The key to understanding the Bible is reading it

“You need to become a first century Jew.”

Oh, how many times I have heard this kind of thing from people discussing the New Testament. And it’s not, of course, entirely incorrect. The Bible was written for all of God’s people in every time and place, but it was not written to all of us. Each book was written to a particular ancient audience very different from us today. So, often enough, we can understand a book of the Bible better if we learn to put ourselves in the original audience’s place, to think and feel like they did.

My problem is with what people who say these kinds of things tend to mean. They don’t just mean we need to learn the perspective of the people the Bible was written to. They often mean we need to learn this perspective by studying a bunch of technical background stuff about history, anthropology, archeology, and everything else. And this is where I start feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying these studies are bad or useless. No, they are great and very useful. I think the work done in these fields is invaluable. And they work: the findings of historians and others actually do make tons of things in the Bible clearer. But do we really need them to get the majority of the Bible? Can we never know the real, original meaning of it all without the help of our scholarly magisterium? To put it another way, is the average Martin doomed to get everything wrong without top-notch commentaries to hold his hand? I can’t help but suspect the answer is “no.”

See, the key to understanding any text is to think the way that the author expected the reader to think. That’s the whole point of studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible. We can use what we learn to shift mental gears into the same configuration as that of ancient Israelites. But there’s more than one way to neutralize a Dalek, so to speak, and I think Martin Luther had the right idea.

Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is the Protestant belief that, ultimately, everything we really need to know about God can be found in the Bible. We don’t need a magisterium, Holy Tradition, or N. T. Wright’s marvelous book The New Testament and the People of God, however helpful they might sometimes be. Cue the ironically-named doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or the clarity of the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear, but the good stuff we most need to know can be easily found and proved.

I think this extends further than some people give it credit for, and not as far as others do. I don’t think this means that any Martin can just crack open a Bible and get any particular thing, even the Gospel itself, right at first glance. But on the second, or the third, or even the fourth time… Scholars put a lot of historical work into finding the worldview of the Bible’s first readers, but we can’t forget that the Bible contains its own worldview, at least implicitly. And the Bible is big. There is enough stuff in there to actually build an entire way of thinking, feeling, and doing. This is stuff that we absorb without even realizing it as we read. So if we absorb more as we read more, then our hearts will be filled more and more with the real Bible.

My point, then, is that this rare and mythical process—you know, reading—can actually give us the perspective we need. The more we consume the Bible, the more it becomes a part of us. “You are what you eat,” it is said, and this applies mentally as much as physically. Just like we digest food and use its parts to build our bodies, so we digest books and use their parts to build our minds. So if you read enough Bible, you will, perhaps slowly, begin to understand it more accurately.

Still, consistency, willingness to learn, and comprehensiveness are vital. Many people read the Bible their whole lives without learning to read it well. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. But, for many of these people, their reading has often been scattered, blocked by presuppositions they couldn’t give up, or neglectful of certain parts. This last one is a biggie. I would say without hesitation that many Christians get a lot of the Bible wrong because they don’t pay enough attention to most of what’s in Genesis 4 to Matthew 1, or don’t read/skim over books like Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Lamentations, or the Minor Prophets. Few Christians really get to know the Psalms, except for a few of their favorites, or the ins and outs of Jude. They’re scared of Revelation (except when they’re not and run over it like a toddler on a bulldozer) and Ezekiel. They’ve only read 3 chapters of Job, the first two and the last one. Yet we need all of these parts in order to learn to think like the Bible thinks, and so even get our favorite parts right.

So, in the end, my proposal is simple. If you read the Bible enough—and I mean seriously, not just like daily devotional material—you’ll learn it deeply. It will enter the crevices of your heart. Doing this over a long enough period of time can, when done well, truly make you a competent reader, up there with the scholars. You’ll be that first century Jew, just by a different route.

(P.S. I’m not claiming to have scaled these heights yet. I’ve cheated by reading excellent Bible-readers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts, among others.)

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If The Shack isn’t heresy, it might be worse

I argued earlier today that the charges of heresy leveled at The Shack really don’t hold up. This was, of course, a rather controversial claim. But what I’d like to add to the previous post is that The Shack being non-heretical doesn’t make it okay at all. In fact, it might make it much worse.  How do I mean?

