Monthly Archives: May 2013

Nothing new under the sun?

Burning sky sunset

The other day when I was reading George Eldon Ladd’s New Testament Theology (published in 1974) I came across his description of “the old liberal view” of Christianity, represented by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930).

Ladd begins with a quote from Harnack (page 55): “In the combination of these ideas – God the Father, Providence, the position of men as God’s children, the infinite value of the human soul – the whole Gospel is expressed.”

Ladd then describes Harnack’s understanding of the kingdom of God as “the pure prophetic religion taught by Jesus: the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the infinite value of the individual soul, and the ethic of love” (page 58).

Observations:

1. From my work with Christian college students, I suspect that a number of today’s young evangelical Christians would summarize Christianity similarly and would find this vision of Christianity to be quite appealing.

2. Harnack highlights some important biblical ideas here. God is called Father in a number of places in the Bible, and people are called children of God in certain passages. We do share a common humanity as individuals, and we all have been created in the image of God. Love is central to Christian living.

3. Harnack also leaves out crucial clarifications of these topics. For instance, the Bible reserves the “Father-child” (or “Father-son”) language specifically for believers – those who have been adopted into a new relationship with God through the sacrificial and saving work of Christ on the cross, and by the life-giving and transforming action of the Spirit (see John 1:12-13, Galatians 4:4-6, for instance). In addition, to limit Christianity to the teachings of Jesus (the “pure prophetic religion taught by Jesus”) ignores the purposeful, saving work of Jesus (namely, his sufferings, sacrificial death, resurrection, ascension, session, and return).

4. Harnack’s summary of Christianity basically amounts to an incomplete picture of biblical love: God’s universal love as Father of all and our need to love others by affirming their worth as a valuable part of God’s creation.

5. Once Harnack’s vision of Christianity is embraced (either explicitly or inadvertently), topics such as a final judgment, the distinction between the church and the world, Jesus Christ being the only way to God, the experience of conversion and new birth, and the need for evangelism and church planting seem more and more foreign and unnecessary. How does judgment fit into the picture if all people are children of God? What makes people within the church any different from people outside the church? If Jesus simply teaches about God, couldn’t others fill that role adequately as well? Why do I need to believe in Jesus and be “born again” if I am already a child of God? Isn’t it more loving simply to affirm others as valuable rather than to challenge them to repent and believe?

6. Back to my work with Christian college students, the topics mentioned in point #5 (judgment, church/world distinction, Jesus as the only way to God, conversion/new birth, evangelism/church planting) are the very topics that I find young Christians expressing misgivings about. There may be a cause and effect relationship here. Love can be defined so generically, apart from the broader biblical story, that the resulting definition no longer leaves room for these other biblical topics.

Evangelicals – those who value the evangel or euaggelion proclaimed by Christ and explained by the apostles – will notice the gospel being flattened or distorted in various ways in the culture around them. As currency specialists point out, the best way to spot a counterfeit is to be well-studied in the real thing. The full, rich gospel of Jesus Christ (regarding his person, teaching, and works) is presented clearly in the Scriptures for those who have ears to hear.

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Tipping Points – Understanding the Bible

This is the final post of our series on tipping points in the Christian life (a tipping point is “the one small step” that can lead to a “giant leap” forward in an area of life or field of study).

Today’s tipping points are small steps that can yield major leaps in understanding the Bible.

There is so much to understand in the Bible. Many of us are just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the Bible. Others are intimidated by the Bible, feeling that the theological, cultural, and historical obstacles of the Bible are difficult to surmount. But we can see breakthroughs in the way we understand the Bible if we are willing to adopt certain perspectives and practices in our Bible study.

1. Read the Bible according to its design and intent. See the Bible as the God’s disclosure of his character and his plans for us and for this world. The Bible is not simply a record of thoughts about God. God speaks through the prophets and apostles who wrote the books of the Bible. When we read the Bible we are dealing with divine revelation. The Bible is also not simply God’s instruction manual for how we are to live life.  In the Bible God speaks primarily to reveal himself and what he has done, is doing, and will do in this world, through Christ and by his Spirit. There is no more valuable pursuit than knowing our God: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let those who boast boast about this: that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24, TNIV).

Jeremiah 9:23-24 in Chinese

Jeremiah 9:23-24 in Chinese

This tipping point gives us the motivation we need when reading the Bible. We are learning about God himself, and we are encountering the good news of how he is re-implementing his reign over this world, through the sacrificial and saving work of Christ. Moreover, we learn that the God who reigns is also our Father, since those who have faith in Christ have been adopted into God’s special family and are in a permanent and intimate relationship with him as his plans for the world move forward. This ought to give our Bible study a sense of urgency and excitement.

