March 6, 2011

The B.I.B.L.E.

What is this I have in my hand?  There are a lot of answers to that question.  The simplest, of course, is that this is a Bible.  If someone was going to be smart-alecky, he might respond that this is a book since our word “bible” comes from the Latin word for “book.”  I would respond in kind, of course, that this is not a book.  This is 66 books.  This dialogue would continue when my sassy interlocutor responded that they are not all books because some of them are letters.  I would then cut all of this short by reminding this know-it-all who was starting to remind me of a younger version of myself (or not so much younger depending on who you ask…) that I am giving a sermon and would like to get back to the task at hand before I lose my audience.  Where was I again?  That’s right, what is this I have in my hand?  Certainly it’s a Bible as the front cover reveals, but surely there is more here than that.  It has received a number of different titles over the years.  It is the word of God.  It is the Good Book.  It is the Gospel (all of it, and not merely the tetrad that opens the New Testament).  It contains the words of life.  It is God’s tool for revealing Himself to the world.  It is the Book of Books.  Sometimes it is even simply called “The Book.”  Christians refer to this as the Scriptures or even the Holy Scriptures.  The list could go on and on.  Actually, let’s add just a few more.  Some call it “that book those people leave in hotels.”  Others call it a scourge on the earth and the source of many of the world’s problems.  I even saw one person call it a doorstop.  This book is called a lot of different things depending on the estimation people have of it.  For those who believe (and even many who don’t) it is a treasure unparalleled in this world.  For those who don’t, though, it is an irrelevant nuisance at best and a terror at worst.  Yet, as members of a western civilization, one of the things we can’t do is ignore it—although even that is becoming frightfully easy in our culture.  The unavoidable fact is that this book has had an incredible impact on our culture.  Were it not for this book our world would look quite differently than it currently does.  As Christians this becomes especially true as it provides the foundation for our faith.  Everything we know about God beyond the fact of His existence and His benevolent nature is revealed in these pages.  And yet far, far too many believers really don’t have a good idea, not only of what’s contained in these pages, but even of how to think about it.  I’d like to spend some time this morning talking about this.

In fact, we are going to spend the next couple of months, Lord willing, talking about topics in this same vein.  You see, one of the things I have long been passionate about when it comes to the faith is theology.  I’m the guy who likes to read deep theology books just for fun.  The reason for this is that I believe theology to be a really important area of study.  Understanding that theology is the study of God and Christian theology is the specific study of God within the framework of a Christian theistic worldview, what we think about God matters.  It matters a great deal.  In fact, what we think about God probably matters more than just about anything else in this life.  Let me see if I can quickly explain why.  In many Christian circles if you bring up the question of theology, you will be greeted with a retort that what we think about God doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether or not we are faithful to His commands.  In other words, if we are out actively serving the least, last, and lost in our midst then it doesn’t really matter whether or not we have the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of sin or the doctrine of last things completely figured out.  Now, there is a sense in which that is true.  The church of a few generations ago elevated theologians so much that they sometimes forgot about doing the things that make us the church.  In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, He did not administer a theology exam to gain entrance to the kingdom.  He commended and condemned them for either living up or failing to live up to the standard of loving their neighbor in His name.  But, in another place Jesus speaks of disowning a group of people at the gates of heaven who had ostensibly done this very thing.  The reason for His rejection was that they had not done them with their heart in the right place.  Had they held right thoughts about God, they would have done their good deeds with the right motives and been fine.  If we do not think about God in the right ways, if we do not believe about God the right things, we will not be able to consistently live up to His standards because we will not have the belief structure necessary to sustain such behavior.  Thus, believing the right things about God—in other words, having good theology—is essential to living up to God’s standards.

But somewhere along the line of the last fifty years or so, the discipline of theology fell out of vogue.  Actually, that isn’t quite right.  Theology gradually began to be thought of as primarily the work of trained theologians.  As we held up the best and brightest among us as examples to follow, we gradually put them in a separate category of “super believer.”  And as people realized they weren’t likely to attain such a status themselves, they gave up on trying.  Thus, if a person has not taken a requisite number of courses in how to do theology, then they are not cut out for doing theological thinking (perhaps because without theology courses words like supralapsarianism and hamartiological seem like gigantic wastes of letters).  As a result, most people don’t.  With our immediately prior discussion still firmly in mind the problems with this should be obvious.  Putting all of this together, with the vast majority of confessing believers possessing at the very best only a rudimentary understanding of the constituent aspects of their supposed worldview (Christian theism), I want to take some small steps to fix this problem in at least this particular arm of the body of Christ.

