Monday, December 26, 2011

The Word through the Words: Why the Entire Bible Is the Main Thing

The common, Neo-evangelical hermeneutic of the Bible today is rooted somewhat in Barth’s doctrine that the Scripture is really just about the Person of Christ, not individual teachings the Bible may put forth, many of which are merely the religious musings of men, who fallibly attempt to give witness to the Word behind the text. The Bible is inspired to put forth the Person of Jesus Christ, and since that is its main purpose, other teachings that are presented therein must be judged by the individual as to how they are to be appropriated. Although Barth rightly says we should not be the judges of Scripture, bur rather allow Scripture to judge us, his understanding of the Bible ends up undermining this otherwise correct doctrine. Some teachings may fit well with what one views as the Person and teachings of Christ, which are often limited to the Gospels (and sometimes to the kernel of what is thought to be the authentic teaching of Christ in the Gospels), and some may not, as the ideas of the human authors of these books are mixed in with the divine message they are presenting. Barth has many good things to say about the Spirit of God and the Scripture, but this isn't one of them, and it ends up reversing one's ability to know Christ by diminishing himself and allowing the Spirit to communicate Christ through the text. 

This hermeneutic is often referred to as “neo-orthodox” (an odd name, since there is very little orthodoxy in it), called as such largely because of its more allegorical emphasis of Scripture (and hence, a misnomer, since the Fathers weren’t all primarily allegorists—that’s a common myth), as a source of our experience with God. neo-evangelicals, of course, would not express their hermeneutic this way, as they would likely emphasize that the text speaks directly of Christ, but they too often emphasize the Word behind the less important words by talking about Jesus as the main thing, as opposed to other teachings in Scripture, or talking about essentials versus non-essentials taught in Scripture. Christ is one part of Scripture and the other lesser teachings, although divinely inspired, make up the rest of Scripture; but this is woefully flawed.

What this does is divorce the Person of Christ from the Scripture whenever we may think these two conflict. In all actuality, what conflicts is our distorted views of Christ that need to be corrected by the individual teachings we’re rejecting, but now because we’re rejecting them, Christ will never be known through them. In fact, we are essentially displaying our rejection of Him by rejecting these individual teachings because they shine a light on our claim that we are in submission to Him. His words express Him. Every issue is an issue of Christ and His Lordship. They are not side issues or the musings of religious men.

To the modern evangelical, Scripture isn’t about all of the individual teachings it puts forth, but mainly about the Person of Christ, who is distinct from those teachings. Hence, one can worship Christ while ignoring the rest of Scripture, or at least, while not being as concerned to get the rest of Scripture “right.” Hence, it’s about Jesus, or, as we are so often told, it’s about “keeping the main thing the main thing,” thus implying that there are minor teachings and major teachings in Scripture.

Now, a lot of this stems from the idea that one has to believe every orthodox teaching in order to be saved. That, of course, is false. One can be justified by the simple message that Christ died for the sins of those who repent and trust in Him without knowing that He is God, how atonement works, whether the whole world is in sin, etc. In other words, believing all of orthodoxy doesn’t save you. Believing the basic gospel message, which is the beginning of orthodoxy, does; but a belief in orthodoxy, once it has been presented to you, displays whether one is saved, because to reject those teachings is to reject Christ as Lord and His work as the God of creation and salvation in the world. Hence, to reject what Christ commands and still call Him “Lord” is a hoax, but one does not need all knowledge of Him to be justified. (As an aside, we need to understand that salvation is becoming conformed to the image of God's Son, and that being justified and saved from hell is the first step that we experience upon that path, but that questions of justification and what is required for it do not answer for us what is important for salvation as a whole, i.e., to know Christ by being conformed to His image).

Hence, in this line of thinking, the main thing, i.e., what is required to be saved, is confused with what displays the Person of Christ and lifts Him up as Lord in all things. One is about a basic understanding of with what the new believer begins his journey of knowing Christ and one is about the rest of that journey to know Christ. The beginning of the path and the rest of the path are not two paths to be divorced as though one had nothing to do with the other. Knowing Christ more is at the end of the path. Hence, both the beginning and the rest of the path is of vital importance for those who love Him and seek to know Him. As Paul says:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of  Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing  Christ  Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain  Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from [the] Law, but that which is through faith in  Christ , the righteousness which [comes] from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained [it] or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by  Christ  Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of [it] yet; but one thing [I do]: forgetting what [lies] behind and reaching forward to what [lies] ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in  Christ  Jesus. (Phil 3:7-14)

Think about Paul’s statement here for a moment. Everything he thought was true as a religious person is now counted as dung for the sake of knowing Christ. All of his experience, ideas, practices, everything is now to be considered a loss, something to be disposed of as garbage. He then tells us that he has not yet come to fully know Christ, even though that is the path He is on. He pursues Him in knowledge and in deed. This is no “I just concentrate on the main thing” argument. This is a “I want to know and experience all of who He is” argument, and that argument tells us that there is more to know of Christ than the basic gospel we have believed. There is a whole world of the Scripture that shows Him to us through its theology and ethics, i.e., the mind of God/Christ and the character of God/Christ to be displayed in us and conveyed through us.

