Tag Archives: Bible

What About the Bible? An Autobiographical Reflection

What about the Bible? Is the Bible true? Is it historically accurate? Is it a revelation from God? We often hear such questions in popular forums and in the media. And in almost every case we would be mistaken to take such questions seriously. As I have argued in previous posts, the Bible’s authority does not become an issue for us until we accept the testimony of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do not accept the truth of the resurrection because the Bible says so. Instead, we become interested in what the Bible says about other matters when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. Today I want to look at the question of the Bible autobiographically.

Let’s look at how the question of the Bible arises for a person born into a Christian family and surrounded by a Christian culture. I shall speak from my own experience. My experience of the Bible was always that of an insider. It was our book. Though I don’t remember the word being used, it was the unquestioned authority for church life, morals, and for knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. I loved to hear stories of the Old Testament heroes of faith and the New Testament stories about Jesus, Paul, and Peter. The Bible provided texts for the preacher’s sermons. My parents owned several copies of the Bible, which were displayed on the coffee table and night stands. At an early age I received my own copy of a King James Bible with my name inscribed inside. I came to understand that reading the Bible was a religious duty, a discipline that should be maintained for a lifetime. Memorizing important texts and in depth study was also encouraged. Religious education was identical with Bible education. And the most admired preachers were those reputed to have the most extensive knowledge of the Bible. William Chillingworth’s (1602-1644) famous declaration that “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestants” certainly describes the religion of the church and family of my youth.

At some point, in my late teens I think, I discovered that there were outsiders whose view of the Bible differed dramatically from ours. I say “ours” because I had accepted the church’s understanding of the Bible without question. That is what my parents taught me, it was the belief of all the good people at church and the ministers, and it was reinforced by the consensus of Southern (American) culture. Ironically, my first encounters with external critics and doubters of the Bible were facilitated by teachers and books that wished to defend the church’s view of the Bible. They wanted to reinforce my faith that the Bible is indeed worthy of the respect given it by the church. My teachers realized that an inherited and naïve faith in the Bible had to become a reasonable faith or it would not be able to withstand the scrutiny it was sure to receive from critics. I think their intuition in this matter was correct: an inherited faith must transition to chosen faith.

But I believe they were mistaken to attempt to demonstrate apart from faith that the Bible deserved the respect that the church had traditionally given it. It is impossible to prove that the Bible deserves to be treated as the sole authority for knowledge of God, morality, and religion by arguing from its visible characteristics to its divine origin, historical reliability, and moral superiority. The Bible is a huge book, or actually, a huge collection of 66 books. It spans fifteen centuries and crosses many very different cultures. It recounts thousands of events for which we have no other sources and no independent way to confirm. It contains many writings for which we know neither the authors nor even the century in which they were written. No matter how many of the Bible’s marvelous characteristics we uncover we can never get close to proving that the Bible deserves the respect given it by the church. And the unhappy by-product of this effort to prove the Bible is creating doubt in the hearts of the very people these arguments are designed to help. We are courting disaster if we convince young people that they must transition from an inherited and naïve faith to a chosen and reasonable one but lead them to believe that in order to be reasonable their acceptance of the Bible’s religious authority must be based on rational arguments for the Bible’s perfection. Such a strategy distracts from the real decision of faith and may exile them to years of wandering in the desert of doubt and indecision. I know this from experience.

Hence in my view, apologists for the Christian faith should resist answering directly the questions with which I began this essay: Is the Bible true? Is it historically accurate? Is it a revelation from God? Why? Because no definitive answers can be given. Any answer will raise as many questions as it answers, and it will provoke endless counter arguments and follow-up questions. The only path forward is the one I charted in earlier posts. We must decide—apart from any view of the authority of the Bible—whether or not to accept the apostolic testimony to Jesus resurrection. Yours, mine, and the whole church’s respect for the Bible’s authority rightly flows from this decision and from nowhere else. But as I hope to show in future posts, the church’s respect for the Bible has not been misplaced; it really does flow from this decision. And neither was my trust in my parents and the church of my childhood misplaced.

