Reading the Bible Through Fresh Eyes

I am experiencing some wonderful things in my Bible reading this year, and as a result I believe I am doing some of the best work of my life in terms of Bible study. If you have seen my daily Bible reading plan, you know that I try to read the Bible through twice every year. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, but this year just seems to be different.

This year I am trying to approach my daily Bible reading through what I have come to call “fresh” eyes. Some people speak of reading the Bible “as if they have never read it before,” but that is really impossible. Our brains just do not work like that. Once we have read something, especially if we have spent any time studying it, our initial conclusions will always affect our subsequent reading. But, I think it is possible to hold those first thoughts and conclusions and still approach the text through eyes that are “fresh” (or perhaps “refreshed” might be the better term.) We do not seek to erase those prior conclusions; rather, we hold them close, but realizing their presence, we read the text again, looking to see if those first (and often powerful) impressions are indeed the most beneficial.

Anyway, this has been a particularly fruitful couple of weeks. I will illustrate with two examples, one from each Testament.

I am teaching the book of Revelation again, so I have been reading and thinking about that great book in preparation for my classes. So, as I was in the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading I was struck by the phrases in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31. These verses all speak of the sons of Noah, their sons, and in particular their lands, languages, clans and nations. A light bulb went off in my mind, “Boing!” (My light bulbs go “boing” when they light up). That is remarkably similar to John’s language in the book of Revelation as he speaks of “tribe, language, people and nation” (see 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 10:11; 14:6 and 17:15). I have an idea about why John is using that phraseology, but never mind. Back to Genesis, I immediately thought, “wait, up until the confusion of languages at Babel there was only one human language.” Bingo! Chapter 11 describes the confusion of languages at Babel. You see, the author of Genesis (Moses in my way of thinking) introduces some events, and then backs up to explain in greater detail how, and sometimes why, those events occurred. Now, I have studied Genesis academically and read it dozens of times, yet this year for some reason this passage jumped out at me (a lot of it had to do with my preparation for the book of Revelation, I admit).

Could it be, in fact is it not highly probable, that Moses does exactly the same thing with the creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2? Even a cursory reading shows some differences in the two accounts. I know many try to “harmonize” the two chapters, but to me that seems to be Scripture twisting in the worst possible way. Why not allow Moses’s style to lead us to accept the two chapters as different, but equally instructive, ways to understand God’s creation? Why do we have to make them the same?

Hence, I turn to the New Testament. On Sunday nights I am teaching the gospel of John. This past week we studied chapter 12. John says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus went to Bethany where a feast was provided, and Mary anointed his feet with a costly perfume. A quick check of Matthew and Mark, however, reveals that this same event took place two days before the Passover, and that the unnamed woman anoints his head. (Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:1-9). Now, there are some ways to attempt to “harmonize” the accounts. You could say that John is reporting that Jesus went to Bethany six days before the Passover, but is not specifically saying the feast took place six days before the Passover. That works until you get to v. 12, when John describes the triumphal entry on “the next day.” If you use Matthew’s and Mark’s chronology, that would place the “triumphal entry” the day before the Passover (unless, of course, you want to argue for more than one “triumphal entry.”) Another attempt to harmonize the accounts is to suggest there were two feasts four days apart, with two women basically doing the same anointing, with the same response by the apostles, and with the same rebuke by Jesus. Possible? Yes; but realistically? Would not the apostles recognize the value of the second anointing and praise the sacrifice?

Or, is John trying to tell us something different using this story? John appears to be using chronological markers (days, feasts) in a different way than what we expect chronological markers to be used. Once again, because of my daily Bible reading, I was drawn back to Genesis. What happened on the sixth day of creation? It was on the sixth day that God finished his work. What is the last statement of Jesus on the cross in the gospel of John? “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus rested on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection begins a new week, “on the first day of the week” Mary went to the tomb, while it was still dark.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read John 12, nor is it necessarily the best way to read John 12. I am suggesting it is a possible way to understand John 12, and one that opens fresh ways to understand the entire gospel (why, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early in the ministry of Jesus, while the synoptics place it in the final week of Jesus’s life).

