Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Gulf of Scripture

Our blessed Lord often responded to the criticism if the Pharisees with the words "Have you not read...?" (Matt 12:3, 5; Matt 19:5; Matt 22:31; Mark 12:26, etc.). The apostle Paul wrote to his spiritual son Timothy that "all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16). When Paul spoke to the Jews in the synagogues of Thessalonica, he reasoned with them from the scriptures (Acts 17:1-2). The Berean Jews, said to be "more noble-minded" than others, were described to have responded to Paul's message by "examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" and from that came to follow Christ (Acts 17:10-12). The apostle James, head of the church in Jerusalem, submitted fellow apostle Peter's words to scripture when he quoted a prophecy concerning the Gentiles (Acts 15:14-18). In all these situations, scripture was, in one form or another, the authority.

Yet many times on this blog we've come across examples where scripture is thrown out and something was used to fill the void. We saw it with The Shack and with Doug Pagitt's theology, but it doesn't end there nor was it unique with those two situations. When scripture's authority is taken out, a great gulf is left which must be filled by something else, lest the entire theology leaders to anarchy.

The following are some examples of what is used by man to fill in that gulf. Although this certainly isn't meant to be a complete study of such examples, I would hope that, God willing, it would at least get a few gears shifting within a person's head, or at least bring about some contemplation regarding all these matters.

Church Authority

When the authority of scripture is taken away, some authority must take it's place to be a guidance for the people. One of these is the authority of a church and its leadership. This can come in one of two forms:

(1) Willful ignorance of the laity. There are many people in the world who forgo personal study of scripture and instead defer this power to their respective spiritual elder (pastor, priest, reverend, what have you). This can include either accepting uncritically anything their spiritual elder has to say, or leaving all thought to their church authority and simply repeating what their church tells them. As a result, they demean the value of scripture and care more about their ecclesiastical alignment than their knowledge of the truth as given by their Lord. Note that this may not even be a fault on the church itself or its leadership, only the individual layman or a large portion of the lay community.

(2) Abuse of ecclesiastical authority. This takes place when a church or theology exceeds its bounds and begins to teach something contrary to scripture. It is accepted on the basis: "The Church has taught it, thus it is so." We see this with the introduction of Purgatory in Roman Catholicism, as well as the outright heresy found in supposedly "Christian" groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormonism. When the decision-making or theology of the church is questioned, the dissenter is often met with arguments for the authority of the church or the lack of legitimacy of other churches. When scripture is reviewed, it is always in a secondary nature: the theology of the church has the priority, and verses are picked and isolated to validate the theology. In this manner, scripture is defined by theology rather than theology by scripture. This is similar to the example by Charles Hodge of a scientist looking at facts to verify his theory rather than formulating his theory from the facts.

There should be no mistake here: church authority in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is not wrong for a church to either formulate a creed or statement of faith, or discipline its members if they are falling into error (in fact, that's commanded of in scripture). What should be prayerfully considered, however, is by what source that authority and decision-making is coming: is it coming simply from the authority of the church itself, or from the scriptural teachings to which the church abides itself? If the former, then the church is falling into sola ecclesia; if the latter, then the church is truly abiding my sola scriptura.

Foreign Theology

It is no small thing that when the ancient Israelites fell away from the worship of the one true God, they often filled the void with the gods from neighboring lands. Similarly, today, when we wander from the one true God, we often seek to fill the void with foreign gods who come in many forms. Doug Pagitt did it with holistic theology and Rob Bell with yoga practices. Truly, in this day and age of "The Gospel According to Oprah," we find many people mixing eastern mystical thought and practice with orthodox Christian doctrine, creating a hodge-podge of the two. They may claim that they are still Christian, but in the end the aroma they send to heaven is one unfamiliar with the Lord they claim to worship. In this manner, they are similar to the Samaritan woman, whom Christ told, "You worship what you do not know" (John 4:22).

That God commanded us not to mingle with the worship of other gods, in whatever form, is clear throughout scripture. He told the Hebrews: "You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (Exo 34:14). Regarding blasphemers He said: "They have made Me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols" (Deu 32:21). The number one job of most prophets of old was to direct the people back to a focused worship of the Lord. It was not permissable for the people to intermingle foreign beliefs with the beliefs given to them by God. Even today, one could not mix the teachings of eastern pagan faiths with Christianity any more than one could mix the idea of a flat earth with modern astronomy.

The command must be sent to the people of today as it was to the tribes of Israel by the Lord God: "Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel" (Jos 24:23).

