Monday, April 27, 2020

Doctrinal errors and their consequences

“Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt 22:29).
Why does it matter what we believe about the Bible? It matters because the scriptures are how God communicates his nature and his will to us, so wrong attitudes toward the Bible affect how we live. Here are some of the common errors and the results they tend to have.

Some people almost make the Bible a deity. Besides the offense to God this represents, these people also tend to read the Bible hyper-literally, not believing that there is symbolism in the Bible that is not supposed to be taken at face-value. They tend to accomplish this feat via amazing leaps of illogic that cannot be sustained by any but the most committed. This creates a “faith” that cannot survive the real world, creating a lot of “ex-Christians”.

Naturalism/Just the words of men
These people don’t believe in the inspiration of scripture. There are people who would call themselves Christians who do not believe divine inspiration is possible. Still more would say, even if it’s possible, it didn’t happen. To them the Bible is just a book written by men, some wiser than others. When inerrancy and inspiration are lost, people pick and choose what parts of the scriptures they will believe. This part seems mean, so we’re not going to believe that. This part is hard, so it’s out. You very quickly get a religion that is Christianity in name only. The deity and physical resurrection of Christ have historically been early casualties of these processes. Sin gets watered down until basically anything goes so long as you’re “nice”, so you don’t need an atoning death of Christ, which is good because that was mean anyway. No sin means no hell so no evangelism, so the lost do not hear the gospel.

Gnosticism (New Age)
These people don’t believe in the sufficiency of scripture. Ancient Gnostics were looking for secret knowledge from or about God. Modern Gnostics, though they don’t go by the same name, are basically doing the same thing. Christianity’s nice, but the Bible doesn’t have everything we need to know about God; we have to search out the secrets the other religions have discovered. Besides the fact that the other religions (especially the Far Eastern ones) have vastly different conceptions of God than we do, opening yourself to other religions leads to an “all roads lead to Rome” approach. Moral relativism soon follows. Things are added to their faith that run completely contrary to the revealed truth of God.

Code book

Bible code example
These people don’t believe in the clarity of scripture. Bible code hunters, like Gnostics, are looking for secret knowledge, but they’re looking for it in the Bible. They think there are secret messages that can be found by reading every eighth character of the text or some such. The truth is that you can find these “codes” in just about any text of sufficient length. It’s just random chance. But their error leads them to believe that they have truths that Christians in the past were not privy to. And they tend to believe some pretty weird things, almost invariably about the end times.

“Red-letter Christians”
These people also effectively deny the inspiration of scripture, but in a different way than those above. They want to create a “canon within the canon” where the words of Jesus carry more weight than the words of the apostles. “Wait, what’s wrong with that?” It’s two-fold. First, the same Spirit by which Jesus spoke inspired the prophets and the apostles. If there appears to be conflict between them, the fault lies in our flawed interpretation.

Second, we do not have anything written by Jesus. We have the things the apostles transmitted to us as they tried to teach the lessons their intended audiences needed to learn. We must not think that we have some kind of direct link to him. One of the fundamental concepts of Bible interpretation is that the more didactic portions should interpret the narratives. In this case, the epistles explain the gospels. We cannot understand what the gospels writers meant to say independent of the epistles.

These folks often mean well. They generally are trying to push the Church to be more outward focused, more charitable. But experience has taught us that this is usually accompanied by being less gospel focused. We quickly lose sight of the mission of the Church. Sometimes, though, these people are trying to excuse moral issues that are not directly addressed in the gospels but that are addressed in the epistles.

If we’re going to live in a way that pleases God, we have to keep the word of God in its proper place, neither elevating it to godhood nor picking and choosing the parts we want to follow. We have what the Lord wants us to have in order to know him and to please him.

Image credit: "Bible code" by Cmglee, used under Creative Commons

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Are there errors and contradictions in the Bible?

“He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it” (1 Kings 7:23).
“How can you trust the Bible? It’s full of errors and contradictions!” The critics are sure the Bible is full of errors. Some of them can even give a couple of examples if pressed. But it’s easy to find lists if you search. One of Bart Ehrman’s many books is a compendium of “contradictions” he assures the reader are completely irreconcilable. (They’re not.)

Before we talk about the alleged errors, it’s important to lay down some ground rules. Rule #1: Give a text the benefit of the doubt. Any text, even those not in the Bible. If a text can be understood in two ways, and one of them makes sense, assume that is what the author meant. It’s just good manners. To put it another way, the burden of proof is on the skeptic.

Rule #2: Pursuant to Rule #1, a plausible solution is a solution. All we need to do is show that there is a reasonable way to allow the text to make sense.

