I don’t believe I’ve delved directly into social commentary on this blog – well, except for my son’s contribution. I’ve been known to go there from time to time from the pulpit, especially when the text for the day happens to coincide. I’m amazed at how often this happens, even though I often prayerfully select a book to preach from a year in advance, so much for spontaneity being sign of being ‘Spirit-led’ – and yes, I throw in some ‘impromptu’ messages to keep things ‘fresh.’ However, a couple recent events leaves me feeling the need to at least say something. The first, and easiest, is the recent Ham/Nye ‘debate.’ The second is the recent announcement by Michael Sam – a far more delicate and difficult matter which I’ll get to next time.
Easy topic first – the continuing non-issue (in my mind) of the great conflict between science and the Bible. On a personal level, this has never been an issue – whether as a very curious, scientifically inclined child or as a Michigan (Go Blue!) engineering student. Perhaps I was just simple enough to believe that if God indeed is the author of all creation then the rigorous, systematic study of nature (be it earthly or celestial) will only help me to better understand God. Rather than dreading the latest theory or discovery, it affords me the opportunity to re-examine my assumptions of God and Scripture and consider more fully how wonderfully these amazing documents apply to life and faith and the picture they give me of God! Perhaps it’s because I’ve never considered the age of the planet or the scope of the flood to be the lynch-pins on which the whole of the Bible and the existence of God turned – somehow I don’t picture God wasting his time on building a ‘house of cards.’ Maybe, because contrary to my very many well-meaning ‘historical-grammatical’ friends (an interpretive approach with is neither very historical nor grammatical – as the latter largely depends on the former which is generally ignored), I don’t think there’s any way that the first 11 chapters or Genesis are ‘historical narrative’ in the typical sense. Nor do I think that they are scientific reports (although we will certainly ‘discover’ in the texts whatever we’re bringing to the table). Here, I think segments of the church have believed the lie of our culture that the only valid expression of truth is scientific in nature (be it from the hard or soft sciences) – we’re engaging the argument on their terms, whether or not the terms are really valid in and of themselves. Whatever the nature of these texts may be (and most do indeed have historical components), they do something more clearly and wonderfully than any mere historical reproduction or scientific record could ever do – they tell us who we are, how we fit into the grand scheme of things, and how we relate to the one God who created all (by whatever means he might have used) – and they do it in a way that is truly inspired – in every sense of the word. And, yes, I do in fact wholly subscribe to the authority of Scripture and believe them to be fully the Word of God, though I reject the idea that the authors were merely taking dictation (a rather common misconception that is actually closer to pagan and even Islamic ideas of inspiration than anything the Judeo-Christian worldview presents).
What concerns me in this kind of debate is the church’s ability to effectively engage the culture around it with the love and message of Christ. I spent approximately 15 years at the University of Michigan – including both my student years and time as a campus pastor. My experience there taught me that people’s concerns about the scientific and/or historical validity of the Bible are very real – but they aren’t what I call ‘primary’ level questions (ie, they aren’t the determining factor for someone coming to faith), they are a ‘secondary’ level of question (issues that allow me to easily dismiss something without having to think any more about it). For instance, if I ‘know for a fact’ that the earth is really over 4 billion years old and the universe almost 14 billion years old, and that we have cultural records that go back several millennia before the supposed beginning of the world (6,000 yrs, give or take), all of which allow me to disprove the validity of the Bible, why should I consider the Bible’s demands on my life? Our task here is not to convince them that the Bible is right (in a very narrow reading) and all their science is wrong (especially on scientific grounds). Rather, it seems our task is simply to provide for a plausible reading of the texts that doesn’t permit them to be summarily dismissed so that the matters the Scripture were designed to address can be considered. I think the error many Christians fall into is an honest one – IF the Bible is the word of God AND I am supposed to live according to its precepts AND that God inspired its writing so that everyone can understand THEN everything written must have a straight-forward application for my life. There are a few potential concerns for this well-meaning line of thinking…
- While all the Bible exists FOR our benefit, NONE of it was written TO us. God inspired particular people from a particular time and context to write/speak to their contemporaries. They wrote/spoke in terms that their contemporaries would understand. We ARE NOT their contemporaries. Their assumptions are not our assumptions. They could conceivably ‘get it’ pretty directly. We need a history lesson. This demands that we, at bare minimum, approach the Scriptures with a great deal of humility and with a willingness to think, learn, and reconsider. Despite the misapplication of a passage in the first of John’s epistles, we in fact do need teachers (at least I know that I do).
- It is very possible that the kinds of context in play then are not part of our direct scope today, meaning direct application becomes more challenging. This doesn’t mean there isn’t application, but it may not necessarily have any direct impact for me as an individual – especially when communities are in view dealing with specific challenges. Before we can determine what the Scriptures say to us today, we need to come to grips with what it meant to them then.
- While I firmly believe that reading/listening to the Bible for oneself is a critical Christian discipline – it is not a matter of private interpretation mostly revolving around my own personal application. The understanding of Scripture is a communal discipline, to be engaged in together as a people with the full array of God’s gifts at our disposal for better understanding and to help maintain proper boundaries to application. I know that’s very ‘Catholic’ of me (and, yes, I’m Pentecostal), but it seems to be in closest keeping with the actual biblical model.
There is more I could probably say on this, but the crux of the matter is this: if its possible for a passage to be faithfully understood and followed (not simply explained away) in different ways (after taking historical, cultural, and literary contexts into consideration), why would I insist on the most inflexibly narrow explanation that only considers my concerns and questions, whether or not they would ever have been the questions or concerns of the people to whom the documents were written? Doing so actually UNDERMINES the authority of Scripture as it subjects the concerns of the material to OUR concerns – no matter how poorly our concerns mirror the concerns of the material. It leaves us trying to defend why we insist that the sun revolves around the earth (and yes, there are some who still hold to this on ‘biblical’ grounds). Furthermore, it unwittingly condemns otherwise thoughtful and inquisitive people to darkness and damnation as they have no compelling reason to consider the claims of Scripture on their lives and our greater culture. Finally, in the end, while apologetics can indeed be very helpful tools, no one has ever been debated into the Kingdom of Heaven. People are won over as they see the life of God lived out before them and find it accompanied by an explanation that seems plausible – the fine details get worked out in time. We could learn much from the example of the Alexandrian Church Father, Origen, who when challenged to demonstrate that the Christian life could stand up to the scrutiny of the rules of Greek philosophy refused to engage because the terms of the argument were wrong: Whoever told you that Christianity was a philosophy? We would do well to reframe the questions that we now encounter.
– Pastor Jim Kushner