With all of this in mind, let me acknowledge four of things.  First, I don’t have any delusions that our time together is going to become a course in advanced Christian theology.  This is neither the time nor the place for that.  Second, I recognize (having taken a few theology courses in my day) that talking about theology can quickly become dry and irrelevant.  As a result I will make it a point to show how this all applies to our lives.  Third, you are getting all of this from a moderately conservative evangelical Baptist preacher.  I don’t know everything (and if that leaves this room I’ll deny it) and there will be some points in the next few weeks at which solidly orthodox believers might disagree with me.  That’s okay.  Thinking like me is not the measuring stick for heaven.  Fourth, I believe one of my duties as your pastor and preacher is to encourage you to both act and think like Christians.  To this end, we are going to spend each of the next five weeks on a major area of Christian doctrine.  These areas are (and I’ll give you both the “theological words” and their definitions): Bibliology—the doctrine of the Bible; Patrology—the doctrine of God the Father; Christology—the doctrine of God the Son; Pneumatology—the doctrine of God the Spirit; Hamartiology—the doctrine of sin; and Soteriology—the doctrine of salvation.  From there we will spend our time leading up to Easter talking about some reasons why we believe.  We’ll talk about things like whether Christianity is even rational, how science and religion can coexist peacefully, and how a modern person can accept miracles as real.  All-in-all I am really excited about the next couple of months and the journey we are going to be taking together.  With this said, let us turn our attention back to the Bible.

So, what exactly is the Bible and what should we think about it?  This is a big question and perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning.  There are two primary ways that the existence of God is revealed to people.  The first is by simply walking outside and looking around.  When we looked at the passage in Romans a couple of weeks ago Paul said what can be known about God is plain to people on earth because it has been revealed in creation.  This kind of revelation is available to literally every person on the planet.  It is commonly called General Revelation.  This kind of revelation allows us to know that there is a God and that He is good, but it does not save us.  We need something more.  As a result, God spoke from heaven, appeared to Moses in a burning bush, spoke to Joseph, Daniel and other in dreams, sent angels to communicate His words to us, sent prophets to speak words on His behalf, and even sent His Son to reveal reality to us.  This kind of revelation is commonly called Special Revelation.  This kind of revelation has the potential to save us because in it we come to know who God is.  There is one other thing that fits into this category of revelation: the Bible.  The Bible is the inspired and inerrant (which we’ll talk about in a bit) special word from God revealing Himself to us.  The Bible is God’s word to reveal life.

Now, when God decided to take the active step of revealing Himself He could have just shown up and said, “Here I am.”  He could have handed down a complete theological text that would have bored most of us to pieces and persuaded almost no one to turn their lives over to Him.  He’s a bit smarter than that.  So instead He gave us this: A literary masterpiece with contributions from at least 40 different authors over the course of some 1,200 years yet who managed to write on a consistent theme from start to finish (almost like they were inspired).  He gave us a compendium of human literature types.  In these pages you will find discussions of law, historical narratives, poetry, parables, songs, proverbs, riddles, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, letters of various forms, divine-human treaties, biographies, genealogies, census data, covenantal records, theological treatises, and more.  You will find words of such comfort as to pull you out of the darkest valleys.  You will also find words of such violence and intensity that you could be forgiven for not wanting your kids reading every part of it.  You will find lengthy descriptions of long, lost buildings that, yes, may very well bore you to sleep.  You will also find stories so riveting that you will be on the edge of your seat, turning pages until the story ends.  This is a book worth reading.  I wonder, have you read it?

Now, when dealing with how to think about the Bible two questions people often have, whether skeptically-driven or not, are who decided which books were sufficiently inspired as to be included and how we can really trust that the words we have contained in modern Bibles are really what the authors originally wrote.  These are important questions.  Insufficient answers to these leave us with a text that is haphazardly assembled and a poor reflection of what it once was.  So, let’s address each of these quickly.  The Old Testament canon (which comes from a Greek word meaning “measuring stick”) was largely settled before the New Testament was even written.  The books included in the Old Testament were written by widely recognized prophets (Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, David, and etc.).  As for the New Testament, there was more debate here, but by the third century most folks had settled on the 27 books we now know.  The ingredients of this measuring stick were that the book carried a high degree of spiritual authority, that it be recognized as Scripture by the vast majority of churches in the world, and that it have a claim to apostolic authorship (in other words one of the apostles either wrote it or helped with the writing). The official vote on this came at the Council of Carthage in AD 397, but about thirty years before this the great church father Athanasius (who kept the church from going the way of the Jehovah’s Witnesses the first time they came around) wrote a letter in which he basically said, “These books are going to make up the canon,” and everyone else basically said, “Sounds good to us.”

