Reforming Our Understanding of the Bible

I think my use of the name The Bible to describe the Judeo-Christian canonical Scriptures somewhat begs the issue I intend to discuss. After all, the word bible is commonly used to describe any book containing necessary, useful and authoritative information on a given subject. And that is what the Bible does. The subject is, of course, our relationship to God.

The current American understandings of the Bible range from it being the writings of a few authors inspired by the Holy Spirit to it containing a mishmash of writings assembled, edited (redacted), copied, and rewritten for theological purposes. The first understanding has been severely criticized by the adherents of the second. The problem with the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of the original writings is that these documents no longer exist. The problem with the second understanding is that it damages our trust in the reliability and authority of the Bible.

The error of the first understanding is that it assumes God could only have worked one way in creating the Bible. The second understanding thinks that if something is complex God is not in it. This thinking is the result of secular ideas that remove God from all the complexities we experience. Life is complex, history is complex, culture is complex, and nature is complex so they think that God cannot be in these things because what God is associated with has to be simple and have been done long ago.

It is better that, as the result of all the complexity we know, we expect the Bible also to be a complex object. Thus, if we trust that God is Creator of everything that exists, we should see the uncertainties and oddities surrounding the formation of the Bible as a positive thing. This is because the Bible fits into our world just like everything in the universe also fits together in complex ways, often in manners beyond our understanding. It is not necessary to know every step of how the Bible came to be as it is today to trust that this development serves God’s purpose that the Bible is as we know it.

What does the Bible do for us? The first, and most important, thing it does is authenticate the person of Jesus Christ. There have been people all over the world who have claimed to be gods. But they had nothing to validate their claims. It is different with Jesus, and far more complex. It took St. Thomas Aquinas five volumes to sum up the complexity of Christianity in his Summa Theologica. John Calvin also wrote a multivolume work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, to describe Christian beliefs. It is needless to say there are many, many other books on the subject.

A further thing the Bible does is to cut to the reality of what we are and then contrast that with what we should be. I think in reforming our understanding of the Bible we have to accept these two functions as necessary. We cannot show people, and ourselves, our need for faithful adherence to Jesus Christ until we recognize that we all have in us a spiritual defect that we cannot remedy on our own. If we are to be what we want ourselves to be, and what God would have us be, we must look to the Bible as God’s guide to the new spiritual life he will give us if we seek it. This new life comes from faith in his Son. With this new life we can learn how to relate as he would have us to the world we live in and the people we live with.

The Bible is not easy to understand and apply to our lives. Some of its instructions are for people in other times and places, some are beyond our ability to do without the gift of God’s grace, and others are for people in particular situations. That is part of its complexity. The good news is that the Bible speaks to us in our own personalities. There is biography, law, history, poetry, apocalypse, and many other genres. This means that we do not have to look at the Bible as a monolith and think that only one interpretive scheme will work. A reformed understanding of the Bible will celebrate the richness of God’s revelation and allow each of us to mine its wealth.

A reformed understanding of the Bible means that we cannot reject truths it tells us, as difficult as these may be for us.  We will acknowledge, as someone said, “God is God and we are not” and recognize that the Bible is an expression of God’s love for us. We will also accept that the Bible is a unique communication from God to humanity so what it tells us cannot be found in any other document. We will also put away any ideas we may have that the Bible condemns the world because it tells us that Jesus was sent to save the world not to condemn it (John 3:17). Thus the Bible tells us God’s mercy is available to all those who seek him. This is the great comfort we have however we may come to find God’s love.

 

Rediscovering Our Spirituality

In my previous post I wrote about a reformed Christianity maintaining the integrity of biological science. In this one I think I will go to the other end of the spectrum and write about rediscovering our spirituality. First though, I will begin with a caution.

Back in the seventh century there was a monk, ascetic, and author named John who wrote a book titled The Ladder. After his death he was designated a saint so in those days before surnames he came to be known as St. John of the Ladder. The ladder of the book is a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, something like Jacob’s ladder. There are 30 steps on the ladder representing 30 steps to spiritual perfection whereby a person could ascend to God. This sounds good so far, but the ladder is standing over the pit of Hell and it is possible for people to fall off the ladder into spiritual damnation.

