The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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A Biblical fundamentalist, responding to my last blog, asked me to explain John 1:1-14.

Apparently he thought the picture (with the Bible telling a worshipper that it can’t save them) meant that I didn’t believe the Scripture and went on to declare the Bible as being “the only road map we have to salvation.”  Which, ironically enough, is in direct contradiction to what is actually recorded in Scripture.

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, that the “Spirit will teach you all things” and that he (not a book) was the only way to the Father.  It is a very clear pattern, throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, that it is the Spirit that “quickens” (John 6:63, Romans 8:11) and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), and this:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. […] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:7‭, ‬13‭-‬15 NIV)

If you believe in the Spirit then you won’t settle for a road map.  If you believe that then you will receive the GPS—which is to say the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and the only thing that will make Scripture useful.  Because, lest we forget, those who rejected Jesus also believed in the Scripture and looked to it for their salvation:

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40 NIV)

These people “diligently” studied the Scriptures yet did not have “his word” dwelling in them and rejected Jesus as Savior.  They were using Scripture as their “road map” and failed to recognize Jesus as Lord.

How can it be?

Well, it is simply this: The Bible, while “inspired by God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, does not provide its own interpretation.  Scripture is written in human language, translated by human translators and requires the reader to correctly understand the words which it contains.

Peter warned the early church:

[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16b)

Think about it.

Again, Scripture does not provide its own interpretation.  It can be misunderstood and distorted.  It did not lead those who diligently studied it to recognize Jesus as the source of life and the book itself testifies that we should expect something much greater than a book to lead us to all truth.

What is the most misunderstood word in the Bible?

There are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand.  There are many words and phrases in it that are misunderstood and misused.  But there is one word that stands out above the rest.  It is the “Word” found in John 1:1-14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1‭-‬5‭, ‬14 NIV)

First off, we should consider the intent and context.  John, in this dramatic introduction to his narrative, is making a thesis statement that establishes the divinity of Jesus.  He uses “Word” to create a link between the Spirit of God that was present from the beginning of time to the perfect incarnation in Jesus.

Second, John wrote in Greek, not English.

The “Word” used by John is “Logos” in the Greek.  It does not mean the same thing as the English word used by translators.  Logos is a word originally coined by Greek philosophers; it is a word used to describe the order of the cosmos, spiritual principles or divine reason.  John, borrowing the terminology of the Greeks, used “Logos” to describe God’s divine reasoning that created the universe, that is behind all events, and became flesh in Christ.  To reduce such a rich and powerful concept to merely written text is a crime against language.

Logos ≠ Bible

John says that the Logos “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” but he never claimed that it became text.  Nowhere in the Bible is “Logos” described as being synonymous with Scripture.  Many, their assumptions formed by an English translation and fundamentalist commentators, read “word of God” to mean Scripture.  However, there is no evidence in the Bible to support this assumption and an unbiased look at the descriptions of the “word of God” in Scripture would lead one to believe otherwise:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Do an experiment: Take your Bible, set it on a shelf and don’t touch it for a week.  

Will it be “alive and active” if you do that?

No.

The book will not chase you or cause you to do anything unless you read it and that is quite different from what we read about God’s word.

The “word of God,” according to Scripture, is something that can’t be shelved.  Jesus once said that “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40) if his disciples were to remain silent about his being Lord.  We read about Balaam’s donkey speaking in Numbers 22:22.  There is also the amazing conversion of Saul, whose vast knowledge of Scripture had prevented him from accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  He was confronted on the road to Damascus by a light from above and a voice.  The “word of God” is clearly not a kind of word that is constrained to a page.

The “word of God” is something heard and obeyed, not read and studied.  Again, in John 5:37-40, we read where Jesus confronts those who diligently studied Scripture and yet never had “his word” dwell with in them nor did they “hear his voice.”  If the phrase “word of God” was synonymous with reading Scripture then Jesus would be contradicting himself by saying what he did.  Scripture is “inspired” by God, but it is not God.  God’s word, according to the book of Isaiah, does not “return void” and we can’t say that about the Scripture read by those who rejected Jesus.

The Word is God

This is where the rubber meets the road: To claim that Scripture is equivalent to the Logos of John 1:14 is to claim a book is God.  To do that is idolatrous.

The Bible is inspired by God, a written testimony of his work throughout the ages, but it is written in human language and depends on our ability to interpret it correctly in order for it to be profitable.  Correct interpretation of the sacred text is virtually impossible without the “mind of Christ” or promised Spirit of truth.

The Logos is infallible.

All human language is fallible.

Human language is dependent on words and words are basically metaphors and never actually the same thing they describe.  Words are only an arrangement of sounds and symbolic representations that are assigned to or associated with meanings.  These sounds and symbols representing the sounds require proper use and interpretation—words are not always understood as originally intended.

Human language is fallible because it depends on humans for interpretation and we are fallible.  Our words fall empty and void of meaning unless our readers or listeners make the same assumptions of meaning that we intend for the representative sounds or letters we strung together.  How much we understand depends on both parties “being on the same page” or, in other words, sharing the same assumptions about their words.

So how do we get the correct assumptions about Biblical language?

Correct assumptions come from relationship with the writer or speaker.  The better we know a person the more likely we are to understand the language they are using and come to the correct conclusions.  However, since even close friends occasionally have moments of confusion, having absolutely correct understanding requires that author and receiver literally share the same mind.

That is essentially what Paul is trying to communicate:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6‭-‬16 NIV)

Paul emphasizes the need for the Spirit as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture, but Biblical fundamentalism gets that in reverse and tries to find God’s living word through diligent study of Scripture.  Yet no amount of study can help a person who stubbornly holds to an incorrect understanding of the words in the book—their study could be a path to destruction.

It is the Spirit that conveys the meaningful content of Scripture.  And we don’t receive the Spirit through our own diligent efforts.  It is a gift of God’s grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8) and if we aren’t “quickened” (made alive) by the Spirit we will remain dead in our sins and ignorant.  Our salvation is fully dependent on God’s grace and therefore is not a product of anything else we have done—that “anything else” including our own human ability to read and comprehend Scripture.

