Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 4 and 5)

The fourth and fifth Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection fit together so tightly that I decided to handle them together. Also, number 4 is really self-explanatory. Number 5 deserves a few words, though.

4.  The Bible is a record of the relationship God formed with man, his creation. It is also a record of man’s failure to live within this relationship.

5.  Theology is man’s attempt to understand this relationship between God and man. The beginning of theological reflection is the careful study of the Bible.

I do not know what else to say about number 4. The Bible is truly a story – a story about God and man. The story begins and ends with God, but from beginning to ending the content of the story revolves around God’s relationship with his finest creation – the only creation that was made “in our image.”

I think it is number 5 that people will misinterpret, or misunderstand. I believe that the average “sit in the middle of the pew” Christian simply does not understand the meaning and purpose of theology. I do not blame them – because for the most part theologians have done a rather pitiful job of explaining theology.

For the curious, I have read two books that do a wonderful job explaining the practice of theology, and of explaining how everyone who claims to live a Christian life is in some sense a theologian. The first is Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson. The second is Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson. If you only want one, I would recommend the first, first. However, both are wonderful books and do a much better job of explaining this than I do.

Stated as simply as I can: everyone who reads and attempts to live out the words of Scripture is a theologian! Theology is not the private domain of some old graybeard cloistered in some ivy covered tower. If you read the Bible, and if you attempt to live the Christian life, you are a theologian, plain and simple. The only question that remains is this: are you going to be a good theologian, or a bad one?

Subsequent explanations of the following “Undeniable Truths” will unpack just exactly what I mean when I use the words “good theology,” but suffice it to say here that the key is found in the last phrase, “the careful study of the Bible.”

Good theology is the result of careful, diligent, intentional study of the Bible. Bad theology is the result of shoddy, reckless, or inattentive reading of Scripture. Good theology is never an accident, while good theologians are sometimes guilty of producing bad theology, for the simple reason that even good theologians occasionally get careless. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to approach the story of the Bible as carefully and intentionally as we possibly can, each and every time we pick it up to read it.

As always, please refer to Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 1, and repeat often.

We can only ascend by climbing lower.

Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection (#3)

Continuing my series on my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” . . .

Building on truth #2, if the authors of Scripture intended their writings to be understood (for me that is axiomatic), then they also intended their writings to achieve their intended purpose:

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

Here again, the casual and non-observant reader would glance at these sentences and say, “sure, no problem” and then go out and violate the meaning that I intended for them (pardon the irony).

What I am trying to say is that if a writer composed a narrative, he (or she, but most authors/scribes in antiquity were males) intended his narrative to convey the truth of the narrative (historical truth, didactic teaching, command, parable). If he composed a poem, he intended the poem to convey its intended purpose (comfort, frustration, lament, confession, rejoicing). If he composed in the wisdom tradition, he intended his writing to convey some aspect of wisdom. Point is, when we take a piece of poetry and turn it into a piece of history, or even worse yet, a command, we violate the meaning of Scripture. Let that last little phrase sink in. We can love Scripture, quote Scripture, memorize Scripture; but if we misinterpret or misapply Scripture, we are violating the meaning of that Scripture!

To take a well-worn, but never-the-less powerful example, look at Genesis 1-3. Nothing about this text indicates that it is a lesson in history, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, genetics, or anthropology. Yet, I have seen, and heard, Genesis 1-3 used as a text to explain all of these, if not more. That is to violate the meaning of Genesis 1-3! If I can boil the meaning of Genesis 1-3 down to one sentence, it would be this: Genesis 1-3 is a narrative story, set in a poetic structure, that explains (1) who God is, and (2) who man (male and female) is, and (3) what the relationship is between God and man, God and creation, and man and creation. Anything beyond that is pure speculation, and the more specific the speculation the more harmful the results.

