Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Scripture (Page 2 of 11)

Did God change?

14148407957_cdfea81f82_oIn this short post, I’d like us to consider two passages of scripture.

Our first passage comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. In this chapter, God is giving the prophet Ezekiel instructions on how to restore his glory to the temple. I just want to pick out three verses:

For seven days you shall provide daily a goat for a sin-offering; also a bull and a ram from the flock, without blemish, shall be provided. For seven days shall they make atonement for the altar and cleanse it, and so consecrate it. When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 43:25-27, NRSV; italics mine)

Of course, there’s plenty more ritual to be performed before we even arrive at this passage, but these three verses alone are enough to give an idea of the hoops you apparently had to jump through if you wanted to be accepted by God.

Now, consider this well-known passage from the fourth Gospel:

But to all who did accept him and believe in him he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in any human way—by any human parents or human desire. They were born of God. (John 1:12-13, NCV; italics mine)

Do you see the contrast? In the first passage above, we have just one example of the myriad hurdles over which priests and ordinary people had to jump if they were to be accepted by God. But in the second passage, the only hurdle that has to be jumped is that of accepting and believing. So what changed? Why did God suddenly decide he no longer needed sacrifices and purification rituals and burnt offerings?

Did God change his mind or his mood? Did Jesus’ death appease him so he could now accept us without blood? Or is something else going on here?

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The Bible is not enough

BibleAs regular readers will know, I’m someone who has been formed in the Pentecostal tradition, which tends to lean towards a fairly rigorous, black-and-white, not to say fundamentalist view of scripture.

Within this and many other traditions, there’s an unspoken assumption when it comes to reading and understanding the Bible: namely, that for any given passage of scripture, there is one correct interpretation, and it is our job as readers to find it. Whether the issue be appropriate moral standards, the nature of God or end times events, all we have to do is find a way to dig out the one intended meaning.

In this paradigm, the most spiritually revered are those who can most authoritatively proclaim the “truth” of scripture (with little concern for where that authoritative understanding came from, be it rigorous study, divine download… or pure imagination).

But the more I think about this approach, the more I realise that there’s a glaring, Everest-sized problem with it.

Allow me to sum this problem up as succinctly as I can: the Bible is not sufficiently clear or consistent for anyone to be able to categorically and authoritatively state beyond doubt what it means.

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Letting go of fear

No fearThe fear of God, or the fear of the Lord, is a concept with which Christians are intimately familiar. It is found throughout the pages of scripture, mostly (though not exclusively) in the Old Testament. I would say the majority of Christians have been taught to believe that it is a good and necessary thing to fear God. Of the many texts that can be marshalled in support of this view, perhaps the most frequently cited is Psalm 111:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.

Most discussions about the fear of God tend to revolve around semantics: does the word fear mean terror, or does it mean respect and reverent admiration? Well, I’m no Bible scholar, but even the most cursory research reveals that the Hebrew word that is here translated fear, yir’ā(h), does indeed carry the notion, among others, of terror or dread.

On the face of it, then, scripture seems to suggest that God is to be feared, that we are to be afraid of him, and that this is a Good Thing.

And yet…

Consider the following scripture:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
(1 John 4:7-8)

So, when the author of 1 John wants to sum up as concisely as possible what God is like, here is what he says: God is love. So far, so uncontroversial.

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Some concluding thoughts on the Bible (for now)

BiblesAs regular readers will know, lately I’ve been on a bit of a posting spree on the subject of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the supremacy of Jesus over the Bible, and the question of biblical authority. (See my last post, which contains links to other recent related posts, here.)

If I’ve been on such a spree, this is in large part because these are questions I’ve been thinking and reading about a lot in recent times. But it’s also because they seem to be questions that many Christians are thinking about and wondering how to answer. I hope these posts might in some small way have helped some readers begin to find a different and, dare I say, better way to approach the Bible.

So today, I thought I’d try to tie up a few loose ends and offer some concluding thoughts on the subject… for now (I’d say the odds are reasonably high that I’ll be back on the topic before very long).

