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.

Admit It – We ALL Have Presuppositions!

One of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, obstacles to overcome when we approach Scripture is the acceptance of the fact that we come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. HORRORS! “That may be true of you, bub, but my intentions and purposes are as pure as the driven snow!” may be your immediate response. With all due respect to your meteorological observations, that self-proclaimed innocence is just flat out wrong. We ALL, every single one of us, come to Scripture with preconceptions. Only by admitting that fact can we weed out the possible mistakes those preconceptions are prone to create.

 

An oft-used illustration is appropriate here. It is as if when we peer into the pages of the Bible that we look into a deep well to see what is at the bottom. The image that we see, reflected as if we look into a mirror, looks remarkably like our own face! We see our country when we examine the ancient Israelites. We see our cities when we read of Corinth or Rome. We see our happy little church when we pick up a copy of Ephesians or Colossians. Even the aroma of the flesh pots of Egypt share the same comforting smell of our kitchens.

As I said before, so now I say again – this is only how it can be! We never stood toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. We cannot understand what it must have sounded like as the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem. We have no way of experiencing a mob riot at the Ephesian amphitheater.

But we CAN, and I dare say that we MUST account for the fact that when we read the Bible we admit our preconceptions. Then, by bringing them out into the open, we can ask whether they augment, or distort, our conclusions.

Here, for example, are just a few of the preconceptions I bring to my study:

  1.  The Bible is the inspired word of God. I do not hold to the concept of “verbal dictation,” but I am constantly amazed at how the accounts related in the Bible can only cohere if there was a single, divine, overseeing presence that both created and preserved this book.
  2. Although written for a specific time period, the Bible was preserved as a record of how God expected his people to believe and act throughout all of history. The Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) was written not just for the ancient Israelites – but for us as well. Corinthians was certainly addressed to a congregation in the Mediterranean, but for Christians in the 21st century as well. Note the sequence: to the Corinthians, but for all time.
  3. God never changes, Jesus never changes, and the lessons provided through the stories and codes recorded in Scripture do not change. Murder is still a sin, and elders are still supposed to be husbands of one wife.
  4. God in in heaven, and I am on earth, therefore my words about His word should be few, and those few words should be carefully thought-out and prayerfully delivered.

I could probably come up with many more. The point is, we, as humans, are bounded by time and culture. Some of that culture is positive, some of it is neutral, and some of it is positively perverse. Our culture, however, causes us to view the Bible with a certain lens – a lens of bias. I am a male, American by nationality, relatively well educated (how much of that education has actually stuck is a matter of debate!), and a young baby-boomer by generation. Each of those characteristics flavors how I read the Bible. If I do not take those characteristics into consideration, I can end up with a horrid misinterpretation of the Word of God.

So, let’s face it. We all come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. The critical question, then, becomes whether I can honestly let the Bible correct that bias (or destroy it completely), or whether my bias distorts the meaning of the text.

Why is Error Taught (and Believed)

In my last post I argued that it is not wrong to confront error. That statement presupposes that there is, indeed, error that needs to be confronted. That statement presupposes that there are those who teach erroneous doctrines, and that there are those who believe those erroneous doctrines. That statement raises the question, “Why do false teachers, and false doctrines exist?” I write today not to cast aspersions on any particular group, with the possible exception that I want to examine my own thoughts and actions first, and then let the chips fall where they may.

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I will begin with what I believe to be the most malevolent and culpable motivations, and work toward the least intentional, though perhaps not significantly less culpable.