You see, if we are desperate to make the gospel accounts “harmonize,” we are faced with a discrepancy – six days or two days before the Passover, anointing the feet or the head. Some differences in parallel passages can be easily harmonized. With others it appears we have to resort to using crow-bars and a can of axle grease to make the separate accounts “agree” with each other.

I have a better solution: let’s let the text speak exactly as the author intended, not as we think the author should have intended based on some other text we find in the Bible. That means occasionally we have to deal with some ambiguity, as there are passages where we cannot crawl into the author’s mind and know for certain what he intended.

As I said, we cannot read the Bible every time “as if we had never read it before.” But we can read it through fresh eyes – eyes open to discover new truths, and to re-discover new light in old truths. We need to read the Bible expectantly, not with the intent to justify our previous conclusions, but to challenge us and to draw us closer to the one who gave it to us in the first place.

What an amazing book – and what an amazing God who gave it to us!

Sabbath

[The following meditation arose as a response to a comment to an earlier post. I love receiving feedback from my millions of dedicated followers (okay, one or two). My response to the comment just got so long and complicated I thought I would turn it into a post of its own.]

The Sabbath day is a conundrum for me. Part of me wants to say the observance of the Sabbath is a matter of the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic law, and was thus “superseded” or “abrogated” with the death of Christ. But there is another part of me, which incidentally happens to be growing, that recognizes that the command to keep the Sabbath holy is the fourth command (at least in many listings), sandwiched right between not taking the name of the LORD in vain and honoring father and mother. For us to carefully excise the Sabbath command while keeping the others intact requires a sharp scalpel indeed. The command – or the validation of keeping one day in seven as “Holy” comes in Genesis 2:2 – literally the first “command” or explanation of such in the Bible. I just cannot blithely dismiss that significant truth.

For those who argue that we are no longer bound to “hallow” one day in seven because Jesus never commanded it, my response is that if the death of Jesus voided the entirety of the Old Law, then EVERYTHING Jesus said or did not say was voided on the cross, as EVERYTHING he taught was under the auspices of the Mosaic Law. I know there are individuals who teach that the only words of Jesus that are binding on Christians today are those he spoke after the resurrection, but I view such belief as a fringe element and not to be taken with much seriousness.

If we turn to the book of Acts then we are led back to the idea of keeping the Sabbath, as Paul used the Sabbath meeting at the Synagogue as a chief method of evangelism (i.e., the “example” part of our old hermeneutic). Once again, I do not put much stock in that line of thinking, because I believe Luke was describing a situational practice, not prescribing a kingdom ethic.

So why do I think we need to keep one day out of seven as “holy” – whether it be the first or the seventh? Because I think there is something intrinsically beneficial, or “spiritual” about allowing our bodies, the bodies of our beasts of burden, and all our servants/employees etc., a chance to rest and to contemplate the blessings of God. There is also something profound about the command to keep the Sabbath – it is the only command that has two separate, yet equally “spiritual” explanations as to its purpose or reason for existence. In Exodus 20 (as well as Genesis 2) the observance of the Sabbath is connected to the creation of the world. In Deuteronomy 5 a lengthy explanation of Sabbath keeping is given, and it has nothing to do with creation, but is entirely focused on the deliverance from Egyptian bondage. One command, two reasons. Once again, I just cannot simply overlook that sublime fact.

So, as a matter of personal observation (and I am NOT binding this conclusion on anyone!), I believe there is biblical warrant for Christians today to refrain from any work, whether it be attached to our secular work or domestic “house” work, whatsoever on one day out of seven. We can argue that it should be the first, i.e., the “Lord’s Day,” but there is no evidence that the first century church had the luxury of abstaining from work on the day following the Sabbath, and for the Jewish Christians it would have been somewhat preposterous to suggest doing so. I have no doubt they worshipped the risen Christ on the Lord’s day, but I also have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of them also worked on the first day of the week. [As an aside, I can guarantee you that the most exhausting day of the week for a minister is Sunday. To suggest that our Sunday is a “day of rest” for a minister is just flat out ridiculous.]

