William Everett Bell:
The final test for the meaning of an Old Testament passage is not necessarily its literal meaning, but the meaning given to it by the inspired New Testament writers, whether that meaning be literal or typical. . . . The dispensationalist practice of deciding the meaning of a concept at its first embryonic appearance in the Old Testament, together with the refusal to expand, restrict or otherwise modify the concept in the light of additional and fuller subsequent revelation, must be rejected as an unacceptable hermeneutical method, because it must frequently distort New Testament revelation in order not to disturb a premature “literal” Old Testament interpretation, and thus it simply does not account satisfactorily for the totality of the Biblical data.
In: Menn, Jonathan (2013-09-04). Biblical Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3306-3310). Resource Publications – An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
“For this is eternal life, to know the one and only true God, and Him who He sent, Jesus Christ, whom he constituted the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation. This One is Isaac the well-beloved Son of the Father, who was offered in sacrifice, and yet did not succumb to the power of death. This is the vigilant Shepherd Jacob, taking such great care of the sheep He has charge over. This is the good and pitiable Brother Joseph, who in His glory was not ashamed to recognize His brothers, however contemptible and abject as they were. This is the great Priest and Bishop Melchizedek, having made eternal sacrifice once for all. This is the sovereign Lawgiver Moses, writing His law on the tables of our hearts by His Spirit. This is the faithful Captain and Guide Joshua to conduct us to the promised land. This is the noble and victorious King David, subduing under His hand every rebellious power. This is the magnificent and triumphant King Solomon, governing His kingdom in peace and prosperity. This is the strong and mighty Samson, who, by His death, overwhelmed all His enemies.”
John Calvin’s essay “Christ Is the End of the Law” is included in Thy Word Is Still Truth, ed. Peter Lillback and Richard B. Gaffin
(HT: Jim Hamilton)
In the past month, I learned that two more Christian leaders whom I know have either tarnished or destroyed their ministries. Neither was a friend, in the full sense, yet I’ve been friendly with both men and respected their talents and the fruit of their labors.
Once again, I wonder: How could a man who studied and knew Scripture and taught it faithfully to others, brazenly violate its most basic principle of love and self-control? Even as I ask the question, I know I’m liable to self-destructive sin too. Everyone needs Paul’s admonition: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Self-aware leaders know that we can violate principles we thought we knew.
But how can we repent quickly and keep from hardening ourselves to God’s voice as he calls us back to himself?
Leaders stumble for many reasons, and while I could argue that a zealous seminarian has little in common with a vain or depressed middle-aged leader, there is at least one common thread: My peers and my students can both stop reading the Bible as we should.
Technical and Devotional
A new Christian’s Scripture reading tends to be naïve and devotional. New disciples devour Scripture, underlining word after word in their new Bibles. We often feel that God is speaking directly to us in every word.
After a few years, a budding leader’s reading becomes sophisticated and devotional. We still feel that God speaks to us in the text, but as we learn basic principles of interpretation, we increasingly give our attention to Scripture’s literary, cultural, and historical contexts. We own and use Bible dictionaries and commentaries. We know the translation strategies of competing Bible versions and begin to use that knowledge to get at the original text.
Most future church leaders go to seminary, where we become technical readers. We read Greek and Hebrew and consult scholarly sources. We respect the distance between our world and that of Scripture. Zeal to describe biblical history and theology grows. As we pursue what the word originally meant, we are tempted to neglect what it means today, to us.
When students become interns at a local church they remember that study should edify the church. We continue to read technically, but now we share our findings with others. We become technical-functional readers. Our reading may still be detached, personally speaking, but we store and organize our discoveries so we can offer them to others. While this phase may help us rediscover the proper use of Scripture, we may still be professional readers. We can present God’s truth to others, while blocking his word to us.
Student and pastors need, therefore, to become technical, devotional readers. Here every exegetical skill remains, yet we also read like children, letting the word speak to our hearts again. We can find what Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.” We are both technically astute and spiritually receptive. Our study lets us to explain and apply God’s Word to the church and to ourselves. Then we hear God’s Word, so it does its work in us once again, so we purify our hearts, cleanse our hands, and walk in the ways of the Lord.
From Justin Taylor:
Vodie Baucham Jr.’s new book is Joseph and the Gospel of Many Colors: Reading an Old Story in a New Way (Crossway, 2013).