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“This I Know, For the Bible Tells Me So”

We have come to the point in our discussion of the resurrection of Jesus where we can see clearly what is involved in a reasonable and responsible decision to believe and adopt the Christian faith and life. If we’ve studied the first disciples’ recorded memories of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death, if we’ve listened to the testimonies of Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and many others to the resurrection, if we’ve been favorably impressed with the way of life of the early disciples, if we know and admire some contemporary believers, and if we are attracted to the Christian hope, I believe our decision to enter the Christian way can be reasonably and responsibly made. This transition is not best described an inference from premises to conclusion or an inference to the best explanation or a decision about the level of probability that a narrated event really happened. It is certainly not a blind leap of faith or a careless fall into wishful thinking. It is best described as the deepening of a personal relationship from respectful listening to trust and love for those who are in a position to know what we do not.

As a personal relationship of trust and love, faith makes a decisive commitment. It does not deny the possibility that it could be wrong, that it could be deceived. But it will not accept an obligation to withhold commitment while it anxiously seeks more evidence to confirm its trust. Nor does faith proportion its commitment to the weight of probability on each side. Genuine trust and love pushes aside the whispering voice of doubt that says, “But what if you are wrong?” Faith asserts in response, “I understand that I cannot know absolutely that I am right, but I believe that I am right. And I have decided and am determined to live as if I am right, even if I am wrong!” I shall have more to say about daily living in faith in future essays in this series. We are focusing here on the initial decision to believe.

Beyond the Fourth Decision Point

We have made the decisive move beyond the fourth decision point, that is, the division between mere theism and Christian faith in God. Now what? What are the implications of this decision? The first result of this move is a dramatic change in our relationship to the apostles and other early disciples. As seekers and enquirers, we treated the apostles’ writings as we would other historical documents. We gave them no advantage, no special deference, no authority above other texts. But once we come to believe that the apostles experienced Jesus’ conquest of death in his resurrection, everything changes. Now we are eager to know everything they can teach us about Jesus Christ and how we too can become his disciples. Because of their special relationship to Jesus, we accept them as our teachers, exclusively authoritative for what it means to believe, love and, hope as Christians. As a matter of historical placement, no other teachers, no other texts can guide us. But this way of understanding the authority of the Bible may seem new to many, so I want to deal briefly with that concern.

The Bible Tells Me So?

The children’s song says, “Jesus loves me! this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” A wonderful thought! Comforting to adults as well as children! But this line in the song does raise a question. Do Christians hold all their Christian beliefs simply because the Bible tells them so? Should nonbelievers be urged to believe in Jesus simply because the Bible tells them so? But why should a nonbeliever feel obligated to believe what the Bible says simply because it says so? Should believers attempt first to convince nonbelievers of the Bible’s divine authority and then argue from the Bible’s authority to the truth of everything the Bible teaches? In my view, it would be a serious mistake to place a decision about the authority of the Bible before a decision about Jesus and the apostolic testimony to his resurrection. Such a stance presumes either a culture in which the Bible is already held in high esteem or it obligates us to argue from historical and rational evidence to the Bible’s divine authority. Neither option is very promising. We no longer live in culture where we can assume that people will accept a claim just because the Bible says so. And most contemporary people view as implausible and unpersuasive arguments to the divine authority of the Bible from its historical reliability or internal coherence or its sublime teaching. Such arguments raise more questions than they answer.

As I argued above, I believe the proper basis for an individual’s recognition and acceptance of the authority of the Bible is the act of faith in the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Acceptance of the Bible’s authority is implicit in this act. In future posts I will continue to develop the implications of this thesis, attempting to place particular Christian teachings in their proper order in relation to the central Christian claim, that is, that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

When Religion Goes Wrong: God and the Modern Self (Part 3)

In Part 2, we examined the anti-religious attitude of defiance. When we think of God primarily as power, especially unjust power, we feel a rising urge to defy. This urge is amplified in the mind of the modern self by its self-understanding as autonomous. If I am defined as a real person by my free will to do as I please, an all-powerful God looms a threat to my identity and dignity. But not every modern person is a Prometheus, willing to endure torture and destruction just to witness to the Power’s injustice. Even if we think of God largely as an undefeatable authority, most of us take another approach. I shall call that attitude subservience to distinguish it from submission, which is an act of faith and love. The subservient resist the urge to defy and give precedence to their desire to survive. Better a dog alive “to lick the foot of power” than a lion dead but defiant to the end.

