Christianity 201

October 17, 2015

The Humanity of Scripture

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.
– Jeremiah 23:16
(context important; see next verse citation)

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
– 2 Peter 1:20-21

As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.
 -Acts 4:20

Today we return to the blog of Jeff K. Clarke. You’re encouraged to click the title below to read this at source, and then, choose a category from the bar at the top and read some other articles.

Learning to Embrace the Humanity of the Bible

Understanding the Bible as an Example of God Using the Finitude of Human Language as Symbols of Communication

Many Christians hold to a doctrine of scripture that sees only the divine side of the documents, while significantly downplaying the human dimension. Others believe they were divinely dictated, leaving the writers to simply record what they were verbally given. However, I believe the latter view dehumanizes the bible. It doesn’t take seriously the cultural, linguistic, and historical situations present at the time, as well as the specific circumstances each writer addressed.

But what about the writers? After all, do we not refer to many of the works in the New Testament as letters and epistles, written by people like Paul, Peter, and James? These are real people, writing to real churches, addressing real situations, in real time.

With this in mind, these sacred writings are essentially human documents. And, while God has chosen to uniquely witness through them, he has done so through human language, identifying with us through every stage of the theo-drama. In essence, God breathes upon the words and witnesses through them, making them reliable witnesses that point us towards God.

The Error of Error-Free Arguments

A significant problem with maintaining a completely one-sided, divinely written bible, is that any notion of error, however minor, is quickly dismissed. The inconsistencies are either explained away or labelled as yet another example of a liberal reading of scripture.

cropped-bible-5.jpgAs a reactionary move, many also attempt to argue that the original manuscripts are error-free. However, the fact that we do not possess any of those original manuscripts makes the point difficult to argue. How can you make a claim about original manuscripts when those documents don’t even exist? It’s almost as if the argument is one the system requires in an a priori sense, rather than one that exists after careful analysis and thoughtful reflection.

Arguments in favor of a wholly divine document seem to exist because people are afraid the bible will lose all credibility and become untrustworthy without it. I disagree. If anything, they will be viewed with even less suspicion because we will no longer be afraid to treat them for what they are – human documents.

The central message will retain its faithfulness and trustworthiness, but we will not be threatened every time we encounter a discrepancy, which usually has to do with geography, science and a time-based cultural idea (the ancients believed, for instance, that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth).

A Profitability View of Scripture

I once heard Clark Pinnock outline what he termed a plenary profitability doctrine of scripture. In this model, the scriptures faithfully serve the purpose for which they were written, are profitable toward those ends, and will never lead us astray.

Pinnock argued that the bible is first and foremost a collection of human writings that God speaks through by accommodating himself to the language, customs and cultures of the day. That is, he used what was at his disposal.

Similar to the incarnation, on which Christ took upon himself the totality of what it meant to be human, so in scripture, God incarnates by taking on the humanness of the writers and the situations they experienced at the time.

These are not timeless documents, removed from the world of real life, but time-driven and time-determined pieces of literature. God led the writers along as wind moves along a sailboat, not in the sense of control, but enablement and inspiration.

The documents are real, down to earth, living witnesses to God’s ongoing care and relationship with humanity. They are testaments to the ever-presentness of God’s life and our lives coming together. These are not some secretly coded, multilayered, cosmic writings, but living stories of God’s loving interaction with creation.

Scripture, therefore, is not a depository of propositional truth statements to be mined, but a witness to God’s gracious and redemptive activity.

Scripture as an Example of God Using Human Words as Symbols

Scripture is story, a redemptive story, that seeks to draw people in and invite them to become apart of what God is doing in the world.

Scripture is an example of God using the finitude of human words as symbols of communication. Human language can never fully capture or convey all that God is, for the finite could never grasp the infinite in its totality. But, through human language, God testifies, works and acts to invite people into his action-story. Human words become a vehicle for divine witness.

However, such a view doesn’t mean that the book is perfect. No, what it does mean is that God accommodates to human words, ideas and cultural/historical situations as a means to communicate his role in the cosmic, redemptive drama. God comes to dwell with us through human language, in spite of its inadequacies.

God speaks through and enlivens human words. It becomes a living and loving word precisely because of this. He works through the human language of story, metaphor, symbol and poetry. Even the historical accounts, wrapped as they are in cultural nuance, become vehicles of grace.

God works through the imperfections of human language, and redeems it. He doesn’t feel the need to make corrections, but maintains the humanness of the documents to showcase his own beauty; a treasure in a clay pot.

God took the author’s words seriously, including their flaws, and uses it in a unique way to reach out to the world. We need to allow scripture to be free of our right-brain grip of certitude and learn the art of embracing the openness and ambiguity of the story and its characters.

If God isn’t afraid of the human ambiguity in scripture, why should we? We’ve been given what we need to know to make us wise for salvation; filled as it is with parable, paradox and punctuations of uncertainty.