Here are a couple of commendations from biblical theologians:
“Here is a popular-level reading of the life of Joseph as it is found in Genesis—an approach that reads the narrative both within the framework of Genesis and within the framework of the entire Bible. It avoids mere moralism, but does not overlook the morals implicit in the story; it avoids finding Jesus hiding behind every verse in some earnest but skewed and uncontrolled appeal to typology, yet it shows how the narrative prepares the way for Jesus. In many ways these chapters foster quiet, patient, faithful Bible reading, while driving readers toward the gospel.”
—D. A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“Voddie Baucham has thrown a spanner in the works of those writers and preachers who see little more in the biblical narratives than unrelated moral and spiritual lessons that are ingeniously applied directly to us. By identifying vital theological dimensions that unite the whole Joseph story within Genesis, he steers us towards the christological significance of this much loved, and much misapplied, account of the sons of Jacob.”
—Graeme Goldsworthy, Former Lecturer in Old Testament, Biblical Theology, and Hermeneutics, Moore Theological College
For more information, including an excerpt go here.
It depends on context. A person’s soul is in peril if he thinks Jesus was using poetic exaggeration when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). On the other hand, a Bible reader might maim himself unnecessarily if he fails to recognize the hyperbole in Jesus’ statement that we should cut off our hands and gouge out our eyes to avoid sin (Matthew 5:29-30). Like all people who have ever spoken or written, biblical authors use different styles of communication at different times.
Of course, everything the Bible affirms is true, regardless of its literary genre. Still, every time we open our Bibles, we must determine what style of communication is being used and read accordingly. As a primer, here are a few of the literary styles used in Scripture and some rules for interpreting them taken from Robert Stein’s helpful book, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible.
– Historical narrative recounts events and is meant to be understood literally – not as fable. In this vein, Article XIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics insists that literary techniques not be used to evade historical accounts.[i] For instance, some scholars have tried to fictionalize the story of Jonah and the Fish, but Christ treats Jonah as a real person in Matthew 12:40-42, and so should we. More than 40 percent of the Old Testament and nearly 60 percent of the New is historical narrative, including much of the material in the Gospels and Acts.
– Songs and poetry are geared toward evoking emotion rather than speaking with scientific accuracy. With biblical poetry, the reader must determine the author’s message without misconstruing symbolism as narrative description. For example, the song in Exodus 15 poetically describes Pharaoh’s army as being “thrown into the [Red] sea” (15:1) even though it actually followed the Israelites through the parted waters before God sent them crashing back down.
– Proverbs are pithy sayings that express general truths or rules of thumb; they don’t convey ironclad guarantees. A classic example is Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” While parental training generally sets the course for a child’s life, there are exceptions. (See BibleMesh blog article, “Is Proverbs 22:6 a guarantee?”)
– Parables are fictional stories that illustrate spiritual points. Generally, a parable teaches one basic point and is not intended as an extended comparison in which every detail has spiritual significance. About a third of Jesus’ teachings are in parables, including the story of the sower and soils in Luke 8 and the lost sheep in Luke 15.
– Idioms are expressions with meanings not derived from the normal meanings of the words in them. In modern English, our idioms include “raining cats and dogs” and “kick the bucket.” In the Bible you will find idioms like “their hearts melted” to describe a loss of courage and “the apple of His eye” to describe being precious in God’s sight.
The list could go on, but you get the idea. Unless we know what style of communication a biblical author is using and how to interpret it, we may wonder if archaeologists have ever found the tombs of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.
“Biblical interpretation involves performance. Think of a pianist who interprets a Beethoven sonata. We speak of Alfred Brendel’s interpretation as opposed to Glenn Gould’s. Can we really “perform” texts? Can we put prophecy, wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative into practice? Can we perform doctrine? psalm?
Certainly! We do so all the time: the fundamental form of interpretation is the way we live our lives each day. Our behaviour is the true index to what we believe about biblical authority. The Bible lays claim to our whole being. Some of God’s words require our intellectual assent, others our pious submission, others our moral obedience, and others our cultural faithfulness.
Christian life and thought alike, then, are interpretations of Scripture. Our doctrine is our theoretical interpretation of the Christian story; our life is our practical interpretation. In the postmodern world, the best way to defend biblical authority may be to create a kind of community life in which the Bible functions as authoritative (and liberating).
No contemporary theory of the authority of the Bible can assume that a person will be convinced of the Bible’s authority apart from participation in the community of faith. To repeat: the fundamental form of Christian biblical interpretation is the corporate life of the Christian church. The church embodies the Word of God—this, at least, is its task, its privilege, and responsibility. In Lesslie Newbigin’s words: the church must be a “hermeneutic of the Gospel.” Think of the congregation as a living commentary. Biblical literacy—“following” the Word—should lead to Christian discipleship, to practising the letter in our lives.”