You may wonder why I am telling you this as I have very little expectation that you will be trying to follow the steps in The Ladder. My point is that The Ladder is similar in its approach to spirituality to the many, many self-help Christian books published every year. These books present sanctification as a do-it-yourself project and fool most people who read them into thinking they can do something they cannot, so they are likely to fall off of the ladder. The ones who can do what the books recommend are as likely to end up sanctimonious as sanctified.

Our sanctification is a project taken on by Christ and the Holy Spirit when we become part of the family of God. Our role is to cooperate in the process and resist being our naturally difficult and reluctant selves. God had plans for us from before Creation, and these plans will be carried out no matter how much it takes to shape us into what we are meant to be. Our part is to pray for the grace to be able to participate and rejoice in the process. This being so, we do not have to look at ourselves or do works to develop into spiritual people. Spirituality is more than looking to ourselves. It is being able to see and know the things of God.

We, at this stage in our existence, are primarily physical beings. This is good and what God intended yet it also raises barriers to our spirituality. These blockages are categorized in the New Testament as the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world is all the physical reality that surrounds us. At one end of its nature it is so beautiful and kind it can lead us to believe in the reality of God. Other aspects of it threaten our very existence. Whichever face nature is showing us, it is significant, immediate, and forceful. It is hard to get our mind off of it, but that is what we are going to have to do if we are to rediscover our spirituality.

Our flesh is also urgent and in its necessities not to be denied. However, we are often confused about what we need and what we desire. In our desires we can use our flesh and nature in ways that are not for our good, either physically or spiritually. I think some of the things we can do are so far from God’s purposes for us they can be called soul-killers. These, of course, block any access to the spiritual things of God. This leads us to the third category.

The devil stands for all the spiritual beings in rebellion against God. Their leader, Satan, was described by Jesus as the father of lies, and it is by lies these beings work against our physical and spiritual wellbeing. These deceptions range from the denial of the existence of evil spirits to imitations of the glory of God. To list all of the lies being told in our culture would take a gigabyte at least. Not only are we surrounded by lies, it has become so that the only people who get in trouble for what they say are those who tell the truth. Rediscovering our spirituality will give us the understanding to recognize all these falsehoods; however getting to that point will require discarding some things in which we have been deceived.

It is wrong to present myself as an authority on spirituality, so what I am going to do is remind you of three sayings of Jesus and then discuss how they apply to contemporary American Christianity. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “No one comes to the Father except through me.” “The gate is narrow.”

American Christianity appears to offer many routes to God. Churches, the Bible, Bible study, good works, other religions (if practiced sincerely), openness to the Holy Spirit, sacraments, and other seemingly good things are said to be ways to God. Most of these are ways to bypass Jesus. It is not surprising that this is so. If you read the New Testament carefully, you will see that Jesus was not an easy person to relate to. Those who came to him with questions rarely, or never, got the answers they expected or wanted. He spoke of loyalty to him coming before relationships in our families. He also told us we should lay down our lives and take up the cross of obedience daily.

We are much more likely to be told Jesus is our friend and that we are his brothers and sisters. This is partially true, but he is also prophet, priest, and king and we ignore this fuller truth at our hazard. It used to be said that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Perhaps the saying for our time is that “The path to spiritual deadness is marked by partial truths.”

Many Christians have become, to a greater or less extent, universalists. This is the belief that all or most people will be given a pass to eternal life because “God is Love.” There are lots of objections to universalist beliefs. My major personal one is that it allows persons holding that belief to yammer on and on about the “Problem of Pain”—while their unbelief prevents them from knowing the answer. A more objective reason for rejecting universalist beliefs is that they make everything that happens on earth meaningless. This not only includes all that Jesus did on earth but the worth of the choice people make when they chose to repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

We will rediscover our spirituality when we learn to be focused on all it means to be truly Christian. That means we become obedient disciples of the God-man who came to earth. Quite a while ago, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “To a great extent, in spiritual things, we get what we expect from the Lord. Faith alone can bring us to see Jesus.” So let us raise our expectations of spirituality and increase our faith so we will become people able to worship the Father in spirit and truth, and thus become spiritually alive.