2. Read words, sentences, and paragraphs within their greater contexts. Words are intelligible as parts of sentences, sentences are intelligible as parts of paragraphs, and paragraphs are intelligible as parts of entire books of the Bible (particularly in keeping with the genre of each book). The Bible contains discourse that is coherent rather than disjointed. The parts support the whole, and the whole gives clearer meaning to the parts. Since we know that the Bible communicates coherent discourse, we can study the Bible with persistence and hope. When the meaning of a passage is not immediately evident to us, we can be confident that additional examination of the context can yield more insights and uncover fresh connections within the text.

3. Read the Bible with covenantal sensitivity. God interacts with the world and the people of the world according to various covenants – from the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Israelites, and David, to the new covenant in Jesus. God does not change in his character, but he relates to people differently according to his covenant relationship (or lack thereof) with them. Understanding how the relationship between God and his people is defined in any given setting helps us make sense of each scene of the Bible. Without an awareness of the covenantal structure of the Bible, some of God’s actions, commands, promises, and responses will seem arbitrary and confusing (think of some of the conquest passages in the Old Testament, for example). Another way of looking at this is that we need to understand the overall, unfolding story of the Bible (which is carried along by covenants implemented by God) in order to see how the individual books of the Bible fit together as part of the bigger picture.

4. Read the Bible with the right outcomes in mind. This brings us back to the first tipping point in this post. The Bible is given to us to help us know God. He has chosen to reveal his heart in the words of the Bible. Our response each time we read the Bible should be to believe, worship, and obey God. God wants us to experience life-change when we hear his words, to be the wise builders of Matthew 7:24-27, or the observant mirror-gazers of James 1:22-25, or the emotionally responsive crowds (first mourning then celebrating) of Nehemiah 8:8-12.

Reading and studying the Bible can be a joyful and enriching lifelong practice. Reading the Bible as God’s purposeful revelation, according to its literary and covenantal context, and with a prayerful longing for life-transformation helps us break through barriers of aimlessness, confusion, passivity, and apathy in our Bible reading.

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Tipping Point – Christian Affections

At last check we were making our way through a series on “tipping points” in the Christian experience. This current post looks at the crucial adjustment that helps ignite our affections for God. In our Christian lives, we may believe the right things in our minds and practice the right things in our habits, but what helps our hearts to be drawn towards God in ever-increasing affection for him, so that we worship, trust, and obey him from the core of our being?

Monastery on top of Patmos

A critical step, or tipping point, for capturing our affections towards God is to learn to read the Bible with in a way that is sympathetic, first and foremost, to God’s perspective, rather than a human perspective. In other words, read the Bible with a sense of wonder, looking to appreciate God’s glory as we read. God cannot capture our affections for him if we are unwilling to trust him, by submitting ourselves to his revelation of himself in the Bible and see him for who he really is.

We are naturally inclined to place ourselves at the center of the universe and judge what we read in the Bible from that perspective. This can create skepticism and resistance towards God, especially when the way he acts fails to conform to our sensibilities. A great starting point for reading the Bible with God’s interests and viewpoint guiding us is found in Isaiah 55:8-9 – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Submitting to God’s revelation requires trust that “the Judge of all the earth does what is right” (Genesis 18:25).

It is entirely appropriate to read the Bible in this way, since the Bible is written with God as the hero of the overall story and in the individual passages. In Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s influential book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, the authors remind us, “In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story. . . . To miss this dimension of the narrative is to miss the perspective of the narrative altogether” (page 98).

Why is this approach to reading relevant to our affections towards God? Without an appreciation for God as the hero of the Bible we will yawn at glimpses of God’s holy majesty, bristle at scenes when God judges, underestimate the gravity of sin, or overlook the riches of God’s blessings for us. We need to have our attention focused on the beauty, power, justice, and grace of God at the center of the Biblical storyline. This grand vision of God’s greatness has fueled the worship and devotion of generations of believers. We should expect no less when we give God a chance to impress us when we encounter him in the Scriptures.

This process takes time. But once we are open to God being the center of the story, we learn to appreciate him on his own terms, without requiring him to fit into our preconceived notions of him, notions which are usually shaped by our own short-sighted goals and needs. And when we see God on his terms, we will grow in awareness of his beauty.

When we value God’s perspective and his glory above all things, Bible reading becomes a gateway into increased affections towards God and more ardent worship. We can emerge from reflecting on God and his word with the same sentiment that Paul expressed in Romans 11:33-36: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

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