Corals, Kings and Conservatism

Ours is a world infatuated with progress, novelty and consumption. We don’t make things to last, because who wants the pressure of buying something that’ll last forever? Are those who bought shoes with flashing lights in them glad that they fell apart two years later? I certainly hope so. We want to move forward, not look back.

The Christian world is not exempt from this mood. Doctrine, orthodoxy, heresy, liturgy and the like have all become dirty words for younger Christians. It is fashionable for us to be suspicious of the authority of tradition, the received wisdom of our parents and their parents before them. We don’t want the Doctrines Of Our Forefathers when we can have the vital, lively experiences of life in Christ in the present.

Well, as with mullets and moustaches, regrettable fashion mistakes have a habit of repeating. The last few centuries have witnessed a constant stream of battles in ink over so-called Liberal theology, which also patterned itself as a fresh update of stale religion. There’s nothing new about a clash between those who have a conservative disposition and those who like change and progress. Nevertheless, Christianity needs both.

Seeing as the fresh and the new are in the ascendancy in the church, and conservatism is the musty, cheese-scented side of the battle, it is worth considering afresh why we need to appreciate the old. Continue reading

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Velvet Elvis overdose

velvetPostmodern-Christian writers are strange animals. They’re the first to speak about how impossible it is to connect truth and language, and how language fails when it comes to communicating anything about God. Yet they’re never short of words to tell the rest of us about God, and they expect us to understand them. They’re the most cynical about the misuse of language, and yet they engage in more rhetoric and manipulation than anyone, without regard for genuine argument or logic.

We’re having a postgraduate seminar about the ’emerging church’ tomorrow. The student paper on the subject looks at Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis (2005), and I got upset. So I thought I’d share.

*Note: Having just had the seminar, it is clear that the student has misinterpreted Bell in some respects, and at least not fully demonstrated his thesis that Bell is leaning on Brian McLaren’s thinking. So let me not take it for granted that Bell is fully in the Emergent line. Nevertheless, there are some worrying tendencies. Continue reading

Putting the X back in Xmas

There has been considerable furore in local Christian circles about the intentional secularising of the public face of Christmas. When quizzed about the absence of nativity scenes or even the word ‘Christmas’, shopping centres admit to actively de-Christianising the ‘Holiday Season’, much to the chagrin of Christians. I, for one, fail to see what the fuss is about. Continue reading

Growing Genuises

Government has long claimed that education is the key to a prosperous future for our country. Whether they’re doing their part is debatable, but it’s clear that the rest of us don’t believe that education is important. If we did, would we tolerate the drek that passes for kids’ TV?

Our apartheid past made it a virtue to keep in line, and avoid thinking or asking questions. Lack of education was a major tool in the subjugation of black South Africans. One would think, then, that having awoken from our stupor, we would fling off our dull shackles and breathe deeply of the fresh air of free thought. Given our past, it is surprising that education has not become a banner of triumph in our democracy, but it is thoroughly disturbing that South Africans seem more interested in the warmth and gloom of their old blankets.

We’re in need of thinkers who can steer the country wisely, and we’re in need of entrepreneurs, artisans and problem solvers who can create jobs and combat poverty. We know this, but what are we doing to nurture future leaders? South African kids’ media reveals what we think they ought to enjoy, and how we’re training our kids to play and learn. Consider this brief sample from our national broadcaster’s morning line-ups: Continue reading

Religion as the Enemy of Worship

A SERMON FROM AMOS 4

Introduction

In Amos 4 & 5, we look at God’s take on Israel’s worship. For us, worship is a subject of some confusion. When we speak about worship in the church, people are always very quick to point out that worship is not just singing, it’s our whole life. This is good and true, but the fact that it is necessary to have such a dictum reveals that we know that we’re often confused.

And of course, even when we remember that worship is a lifestyle, there’s still the question of what part our music and our church ceremony plays. For example, consider these two book titles:

  • Prophetic Worship – Releasing the Presence of God
  • (Winning Edge Min.) Worship Music in 3D: How to Sing Down the Presence and Power of God

Does our worship achieve this lofty end or not? Does God really need our permission to be ‘released’ or ‘present’?

