Monday, April 27, 2009

A Question Of the Bible's Authority - Or, board game tantrums

My friend Joe has a sick sense of humor sometimes. He told me one day to read a particular post and the subsequent comments. This post dealt with a line in 2 Peter 2:7 calling Lot “righteous”. Of course, you had the people who talked about Justification versus Sanctification. Others rejected this passage as “a misunderstanding”, because how could God call Lot righteous when he offered his daughters to gang rape, and so on? Eventually, and Joe intended this, the conversation came to the authority of the Bible, its inerrancy, Old Testament versus New Testament, and Universalism.

One argument was about a supposed misquotation in Mark where the writer “quotes” Isaiah, but actually quotes both Malachi and Isaiah. I wonder if it would do any good to tell him that ancient Greek writing didn’t have quotation marks or that they used indirect quotations (for example, If Joe tells me “Dinner is at six tonight. Come over and join us”, I might tell my roommates, “Joe told me to be at his house for dinner at six”. Even though I didn’t directly quote Joe, I correctly communicated what he said).

I don’t plan on writing my whole argument for why the Bible is completely accurate and true right now. I will, however, point out a few scriptures for you to think about in the meantime. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” This sums up the Old Testament writings and the words of Jesus. Going back to 2 Peter, it seems the writer shared Joe’s intentions. 2 Peter 3:1-2 says, “This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles.” This adds in the other writings of the Apostles. In the same chapter, Peter equates Paul’s writings with scripture. And he calls those who distort Paul’s teachings “untaught and unstable”.

But like I said, I don’t want to get into all that stuff right now. I want to talk about board game tantrums. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all played Monopoly and accused the banker of cheating before flipping the whole board into the air. My favorite checkmate in chess was the one where I swept all the pieces to the floor with my spindly forearm. I get the same feeling every time I hear arguments for or against the ultimate authority of anything. Like the Nada Surf song says, “I talk to missionaries when they’re standing at my door. They tell me what I should be reading. I still can’t see what for. We both stand there politely trying to change each other’s core.” Only it’s not always polite.

While studying Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, I read, “It is one thing to affirm that the Bible claims to be the words of God. It is another thing to be convinced that those claims are true. Our ultimate conviction that the words of the Bible are God’s words comes only when the Holy Spirit speaks in and through the words of the Bible to our hearts and gives us an inner assurance that these are the words of our Creator speaking to us.” Then he quotes 1 Corinthians 2:14. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (Grudem’s translation).”

Essentially, what Grudem said was this, “If you don’t believe the Bible, it’s because God hasn’t revealed it as truth to you.” And think of this, if we claim that the Bible is our absolute standard of truth, then we can’t appeal to another kind of standard to validate it. To do so would put the outside standard on par or greater than scripture. So what difference is there between us saying the Bible is true because it claims to be true and the claims of ultimate authority for an atheist or universalist? If you think about it long enough, you want to kick the game table, knock over the pieces, and shout, “no, I’m sorry!”

The difference I can see comes from what I said about Xerox copies. We are not ultimate beings. We’re limited. Blaise Pascal had this realization and said that man was merely a point on a line. We can’t comprehend the extremes of anything in nature, and yet those extremes exist beyond our comprehension. From there, he explains that a being must comprehend those extremes, and only God is ultimate enough to do so.

I can’t base my standard on truth at all on myself. My perception, my logic, my experience, it’s all limited. And I can’t base my standard on other men because I recognize their limitations as well. I must have an absolute standard of truth outside of myself. The Bible, with the Holy Spirit’s instruction, convinces me of its own truth. I recognize its truth to such lengths that I allow the words of the Bible to offend my reason and change the way I think.

Some people might think that I worship the Bible rather than God when I say these things. Let me assure you that I do not. God reveals Himself to man through the Bible. God also says that He reveals Himself to man through nature. In fact, He reveals Himself to us in all things. But God doesn’t want us to worship nature or any other means of revelation. There can be no other gods before Him, not even His book. My point is that the Bible is a complete, but not exhaustive, way in which God revealed Himself.

Cornelius Van Til said that in order for us to truly know God, He would have to reveal Himself truly to us. If the Bible were not the authoritative, perfect, ultimate standard of truth, then my understanding of God would be incomplete. No one could truly know God. If the Bible weren’t perfectly true, the universalist claim of all religions worshipping the same god might have some merit. God would be subjective to our perception. So if you claim to be a Christian, you absolutely must recognize the authority of the Bible.