However, the same can be said of the historical sections of the Old Testament (they are not written to be examples in ethics courses), the Psalms (written from man to God, not God to man), the wisdom literature  and, in the New Testament, the parables (not cute little stories for VBS) and (my pet peeve) the book of Revelation (not a “road map to history”).

Undeniable truth for theological reflection number 3 teaches us that before we can say “this is what the Scripture says to us” we have to ask the question, “what kind of Scripture is this?” Then, once we have determined the kind of Scripture we are dealing with, then we can begin to work on determining its purpose, and for us, its intended meaning.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, #2

Continuing my explanation of my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” –

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

Um, this should be painfully obvious. I guess for some, pain just does not work. I was tempted to add, “. . . by the original audience” but I decided not to, for the very real reason that if the Scriptures are inspired (and I believe wholeheartedly that they are), then the authors of the Bible intended that their words could be understood years, even hundreds of years, after they were completed.

I find this truth being violated most frequently in terms of the prophetic and apocalyptic writings in the Bible. There seems to be among many theologians an unwritten rule of interpretation: “If you can point to an obvious fulfillment of a prophecy, the prophecy has been fulfilled; if not, then it relates to the second coming of Jesus.” Just a curious question, but don’t you think Isaiah was writing to his fellow countrymen in the “. . . days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”? If so, don’t you think that his hearers, or readers, could understand what he preached and wrote? Now, I have no doubt that Matthew (and other N.T. authors), writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not see a “fuller” and “more complete” fulfillment of many of his prophecies. Matthew’s vision does not erase Isaiah’s original intended purpose, however, and it is especially dangerous to read the Old Testament ONLY through the glasses of a New Testament perspective.

My biggest issue with this “misinterpretation” of Scripture relates to the book of Revelation. The piecemeal manner in which passages are used as proof-texts for virtually every bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible theory of the end-times is just infuriating. It is almost as if people think that John muttered to himself, “I have no idea what all this means, but I’m going to write it down and somebody living in the 21st century will be able to figure it all out.” Hogwash and balderdash, I say. John intended his readers to know EXACTLY what he was writing, or he never would have put pen to paper.

All of this relates specifically to Undeniable Truth #1. If we do not approach Scripture with humility – if we just treat the Bible as some ancient book of folklore and whimsy – then we will completely miss its intended purpose. In other words, we must first come to Scripture with the question, “What did it mean?” before we can ask the question, “What does it mean?” How did Isaiah’s hearers (and readers) hear and read his prophecies? How would a church reading the gospel of Matthew understand his use of Isaiah? And, how would one of the seven churches in Asia have interpreted John’s majestic apocalypse? Only after we come to the Bible with those questions answered can we sit down and say, “Okay, what does this have to say to me today?”

If the meaning of a passage of Scripture we derive is completely foreign to the meaning that it’s original audience would have derived, then I would suggest that our interpretation is completely wrong. Jeremiah was not prophesying that God has mapped out every single detail of our human existence (Jer. 29:11). Jesus was not prophesying about the rise of Muslim terrorism in Mark 13. And the anti-Christ has absolutely nothing to do with Adolph Hitler or Ronald Reagan. (1 John clearly states who the anti-Christ is, to the chagrin of many Christians).

As the old sergeant on Hill Street Blues used to advise his officers at roll-call, “Let’s be careful out there.” Let us be extremely careful with the words of Scripture, because they are God’s words, not ours. Let us ascend higher, by first descending lower, that we might know as fully as possible what God intended for us to know.

Can We Admit We Are Wrong?

Pardon me if the next post or two seem to be vaguely connected, yet seemingly confused. Working through some things here “on the fly,” but hopefully something will make sense.

I am struck by a strange contradiction between our words and our actions. We (and I include myself here, but am speaking generically) praise humility and our ability to admit error and failure. And yet, on a very basic level we never do so. We are always, without exception, 100% correct on every single issue 100% of the time. This, amazingly enough, even though another person claims to be 100% correct, and his opinion (or facts) are diametrically opposed to ours. It is a mathematical miracle. Two completely opposite “truths” which are both correct, even though both completely reject the other. (confused yet?)