A person can’t understand Scripture without having God’s word dwelling in them first.  One must be brought to life through a work of the Spirit because it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between God and man.  There is no theological or intellectual tower tall enough to reach God.  God must first reach us and that is something done through his own mysterious means.

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse and think they save themselves through their reading Scripture.  However, if they understood what they read they would know that Biblical language does not provide it’s own interpretation they might be more humble and give God all the credit for their conversion—afterall, we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our human knowledge or abilities.

Bibliolatry: A modern bull calf of Yah?

Remember the story in the book of Exodus where Aaron, pressured by the people, helped to create a golden calf as an idol to worship?

What you might not know is that in the original Hebrew they used the proper name of God (Yhvh) to describe their idol.  In other words, their idol was a false representation of the true God and not necessarily made in honor of false gods.  Note what Exodus 32:5 tells us:

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord. (Exodus 32:5 NIV)

They were using the correct word for God (Lord = Yhvh) in their worship before their idol and it seems very likely that they realized the calf was an object constructed as a symbolic representation of God and not God.  But their worshiping this representation in an object was idoltarous because it diminished God—it did not truly bring honor to God.

Modern religious people may think it is absurd that people would worship a golden bull on a pedestal.  Sadly many today worship a symbolic representation of God constructed out of human language.  Unfortunately, for them, in the same way that Yahwah is not a gold bull, the true “word of God” is not merely language.  We are in grave danger of falsely representing God if we turn to written symbols as our path to salvation rather than rely on the Spirit of the living God to guide us.

A person who can’t see the absurdity of putting written text of the Bible on the same level as the one who inspired it doesn’t understand language or God.  The Bible does not save anyone and we should never settle for a “road map” when we were promised a navigation system.  We need to consider thay 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages written for the benefit of believers who already had the Spirit—the Bible is only profitable for those who have already been made alive.

In conclusion, we dare not confuse a symbolic representation of God created in human language with God.  The Bible should be venerated as something inspired by God—but never worshipped or made equal to God and his Logos.  To reduce God’s Logos to the text of a book is idolatrous.  It is putting human comprehension first and God second.

From Death To Life: The Testimony Of A Biblically Religious Fraud Found By Jesus

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Sometimes the most religiously educated minds are the most spirituality ignorant.

Jesus confounded the religious teachers and authorities of His day.  Like the time Jesus asked a perplexed Nicodemus (John 3:3-21) why he “Israel’s teacher” could not understand the basics of spiritual birth.

Nicodemus was a religious expert.  He had no doubt studied Scripture his entire life.  Yet his mind was dull to spiritual things, his existing knowledge clouded him, and he clearly was not understanding what Jesus was trying to explain.

What was Jesus trying to explain to Nicodemus?

Nicodemus is not the only religious authority totally ignorant of spiritual matters.  Many professing Christians have the same dullness of mind of Nicodemus because they have yet to be born of the Spirit and to realize the fullness of truth.

The religiously minded tend to think they gave birth to themselves.  They believe they were saved by their own study and understanding of a book.  No, they will never say this in so many words, but it is evident in what they claim as the foundation of their faith and attitudes towards those who try to give credit to God alone.

The thoroughly indoctrinated church borns, those who are the cream of the crop in their own minds, are the most difficult to convince. 

How do I know? 

I was one of them.  I was raised in a bastion of Biblical fundamentalism and religious pride.  I was born in a conservative Mennonite home.  (We are the best of the best and know it—Don’t let our initial humble appearance fool you!)  I went into public high school arrogant enough to think I knew more about biology than the college educated teacher of the class.

This is not unusual, Biblical fundamentalist children are often ‘big fish in a little pond’ and the smartest person they know.  To make matters worse, they are often isolated from outside influences (home schooled or raised with like-minded people) and too sheltered to realize how sheltered they are.

The result is that many things are just presumed to be true and never questioned.  Yes, we are fed a steady diet of information to make us feel knowledgeable about everything from science to theology and philosophy.  But most of it is a strawman of the other side and an attempt to vaccinate us from further questions.

But I had the misfortune of being born with a question “why” on my lips.  I delved deep into apologetics, slipped on a personal tragedy, and found I could not (despite my dedicated effort and mental strain) prove the existence of God.  I thrashed, gasped for that last saving breath, then disappeared into doubt and despair.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”  (Friedrich Nietzsche)

A mother’s wail ripped a hole in my heart.  All of my pretense of knowledge couldn’t save her children or keep me from my plunge into spiritual darkness.  I stared at the lifeless body that had come to represent my hope for my close friend.  There was no resurrection of the dead that day.  My little hope died.

I had reached an end.  All of the religious cliché and trite assurances were swallowed up in a tsunami of fear and hopelessness.  Over the same period of time I had a falling out with the religious community that was a big part of my identity and security.  I gave up.  My attempts to find faith through my diligent religious effort had totally failed me.

Passing from death to life by the Spirit’s power.

Many who profess faith in Jesus believe they were saved through their religious knowledge and reading the Bible.  But Scripture does not support their delusional claims.  There is no evidence that we can be born of Spirit or come to faith through our own religious knowledge and effort.

Just as a child doesn’t give birth to themselves, the spiritually dead cannot bring themselves to life and this is what Scripture describes was our reality before God saved us:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. […] For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 1-10)

There’s no such thing as half dead. 

There’s no way for a fully dead person to bring themselves to life.

Those who claim to be saved through their Bible study have somehow missed the obvious.  They may have read, but they clearly do not understand that dead is dead and the dead to not rise by their own accord.  No, if you are spiritually alive today “it is by grace you have been saved” and “not by works” or Paul is a liar.

What I had failed to comprehend in my diligent study and dedicated pursuit of faith is the simplest spiritual truth of them all.  Because of my religious education I had no grasp of my own hopelessness.  I had always assumed faith was a product or result of my own knowledge of Scripture and religious devotion.