  1.  Those who know they are promoting falsehood. This might be for financial or emotional gain, but these individuals know they are wrong, but do not care – or rather, they care more for what they are getting out of the process, not for what they are fostering.
  2. Closely related – those who refuse to stand under Scripture, but rather insist that they are somehow above Scripture. They adhere to the “assured results of modern scholarship” school of thought. The biblical authors were misogynistic, homophobic, racist, superstitious, uneducated – all of which we have been able to put behind us.
  3. Those who are blind to their own cultural influences and those who are more interested in following the crowd/garnering praise from the crowd. These may not know they are teaching/believing error, they simply assume that there is “strength in numbers,” or more correctly, that there is truth in numbers, and they do not want to risk embarrassment by asking critical questions.
  4. The fourth group are closely related – they are simply lazy scholars or learners. They just do not do their homework. They do not intentionally promote error, they just do not want to look to hard to find it, for the real reason that they would have to struggle with why is is in error, and what to do to correct it.
  5. And finally, the “innocent” promoters of error. They are simply following what they have been taught, in the honest belief that those who taught them would not, and indeed could not, deceive them. Their teachers are not only paragons of knowledge, they are paragons of virtue. Therefore, to accept what they taught is not only wise, to question these teacher would be the height of arrogance, and impertinence.

I believe that I have been in each of these positions, with the possible exception of number 1! I pray I have never intentionally taught error. I know I have taught error, for who can say with a straight face and honest heart that everything they have ever said or taught is perfectly true?? So, I would have to say that my error stems from arrogance in light of the clear meaning of Scripture (#2) to an honest and deeply felt admiration for my teachers (#5). Have I ever stood “above” Scripture? Probably – I would be a fool to deny the accusation entirely. I know I have been guilty of numbers 3-5.

So, what to do about it? False teachers – and false doctrines – exist. We all, whether we want to admit it or not, fall prey to promoting them or believing them. We cannot solve the problem by pretending it does not exist.

I have presented somewhat of an answer to this question with my “15 Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (see the related page above). Without rehearsing each of those here, I will simply say that Christians must be alert to their own propensity to believe error, and recognize that all humans have that propensity. The only sure and safe response to any teaching – new or ancient – is to compare it to the text of Scripture.

We must stop being so naive. God did not intend his word to confuse or mislead. Contradictory doctrines cannot both be true. There is truth, and if there is truth, then anything that contradicts that truth must be error, no matter how fine sounding the argument or how popular its reception.

My question today is – are we going to be as ruthless with our own conclusions as we are with those with whom we disagree?

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (III and summary)

So far in this series we have seen how Moses eliminates our ability to boast in our numbers. We cannot be proud to have the most numbers or that we can claim to have popular or “influential” members, nor is boasting that we are the ‘righteous remnant’ any safer. Our only security is in having a loving relationship with God. Moving just a little closer to the heart, Moses attacks our reliance on our self-reliance, our ability to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” If we are able to accomplish anything, it is because God has empowered us to do so. Many times all he asks is that we have faith, and he will do the heavy lifting.

Today Moses cuts to the core; he hits us where it really hurts. Today Moses kills our inflated, and erroneous, view of our own righteousness.

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you . . . Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4, 6, ESV)

Before anyone rises to smite me, yes, I know. Moses is not literally speaking to “us.” He was speaking to the Israelites who had gathered to cross the Jordan and to take possession of the promised land. But I see in these three challenges, or rebukes if you will, a sermon that is as relevant today as it ever was. If there ever was a nation – or a church! – that prided itself on its numbers, its ability to create its own success, and that was overbearingly satisfied with its own righteousness, it is the United States and the populist American church. That is why I titled this series of posts “Three Scriptures Christians Hate.” It is not that genuine disciples of Christ hate these passages (although, to be honest, I am uncomfortable with them, because they cut to my own pride and self-reliance). No, what I am saying is that in the eyes of the populist American “church,” these passages would be anathema.

Moses was confronting the Israelites with three very real human sins. All of God’s people have at one time or another been tempted to rely on “group think,” or the tendency to trust in their numbers and their popularity. God’s people have been tempted to view their own strength as unstoppable. And God’s people have been seduced to think that success is the result of their righteousness. Moses told the Israelites they were wrong on all three counts. I think Moses is still right. I think we look at our numbers, at the size of our buildings, at the popular or “important” people who attend our services, and at our impeccable adherence to arcane doctrines as proof that God is blessing us.