As for the reliability of the Bible, with the Old Testament, Jewish scribes were so meticulous over the centuries at preserving their Scriptures (if only we had such a high view of Scripture as they did) that we have been pretty certain about the integrity of it for a long time.  When a shepherd boy accidentally found the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 which were largely written before the earliest manuscripts we previously had of the Old Testament, our confidence was increased.  The Dead Sea Scrolls contain complete or nearly so copies of nearly every Old Testament book and these copies were identically to those we already had.  The New Testament is a different ballgame since it was written much later and in a different cultural context.  Fortunately we have over 5,000 copies of various fragments of it in Greek and over 24,000 when you add in other ancient copies the earliest of which comes from within 25 years of original authorship.  To give you some context on that, historians are confident we have the original words of Homer’s Iliad.  We have 643 copies the earliest of which is dated 400 years after it was written.  Someone can reject the words of Scripture because they don’t like what they say, but trying to do so on the grounds that we don’t have a good enough idea of what the original words are to accept them (an argument made by ignorant people trying to sound intelligent) simply doesn’t work.  All-in-all, we can be supremely confident that 99% of what we have in our Bibles is what was first written by the authors.  The 1% with only a couple of exceptions is mostly concerned with the placement of punctuation marks and alternate spellings with no essential doctrines impacted.

Once we addressed the issues of canonicity and reliability there are two more issues that crop up.  These two are probably the most meaningful modern debates about the nature of the Bible and they each deal with the Bible’s authority.  Is the Bible possessed of enough authority to mandate our obedience?  The first issue is the Bible’s inspiration.  Is it really God’s word and if so, how much of it?  Let me make simply the positive case here.  As orthodox Christians—in other words, as believers who are committed to the central teachings of the faith that have been proclaimed since the foundation of the church—we absolutely believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  Okay, but how did that inspiration work?  There are several different theories ranging from God literally dictating the words to the authors to God distantly guiding the process such that the final work is pretty close to what He had in mind.  As a moderately conservatively evangelical Baptist, I shoot for somewhere in the middle.  I believe, and I commend to you, an understanding of Scripture called plenary (meaning total) verbal inspiration.  This means that all of Scripture is inspired, but the inspiration is not limited to simply the ideas of Scripture.  The words themselves are inspired such that God directed the writers to write what He wanted written.  This did not always (or often) happen by dictation, but by God the Spirit closely guiding the various authors as they wrote.  This is why we have so many different styles and languages and kinds of literature in the Bible.

The second major issue here is whether or not the Bible contains any errors.  Can we really trust that the words we see before us are the words of God?  Focusing in on only the portion of this debate relevant to our discussion there are two major understandings here.  The first is that the original manuscripts of the Bible contain no errors whatsoever and are accurate in all that they affirm.  (I say “original manuscripts” because translation naturally brings with it some uncertainty and potential for error.  So, although, the translations we have today have been put together with great care to preserve the original words and are trustworthy, don’t hold too tightly too any one single translation.)  This position is called inerrantism.  The second position believes that the Bible is without error in everything it says related to faith and salvation, but that it might in fact contain errors in other parts, specifically those parts including scientific data.  This position is called infalliblism or inspirationism.  Though there are many Scripturally-sensitive believers who would disagree with me on this point, I believe the inerrantist position is the best understanding of the issue.  This is without a doubt a difficult position to defend and hold at times, but anything less opens the door to irrelevance.  If the Bible is not absolutely authoritative (and the inclusion of errors reduces its claim to authority), then it is nothing more than a great work of literature.  The infalliblist and the inspirationist place themselves in the role of determining which parts of the Bible deal with salvation and which don’t, of deciding which parts are inspiring enough to be counted authoritative.  They are easy positions because they leave an out for particularly thorny passages.  And don’t think this is a position of the younger, more free-thinking generations.  I recently heard a long time Baptist preacher say that the Bible is inspired because it is inspiring to him.  What drivel!  We aren’t the measuring stick of Scripture.  The Bible is inspired whether it inspires us or not.  Folks interested in finding contradictions will always be able to find them, but properly understood and interpreted, the Bible is inerrant.

Okay, if all of that was what we should believe about the Bible, why does it matter?  Why is the Bible important enough for us to take time out of our busy schedules to read and study and memorize and meditate on?  Well, perhaps the verse that captures this better than any other is found in Paul’s second letter to the young pastor of the church in Ephesus named Timothy.  In 2 Timothy, as Paul is drawing to the close of the epistle, he charges Timothy to remain steadfast in what he has firmly believed, what Paul has taught him.  At the end of chapter 3 Paul writes these famous words: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  This is the clearest statement on the importance and inspiration of Scripture in the Bible.  Let’s look quickly at what Paul is saying here.