I was blinded by my pretense of knowledge.  I had reasoned that I could be saved because of what I had learned about Jesus in church and in reading the Bible.  I thought this was faith in God, but it was really only ever a trust of my own human rationality and circular reasoning at best.  I really only had faith in my own ability to understand and believe the content of a book.

But my attempt to bootstrap my way into heaven this way failed me.  It was a false hope built on presumption and self-righteous delusion.  By assuming that my Bible reading was my salvation I had actually rejected Jesus and real spiritual life.  Despite my sincerity and ability to argue Bible-based dogma, I was nothing but a 2D cardboard cutout of a 3D faith.

It was only after my faith in my own abilities had died that there was a realization out of the blue.  The epiphany was the sudden understanding that it wasn’t my faith that saved me. No, it was God’s faith expressed through Jesus that saved me while I was yet a sinner. I was miraculously raised from the dead with Him.

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.” (Colossians 2:9-13)

My Biblical ‘Christian’ indoctrination did not save me.  No, it had blinded me.   I was too full of religious pride, intellectual assumptions and the pretense of spiritual knowledge to know the truth.  However, despite this pretense of faith that had taken root, I had believed in Jesus as a child and was baptized in sincerity of faith.

And now that spiritual seed of my Baptismal faith was ready to emerge from the water.  Suddenly the words of the Jesus and the Apostles came alive in a new way as I read them.  I was astonished, what had once confused and confounded me was now clear as day.  I could finally understand the book that had caused me (and others like this guy) to fall into agnosticism.

Are we saved by our book knowledge or saved by Jesus?

I can hear the howls of protest from both the book worshipping religious people and other unbelievers: “How could I know about Jesus and come to faith without reading the Bible?!?”

But these religious cynics and skeptics lack understanding of their own spiritual ignorance:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-45)

This is the mystery those who reject the Bible and those who think their own knowledge saves them refuse to understand.  They have both (tacitly or openly) rejected the resurrection of the dead and, in their self-reliance, dismiss the promise of Jesus and cling to what is reasonable to their spiritually dead mind.

But Jesus never promised we would be saved or taught by a book.  That idea is a misunderstanding of Biblical terminology and causality at best.  It is spiritual idolatry or rejection of the person of Jesus and blasphemy again the Spirit of God at worse.  This is what Jesus did promise:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

Now, lest any of you protest and attempt to credit your own understanding of the Bible for saving you.  Go back and read the passages I’ve quoted previously, dead people do not come to understanding and life by their own reading comprehension.  We are told the real teacher is the Spirit and that it is only through the spiritual anointing promised by Jesus that we avoid deception:

“I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (1 John 2:26-27)

At first glance it might seem paradoxical to write to warn someone about deception if they don’t need to be told.  However, faith is not individualistic effort or personal project and God uses many means to encourage us through the collective body of believers.  Only those with the Spirit know that the words of a writer originate from the Spirit.

But, wait, isn’t that circular reasoning, how do you know? 

I’ve mentioned that predisposing the Bible to be true because it says so is circular reasoning or an argument based in two unproven premises that rely on each other to be true.  So, isn’t saying that I know the Spirit because I have the Spirit the same thing?

Of course, the only way it is the same thing is if we believe a book is equal in ability and power to the Spirit of God.  Many Christians do this when they describe the Bible as “word of God” and claim it saved them.  But the Scripture is indeed different from the word of God and we can know this as fact.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:9-11)

That word translated as “word” in the passage above is the Hebrew דָּבָר (dabar) and in the New Testament Greek comes out as λόγος (logos) or ῥῆμα (rhema) and does not refer to Scripture.  If it did refer to Scripture, and Isaiah is true, then it would be impossible for those who knew the Scripture to reject the word of God:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. […] And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:25-40)

These people Jesus says studied the Scripture diligently.  Yet, despite their religious dedication to a book, according to Jesus, they did not have God’s “word” in them and therefore would not come to Him for life.  If Scripture is the word of God and they knew the Scripture, then how could they not know the truth standing literally in front of them?

The answer is that they knew Scripture and not the word.  The two are not one and the same. One is divinely inspired writing useful to a true believer (2 Timothy 3:16) and the other is divinity embodied and a promise that cannot fail.  One is infallible while the other can be twisted and misused as Peter warns:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Scripture can be distorted the “ignorant and unstable” but God’s word is always true.  Satan can quote Scripture, but we also know he always lies, has “no truth in him” (John 8:44) and this is a problem if you presume that “word” is synonymous with Scripture.

Fortunately we need not make such a presumption.  Scripture and the word of God are related to each other.  God’s word is what inspired Scripture.  I will even venture to say that Scripture can become as God’s word to the believer.  However, we must get first things first or we are deceived and Jesus always comes first.

Salvation is through faith and Jesus, not in our religious devotion to a book.

I am saved because Jesus saved me.  If I were to make any other boast I would only out of ignorance of both Scripture and the word of God which inspired it.  My faith and eventual salvation is entirely a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8) and rest in the mystery of God’s power. 

It was knowledge apart from God that drove Adam away from the tree of life—I believe (after the fact) that it is God’s word or Spirit who “quickened” me to salvation. 

There is no faith without obedience and there is no obedience outside of hearing God’s word.  This is the paradox of the promised Spirit.  We hear because we are made alive in the grace of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5) and must be faithful in the very little we know before we can expect to get very much.

I believe salvation is totally the work of God.  God makes the initial payment through grace and we continue to grow in faith through obedience to to what we know.  My faith is not a presupposition based in something I read in a book or a product of religious indoctrination.  My faith is personal relationship and something experienced in the heart of those who believe.

I believe the word comes to us through revelation of the Spirit.  It is not our mere knowledge of Scripture that saves us, but also always an act of God and work of the Spirit.  It was only after Jesus revealed himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that they were finally able to understand:

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45)

If the very men who spent all that time with Jesus teaching them needed His help to understand the Scripture, how can we expect to do better?

