Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bible Authority

In this blog we will be looking at the authority of the Bible. This is not trivial, and parts of it will be a little bit complex, so I ask your indulgence.

Let’s be honest: The Bible is not the most user-friendly book you can read. Here are some great reasons NOT to read the Bible:

          It’s long and intimidating, and it’s not put together like a novel or a “how-to” book or a  textbook or most any other kind of book you can buy.

          Different Churches and traditions don’t even agree on which books belong in it and which ones don’t.

          There are many different translations, and advocates for one or the other often fight bitterly and publicly against translations other than their own favorite.

          Starting at the beginning and reading through to the end is often boring and really difficult.

          Really creepy people have used the Bible to (try to) justify everything from segregation to religious persecution to murder.

You have to wonder why anyone would even bother to begin to read it.

On the other hand, the Bible is obviously an extraordinary and profoundly important book.

This is true even if you don’t believe in God at all.

The Bible is something we ought to take seriously, but Christians have to ask the question: “What is its authority in our lives?” Secular opinions include:

          Who cares?

          It’s a bunch of fairy tales and outright lies.

          It’s just a book written by people in one ancient cultural context and with primitive superstitions about a god who created them. Nothing more.

          It may be interesting to cultural historians and may even contain some good ethical ideas, but as a book, it’s not much different than other religious texts, from other cultures, in other times. Just one of a bunch.

          It’s an instrument of oppression used by a patriarchal institution—the Church—to control women and other oppressed minorities. It’s all about domination and control.


Many versions of each of these views are common, and range from measured academic assessment to bitter disdain.

At the other end of the spectrum is the view that Scripture is the infallible and inerrant word of God written by men under the direct inspiration and control of the Holy Spirit—and that those who do not accept this view threaten the future of the Church and risk their immortal souls.

If you have not already had your view of the Bible demanded of you by those holding any of these points of view, just wait—your time will come.

As for me, I believe we can trust the Bible as God’s reliable and intentional revelation of Himself without being drawn into any of the partisan fighting. So, let’s unfold the history and the issues and see where it leads us.

The Original Manuscripts

First, do we really know what the original manuscripts said? We don’t have any of them, not one. We only have copies. This causes several problems:

Authors can make up conspiracy theories that excite and mislead their readers, and no one can prove they are wrong. One group believes the Church was in control of the Scriptures for centuries, so they could make it say whatever they wanted it to say—and did, in order to keep the people under their control. Various conspiracy theories imagine that it was “edited” by the group in power and so isn’t what was originally written.

But it turns out there are actually some pretty solid reasons for believing that what we have is, with few possible exceptions, what the authors originally wrote. We have quite-good evidence of this.

There is a method, now greatly aided by computers, called textual criticism. This is a technique intended to recover, as well as possible, the original text based on a multitude of copies. The technique is quite ancient (it was in use thousands of years ago) and consists of looking at how the copies we have differ from one another. Here’s a simple example to illustrate the principle. A teacher writes a sentence on the board, and three students copy it onto three pieces of paper. The papers read as follows:

1.         I went to the corner store and bought ten peanuts.

2.         I went to the general store and bought ten pennies.

3.         I sent to the corner store and sought ten peanuts.

The teacher erases the board and leaves. We are given only the students’ copies of what was once written there. Which one is most likely to be accurate? Don’t go on to the next paragraph just yet. Look at these three and see if you can figure it out. Then read on.

What did you conclude? The correct answer is number one, because that sentence is more likely, sensible, and logical, but also because in those places where #2 and #3 differ, parts of them are the same as number one. So, “went,” “corner,” “bought” and “peanuts” were probably in the original.

When it comes to ancient documents, the more copies we have that are consistent with each other, and the more places they are from, the more likely that what we believe to be content of the original is actually so. This is a widely accepted principle in the study of many ancient texts, not just Scripture.

What is compelling about Scripture is how many copies we have that can be dated not far from when the original (now-missing) document was written.

Some might not agree with the content of the New Testament, but it is highly probable that what we read is what the authors wrote. So that deals with the issue of whether what we have is what the authors wrote. We have lots of evidence (see the book for a more thorough discussion of this).

