Saturday, May 26, 2012

7 The Necessity of Scripture

Where does Grudem get his "four characteristics of Scripture" from?  Obviously there's no verse in the Bible that says, "Here are the four characteristics of Scripture."  This is the slightly insidious quality of Grudem's approach whereby he thinks he is simply following the Bible when actually there are Christian traditions significantly guiding his interpretive wand.

In this case, it is the Reformed tradition.  The four characteristics of Scripture are a Reformed interpretation of the Westminster Confession (1646).  I don't know if Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) was the first to summarize its position on Scripture in this way, but one article started me in that direction. To reject some of his theology is thus to reject a particular Christian tradition, not to reject God or the Bible.

Here is what he means by the necessity of Scripture: "The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God's will, but it is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God's character and moral laws" (116).  In a footnote, he explains that a person can hear about this message orally, but that "these oral communications of the contents of the Bible are based on the existence of written copies" (116 n.1).

This seems a rather peculiar doctrine. What, for example, was the fate of Christians in the decades between Jesus' resurrection and the first bits of the New Testament?  The gospel had a fundamentally oral character during that time.  Here we once again see the embarrassingly literary orientation of Grudem (and perhaps the later Reformed) view of the Bible. No wonder Van Til hated Barth, who pulls down the curtain of such a post-printing press charade.

Barth rightly recognized that Jesus was the consummate Word of God, Scripture the witness to Christ as the word of God, and Christian preaching as a word giving witness to the witness of the Word of God. Grudem's approach, by contrast, can't see the history of revelation prior to the 400s when the Bible and Christian theology finally became a written package with an orthodox message. He is a typical pre-modern who can't see the historical development that produced his reading of the Bible.

We also see here why this sort of Reformed folk have been scrambling over the New Testament interpretation of the Old.  If we read the Old Testament inductively, we realize that the Old Testament books on their own terms did not have an understanding of Christ sufficient for the knowledge Grudem needs them to have had.  When New Testament authors see Jesus in the Old Testament, they are largely reading the Old Testament spiritually and figuratively rather than literally.

Genesis in context knows nothing of a coming Messiah, nor does Exodus, Numbers, or Leviticus. [1] The Historical Books don't want a king in the first place and then already have one. When early Christians saw Christ in the Psalms and the Prophets, they were again largely seeing spiritual meanings in words that had other original meanings. The messianic psalms were originally royal psalms, for example. And in so far as some passages may look to a future king, they understand only that Israel will one day have a Davidic king again.  They do not look for God to come to earth. The key text in relation to Jesus' death, Isaiah 53, would not have been understood by anyone to foretell the Messiah's death until after the fact, and of course this is a key element in Grudem's understanding of the gospel.

All that is to say that Jesus was a massive upgrade from anything anticipated by the Old Testament read in context. The Old Testament Scriptures meet Grudem's standard of necessity only when they are read through New Testament eyes.  They would not guarantee any Old Testament saint salvation on Grudem's terms. And of course we look forward to see what he will do with children who die before they reach the supposed age of accountability invented to circumvent such problems.

Grudem sees three ways in which Scripture is necessary: 1) It is necessary for a knowledge of the gospel, 2) It is necessary for maintaining spiritual life, and 3) It is necessary for a certain knowledge of God's will.

It is surprising to see someone who used to be involved in the charismatic movement have so little room for direct revelation. What if Jesus were to appear in a dream to someone deep in a Muslim country but who had never seen a Bible or heard of its contents? Is it impossible for such a person to be saved since he or she does not have the written word?

Indeed, even Grudem's key Pauline text, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17) is not a reference to Scripture but to preaching about Christ.  There is no scriptural text in Acts 17 and 1 Thessalonians has almost no Scripture. We can wonder if Paul used Scripture in his preaching when speaking to Jews, but probably didn't so much use Scripture when speaking to Gentiles who weren't associated with the synagogue.

The gospel was the good news about real events that had just taken place in history.  It was "live."  Scripture was brought in secondarily.  The living Jesus was the main event, not a book.

Is the Bible helpful for spiritual life?  Absolutely.  I consider it a sacrament of revelation, a divinely appointed meeting place.  By all means, eat the word for your nourishment.

Can God speak to you directly?  Absolutely.  Can God nourish you through other books?  Absolutely.  God can do whatever he wants. Again, it is fascinating to see how Grudem has chucked this part of his charismatic heritage.

Again, the word of God in Scripture is not primarily a reference to Scripture.  The "word become flesh" in John 1:14 is Jesus, and the background for this word is not the written word but the Logos of Hellenistic Judaism.  The word of God in Hebrews 4:12 similarly is not the Old Testament or the written word but this same logos which is the will of God in action in the creation. This fundamental and pervasive inability for Grudem to read the Bible in its historical context is embarrassing.

The necessity of the Bible for certainty in knowing God's will runs into the problems of the previous chapter. The Bible does not come inserted on our hard drives. It is an object of interpretation.  We have to define the words. We have to fit all the words together. We have to work out the potential difference between "that time" and "this time."  We have to do it.

Grudem's reading of Scripture is that of a pre-modern who can't see himself in the mirror.  His Reformed tradition has already done the defining, the joining, the time-shifting for him and he doesn't even know it.  The clarity he sees--and the certainty he sees--is the clarity of his tradition. His Bible is as certain as attending a Reformed church and the assumption that the people here are elect.  Walk down the street to the 40 other denominational churches reading the same inerrant Bible and we'll see how certain and clear it is practically speaking.