I shall start (in good prophetic style) by pointing out the error of someone I disagree with, and then (much more quickly than Amos did) step on my own toes. It is a common belief – nay, mandatory conviction – among most “evangelical” Christians that those who have been redeemed by Christ have been saved “by grace alone through faith alone.” The problem with this conviction is that it is only half true. The apostle Paul himself wrote that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8). However, the word “alone” simply does not exist in the text. It is an invention of Martin Luther as a hedge against his Roman Catholic opponents. Yet, try to get a good Lutheran (or Reformed) pastor to admit that simple truth. You may get them to admit the word is not present, but you will never get them to admit the concept is also not present. To believe we are saved by grace through faith is to believe Scripture. Add the word “alone” to either concept and you have fundamentally changed the meaning of the text.

Now, for my own toes. How many times have members of the Churches of Christ said that “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” And yet, and yet…

How many times have you also heard that someone who is divorced for a reason other than adultery is “still married in God’s eyes”? How many times have you heard that God created the world in “six 24 hour periods”? How many times have you heard the world is a mere “6,000 years old”? How many times have you heard that if you consume one “drop” of an alcoholic beverage, you are “one drop drunk”? Now, I do not want to aver that any of those statements is wrong on a propositional level. Each may be 100% true. What I DO want to point out is that NONE of the above statements can be found in Scripture. ALL of them are inferences, or deductions, from statements made in Scripture. Thus we SAY we are only going to speak in words mandated by Scripture, and then we build entire theologies and moral structures on ideas that are NOT in Scripture.

[Self-disclosure: I do believe God created the world in six days (Gen. 1). I do believe divorce is a sin, and that God hates that sin (Malachi 2, Matthew 5, 19, 1 Cor. 7). I do not believe in Darwinistic evolution, and I am most assuredly not promoting the practice of social drinking. I merely pointed these statements out because they appear to me to be some of the most egregious “speaking where the Bible does not speak” – at least in explicit terminology. This is where I can agree in principle, and yet still disagree with the language, and sometimes the motivations, of some of my brothers and sisters in Christ.]

Suffice it to say that I have been tripped up enough by my own self-righteous prattle to know that ANY deduction made from Scripture needs to be put under a dispassionate microscope. There has only been one person who lived in perfect unity with God the Father, and that was his Son Jesus. There is only one perfect description of the true and unchangeable will of God, and that is the Bible. All other humans, and all the most deeply studied understandings of that Bible are flawed in some degree or another. To deny that fact is the ultimate in human arrogance.

Simply put, no human can ever be 100% correct about every question or be 100% knowledgeable about every single verse of every chapter of every book in the Bible. Even that which we think we know about the text of the Bible must be re-examined in light of more recent discoveries concerning language, geography, and biblical history.

I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting some post-modern “there is no truth” or “truth is all relative” intellectual garbage. I most assuredly believe there is ultimate truth, and to the extent that God desires that we know it, we as humans can know it, and should strive to learn it.

But Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 scares me, and as one who earns his living by speaking (and writing) words, I believe I am bound to a very precious calling, and I do not take that calling lightly.

Theology Matters

In my last post I made what some might consider a rather harsh statement: that certain books that speak of a god and spirituality are not worth the paper they are written on. A kind reader asked why I should think thus. It was a fair question and a good one. I felt a brief answer was not enough, so here, in an extended response, are my thoughts as to why I have such visceral responses to theological pablum.

In a phrase: theology matters. Good theology, healthy theology, sound theology – all of these are critical for a sound, healthy, spiritual life. If you eat healthy food chances are you will remain healthy. Eat garbage every day, all day long, and sooner or later you will get sick or die. My issue with certain books that are huge best sellers but contain only theological junk is that their very popularity masks their emptiness. Everybody loves Twinkies (and so do I!), but Twinkies are not health food. In the United States we have been inundated with such products lately, from Heaven is for Real and God is Not Dead and most recently, The Shack. Bad theology is not a recent invention, however, as Joseph Smith (no relation, as far as I know) duped millions with his work of theological fiction, The Book of Mormon.