And then what about lifestyle? We might say that our life is worship, but how widespread is this idea, and how seriously to we take the challenge? Continue reading

Shack Attack 4: Hierarchy & Organised Religion

In postmodern thinking, humanity’s greatest problem, and the greatest source of conflict, is power. A ‘power-play’ is an attempt by one person to gain power over another, whether by means of wealth, position or attempting to convert others to our way of thinking. Christian religion is seen as a major offender, claiming to have the final Truth, seeking to convert the world to its doctrines through dictatorial preaching, insisting that lives and cultures change in its wake, and promoting hierarchies and titles and formal church structures.

For Christianity to become postmodern, it would need to get rid of hierarchies and other unequal relationships, it must stop trying to change and ‘convert’ people as though they are somehow culturally inferior, and preaching of Truth would need to be replaced with mutual dialogue and sharing of stories. An attentive read of The Shack reveals that this is exactly what is happening. Is the postmodernising of Christianity a necessary update? Or what should be the Christian’s attitude to postmodern criticisms of formal church and hierarchical relationships?

The Shack teaches that relationship can only be genuine if there is equality. Relationship is destroyed by inequality of rank or by power. Even God must be down-to-earth, off-beat, a joker, a crier, a pal. How can I have a genuine relationship with God if He’s not like me? Observe the conversation between Mack and the Trinity starting on page 121:

Mack: “Isn’t one of you more the boss of the other two? … I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus the one following orders, you know, being obedient… The Spirit always seemed… a free Spirit, but still under the direction of the Father.”

[The Trinity express mock surprise and confusion, as though never having thought of it before.]

Spirit: “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command… What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually this is your problem, not ours.”
Jesus: “It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you. Once you have a hierarchy, you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.”

And on page 124, Papa says:

“We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love.”

So, the first question is whether or not hierarchies exist within God’s person, and then, secondly, whether hierarchy can possibly exist within Godly relationships.

My first quibble with the dialogue on page 121 is that it doesn’t represent a fair comparison. Young claims that a hierarchy immediately requires rules to protect it from abuse, which lead to systems of order that allegedly destroy relationship. In other words, in the presence of sin, hierarchy would lead to tyranny and exploitation. In the place of hierarchies, he is advocating relationship without power struggles, which seemingly would not need rules to protect it, and would require no system of order. However, this might possibly be true of the Godhead, because there is no sin, and therefore no chance of abuse. But is he sure that everyone will always be happy with an equal share? This dialogue entirely avoids proper discussion of whether or not hierarchy is actually to blame for abuse and exploitation, nor does it explore why hierarchy couldn’t work equally well under those same sinless conditions that saw the democratic ‘circle of relationship’ become his ideal.

In classical Greek literature, such as Plato’s Republic, long, careful discussion of the ideal form of government seeks to find what is the happiest form of individual and corporate life. Plato and Aristotle both agree that monarchy, an extreme hierarchy, is the ideal form of government, as long as the monarch is the best of us. If the monarch abuses it, it becomes tyranny, the unhappiest system. The weakest government, however, though the least open to tyranny, is Greek democracy, which, unlike modern democracy, was a flat, anarchical form of government.

How, then, does scripture view this issue? What kind of relationship does scripture teach?

HIERARCHY IN THE GODHEAD?
I fully support the view that there is unity and co-equality between the persons of the Godhead, and that obedience within the Godhead is springs from love, not fear. What is unsettled is whether a ‘chain of command’ or even a hierarchy upsets that love, unity and equality. The question of whether there is order in the Godhead depends on two things: Firstly, is the father-son relationship equal or hierarchical (because that is the way God has chosen to describe the relationship that exists)? Secondly, is Jesus God’s Son from eternity, or does sonship describe only the relational role that Christ took on when he took on flesh?