Rule #3, which I borrow from Rick Cornish’s 5 Minute Apologist: “A hard passage does not imply a mistaken passage.” Some things are hard to understand. Your inability to understand it does not make it a mistake.

Rule #4: Context, context, context. The vast majority of alleged “errors and contradictions” you’ll find on the web are simply taken out of context.

Norm Geisler, in When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, gives some guidelines for handling difficult passages.

  1. Be sure you know what the text says. Often a misquoted text will mislead someone.
  2. Be sure you know what the text means. The Bible uses some words and phrases that may not mean exactly what you expect them to mean.
  3. Don’t confuse imprecision with error.
  4. Don’t confuse perspective with falsity.
  5. Language about the world is everyday language. We all use phenomenological language.
  6. Remember that the Bible records things it does not approve.
I would add that we must remember that culture influences writing. Modern readers see quotation marks and assume, well, that it’s a direct quote. Ancients not only didn’t have quotation marks, they didn’t even have the concept. They would move from direct quote to paraphrase and back without blinking. A story didn’t have to be retold with the same amount of detail every time nor all the details in the same order.

Also, ancients gave authors a fair amount of license. Minor details weren’t important to them. They were free to round numbers. Times were not precise. People didn’t have watches, so they estimated the time in very broad terms. 10 AM would be called “about 9” by one and “about noon” by another.

Adding to the above about imprecision, realize that ancient people frequently didn’t share our interest in precision. Unless is was absolutely required, it was more trouble than it was worth. Many cultures didn’t have fractions or decimals. In the passage quoted above, the Bible’s not suggesting that pi is 3; the "Sea" was roughly 10 cubits across, roughly 30 cubits around, and was mostly circular. We joke about “one, two, many,” but some cultures literally used large numbers to mean “many.” Some have suggested that “120 years” in the Bible is a metaphor for “a ripe, old age.”

The Bible quotes people who lie. And people who make mistakes in what they say. And people who tell the same story in different ways. These are not mistakes in the Bible; they’re simply what happened.

That said, there are some places in the Bible, even in the gospels, that can’t be just brushed away. Why are two different genealogies given for Jesus? How could the sun stand still for Joshua? What day was Jesus crucified? How did Judas die? There are answers to these questions, but they’re not the kind of thing that can be dismissed as the critics being picky.

Just as there are entire books that list these issues, there are entire books that exist to answer these issues. No one has found a new “contradiction” in the Bible. We’ve been studying the same book for 2000 years; there are no surprises. So when you have a question, or when someone brings up a supposed error you can’t answer, don’t panic. Look it up. Give the word of God the benefit of the doubt, and do the hard work of finding answers to your questions.

For detailed examples, see the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason L. Archer.

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

What is the Bible for?

“... [F]rom infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17).
This passage is a wonderful summary of what the word of God does for us.

It teaches us things we need to know. First and foremost, the Bible is how we know God. It makes us “wise for salvation.” It is the method God has chosen to reveal himself. The word of God tells us how to gain eternal life, and, according to Jesus, “... this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God ...” (John 17:3). We get to know God the way we get to know anyone else: By talking to him and listening to him. Communication is necessary, and this is his part of the conversation.

It is also food for the soul. Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:4). The spiritual health of a believer will be affected by how much time he or she spends in the word.

It also teaches us about people. Do you want to know about the wickedness in other people’s hearts? Do you want to know how to distinguish the lazy, the proud, or the immoral from the righteous? It’s in there. Do you want to see the dangers that lurk in the hearts of even good people? It’s in there. Do you want to know, when temptation strikes, whether you should fight or run? It’s in there.

The Bible also teaches us what God expects from us. It does this so that we can “be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” If you want to be useful to God’s Kingdom work, thorough immersion in the scriptures is required. You will be of no use if you do not know God plans, his standards, and his methods. You cannot represent him if you do not share his heart. This all comes through the scriptures.

Thy Word is a Lamp unto My Feet and a Light unto My Path
The word of God “is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). We saw before that the Bible “makes wise the simple.” The scriptures were given to us so that we would know the way God wants us to go. It is not a map showing us everything we’d want to know, but it is a flashlight, allowing us to pick our steps carefully in a fallen world.

The scriptures also rebuke and correct us. “The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them are righteous. ... By them your servant is warned ... But who can discern their own errors?” (Psalm 19:9,11,12). God gave us all a conscience, but it is a fallen conscience. You can convince yourself anything you want to do is right. If you’re spiritually healthy the truth will nibble at you, but you can ignore it if you want to. The scriptures are our Jiminy Cricket, telling us where we’ve gone wrong and pointing out the right way.

The word of God is also our weapon. Paul calls it “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). With it, Jesus fought the temptations of Satan. We can do the same (Eph 6:11).