Since that latest buzz focuses on The Shack I will make a few comments here specifically related to that book, but the fundamental flaws of that book are common to many, if not all, of the recent attempts at popular theology.

First, The Shack purports to be a parable, that is, a picture to describe an attribute (or attributes) of God that are not otherwise seen. The problem is the author does not know the difference between a parable and a caricature. The Shack is NOT a parable – it is a caricature in which one aspect of God’s being is so grossly distorted as to make it a farce. When Jesus told a parable about God’s forgiveness or mercy, it was just that – a parable. God remained a God of justice, a God who will make things right through the punishment of sin.

The god of The Shack has done away with punishment of sin. The god of The Shack is all about everyone going to heaven. Like a grandmother who loves all her grandchildren and refuses to punish any, the god of The Shack is basically unable to confront, and is utterly powerless to overcome, evil. Just think of the basic premise – why would any god not punish the killer of a small child (the whole background story of “the shack,” the place where the little girl was murdered)?

The character that represents Jesus in The Shack says that he is the best way to get to this god, but the Jesus of the gospels is the ONLY way to the real God. If you live in the universe of The Shack, it matters not if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or even a basically moral atheist. All roads lead to “papa,” although if you are willing to accept the Jesus figure you might get to “her” sooner.

Why does this matter? Why can’t I say (as so many have said in so many different venues) “If reading The Shack brings you closer to God, then good for you, and good for The Shack.” Very simply, if you think you have come closer to god through The Shack, you have only come closer to a god of your own making – a false god, an idol. It is not the God of Mt. Sinai, nor of the manger in Bethlehem, and absolutely not the God of calvary.

As evidence, I share two stories from the Old Testament: Exodus 32:1-6 and 1 Kings 12:25-33. In both stories images of calves are formed for the purpose of worshiping God. You have to understand this – the images were used in the worship of YHWH. The context makes this clear. And in both stories the principle architects of the images (Aaron and Jeroboam) are soundly punished for their creation of these “guides to worship.”

Why did God not say, “Well, if the calves bring you closer to me, good on you and good on the calves”? Why punish Aaron, Jeroboam, and all the people who worshiped the calves, especially since they were ostensibly worshiping God? The reason is the calves were NOT God, and by pointing away from the true God, the calves were objects of spiritual sickness. They were symbols of rebellion – of rejecting the one true God.

Why do I object to theological fictions such as The Shack, God is Not Dead, and Heaven is for Real? Because at their core they are golden calves. The authors (and the millions of people who are mesmerized by them) may have good intentions, but their theology is base, it is corrupt, and it is corrupting.

If a person thinks that he or she is coming closer to God by reading any of these books (or seeing the movies), what happens when he or she reads of the true God in Scripture? What happens when the person reads that God hates sin, that God is a just judge, and will punish those who rebel against him, and especially those who kill little girls? What happens when the person discovers that God hates charlatans and those who seek to build wealth and fame from peddling false ideas about Him and his creation? At that point the person will either have to reject the comfortable, impotent, beggarly god of these works of fiction, or he or she will have to reject the God of Scripture. The two are not inches apart – they are light years apart.

There are great works of fictional literature which point to the God of Scripture. C.S. Lewis comes immediately to mind. I am not against fictional works that praise and glorify God. I would not even object to a caricature of God if the work is clearly identified as such (George Burns in O God comes to mind – no one thought THAT was serious theology, but the story did have a good point).

In some ways I hate to be so negative. I would be much more popular if I preached what these books claim to say about God. I just have one problem in doing so.

It’s not good theology – and theology matters.