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
“Exploring the World; Following the Word: The Credibility of Evangelical Theology in an Incredulous Age” [Trinity Journal 16/1 (1995), 20–21]
(HT: Tony Reinke)
There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the ‘giant’ of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the ‘giant’ of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matt.27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him.
In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on.
Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9).
As I talk to people who speak about the need for our theology and preaching to be “balanced”, they mean that we need to spend the same amount of time talking about everything the Bible talks about.
So, for example, since the Bible talks about what God in Christ has done and also what we ought to do in light of what Christ has done, to be balanced we need to give both themes equal airtime. Since the Bible talks about Jesus and it talks about us, to be balanced we need to spend the same amount of time talking about both. The list could go on: since the Bible talks about x and y, to be balanced we need to talk about x and y the same amount.
But, this is NOT the balance of the Bible. While the Bible talks about a lot of things it does not give all of its themes equal airtime.
The overwhelmingly dominate message of the Bible is that God loves (and in Jesus) justifies sinners. There are tons of ways the Bible says this: the whore is made a bride, the dead are raised, the unrighteous are declared righteous, slaves are made sons, the blind see, the sick are healed, the unclean are made pure, the guilty are forgiven, sinners are saved, and so on. Obviously, no Christian denies that the Bible says more than this. But the work of Christ on behalf of sinners is clearly the emphasis of Scripture from beginning to end. What we do in light of what Jesus has done is important. But it’s not more important than (or even equally important as) what Jesus has done for us.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Martin Luther said, “Remove Christ from the Scriptures and there is nothing left.” The emphasis of the Bible, in other words, is on the work of the Redeemer, not on the work of the redeemed. As important as how we live is, the spotlight of Scripture is on Christ, not the Christian. “The Bible is not fundamentally about us. It’s fundamentally about Jesus.” (Tim Keller)
My point is simply this: to be “Biblically balanced” is NOT to allot equal airtime to every Biblical theme. To be Biblically balanced is to let our theology and preaching be proportioned by the Bible’s radically disproportionate focus on God’s saving love for sinners seen and accomplished in the crucified and risen Christ.
By Tim Keller:
I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.” What I hear most often is “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what they want to believe from the Bible?”
It is not that I expect everyone to have the capability of understanding that the whole Bible is about Jesus and God’s plan to redeem his people, but I vainly hope that one day someone will access their common sense (or at least talk to an informed theological advisor) before leveling the charge of inconsistency.
First of all, let’s be clear that it’s not only the Old Testament that has proscriptions about homosexuality. The New Testament has plenty to say about it, as well. Even Jesus says, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-12 that the original design of God was for one man and one woman to be united as one flesh, and failing that, (v. 12) persons should abstain from marriage and from sex.
However, let’s get back to considering the larger issue of inconsistency regarding things mentioned in the OT that are no longer practiced by the New Testament people of God. Most Christians don’t know what to say when confronted about this. Here’s a short course on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament:
The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices that were to be offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshippers could approach a holy God. As part of that sacrificial system there was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.
But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them. (cf. 1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17; Hosea 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods ‘clean’ (Mark 7:19) and he ignored the Old Testament clean laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.
But the reason is made clear. When he died on the cross the veil in the temple was ripped through, showing that the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its clean laws had been done away with. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us “clean.”
The entire book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray ‘in Jesus name’, we ‘have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus’ (Hebrews 10:19). It would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we were to continue to follow the ceremonial laws.
The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament. Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship but not how we live. The moral law is an outline of God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so all the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; 1 Timothy 1:8-11.) If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.
Further, the New Testament explains another change between the Testaments. Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties.
But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how a case of incest in the Corinthian church is dealt with by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1ff. and 2 Corinthians 2:7-11.) Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.
Once you grant the main premise of the Bible—about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation—then all the various parts of the Bible make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed. Because of Christ the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties. It all falls into place. However, if you reject the idea of Christ as Son of God and Savior, then, of course, the Bible is at best a mish-mash containing some inspiration and wisdom, but most of it would have to be rejected as foolish or erroneous.
So where does this leave us? There are only two possibilities. If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense and is perfectly consistent with its premise. The other possibility is that you reject Christianity’s basic thesis—you don’t believe Jesus was the resurrected Son of God—and then the Bible is no sure guide for you about much of anything. But the one thing you can’t really say in fairness is that Christians are being inconsistent with their beliefs to accept the moral statements in the Old Testament while not practicing other ones.