Grudem does not consider the Bible necessary 1) for a person to believe God exists or 2) to have a moral conscience. He simply doesn't believe this level of knowledge is sufficient to save a person. By contrast, Hebrews 11:6 came to mind: "Without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him." Can a person who, to the best of their understanding, loves God and loves neighbor be saved through Christ, despite not knowing about him?

I personally, coming from the Wesleyan-pietist tradition, find it hard to see God consigning to hell those who never had a chance, those who do not have the privilege of having the Bible or its message. It is an extension, on the one hand, of the fact that I don't believe in deterministic predestination.  On the other hand, it is an extension of my belief in prevenient grace, that God gives some light to everyone in the world. Christianity otherwise seems incoherent.

So my sympathies here are the logical conclusion of my own Christian tradition's core values, although my own tradition has not necessarily been consistent on the topic.  It is a hope based on big principles in Scripture like the fact that God looks on the heart and wants everyone to be saved. In other words, it comes from an understanding of God's fundamental nature as love. If God consigns the vast majority of humanity to hell for an ignorance that is no fault of their own, it is hard to imagine how he can be considered loving in any normal sense of the word. Similarly, if God consigns people to heaven primarily on the basis of cognitive knowledge, he seems rather shallow.

That is not to say that there are not difficulties with this position. What then am I to do with Romans 10 and the evangelistic enterprise of the early church--or of my own church? It at least helps to realize that words like "gospel" and "evangelism" have been skewed somewhat in their meaning. Once again we see partially why those in Grudem's circles have been scrambling in the face of books like Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel and to fight N. T. Wright's version of the new perspective on Paul. It's easy for them simply to decry those like Wesleyan-Arminians with a different theology.  It's another to find some of their own supposed biblical foundations pulled out from under them.

The gospel in Paul is the good news that Jesus has been enthroned king (Rom. 1:1-3) after God raised him victoriously from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-4).  The gospel in the Gospels has a slightly different focus but it is compatible.  The gospel in the Gospels is the good news that God's kingdom is returning to the earth (Mark 1:14-15), with the resultant good news for the oppressed (Luke 4:18).  Surely the good news includes the whole story, including Jesus' death and the implications in salvation, but the focus is on the reign of God and Christ.

When the early Christians preached the good news (euangelion), they were primarily preaching the lordship of Jesus and the kingdom of God. True, Jesus' atoning death was part of that message (1 Cor. 2:2).  If God's reign is soon coming to the earth and if my sin stands in the way, then Christ's death for my sins is a major concern, and Christ's death is part of the good news.

There is a connection between the rise of modern evangelism and dispensationalism.  In the late 1800s many Christians became convinced that Christ was about to return. At the same time, 2000 years of intervening history was ignored and they saw themselves as the early church of Acts.  Pentecostalism recovered speaking in tongues, as in Acts. While the early church saw the mission to get the good news to the ends of the earth as already accomplished (Col. 1:23), the world had gotten bigger and the reset button was hit on the idea that Christ would return after everyone had heard. Thus the rise of modern missions.

In the early church, the setting was similar but slightly different.  They also, including Paul, thought the Lord would return to earth very soon.  They were preparing the way for this Day of salvation and wrath by preparing everyone for the Lordship of Jesus. They were following the ideal course.  Certainly it's good to be ready for the king's arrival, to have your house in order before he arrives. It thus makes absolute sense to spread the good news of Christ's kingship and the good news of potential salvation.

I won't pretend that this broader understanding of evangelism resolves all the tensions with Romans 10. I'll only point out that the tensions are with other Scriptural principles, not least that God is love and wants everyone to be saved. Paul gives the most normal path in Romans 10, the one built off the fundamental metaphor of the messenger who brings good news from afar that a new king has been enthroned. In this metaphor there is a messenger (like Paul) who brings the good news that Jesus is king.

Is there another option he uses before the messenger arrives?  The path of the patriarchs?  The path of Job?  The path of the Old Testament heroes of faith?  The path of the child or mentally challenged person who does not understand?  I sure hope so.  It's hard to see how Christianity's fundamental claims about God's nature don't disintegrate otherwise.

I end with a final note on the idea of conscience. I do not think that Romans 2:14-15 is about some universal conscience we all have.  Like N. T. Wright and others, I believe the Gentiles in this passage who have the "Law written on their hearts" are Gentile believers who have received the Holy Spirit (cf. Hebrews 10:14-18).  Good thing too, because cultural anthropology has observed that there is very little in the way of a universal conscience around the world.

Most parents protect their children. Most cultures think it wrong to randomly kill someone in your own group. That's about it and there are some "deviant" cultures even on these. The idea of there being a specific moral law built within us doesn't seem to pan out very well in reality. It's a Christian tradition that I'm not sure has much biblical support.

The conscience in the New Testament is one's awareness of sin (Hebrews 10:2-3), which depends on one's understanding and thus one's training. A Jew should be aware of what sin is because they have been taught revelation in the Scriptures. However, a person's "sin knower" can also malfunction (Tit 1:15).

[1] The wonderful Genesis 3:15 was originally about why snakes and humans don't get along. I omit Deuteronomy so as not to get into debates about what Deuteronomy 18:15 was originally about.

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