I firmly believe God wants his church to grow. I can find no Scripture that says, “Follow me and become a loser.” The precise plans for the beautiful tabernacle and later the temple lets me know that God does take pleasure when we honor him with our wealth instead of hoarding it for ourselves, or wasting it on frivolous pleasures. And, lest we forget, it was God who said, “Be Holy as I am Holy.” Holiness is a good thing, and much to be sought after.

Its just that we can never boast of our numbers (or lack thereof!). We can never boast of our success. We can never boast of our righteousness. We can, and should, give thanks that God has blessed us, that God has given us the ability to grow and succeed, and that God has purified us and made us holy.

In other words, God wants us to succeed, to be blessed, to climb higher. But we ascend by going lower. We win by losing. We live by dying. It is all up-side-down. And that, I believe, is exactly what Moses was trying to say.

Needed Words from an Ancient Prophet

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The prophet Jeremiah struggled with being who God called him to be. Mind you, he was a great prophet, and some of the most beautiful words in the English language come from his pen. But, he was not afraid of complaining to God about his lot in life.

God was pretty direct in responding to Jeremiah:

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? (Jeremiah 12:5a ESV)

Now, if God had disciplined me in this way, I don’t think I would have recorded those words for all generations to read. Probably would have filed them away under “Unfair job review.”

Jeremiah, however his weak moments, did have the strength of his convictions, and this record of God’s rebuke demonstrates that strength, as well as his humility.

Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight’ declares the LORD. (Jer. 9:23-24 ESV)

 

Notice God did not say there were no wise men, no mighty men, no rich men. All things considered, I would much rather be wise, strong, and rich as opposed to stupid, weak, and poor. But wisdom, strength, and wealth are not to be our refuge. God is our strength, our refuge. And what God is concerned about is love, justice, and righteousness.

One of my favorite verses from a country and western song comes from an album by Charley Pride. The second verse of the song, “I’m Just Me” begins, “When people say that life is rough, I wonder: Compared to what?”

Maybe, just maybe, when we get tired enough of tilting at windmills, at trying to make ourselves look big and smart and impressive and rich, maybe at that point we can take a step down and accept what God has called us to be in the first place: heirs with his son Jesus the Messiah of the coming Kingdom.

Is it any wonder, then, that the apostle Paul wrote, “I [want to] know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Philippians 3:10 ESV)

The apostle Paul, just like the prophet Jeremiah before him, ascended much higher than he ever would have on his own, by descending lower into the strength and power of knowing his God. May we have the courage to share in their ascension!

The Struggle of the Crucified Life

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“Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

Anyone who has tried to live the Christian life, who has really tried to follow Jesus, knows the truth of that statement. It is just really hard to live a life when you are called to die. The apostles had a hard time getting it, the apostle Paul had to sit blind for three days to get it, the Constantinian church flatly rejected the idea. We just recoil at the thought that we might be called to die in order to live.

And, yet, the great examples of our faith did eventually understand the message. Paul prayed that he might become like Christ in his death, so that he might receive the “upward call” of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14). Peter, too, exhorted his readers to accept a life of suffering for Christ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

The form of Christ on earth is the form of the death [Todesgestalt] of the crucified one. The image of God is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is into this image that the disciples life must be transformed. It is a life in the image and likeness of Christ’s death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4f). It is a crucified life (Gal. 2:19). (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 285).

The problem for Christians in the democratic and capitalistic West is that we have no paradigm, no blueprint, for what a crucified life should look like. We know success – boy do we love and honor success! Humility, meekness, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, forgiving “70 x 7” – these are all obscure, even opaque, concepts. Why, we might as well even be called on to die.

And, that is exactly what Jesus called on us to do. “Take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 10:38, 39; 16:24).

Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 87)

Living the crucified life is a struggle. Anyone who would argue otherwise is either a fool or has never attempted to do it. Everything within our human nature rebels against it. And that is why our fallen human nature must die. We must die so that God can send his Spirit within us and make us new creations (Romans 6:1-14 again).

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10, ESV)

I can’t do it on my own. Only God can make me ascend lower. This I must learn. This I must accept. To this I must surrender myself.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13, ESV)