Ultimately, the Bible transforms us. Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Either we will conform to the world, or we will be transformed by the word. No other options are given.

God did not just abandon us here to try and figure out what he wants and how to live. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet 1:3-4).

He gave us this great gift to equip us for the works he wants us to accomplish through his Spirit. What do you think the appropriate response would be?

Image credit: Thy Word is a Lamp unto My Feet and a Light unto My Path by Bertram Poole

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Trustworthy Saying on Salvation

I've been looking forward to Paul's last "trustworthy saying," and it's one that is especially appropriate for reflection at Easter.
"[W]hen the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us,
not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that, having been justified by his grace,
we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7).
I broke the passage up into meaty lines, each of which could be an Easter sermon. Read over those verses a few times and soak it in. When you're ready to start shoutin', we'll move on.

In the interest of time, let's focus on two things:

"[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy."
Why "mercy?" Our society doesn't like this part. Why does God need to show me mercy? I'm a pretty good guy. I don't cheat on my taxes or beat my wife or kids. I'm not perfect, but I'm alright. So what's the big deal?

We don't understand that our righteous acts are all filthy rags in God's sight. Every "good deed" we've ever done has been tainted by self-interest. It was an attempt to silence our guilt, or we secretly hoped people would notice our good deeds. We want to make sure someone thanks us or admires us. So our good deeds are worthless.

But our bad deeds are legion. We've been sinning since we could walk. No one ever has to be taught to lie or be selfish. Violence comes to us naturally, as do greed and jealousy. Paul says in verse 3 we are "foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another."

It's not that we didn't quite measure up, weren't quite good enough. We were wicked, rebellious, and obstinate. We didn't just not deserve mercy; we deserved wrath.

But God, who is rich in mercy, loved us and took upon himself the penalty for our sins. He made a way so that we could be reconciled to him. He “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" (Eph 2:4-5). (Here's some mood music to help you reflect on this truth.)

The second thing is that ...

"He saved us ... so that ... we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life."
I never get tired of talking about our adoption in Christ. God did not save us solely to rescue us from hell. He did not intend that we should become servants in his kingdom. No, his plan was that Christ should be "the firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (Rom 8:29). How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us that we should be called children of God! (Here's another song reflecting on the grace of God.)

God saved us so that we could be adopted into his family and through that have the hope of eternal life. That promise is something we should always cherish, but this very odd Easter season it should hold a special power. None of us is promised tomorrow, but right now many people are wondering if they will see another Easter. People are confined to their homes hoping to see their relatives again. But Christians have a hope that transcends this life, and the world needs to see that we do not fear death because we know that death has already been defeated.

And there's something else the world needs to see. If we focus only on our justification and our hope in Christ, we'll miss the point Paul was trying to make here. As he did in other places, Paul rolled out this powerful theological teaching to drive home a very mundane lesson.

"Remind the people ... to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always gentle toward everyone. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived ...

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done..." (3:1-5).

Reflecting on our salvation should produce humility. We were not saved by the good things we did but in spite of what we were, and we should respond to the people around us as people of grace, people who know that everything we have is a gift. Are the people around you acting like panicky, selfish children? "And such were some of you." Are people around you lashing out in fear or anger? "There but for the grace of God go I." Reflect on the grace you have been shown and respond to the sinners around you with the love of Christ and the patience of, well, a saint.

Paul ends this passage with "And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good" (3:8).

God did not save us because of the good deeds we have done, but he saved us to do good deeds. He wants us to live like children of the King.

So in this crazy time, whether you're watching the news from the safety of your couch, venturing out of your home to forage for food, or having to go to work, "be gentle toward everyone". Remember what you were and would still be were it not for the grace of God. And "love your neighbor as yourself." Remember most of all that the lost around you need to hear about the hope that you have in Christ Jesus.

Monday, April 6, 2020

What do we believe about the Bible? Sola Scriptura

“And [Jesus] continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9).
The struggle during the Protestant Reformation was over salvation, specifically whether we’re saved by faith alone or if good works are required, but a necessary battle was over the authority of the scriptures. What was the ultimate authority for the Church — the Bible or the traditions as taught by the Roman Catholic Church?

The Roman Catholic Church teaches the dual authority of tradition and scripture, but it is scripture interpreted according to their tradition, and when push comes to shove, if some tradition cannot be supported by scripture, tradition wins. On the other side, RC Sproul says, “Luther and the other Reformers said that only one authority ultimately has the absolute right to bind our consciences. Luther did not demean the lesser authority of the church or the importance of historic church councils such as Nicea and Chalcedon. His point was that even church councils do not have the same level of authority that the Bible has. This focused attention on the nature of and basis for biblical authority.”