How to See the Bible

Here is a simple three-step way for dealing with the authority of the Bible:

First, God was and is intentional and serious about restoring and maintaining a relationship with us. He was intentional and serious in causing all of Scripture to be written. He was intentional and serious in the historical process of many minds and hearts who discerned what was to be a part of the Canon of Scripture and what did not rise to that level.

This doesn’t mean that some of the other books written in New Testament times, or even in modern times, aren’t true or don’t contain valuable insights into God’s character. The Epistles of Clement, Augustine’s Confessions and Mere Christianity are shining examples … but the Bible stands alone in both form and content. There isn’t anything else like it even among the most profound scriptural texts.

Second, it does God and us a disservice to pick verses out of context and build belief systems on them. We need the whole counsel of God in Scripture, and we need it in order to understand any verse truly and fully. That means we need to take the whole of Scripture seriously. We should not read it with a razor blade.

Thomas Jefferson is an example of this. He made his own version of the Bible by cutting out every verse he didn’t like or agree with and then pasting together the ones that remained. As smart as Jefferson was, I don’t think that was his best idea.

God was serious in the creation of Scripture. We need to be serious in its absorption. If a particular verse or part of the Bible offends me, rather than skip it or declare loudly that I disagree, I should consider it instead a red flag indicating that there is something I don’t understand yet, that God wants me to understand. I should dig deeper rather than run away or cut it out. This may seem counterintuitive to some, but it will yield great rewards: Press in rather than flee.

Third, don’t be intimidated by either those who reject the Bible or those who insist you aren’t a Christian if you do not take it literally.

Rejecting the Bible completely, saying, “It’s just a creation of another culture; we don’t really need to pay attention to it,” is misguided.

Taking it literally makes nonsense out of its poetry, imagery, metaphor, and parables. It is equally misguided.

Take it seriously. It is reliable, and it contains all things necessary for salvation.

The Covering Authority

All of Scripture, and all of the councils and teachings of the Church, stand under the covering authority of two great commandments, and so must we. Those two great commandments come from the lips of Jesus, and He said this:

“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love  your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV)

That is, every word of Scripture, everything about our faith, belief, practice, doctrine, theology, church polity, teaching, authority, and our daily living in the world, stands under the force, command, and the covering authority of those two great commandments. Jesus said all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. They are the standard and touchstone for all that we believe and do.

Yet what is true of many of us as Christians is that while we may believe that all the Law and the Prophets stand under those two commandments, we don’t think we have to, particularly if we feel threatened by doctrine, practice, theology, people—or other religions. Then it is okay to behave with sarcasm, with bitterness, with anger towards our enemies, attacking them, belittling them, caricaturing them, putting them down, treating them as less than worthy of the love Jesus commanded.

But we are not exempt. We too, like the Law and the Prophets, must stand under those two great commandments. If we believe the Scriptures and the Church have authority in our lives, there is no other option.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


In this blog we are going to look at the Trinity. This is a concept that is easily discarded—and only with great foolishness, I believe. Note however that I said “concept.” This will prove important as we seek to understand what Christians believe about that nature and character of God, and how that is applied in their conduct in the church and in the world.

Christians believe Scripture teaches that there is one God in three Persons.

Not three gods in competition with each other.

Not one God operating in three modes. 

But rather, Christians believe that there are three Persons who coexist eternally in unending, loving relationship with one another—glorifying each other, edifying each other, working with and through each other.

Yet we need to recognize that what we know about God and what we assert about this “Trinity of Persons in one God” is deduced from what is revealed to us in Scripture. That is, nowhere in either the Old or New Testament do we find an explicit statement that the nature of God is “three Persons in one God,” nor that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of one substance—also a part of the normative definition of Trinity in Christian theology.

Both Testaments are replete with references to God that reflect enormous complexity and diversity and numerous assertions and implications of activities and of living beings present in the Godhead, beyond only one—yet affirming one God. Christians assert that the correct number within the one God is three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even if we are exactly right about that number, the actual content of the Godhead is still above our pay grade, beyond our understanding, outside of our ability to comprehend. We cannot know what is beyond a human mind’s ability to know.