I also have to say with absolute candor that I do not practice keeping one day a week as a “Sabbath.” I wish I could, and maybe that is something I need to make as a higher priority for my spiritual health. In today’s world I just find it almost impossible to do. We are simply too bound as slaves to our frantic lifestyles.

Which, incidentally, may in fact be the very best reason in the world for me to practice a Sabbath rest – because that is why God commanded it to be done in the first place – to allow my soul to rest in the perfection of God’s creation, and to remember that He has set me free from every form of bondage, physical and spiritual.

As always, all comments and large financial donations are warmly received and appreciated.

(Who says I don’t have a sense of humor!)

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (2) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

I would like to move on and discuss the theological aspects of the idea of unconditional forgiveness, but before I do that I want to examine one other critical question – why is the myth of unconditional forgiveness so entrenched in our beliefs? If there is such little (or, in my opinion, zero) scriptural support for the idea, and so much scriptural evidence against the teaching, why is it so tenaciously defended?

In a sentence: because we ourselves are utterly terrified to consider the prospect that we might stand before God as unforgiven sinners. The logic is that if we can impose upon God the concept that forgiveness must be unconditional, then we ourselves do not have to repent, we do not have to change, we do not have to turn from our idolatrous practices and yet we can stand wholly and totally forgiven. Therefore, we create this unbiblical, yet psychologically appealing, model by which we are to “forgive” others whether they ask for it or not, simply to smooth over our rebellious defiance of God’s pleas for a “broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51)

For evidence all I have to do is to point out the difference in worship hymns written before the twentieth century and contemporary worship songs composed in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. While there are many older hymns that highlight God’s love and forgiveness, as you scan the majority of these hymns you see another central component – a confession of man’s sinfulness and complete dependence upon the God of love. “Amazing Grace” is meaningless without an acknowledgement that I am a “wretch” that needs saving. The light of God’s grace can only be seen through the reality of a very dark world of sin.

I will also admit that there are phrases in today’s contemporary worship music that use the word “sin,” but the overwhelming majority of songs heard on Christian radio stations (and increasingly used in worship services) only talk about the love of God, about how Jesus is our “lover” or “brother” and how we as Christians can bask in the glow of God’s presence. In short, there is very little “wretch” in these songs. The message these songs give us is, “We’re forgiven, God loves us, get over all that unhealthy guilt stuff.”

But, I say again, we cannot repent of something that does not exist. If we as Christians are forgiven “unconditionally” and without our even asking for forgiveness, then there is simply no reason to pray for forgiveness (as Jesus and the apostles plainly teach us to do) because we dwell in a perpetual state of being unconditionally forgiven.

I know the concept that God might expect, or even demand, conditions before forgiveness can be extended sounds harsh, repressive, and even un-biblical. But as I stated earlier, I think it is because we as Christians in the industrialized, capitalistic, and democratic societies in the West have lost a critical understanding of the meaning of the word “sin.” It is to that subject that we must turn if we are going to ever regain what it means to be truly “forgiven.”

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (1) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Have you heard of “urban myths”? These are the stories and timeless truths that are just simply not true. Pearls of wisdom like, “Don’t go swimming within an hour after eating” would qualify. Some can also be considered conspiracy theories – such as “the astronauts never landed on the moon.” Urban myths never die because in some respects they are believable, and also because for those who believe in them, circular logic dictates that the number of the arguments against the myths is just further proof that they must be true, otherwise so many people would not be arguing against them.

Would you also believe there are theological urban myths? These are statements and opinions that appear to be beyond question as to their correctness, but upon further investigation simply are not true. I want to explore some of these myths – as dangerous as that might be – and in so doing challenge us to read and study the Bible in a healthier manner.

I guess I should say at the outset that if you happen to hold to one of these myths I am not accusing you of some ghastly theological crime. For the most part these myths are not dangerous (although, wrongly applied, they might be). They are just not true, and because they are not true, they are not healthy teachings to hold or to defend. With that caveat understood, let us proceed.

