God’s Word, human words

I have these two different books that offer to teach me how to understand the human and divine nature of the Bible.

The first, and most recent, is Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible. Here is an extended quotation in which he sums up his views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture:

I’ve suggested in this chapter that inspiration is not dictation but divine influence, on both the writer and the readers. I’ve suggested that divine influence on the writers was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences us by the Spirit today. The difference between biblical texts and some contemporary writers also influenced by the Spirit is that the biblical authors lived closer to the events of which they wrote, their writings served as instruments through which God spoke to the community of faith over long periods of time, and these writings are the founding documents of our faith. This view allows us to value the Bible, to hear God speaking through it, yet gives us permission to ask questions of the biblical text and to recognize that some things taught in scripture may not represent God’s character nor his will for us today, and perhaps never accurately captured God’s will.

The second passage comes from John Stott, who unfortunately does not have Hamilton’s habit of writing summary paragraphs that capture his major points in one nice bundle. But his discussion of the nature of Scripture in his book Between Two Worlds does highlight some of the contrast with the vision of the Bible that Hamilton develops in his book.

To define Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’ says little if anything, however, about the human agents through whom God spoke and through whom his Word was written down. Hence, the need for the qualification I said was necessary. When God spoke, his normal method was not to shout in an audible voice out of a clear blue sky. Inspiration is not dictation. Instead he put his Word into human minds and human mouths in such a way that the thoughts they conceived and the words they spoke were simultaneously and completely theirs as well as his. Inspiration was not in any way incompatible with either their historical researches or the free use of their minds. It is essential, therefore, if we are to be true to the Bible’s own account of itself, to affirm its human as well as divine authorship. Yet we must be careful to state the double authorship of the Bible (again, if we are to be true to the Bible’s own self-understanding) in such a way as to maintain both the divine and the human factors, without allowing either to detract from the other. On the one hand, the divine authorship did not override the human authorship; on the other, the human authorship did not override the divine inspiration.

It is probably not inconsequential to the differences in emphasis between Stott and Hamilton that Hamilton’s book starts with questions raised by people about the Bible and how we should read it. Stott, in contrast, starts by speaking of convictions of God and God’s activity before drawing some conclusions about the nature of Scripture from this theocentric point-of-view. Also likely important is the fact that Stott’s book is for preachers and Hamilton’s is for a general audience.

If Fundamentalists — whom both Stott and Hamilton distance themselves from — place an over-emphasis on the divine action in bringing Scripture into existence and secularists reject any divine action, then we can see both Stott and Hamilton trying to find a Chalcedonian balancing point. I hear Hamilton leaning more toward human agency with his democratic pneumatology.

The inconvenient Jesus

It isn’t long before we realize that to find God and to accept Jesus Christ is a very inconvenient experience for most people. It would involve rethinking our whole outlook on life and lead to major changes in the way we live. … We do not find because we do not seek. And the truth is that we do not seek because we do not really want to find.

— John Stott, Basic Christianity

How dare we speak

We should never presume to occupy a pulpit unless we believe in this God. How dare we speak, if God has not spoken? By ourselves we have nothing to say. To address a congregation without any assurance that we are bearers of a divine message would be the height of arrogance and folly. It is when we are convinced that God is light (and so wanting to be known), that God has acted (and thus made himself known), and that God has spoken (and thus explained his actions), that we must speak and cannot remain silent.

— John Stott, Between Two Worlds

Can we ‘be perfect’?

John Stott in his book Evangelical Truth repeats a common critique of the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection.

[M]ost evangelicals, interpreting “perfectionist” texts in their context, are convinced that neither the eradication of evil nor the possibility of sinless perfection promised in the New Testament is for this life. Rather, we are on a journey, pilgrims heading for the celestial city.

Those of who preach following the Revised Common Lectionary will come squarely into this discussion next week when we read in worship the words “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Wesley’s attempts to meet the objections to perfection are numerous. His sermon “On Perfection” is not one of the doctrinal standards of United Methodism, but it is a good overview of Wesley’s engagement with the critiques of the doctrine. Rather than go through those replies, though, I want to quote Wesley’s summary of the positive content of the doctrine:

What is then the perfection of which man is capable while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command, “My son, give me thy heart.” It is the “loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.” This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:” Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:” These contain the whole of Christian perfection.*

One crucial difference between Wesley and Stott is that Wesley taught that this perfection is possible in this life. Indeed, he said we should expect it and seek it. Wesley interpreted Jesus’ commands to be perfect and Paul’s exhortation to put on the mind that was in Christ as applying to this life and made possible by the grace of God.

No discussion of this topic is complete without noting that Wesley had a terribly hard time persuading even Methodists to embrace this doctrine. We recoil at the thought that we might actually attain this perfection. I suspect this is for many reasons. First, it feels like a breach of humility. Second, it feels beyond our reach. Of course, it is beyond our reach. That is the whole point. But our pride is stubborn. We cannot imagine that God would desire more for us than we are capable of doing by our own power and virtue.

