The early 20th Century had a lot of controversy. The Evolutionary Theory seemed to knock people off guard and the reliability of Scripture was called into question. Controversies, however, are nothing new.
Christianity has always had to confront challenges. Whether it was from the early days of the Church, where Roman scholars vociferously argued against Christianity, or in the era of the Scope Monkey Trial, Biblical scholarship has had to answer big questions. In the case of this current post, emergence of conflicting gospel accounts seem to make the Four Gospels merely four opinions selected out of dozens of other narratives of Jesus. Isn’t it possible that Dan Brown is right and that Christianity squelched the truth of the gospels of Thomas or Judas?
In short, no.
The other gospels like Thomas and Judas were written much later than the Four Gospels found in the New Testament (and many of the key texts used to showcase the positive aspect of Judas were hastily made with bad translations). According to the earliest dated documents written concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul seemed to have a very high view of Jesus. The Four Gospels found in the New Testament were more than likely written in the First Century and captured the early Church’s perspective on Jesus.
Quite frankly, those who might hold up contradictory new gospels like Thomas or Judas do so because they don’t like what the New Testament figure has to say about a variety of things. A Jesus of nice moral platitudes that our Founding American Fathers liked so much is easier to follow than a messianic figure who equated himself with God. As the earliest NT writer would say two decades after the crucifixion, the gospel is for our justification and promises restoration of the world one day. Having a fortune cookie version of Jesus is much safer than the Jesus found in the New Testament.
There will be a time where a follower of Christ will be confronted with questions about the Bible. Defending the reliability of Scripture can be important in certain contexts. However, sometimes defending the faith can be used in an abusive manner (see The Good, Bad, And The Ugly Of Apologetics), which is not good (just in case you didn’t know). Apologetics should never be used as a hammer. But for those occasions when an individual has a legitimate question, we truly do need to be able to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. We need to be able to answer legitimate questions.
Where fundamentalism gets it wrong is that they defend the faith at all times without smiling. Have you ever noticed that? Those people on the street corners holding those big signs, the ones that stand there shouting at you entering into a baseball game or walking down the pier. I agree that this is serious stuff, but to stand there angry is not good. Defending the Bible as God’s Word is a good thing, but using it as a hammer at all times is not always the best thing. Sometimes it needs to be a precise scalpel, a warm cloth, or a piercing sword.
(Part 2 of 4 on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together)
Bonhoeffer viewed life differently. He saw that the core of ones faith was found in being steeped in God’s Word. Being rooted in the word shaped the day for the family and individual. He advocated in “Life Together” to have a dedicated time of song, Scripture, and prayer for the community. Since, in his mind, the family was the core, they should as a whole be formed together.
One of the points that I found interesting is Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the Psalter. The Book of Psalms acted as a prayer book for the people, expressing emotions across a wide space of time. Through the praying and chewing of these psalms he has found that it is Jesus himself praying through them. “The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time.”
Through these ancient prayers, we learn what prayer means (standing on his Word and promises), what we should pray (moving in the emotions of the Psalter), and it teaches us to pray as a fellowship (praying together the same words, across space and time). Bonhoeffer is very encouraging in this. Praying the psalms teaches us how to pray, and the more we grow in this aspect, “the more simple and rich will our prayer become.”
Reading the Biblical books from front to back will confront the reader. It will put themselves into where God has “acted once and for all for the salvation of men.” Why should we do this? Because Scripture teaches us about ourselves. It will help steer us through the chaotic waters of life and will help correct our hearts when they stray. “It is not our heart that determines our course, but God’s word.”
Prayers, songs, and readings must abound to form our lives in a world that is so influencing. We are so shaped by constant advertisement that the community of faith needs another influencing factor in their lives. Bonhoeffer’s response is that we need to be shaped by a whole host of things, highlighting church service, work, eating, and more into play.
For Bonhoeffer, it seemed like all of life was under the rule and reign of Jesus. “Thus every word, every work, every labor of the Christian becomes a prayer.” Everything, even sleep, can be done with our focus on God in Christ. Life Together is found by being united in Jesus and enjoying him through fellowship with others.
How have you been encouraged in community?
On Christmas Day, I want to leave us with two pieces. Chew on these two pieces and I wish you a Merry Christmas.
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Forunto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”[c]
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 ButMary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Contemporary American Evangelicalism leads to many different things, both good and bad. Whenever I heard about the Apocrypha I often tied it with a negative reaction. Everybody knows that it is not truly Scripture like those Roman Catholics would have us believe! Instead, it is something that should be removed from our Bibles and taken away from our collective sight. Turns out this is just throwing out the Maccabean revolt with the bathwater.
Using the devotional device of the Daily Office (i.e., devotional plan) for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer it led me into reading I Maccabees as a part of this plan. (Typically, you read Psalms and passages from the Old Testament, New Testament and Gospels to start and end your day. ) And as I have been working through the text of I Maccabees, I have encountered some positive examples. I have discovered new stories about having zeal for God’s Law. When the Greek ruler stopped the worship of God, Matthias and his sons wouldn’t take it anymore. Instead of passively standing by, they rose up to throw the shackles off their nation. Their zeal led to liberation and provoked in me to be more passionate toward devoting myself to the Kingdom of God.
This read-through led to making me wonder why I have been so obstinate in reading these books. After all, Evangelicals read devotional literature all the time! Why shouldn’t I place these books up on the same level as reading CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oswald Chamber and other Christian writers? If we read subpar books like from certain authors who write about having your best life now, why can’t we read literature to help our faith that is rooted in history and depth?