I am not sure that it matters too much whether we are able to answer these questions for certain. For what it’s worth, I do not think that the father-son relationship can be seen other than in terms of hierarchy (especially in God’s case, because it does not indicate that God biologically fathered Jesus; it is being used metaphorically to describe a relationship), and I understand Jesus’ sonship to be eternal. Consider the following verses:

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (Jn. 14:28-31)

“No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk. 13:32)

“To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations — ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ — [Psalm 2:9] just as I have received authority from my Father.” (Re. 2:26-27)

The coming of the Spirit is also at the direction of the Father (Jn. 14:16-17; Ac. 5:32) and of the Son (Lk. 24:49). The fact that it is the ascended Jesus who receives authority from his Father in Revelation 2, and that Jesus directs the Spirit from heaven in Luke 24, suggests to me that both Sonship and the Trinitarian giving of orders are part of the eternal relationship.

HIERARCHY BETWEEN GOD AND MAN?
Whether or not these verses settle the issue of Christ’s eternal sonship is not too important. Even if we assume that ‘sonship’ is only a function of Jesus’ humanity, dozens of passages in scripture teach that the ideal man (Jesus), in ideal relationship with God, enjoyed a hierarchical relationship with Him. If this can be scripturally demonstrated, then we are forced to conclude that hierarchy and order without sin is the best way to relate to God and one another.

So, look at the following scriptures:

  • Jn. 17:1-10 – God sent Jesus, and Jesus’ authority and people are God-given (cf. Mt. 11:27).
  • Mt. 20:23 – the Father determines places of honour in heaven.
  • Mt. 26:39 – Jesus follows God’s will, not his own (cf. Jn. 6:40).
  • Lk. 22:29 – the Father confers Christ’s kingdom on him.
  • Jn. 10:17-18 – “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life — only to take it up again… This command I received from my Father.”
  • Jn. 5:19-30 – the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing. The Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son. As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself (cf. Jn. 6:57; Jn. 8:28; Jn. 12:49-50)

No doubt, there are many things that show a reciprocal relationship between Jesus and God. He remains divine. It is telling, however, that the Father always occupies this place as commander, and Jesus always the place of obedience. This is never reciprocal. So, at the very least, ideal humanity does recognise God’s supremacy, and submits to Him in obedience.

IS POWER EVIL?
The Shack assumes that power hierarchies are the cause of human conflict and misery. If we were in a ‘circle of relationship’, we’d have no need for rules and conflict. Contrary to postmodern preferences, God is also not ashamed of His power and authority over men. Jesus’ teaching was with authority and power (e.g. Lk. 4:36), and Jesus was given authority over people, notably from our eternal good (Jn. 17:1-2). Jesus urges us to fear God because He has the power to kill the body and throw it into hell (Lk. 12:4-5); and His wrath and power serve to advance His greater glory (Ro. 9:22-24). Finally, worship of God in scripture is based on His glory, power and authority (Jude 25; Re. 4:11). Hierarchy and power in God’s hands are not tools of evil, but rather tools of ultimate, eternal good.

SUBMISSION
If God is not ashamed of hierarchy, and if power can be a force for good, then how should we think of submission of the ‘lower’ to the ‘higher’ in hierarchies? The Greek word for ‘submit’ literally means ‘to arrange yourself under’, and so the idea of hierarchy is inherent to it. Here are some of the relationships in which submission is commanded:

  • Ro. 13:1-7 – We are to submit to rulers, both because law and order is God-given, and because if respect is owed, it must be paid. “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (cf. He. 13:17; 1Pe. 2:13-16).
  • 1Co. 16:15-16 – We are to submit to those who have given themselves to church ministry.
  • Ep. 5:21-26 – We are to submit to one another, but this does not mean that everyone submits to everyone (just as when we say ‘They killed one another’, we don’t suggest that everyone we’re talking about dies). It is a request to submit to any authorities that may be over us. Paul goes on to give examples. Wives, submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters (but there is no suggestion that this works in reverse too). Paul makes it clear that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is head of the church. Notably, though, headship is for love and for the benefit of the one who submits (cf. Col. 3:17-19; 1Pe. 3:1-6).
  • 1Co. 14:34-35 – Women should remain silent in the churches, and be in submission. “If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. This may be hard to stomach, but it’s no good pretending the Bible doesn’t say it. Hierarchy is certainly evident here (cf. 1Ti. 2:11-14 – “For Adam was formed first…”
  • He. 5:7-9 – God heard Jesus’ prayers ‘because of his reverent submission’, and ‘learned obedience’, even though he was a Son.
  • Ja. 3:17 – Heavenly wisdom includes submission
  • 1Pe. 3:21-22 – All powers have been placed under the authority and power of Jesus.
  • 1Pe. 5:1-5 The Elders are urged to serve in their leadership, not to lord it over others, the young men are told to submit to them, and all are to be humble, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
  • Ja. 4:7 – James gives us the crux of the matter. Submission to earthly authorities is a picture of willingness to submit to God. “Submit yourselves, then, to God” (cf. He. 12:9-10).

Conversely, rejection of authority is one of the characteristics of corrupt and sinful men (Jude 7-8; 2Pe. 2:9-10). So, we must be cautious about our attitude towards authority structures.

DOES AUTHORITY AND POWER LEAD TO ABUSE?
The great postmodern complaint with those in power is that power is easily abused. Scripture recognises that abuse is a great evil, but it does not take the unreasonable step of discarding authority entirely. So, leadership and headship exist, but it matters entirely how one leads. The ideal of leadership is service. Although Jesus is Lord, and demands obedience, he is also called our servant. So, there is hierarchy, but it is hierarchy of an unusual kind. Power is exercised for the benefit of those who are subject to it (cf. Mt. 20: 26-28; Jn. 12:26; Jn. 14:15; 1Pe. 5:1-5 in which elders must serve, and the common call for husbands to give up their lives for their wives).

WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
Perhaps more important than the question of hierarchy, is the question of whether formal religious structures, such as church programmes and professionals, are God’s plan, or a human perversion.

On page 178, Mack says that he can’t believe that the church is like a woman that Jesus is in love with.

Jesus: “Mack, that’s because you’re only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programmes… It’s all about relationships and simply sharing a life. What we are doing right now—just doing this—being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.”

Mack expresses relief that church is not ‘a bunch of exhausting work and a long list of demands’, and sitting in endless meetings, but just sharing life. Or consider page 179:

Jesus: “Religious machinery can chew up people! … I don’t create institutions – never have, never will… That’s an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I’m not too big on religion.”

Once again, the sentiment here is somewhat true. Church is not only institutions and buildings and positions. Church is a community in relationship, certainly, but it is a gathered community, and one that is governed by leaders in authority, and by rules governing conduct. Consider just some of the verses that indicate what the church is to be like, in contrast to the institution-free, ‘just-being-open’ church envisioned by Young.

  • Ac. 20:28-32 – The office of elder / bishop is the doing of the Holy Spirit, and their role is to protect the church from false teaching.
  • 1Co. 5:11-12 – The church is to judge the conduct of those who are part of the community, and expel any Christian who persists in sin and rebellion (cf. 1Co. 6:3-5). There is church discipline.
  • 1Co. 11:17-22 – Christians ‘come together as a church’, which suggests that it is a formal gathering, and in that gathering, there must be unity, and there is a right and wrong way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
  • 1Co. 12:27-31 – In the church, people of certain gifts and offices are appointed by God.
  • 1Co. 14:4-6, 19, 23-35 – Gifts exist primarily for the edification of the church, which suggests that in this meeting, the main point is teaching, but not to the exclusion of other gifts that build up the body. Outsiders who attend church meetings are thus convicted of sin and turn to Christ. As people share insights into the gospel, it is essential that there is order and restraint in the service, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
  • 1Co. 16:1-2 – On the first day of every week, which seems to have been the day on which the church met, collection for the church should be set aside.
  • 1Ti. 3:1-15 – There are offices of Elder, Deacon, and (probably) Deaconess in the church. There are a number of qualifications that office-bearers must exhibit.
  • 1Ti. 5:16-18 – The church has welfare structures (that should not be abused), and elders who direct the church, especially in preaching and teaching, are worthy of honour and a working wage from the church.
  • Ac. 15:1-2 – Serious church disputes were adjudicated by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
  • Tit. 1:4-9 – Paul commands Titus to ordain elders of certain qualifications in every town church (cf. Ac. 14:23).
  • Ac. 2:41-47 – There were basic practices that characterised church meetings.
  • He. 10:25 – Christians are warned not to give up meeting together.