The myth I want to expose over the next few posts is the myth that Christians are commanded to forgive all who injure them, in any manner real or imagined, unconditionally. That is to say a Christian must forgive whether the enemy wants the forgiveness (or can even ask for the forgiveness) or not. It sounds so authentic – so, well, Christian.

The only problem is, its just not true. It’s a myth. A myth with very good intentions, I grant; but it is still a myth.

I could start with some smaller points of evidence and work up to the biggest, but why make you suffer? Here is why unconditional forgiveness is a myth – not even God himself forgives unconditionally. I’ve read the Bible through many times and I can find many, many passages that teach that divine forgiveness is conditional – but I cannot find one single verse that teaches that God forgives outside of some verifiable condition.

We find in the Levitical code that animal sacrifices are the outward evidence of a repentant heart, and that upon their presentation the sinner would be forgiven. We find in the Psalms numerous references to God seeking and accepting a repentant, broken heart. The prophetic books are replete with God pleading for the people of Israel to return to him with broken and penitent hearts, as verified by their actions. The parables of Jesus stress the actions of a penitent heart. The conversion stories in Acts demonstrate how God’s forgiveness follows the actions of a repentant heart. James and John both teach that forgiveness follows upon the confession of sin. It is in the Bible from cover to cover – God seeks for, God yearns for, God pleads for, his people to turn to him so he can forgive them and restore a broken relationship.

But – nowhere from Genesis to Revelation is it ever recorded where God says, “Okay, everyone is forgiven, I’ll just turn my back and ignore the sin that separates me from you. We’re all good now.”

Please understand me – I am not saying that sinners earn God’s grace. As my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #12 clearly states, God’s grace is always primary (first), God’s law follows after that grace. However, our sin violates the relationship we have with God (as sin also violates the relationships between humans), and the Bible teaches that human repentance necessarily precedes the provision of divine forgiveness.

The two passages most frequently referred to as defending the command for unconditional forgiveness – read in context – actually teach the opposite. The first is Matthew 6:9-15, the model prayer. In these verses Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness as we have forgiven others. The usual  interpretation is that forgiveness must be unconditional. Hence, whether they seek it or not, we must forgive all who sin against us.

The context of the prayer, however, is that of a penitent sinner seeking forgiveness from God. Praying this prayer is, in effect, saying, “God, I know I have sinned against you. I beg you, forgive me as I have demonstrated my own repentance by forgiving those who have hurt me.” Not clearly stated but understood is the idea that these individuals have also requested forgiveness. The phrase, “as we have forgiven others” is positively meaningless if God forgives unconditionally. If God forgives unconditionally, then even the simple act of asking for forgiveness is ridiculous – it has already been granted!

The other passage is Luke 23:34, the statement from Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If this is an argument for unconditional forgiveness, then it follows logically that it is also the ultimate defense for the idea of universal salvation. Jesus prayed for unconditional forgiveness/salvation – and that’s it. God has forgiven everyone, case closed.

Or, is it? In his sermon on the day of Pentecost Peter commanded his audience to “repent.” Now, unless you are willing to believe that none of those hearing Peter were also in the crowd that heard Jesus’s words of forgiveness, you have to accept that Peter was calling on the very same people to repent and then to be baptized, “for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38). Once again, if God’s forgiveness is unconditional, and based entirely on Jesus’s words, Peter’s command was frivolous. The people had already been forgiven – of what were they supposed to repent?

You see, the concept of “unconditional forgiveness” just sounds so good, so Christian, so divine. But it simply cannot be defended from Scripture. So why is it taught and believed so fervently?

For one, I do not think we truly understand the concept of sin, and so we cannot understand the idea of forgiveness. I think the primary understanding of “forgiveness” today is that we just “get on with life.” If I understand the Bible correctly, that is not biblical forgiveness. If we misunderstand the concept, it is also easy to falsify the process by which forgiveness can be extended and received.

Second, I think there is a genuine, and powerful, reality that follows our ability to “surrender the will to get even” (as my good friend Dale Frazier once put it). We are commanded to go and to ask for forgiveness of those we have injured, and to even confront those who have hurt us. We are commanded to release our anger before the ending of the day. Psychologically we live healthier lives if we can simply surrender the need to constantly be a victim of every perceived injury. I think that is what most people understand by the word “forgiveness.” We can extend that benefit to others, and to ourselves, unconditionally.

