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June 27th, 2016

Any reading of Scripture that increases my pride is not a biblical approach to the Bible.

Psalm 19; 2 Timothy 3:14-17

 

Many paths to arrogance

Pastor Paul and I decided this summer to focus our Corinth sermons on a series of topics rather than on a book of the Bible, as we usually do. We’re calling these sermons “Truths that Live.” We hope we have some topics that connect your life and God’s truth.

We begin with “Biblical Authority,” because it’s the foundation for every other topic we’ll touch this summer – or anytime. A “Reformed” church seeks to base our identity, our worship, our preaching and teaching, and all of our common life on the Bible.

I have lived most of my adult life hearing two very different approaches to the Bible. Thirty-eight years ago God called Linda and me into the United Church of Christ, and there have been many times during the years I have heard – from inside the church! – views of the Bible that sounded to me like outright disdain. Whether it was the language for God or how we discuss what’s right and wrong, sometimes there was outright mockery of the Bible. The attitude seemed to be that those who wrote and preserved the Bible were not only ancient, but self-absorbed and self-deceived. Scripture at UCC meetings was read sparingly, selectively, and condescendingly. This view of the Bible is very naturalistic – meaning that it has no special authority over any other human attempt to understand and explain God. There might be some nuggets in there that are helpful, but I (or maybe we) decide what works for me or for us in the modern age.

Having just returned from the Southern Conference of the UCC, I can tell you it’s gotten much better through the years. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s hasn’t been a 100% turnaround, but one rarely hears open disdain for the Bible. Even when a theological viewpoint is, from my vantage point, clearly wrong – there is an attempt to make it sound biblical.

The other set of voices I have heard for most of my life was in books, sermons and lessons online, video/DVD, or in conversation with Christians. This view sees itself as having a very high view of Scripture as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. This view has evolved through the Protestant Reformation into a highly literate society where I can not only read and own my own Bible, but because of the doctrine of the “priesthood of the believer” I don’t need anyone else to explain it to me. Usually one’s views of what the Bible says are shaped in a church or community – but if that church ever says it wrong, I go find a group that says it right. Why? Because the Bible’s meaning is plain to all. “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

I also hear less of this view today in the extreme. But occasionally Christians will still talk about a “biblical” view of some issue – cooking or business or manhood or baptism or church leadership. What they usually mean is that they’ve either found a verse or two on the subject or they have scoured the Bible to collect and synthesize all of its references on a particular subject. Their conclusion is the biblical way to see that subject – which may or may not be something the Bible itself intends to teach.

Here’s my point. There are many ways to read the Bible arrogantly. On the extremes, there is an arrogant dismissal of these ancient writers on the one hand, and on the other hand, an assumption that on any subject, if I can find a verse or set of verses that backs up how I think, I’ve got God figured out.

I submit that any way of reading the Bible that increases my pride – that makes me think my generation, my church, my mind has it more right than anyone else – is not a biblical approach to the Bible. Reading the Bible should make me humble, not arrogant.

To seek a biblical approach to the Bible, this morning I want to open one of the New Testament’s key teachings on Scripture, 2 Timothy 3:16-17. We didn’t take time to read the whole chapter, but at the beginning the Apostle Paul warns his young protégé Timothy that there will always be people who ratify and excuse their own sin. Timothy, by contrast, is to recall the character and trustworthiness of those who passed God’s truth to him. From childhood he was taught the holy Scriptures. In the last two verses of the chapter he reminds Timothy what Scripture is and why it matters.

God talking

When Paul uses the word “Scripture” in verses 15 and 16, he is almost certainly talking about what we call the Old Testament. The reason we affirm the New Testament Gospels and Letters also as Scripture is a study in itself – one I will cover in my Christianity 101 class in the fall. Most moderns have more trouble with the Old Testament than the New. If what Paul says here about Scripture is true of the Old Testament we will have less trouble applying it to the New.

Paul says, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (NIV). This word is a hapax legomenon in the New Testament, which means “spoken once.” It’s the only time this Greek word appears in all the Bible. Paul needed to coin a new word to describe what he thinks about the Bible. “God-breathed” translates theopneustos – a compound word joining “God” and a form of the verb for “blow” or “breathe hard” or “exhale.”

