the historical doctrines of the faith, how they encourage their parishioners to live debauched lives, and I recognize the bad fruit.

At the same time, I have to be cautious that I am judging others by a metric that I can withstand. Therefore, I cannot judge the spiritual health of others by their numerical growth. As the tide of culture continues to reject the need for religion and see Christianity as backward and anti-social, the number of casual adherents to theologically conservative churches will decline or stagnate. The size of the Church won’t change, but the size of the congregation will change.

Therefore, we ought not to use numerical decline as the ultimate arbiter of the truthfulness of a group’s theology. Bigger or growing does not necessarily mean truer or better. Membership is a metric that can be quickly used to argue that the truth of the gospel, when it becomes socially unpopular, is not in fact true.

Work Toward Authentic Christian Character

When we shift our mission from being a true representation of Christ on earth as his body to meeting numerical statistics, we have begun the shift away from sound doctrine. It happens slowly at the beginning and ends in a crashing avalanche.

This happens when we tolerate sexual abuse in our ranks or cover it up because a leader is effective and we don’t want to ruin the brand. This happens when we accept unholy bullying in our organizational structures because someone is good at packing the house or strategic planning. This happens when we build the life of our congregations around entertaining and pacifying rather than really discipling.

Make no mistake, all of those decisions are just as doctrinal as the nature of the Trinity. None of them will make it into a confessional statement, but they reflect the deepest values of the individual or group making the decisions.

In the end, the calling of the individual Christian and the body of Christ as a whole is terribly difficult. As Jesus notes, “How narrow is the gate and difficult is the road that leads to life and few find it.” (Mt 7:14)

The best we can do is consider the nature of good works. They require us to do the right thing, in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons. It is out of the pattern of our choices that the character of the believer, the congregation, and the worldwide Church is both formed and revealed.

The Story of Scripture - A Review

Hershel Hobbs was a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, a faithful pastor, and a theologian for the church. He helped guide the SBC through the doctrinal struggle that is commonly referred to as the Conservative Resurgence, where the theologically orthodox majority of the denomination reclaimed the SBC from the revisionist minority that had gained control of her seminaries, mission boards, and other structures. He was faithful through that work, but importantly, he was deeply concerned about the long-term health and viability of the local church. For Hobbs, the vitality of local churches was dependent upon a reliance and intimacy of the Word of God, which is why many of his 100+ published books are popular-level, verse by verse commentaries on books of the Bible.

With that background, it is a fitting tribute that the first volume in the Hobbs College Library series from Oklahoma Baptist University is an overview of the narrative of Scripture. It is a book designed to introduce the reader to what academics call biblical theology, but which is really just the process of looking at the big picture of Scripture and reading the Bible in light of the common, interwoven, recurring themes.

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Matthew Emerson, associate professor of religion at OBU, was commissioned to write the inaugural volume, The Story of Scripture: An Introduction to Biblical Theology. This little book is targeted at the average Christian who is interested in understanding the Bible better, though it is written by someone who has studied Scripture academically and continues to engage in deep, rigorous scholarship about the Bible. The book is divided into six chapters, including the introduction.

Summary

In Chapter One, Emerson lays the groundwork for the volume. He begins by arguing that Scripture is united in its theme and thrust. Though it was authored by more than forty authors over a period of 1000+ years and consolidated into one volume with 66 books, Scripture has a single main story to tell. In this chapter, Emerson outlines the meaning of and history of the study of Biblical theology, which is essential for those who will do further reading on the topic.

Chapter Two lays out the first three major themes in the story of Scripture: creation, fall, and redemption. As we piece together the overriding message of Scripture, the storyline is clear: God created the earth good, but Adam sinned leading to the curse. This is the story of Genesis 1-3. God didn’t leave it there, though, he began to enact a pattern of redemption that is evident throughout the rest of Scripture and whose seeds were planted along with the curse. Chapter Two takes the reader through the book of Genesis.

In Chapter Three, Emerson continues to trace the theme of redemption through the rest of the Old Testament, as God’s plan and providence are made evident through the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Chapter Four continues to outline redemption as it is accomplished and applied through the life of Christ, and finally described as consummated in the book of Revelation.

Chapter Five explores some of the major topics or keys that are commonly used to frame biblical theology. These include covenant, kingdom, creation, wisdom, God’s servant, mission and other. Emerson does not provide a comprehensive list (if there is such a thing), but does explain some of the most frequent approaches. Finally, in Chapter Six, Emerson succinctly outlines methods for applying biblical theology, including development of doctrine, ethics, counseling, and other suggestions.

