The Bible, Part 5

 

John 3, Wycliffe Translation, Lutterworth Church

John 3, Wycliffe Translation, Lutterworth Church

Time to pick back up my series on the Bible. (You can find the first four parts here: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)

This time I will address the last few points that I want to cover in answering my second question (how do we approach the different parts in our search for a fully synchronized, harmonized understanding?). Then, next time, I will try to briefly summarize what I have said.

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Another question to which I find I must give a “yes and no” answer (or, in this case, more of a “yes, but…” answer) is whether the Bible is complete. Now, some take this idea way too far. I have in my possession a tract that makes the claim that tongues, prophecy, and all other miracles, healings, and such, ended exactly when the last word of the New Testament was penned (based on an atrocious mis-reading of the second half of 1 Corinthians 13). However, if we can leave such ideas behind us, then I think we have a useful and instructive question to consider. The Christian church is remarkably unanimous in its affirmation that the Bible is finished and, in that sense, complete. We are not awaiting, nor needing, any further books that will need to be added to it. The immediate and necessary implication of that is that we must then also believe that the Bible includes everything that we need to know in order to “work out our own salvation”. Well and good, but it does not by any means follow then that everything has been worked out for us in detail, nor, in fact, that the things that have been worked out are all correctly worked out.

I believe, and believe most firmly, that what we have in the Scripture (and here I am thinking most of the New Testament) are two different but complementary things: The fundamental Principles of our spiritual life with God (things like reconciliation and love) and examples of how those principles were worked out in the life of the early church, the rules of life, as it were. The Principles we have in their entirety. They are all based in the very nature of God Himself and so are not open to debate, rejection, or tweaking. We are stuck with them just as we are stuck with the god who is and cannot choose another.

The rules are another matter altogether. I know there are those who believe that we also have all of those that we need too, that everything has been worked out to the last decimal place and that all we need to do is to obey. However, I believe that this is a pretty clearly untenable position. Indeed, most of the things facing us today that we need guidance on are things that are beyond the imagining of the apostles: Where, for instance, is the rule on whether a Christian can own a car? Or a credit card? Or what to think about capitalism, or stem cell research, space exploration, the internet… The list goes on and on. No, clearly on all of these issues we need to go back to those principles and work things out for ourselves.

And surely this is as it should be. God made us with brains and nowhere does He instruct us to turn them off. Indeed, much of the advice in the New Testament is for us to use our minds properly. To think, judge, know, and so on. Reason, in a redeemed person, should indeed be, as Donne puts it, “God’s viceroy in us”.

If we are to work out for ourselves (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of course) how to live with respect to those things that the apostles did not tackle, that still leaves the question of whether we are bound to accept their conclusions on the areas that they did work through. The argument can be made that these are, after all, the apostles, that they did work through these issues, and that the Holy Spirit led them to record their decisions precisely so that they would become normative. It is a good argument and hard to disagree with, but disagree I must, and for several reasons.

Firstly, one must question whether the issues they addressed are really the same ones we face. The arguments they used in deciding, say, the role of women in the church, reflect much of the culture that they were in. Our culture is very different, so is the question really the same? For example, in discussing hair length, Paul asks “doesn’t even nature teach us that for a man to have long hair is shameful?” and I find myself saying “actually, no, it doesn’t”.

Secondly, I find myself asking whether we have been given these things as settled rules or rather as models for how to go about applying the principles to our situations. A mathematics teacher knows, for instance, that they cannot show their students every addition or multiplication problem they will ever face. Instead, using concrete examples, they give the method, knowing that if the student learns the method then they will be all set. It works in languages to: All of the vocabulary and declension practice is in preparation for that almost magical moment when the student of, let us say French, stops translating and starts to actually think in French. The real goal, I believe, of the New Testament (after we are saved) is to get us thinking like citizens of the new Kingdom. God doesn’t want a bunch of robots obeying some fixed set of rules, He wants transformed people who do the right thing because they think the right things.

Thirdly, is it such a damaging thing if we were to believe that even the apostles might have made a few mistakes? This is in no way to belittle what they did accomplish. Consider: Jesus in his ministry basically turned on its head pretty much their whole conception of what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. That is going to take a phenomenal amount of work—thinking, living, and debating—to carry through into every corner of their lives. Yet the New Testament was written within about 50 years of Jesus’ ministry. What is amazing is not that they didn’t finish the job, nor that they made a few mistakes (if, indeed, they are mistakes and not just culturally appropriate applications), but that they got so much right. They laid out for us the basic principles and showed us how to go about putting them into practice. Let us be, as Paul suggests, imitators of them—not like some Elvis impersonator slavishly copying their quirks and parroting their words, but as disciples learning from masters.

It may be instructive to look at a couple of instances that show that, whatever we may say, this is in fact how we do things. To start, let us consider slavery. The Bible, including the New Testament, takes slavery as a given and nowhere denounces it as wrong per se. We find Paul, for instance, telling slaves to obey their masters and work hard, and masters to treat their slaves well. Yet the first and loudest voices raised against slavery in the early nineteenth century were ardent Christians who held the bible in the highest esteem. Nor were their cries for the reform of slavery into a more biblical pattern, but for its eradication as a fundamentally sinful institution. This position can only have been arrived at by applying the eternal principles anew to the situation. I doubt that there is a Christian today who would say that they were wrong and that to be in God’s will we must bring slavery back again.

Closer to home we have the (almost identical) debate in the Anglican Communion over the place of women. It was a long, hard debate—and so it should have been. If we are going to overturn the decisions of the apostles and the practice of the early church, it should cost us and demand the full use of all of our mental and spiritual powers both individually and corporately.

 

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2 Responses to “The Bible, Part 5”

  1. John A. David Says:

    I loved this post. Thank you for writing this. God bless you.

  2. The Bible, Part 6 (the end) « thoughtfulspirituality Says:

    […] thoughtfulspirituality Explorations of Christian Spirituality « The Bible, Part 5 […]

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