Subservience is a religious attitude that views God as the inescapable law of reward and punishment, the ultimate source of blessings and curses. Ancient pagans worshipped the gods to secure their favor and ward off their wrath. Divine favor brings bountiful crops and fertile animals. Divine wrath brings floods and earthquakes. Subservient religion is religious worldliness, a science of the divine capriciousness. For people who think this way, God is part of their personal economy, a means to the end of wellbeing here and now. They may seem very religious, but it’s the world they love, not God.

Doubtless there have been a few pagan critics of subservient religion, but its earliest, severest and most radical critics are found in the Bible. The prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned their people against viewing temple worship and sacrifice as replacements for justice and mercy. They championed relating to God with inner devotion and ethical behavior. By criticizing idolatry they insisted on God’s transcendence over nature and his immunity from religious manipulation.

Jesus takes up the perspective of the prophets and radicalizes it even more, if that is possible. External acts of religion are empty and even offensive if not accompanied by a pure heart, that is, with wholehearted and undivided devotion. Hypocrisy is a mismatch between two parts of life, public and private or internal and external. One wishes to appear pious and morally upright for the worldly advantages such appearances give while retaining the “advantages” of a worldly life practiced in secret. Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the strongest terms, reminding us that God knows the secrets of the heart and sees what goes on in the dark.

Paul follows his Lord in demanding that we give our whole heart to God, become new creatures, be transformed in our minds and live by faith. Above all, he urges us to love. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice, stirring worship performances and great acts of generosity count for nothing—indeed they are displays of pride and hypocrisy—if not motivated and accompanied by love (1 Cor 13). Not to be out done by Paul, John helps us enter into God’s heart by reminding us that “we love because he first loved us.” If we see how much God loves us, we will love him back. And in loving him back and loving our brothers and sisters, we will experience his love from inside. In the Spirit, God’s love and our love become one heart and one spirit.

In his beautiful essay On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) follows Jesus and his disciples Paul and John. Bernard outlines four stages of love beginning with pure self-love. Once life’s hard knocks teaches us that we need God and others we move to stage two, loving God for what he can do for us, that is, subservience. We enter stage three when we learn how beautiful God really is and how much he loves us, that is, we begin love God for his own sake. Ultimately, we must learn to love ourselves only in our love for God. Listen to Bernard as he struggles to find words to explain why we should love God:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?”

Subservience is religion gone wrong. It views God from the outside, as a law or a power to which we relate in external acts because we must. It resists the Holy Spirit who wants to join our hearts to God’s heart, so that we live in his life and love with his love. In subservience…

“We…pledge to give God whatever God asks, but earnestly pray that God does not ask for too much. We want what God wants for us only when we want it anyway; we submit our wills to God in areas where we would prefer something else only because we must…[subservience] manifests itself in our lack of passion for God, in our inability to love God with our whole heart. We do not consciously think of God as a threat, but neither do we see God as our soul’s passion, the one thing for whom giving everything up is worth doing. We do not rise to the level of loving God for God’s sake (God, Freedom & Human Dignity, p. 63).

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 3 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Subservience: The Religion of Idols, Hypocrites, and Hirelings”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe the subservient attitude in its distinctions and likenesses to defiance.

2. What are some modern forms of subservient religion? Explore some ways it can appear so deceptively like true religion.

3. What is the central feature of idolatry and how does it embody subservience?

4. What is hypocrisy and how is purity of heart its opposite? Give examples.

5. How do the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and his disciples understand pure and true religion; and how does this view of religion fit with their view of God and God’s actions?

6. Explain how Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love progress from one to the other.

Next week we will examine the attitude of indifference.

Questions and Answers on Fear and Freedom, God and Providence, Faith and Scholarship: A Written Interview

For this week’s entry I’ve reprinted a written interview just posted on Pepperdine University’s “Research News” page. You can see the original interview by following the link pasted below:

http://www.pepperdine.edu/research/news/2013/ron_highfield.htm

In your book, you address big themes and fears that have haunted the human psyche for quite some time.  What inspired or motivated you to write this book?  Has it been something you have been thinking about or planning for a long time?

Ron Highfield: This book [God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (IVP, 2013)] finds its origin in my two teaching/research interests, (1) the intersection between Christianity and secular culture, and (2) theological reflection on issues facing the church today. As I wrote my previous book, Great is the Lord (Eerdmans, 2008; 467 pages), which falls into category (2), I kept thinking about the problem of the relationship between God and human freedom and dignity. This issue has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for 2,500 years. I began to see that this problem makes itself felt in popular culture as unspoken fear that the existence and activity of God may pose a threat to our freedom and dignity. I wrote this book to show the ways in which this fear shapes how secular culture views God and to show how the Christian view of God overcomes these fears. I argue that instead of being a threat to human freedom and dignity God is their securest foundation and the greatest hope of their glorious fulfillment.