But the most compelling case for direct revelation is how Paul’s explanation of how we (as believers) understand the Scripture when others with the same written texts did not:

“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them?  In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)

Scripture is only useful for those of the Spirit and those who do not accept the Spirit “considers it foolishness” because they have yet to experience the indwelling of the word.  They are spiritual blind and often the most religiously arrogant hard-headed people.  If they profess Jesus Christ and seek to obey Him, I do believe they will be saved.  However, because of their refusal to fully acknowledge or accept the gift of God’s Spirit they may be as those who have built a foundation somewhat on the works of men rather than completely on Christ—who will see their work burn but still be saved (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) because God is gracious to the ignorant.

For those who think the Bible is the best way of sharing the Gospel I will again point to the explanation of Paul who writes (2 Corinthians 3) we ourselves are a letter from God and it is the Spirit that makes us competent.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always best learned through application.  Bible study has it’s place for certain, in fact that is probably one of the first places the Spirit will take us.  However, reading without loving as Christ loved to our best ability will limit our deeper understanding of the book. 

What am I… a Calvinist?

I make no such allegiance.  I have not studied John Calvin enough to know where I stand in relation to his teachings. 

I believe in free will and still acknowledge the clear pattern of causality and determinism in the universe.  I also do not ignore the language of predestination and election in Scripture.

I do believe in paradox. 

There are many cases where dualities of both/and (as opposed to either/or dichotomies) offer the better explanation. Dualities are found in both the uppermost, lowermost and outermost limits that define the universe as we currently know it. 

The singularity of a black hole, on the scale of the very big, is an object both infinity small and massive, a place where time itself ceases, defies normal reasoning.  Quantum mechanics, the world of the extremely small smallest parts of the universe, brings us to an irrational bizarreness where particles behave as waves until observed and time ceases to matter.

Advanced physics is now making the long held assumptions of materialists obsolete, we can now look beyond these constraints and to possibilities once unimaginable.

Our rationality is time based. 

God’s is not.

Time is an illusion.

This has huge implications.

This might explain the language of ‘is and is yet to come’ in Scripture.  Jesus explained “my kingdom is not of this world” and pointed to a higher spiritual dimensionality that is beyond the reach of normal human reasoning or natural science. 

Perhaps the question of free will and predestination is answered by a paradoxical both.  If we are adopted by God, sons and daughters according to His word, then we will eventually become one with the Father, our Father who exists in timeless reality, and therefore we participate in our own coming to salvation through the Spirit.

Who knows?  Only Jesus.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions.  I don’t need to know the answers to those questions.  All I know I need to know is Jesus.  Even if I were not a Christian I am convinced Jesus, his way of self-sacrificial love and leadership by example, is the answer.

“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

That is the testimony I have.  Only by the love of Jesus and the Spirit’s power am I saved.

Jesus is the answer that found me.

Gothard: Messenger or Manipulator?

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I was walking across the mall with no time to waste.  Up ahead was one of those Dead Sea salt kiosks staffed by Israelis trained to intercept passing Gentiles. 

My intentions were to stride on by, keep my eyes focused ahead and totally avoid the high pressure sales tactics that make men of less mental fortitude into suckers.  I am not a sucker.

But as I passed I failed.  She spoke sweetly with an irresistible accent.  I was too nice to not answer a friendly greeting.  Sales people are human after all.  I let a reply slip.  “Thank you,” I said, “but, I’m in a hurry…” 

She was ready with an answer before I had even opened my mouth, my forward progress had somehow stopped, and she was rubbing lotion on my hand before I could think to protest.  My higher cognitive functions suddenly neutralized by the sensory input filling that primal need of physical touch.

I still was determined to resist.  I refused to make a purchase.  I am a consummate saver, a responsible spender, only buy things I need, and have no need of lotion, deep cleansers or any of that overpriced slime.  And, no, not for my mother, nor my sister, and what girlfriend, right?

“You’re really good at your job.”  I said, as I as I paid penance to the wiles of a soothing seductress, and contemplated male stupidity, and wondered what I would do with all the clutter she left in my hands, as if I had an obligation to spare her embarrassment of failure to sell. 

She never gave me the satisfaction of being right about her insincerity. 

What is manipulation?

To manipulate is to bend, form or move something and make it conform to your will.  We use a hammer as a persuasion device to manipulate steel or to pound a nail into a block of wood.  We try to manipulate our environment to make it more suitable to our own desired ends.

There are also people who manipulate other people, like my temporary friend at the mall kiosk, and try to control people through false means or fear.  This goes beyond simple persuasion.  Psychological manipulation, according to Wikipedia,“is a type of social influence that aims to change the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or abusive tactics.”

In the political sphere there is fear-mongering, demagoguery and pandering as manipulative tactics.  The manipulator plays on the emotions of the target audience.  He set himself up as an authority or in the know and trustworthy.  She poses as a concerned friend, a common person standing up against the bad people, or a heroic altruist.  But beneath the rhetoric is often a cynical calculated effort to buy votes and control people.

This is also an unfortunate aspect of religion.  Jesus warned of those who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,” and yet, “they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23) These people, he goes on to say, are “hypocrites,” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  He’s speaking of the religious experts, the “teachers of the law” and Pharisees.

The Pharisees were outwardly righteous, they followed many rules trying to please God, they would continually ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  But, despite their “diligent” study of the Scripture, we are told, “the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.” (John 5)  They missed the answer standing literally (literally) in front of them.

They were deceived, self-decieved, and destroyed the very people they ‘won’ over by their dedicated missional efforts, making them “twice as much a child of hell” as they are according to Matthew’s account.  They posed as gate keepers to the “kingdom of heaven” and, unfortunately, did not enter themselves.  They are “blind guides” who neglected more important matters of actual spiritual weight.  These were men full of themselves and not the Spirit of God. 

Who is Bill Gothard?

Bill Gothard, PhD is a teacher popular in some Biblical fundamentalist communities.  He is known for his seminars which give “principles” loosely based on the Bible.  He is an elderly man now, he was never married (although he does give marriage and child rearing advice) and founder of Institute in Basic Life Principles.  He recently resigned from his organization amid sexual harassment allegations.