I don’t like the translation “inspired by God.” To “inspire” is to breathe in, to inhale. “God-breathed” indicates the breath is going the opposite direction. This is a word that indicates God speaking. Since air passes across vocal chords to make words, Paul is indicating that when you read Scripture you are to read the words as if they are God-blown. Paul certainly understood that there was a very human process involved. He doesn’t mean that God audibly spoke every word (though he apparently spoke out loud some of the time, according to writers of Scripture). There was a very normal human being who was thinking and listening and maybe scratching out and editing a first draft. But Paul is affirming a humility about how we read Scripture.

The great challenge of being human is the gap that exists between the invisible, all-powerful Creator. It’s what you might call a cultural gap or a language barrier. I experienced that recently on a mission trip in Moldova, where most people speak Romanian or Russian. Only a few speak English. I needed an interpreter to preach or teach or even visit in someone’s home, someone who would take the thoughts in my head and connect them into words my hearers would understand.

There’s no cultural or language gap among humans greater than the gap between God and us. But our God is a communicating God. There is eternal communication among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The wonder of being created in his image is that we are able to know and be known because we are like him. Our God-likeness means that we can use words to express and deepen love with each other. You can’t love unless you can communicate.

This summer my Sunday School class is studying Tim Keller’s book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. One of our chapters for today is about prayer as “Conversing with God.” Conversing implies words. God is a God of words – within the Trinity and to us. “God acts through his words,” Keller says, and “If attended to with trust and faith, the Bible is the way to actually hear God speaking and also to meet God himself.” That is the meaning of theopneustos.

To be sure God doesn’t only use words. Psalm 19:1-6 beautifully expresses God’s non-verbal communication, but David refers to sun and sky as God’s “voice.” Romans 1 says that’s God’s eternal nature and power can be clearly seen in the things that God made. John 1 and Hebrews 1 teach us that God’s ultimate Word to us, his final and complete self-expression, is through Jesus Christ, God showing up in Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection.

But this sermon is about a biblical approach to the Bible, and it begins with the humility and awe that there is God who made us like him, able to speak and understand words. When we read this book, we begin with a wonder that the God who can speak has spoken. All Scripture is to be viewed as if God himself blew those words across his own vocal chords.

Piling on

One of the problems when Christians debate precise language about the Bible is that we can become so proud of articulating a correct view that we don’t use the Bible for the purposes God intended. The Bible invests remarkably little space defending itself. When asked why he didn’t defend the Bible more often Charles Spurgeon reportedly said, “I’d sooner defend a lion.” Have you ever wondered why Jesus didn’t preach a sermon explaining how the whale could swallow Jonah or why Paul didn’t feel the need to justify God wiping out entire villages in Canaan? God doesn’t need me to defend his words. If I try, I might miss out on why we have God’s words.

A biblical approach to the Bible is a practical approach to the Bible. Paul says this God-inspired Scripture is “useful” or “profitable” or “beneficial.” All three words are good translations from the Greek. Literally the idea of the word is “something heaped together.” In the Bible God is piling on life lessons.

Years ago in a seminary class on systematic theology, I asked the professor why the Bible was not written as a systematic theology textbook. Why isn’t chapter 1 on the doctrine of God, then chapter 2 on the fall and sinfulness of humanity, then chapter 3 on Christ and the atonement, and so on? Please don’t misunderstand me – I find great value in systematic theology. But the discipline can detract from the Bible’s purpose. Further, theology can make the theologian arrogant, figuring out a system by which the world makes perfect sense and forcing all of life, including every verse of the Bible, into that system. Theological systems, even good ones, tend to make us proud and condescending toward those who don’t’ have it right.

What the Holy Spirit gives us is Bible-applied-to-life. The Scripture is full of case studies in understanding how God deals with humans he made in his image, humans who are so often missing the connections between the God who is there and their situation. We find lots of stories in the Bible. We find commands, but always in a particular context. We find applied doctrine. A biblical approach to the Bible is not as much about trying to make all of those stories fit together into a cohesive system. It’s looking for ways that what God has clearly spoken through prophets and apostles in that time reveals God’s heart and God’s will in my time.

According to 2 Timothy 3:16, this piling on of case studies and instructions throughout the Bible is in four categories. Paul lists them, each with the preposition “for” in front of it – Scripture is beneficial for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness. There are really two categories here, how I think and what I do, and both have a negative and positive aspect.