The most insidious lies often look a lot like truth. The most dangerous scams are the ones that have some genuine credentials. And in this case, a Christian book can cause more damage if its overall project is deeply flawed while nonetheless at a technical level skating past the charge of heresy.

Make no mistake: even if I’m right that Young’s sketchy-looking theology can mostly all be classified as muddy represenations of some orthodoxy traditions, that doesn’t mean his overall project is okay. It is skewed toward a progressive perception of God as essentially toothless love, as egalitarian relationality with no concept of standard or holiness. These are framed in a way so as to not technically violate any orthodox doctrines, but create a bizarre and deficient view of God. Tim Keller put it well in his reflections on The Shack:

But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible. In the prophets the reader will find a God who is constantly condemning and vowing judgment on his enemies, while the Persons of the Triune-God of The Shack repeatedly deny that sin is any offense to them. The reader of Psalm 119 is filled with delight at God’s statutes, decrees, and laws, yet the God of The Shack insists that he doesn’t give us any rules or even have any expectations of human beings. All he wants is relationship. The reader of the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah will learn that the holiness of God makes his immediate presence dangerous or fatal to us. Someone may counter (as Young seems to do, on p.192) that because of Jesus, God is now only a God of love, making all talk of holiness, wrath, and law obsolete. But when John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, long after the crucifixion sees the risen Christ in person on the isle of Patmos, John ‘fell at his feet as dead.’ (Rev.1:17.)

All of this is far more dangerous and insidious when heresy is technically lacking. Where heresy is clear and obviously present, people can far more easily avoid danger. But when the danger hides behind orthdoxy, attempting to introduce a heterodox worldview behind technically orthodox doctrines, much more damage can be done.

This is the problem with The Shack. It takes the cover of acceptable doctrines in order to promote an imagination and worldview for Christian thought that funds modern progressive theology, the kind that leads to the dissolution of Christian beliefs on all sorts of important issues. So bear that in mind as a qualifer on my last post.

A reluctant defense of The Shack

One of the few things as bad as heresy is accusing people of heresy when it’s not justified.

Unfortunately, a lot of conservative Christians spend a lot of time doing just that. Especially the ones who get into Reformed theology, for whatever reason. This is a shame, and I wish we as a whole would repent.

This most recently has come to my attention with the hubbub surrounding the movie adaptation of The Shack. The heresy hunt has come out full-force, warning Christians not to go see what might just be the most theologically awful movie since The Da Vinci Code (but even more dangerous since it pretends to be Christian).

The problem for me is this: I think we’re dealing with mass hysteria caused by reactionary impulses rather than reasoned reflection. Some of the charges escape this fault, to be sure, but many of them have other problems (such as insisting that everyone but Calvinism is terrible theology, etc.).

Now, that said, I would not point to The Shack as good theology. That would be a stretch. I wouldn’t even use it as a Sunday school illustration because I think much of it is muddled and problematic. But to say something has bad theology is one thing. To call it heretical is on another plane altogether. I have no sympathy for this latter move in this particular case. We must always seek to give people the benefit of the doubt, read charitably, and interpret anything which can be interpreted non-heretically as non-heretical. Sometimes after doing all of these things we will still find heresy, but from what  I can tell this is not the case in The Shack.

This brings me to my reluctant defense. I want to address the most common criticisms, and I will do this with reference to an image I saw on Facebook from Presbyterian Memes listing 13 heresies:

Phew, that’s a list. Here are my issues with it:

  1. This is not what is says. Though Papa does say, “We were all there,” and bears scars, this does not imply the heresy of patripassionism to which the point refers. Instead, it really only implies the orthodox and biblical doctrine of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, where the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, etc., as John 14 and 17 mention.
  2. That’s not really what it says, so I’m not sure how to counter it. I am curious, though, how this is different from the popular view that God is required to damn people according to His justice (limited by His justice) and therefore cannot practice love without the atonement first.
  3. God did forgive all of humanity, regardless of whether they repent or not. That’s just universal atonement, which is the true and correct doctrine of the atonement despite Calvinist eisegesis and protest. In any case, how is this heretical unless Arminians and most Baptists and whatnot are all heretics?
  4. That’s just not what it said.
  5. That’s a superficial reading. Young is basically going with a more Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Orthodoxy and many early church fathers, not Buddhism and Hinduism) conception of God’s wrath/judgment which is based on the organic relationship between sin and death or non-being. Is this the normal Western framework behind most of Protestantism? No. Is it heretical? No.
  6. That is the correct, orthodox understanding of the Trinity, unlike the Eternal Functional Subordinationism being touted these days by people like Wayne Grudem and others.
  7. Meh, that’s a criticism which could be thrown at any Arminian, or C. S. Lewis’ “Thy will be done” view of Hell, etc. Calvinists may disagree, but it’s not heresy.
  8. That’s not really what it says, either.
  9. Again, while Young probably leans (or leaned) that way, the book does not make this explicit. Even then, whether universalism is truly heresy or not is a controversial and questionable issue.
  10. That’s a bit of a caricature, and what is actually in The Shack is no worse than the view of inclusivism (explained here), held by C. S. Lewis, the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (kind of) who invented the purely symbolic views of the sacraments which most evangelicals these days seem to hold, and the great early church apologist Justin Martyr, among others. May be wrong, but still not heresy.
  11. I don’t remember what this is in reference to, sadly, so I can’t really comment on it.
  12. That’s also not explicitly taught in The Shack.
  13. It does not at all say, “The Bible is not true,” so this is silly. It certainly subordinates the Bible to Christ, but that’s just orthodoxy. It also does hint at a more progressive view of Scripture, but your view of biblical inspiration is not a matter of heresy one way or the other.

So, that concludes it. For these reasons I don’t think The Shack is heretical. Does it have problems? Yes. Does it lean towards social Trinitarianism? Yes. Is it very, very non-Calvinist? Yes. Does it have progressive and Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Christianity, again, not Buddism) tendencies? Yes. But are any of these things heresy? No.

I wish we as conservatives could start using charity, stop being contentious, and overall use prudence in how we throw around the term “heresy.” Human beings are at stake here, and they’re in as much danger from contentious heresy-hunting as they are from actual heretics.

When the world is absolutely broken

[Trigger Warning: I am not the world’ biggest fan of trigger warnings, but I’m also not their worst enemy or opposed to them all in principle. In this particular instance, I feel the need one for, because this post will include discussion of child sex trafficking and related abuses.]

I just finished another one of Steven James’ Patrick Bowers books (see here for my last post on them).

It was hard.

This most recent offering, Every Crooked Path, tackles the topic of child sex trafficking. It is dark and frightening, and as a father myself I often needed to intentionally keep my imagination at bay lest I fall into despair at the idea of my children going through the events it describes. A lot of people should probably not even attempt to read it.

This isn’t to say that James is gory, graphic, or gratuitous. He’s pretty reserved in how and what he describes, but even so the things which are going on, and the gaps he leaves to the imagination, are harsh. The plot is about a group of child porn producers called the Final Territory. They kidnapped children, often brazenly, and kept them for molestation/torture/porn production for 6 months to a couple of years. Sometimes they would even go live and take requests.

To get away with all of this, they made use of the Dark Web, a massive underground part of the Internet which connects through Tor, a highly encrypted and anonymous network which must be accessed by a special Tor Browser.*

What is awful in this book is not so much the story itself, which if nothing else we can always remind ourselves is fiction, but the real-life data and information it contains. The story never happened, but the background which makes it plausible is basically factual. Children as young as the ones in this book are being taken. They are being abused. They are being molested, exploited, and put on the Internet (particularly the Dark Web) for the entertainment and profit of more people than you would be willing to imagine. And it’s not just a few children. There are thousands and thousands throughout the world.

This just brings me, then, to thinking about how absolutely broken this world is. It—including all of us who make it up—is depraved, wicked, broken, and self-destructive. We are evil, our communities are evil, this world is evil, and evil is ubiquitous. We live so much of our lives in largely willful obliviousness, pretending that our personal bubbles are the norm, with our highs as the normal highs and our lows as the normal lows.