But that is not forgiveness as taught and described in the Bible!

Apples are not oranges just because both are fruit that grow on trees. Biblical forgiveness is one fruit, the surrendering of the will for revenge or of the need to remain a victim is another fruit. To confuse the two leads to some very real, and some very unhealthy, results.

I’ll step in that quicksand next.

 

Proposing a New, Really Old, Hermeneutic

Okay, so I can’t count. This is really the fourth in a series of four. Maybe I will stop here – who knows. I’m kind of having fun.

In my last installment I critiqued the hermeneutic that a vast number of members of the Churches of Christ grew up with – and many still defend with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier. That hermeneutic is “Command, Example and Necessary Inference” (hereafter CENI). If you did not read that post, I can sum it up by saying there are some serious issues with that method of interpretation, especially with the “necessary inference” part, but I also see the strength of the hermeneutic and I believe that many Christians work around the problems intuitively, not necessarily consciously.

I also said there was a need for a healthier hermeneutic, and that I believed one was available. I believe it is practiced by more individuals than actually know it’s source (or sources). I think many younger preachers and teachers believe that this “new” hermeneutic is vastly superior to anything those hayseed Restoration leaders could ever think up. And so I give to you one of the most well reasoned, modern, and “spiritual” methods of interpreting the Bible constructed by — Alexander Campbell.

In his magnum opus, The Christian System, Alexander Campbell listed seven “rules” by which the Bible must be translated and interpreted. [As an aside here, this work really needs to be read and studied in its entirety by all ministers and teachers in the church. They will be amazed by the theological depth and breadth demonstrated by Campbell, and they will be embarrassed by their off-handed dismissals of his education, or supposed lack thereof.] I give them here, somewhat abbreviated, with explanations provided in brackets with my initials inside – [PAS]

  1.  On opening any book in the Sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.
  2. In examining the contents of any book as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, &c., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates . . . Consider also the persons addressed, their prejudices, characters and religious relations.
  3. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, &c., the same philological principles deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.
  4. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have, according to testimony (i.e. the Dictionary,) more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning: for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.
  5. In all tropical language [poetic language- PAS] ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.
  6. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories and parables, this rule is supreme: – Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point – to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.
  7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: – We must come within the understanding distance . . . Every one, then, who opens the Book of God with one aim, with one ardent desire – intent only to know the will of God, – to such a person the knowledge of God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only such, with the salutary knowledge of things celestial and divine . . . He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. (Alexander Campbell, The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead by the Current Reformation, [St. Louis: Christian Publishing CO., N.D.] p. 16-18, italics in the original)

The language is early 19th century flowery, but any student in a present-day course on hermeneutics would immediately recognize the scope of what  Campbell proposed – identify the type of literature, pay careful attention to the historical circumstances of the author and original readers, and do not press metaphorical language beyond it’s intended purpose. Wow. And Campbell wrote this in 1834-35. Of particular significance to me is Campbell’s use of the phrase, “understanding distance.” That sounds like it came straight out of the textbook I used in the Principles of Interpretation course I taught at Eastern New Mexico University.

Those who dismiss the theological acumen of Alexander Campbell are aghast at the soundness of this outline. Those who defend the hermeneutic of CENI are aghast that a Restoration leader would promote a “new hermeneutic” way back in 1835. The fact is, however, that if you truly follow what Campbell proposed, the hermeneutic of CENI is pretty toothless.

Are these seven rules of Campbell perfect? Are they to be equated with the words of the Bible itself? Are we to make of these seven rules what many have made of CENI? No, no, and no. I recognize these rules as one person’s contribution to the problem of biblical interpretation, and an early 19th century contribution at that. I know that our knowledge of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages, and our knowledge of ancient literature, has progressed significantly since Campbell’s day. I personally do not ascribe to Campbell’s dispensationalism, discussed in rule #2, and which he more fully expounds later in the book. So, I would tweak Campbell’s rules a little here and there. That having been said and duly noted, I find it quite amazing that so much of what Campbell wrote is still useable and valuable today.

