December 13, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 16, 2016

Walking Bridge Trail K, Photo by David Cornwell

Walking Bridge Trail K, Photo by David Cornwell

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 16, 2016

Today we begin a series of Monday posts with excerpts of Michael Spencer’s thoughts about the Bible and what it does and does not promise to do for us.

• • •

One of the aspects of “popular” Christianity that I really struggle with is the belief that the Bible has an authoritative pronouncement on everything. I simply do not believe that. In fact, the pursuit of that assumption has, in my opinion, some particularly bad consequences.

I don’t blame anyone for asking older, wiser, more experienced Christians for their input on difficult questions, but I do have problems with a posse of grinning, Bible-waving, know-it-alls constructing a house-of-verses answer to every question, and then defending their answer as if it were a recording of Jesus accompanied by a signed note from God.

I’ve written elsewhere that the belief the Bible is a collection of verses to be raided, rearranged and republished to answer every question is a misuse of the Bible.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t answer questions or that good answers can’t be derived from the Bible, but it’s important to say this: every one of the Bible’s specific answers to our questions must be preceded, surrounded and supported by the Bible’s most important messages: the Gospel, grace, the love of God and so forth. A book like Proverbs doesn’t provide answers for the Christian until Jesus takes us back into the Proverbs and every statement is seen in the light of God’s “final Word” in his Son. The Bible isn’t a grocery store full of whatever we need at the moment, but it is more of a recipe, whose many different parts give us one message: Jesus.

What discourages me most is the way those who believe the Bible answers every question then approach the Christian life. They really believe the Bible removes all the questions and all the uncertainty. With the Bible — and their interpretations, of course — you can calmly endure and experience anything with complete certainty that the answers you find in the Bible are the complete and final answers. The resulting arrogance in approach and manner is one of the most difficult obstacles to being part of evangelicalism.

I believe the Bible gives us complete and final answers, but I believe those answers are not designed to remove the experiences of grief, faith, doubt, risk, questioning or uncertainty, but to give us the ultimate answers from God to our entire dilemma.

Years ago, two boys drowned in a community where I was on church staff. It was an unspeakable tragedy, and no one knew what to say. The minister at the funeral sought to comfort the family with his discovery that “God needed two angels, and he chose these boys.”

Such an answer can be faulted many different ways, but what interests me the most is that the minister believed he MUST say something certain, so he came up with this piece of popular mythology.

In fact, such tragedies are horrible features of a fallen world. They are part of our creaturely dilemma. Accidents happen because of many things that come together, most of them out of our control. We can rail at God for not stopping things, but we could just as easily rail at God for not making us all fish or for giving us lungs or for causing us to feel love.

Our “answer” is the Bible’s message of the human dilemma, the cross and resurrection, and the promise of the Gospel that God is restoring and resurrecting this world as a new heaven and a new earth where death is defeated.

In the meantime, we weep, grieve and lament. Not like those with no hope in Christ, but as those who do.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    Sometimes I think Michael was ‘an old soul’. He instinctively drew from very deep roots into the ancient Church. We rarely see writing with this much clarity among our present-day theologians.

  2. “They really believe the Bible removes all the questions and all the uncertainty.” That’s what we so long for but can never wholly attain; the authoritative answer to questions and an air of certitude. ‘I know!” Unfortunately that could never exist without the evil root of pride. It becomes a selfish certainty. Embracing our unknowing and living joyfully in it is the beginning of humility. That is not to glory in stupidity but rather to begin to grasp reality with mind and heart as it is and not how we wish it to be.

    • I believe, help my unbelief. This real statement that I cry out most days helps me to stay dependent on Christ. Honestly, I don’t want to be certain, I don’t want to say I understand it all. I desperately want to keep learning and growing in my faith. As you say so well, “Embracing our unknowing and living joyfully in it is the beginning of humility. That is not to glory in stupidity but rather to begin to grasp reality with mind and heart as it is and not how we wish it to be.”

      • Rick Ro. says:

        –> “…I don’t want to say I understand it all. I desperately want to keep learning and growing in my faith.”

        Yes. And the day I say, “Hey, I think I have God figured out,” is the day I will know I’ve become a Pharisee.

      • Yes LM.

    • Ronald Avra says:

      Chris, that is a very good insight.

    • Stephen says:

      Well I want to be certain about the things there are to be certain about and I want to understand the things there are that can be understood. And the only way to do that is to keep pushing up against the boundaries of certainty and understanding. Absolute certainty and absolute knowledge are unattainable in this world but many of us are prepared to abandon the struggle much too soon. And humility is the most overrated of all the virtues.

      • “…humility is the most overrated…” Are you certain?

        • Rick Ro. says:

          Yes, that seems a most curious position. I’d like to know the thoughts behind that statement, too.

        • Christiane says:

          I also would like to know Chris’ thinking on that comment about ‘humility’. Sometimes we mean different things when we use a term and we need to talk about it to fully understand where the other person is coming from.

      • Stephen says:

        I note that very few of the characters described to us in the Bible can be said to have possessed humility. Was David humble? Jacob wrestled with god and received his blessing. Job insisted on pleading his case before god and received a vision out of the whirlwind. Would you really describe the Apostle Paul as humble? I do not think the Almighty trembles before our searching.

        • Rick Ro. says:

          Good examples, yes. Interesting point, then. Jesus was humble in most things, but certainly not in all of them, especially his clashes with the Pharisees.

          I’ll have to mull on this idea for a while!

        • LM (Linda) says:

          I was recently advised to keep my focus on the Lord, and not on myself. This is humility to me. The abilities that I have are all a gift from God. I don’t think humility has to do with my strength or confidence, but where the credit goes and how they are used. I am so thankful that God gives me these gifts, and hope and pray that I am using them for His glory.