So, our God is a God of orders and structures. Church offices, such as eldership, and ‘paid ministry’ do in fact originate in the mind of God, and the church expresses itself by gathering. As much as the postmodernist would like Christianity to be devoid of structure and meetings and expectations, these are quite clearly there, and they exist for our good. Young would have us all being in vague relationships, rather than defining ourselves by titles and structures called Christianity (“Jesus: “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian…” – Page 182), but Christianity is defined by scripture, and is something worth protecting. Our eternal hope depends on it, and the church is God majestic plan to see our hope realised (Ep. 3:10-11).

Relationship, then, is indeed the centre of God’s plan and purposes for people, but it is a modern assumption that hierarchies are necessarily an impediment to that. It seems to me that God’s plan for us is to give each person his due, but not necessarily to treat each person identically. A hierarchical arrangement of society can be good, as long as we all observe godly character within that structure: and godly character is demonstrated by our Lord, who though divine…

“… did not come to be served, but to serve.”

UNNECESSARY PARTING SHOT
Young has a final dig at hierarchies and order by criticising the idea that God should be our priority.

206 – Mack: “But don’t you want us to set priorities? You know, God first, followed by whatever?”
Spirit: “The trouble with living by priorities is that it sees everything as a hierarchy, a pyramid… If you put God at the top, what does that really mean and how much [time given, etc.] is enough?”
Papa: “I don’t just want a piece of you and a piece of your life… I want all of you and every part of you and your day.”
[This is followed by the image of a mobile in which God is the centre and everything is connected, and the Spirit moves everything “in an incredible dance of being”].

As true as it is that God wants every part of our life, the call to prioritise and the ‘incredible dance of being’ are in fact different images for much the same idea. The trouble with ‘God connected to everything in a dance of being’ is that people have a tendency to be lazy and presumptuous, even (or perhaps especially) in relationship. If you let a relationship ‘be’ for too long, you might find that you need to prioritise it in order to keep it vital.

Shack Attack 3: God’s Truth

The Shack by William P. Young has been hailed by the likes of Eugene Peterson, and continues to make waves in Christian circles. Should we join the author of The Message in praising its spiritual merits, or are its numerous points of controversy sufficient to make it spiritually dangerous?

A key article of the postmodern faith is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, which, when translated, means that postmodern culture disbelieves in the claim of any story to Truth-for-everyone. We are all free to name our own personal truths. So, postmodernism dislikes teachers, authorities and demands for obedience. Postmodernism prefers dialogue between equals in which stories can be shared relationally and without compulsion.

When disbelief in Truth finds its way into Christianity, it takes the form of rejection of Christian structures and teachers, especially teachers of the Bible or Christian ‘scholars’; disbelief in the final authority of scripture, which is rather seen as a human document describing relationship between God and man; it and it prefers a direct, unmediated dialogue with God. Postmodern Christianity stops just short of proclaiming God to be our equal, but the God of postmodernism is noticeably devoid of commands, demands and expectations. God wants relationship with people, and so has stripped Himself of the power and ‘otherness’ that (according to postmodernists) would stand in the way of genuine relationship.

Of course, it is gloriously half-true that God is only interested in relationship, rather than people with the right answers in their heads. A living relationship with God is indeed the point, but it is a colossal mistake to imagine that relationship with God can be held in the absence of the terms that God gives for that relationship. Notice how the distrust of Truth works its way out in The Shack.