Much serious scholarship has gone into defining and defending the Trinity over the course of many centuries, and that scholarship has been valuable in encouraging us to conceive of God as three Persons in unending, loving relationship with one another. It has helped to remind us that it is in this image we are made (and hence we should treat each other this way). But the inescapable reality is that to our human minds, Trinity is a concept. That is, Trinity is a philosophical proposition used to help us conceive of God, affirm the authority and divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and guide us in our worship and behavior.

I am not saying that the concept of Trinity is wrong, nor that it is “just” a concept. As deeply real as the Trinity is within the Godhead, there is still an issue here that needs to be seen and understood.

However excellent a job is done in constructing this proposition, this concept of Trinity is not God, and it cannot contain (or even well describe) God’s actual nature. In fact, what God reveals about Himself in Scripture, if anything, upends every human attempt to capture or really understand Him. God says, “I am that I am.” (Exodus 3:14) He confuses those at Babel who want to climb up to see Him. He says quite explicitly, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.”(Isaiah 55:8)  He even says that if we were to look at His face we would die. (Exodus 33:20)

Whatever it is that He is, He does not play by our rules and will not be confined to our concepts about Him, however bright, competent, accurate, and scholarly they might be.

So, we have to kneel and recognize that by God’s grace He has revealed the image in which we are made—that is, to be in loving submission and loving care for one another, with a Father, a Redeemer-Lord-Messiah-Son, and a Holy Spirit—all revealed in Scripture—in both Testaments, however we describe these to coexist, relate, proceed or be numbered. I’m not trying to be cute or heterodox here, but rather acutely aware of our own human limitations, and therefore humble in our assertions.

Christians deduce and conceive Trinity from the revelation of Scripture, and we should, by God’s power, do our best to live out its implications and imperatives. But we should not confuse a concept, however well-formed, with the reality of God.

Many great minds have worked for many centuries to spell out exactly what our precise concept is of the Trinity, what the characteristics are of each of the persons: Father, Son, Spirit. What their relative roles and responsibilities are, how they relate and proceed to and from one another, and on and on and on.

But we cannot have a relationship with a concept—that’s all inside our own heads! We can only have a relationship with God. We must get out of our own heads and have an actual relationship with our Creator.

Knowing God is not the same as having well-defined and defendable concepts about God.

For Christians, the ultimate example of knowing God is contained in the life and willing sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus didn’t simply have a better set of concepts about God or Trinity. He had relationship with the Father! And out of this relationship, Jesus says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”(John 14:9b)  Jesus also says that He and the Father are one. (John 17:11, 21)

We can spend much ink and heat in deducing and debating philosophical propositions from this assertion—whether the Two are actually a Single One, of the same or similar substance, whether this is just metaphor, or if it describes reality, whether One is lesser than or equal to the Other, whether One is begotten or created and what exactly that means, whether Both existed before time, whether the Spirit is separate from the Two, and whether He proceeds from One or Both, and on and on. But when we do so, we have often trapped ourselves in concept, and missed relationship.

We live like intellectual Deists, asserting there is a God, but often having nothing actually to do with Him.

Some claim that the whole Christian faith is based upon the concept of the Trinity, and insist that good Christians must subscribe to it to truly be counted as Christian. But the danger is that this then has become our foundation: not God, but our well-defined and defended concept about God. However accurate the concept is, it is not God. Knowing the concept is not the same as knowing God. Knowing a concept is not a relationship.

Maybe some solid, thoughtful Trinitarians will say, “Yes, of course. What’s important is the Trinity Itself, not our explanations of it. This is obvious. Of course that’s what is important. Of course that’s what we mean and defend.”

But I don’t believe that is what we have actually seen through history.

Instead, we fell in love with concepts in a Greek philosophical system, worked out structures and appurtenances to the nth degree, and gave religious and biblical labels to the parts. We fought over which was the most beautiful, refined and true, yet they often became idols made by our own hands and minds—and we spoke bitterly of, shunned and even killed those who made and embraced other ones.

We have made idols of our concepts, and fought over them.

In so doing we neglected relationship with the One true God.

Trinity is a valuable, useful concept to help us understand the nature of the Godhead, but no matter how true or accurate a concept it is, it is not God, and it is not relationship with God.

Relationship is in covenant, not concepts.

In Christ,

Pastor George