As if this were not bad enough, we are often personally complicit in the worst ways of the world. The topic of Every Crooked Path is a prime example. It is our second glances that lead to lust, our lust that leads to watching porn, our watching porn that makes us want more in quanity and intensity, and our increasing demand that leads to a thriving and corrupt market which reaches out to include abduction, murder, torture, and molestation.

We are all guilty. We are all damnable. The world we create and live in, the world which creates us and lives in us, is rotten to the bone and devoid of all hope in itself. Nothing from among us is sufficient to solve this. None of us have the power to end these atrocities. We can fight, and we must in order to stem the tide of evil, but the corruption in the world is too extensive to be truly and fully healed by human efforts, even divinely blessed and Spirit-empowered ones. The problems run too deep for anything but total gut job, for humanity to be broken down all the way to the roots and built a new. We are stuck on a plane far too finite and compromised to solve the absolute brokenness of the world.

There are only two options once we realize and accept this. We can cling to eschatology or fall into nihilistic despair. Or, to put it in simpler words, we can hope for Jesus to return or give up all hope for all things. The world is either worthless and meaningless, with this present evil age being a fluke of cruel apathy, or it has a destiny in resurrection. If the former, we have nothing. There is only extensive and pointless suffering and brief, superficial joy, both of which are ended when we collide with death. If the latter, there’s a reason to breath and fight. We can’t prove which of these is true. But only one choice of these allows us to survive in the absolute brokenness. We need faith for absolute restoration. We need to cry out for an absolute Savior.

*It’s not actually difficult to access the Dark Web. It’s as simple as downloading and installing the Tor Browser, which is just a modified version of Firefox. But the Dark Web is a labyrinth, hard to search, and many websites can only be accessed if someone on the inside gives you the URL. Also, as a side note, the Dark Web is not all bad. It’s also used by political refugees/dissenters, whistleblowers, persecuted religious groups, ordinary people in heavily censored countries, and even law enforcement or intelligence agents.

2016 Reading…With a Chainsaw

I’m sure if you’re a reader, or have friends who are, you’ve seen this meme on Facebook by now: 

Well, for a little fun, I’ve decided to post my results for every book I read in 2016. Enjoy: 

  • On the Christian Life with a Chainsaw — John Calvin 
  • Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc with a Chainsaw — Mark Twain 
  • Alice in Wonderland with a Chainsaw — Lewis Carol 
  • The Trinity with a Chainsaw — Loraine Boettner
  • The Epistles of John through New Eyes with a Chainsaw — Peter Leithart
  • Onward with a Chainsaw — Russell Moore
  • On Christian Liberty with a Chainsaw — Martin Luther 
  • The Innocence of Father Brown with a Chainsaw — G. K. Chesterton 
  • Water Walker with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker
  • Red with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker
  • The Bride Collector with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker 
  • Showdown with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker
  • Saint with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker 
  • Sinner with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker 
  • A Personalist Doctrine of Providence with a Chainsaw — Darren Kennedy
  • Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church with a Chainsaw — Myk Habets and Bobby Grow
  • Family Worship with a Chainsaw — Donald Whitney
  • The Pawn with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Rook with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Knight with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Bishop with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Queen with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The King with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • Checkmate with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Unlikely Disciple with a Chainsaw — Kevin Roose 
  • Transformation with a Chainsaw: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel — David deSilva
  • Orthodoxy with a Chainsaw — G. K. Chesterton
  • Revelation for Everyone with a Chainsaw — N. T. Wright
  • Justification with a Chainsaw: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision — N. T. Wright
  • Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation with a Chainsaw — Donald Bloesch
  • Christian Dogmatics with a Chainsaw — Michael Allen and Scott Swain
  • The High House with a Chainsaw — James Stoddard
  • One Sacred Effort with a Chainsaw: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists — Chad Brand

    I’m sure I forgot a book or two, but in any case this should provide enough amusement. Oh, and here’s what I’m working on right now: The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons with a Chainsaw by T. F. Torrance.