Analysis and Conclusion

This book does not add depth or detail to the literature on biblical theology. However, The Story of Scripture does provide a helpful entry point for the study and application of a critical method of handling Scripture. Emerson does well in providing an entry point for students, pastors, or the average layperson who wants to know how to study the Bible better and piece together a big picture understanding of God’s work in redemptive history.

The Story of Scripture would be a useful volume to give to a new believer who is trying to figure out what is going on in the Bible. It would make a helpful text in an introductory course on the Christian faith or an overview of Scripture. This volume would also be useful in a home school setting, as the concise volume could be easily digested and discussed by the average high schooler.

Emerson has kicked off the multi-volume series from the Hobbs College Library well with this volume that should serve as a tool for churches and individual Christians for years to come.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

A Plea for Reading the Bible

One of the greatest tragedies in the Christian life would be to believe that the Bible is God’s word and not take steps to read and understand it.

In contrast to the many years prior to the Protestant Reformation when the Roman Church worked to keep reading the Bible in the vernacular language illegal, we now have more access to the Bible for less money than ever. The problem is that we simply are not reading it.

Consider this video from the United Bible Society, which shows a people group in Indonesia getting the New Testament in their language for the first time. Compare their excitement over access to God's Word with our apathy despite the overflowing availability of it.

Choosing a Translation

There are so many versions of the Bible available right now that it can becomes confusing to figure out what you need. Here are some tips for choosing a version:

1.         Find out which translation your local church uses in its regular worship services and Bible studies. If they are consistent, it may help to have the same translation as you worship.

2.         Consider your reading ability. One of gifts of having multiple translations is that you can find a version of the Bible that is easiest for you to comprehend. This guide from the publisher, Cokesbury, may be helpful for your decision. Even if you aren’t sure what your reading level is, the guide will give you a relative understanding of the differences in difficulty.

3.         Before you buy a Bible, go to www.Biblegateway.com and read the same passage in several versions. If you are familiar with a particular passage, you can compare between translations and get a feel for the language in it.

4.         Ask one of the leaders in your local church for a recommendation if you aren’t sure. A good Bible can cost a significant amount of money, so ask your pastor or a trusted ministry leader what they recommend.

After you’ve picked a Bible, or if you’ve already got one, then the most important thing you can do with it is read it and begin to learn it. If you’ve read this far in this post, I’ll assume that you have a desire to read your Bible and are looking for ways to break down this monumental task into smaller chunks.

An Argument for Bible Reading Plans

Many contemporary Christians set annual goals of reading through the Bible each year. This can be a great practice for a number of reasons.

a.          It exposes you to the whole counsel of God. It may take a year and you won’t remember all the details, but making it through Scripture will help shape your understanding of God if you work at it.

b.         The practice of reading all of Scripture in a year ensures that, if completed, most days you will have spent time in God’s Word.

c.          You will begin to see patterns, recurring themes, and connections in Scripture that you were not aware of. Reading the Bible helps you become a better Christian.

At the same time, simply going through the motions to move your bookmark 3 chapters each day or check of the day's box can become a form of legalism. It is important to find a reading plan that meets your commitment level, your ability, and the time resources you have available.

For example, a mother with several young children is going to find setting aside even 20 minutes a day for Bible reading exceedingly difficult on a consistent basis. Therefore, choose a Bible reading plan that keeps you moving, but doesn’t kill you.

It is also possible to skim through the Bible each day in a year and never latch on to anything. It is possible to read the Bible without getting anything from it. This is a danger with some of the 1 year plans. Find a reading plan that matches your reading ability and time commitment. 

But by all means, please read the Bible.

Some Basic Reading Plans

Here are a few different Bible reading plans that are available for free online. I’m linking to a few of them here:

1.         The simplest option is to read the Bible from cover to cover. In order to do this, you will need to read about three chapters each day every day.

2.         Another option is to read through the Bible in chronological order. Our Bible doesn’t necessarily flow in a straight timeline from the first page to the last, so someone has put together a reading plan that puts the minor prophets (for example) in order and shifted Paul’s letters to the order that we believe he wrote them. If you are trying to understand the flow of the Old Testament history (for example), doing this reading plan may help.

3.         For those looking some flexibility in their schedule, but who still want to get through the Bible in a year, a five day a week reading plan like this one will give you two catch up days in the week. This is an option that might appeal to busy professionals or parents.

4.         Some may want or need to use a slower pace. For those who read a bit slower, there are plans that will walk you through the Bible in two years.

If you have never read through the Bible, I recommend that you start with one of these plans and get a broad sense of Scripture. Do this for a couple of years, then consider a more in depth study method or selective reading plan.