It is incumbent upon us to diligently and prayerfully study the scriptures. Then we have to do what it says. Every other authority has to be subordinate to the word of God.
This does not mean that tradition is not important. The apostles taught the first generation of the church, who taught the next, who taught the next, etc. We should not ignore what they taught. But it is not scripture, and if we are convinced that they are in error, we have to follow what we believe is the teaching of scripture. As Jesus repeatedly showed in the gospels, religious traditions can run off the rails. We must always be testing tradition against scripture.

That does not mean, however, that the Bible means whatever you think it means. Many have taken the reformation slogan of “sola scriptura” and perverted it into “me and my Bible are all I need.” Instead of “sola scriptura” this error has been called “solo scriptura”.

The doctrine of the clarity of scripture comes with the caveat of diligent, educated, prayerful study. It assumes that God has given wisdom and insight to other believers and you’ve consulted their work. It assumes you’re reading the biblical text in proper grammatical, historical, and theological context. It assumes you’re keeping the sum total of the Bible’s teaching in mind.

“Me and my Bible” tends to result in heresies of every stripe. It has led people to deny the deity of Christ, to support racism, and to divide churches over tertiary issues.

Instead of “solo scriptura”, ie, my Bible all by itself, we should seek the help of educated believers who have dedicated their lives to the study of the scriptures. We have to learn to study the word well, to learn theology (which is what we’re doing right here) so we know what the right answer isn’t, and to use good Bible study tools like commentaries and Bible dictionaries. To borrow from Isaac Newton, we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

God wants us to know him and his will through his word. He has promised that he will help us to understand it. But it is the height of hubris to refuse the helps that he has given us through our brothers and sisters in Christ because we are expecting to be provided everything supernaturally.

“The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:9b-10).

The word of God is a treasure that is worth the effort, humility, and occasionally expense to learn to handle it properly.

For more on the authority of scripture, see “Scripture and Authority” in Everyone’s a Theologian by RC Sproul.

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Trustworthy Saying on Endurance

There's a reason why most new year's resolutions are broken before the month is out: Perseverance is hard. We don't like doing hard things. Unfortunately, Jesus calls us to do hard things. He calls us to work hard, to suffer, and to endure through the hard times. Paul invoked this in the next of his "trustworthy sayings":

If we died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. (2 Tim 2:11-13).

I used to do "verses I wish weren't in the Bible." This would be a good candidate for that series. I spent a lot of time thinking about this passage and looking through commentaries trying to make it not say what it appears to say, but I couldn't.

If we died with him, we will also live with him
This saying starts off pretty positively. If you have placed your trust in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and to make you right with God, according to Paul you have died with Christ (Rom 6). And so the believer will live with him, probably referring to the future, but there is also a sense in which he have eternal life now.

Paul said, "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom 6:4-5). Or in Jesus' simple statement, "Because I live, you also will live" (John 14:19b). We have hope, not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done.

If we endure, we will also reign with him
And then things get hard. "If we endure." If we endure what? Whatever the world, the flesh, and the devil throw at us? Probably, but especially that first one. Up to this point Paul has been reminding Timothy to expect persecution for the gospel. We have to endure. Jesus "for the joy set before him he endured the cross" (Heb 12:2), and we're expected to do no less (cf, Matt 10:22). But he has promised that those who endure will reign by his side (eg, Rom 8:17, 1 Cor 4:8). But that is if they endure.

If we disown him, he will also disown us
And then things get ugly. Paul didn't make this up. Jesus himself said, "Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven" (Matt 10:33). The commentaries point out that there are more than one way to deny Christ. You can do it verbally, but you can also do it by your actions (eg, Titus 1:16). Christians throughout the ages, even today, have been offered the trade of denying their Lord to save their life, but so many deny him by their actions to make money or to make their lives a little easier. We are offered the opportunity to deny him daily, and we have to reject that opportunity daily. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23).

But all is not lost. Jesus was betrayed twice. Judas, loving money, payed him false honor while delivering him into the hands of the Jews. Peter, fearing men, denied even knowing him. One of those men died in sin. The other died repentant after a long life of service. No single act of denial is fatal. Because ...

If we are faithless, he remains faithful
The Lord knows we are dust (Psalm 103:14). He wants us to endure. He wants us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. But he knows "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". We are not to presume upon his generosity, but we can trust in his grace (1 Cor 1:8-9).

Paul wrote this to Timothy to remind him that persecution will come and to encourage him to stand strong. Paul wanted him, and us, to persevere. We don't know what lies ahead for any of us or for the Church, but we know we were promised "in this world you will have trouble." Our response should be to "put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes ... so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand" (Eph 6:11, 13).