I want to close this post with the words I selected as the final sentence above: “He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night.”

Amen, bro. Campbell, amen.

The Study of History – Facts are Stubborn Things

(Second in a series of three)

In addition to being a minister by vocation, I consider myself an amateur history buff. One thing I learned recently was the role of the United States and her allies in starting WWII. “Wait!” you said. “Adolf Hitler started WWII and the United States did not enter the war until 1941.”

Well, that is mostly true. Hitler did strike the match that started the fire. But the US, England, and France poured out all the gunpowder that Hitler used to burn Europe to the ground when they forged the Treaty of Versailles. That document blamed Germany for WWI, and made Germany pay reparations that it could never pay; it ultimately drove Germany into a depression the likes of which have never been equaled. All that was necessary was for a master manipulator like Hitler to come along and strike that match. Had the Allies reframed the treaty that ended WWI, Hitler would never have had the leverage he needed to turn the population of Germany against the world a second time. We smugly blame Hitler, and self-righteously overlook our own nation’s role in starting the war. Facts are stubborn, and often inconvenient, things.

What in the world does this have to do with theology, and the Restoration Movement in particular? Only this – very often we only focus on the end result of a very long and complicated process. When we get back to the beginning, and ask the question “why,” we tend to get very different, and sometimes surprising, answers.

Barton W. Stone, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, were disaffected Presbyterians. This means that their religious thought world was primarily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. In their day that Calvinism was  further refined by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Much as only the tip of an iceberg is visible on the surface, Stone and the Campbells were only partially aware of this influence. They wrote clearly and passionately against creedalism and the dangers of denominationalism, but a significant amount of their invective was focused against the legacy of Calvin.

One such teaching of Calvin is that a person can never really be sure of his or her salvation, as feelings can ultimately be misleading (this point is even endlessly debated by Calvinists). If God elects certain people to heaven, and others to hell, there is nothing that you can do to join the first group and avoid the second. More to the point: When exactly could a person be assured of their salvation? If the doctrine of original sin was true, there had to be a point at which God revealed to a person that sin was removed – but what was that point?

The solution (at least in the late 1700s and early 1800s America) was the “mourners bench.” This was where penitents could attend church, listen to sermons, and await the filling of the Holy Spirit that would reveal the gift of salvation. Many would sit on the mourners bench for months, some no doubt for years, before this warming was felt.

As they sought to unify the Christian church, and as they worked to restore that church to the purity of New Testament teachings, Alexander Campbell and his disciple Walter Scott hit upon a masterful observation. Stated most simply and elegantly, sinners could respond to the gospel with three observable steps – they could believe the gospel message, repent of their sins, and receive the washing of baptism. In turn, God made three great promises – the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life.

It was a stroke of theological genius! First, it was sound biblical teaching. Anyone could open their Bibles and verify such was true. But, more to the point, it answered an existential question in a profound and dramatic fashion. I cannot emphasize this enough. It was brilliant theology, although Campbell himself would have vehemently denied the use of the term. Gone was the mourners bench! How could you know if you were a Christian, that your sins were forgiven, that you had the gift of the Holy Spirit and that heaven awaited? By the observable steps of making a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and by submitting to baptism. Thousands responded to this “new” teaching and the Restoration plea spread “like fire in dry stubble.”

Not one to leave well enough alone, Scott further tweaked this plan into his “five finger exercise.” He would ride into a town, gather some children together, and teach them the “five steps of salvation” on the fingers of their hand. They  were taught the importance of faith, repentance, baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then sent home to repeat the message and to invite their parents to attend a protracted “gospel meeting” (an event that sometimes lasted weeks). Once again the results were astounding. Thousands were converted using this simple method of evangelism. But, notice – everything post baptism was excluded.