Scripture is profitable for programming how I think. The two words Paul uses are “teaching” and “rebuking.” “Teaching” is how I should understand God, understand myself and my world, and see how God works. The Bible is full of impossible situations like David facing Goliath and disciples bouncing up and down on a storm-ravaged sea. Is anyone here facing any storms? The Bible is full of teaching that in the middle of your impossibility God is still good and faithful and wise. “Rebuking” is proving wrong ideas to be wrong. The Bible definitely doesn’t condone an “anything goes” approach to God or prayer or sin or salvation. Some ideas are wrong, and need to be challenged and corrected. When bad theology comes along – from Mormonism’s “You can be a God” teaching to Joel Osteen’s “God is as much about you as you are,” we need to see that those ideas have already been rebuked in Scripture. We need to do so with “gentleness and respect,” as 1 Peter 3:15 says, but we need to discern what is true and reject what is false. That’s what the Bible does for us.

Scripture is profitable for directing how I live. Paul’s two words are “correcting” and “training (in righteousness)” – once again, a positive and negative aspect. Once again, maybe even more so than in how I think – when it comes to how I live God is “piling on” with examples in Scripture. You find real life negative and positive examples alongside the actual commands. People in the Bible – even the heroes – do wrong things and get caught. Abraham lies, Joseph brags about his dreams, the Israelites grumble and disobey, David commits adultery, Elijah gives up on life, Peter denies Jesus, and this is the corrective purpose of the Bible. Don’t do what they did! But there are beautiful positive examples – Abraham believes God’s promises, Joseph forgives his brothers, the Israelites collect manna, David prays with such honesty, Elijah continues his mission, the restored Peter leads the early church.

Equipped

There’s another hapax legomenon in verse 17. I just like that phrase and I wanted to use it twice in the same sermon. Do you remember what it means? It means a word that’s only used once in a given body of literature – in this case, a Greek word used only once in the New Testament. Paul says in verse 17 that the purpose of Scripture – God-breathed teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training – is that “the man of God” (not just male human beings, but anyone who follows God) might be artios. This word is variously translated “perfect” or “complete,” but that gives the wrong idea. It’s coupled with another word, “equipped,” and together the words mean someone who is fully outfitted. Think of a police officer dressed for duty, a baseball player with his uniform, cap, glove and bat, a dentist with his tray of sterilized tools. Nothing has been missed in preparation for whatever will happen next.

And what will happen next? “Every good work.” I don’t get the authority of the Bible unless it’s changing me into a serving, giving, caring, witnessing, shoveling, self-sacrificing man or woman of God with my sleeves rolled up ready to do what’s next. That might be in my home or in the HOPE Garden or at my computer or at VBS or in the projects or on the mission field. But the real test of the authority of Scripture is that it’s changing me and equipping me to do for others what God calls me to do. That’s a biblical view of why we have the Bible.

Good enough for Jesus

I don’t know that I would have preached this topic the same way twenty or thirty years ago. I would have thought it was most important to articulate clearly the correct doctrine of the Bible. My view of the Bible has not changed. I trust it completely.

I promised the Lord many years ago that those who hear me preach or teach would never have reason to doubt the Bible because of what I say. Do I have my own questions about parts of the Bible? Yes. Have I resolved every difficult question about the Bible? No. One of my mentors, Robertson McQuilkin, who recently went to be with the Lord, said it this way:  “If the Bible was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

What I want to do is read the Bible humbly. That means I submit to its authority as the Word of God. That means I keep studying and learning. That means the Bible gets the benefit of the doubt from me if something doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a declaration of faith, not of complete understanding of everything between its covers.

Reading the Bible humbly means an awareness of my own sin and need. Isaiah 66:2 says the person to whom God looks is the one “who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Reading the Bible humbly implies a constant self-examination and a conscious submission to what’s true and right.

Reading the Bible humbly also means a humility toward other believers – those who lived a thousand years ago or those who live in Moldova or Africa or who attend a different church or denomination. Where there is not a common understanding of Scripture, I can still have my own conviction, but I should hold my convictions with honor toward those who differ. There have been entire generations in the past who all agreed the Bible teaches some horrible things – Crusades, Inquisition, Slavery, Segregation, and so on. In my view this generation of Christians has a similar blind spot – that the Bible affirms our own self-absorption, that God wants me happy. We’ll come back to that this summer. Whenever I think my people or my generation have God’s truth more right than anyone else who ever lived, I need to be especially cautious. The teachings of the Bible that are most important to me are those held in common throughout the ages and all over the world.

Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that trouble me, but the parts I do understand.” God being my helper, for me to honor the authority of the Bible is to keep allowing this Word to speak to me as if God himself had blown them across his vocal chords. Amen.

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