The Reformation of American Christianity

I think I need to make a serious proposal for the reformation of American Christianity. It will be harder for me to get people to respond to the call than it was for Martin Luther. When he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, there was already widespread discontent with the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. My problem is that the people in American Christianity are, for the most part, happy with their situation, and those who are not happy pay a very small price when they abandon formal Christianity. The easy part for me is that I do not have to risk my life and my livelihood as Luther did.

 

The religious situation in present-day America is obviously not as it was in the German-language part of Europe in the sixteenth century. It is also not like the situation in second-century Asia Minor when John addressed the situations in seven churches when he wrote the book of Revelation. I think now that I can identify more than seven contemporary churches that are in need of reformation. These are not defined by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.

 

You may be wondering what these several churches are that I would have you consider.

 

The first and perhaps the largest conceptual church is the Cultural Church. It comes in several very different expressions. Its characteristic is that its members poll on social issues almost exactly the same as the general population. This means that its attitudes and behaviors are indistinguishable from society in general.

 

The Cultural Church, by some sort of paradox, tends towards attendance in traditional (mainstream and Roman Catholic) churches and in mega-churches. It exists in traditional churches because they are part of the culture. The mega-churches tend to fit the culture because their purpose is to attract as many people as possible, so they avoid, as much as they can, anything like an emphasis on doctrine that might offend anybody or cause controversy.

 

The Pseudo-Christian Church is an expression of ideological liberalism. Like secular liberals it assumes it is the reality and other expressions of Christianity are deviants that can be labeled evangelical or fundamentalist or some such. The Pseudo-Christian Church is where religion becomes an expression of rationalism. Everything in traditional Christian belief that requires the supernatural is removed as a reality but is given a spiritual significance. For example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur but it signifies something we can have good feelings about.

 

The Pseudo-Christian Church closely follows the secular spirit. Thus its big concern now is homosexual rights, before this it was sexual liberation, feminism, environmentalism, world peace, and other liberal causes. It accepts the theory of evolution and whatever else falls into the realm of the popular. You might ask why the Pseudo-Christian Church continues to affiliate itself with Christianity. The answer is simple, Christianity provides them with tenured professorships, social respect, sources of funding, and keeps them able to think they are something they are not.

 

The Hyper-Christian Church ignores the warning C.S. Lewis gave us in The Screwtape Letters about adding things to Christianity. The Pseudo-Christian Church believes too little, the Hyper-Christian Church believes too much. It adds worship of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and miracles as essential elements of the Christian life. It can be given some applause for bringing some fire and spirit, through the charismatic movement, to parts of the Cultural Church. However, in “amping up” Christianity it raises expectations higher than can be maintained thus causing disillusionment in some of its adherents.

 

The Social-Activist Church should have longevity as there is a never-ending list of things needing to be done to make people’s lives better. One problem with this church is that it became a social-critique church and many of its members went from seeking to relieve poverty to criticizing the acquisition of wealth. A more serious problem from a spiritual standpoint is a conceit: If we were in charge of the world we could set everything right. The pride revealed in this mode of thinking shows up particularly in the peace and justice part of this church. The foundation of Christianity, for Christ and all believers, is humbleness before the purposes of God the Father.

 

The Self-Centered Church comes directly from our self-centered society. The core of the Self-Centered Church is an inward-looking view of what Christianity is meant to be. In this church what matters is that God thinks of them highly and lovingly. Their songs contain a lot of I, me, and my instead of second and third person pronouns such as you, he, and his. Their self-centeredness can go as far as to think that God’s happiness depends on their performance as a Christian. They think a lot about their time, their possessions, their safety and their personal peace. Obviously this church does not think much of others except in what way helping them might increase their own self-esteem.