He begins with a statement of Scripture’s inspiration.  He calls Scripture God-breathed.  The image is of God opening His mouth and this is what comes out.  This isn’t all just a bunch of hot air, though.  This is God speaking to us.  Do you want to know what God has to say to you?  It’s in here.  Paul says that all Scripture fits this description.  There is no part of His word that God cannot use to speak truth into our lives when the time is right.  The census data is just as capable of this as are the Gospels.  Most of us will focus on familiar parts of the Bible.  But if every word is breathed out from the mouth of God through His prophets and apostles then this serves as a call to examine some of those places which are not as familiar to us and harder to access and grasp.  “There’s gold in them hills,” and if we are willing to work for it we will find mother lode after mother lode.  From “In the beginning” to the final amen what we have here is a collection of God’s words revealing not only Himself, but the path of light and life to a people who have spent a lot of time walking around in darkness.   The Bible is God’s word to reveal life.

Paul doesn’t stop there, however.  The Bible is not simply some artifact to place on a shelf or in a museum to marvel.  It is not simply God’s word and ta-da.  It is useful.  It is profitable.  Paul gives us four ways this is so.  It is useful for teaching.  When we have a deficit of knowledge, we can go to the Bible to learn.  No, the Bible should not be our only text book for it does not deal exhaustively with every subject, but we can learn a little about a lot and a lot about some.  If we want to know more about God—His nature, His character, His plans—we can turn to Scripture.  If we want to know about life and why people are the way they are, we can turn to Scripture.  If we want to know more about faith—how to get it, what it is, how to put it to use—we can turn to Scripture.  If we do not believe in the power or authority of the Bible we will not be of a state of mind in which we can really learn any of this.  But this is not all. The Bible is also profitable for reproofing or rebuking.  When we are in error on something, the Bible offers us the truth in love.  The prophets are especially profitable for this.  Such a rebuke can take a person who is walking on the wrong path and set them aright.  Yet if I am rebuked by someone who has no place or authority in my eyes, the rebuke will not carry much weight.  The same goes for the Word.  If I do not esteem it as possessing sufficient authority its rebuke will not awaken me from a sinful slumber.  You can tell a person holds such a belief, by the way, when they ignore its commands.

Thirdly, the Bible is a source of correction.  It presents the truth to us unflinchingly and unapologetically.  This completes the picture of the Bible as a rebuker.  The Bible does not simply lambaste us for being wrong, it shows us what is right.  We must fully recognize our spiritual lostness in order to be saved.  The Bible helps us with that.  But once we are amply lost (rebuke), we must be shown the way back to the path (correction).  Yet once again, if our theology of Scripture is inadequate, we will not accept the Bible’s gentle corrections and remain lost in our sin.  Finally, the Bible is useful for training in righteousness.  It trains us how to live in such a way that we are rightly related to God.  In fact, there is no other source of such training.  Apart from the Word of God we will never be properly related to Him because we do not instinctively know how.  We need training.  We need training whether we are young believers who are just beginning to follow Him or seasoned believers who are working at graduate levels of the Christian life.  If Scripture has no power and authority, though, the training will not stick.  We will not have the proper belief framework on which to build and from which to grow.  When we take all of this together—teaching the ways of God, rebuking departures from those ways, correcting those who seek to find those ways once again, and training to walk them with righteous confidence—we will be competent and prepared for every good work.  There is no work of righteousness that will be inaccessible to us.  Each and every one of them will be invested with the potential of bringing us to the abundant life so that we can truly be living.  The Bible is God’s word to reveal life.

Let me close this morning with a challenge and an encouragement.  For many of you this was perhaps a lot of review material.  You already knew most of this.  You are actively in your Bibles every day in hopes of gleaning every bit of wisdom and truth from those pages as there is.  That’s okay.  A refresher course is never a bad thing.  Some of you, though, have never really thought about any of this.  You have always kind of known that the Bible is one of those books you were supposed to be reading and so you gave it some half-hearted attention every once in a while.  But it never really impacted your outlook on life to any serious degree.  To you I say it is time to wake up and get to work.  Being spiritually lukewarm is an offense to God that ranks second only to those who are aggressively opposing Him.  At least such folks are clear on where they stand.  For these folks, I challenge and encourage you to get into the word.  Take whatever steps are necessary to make it a central part of your life.  Let it impact and shape your belief system.  Study it carefully.  Read it casually.  Memorize it fully.  Meditate on it regularly.  Pursue these activities by yourself and in the company of those who think and believe like you do.  The truth is that apart from such efforts you will be forever limited in your ability to live out your faith to its fullest potential.  You will be forever stymied, reaching for, but never quite grasping the abundant life.  And for what?  The key is sitting right in your lap.  Let these words which are truth through and through reach all the way to the bottom of your soul and bring your heart fully to life once again.  The Bible is God’s word to reveal life.  Revel in this revelation, my friends.  You will find none sweeter.