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(Read the “about me” on his website: http://billgothard.com/about )

I was asked for my thoughts about Gothard after my last blog post.  I had made a passing mention of him as one who rationalizes sexual abuse as a product of female immodesty or rebellion (kind of like earthquakes in Nepal) and I was also criticized for jumping on the bandwagon against him.  The link I provided was written from a “victim’s perspective” and apparently (in the critic’s opinion) the only right response for those who suffer abuse is forgiveness.

Well, I am not a victim of Mr. Gothard.  I have never met him in person.  I will leave it for God and others to judge Gothard’s personal life.  But, as one committed to “rightly dividing the word of truth,” (2 Timothy 2:15) I feel I must examine his teachings against Scripture.  I am familiar with his teachings. My church has hosted his seminars. I have had questions about his ideas and long before the Duggar family sexual molestation controversy put Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute in the spotlight.

My primary concern in this essay is with Gothard’s Scriptural hermeneutic and his theology, not his person.  There is some obvious overlap between the influence of his teachings, his behavior as a person and what he believes.  However, I prefer to stick as much to what is verifiable.  I do, as always, recommend looking for yourself rather than just take my word for it.  So I will give my perspective as an invitation to study for yourself and find the truth.

Gothard‘s teaching manipulates Scripture.

There are many different perspectives on Scripture and many opportunities to be wrong about what the Bible says.  I’ve made my share of mistakes when it comes to correctly understanding written texts.  I cannot fault a person for an occasional error in their interpretation and application of the Bible.  The Bible is a complex book and difficult to understand according to what is written in it:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV)

Gothard’s teaching goes beyond just a simple misinterpretation of Scripture.  He makes fundamental and systematic errors in his Biblical exegesis.  He reads his own presuppositions into the text of the Bible and in ways that go directly against the actual explanations supplied within the text itself.  His understanding of Scripture seems to revolve around his own established ‘principles’ rather than go the other way around.  He neglects important concepts of faith while emphasizing his own prescriptions at the expense of whole truth.

This is not a perspective of Gothard’s work unique to me.  In a paper, “Issues of Concern—Bill Gothard and the Bible: A Report,” published May 30, 1984, Ronald B. Allen, ThD expressed the following evaluation:

“Gothard’s approach is not that of the careful exegete who wishes to determine the meaning of the text, but of the engineer who wishes to use the material in his own programmatic approach which is mechanical and not personal, mechanistic and not dynamic. Gothard does not really teach the Scripture; he really uses the Scripture to fit into his own categories.”

Gothard seemingly throws out the baby (what the Bible explains) to keep the bathwater of his own preconceived notions and prescriptive formulas.  His analysis of the book of Job is a glaring example of his editorial manipulation of a text.  Gothard actually comes out on the side of those who are rebuked by God for their false attribution of reasons for Job’s suffering, as Allen explains:

“The clear teaching of the Book of Job is that a mechanistic, cause-and-effect, approach to life may be way off base! Is it any wonder that Gothard tries to evade the clear teaching of the Bible that Job was a righteous man (the only reading on which the book works!), and finds many sins and character flaws in him (overwork in Christian causes, neglect of his family, embittered sons, estranged from family, wrong attitudes toward the workers). In this way the book is turned inside out and by this strange alchemy Job supports Gothard’s lists.

There is nothing in the Biblical text to suggest Job brought his suffering upon himself for something wrong he did.  In fact it was the righteousness of Job that was the theme of the book. At the end of the book God vindicated Job and rebuked his persecuting comforters:

“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has… My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”  (Job 42:7-8)

Gothard is repeating the folly of Job’s falsely accusing friends and does so despite having the end of the book where God sets them straight.  So, why would Gothard take the Job story and turn it upside down?  Well, perhaps it is because he over-applies an idea of sowing and reaping (or cause and effect) to every circumstance?  It becomes quite evident in Gothard’s teaching that every bad thing that happens to a person is a result of their own sin.

This erroneous idea is nothing new or unique to Job’s friends or Bill Gothard, the disciples of Jesus made the same mistake when they encountered a blind man in this Biblical account:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:1-3)

Sometimes bad things are the result of nobody’s sin.  Jesus made a similar point as why we should show grace to all people when he reminded that God“causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:45)  In other words, sometimes (or even most times) a rainstorm is just a rainstorm and not judgment or a reward for behavior from God.  Not every good thing that happens to a person is a reward, not every bad thing that happens is a punishment.

Gothard’s teaching manipulates people.

One of the responses to my last blog came from a woman molested by her own father at age nine.  She did not invite that upon herself by something she did.  Sexual abuse victims often feel a sense of guilt or shame and need to be freed from that to be able to move on.  But, if she goes to Gothard, this may be the tenor of the advice she gets:

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Note the fourth point, “Why did God let it happen?”  In that there is “Result of defrauding by” and that followed by a list of four subpoints: Immodest dress; Indecent exposure; Being out from the protection of our parents; Being with evil friends?

I spoke at greater length about what the Bible actually says about modesty in my last post and there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says sexual molestation or rape is a result of female immodesty.  That woman molested at nine years old did not dress to draw her own father’s attention, she was in her own home, she was molested by a parent and, again, in her own home!  So that is quite the exception to the logic of “defrauding” laid out by Gothard’s counseling literature.  There should be a big exception clause at very least.

But Gothardism doesn’t allow for exceptions to his own rules.  In Gothard’s view, as with his mistreatment of Job’s suffering as somehow self-inflicted, if a young woman is raped then she must’ve done something to deserve it.  In his “character sketches” he twists the Biblical account of Dinah by attributing wrongful attitudes to her that cannot be found anywhere in the text.  Gothard makes Dinah out to be a rebellious daughter and thus responsible for what happened to her.  Then he turns the opposite direction and is critical of Tamar for actually obeying her father’s request.  Gothard’s logic is self-contradictory and contradicts the Bible.  Worse, it shames sexual assault victims by implicating them and it adds a weight of guilt undeserved.