The Self-Made Church has two denominations. One branch believes that we can make Christianity be what we want it to be. Thomas Jefferson, who edited the New Testament to make it say what he wanted to believe, was not the founder of this first denomination but he is a good example of its members. The members of the this branch of the Self-Made Church “cut out” the parts of Christianity that do not suit them or are not in accordance with their lifestyle or social beliefs.

 

The second denomination of the Self-Made Church seems, at first, to be very unlike the first. Its members generally take the Scriptures very seriously and do their best to follow them. Where they are like the others is that they believe their Christian life and practice have to come from their own efforts. They have to make a choice, sometimes in conjunction with the saying of a prayer, to become a Christian. They are told in this part of their church there are many things they must do as a Christian in their own efforts. These directions, such as reading the Bible, praying, and doing good works, may seem good. However, this do-it-yourself sanctity can prove exceedingly difficult, often leading to the rejection of their Christianity. Or if they are successful in following the directions they are given for leading a Christian life, they can be led into self-righteousness. You can see that participation in either denomination of the Self-Made Church is hazardous for people hoping to find completion in Christ.

 

There are two other churches that relate to modern philosophy. There is the Rationalist Church that believes that reason can create a form of Christianity compatible with modern philosophy. The Literalist Church began as a defense against modern philosophy by trying to make its interpretation of the Bible “scientific.” There will undoubtedly come into being, if one does not already exist, a Post-Modern Church.

 

There is, as there has been since the first century, a Heretical Church. The length of time this church has been in existence makes it hard for it to create new heresies but its members keep trying. There is the new Deist Church that seeks to allow the compatibility of Christianity and both Judaism and Islam by removing faith in the deity of Jesus Christ and eliminating the Holy Spirit. There is the New Age Church that melds Christianity with both new and old forms of spirituality.

 

I will end my rather long list of churches with the Miscellaneous Church. This is the place of worship for people who withdraw from society or other Christians, people whose beliefs are so far from normal Christianity that they are a church unto themselves, and other Christians who are so few as to be invisible. Their problem is that, and the members of the other churches share in it, they violate the unity of the one church of which all Christians are meant to be members.

 

At this point you may be wondering why I left the “Good” Church—the one like your local congregation—off my list. It is a principle of Christian sanctity if we think we are good enough, we are not. If you think your particular body of believers does not need reformation, it most likely does.

 

What all the churches on my list have in common is they have, in one way or another, turned Christianity upside down. They have made Christianity about people—church leaders, poor people, oppressed people, us, and so forth—rather than about Jesus Christ. We have come to think that it is God’s job to supply the seed, fertilizer and water so we can cultivate our own gardens. We find this much more to our liking than the idea we should be servants in the Lord’s garden.

 

The second problem with these churches is that those who still believe in the kingdom of God in some way misunderstand its meaning. They are much like the religious rulers Jesus spoke to. They want, and expect, a political kingdom. Someone said something like “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and what we got was churches.” And we do have a multitude of churches. What we do not have is an understanding of the proper role of these churches The function of churches is to serve the body of Christ by evangelism, exhortation, comfort and many other things not to be the be-all and end-all of Christianity. They were intended to be way stations, outposts, hospices and so forth for Christians so they could be fully equipped to live in the kingdom of God.

 

I do not think there can be a reformation of American society unless there is a reformation of American Christianity and that will not occur until many, many members of most of the churches are turned right-side-up. That is, they become focused on Jesus and his kingdom as the object of their faith, love and learning rather than anything else.

 

If the reformation of a generous part of American Christianity occurs, it will be the work of the Holy Spirit. What we who see the need for reformation can do is allow Christ and the Holy Spirit to work in us so we know quite certainly that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. As that happens, we will be freed of our illusions, delusions and ignorance so we can see what is upside-down in American Christianity and rightly work and pray for its reformation. Thus, if the Holy Spirit choses to honor our efforts, and if Christ’s purposes include a reformation at this time, we will be participants in, and celebrants of, a great revival of Christian belief, and possibly rejoice in being part of righting what has gone wrong.