How does this book differ from your past scholarship?

RH: In many ways God, Freedom & Human Dignity continues my theological research program of the last fifteen years. It addresses a significant theological problem at a high level in dialogue with the best theologians and philosophers, ancient and modern. It differs in at least three ways: (1) I address the problem of the way secular culture (rather than the church) thinks of God and humanity, (2) the target audience is those influenced by this secular vision and the theological students and practicing ministers who minister to them, and (3) these limitations influence the smaller size of the book (227 pages) and the less ponderous and less argumentative style of the book.

Modernity and its psychological influences are central to your argument about the internal struggle humans face in confronting and accepting God today. The crux of this struggle lies in the human need for (and even exaltation of) autonomy when it is juxtaposed with or seemingly undermined by a belief in God.  Could you discuss your concept of a “me-centered culture” and how you see people grappling with religion in a different way now than in past decades?

RH: By designating our culture is “me-centered” I don’t mean that it is especially selfishness or narcissistic; rather, I mean that it teaches us that we should look exclusively within the human self for our dignity, for guidance in our pursuit of happiness and for how to treat others. It views self-expression and authenticity as sacred rights. The “me-centered” culture instinctively recoils at the idea that we need guidance in these areas from external authority. It views calls for adherence to moral law and obedience to God as threats to autonomy, dignity and freedom. It reacts to restrictions on our search for happiness as the worst sort of hatred and cruelty. Clearly, presenting the Christian message to our contemporaries confronts us with challenges not faced by Christian thinkers even fifty years ago. In part, I wrote this book to explore ways of communicating the meaning of Christianity in this new context.

What kind of research are you currently working on?

RH: I am currently working on a book on the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. This book will continue the trajectory began in Great is the Lord. Having treated the Christian doctrine of God, I am now thinking about what it means to call God “the Creator” of the world and “Lord and Governor” of history. In dealing with the idea of creation I want to take the focus off the “science and the Bible” debate and replace it with thorough reflection on what I call the “God-creature” relation: what does it mean to say that God gives being and form to the world? What does it mean to say that creatures depend on God for their existence, form and life? These profound questions have not received the attention in recent theology and popular religion that they deserve. In this book I want to show the intimate connection between the ideas of creation and providence. The concept that ties the two together is the “God-creature” relation. Providence is a kind of continuing creation that aims at bringing the world to its appointed end. In one sense the divine act of creation includes all time and not merely a timeless beginning of time. In the course of this book I will deal with the relationship between divine providence and human freedom and with the problem of evil.

What is the proper end of an academic vocation? Or how do you understand your research?

RH: Contemporary higher education (“the academy”) seems to be very confused about why it exists and what end it should pursue. The standard rhetoric (usually directed at threats from outside the academy) argues that the academy should pursue “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” This ideal sees the scholar as an objective and disinterested servant of truth who should receive complete academic freedom in the sacred name of truth. On the other hand, as a matter of practice, scholars adopt many other ends: political agendas, battles for cultural dominance, career advancement, reputation, money and other private goals. In my opinion the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” view is at best a methodological guide to keep us honest and fair in our research. Understood in this sense I honor it. But scholars are human beings and all human beings serve ends beyond mere exercises in method. “Knowledge is power,” said Francis Bacon truly. And good people should direct power toward good ends. No human activity deserves to be exempt from ethical scrutiny. Hence scholars are obligated to direct their research toward good ends. Every scholar, whatever his or her religious stance, should direct scholarship toward the good of humanity. As a Christian scholar I have a particular understanding of human good, and all my theological research is directed toward that good: that human beings should come to love God and their neighbors. For me, keeping this end in mind unifies my role as a teacher of the young with my role as a researcher in search of truth. End of interview.

How would it affect the way we approach theology and church life if, instead of thinking exclusively about pressing issues and short-term goals, we extended our horizon a hundred years to 2113? Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Are we pursuing practical goals and working on theological issues now in ways that will contribute to the preservation of faith for our great, great grand children? Or will the trajectories we are following in the present make it less likely that 2113 will greet future generations with the word of faith? Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth in 2113?

Until next week…