The Bible doesn’t support the false dichotomies and overly simplistic principles of Gothard’s teachings.  But, rather than admit his thinking is flawed and repent, Gothard attempts to manipulate the Bible to fit his own preconceived ideas.  That is to elevate his own opinions above the very explanations given in Scripture.  Gothard manipulates Biblical evidence in the same way Satan twisted God’s words to deceive Eve and in the same way Satan later misused Scripture to tempt Jesus.

Gothardism attempts to manipulate God

It also appears Gothard thinks of God like a vending machine: You insert devotion to a list of basic principles, you turn a few levers, pull a few knobs and out pops a blessing.  This is a mechanical view of God.  Another blogger critiquing Gothard put it this way:

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Gothard’s heterodoxy is what it does to God. Not only does God plays little or no part in a believer’s life through omission, but Gothard actually teaches that God’s grace is bound to the limitations of our own abilities. It is not simply that God helps those who help themselves, but that God will not and cannot help anyone who is not already practicing the right principles.”

It is an underestimate of God that essentially makes us our own savior and that is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Sure, I see many good things in what Gothard teaches, his textbook contains many interesting anecdotes and observations about human nature, but it is missing something.  It reminds me of when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

The quote Jesus used was from the sixth chapter of the book of Hosea.  At the time there was a complex ritual of sacrificial devotion to God and in that chapter the people, treating God like a vending machine, give a superficial repentance.   But God is not impressed.  God answers with “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” and doesn’t accept their religious devotion.

Gothard seems intent on trying to please God by his devotion to a set of life principles.  Unfortunately, in that he seems to have gotten off track and is so concerned about tithing spices of his own system that he neglects the weightier matters of spiritual life (Matthew 23) and that being genuine relationship with God.  God is not a machine.  Faith is not mere religious devotion to a set of principles.

What is missing from Gothard’s teaching?

Grace is the wild card in a black and white world of determinism’s cause-and-effect dictates.  The Gospel without grace is like a car without wheels.  Over and over again in the critique of Gothard’s work is mention of a lack of his proper understanding of grace.  Yes, there is mention of grace in Gothard’s work, but there seems to be a difference between what he means by grace and what is spelled out in Scripture.  Grace is not a mechanical process of our careful application of correct principles, it is a mysterious paradox of God’s love:

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  (Ephesians 2:4-10)

This is the work of religion…

“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you.  Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.  They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.  Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.  (Colosians 2:18-20)

This is the work of faith…

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good!  Even the demons believe that—and shudder.  You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”  (James 2:14-20)

Christianity, authentic Christian faith, is about love and not manipulation.  Jesus told his disciples:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Is Gothard a false teacher?

I wish matters like this were as simple as the Dead Sea salt kiosk where it was quite obvious I was being manipulated.  My initial reaction is that Bill Gothard is a false teacher.  It is not because he does not have some good insights or points either.  I was reminded of the time when Jesus rebuked Peter, saying “get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)  Peter went on to be a powerful example of God’s grace.

I worry about the tendency of fundamentalist’s to ‘circle the wagons’ when it comes to someone who claims to uphold ‘Biblical principles’ and conservative values.  The same people who repost scary internet memes about “Charlie Charlie” will welcome a man like Gothard into their church or home without stopping to consider that he could be a false teacher and potential traitor to the Gospel.

“For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.”

That above is part of the warning Marcus Tullius Cicero gave in Roman times.  He was speaking about threats to nations or governments from within them, but his words could also easily apply to the church today.  We need to be aware of the enemy within the gates.  Satan was described as subtle, are we looking for the subtle deception or only the obvious threat?

As far as Gothard, I have stepped back from my initial reaction.  I am content to let God judge him and his teachings.  However, for myself I will go to another source of authority rather than him, I believe there is a primary source greater than even the best of commentators and it is that wisdom I seek.  For you who teach, I leave this:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  (James 3:1)

Be careful teachers what you teach!

For the Love of Truth

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“Truth does not need a bodyguard”  (Rhonda Strite)

The news out of Paris today (read here) is a reminder again of the power of ideas.  Twelve people are dead and apparently in killed defense of something deemed sacred.  Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper that showed less than flattering images of the prophet Muhammad, was the target of assassins today who apparently yelled “we have avenged the prophet” and fled the scene.

I do not believe these murderers speak for all Muslims nor even for the one they claim to have avenged and who should all be left to speak for themselves.  However, what the violence does speak for is the power of ideas.  It is obvious those responsible have been influenced to believe that prophets of God need to be honored by spilling of blood.  It is an idea that ‘truth’ must be defended by violence.

Defending the Image of Our God

This idea of violence in the name of honor isn’t exclusively religious territory either.  In fact, it is a quite common theme in personal romances gone sour.  I don’t even know where to start a list of popular songs about the angry and jilted person taking out their wrath on the vehicle of the a former lover who insulted their dignity by choosing to be intimately involved with someone else.  It is the same sentiment that leads a man to kill his wife and her new boyfriend in a fit of rage.  It is a defense of honor. It is an idea that the other person did damage to you or the reputation of what you value and now deserves to be harmed in return. But this kind of behavior does beg a question about character and specifically the character of a person who thinks violence is their right when insulted.

Since I am not an expert on Islamic teachings, I will leave that analysis to those who are and stick to what I do know.  What I do know well are teachings of another man who is recognized as a prophet by Muslims and that is the man named Jesus. The one who is called both “word” and “truth” in the Bible:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know  my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”  (John 14:6-7)

We, in this age of democracy and freedom of the press, can easily forget history. But there was a time not too long ago when insulting a king could cost a person their head.  Throughout human history leaders have demanded, upon penalty of death, that their image be honored and even worshipped. In the time Jesus lived and his followers after it was no exception.  There is speculation that the last book of the Bible was written in response to imperial cult in Rome to encourage believers who had to choose between faith and physical life.