DISTRUST OF TEACHERS AND ANSWERS
Young’s ‘modernist’ character in The Shack is Mack’s father. He is a power-hungry, abusive authoritarian who cares about being right, but not about people. On page 107, Mack’s memories of devotions as a family include ‘boring’ exercises in right answers to the same old Bible stories. His father, using the traditional King James Bible, of course, would be drunk and beat him if he gave wrong answers.

Seminaries or Bible colleges also belong to the modernist, authoritarian worldview, according to Young. They are places where ‘answers’ are dispensed, and their Bible is presented as a dead rule-book for life. Mack is a seminary graduate, but looks back on that time with dissatisfaction. When the big revelation of God occurs, he finds that his training was far off the mark:

“None of his old seminary training was helping.” (Pg 91)

By contrast, the postmodern way is one of direct, unmediated relationship with God, unfettered by structures and formal traditions and rituals. Right answers are neither here nor there; it is about experiencing God personally. For example:

“The long ride actually gave us [God and Missy] a chance to talk” (page 173).

“[People and God] are meant to experience this life, your life, together in a dialogue, sharing the journey” (page 175).

Spirit: “Mackenzie, you can always talk to me and I will always be with you, whether you sense my presence or not.” Mack: “I know that now, but how will I hear you?” Spirit: “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours.” Mack then asks whether God’s voice will be clear so that he won’t make mistakes.
The Spirit answers that he will make mistakes, but will learn to better recognise God’s voice as they grow together in relationship (page 195).

Some of what Young teaches here is helpful (although well-worn territory in Evangelical circles). It is very true that right answers are no use if one has no relationship with God. What is desperately mistaken is the inference that relationship with God is held virtually face-to-face with God and outside of scripture.

To discuss this further, let’s examine the following quote from the book:

“Mack could not escape the desperate possibility that the note might just be from God after all, even if the thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary, he’d been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilised, while educated Westerners’ was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one, bound in leather with gilt edges. Or was that guilt edges?” (Pg 65-66)

This latter quote is shot through with cynicism and sarcasm (‘Guilt edges’? Come on!), and more than a few ill-conceived and imbalanced ideas. It raises the following questions that I’d like to examine:

  • Is it a Modernist idea that God communicates via scripture, rather than ‘overtly’? Where does the Bible tell us to expect God’s voice?
  • Has God’s voice been ‘reduced to paper’, and does the insistence on following scripture amount to ‘putting God in a box’?
  • Is insistence on ‘proper interpretation’ the same as mediating and controlling communication from God?

In answering these questions, I will appeal to scripture, which may seem circular, seeing as scripture itself is in question. But what else can claim to be our primary source for Christian belief? It is our only definite source of information regarding the gospel. Non-Christian historical documents mentioning Jesus are only a handful, and even some of their very brief comments about him are under dispute by scholars. So, if we had no Bible, we’d have no Jesus, no Gospel, no God the Father, no anything else.

It’s no good saying that we meet Jesus in the personal testimonies of others, because from where does personal testimony get its knowledge of the gospel? Nor does it help to appeal to direct experience of God, because how do you know it’s God you’ve experienced, and how do you know it’s the Christian God? Both of these appeals beg the question.

So, before we dismiss the Bible as second-rate ‘mediated’ revelation of God, or no longer essential to our faith, we need to see what scripture actually says about itself, and whether it allows us to hold such an opinion.

IS THE EXPECTATION OF GOD’S VOICE IN SCRIPTURE A MODERNIST IDEA?
Young would have us believe that ‘Moderns’ originated the idea that God’s overt communication had stopped and been replaced by ‘paper’. It is certainly true that some people in the Modernist era were scathing of the idea of the supernatural and thought themselves superior to the ‘primitive’ cultures of the past. But such people were therefore also opposed to the idea that scripture was of supernatural origin – another opinion that scripture will not allow Christians to hold.

But the idea that God’s voice is found primarily in scripture was not a Modernist one. In Exodus 20:19, having heard God speak overtly, the Israelites request a mediated word of God, namely, a God-ordained prophet, rather than the direct speech of God. Throughout the Old Testament, this pattern of communication remains the same. God does not speak directly with every Israelite, but via a small group of chosen mediators.