One example of a focused study method is the plan suggested by Joe Carter, writing for The Gospel Coalition. He suggests reading each book of the Bible twenty times straight through. This, he argues, will begin to change your worldview through Scripture saturation. His method is pretty simple:

1.         Choose a book of the Bible.

2.         Read it in its entirety. 

3.         Repeat step #2 twenty times. 

4.         Repeat this process for all books of the Bible.

I have not tried Joe's method myself, but it stands to reason it would be beneficial if simply because it would help the reader be very comfortable with the content of the Bible. Moving through all sixty-six books of Scripture would take some time, but at the end, I imagine the reader would have developed a depth of familiarity that would serve well for the remainder of life.

A Call for Gracious Persistence

Photo Credit: Bible Reading by Cristeen Quezon. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/CZMj307AJ0y

Photo Credit: Bible Reading by Cristeen Quezon. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/CZMj307AJ0y

Whichever method you choose to increase your Bible intake is not nearly as important as simply reading the Bible more deeply. You will benefit more from reading a third of the Bible this year than in reading none. You will benefit from picking up after you have missed a few days and continuing on, even if it puts you “off schedule.” Falling short of your goal is no sin. Failing to take time to engage with God’s word can lead to sin, as you enter life's battle unarmed by the sword of the Spirit.

Therefore, don’t wait until the New Year to start a plan. If you decide to start in February, that is fine; there is nothing magical about the first of January.

If you miss a month, don’t sweat it. Just pick up where you left off and keep going.

If you don’t get it all, keep moving. Ask questions of your pastor or ministry leaders. Just keep moving.

Some Thoughts on Scripture, Theology, and Climate

It doesn’t matter if the issue is economics, the environment, human sexuality, or liturgy, when we ask what the Bible says about a topic we need to asking the question of the Bible. We should not try to construct our preconceived notions out of biblical material.

For some, this is an obvious statement, but as I read theology texts and Christianesque articles on various issues from all angles, I consistently get frustrated with the authors’ well-meaning attempts at eisegesis. It is especially frustrating to someone, like me, who views Scripture as the final norm in all matters of life and faith to fight  through an attempt to contort the text to fit their perspective.

Theology and Climate Change

One recent example is a book on Systematic Theology and climate change. Recognizing that climate change is a big deal, and that I expect Pope Francis to affirm anthropogenic climate change in his forthcoming encyclical, I am still puzzling over the approach of this book.

Scripture affirms an earth-positive ethics. That is, an environmental ethics can be built that has strong support from Scripture. What Scripture doesn’t help us with is the particulars about the data that relates to climate change or what to do about it.

This is something we are going to have to watch for in the near future, as the forthcoming papal encyclical encourages growing concern for the environment. We need to be more concerned with the environment than we are. However, we also need to balance our method of response to environmental concerns so that we do not ignore our responsibility to care for the poor, advance medical technologies, and advocate for the life of the unborn.

In other words, not everything that comes under the mantle of environmentalism can be matched up with Christianity. This is true despite the fact that we can develop a thoroughgoing environmental ethics from Scripture.

More particularly, we cannot blindly jump onto a policy bandwagon when issues like climate change come into play, even if they are entirely human caused. There are elements in the platform of many climate policy advocacy groups that don’t match a Christian worldview. We need to navigate these waters very carefully.

Challenges for Contemporary Theologians

This is what makes trying to derive a theology of climate change from Scripture. The Bible doesn’t actually say anything about the specific nature of climate change. Therefore, any theology that deals specifically with climate change will have several layers of interpretation between the text and the theology.

There is nothing wrong with applying a biblical worldview to contemporary issues. In fact, I am an avid proponent of this. However, we must do so with care so that the issue does not overshadow the text. In other words, we cannot backfit a theological paradigm to our sense of justice.

Backfitting is exactly what some theologians are doing when they construct their paradigms. They build the foundation under the existing problem.

The answer to the problem, though, isn’t to stop talking about the problem. It’s to come at it the other direction. Scripture is sufficient for every question about doctrine and life. This doesn’t mean that there is a verse in Scripture to answer every question someone can ask. We shouldn’t try to make the Bible be any more exact than it is.

Instead, this means that Scripture has the information we need to construct a worldview that will allow us to receive and apply truth that comes from the world around us. God created the world in an orderly fashion, thus all truth is God’s truth.

The main idea, then, is that we need to be cautious when we claim something as a Christian position. If we do, then it really ought to be built on a carefully formulated framework derived from Scripture. After all, that is the revelation God gave us and by which we claim to judge all ideas.