  3. >>I’ve written elsewhere that the Bible is a collection of verses . . . .

    This is part of the problem. For our purposes, versification of the Bible, with each verse printed as a separate short paragraph, showed up with the Geneva Bible of the Puritans, and is still carried on today with the King James Version. It produces a certain mindset that can’t see the forest for the trees. Each verse is its own entity to be used as a brick to either build a wall of logical legalism, or to be thrown at someone’s head who dares question authority.

    The Bible as highest authority is a legacy of the Reformation and still sits at the apex of Evangelical faith, tho it makes appearances here as well. I consider it blasphemous. God is my highest authority. What, the Bible is God’s Word and the only way we have of knowing him? I think the politically correct way of describing that today is something like developmentally delayed. God bless all the little children, including me.

    I have mentioned before my endorsement of the Modern English Version of the Bible. It is based on the King James but was done out of unhappiness, which I share, with the New King James and other fudges of the KJV. It was first intended to be used by military chaplains and thus has a low gobbledygook factor but retains the music of the KJV, which is real. It is formatted with real paragraphs as if it were a real book and not a legal document. This message from Michael today is moving higher on my wish list getting The Message in the edition that not only has real paragraphs, but the verses aren’t even numbered.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I have mentioned before my endorsement of the Modern English Version of the Bible. It is based on the King James but was done out of unhappiness, which I share, with the New King James and other fudges of the KJV. It was first intended to be used by military chaplains and thus has a low gobbledygook factor but retains the music of the KJV, which is real.

      Sounds interesting; I’ll have to look up a copy and see for myself.

      (I always had the impression that chapter-and-verse began as an internal reference index, but if so it’s gotten way out of hand.)

      • >>I always had the impression that chapter-and-verse began as an internal reference index . . .

        You;re right, and it is a handy time saver. Started early on in the Old Testament with Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars, expanded to the New Testament in today’s form along with the start of printing and Modernity and Evangelicalism. Perhaps nothing sets my teeth on edge in the church today more than, “Turn with me in your Bibles to . . . .”

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      When we were first attending an Orthodox church, my wife asked the Greek priest why they didn’t print the chapter and verse references of the readings in the bulletin so she could follow along in her Spanish Bible.

      Fr. Andrew was deeply puzzled. He truly had no idea what she was referring to. When my wife showed her the Spanish Bible she carried, his face lit up with delight.

      He thought it a very useful innovation. Old-country Orthodox priests are more conversant with the Scriptures in the Service Books than in the modern book format.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    It produces a certain mindset that can’t see the forest for the trees. Each verse is its own entity…

    A grimoire of unrelated one-verse verbal component spells and charms.

    • Yes, grimoire, I had to look it up.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And if you’re really a Master Adept, you don’t even need to recite the one-verse spells, only their chapter-and-verse zip codes. (There’s probably a D&D 3e Feat for that…) Without even activating a neuron above the brainstem. Stimulus —> Response, just like a cross between Pavlov’s dogs and a Calormene quoting the Poets.

    • StuartB says:

      I’m sure a lot of fun could be had comparing and contrasting modern Evangelical Christianity to the darkest of Lovecraftian religions and necronomicons.

      The singing alone. People sing their p&w songs happily, blissfully unaware or perhaps choosing to ignore the horror behind their deity and his horrific actions…

      …the son of the eldest slumbers, and when he wakes up, he will walk through streets of blood as the sword from his mouth cuts down friend and foe…

      • >>People sing their p&w songs happily, blissfully unaware or perhaps choosing to ignore the horror behind their deity and his horrific actions…

        Or perhaps realizing that the horror lies not with their deity but with people’s fairly primitive conception of deity and their low level of spiritual awareness. I happily sang short praise songs a couple of days ago in an Episcopal Church, the same songs I happily sang forty years ago in a Foursquare Church. They have stood the test of time and have become part of the liturgy. God is good. On the other hand I usually refrain from the hymns as too doctrinaire and manipulative, tho sometimes I hum along in my off key way.

        • Christiane says:

          Hi CHARLES,
          you wrote “Or perhaps realizing that the horror lies not with their deity but with people’s fairly primitive conception of deity and their low level of spiritual awareness.”

          Your comment reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s critique of her own reviewers, this: “I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man [Is Hard to Find] brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror. (1955)’

          • >>mighty tired . . .

            A mighty fine Southern expression that still works like nothing else sixty years later and more.

            >>rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem . . .

            An astounding image perhaps more pertinent today than it was almost a hundred years ago.

            This piece was written in 1955 during the Eisenhower administration and the Ozzie and Harriet show, two years before Leave It to Beaver, and ten years before the 60’s took off. Wrong horror indeed.

          • Robert F says:

            And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
            Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

            Yeats’ question is prophetic in our age, as it was in his own.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I’m sure a lot of fun could be had comparing and contrasting modern Evangelical Christianity to the darkest of Lovecraftian religions and necronomicons.

        The comment threads over at Slacktivist already anticipated you.

        In Slack’s page-by-page review/commentary on Left Behind, they’ve often made the analogy that the “Turbo-Christ” of LB et al really isn’t that much different from Cthulhu. He awakens/returns to destroy everything, and His faithful are “saved” only by being stripped of all humanity and turned into reciting worship bots, at best indifferent to all those in Hell.

  5. It’s posts like these that keep me reading IM every day. I wish I had had a chance to meet Michael in person. Thanks CM for continuing to let Michael speak.

  6. So much down-to-earth truth in Michael’s writing. Though I never knew him personally, I started reading his blog several years before he died, and every post like this reminds me how much I miss his insights.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Yes, that, and his reasonable way of interacting with reasonable people, even if he did not agree with their point, or their theology. My God make his memory eternal.

      Dana