Through the decades that followed another subtle but critically important change occurred in this “gospel plan.” It was further reduced to the five steps to be accomplished by humans. From the original six steps which balanced human responses to God’s promises, the “plan” was now “hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.” Gone was any reference to God’s promises, or God’s grace. Notice also the total silence regarding an obedient, faithful life. The focus was on baptism alone, a point that was not missed by the multitudes of opponents of these “Campbellites”.

Now we can step back and see how the process where a brilliant theological move has been co-opted into an idol. Stone, Campbell and Scott were responding to a crisis – a crisis that was keenly felt in the churches to which they were speaking. They took the gospel message and formulated an answer that was both biblical and culturally relevant. Over time, however, that answer has become a mantra that is largely devoid of its original context. Worse, by failing to see why the early Restoration leaders formulated this teaching method, we have elevated the method to the status of Scripture itself.

I write this not to disavow the Scriptural necessity to hear the gospel of Christ, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that one must repent of a sinful past and that one must be baptized into Christ. Such is taught from Matthew through the New Testament. My point in writing this essay is to illustrate out how we as humans can turn a process into a goal, a method into an idol. Just as Calvinists had turned the “mourners bench” into an institutionalized exercise, so many in the Restoration Movement have “creedalized” the “gospel plan of salvation” and have turned it into something it was never intended to become.

The result, I fear, is now becoming painfully obvious. The Christian Chronicle is producing a series of articles detailing how the Churches of Christ are shrinking at an alarming rate. True, all “Christian” churches are experiencing losses, but this is particularly troubling to me because we, who proclaim that we are not a denomination and that we are only baptizing to create disciples of Christ, should not be experiencing losses in the numbers  that are being reported. It is one thing to leave a church. But, if we discipled people to be followers of Jesus, and then they leave, they are rejecting Jesus.

Our response to this crisis needs to be as theologically astute and culturally relevant as was Campbell’s and Scott’s in their day. But we are not living in post-Revolutionary America. We are living in post-Modern America, with a whole host of new and different questions. We must be true first to Scripture, and we must also be educated enough about our own history to learn not to turn human methods into church creeds.

I believe that it is very sad that in many ways we have become what Stone, Campbell, and Scott were fighting against. We have become as creedal and divided as the Christian world in general. We have turned the momentary successes of a generation into a permanent temple of worship. More on that in the next installment.

Why is a Knowledge of History so Critical?

Last year I posted an opinion that one of the major issues facing the Churches of Christ in the coming year (and in fact, the coming decade) is the deficiency of knowledge regarding our history. Over the next three posts (at least) I want to expand that thought to include higher education in general, and the study of theology in particular, as particular weaknesses of the Restoration Movement.

Whenever I have mentioned teaching church history, and Restoration Movement history in particular, I typically get the same eye-rolls and groans. “Why do you want to study that stuff?” is the question, and “stuff” is spat out with enough venom to make sure I understand that the speaker is somewhat disinclined to join in with the study. The same is true when the word “theology” is used. A theological education is almost universally dismissed as being either unimportant or even detrimental to a Christian life.

Well, to make this as brief as possible, there are two reasons why studying “that stuff” is so important.

[As a brief aside, I am not suggesting that such knowledge is critical to become, or to remain, a Christian. Heaven will be full of people who had no understanding of church history during their lifetimes. However, I hold teachers and preachers to a higher standard, and I am fully convinced that a greater understanding of history/theology does make us wiser and more thoughtful Christians.]

Reason number 1: a sound theological education makes it less likely that we will make statements that are factually incorrect. NOTE: This is not the same as a lie. A lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of facts as known by the speaker/writer. If we say something that is factually wrong, and we do not know that it is factually wrong, we are not guilty of lying, but we are guilty of perpetuating a falsehood. Why would we want to do that?

I use as one example my own ignorance. I believed for a number of years that it was Thomas Campbell or some such Restoration leader that came up with the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in matters of opinion, freedom; and in all things, love.” Turns out I was only wrong by a few hundred years. I loved to attribute the quote to Restoration leaders, and I’m certain they used it, but it was not original with them. I was not lying when I attributed it to Campbell, but I was factually wrong.