Photo credit: Bible, by Adam Dimmick. Used by permission. http://ow.ly/OqNhh 

History, Law and Christianity - A Review

One of the several ways to engage people with the good news of Jesus Christ is through evidential apologetics. In many cases now, the morality of the Bible is so offensive to people they have little initial concern over the historicity of Scripture. However, both within and without the church there are cases where cogent, rational demonstrations of the credibility of Christianity are necessary.

History, Law and Christianity, by John Warwick Montgomery has recently been republished by the 1517 Legacy project, which aims at presenting a Christian apologetic to the world. Montgomery’s book was originally published in 1964, having begun its existence as a series of lectures in response to attacks on the Christian faith. The first five chapters discuss the plausibility of historical evidences of the truthfulness of Christianity. The final chapter provides a “legal defense” of Christianity, as it might occur in a court of law. This edition also includes the original lecture to which Montgomery was responding, as well as an affirmation of the quality of the argument by a non-Christian historian.

Much like Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, and Josh McDowell’s classic, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Montgomery’s volume points out some of the common challenges to the truthfulness of the biblical accounts regarding Christ. Montgomery shows that, while we cannot have Cartesian certainty of Christ’s resurrection and his deity based on evidence alone, there is such a strong logical coherence to the accounts of Christ’s life that opponents of biblical Christianity are wrong to dismiss the accounts in Scripture as readily as they often do.

Apologetic volumes like these are helpful within the church, because they can shore up existing faith. With a constant barrage of accusations and denials thrown at Christianity from the world, reading a careful, logical defense of the reliability of Scripture can be nourishing to the soul.

In some cases, a book like this can be helpful for people who have not yet come to faith but are asking realistic, honest questions about the integrity of Christianity. Montgomery’s careful argumentation may be the help someone needs to come to grips with the transformative power of the gospel.

One of the benefits of this book is its size. The actual argumentation of the volume is a mere 76 pages. It took me a couple of hours to read it fairly carefully. Many apologetics books, in attempting to be perfectly thorough, become weighty tomes which are unlikely to be picked up by the casual inquirer.

Another strength of History, Law and Christianity is the precision with which Montgomery argues. His carefully argued points are shaped as only the lawyer can do (one of Montgomery’s earned degrees is a J.D.). The book, then, is up to the logical  scrutiny of a rational skeptic.

The weakness of the book is that it may be answering questions that most people aren’t asking in our day and age. This book will be a solid entry into a debate with someone with a modern epistemology, which is rigorously rational (often excessively so). It may not be as effective in convincing the post-modern skeptic, who is willing to accept truths but not Truth. As such, this is a tool that will be most effective when provided to the proper audience.

All in all, this is a well written book. It has withstood the last half-century well. It is a book I am glad to have on my shelf and will gladly recommend to others.

History, Law and Christianity
By John Warwick Montgomery

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation - A Review

One of the biggest divides between Roman Catholics and Protestants has been the understanding of the relative weight of authority of the Church and Scripture. Roman Catholics have tended to have a very high view of both sources of authority with equal or nearly equal weight given to both when making doctrinal determinations. Protestants, with their famous motto sola scriptura have tended to minimize the importance of church tradition in understanding doctrine.

Many of the radical reformers (i.e., Anabaptists) and contemporary fundamentalists have clung to Scripture alone, when the reality is that suprema scriptura is probably more consistent with the intent and practice of the reformation. Scripture alone is the supreme authority in making doctrinal determinations. However, if Church tradition is entirely neglected and a foundation for doctrine is laid only on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, then Mormonism, the Campbellite doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and Charles Finney’s (near) Pelagianism is a likely result. “No creed but the Bible” is a warning sign that heresy is soon to come. This is a pattern that has been reinforced by Church History.

On the other hand, the approach Matthew Levering takes in Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture, is not correct. Levering is Roman Catholic. Therefore, when he finds a dual source for revelation in both the Church and Scripture, it is not surprising. His conclusions, like my own, were likely to go no farther than his presuppositions. However, Levering makes the case so clearly that, were I to be converted to a Roman Catholic understanding of revelation, this would be the sort of argument that I would find most convincing.

Summary

After the introduction, which surveys some of the previous academic volumes on this topic, the book is divided into eight chapters. In each of the chapters Levering explains how divine revelation is mediated by the Church through various means. Chapter One begins with revelation mediated through the outward motion of the Church as she fulfills her mission. As the Church participates in the self-denying missio Dei, she demonstrates the very nature of God to herself and the world. The second chapter focuses on revelation experienced through the Church’s liturgy, which is considered a demonstration of God’s character on public display.