The best-selling book by Stephen Covey told millions of readers to begin with the end in mind. By putting our focus on the final thing, everything prior to that is recast in light of the end. The doctrine of perfection is not just a cherry on the top of the sundae. It is the point by which all the rest of our doctrine is tested. As a United Methodist preacher, I am challenged by the lectionary — and men such as John Stott who I admire — to come to terms with this distinctive doctrine of United Methodism. What does it mean? Will I preach it? How will I do so?

*This is one reason why I do not like the Common English Bible’s translation of Matthew 5:48. “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” In the CEB, the first of the two great commandments drops from sight.

Before LeBron James, we had ‘the decision’

John Stott sums up the evangelical case for the need to make a “decision” for Christ in his classic little book Basic Christianity:

I myself used to think that because Jesus had died on the cross, everyone in the world had been put right with God by some kind of rather mechanical transaction. I remember how puzzled, even offended, I was when it was first suggested to me that I needed to take hold of Christ and his salvation for myself. I thank God that he later opened my eyes to see that I must do more than face up to the fact that I needed a Savior, more even than admit that Jesus Christ was the Savior I needed; it was necessary to accept him as my Savior.

Stott uses the image of Christ waiting at the door, pictured here, to explain the need and the process by which a person receives Christ as Lord and Savior. He ends the chapter with one of the nicer versions of the sinner’s prayer that I have read.

As I read this chapter, two sets of questions that emerge.

First, as a Wesleyan, it still feels pretty mechanical — to use Stott’s word above. The prayer — which I have prayed myself — is treated in some ways like an incantation. If it is prayed, it is done. Stott even goes so far as to warn us not to worry about how we feel after we pray that prayer. Just be know that it is done and be grateful.

This runs directly in the face of Wesleyan assurance. The old Methodist teaching was that we would have a perceptible awareness of the Holy Spirit speaking to our spirit that we are children of God. It was not about feelings, so much, but it was about a palpable spiritual sensation. It is what Wesley referred to when he described his heart being strangely warmed.

The Methodists were also known for the tarrying that often happened between crying out for Jesus and receiving this assurance. The crying out was not conversion. It was not a sign of justification. The sign of justification was the faith that God gave to sinners that Jesus Christ had died for them and pardoned them. It was this faith and assurance that also marked the moment of pardon. I do not believe the old Methodists would tell a sinner that a single prayer without any sense of assurance should be taken as a token of salvation.

Whether we should side with the Methodists or with Stott — or neither — of course is not a settled question. But it helps to be aware of the differences.

Second, I find myself asking about those who cannot respond in the way Stott prescribes. This system of his is built upon a stack of cognitions and the use of language. What about those for whom such things are difficult to impossible? What about people with mental disabilities?

This is a place where I find Scripture does not help immensely. This troubles me at times. At other times, I am aware that Scripture was written for people who are literate — or in communities of literacy — and is mostly addressed to adults with what we call normal mental faculties. It is a means of grace for those who can receive it. But I’m not convinced that means it maps out the ways of grace for those who are not equipped to operate in the cognitive and literacy-based world of Scripture.

Interestingly, for me at least, in a Wesleyan context, it may not be that those with cognitive disabilities need to hear Jesus knocking at the door. It may be that they never shut the door. John Wesley, famously and controversially, argued that we are not condemned for Original Sin but only for actual sins. And for Wesley, actual sins were willful breaches of the law of God. Although Leviticus speaks of unintentional sins, Wesley argued that only intentional sins were actually sins.

In other words, those who cannot understand what they do in terms of God’s commands, are by definition not sinning.

Now, I know this opens a whole can of worms and is not easily dealt with in a simple blog post. Wesley’s notion has been criticized and dismissed by many learned Christians.

But I am not ready to dismiss him. Not, at least, while I struggle to understand what may, in the end, be too high for me to understand.

When the Bible does not tell us so

I was reading John Stott‘s classic little book Basic Christianity the other day. Stott begins with a move similar to the one CS Lewis makes in Mere Christianity. He examines the things Jesus says about himself and concludes that Jesus either is who he said he is or he is not to be trusted at all.

Stott sets out the case well and his passion is clear.

With some of the recent reading and thinking I’ve been doing in the work of William J. Abraham, though, I wonder if Stott’s approach is compatible with Abraham’s warning that we not turn the Bible into a foundation for truth claims. Stott, it seems to me, is doing exactly that.

Abraham wants us to begin with the claim of the church — Jesus Christ was divine. He does not try to prove this by appeal to scripture. Indeed, he argues that making our confidence in Christ’s divinity depend on scripture opens up all kinds of problems for Christianity.

I am, frankly, not well versed enough in philosophy or epistemology to appraise Abraham’s argument to any extent. Its similar to when the air conditioner repair man says I need a new coil. How do I know?

But I am trying to figure out what Abraham’s argument means for what have been effective apologetic and evangelistic arguments in the past. What does it mean if Stott and Lewis and Wesley have defended their claims about Christ on what amounts to a “for the Bible tells me so” argument?

And what does Abraham offer us in place of such resources? I suspect not a lot of my readers are Abraham experts, but if you have some thoughts on the subject, I’d love to read them.