Jeremiah 6:16 and Context (A Cautionary Tale)

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Very few Old Testament passages hold a position of honor among preachers and teachers within the Churches of Christ. That is due largely to the influence of Alexander Campbell and his “Sermon on the Law.” From Campbell’s day forward his heirs have solidly proclaimed the New Testament as the book of the church, and some would even narrow that to Acts – Jude (Revelation being much too dangerous to handle).

Very few, but not none. One passage that ranks in importance just slightly lower than Acts 2:38 and Romans 16:16 is Jeremiah 6:16. This verse is the bulwark that protects many favored traditions, and more distressingly, the failures of many in past generations. Whenever the discussion becomes too edgy or uncomfortable, Jeremiah 6:16 is a safe and constant refuge. I was reminded just recently of what a powerful hold this verse has on many. It should – but not perhaps for the reason that they think it should. I come this day not to bury Jeremiah 6:16, but to honor it for the powerful text that it truly is in its context.

This post could easily end up in the thousands of words long. For simplicity I will try to abbreviate as much as possible. To cut to the chase, in order to understand Jeremiah 6:16 we really need to back up to chapter 2. In a lengthy and sometimes dense argument, the LORD (through Jeremiah) accuses both Israel and Judah of gross idolatry and moral decay. In a plaintive cry that summarizes much of the entire book, the LORD asks,

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:11-13, ESV)

Central to the accusations that the LORD makes against his chosen people are two related actions. One, they repeatedly ally themselves with foreign nations instead of depending on God for protection and deliverance (2:17-18), and two, they participate in the worship of those nations’ idols, figuratively described as sexual fornication/adultery (3:6-10).

In spite of these transgressions, the LORD still holds out forgiveness to the people, if they will but return to him:

Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the LORD. Return, O faithless children, declares the LORD; for I am your master; I will take you, one from every city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. (Jer. 3:12-14 ESV)

Pure and faithful worship, however, must be accompanied by pure and faithful behavior:

If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear ‘As the LORD lives’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory (Jer. 4:1-2, ESV)

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her (Jer. 5:1 ESV)

Particularly galling to the LORD is the behavior of his prophets and priests:

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:13-14 ESV, see also 1:8, 2:26-28, 5:30-31)

That leads us then to the verse in question, Jer. 6:16:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ (ESV)

As should be clear by now, the LORD is not, and Jeremiah is not, urging the Israelites to return to some pristine time of their history. He is pleading with them to return to GOD. The “ancient paths” are the practices that demonstrate their allegiance to GOD – truthfulness, justice, righteousness (in Hebrew understanding – doing right). A major component of this “returning” involves confession of sin. And, not to be forgotten, another critical component is the faithfulness and righteousness of the spiritual leaders of the people.

I fear that too many times when I hear Jeremiah 6:16 being quoted, what is intended is a “return” to a “golden age” of the church, invariably the period when the Churches of Christ were growing at an exponential rate during the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. The “ancient paths” are not the rigorous moral and ethical demands of Sinai, but an almost mythical time in which every man “dwelt under the shade of his own vine.” We all want to sing with Archie Bunker, “Those were the days.”

The truth is – just as with Israel and Judah – there never has been this period of utopian perfection! Every text that we have in the New Testament is there as a testimony that someone, somewhere was NOT believing what Jesus taught, or was NOT doing what Jesus commanded. We simply do not have a picture of a perfect church for one simple reason – the church has never existed in perfection. The “ancient paths” do not refer to a time of pristine church practice – either in the first century or the 19th or the 20th. The ancient paths refer to God’s entire law and gospel – both religious (worship) and moral (ethics/behavior).

I most firmly believe that Jeremiah 6:16 needs to be preached from our pulpits and taught in our classes. But – it needs to be preached and taught in context! Applications that are drawn from that text need to be consistent with Jeremiah’s own purpose – as appropriately directed to the church in the 21st century.

Let’s preach it, brothers, – but let’s preach it straight!