A Different Image of God

Jesus was also referred to as a “king” or “lord” in scripture and yet one quite different from others in example.  He was was the king who served in the lowliest capacity and in a way that even confounded his most loyal followers.  He claimed a different type of leadership, a leadership by example and a radical idea even today in a day of competing individual rights:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)

It is really an impossible standard in human terms.  Even self-proclaimed Christians are seemingly not able to live out this standard.  I am often caused to wonder about this commitment when I see outrage expressed over a song being played that openly calls religion a lie and overt concern with individual rights among those claiming to be of Christian faith.  It would appear the image of Jesus some claim to defend with their anger is more like the prophet Muhammad than the man described as being stripped naked, beaten mercilessly without a word, humiliated and killed like a common criminal.

Killing as a response to blasphemy is not unique to Islamists and was taught as part of the law of Moses in the Bible.  This Biblical law was enforced in ‘Christian’ United Kingdom (fully up until 1697 and in part until 1921) before falling out of favor.  We could blame religion for this idea of killing to honor or defend a person and idea, but that would be ignorant of the many examples of those who killed only because they themselves felt disrespected.  People have killed in the name of ideas ranging from defense of the Constitution of the United States to Imperialism and Marxism.

Does real truth need to be defended by killing those who dishonor it?

I believe an idea that needs us to kill to defend it is a weakling idea.  A god established on the blood of those who offend is a puny god indeed.  Unfortunately people like little gods and that includes many “people of the book” who confuse Bible for God and their own ideas for truth.  They confine God to the understanding of their own mind and the work of their own hands.  These are the fundamentalists who take offense on behalf of ‘truth’ and kill to defend it.  But I believe in a truth greater than my own mind, one that frees me of need to kill others to defend it and is personified in our following the ultimate example of self-sacrifice:

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  (John 8:31-32)

Many have killed in the name of Jesus.  Many feel God is honored in their defense of prophets or books.  Many study the scripture diligently without ever finding the word of God despite their best efforts and that is in fact recorded in the Christian scripture in John 5:16-47.  But there is another way to live.  I believe in a “way” a “truth” and “life” that is bigger than mere human knowledge.  I believe in an advocate that is beyond my own efforts to religiously memorize texts or methods.  The truth is a spiritual person and teacher, not a book or religion:

“If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be  in you. […] But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  (John 14:15-17, 26)

A Different Defense and Truth

The bigger view is that God can speak for himself and real truth does not need murder to protect it.  Silencing the voices that oppose us is a weak defense.  Do not kill the messenger and think you are defending truth.  Instead, speak the truth with love, because God is love.  There are many ideas that people use as justification to kill, but just one that is worth dying for and that is love.

“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”  (Luke 12:11-12)

The law brings judgement, but the Spirit brings love and life. That should be our source and guide to all truth.

The Most Dangerous Book in Existence

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Books are powerful and there is little doubt of that. Their words carry ideas far beyond those who wrote them. The power of books is widely recognized and that is why they are written; that is why books are removed as a potential threat. Books have undoubtedly had a huge influence on the course of history.

Books carry both good and bad messages. Books have popularized ideas that have led to hate and harm of people. If one were to list the most dangerous books in history there are many titles that might come to mind. Books such as Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Communist Manifesto can be linked to political purges, religious persecutions and genocide. With each title one could discuss the human causalities related to each and try to rank them.

However, there is one book that perhaps is more dangerous (especially spiritually) than all of those titles combined and that is the book this blog is about. It is a book so powerful that it has been used to create sectarian division within the very group it was written to inform. Knowledge of this book has historically caused some religious experts to reject as a false teacher that others believe it was written about. It is a favorite source of ridicule of those skeptical of the truthfulness of the ideas it contains. This is a book that was used as a means to tempt Jesus. This one book is actually a combination of books that were compiled into the single book which is now called The Holy Bible.

The Bible is arguably one of the most influential books in all of human history. The Bible carries both great potential for good in the right hands and also a terrible power for evil used wrongly. It has inspired some to great acts of self-sacrificial love. It has been used by others as justification for violence. The power and potential of the Bible is in the hands of the interpreter.

Biblical reformation, the division in the church and the interpretation question

Biblical fundamentalism is branch of Christianity that has become popular since the Protestant Reformation. It is a belief system made possible with the invention of the printing press and widespread availability of Biblical texts to the general public. This wresting of control of the church from the institutional church and new emphasis on a written text was a significant development in church history; it seemed necessary at that time as a reaction to the abuses of the institution of church.

Unfortunately, as reactions often do, the resultant bibliocentrism has also created a great deal of other problems. The biggest of those problems is the all too obvious explosion of sectarian divisions within the church. The confusion is evidenced in the reality of the over 30,000 separate church denominations in existence today. The widespread availability of the Bible has clearly not created church unity. It has rather clearly created the opposite and a spirit of division.

Those of the Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) view cannot agree on how Scripture should interpreted and let alone how it should be applied. Those who believe the Bible is sufficient alone put the interpretation of their own group and own personal interpretation above all others, each believing they are more correct than the others. Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

Bible based faith produces results that are wildly different from person to person. I know a guy who believes sincerely that the Bible teaches that Christians should basically be like ISIS and should either remove (kill) unbelievers entirely, subjugate them or enslave them and he has many proof texts to support his position. I know of many others who believe that the Bible teaches pacifism, endorses state socialism or forced wealth redistribution and they too can produce many supporting texts. I know some who based in their own understanding of the Bible believe Jesus was not God.

We could go through Scripture with a variety of people and get completely contradictory perspectives on what it actually says in many significant areas. On the basis of a few snippets of text, on a specific definition of a word or two and on the base assumptions they brought into their reading people have built whole doctrines. Different hermeneutic (or interpretive) approaches produce greatly different theologies that are contradictory in their extremes. The Bible is a great source of confusion.