In my last post, I proposed that the Bible categorically should not be seen as our ultimate authority. I argued that when we claim the authority of the Bible for an opinion or position, what we are often doing is merely using the Bible to give ourselves authority. And, much more importantly, I pointed out that the Bible cannot be our guiding authority since all authority has already been given to Jesus. This means, in fact, that the Bible has no authority of its own; it can only be considered authoritative insofar as it faithfully witnesses to Jesus.

There is, of course, a question that naturally flows out of this argument: if the Bible is not our authority, how then can we trust anything it says?

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On whose authority?

AuthorityI’ve recently blogged quite a bit on the twin subjects of biblical inspiration and inerrancy (examples are here, here, here and here). One of my Facebook friends has been asking me to follow this up with a post on authority. Denis, this one’s for you.

Before I go on, for anyone who has landed cold on this post without reading anything I’ve previously written about inspiration or inerrancy, let me sum up my position. I don’t believe the Bible is inerrant (which means “without error”); in fact, I don’t believe that’s a credible view at all. I do believe the Bible is inspired, in the sense that the Holy Spirit moved men to try to capture on paper their views of God and his relations with humankind. This means that the Bible contains a mix of voices, some of which assign characteristics and actions to God which, in reality, had nothing to do with him, and others that portray God more accurately. The ultimate and perfect portrayal of God is found in Jesus Christ.

Got it? Okay, let’s talk about authority.

Why is the subject of authority important to a discussion about scripture? The answer, perhaps, is obvious, but I’d suggest it bears thinking about nonetheless.

Authority, I would suggest, is essentially about who gets to make decisions. So, for example, in an organised society, different people and groups have differing opinions on a whole range of matters. Rather than tear ourselves apart arguing and fighting over these matters, we elect a government and vest it with the authority to make decisions, and to enforce those decisions. Authority, in this context, is shorthand for the ultimate arbiter of what is permitted and acceptable and what isn’t.

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Inspiration redefined

Handwritten bibleIn my last post, I explained why I believe the strict inerrancy of scripture is a myth. If you haven’t read it already, I’d encourage you to take a few moments to read that post as a prelude to this one.

Today I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the closely related subject of the inspiration of scripture. In fact, inspiration and inerrancy are so closely related that many Christians consider them inseparable, like two sides of the same coin.

First, what do we mean when we say the Bible is inspired?

The usual biblical reference is found in 2 Timothy 3:16, which reads as follows:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

Those who know biblical Greek will tell us that the word usually translated “inspired” means something like “God-breathed”. But what does this mean?

For the literalist, God-breathed usually means that God literally breathed or mouthed the words of the Bible via the pen of each writer, so that the words that ended up on the page were the actual, untarnished words of God. It’s easy to see how, in this literalist logic, inspiration and inerrancy are fused together, never to be separated: if God literally breathed the words of scripture, then how can they be in any way errant?

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The myth of the inerrant Bible

Old BookI realise I’ve already written quite a few posts about biblical inerrancy. I was going to apologise for writing yet more on the subject, but in the end I will offer no apology, for this simple reason: it seems to me that how we view scripture is the single most influential factor in how we view God and his relationship to the world. Every conversation I participate in about God or the Christian life very quickly circles back to how we interpret scripture. Hence, if we get this wrong, our whole view of God is likely to be skewed. It’s that important.

Simply put, I believe that scriptural inerrancy is a myth. I don’t use the word myth to be edgy or to court controversy; I use it because I believe that, if you are honestly willing to think seriously about the issue, you will realise that there is no intellectually credible way to believe that the Bible is strictly inerrant. Or, for that matter, to believe that it needs to be.

I won’t really be saying anything new in this post; all I’ll be doing is reiterating and summarising arguments I’ve read elsewhere and which, for me at least, are convincing.

First, a quick definition. What I mean by scriptural or biblical inerrancy is the belief that everything in the Bible, no matter how theologically or morally problematic, is true, and that all parts of the Bible are equally authoritative. This is taken as axiomatic by many evangelical Christians.

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