One way to respond to the charge of inconsistency may be to ask a counter-question—“Are you asking me to deny the very heart of my Christian beliefs?” If you are asked, “Why do you say that?” you could respond, “If I believe Jesus is the the resurrected Son of God, I can’t follow all the ‘clean laws’ of diet and practice, and I can’t offer animal sacrifices. All that would be to deny the power of Christ’s death on the cross. And so those who really believe in Christ must follow some Old Testament texts and not others.”
When we allow the Old Testament categories to expand to their full potential, antitype is shown to be broader than the mere fulfillment of certain explicit types and promises. Biblical theological study of the events, people and institutions provides us with a comprehensive view of reality and God’s part in it. On this view, typology has regard for the full scope of God’s redemptive work in that salvation means that he restores everything that was lost or marred by the Fall. According to Paul’s take on Genesis 3, this involves the entire creation (Rom. 8:18-23). It was also Paul who declared the resurrection to be the locus of fulfillment of all God’s promises (Acts 13:32-33). Paul’s cosmic Christology, especially in Colossians 1:15-20 and in Ephesians 1:10, would appear to present a view that God has drawn all things together in Christ, through whom and for whom all things were created.
–Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (IVP, 2012), 184
(HT: Dane Ortlund)
Some people might suppose from a superficial reading of Matthew that Matthew asserts almost pure continuity of the law, and enjoins us merely to keep the same old law in the same form as always, only now empowered with the presence of Christ. In fact, however, the coming of Christ is the coming of the kingdom of God, the climactic fulfillment of all to which the Old Testament pointed. Reality supersedes shadows. Hence radical transformation of the law is included.
Conversely, some people might suppose from a superficial reading of Paul that Paul primarily asserts only discontinuity in the law. The law is dead and gone, not to be obeyed, virtually irrelevant for Christian living (cf. Eph. 2:15; Rom. 7:1-6; Gal. 2:19). But Paul too sees the law as comprehensively fulfilled in Christ (Rom. 15:4-6; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; cf. Rom. 8:4; 13:10-14). When understood properly it is a most impressive means of communion with Christ (2 Cor. 3:15-18).
The apparent differences between Matthew and Paul arise largely from the differences between their immediate concerns and goals.
Paul asserts the abolition of the law loud and clear, lest anyone miss it and destroy the unity of Jews and Gentiles as free people in Christ.
Matthew asserts the continuation of the law loud and clear, lest anyone miss it and think that Jesus is not the true Jewish Messiah.
But at a deep level they agree.
Matthew’s assertions are qualified by the idea of fulfillment, which involves radical transformation through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Paul’s denials are qualified by his vigorous affirmations concerning the character of the law: it is God’s prophetic revelation looking forward to Christ and still now revealing him in his righteousness and mercy. The law is abolished in the sense that the fulness has come and the temporary has come to an end. The law continues in the sense that seen in the light of Christ, it still speaks his word to us.
In short, we may speak either of abolition or of continuation, as we wish, provided we understand the depths and richnesses involved in what we should affirm in a total picture.
—Vern S. Poythress, “Fulfillment of the Law in the Gospel according to Matthew,” The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 281-282.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
The Bible as ‘Redemptive Revelation.’ This is possibly the best primer on understanding Scripture available.
A talk and Q&A with Michael Williams, author of the fine new book How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens: A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of Scripture (Zondervan, 2012).
Mike Bullmore, The Gospel and Scripture: How to Read the Bible (The Gospel Coalition Booklets; Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 16–17 (formatting added):
The Bible is endlessly interesting because it is God’s story, and God by nature is himself endlessly interesting. . . .
There are actually many methods of reading the Bible, and because the Bible is inexhaustible, many methods can prove fruitful. However, we are not so much concerned here with what might be called “methods” as we are with what we can call “approaches.” Two main approaches to the Bible usefully unlock its treasure, which is the gospel.
- Reading the Bible as Continuous Narrative (or History) . . . .
- Reading the Bible as a Compendium of God-Inspired Perspectives (or Theology) . . . .
Whichever of these two ways the Bible is read, its message is the same.
If read as a continuous narrative, its storyline is
- redemption, and
If read as a collection of theological perspectives, the themes that emerge are
- Christ, and
The message of both readings is the triumph of God’s eternal, redemptive purpose.
These two ways of reading the Bible are not at all contradictory. On the contrary, they are both necessary to fully understand and “hear” the biblical gospel and to help us see how all the parts of the Bible hold together and point us to Jesus.
(HT: Andy Naselli)
“…the soundest methodological starting point for doing theology is the gospel since the person of Jesus is set forth as the final and fullest expression of God’s revelation of His kingdom. Jesus is the goal and fulfillment of the whole Old Testament, and, as the embodiment of the truth of God, He is the interpretative key to the Bible.”
Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 33
(HT: John Fonville)
My thanks to Tim Challies for this:
I don’t want to keep talking about Rob Bell. Honest. And in this post I am only going to touch on him on the way to something else. I think the uproar about his view on hell has helpfully illustrated what passes as virtue in the evangelical world today. As I have read some of the controversy, reading particularly from those who have taken his side, I have seen evidence of three characteristics that seem to pass as virtues today. In some parts of the Christian world, these are now embraced as Christian virtue: doubt, opaqueness, and an emphasis on asking rather than answering questions.
Doubt has become a virtue while boldness and assuredness have become marks of arrogance. The only thing we should be sure of is that we cannot be sure of much of anything. Doubt has become synonymous with humility. And so it was with the people who used to be known by that term emerging. This was a faith devoid of boldness, a faith that emphasized the unknowability of God at the expense of what we can know with confidence. The man who went on television and declared how little he knew in a quiet tone of voice was lauded over the man who spoke confidently of what God has made clear.
But here’s the thing: the Bible tells us that we can believe boldly, knowing what we know, believing and proclaiming what God says is true. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives boldness to His people. It is not a rash and arrogant boldness that takes refuge in our own intellectual capacities, but a boldness that what God reveals of himself through Scripture is real and right and true and knowable. It is a confidence that we, simple human beings, can know and understand God. And what we know and understand we can proclaim. Humility is not found in doubting what is true, but in believing that what God says is true is true indeed. And it is found in proclaiming it on that basis. Humility is expressed in obedience.
Another new virtue is opaqueness, of speaking in ways that are deliberately vague and unclear. By hiding behind language like “we need to avoid those old paradigms” everything that has been settled is re-opened, everything is open for redefinition. Categories are avoided, even when such categories have proven helpful and long-standing. Speaking very clearly and frankly about what has gone wrong in the past is more than acceptable, but the way forward must be vague and obscure. Here is what Greg Boyd says about Rob Bell and his new book: “[G]iven Rob’s poetic/artistic/non-dogmatic style, Love Wins cannot be easily filed into pre-established theological categories (viz. ‘universalism’ vs ‘eternal conscious suffering’ vs. ‘annihilationism,’ etc.).” That is meant as praise. But it could just as easily be critique.
There are many people who have read an entire book by a man like Brian McLaren and have come away with a very strong sense of what he does notbelieve in, but almost no sense of what he does believe, as if this is virtuous.
Opaqueness is not a virtue. Stirring people’s emotions and leading them to doubt without providing reassurance is cruel rather than kind. We are to speak clearly of what God has said and done. Where God has been clear we have the ability to be clear and, therefore, we have the responsibility.
Questions Are In, Answers Are Out
Asking questions is in, answering them in a clear and compelling way is out. Here is how Greg Boyd praises Bell in this regard: “Rob is first and foremost a poet/artist/dramatist who has a fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought. Rob is far more comfortable (and far better at) questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers than he is at constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion.” As just one example, the strength of the Emerging Church and its draw was far more in asking questions than in answering them. In fact, the New Calvinism and the Emerging Church arose by asking many of the same questions—questions that came out of the Church Growth Movement and the slow erosion of significant, weighty doctrine. Right teaching and right living were being replaced by mindless entertainment and those who became Emergent leaders asked many good questions. But their answers, when they were willing to give them, were lousy.
One might say that asking questions without the ability or willingness to answer them is dangerous, misleading, even irresponsible. Jesus loved to ask tough questions, undermining false faith. But he would always return with truth to shore up the cracked foundations. Many leaders today feel little need to do this. They are content to undermine, to cause doubt, without responding with clear truth. There is no virtue in this.
There are many lessons we can and will continue to draw from all the furor surrounding Love Wins. But these are three small lessons I don’t want to lose along the way.
For a church to preach gospel doctrine and embody gospel culture is ultimately a matter of hermeneutics. Not the pastor’s cheery personality, though that helps, but hermeneutics. What is this Bible we are reading? If it really is good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross — if “good news” is the hermeneutic with which every passage is interpreted and every sermon preached, then by God’s help that church will build a gospel culture where sinners can breathe again.
But it is possible for a church, reading the Bible, even revering the Bible, never to become a gospel culture. Why? Hermeneutics, how they perceive their Bible. And if the only light we have is darkness, how great is our darkness.
We tend toward a sinister reading of reality. We see God that way, we see each other that way, we see life that way. The Bible sets us free. Wise churches keep their thinking in happy and determined alignment with the authoritative message of divine grace.