People in the church cannot even agree on an appropriate translation of Scripture. Some will insist an earlier Old English translation of the Bible is more accurate than others and can give complex rationals in support of their position. Some even teach the one version they believe in is the only acceptable ‘inspired’ version. Varying degrees of literalism have led to many disputes within the church. Some believe the Bible teaches that the world is flat based in their dogmatic literalism. Others see more figurative speech, more allegories and metaphors.

Whole doctrines built off of words or phrases that aren’t clearly understood and yet are assumed to be understood in ignorance. The Bible, according to 2 Peter 3:15-16, describes concepts that are difficult to understand and words which can be misused in ignorance:

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”

In the hands of “ignorant and unstable people” the Bible is potentially destructive. I believe we do not need to look far into history to find many examples of where this has been the case. If you do not know examples, then I will present the Münster Rebellion and the Bible-based predictions of Harold Camping as examples of Biblical application gone badly.

So, to my friends of Christian faith: Be humble, be diligent and do not ever believe your own knowledge of Scripture is without potential error. Faith cannot be in reading the Bible alone, there must be source greater than the Scripture that guides us spiritually and that is where the Spirit of God comes in.

Biblical literalism, the rejection of Jesus and the Elijah Question

Error is not a new problem with those attempting to interpret the written text of Scripture for themselves. Jesus himself was rejected on the basis of the Scriptural interpretation of those who knew the bulk of the book (we call Bible) better than most of us probably ever will or can hope to so many years removed from the culture and people it was written to. The Pharisees knew their Bibles well and also knew what it said about the Messiah.

Based in Malachi 4:5-6 there was an expectation that Elijah would return before the Messiah. According to Jesus the prophet John the Baptist was Elijah and he is recorded having said that in Matthew 11:13-14:

“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

However, the experts on Scripture, who rejected Jesus, were evidently looking for some more literal. Perhaps they were envisioning Elijah returning in a spectacular way and hoped for a kingdom of physical world importance, who knows? But the answer Jesus gave did not satisfy them.

It is interesting that even John the Baptist himself denied being Elijah when questioned in John 1:19-21:

“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”

So, should we take John’s own words recorded in Scripture at face value? Should we believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:13-14 that contradict them? This is a serious problem for a literalist. This irreconcilability of message can easily explain the angst of those looking for a literal fulfillment of Malachi. Considering that John the Baptist himself would not claim to be Elijah probably caused some of the critics of Jesus to be even more secure in their own understanding of Scripture.

Luke 1:13-17, however, offers us this view of John the Baptist:

“But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.  And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

What Luke suggests is a literal return of Elijah, but not a literal physical return of Elijah and a spiritual fulfillment instead. John the Baptist was a return of Elijah, in that he embodied the “spirit and power” of the prophet, and yet he was not literally Elijah in physical form. To reconcile John 1:19-21 with Matthew 11:13-14, we can probably assume that John the Baptist was being humble in his answers, not even claiming to be a prophet, and that Jesus was exalting him as he should have been.

But, those who rejected John the Baptist as Elijah also rejected Jesus as Messiah and their knowledge of Scripture did not save them as they apparently believed it would. In John 5:30-40 this type of misplaced faith in Scripture is confronted by Jesus:

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

For those who believe that the Scripture is God’s own voice, I think they need to take heed of what is written above and understand what Jesus is trying to explain. The people Jesus spoke to were experts on Scripture, they were extremely knowledgeable of the books of the Bible they had and put faith in their knowledge of the text like many religious people do today.

Unfortunately, what their knowledge of the book could not give them is true faith that can only come from the Spirit of God. The passage above in some translations tells us that they “searched diligently” the Scripture and yet before that tells us they have never heard from God or had “his word” in them. This passage flies directly in the face of those who think the written words of Scripture are themselves the word of God.

Biblical temptation of Jesus and the authority question

I’ve had Christian friends post on social media a message similar to this:

“When you carry the Bible, Satan gets a headache. When you open it, he collapses. When he sees you reading it, he faints. When he sees you living it, he flees. And just when you’re about to re-post this, he’ll try to discourage you. I JUST DEFEATED HIM! Copy and re-post if you can. Any takers?”

I do appreciate the enthusiasm. But it is perplexing to me that a person who has read the Bible themselves can believe that. The account of the temptation of Christ should put that idea to rest. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all give an account of a conversation between Jesus and Satan that proves the exact opposite.

Satan is not afraid of Scripture. Satan cited Scripture and tried to use it to deceive Jesus. This is a version of that temptation in the Matthew 4:5-6:

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

That is a quote of Psalm 91:11-12 used by the devil to tempt Jesus!

We don’t actually defeat our spiritual enemy through our enthusiasm for the Bible. Evil is not afraid of the Bible. Evil men have long used the Bible to accomplish their own selfish ends and have deceived many using the book. It is not a book that will save us from temptation. It is not a book that will give us the right answers or knowledge to defeat those who attempt to deceive us. What we need is the same authority dwelling in us that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted in the first place. What we need is the word of God in us or the Spirit of God and then (and only then) Scripture will become profitable in our hands. We need the authority that gave authority to those who were inspired to write the Scripture.

It is a bit paradoxical that I am trying to explain this using Scripture what I do not believe Scripture alone can explain. But, it is because I believe those who are Biblically religious and yet truly spiritually seeking will understand through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Many simply give credit to the wrong source unknowingly. They allow the true authority to speak to them and still do not understand they are actually receiving their understanding through that authority. So, to them, those who are listening to the voice of Jesus in their heart even unknowingly, Paul gives us a solution to understanding Scripture in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16:

“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

To understand God in Scripture you must have the ‘mind of God’ in you first. It is not enough just to have knowledge of Scripture. Even the best Biblical doctrines and theology all will fall short if they are practiced by a person not also under subjugation to the Spirit of God. The words of the Bible are not magical in themselves, the words themselves are dead and the interpreter is the one who gives them life. And, to give the words of the Bible the right life requires that one have the “mind of Christ” while reading them and not any other.

The Spirit of God is the ultimate authority, the ultimate teacher and is the one we should trust when we claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Stay tuned, this will likely be a multiple part series…