Learning to Appreciate the Humanity of the Bible

We can, however, be certain that God will lovingly and faithfully witness through the uncertainty of these human writings. We need not fear imperfection, but learn to embrace the perfect One within it – Jesus, the Living Word of God. We need to learn how to read scripture as it is, while embracing the depth of the Lord’s witness through it.

When we learn to appreciate the humanity of the bible, we will be in a better position to listen to the divine voice that speaks through it. In order to understand what a passage means, we first have to understand what it meant. Then and only then will we be able to listen for the divine voice through the vehicle of human words.

This is the bible.

August 23, 2012

If There Isn’t Mystery, It Isn’t Really Faith

Some people want everything in Christian theology to be cut and dried; as neat as a pin. You have to wrap up all your loose ends in the final scene before the credits roll, or they get quite perplexed.

But the realm of faith is never quite so tidy. Some things have to be, as we say here, “consigned to the realm of mystery.” C. Michael Patton listed five key areas at Parchment and Pen recently. As usual you’re encouraged to read things at source — they have a graphic that suits this well — so click through to The Five Great Mysteries of the Christian Faith.

As I do the math, there are five great mysteries in theology:

1. Creation out of nothing (ex nihilo): How did God create being out of non-being? Being transcendent in relation to the universe (above all time, space, and matter), the reason for God’s being is necessary (hence why we often call him the “necessary being”), so his existence does not require a cause-and-effect answer. Yet where did he get the “stuff” to create all that there is? It could not have come from himself, as that would place him in our universe of time, space, and matter. Then we would just be looking for the really real God. The same is true if the “stuff” was outside himself. All that there is must have come from nothing as a rational and philosophical necessity. All other options are formally absurd. While creation out of nothing is not formally absurd, it is a great mystery or paradox.

2. Trinity: We believe in one God who eternally exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This would only be a formal contradiction if we said we believed that God was three Gods and one God or if we said we believed he was three persons and one person. But to say that the Trinity is one God in three persons is not a formal contradiction, but a mystery.

3. Hypostatic Union: We believe that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, is fully God and fully man (at least since the time that he became man). We don’t believe that he is fifty percent God and fifty percent man, or even ninety/ten. Christ is everything that God is and has eternally, even in the incarnation, shared in the full divinity of the one God, yet he is everything that man is forevermore. Whereas the Trinity is one nature with three persons, Christ is one person with two natures. This is indeed a mystery, but has no earmarks of a formal contradiction.

4. Scripture: We believe the Bible is fully inspired of God, yet fully written by man. God did not put the writers of Scripture in a trance and direct their hand in the writing of Scripture (often referred to as “mechanical dictation”), but he fully utilized their personality, circumstances, writing style, and mood in producing the Scriptures. Another way to put it is that the Scriptures are the product of the will of God and the will of man. Mystery? Yes. Contradiction? No.

5. Human Responsibility and Divine Sovereignty: God is sovereign over the entire world, bringing about his will in everything. He does as he pleases in heaven and on earth. There is not a maverick molecule in all the universe. He even sovereignly predestined people to salvation before they were born, while passing over all others. Yet man is fully responsible for all his actions. There will be a judgment of the unrighteous one day in which God will hold people responsible for their rejection of Christ. How could there be a judgment if people were doing only what they were predestined to do? I don’t know. But I do know that they are truly responsible for their actions and rejection of God.  This is a mystery beyond any human ability to solve, yet not a contradiction.

Are there more than these? Most certainly. But in theology, these are the biggies. These are the big pieces of our puzzle that are missing. Why are they missing? I don’t know. I just know they are. God chose not to tell us. I will ask him when I get there. But I will try to trust him until then. After all, don’t I have to borrow from his morality in order to judge him for leaving the puzzle unsolved? I think I will pass on that.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with trying to solve these, and I think everyone needs to get into the ring and wrestle with these issues. But church history has seen that whenever these are “solved,” heresy or serious aberration is always the result. Unfortunately, many continue to opt not to let these mysteries remain. Often with good intentions, Christians have found “solutions.” But these “solutions” normally have to distort God’s revelation to do so. Preferring a settled logical system, many find pieces of another puzzle and force it to fit. The result is an obscured and inaccurate, sometimes even damnable, view of God.

Where God has left the puzzle pieces out, so should we. He knows what he is doing. Let’s just thank him for the pieces we do have and worship, for now, in the white mysterious area. Hand firmly over mouth is a good theological posture sometimes.

Let’s see if I can get you a verse here . . . Got it!

Deut. 29:29
“The secret things [missing puzzle pieces] belong to the Lord, but the things revealed [present puzzle pieces] belong to us and our children forever.”

Oh, and one more (my default NT go-to verse in these matters):

1 Cor. 13:12
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Keep the original design. It’s good stuff.

~ C. Michael Patton

Scripture portions quoted at Christianity 201 are always in green because the Scriptures have LIFE!