Personal Revelation

The phrase "personal revelation" is here meant to signify one of two things:

(1) Personal interpretation sans scripture. This is where scripture is put on a secondary nature and the person's own private beliefs are upheld, with their personal motivations and understandings having the final authority. It is worth noting that the only person who would quote scripture and then add "But I say to you..." was Christ - the author of scripture from the beginning, and therefore the only one with the authority to do so. Yet those who would assert their personal interpretation and beliefs upon scripture are placing themselves alongside Christ and are likewise telling others "But I say to you..."

(2) Supposed revelation from God. This is common among many extreme Charismatic and Word of Faith leaders, who enjoy claiming to have done such things as visited heaven or spoken directly to Christ, sometimes face-to-face. It is worth noting that in times of old, whenever someone said "Thus sayeth the Lord..." it was always what became scripture; men like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah were all very familiar with this phrase. Yet today, men like Kenneth Copeland would use the phrase "Thus sayeth the Lord..." freely and with the utmost sincerity, expecting their statements to be upheld so that they are just as important as scripture. Many more, such as the self-proclaimed prophet Vassula Ryden, would expect us to hold her teachings on equal authority (if not more) with scripture.

In both these circumstances, man's authority replaces God's authority. In the case of (1), very little use of the scripture is made, and if it is made it is done in a proof-text manner to quickly verify what the person believes. In the case of (2), any use of the scripture is similar to that found in the case of sola ecclessia; that is, the revelation is seen as the lens to review scripture, and not scripture to verify the revelation.

We are told that "long ago...God spoke to our fathers by the prophets," but now in these days "He has spoken to us by His Son," who is the Incarnate Word Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-2). The role of the prophet is over, because the wall dividing mankind and God has been rent asunder by Christ's sacrifice on the cross. He has no need for supposed prophets, nor does He intend self-made individuals to be the new authority.

Moral Relativity

That the Bible is simply a morality guide-book is often a common misnomer in today's society; the Bible is first and foremost the story of man's salvation brought about by God, and the Lord's interaction with His creation therein. That being said, Christians are called to be moral examples, and the Bible does contain within it God's instructions for being moral. Christians believe what they believe regarding morality because God, the very author of morals, has given it to them. In this manner, every true Christian believes in a moral absolute of one form or another.

In this day and age of the post-modern church, however, the authority of scripture in regard to morals has come under serious questioning: some post-modern scholars have argued that the Bible never condemns homosexuality; others have said there is nothing in the scriptures to condemn abortion; some have claimed suicide is never condemned; many more have even said that simply lusting after another person is in no way inherently evil. All this returns to the issue of moral relativity: there is no moral absolute, only gray areas.

We see this happening wholesale in most of the older churches in the west, including the United Methodist and Episcopal churches, but we also see this happening in some parts of the more conservative branches, such as the ever-tumbling Presbyterian USA church. Those who would try to return the churches to a more biblical mindset are accused of being heartless or close-minded, so that even condemning heresies such as universalism will bring one under inquisition.

I believe there are two consequences to this development:

(1) The demeaning of God's commands. That God condemns various outward and inward signs of immorality in scripture is obvious. Sexual immorality of all forms (be it heterosexual or homosexual) is condemned, as is blasphemy against that which is holy, profane language, hatred against one another, and immoral violence. To remove these things or pick-and-choose which are to be adhered is to in essence write out portions from God's instructions. When we remove the authority of scripture, we likewise remove the authority of God's moral commands for His people. In this manner, we might say that the moral relativist who picks and chooses the commands of God to be obeyed and spoken about is the #1 of Personal Revelation as seen in practice.

(2) The demeaning of God's grace. While Christians are told to uphold the commands of God, we are likewise faced with a great reality: it is almost impossible to uphold the commands of God to complete satisfaction. This is why Christ was sent: to be that final sacrifice for the atonement of sins for God's perfected people. In the demeaning of sins and the upheaval of moral relativity, however, this entire situation is taken out. It is not impossible for man to keep the Law, simply because there is, in the eyes of the moral relativist, no Law to begin with. If evil amounts to simplified identifications such as rape and murder, then virtually every man is righteous, and there is no need for God's grace. Is it any wonder then, in this day and age of post-modernism, that few people have the realization of the sincere need for a savior? If a man is justified by his own standards, then he has no need of God's grace. The reality of man's condition as told in scripture - that he has come short of the righteousness of God and has been found to be terribly lacking (Ecc 7:20; Rom 3:9-11) - is foreign to their mindset. With the story of salvation as told in scripture removed, a man-made story of salvation is introduced, and the need for a savior reduced - and, indeed, eliminated.

I will close this post with some words from the psalms:
How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You. Blessed are You, O LORD; teach me Your statutes. With my lips I have told of all the ordinances of Your mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts and regard Your ways. I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word. [Psalm 119:9-16]