Levering then shifts to treating revelation and the hierarchical priesthood, arguing that the accepted hierarchy of the Roman Catholic (and some “high church” Protestant denominations) affirms Jesus’ design for the Church, and represents divine revelation. This is, I think, the weakest of the chapters because there is no clear logical basis for this assertion. Chapter Four relates the relationship between the gospel and revelation. While Chapter One focused mostly on the Church’s collective demonstration of revelation through action, this section zooms in on the life of the individual as impacted by the gospel.

Chapter Five explains the necessity of Tradition and Levering’s belief that Church Tradition has been faithfully transmitted in much the same way Scripture has been transmitted. Levering seems to beg the question in this chapter, as can be seen in his introductory comments that “divine revelation has a specific cognitive content that must be transmitted. Tradition cannot be less than this.” This is valid in the way that Levering intends it only if you assume the premise he is trying to prove. The sixth chapter moves into the relationship between revelation and the development of doctrine, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church has, necessarily, been faithful in transmitting doctrine in the same manner that Scripture has been faithfully transmitted.

The next chapter deals with revelation and biblical inspiration. This is a more helpful chapter, though Levering’s conclusions concede too much ground. He points out the difference between modern expectations for historical and scientific accuracy, arguing for more latitude in interpreting Scripture so that contemporary hermeneutic constraints are not applied to an ancient document. At the same time, Levering’s approach allows the denial of the historicity of significant events without clear guidance as to how one would have faith in certain facts over others. Therefore, he affirms the historicity of the resurrection, which is of first importance, but the same arguments he uses to allow for denial of other historical events could be used to undermine that one. This is problematic.

Chapter Eight closes the volume exploring some of the relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and Scripture, particularly places where Levering believes such philosophical elements were imported (not merely referenced) in Scripture. His conclusion in this chapter is that “we should view Hellenistic philosophical culture as providentially providing the scriptural communication of divine revelation with some important and true insights about God.” It would be easy to overreact to this statement, because it seems to imply too strong a link between pagan philosophy and Scripture. It would be better had Levering nuanced his position to argue Hellenistic provided a helpful framework for expressing truths about God, which is more likely the case. In that sense, such philosophies shaped Scripture, but it does not seem they were a source for divine revelation, as it were.

Analysis

While I appreciate what Levering has done here I am unconvinced. His scholarship is of high quality and his summaries of many different thinkers are fair and accurate, however his case is built upon presuppositions he never adequately supports. His purpose is “to explore the missional, liturgical, and doctrinal forms of the Church’s mediation of divine revelation and to appreciate Scripture’s inspiration and truth in this context.” This is admirable, except that it assumes that the Church and the Church alone can mediate divine revelation. It also seems to imply that the Church has faithfully done so through its history. Levering provides no reason to suppose this is so and history, at least as seen from this Protestant’s perspective, seems to argue otherwise.

Additionally, in trying to argue for the consistent mediation of divine revelation through the Church as a close analogy to that mediation through Scripture, Levering does more to denigrate Scripture than to elevate the Church. He writes,

I agree with Gunton’s view that Scripture’s truthfulness does not depend on an absolute lack of any kind of error, just as I agree with his insistence that there has been no rupture in the mediation of ‘certain beliefs about God, Christ, salvation, the church and the work of the Spirit.’ (26)

 He goes on,

In my view, we need not claim for the later Church the same ‘relation to revelation’ as the apostles, but we can still argue that the Church, like the prophets and apostles, mediates divine revelation in the process of appropriating it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Without placing the Church over revelation, the Spirit can guarantee the Church’s preservation from error in its definitive interpretations of revelation––which differs from guaranteeing the truthfulness of everything the Church says and does. This perspective enables us to give due weight to ‘the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15). IN short, we can accept the existence of errors within the Church’s works and teachings over the centuries, so long as we do not suppose that these (reformable) errors produced a rupture, that is to say a false definitive doctrine about faith or morals in the heart of the transmission of revelation. (27)

I quote this section at length because it is assumed and not supported throughout the remainder of the argument. To my mind, Levering needed to show how this could be so. Instead, he assumes this and shows how he thinks it comes to pass. Hence the book has a great deal of explanatory power, but little chance of convincing those skeptical of this position. This, I think, is the critical weakness of the volume.

Overall, though, this volume is well written and may replace Avery Dulles’ book, Models of Revelation. Having done a fair amount of reading on this topic, it is the best explanation of a Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of Revelation I have encountered. I would recommend it to those seeking to meaningfully engage in inter-denominational dialogue on this topic. Levering is an excellent scholar, whose work on Augustine I have benefited from in the past. This book is a helpful addition to the discussion, but it is far from the final word.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.