Have you thrown the game table yet? I know I’ve seen and thrown enough board game tantrums to wonder if I should even bother playing in the first place. But it wouldn’t do any good if I surrendered by saying, “It’s a Christian thing, you wouldn’t understand.” The Bible I claim to absolutely believe makes it clear that I should still try to reason with people. And 1 Corinthians 2:14, as well as other verses, tell me I don’t need to convince anyone. I can leave that up to the Holy Spirit and find comfort in knowing He’ll do a much better job.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Trust and the Wall of Discomfort

Last week, my publisher sent me the galley proof of Stark Raving Obedience. I spent all weekend going through the text, taking time out only for baseball and church. While reading, the Holy Spirit used my own book to convict me. Several times in the book, I encourage people to act on the truth they read in the Bible. All I could think about were the times in the past month where I didn’t obey, missed my opportunity, or misunderstood the cue.

The top, number one, inexcusable excuse for my shortcomings? Discomfort. You could call it a host of other things. “Fear of man” “Fear of rejection” “Lack of faith”, all of which might describe what happens when I’m well aware of God’s will and still bail.

During the past week, a few things happened to reinforce what the Holy Spirit brought to my attention. First, I read a comment on Stuff Christians Like from this girl. She quoted from Kierkegaard’s Provocations by way of Shane Claiborne. “But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it (the Bible) because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?” At first, I laughed and copied the quote for my own use.

Two days later, I decided to give myself a break from work. I drove a mile down the road from my house to Greer Stadium, home of the Nashville Sounds, a Triple A baseball team. I asked for a seat all the way down the left field foul line, five feet from the bullpen bench. For most of the evening, I listened to the relief pitchers and bullpen coach analyzing the game. If anyone looked over my way, they may have thought I was keeping score. Actually, I was writing down bits of their conversation. At one point in the fourth inning, the starting pitcher came to bat. He took two strikes in bunt attempts then swung for strike three. Minutes later, the bullpen coach told one of the relief pitchers to start warming up for the next inning. The guys on the bench tried to figure out why their starting pitcher wasn’t finishing a decent game.

Later, they learned what happened from the backup catcher. Apparently, after strike two, the batting coach signaled for another bunt attempt. The pitcher looked at his coach like he must have lost his mind. If he missed another bunt, strike three, a wasted at-bat, another out. The pitcher shook off the signal and motioned back to the coach that he wanted to swing. To the pitcher, the coach’s sign looked like idiocy. Suicide. But then again, the pitcher’s solution didn’t work, either. Coach was so angry he benched the pitcher.

One of the relief pitchers started laughing. “Man, if coach calls for a bunt, you give him a bunt.” Then after a moment, he started analyzing the situation. “I can see why they guy decided to swing, but coach was right. One out with a man on first and third is a great bunt opportunity. Either he advances the runner from first to second and gets him in scoring position or we somehow manage to pull off a squeeze play and bring the guy on third home. We might have taken the lead.”

I can’t say this was the pivotal moment where the Sounds began to lose the game. It is minor league ball, after all, which has enough errors to make me believe I’m watching theater. Even so, from that inning on, the team trailed the rest of the game and lost.

Immediately, I wrote this conversation on my program and made the connection to my attitude in prayer. There are days where God signals for me to pray for someone or tell them about Jesus. It’s not always so drastic. Sometimes He tells me to send an email or make a phone call that I forget about. But there are times when I absolutely know what God wants. He made it clear in prayer and scripture. Proclaim the good news of Jesus, pray for the sick, that sort of thing. But then I’m shaking off the signal or pretending holiness by asking, “God, do you want me to pray for this person?” After a silence, God says “No” and I feel justified in my nervousness. But maybe God said no because I’ve proved my lack of faith by not acting on the truth I know in the Bible. Maybe I just got benched for that game.

Now before you think I’m sitting in a chilly Nashville coffee shop moping about my failures, I want to assure you that God has used me to pray for and minister to more people now than ever before. Because of this, though, I’m noticing more instances when I don’t follow through on what God puts on my heart. It’s like the difference between walking into a wall and running full speed into it.

As I talked with God about my attitude when I run into the wall of discomfort, He reminded me of a parable in Matthew 21:28-30. “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go.” In the next verse, Jesus asks the religious leaders “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

We can find ourselves asking God to speak to us, to give us a sign, but then shake it off when He tells us something. There are lots of people who would ignore parts of the Bible that they'd rather not confront. I’ve found myself with that attitude in the past. The Bible is offensive. What if you really did live by what it said? What would become of you? I can tell you. It will ruin you. You’ll end up sacrificing everything. But take comfort in what Jesus told Peter in Mark 10:28-30. “Peter began to say to Him, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.’”

It may be hard to reconcile with the hundredfold embarrassment, persecution, or other trials, but the promise outweighs the cost. I’d rather be the son working for God despite the discomfort or supposed inconvenience. I’d rather bunt and stay in the game than strike out and watch other men do what I should be doing on the mound. When I’m running that marathon and hit the wall of discomfort, I can remind myself that the wall isn’t made of bricks. It’s made of lies and orange gelatin. It might hurt a little and feel gross, but God has enabled me to push through and keep going.