So basically put, I have decided that I’m going to get over it and read the Apocrypha (which is not on par with Scripture but is still helpful in growth).
So, what have you gotten over in your faith?
People have asked me from time to time how I interpret the Old Testament as a Christian. There are a lot of commands to keep and festivals to partake in, making it incredibly confusing for a Christian to discern what the point of the Old Testament is. I like to respond to them with a more in-depth challenge:
After Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, he was walking on the road to Emmaus with a couple of men (Luke 24:13-35). Jesus hid his identity from them somehow and spoke with them about what happened in Jerusalem just a few days prior. After they told them about this messianic character who they believed in as a mighty prophet and that he was executed, Jesus decided to broaden their understanding. Jesus told them, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (v 26). After that he expounded on how Moses and all of the Prophets pointed towards this person who was crucified. According to Jesus, all of the Jewish Scriptures it seemed to point to this crucified Christ. So the task for us centuries later is to see how a passage might anticipate Christ.
Looking at the sermon of Peter at Pentecost you can also see how their Scripture was being used to point to these “last days” before the return of Christ (Acts 2:14-41). When Peter preached these words and that Christ has reconciled them back to God (despite the unjust execution) they were all cut to the heart (v37). The good news of reconciliation prompted them to repent and receive forgiveness, being baptized in Christ.*
I will affirm that Christians ought to look at how NT writers used OT sources and look to their interpretations as a type of guide for our study. So tread carefully in the OT, see what the passage says in context and then try to make faithful connections to Christ in humility, understanding that you may make a poor interpretation.
*(Free: Interesting to see that even the chosen people of God needed Christ!)
I just stumbled across this suggestion for a helpful Bible Memorization program. For a couple of months now I have been delaying my journey back into memorization techniques that I once used. I listened to a sermon by NT Wright on this subject and his suggestion to memorize the Epistle to the Ephesians challenged me. I also read a book that changed my perspective on the will of God where the author emphasized the way of wisdom in decision-making. In the back of Decision Making and the Will of God, the author suggested digesting passages of Scripture to help guide us in thinking more like Christ and making wiser choices that way.
So now, I think I’m going to take the plunge following this roadmap:
Who’s with me?
The great political philosopher Machiavelli once reveled in the time he spent during his free evenings as a farmer. He said that he would stay in his room and surround himself with his books. While reading it would be as if he was conversing with departed intellectual giants. The same can be applied to working through the writings of the wise men and women who have gone before us in Church History (I would not just limit this principle to theology, but to all disciplines. It is absurd to discount the wisdom of thinkers from Socrates to Pope John Paul II). These brothers and sisters (departed saints, of course) can provide clarifications in the Biblical text. Of course they should never supersede the Bible, but they can also warn you if your interpretation is approaching dangerous grounds theologically. If I view Jesus as someone who was made, since He is the Son of God, and had a beginning, then Athanasius’ On The Incarnation will help correct this error. He will force you to go back to the text and reexamine it. If he says something that is false though then you will have to analyze it deeper. CS Lewis believed that old books were important to read because, while they might contain errors, those errors have been vetted through history and can be spotted quicker since they are from a different time. New books have errors in them that we are still steeped in and are more difficult to spot.
The heritage of the Reformation was that all people could read the Bible for themselves. Indeed while I entirely endorse this idea, we cannot simply be by ourselves. We must engage with other people in a time-transcending Bible study. That is why I endorse the reading of Scripture with other solid Christians, both in present and past (read: books) conversations. Doing so will correct our errors and potentially dangerous, heretical mistakes while also sharpening our minds and deepening our relationships with God who has revealed Himself in Scripture.
I was asked recently by a family member why they should read other writers than the biblical ones. After all, if I truly affirmed the Reformational idea of Sola Scriptura, what profit would it be to me to also consult with the likes of John Calvin, Augustine or Thomas Aquinas? Why can’t I sit in the comfort of my own home office and read the Bible by myself? Why can’t I just interpret it myself? After all, I am a Protestant who believes in the “Priesthood of all Believers!” While I certainly do believe in the necessity for every Christian to read the Bible, to do so completely by oneself is potentially hazardous to the individual.
GK Chesterton once noted that tradition was the democracy of the dead. Chesterton said this about the Nineteen Hundred years of the Church Triumphant (those who have died). While we have the ability to ask a theologian, pastor or lay-scholar a question in our various congregations and communities, this ability does not stop there. We have the capability to ask the host of brilliant Christians from the past about their opinions on Biblical concepts and passages. Influence does not stop at the grave.
We ask other people for help in interpreting passages, so why wouldn’t we ask the brilliant people of the past? It is helpful to read them because modern day people often read themselves into the text. Many American Evangelicals (of the more Dispensationalist types in this example) will view the Bible through the prism of current events or political philosophy.* All events point to the Antichrist and people bring proof-texts to serve their purpose. Exploring the thoughts of past Church Fathers and Mothers will help root us in our faith with clarity. While it might not alter a position, at the very least it will challenge the individual to think deeper about their faith. So those who believe in freewill, get into an argument with Calvin or Charles Hodge. For those who are Reformed, get into a sparring match with Wesley. So in short, read widely and broadly in order to read Scripture more deeply.
* Of course there will be issues with Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and other denominations. I use Dispensationalists because the example is very clear.