Scripture is very clear that it is of divine character and infallible, for example:

  • Scripture claims to be the very words of God (Romans 2:2)
  • Jesus says, “…the Scripture cannot be broken…” (Jn. 10:35)
  • Peter teaches that Old Testament Prophecy is not of human origin, but is the work of God’s Spirit. (2Pe. 1:20-21)

Furthermore, Jesus was clear that scripture remains relevant for future generations:

  • Jesus was fond of saying of scripture, “It stands written…” (the perfect tense, not the past tense), which implies that what was written in the past continues to ‘stand’ into the future.
  • In Matthew 22:31, Jesus answers a dispute by quoting words that God spoke to Moses. What is interesting is that he says that what is written is God’s speech to the reader! “Have you not read what God said to you…?”

Therefore, scripture itself claims to be God’s Word, and Jesus teaches us that that Word remains God’s speech to us.

One might be tempted to argue that scripture is insufficient, because it cannot address every circumstance that we might face. Paul says that Scripture imparts the wisdom of salvation and thoroughly equips God’s people for good deeds (2Ti. 3:14-17). Perhaps we only doubt the relevance of scripture because we are ignorant of the equipment that it provides, or have yet to learn wisdom?

One might continue to insist that a written document for everyone in history is not the same as a personal relationship. Are you sure? Indeed, it would not be, if we did not have God’s Spirit (who has come to us by means of the gospel we are now being tempted to call insufficient). But do not forget that we do not fully possess every promise of relationship in full measure. We are repeatedly reminded that we have hope, that is, something not yet fulfilled; that we live by faith, not by sight; and finally, ”Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1Co. 13:12).

While God is always with us, it is helpful to think of scripture as one would think of a letter from a loved one during a time of separation (we are called exiles in a foreign land, after all). A letter is deeply relational, though not face-to-face; it is precious and cherished and alive, not a dead word; it is a promise of a perfect relationship to come, though for now there is separation.

Let us not turn up our noses at scripture and ask for something ‘better’ before we have fully
plumbed the depths of the revelation that God has given us.

As we shall see, the consistent expectation in scripture is that God’s Word is heard in scripture. There are instances where God speaks to people (by angels or some other means), but no scriptural expectation that this should be our regular experience. The only passage that I can think of that might cause us to expect ‘overt’ communication from God is John 14:26:

“But the Counsellor, 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.”

This passage comes from Jesus’ last words to his disciples, and this promise is often mistakenly applied to every Christian. This cannot be so, because we cannot be reminded of everything that Jesus said to us if we were never present with him in the first place. This applies to the Apostles who were eyewitnesses, and were given the unique task of speaking Jesus’ words after his ascension. This leads me to the next question:

HAS GOD’S VOICE BEEN ‘REDUCED TO PAPER’? ARE WE ‘PUTTING GOD IN A BOX’?
As we have seen, God’s voice on paper is no less God’s voice, and it is not for that reason second rate. It is also true that God is not limited so that He is unable to speak in other means. It might be, however, that God has good reasons for limiting His communication mostly or entirely to the pages of scripture. It seems likely that God speaks in scripture for the unity and protection of the church body.

The Written Word unites
In Ephesians 4, Christian unity springs out of community love and service, which in turn springs out of the ministry of the teaching gifts. It is not doctrine that divides (on the contrary); it is false doctrine that divides. Having access to God’s Word in written form allows us to unite, because we have a written standard by which disputes and divisions can be
adjudicated.

The Written Word protects
It is a very persistent theme in scripture that God’s people are under threat from temptation, deception and false teaching. There were always groups teaching variations on the Good News (and any distortion of the Good News is bad news). There were gospels that put legal requirements in the way of grace, or that removed requirements from the gospel altogether and gave people licence to sin. Jesus and the Apostles are abundantly clear that introducing such falsehood into the gospel is Spiritually fatal. For example, the Galatian church is rebuked most harshly for their speedy decent into a false gospel:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Ga. 1:6-9)

Or consider what Peter says:

Peter calls Paul’s writings God’s wisdom, and “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore… be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (2Pe. 3:15-17). See also Mt. 22:29; Ro. 16:17-18; 1Ti. 4:1-13; 1Co. 15:1-4.