In other words, the main thing is the whole thing, because the whole thing is the main thing, Christ. We are trying to say otherwise because we want to hold onto our experiences, ideas, practices, everything, and have Christ too. But Christ isn’t merely a name to be pasted on whatever set of religious beliefs and practices we may wish to hold, as though the “name of Jesus” meant only His literal name and did not refer to the entirety of the Person of Christ; but He is to be exalted over every lofty thing that would exalt itself over Him, and that means that the entirety of His revelation, displayed throughout the Scripture in all of its individual teachings are to be believed and practiced in light of Him and His work in order to exalt and know Him more and more. The entirety of Scriiptural teaching is the main thing, because it all testifies of Him.

The Barthian model argues that it testifies of Him in the sense of testifying of the main message of His deity and gospel work, and the neo-evangelical version tends to agree with this. To them, Christ is best known through the red letters in one’s Bible. The rest is best left alone to one’s own experience, as though each can begin to walk down the same path and end up in completely different places in their journey to know Christ. Yet the Bible speaks to us of a unity that is gained in the journey that stems from the truths we believe and the ethics we follow (Eph 4-6). We can walk this path together, precisely, because there is only one path to walk down. Multiple paths divide us, as though Christ is divided; but that is not in accord with the teaching even of those red letters.

Rather, what Christ says in contrast to this is that all of the Scriptures speak of Him. Whereas a Barthian model may think this is saying that the Scriptures do not bring to us individual teachings themselves, but just all point to the Person of Christ in a very generic way, what Christ is actually saying there in John is that everything the Scriptures say speak of Him because He is God. Hence, everything revealed of God, every command given, every promise made, should be taken seriously, precisely, because it all speaks of Him, and through Him all of it comes to life.

In other words, it is not a model that is Christ versus the individual teachings of Scripture, but Christ displayed through the individual teachings of Scripture. This is why not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away until all is accomplished. This is why the writer of Hebrews says that the Word of God that judged the Israelites for their disobedience toward the revelation given to them is living and active to do the same in his own day. This is why Jesus says in John that the Scripture cannot be broken, and thus, divided by listening to one part of it and not another.

The Christ versus the teachings of the Bible model, or what many will refer to as the Word of God (i.e., Christ) versus the words of God (i.e., the individual teachings of the Bible) is erroneous, because Jesus never set up that dichotomy, but in fact taught that we would have to not only pay attention to all that was spoken, but even to all that was implied by what was spoken (Matt 5-7).

Hence, people who argue that it’s all really about Jesus, and not about other theological or ethical teachings of the Bible are confused. They’re right that it’s all about Jesus, but those theological and ethical teachings are about Jesus. All of those supposedly minor doctrines taught in the Bible are about Him. All of those supposedly trivial ethical commands are all about Him. They’re all about Him, precisely, because He is Lord, and they all display His nature, His works, and His commands toward us as Lord in the work of our salvation. Jesus, therefore, cannot be divorced from the rest of Scripture, which is exactly His point in John. The Barthian model is a model that undermines His own teachings about Himself, and as such, must be rejected, lest it give honor with the lips but not in the heart, which is displayed in faith and deed. A denial of Christ’s oneness with the individual teachings of Scripture is a denial of His deity and authority. In essence, it is a denial that He is God, and therefore, the Lord who conveys His teachings throughout the Scriptures.

Hence, the Barthian, neo-orthodox, neo-evangelical, hermeneutic gets Christ wrong because it gets the Bible wrong. It diminishes the messages in order to exalt the Message, but the Message is conveyed through the messages, and this is what is not understood. The individual teachings of Scripture need to be pursued, because Christ must be pursued through them. To know Him more is to know them more. Without them, one might be saved, but in rejection of them, one cannot say honestly that he is.

Hence, we do not pursue them because we are attempting to be saved by them. We are saved by Christ and His work. But we pursue them because we have been saved and wish to know this Christ who has saved us all the more. Our pursuit is not one of seeking our own righteousness, as that needs to be a thing of our past, but instead, our pursuit needs to be one of love, and our zeal to know Him more through what He has taught through His prophets in the Old Testament and through His earthly ministry and apostles in the New Testament displays the love that has been placed within us by God when we first believed. Sadly, the disregard of the individual messages displays our lack of love for Christ, and that lack of love and desire to see Him exalted over us, shows us that we are not on the right path toward knowing Him.

So, indeed, He is the Word of God revealed through the words of God. They should not be set up as a false dichotomy, as though the Spirit of God who revealed the individual messages of Scripture is contrary to the Spirit who revealed the gospel of Christ. If evangelicals are to understand the full inspiration of the entire Scripture, and Christ’s words that it cannot be broken, where one piece can be discarded and others received, then a Barthian/neo-orthodox model must be rejected for the sake of knowing Him. We must count this hermeneutic as dung that, although attempting to do better than the liberal hermeneutic, falls too short and will inevitably lead us down the same divergent paths from Christ that liberalism sought to do. Hence, as the Lord told the devil, so we tell this devilish philosophy, “Man [shall live] by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

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