A second example comes from my preaching experience. A preacher friend of mine got red-faced, spitting mad in a preacher’s meeting  as he recounted an experience visiting a church while on vacation. It seems that during the communion service the congregation sang a song. “You cannot perform two acts of worship at the same time” the preacher roared. I wasn’t going to say a word, but I immediately thought of the song “Father Hear the Prayer We Offer” –

Father hear the prayer we offer,
nor for ease that prayer shall be;
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Let our path be bright or dreary,
storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls in hope unweary
Make thy work our ceaseless prayer.

Now, the song is clearly a prayer. If he had ever sung this song, he was doing two things at the same time – he was singing, and he was praying. [Note: the Psalms are Scripture and many are prayers, so when we sing a prayer Psalm, we are participating in three acts of worship: the reading/reciting of Scripture, the singing of a Psalm, and praying.] But somewhere in this preacher’s training he was taught that a person can only worship performing one task at a time. Bad theology or bad history? I would argue it is both. I do not question his motives or his integrity – but his theology is definitely skewed.

Reason number 2: a healthy theological education opens up the possibility that we will view our own particular history with more humility and view others with less loathing. Again, I will illustrate with my own experiences.

First, at one time I was adamant that there was no such thing as the “Sinner’s Prayer” (note the capital letters) in the Bible. Not only was I convinced of that fact, I was utterly contemptuous of anyone who suggested otherwise. My ignorance was matched only by my feeling of superiority. Imagine my chagrin, then, when during a class on prayer I discovered the “sinner’s prayer” (no capitals) in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Although placed on the lips of the tax collector, the teaching comes straight from Jesus. [It is with no small amount of irony that I have to point out that when I arrogantly denied the existence of the “sinners prayer” in the New Testament I was guilty of the exact sin that Jesus was condemning in his parable. Hmmm]

Now, please hear me out – I am NOT defending the manner in which the “Sinner’s Prayer” is used today. The application in which the tax collector’s prayer is used today (in relation to eternal salvation) is a gross distortion of the context in which Jesus told the parable (i.e., humility in prayer). That truth does not absolve my ignorance, and certainly not my arrogance. Now, whenever anyone uses the “Sinners Prayer” as a path to salvation, I have a much better understanding of (a) where they might be coming from and (b) a much healthier way to help them understand the passage.

The second example I have is more technical, but no less powerful. Growing up I was taught repeatedly that the Greek preposition eis must mean “for the purpose of” and that’s it. This is because Acts 2:38 reads “be baptized for (eis) the forgiveness of sins.” In fact, not too long ago I read an article that stated that out of the thousands of uses of the preposition eis in the New Testament, not one single time can it mean “because.” Wow! Talk about skating out on thin ice. (Pardon the pun.) Many Baptists, and a number of other groups, however, do believe that the preposition eis in Acts 2:38 must mean “because,” because they have been taught the forgiveness of sins precedes baptism.

The fact is that the preposition eis must have some sense of the meaning of “because” in at least one usage – Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented eis the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Now, there are a number of ways you can translate eis here, (The ESV uses the word “at”), but you cannot get around the fact that Jonah preached, and the men of Nineveh repented! That is, the repentance was subsequent to, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Their repentance was certainly not “for the purpose of” Jonah’s preaching. The point is not that eis must mean “because of” in Acts 2:38 (I certainly believe it does not, and I know of no committee translation that so translates it that way!) The point is that by not knowing some basics of the Greek language a person can draw some conclusions that are factually wrong. Once again, I am not questioning motives, but only the correctness of some of our statements.

To summarize: is a knowledge of church history or Greek grammar absolutely necessary? Not, as I mentioned above, in the sense of one’s ultimate salvation. We can believe many incorrect things and still be saved by God’s grace. However, for teachers and preachers a greater degree of accuracy is critical in one respect – we must not be found guilty of promoting error just because it fits our “doctrine,” and we must certainly not be arrogant and dismissive of others who hold differing, although incorrect, beliefs.

In other words, we ascend to healthy or “sound” doctrine by descending into the grit and grime of history in order to make sure that what we are teaching is, indeed, God’s truth.