The written word is essential, because without it, the ‘true’ gospel would be a matter of hearsay and opinion. Hence, there is a strong emphasis on making sure that the Apostolic gospel is faithfully recorded and taught:

  • “[An elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers…” (Titus 1:9-10).
  • “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2Ti. 1:13-14).
  • “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2Ti. 2:1-2).
  • Notice how the NT writers insist upon the Apostolic gospel (or, if an Apostle is speaking, ‘our’ gospel): Ac. 2:42; 1Co. 15:1-4; 2Th. 2:13-15; 2Th. 3:6.

By contrast, false teachers deceive people by means of clever inventions, novelties and secret heresies, all of which might make the claim to have originated from unmediated communication from God to the teacher:

  • “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up” (Ga. 1:11).
  • “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (2Pe. 1:16).
  • “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies… In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up” (2Pe. 2:1-3).

So, even if we go so far as to say that God only communicates via scripture (an extreme that we need not be committed to), we still would not be limiting Him. What we miss out on (face-to-faceness in relationship for now) paves the way for freedom to be secure in unity and in the knowledge of God in the gospel, and not forever in doubt about whether we’re hearing the true Word of God or some false voice. In a world where sin persists, this is an invaluable gift.

IS “PROPER INTERPRETATION’ CONTROLLING COMMUNICATION FORM GOD?
Postmoderns don’t believe that someone else’s writing can ever be interpreted correctly, or accurately communicate truth. They believe that the reader brings so much prejudice that it hopelessly colours what is understood. How it is, then, that we are able to understand postmodern writings on this subject is perhaps a question that they can answer for me.

Young seems to share this kind of belief, claiming that an insistence on proper interpretation is an attempt at controlling and restricting what God says.

“…direct communication with God… was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book” (Pg 66).

If there is no such thing as correct interpretation, the alternative is chaos. One is able to invent any number of creative interpretive principles if one bends one’s mind to it. A Korean cult active in our area called The World Mission Society Church of God uses a snatch of Isaiah 34:15, “each with its mate,” as their interpretive key for scripture. Each verse has a ‘mate’ in an arbitrary location in scripture that unlocks its true meaning. Obviously, there is no regard for context or storyline under such conditions, and so the church believes that Christ has returned to Korea, and now salvation comes via the Spirit, whose true name is Our Heavenly Mother.

But scripture itself gives us no room to be postmodern in our attitude to interpretation. On two occasions, Jesus issues stern rebuke to those who interpret one passage in violence to another:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “’He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’“ Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’“ (Mt. 4:5-7).  

This passage illustrates that there is a way of interpreting scripture that is devilish. The fact that scripture is being used in no ways guarantees that God’s Word is being spoken. The Devil is not shy to proof-text his ideas from the Bible. It is only when scripture is interpreted with the meaning for which it was written that God’s voice is heard. Secondly:

“…You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mk. 7:8-13)

In this passage, the Pharisees have established traditions that are based on OT scriptures regarding the seriousness of vows. However, they have interpreted these passages in such a way as to commend a man for dishonouring his parents. Although these traditions are ‘biblical’, Jesus says that they have actually nullified the Word of God.

So, the insistence on proper interpretation does not hinder the Word of God, it prevents it from being destroyed.

Perhaps if more of our churches did insist on proper interpretation, instead of vague moral platitudes and proof-texts for the preacher’s rambling ideas, we’d hear the Word of God from our pulpits more often, and be less inclined to believe that scripture is devoid of God’s voice. It is serious study of scripture and correct handling of the Word of truth that is commended in scripture, and that is befitting of people indwelt by the Spirit of Truth (Acts 17:11; 2Tim. 2:15-18).