October 16, 2017

iMonk Classic: The One and Only

By Michael Spencer — October 2006

For evangelical people, our authority is the God who has spoken supremely in Jesus Christ. And that is equally true of redemption or salvation. God has acted in and through Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners.

I think it’s necessary for evangelicals to add that what God has said in Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ, and what God has done in and through Christ, are both, to use the Greek word, hapax–meaning once and for all. There is a finality about God’s word in Christ, and there is a finality about God’s work in Christ. To imagine that we could add a word to his word, or add a work to his work, is extremely derogatory to the unique glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

• John Stott

Of the reading of books and stuff there is like, just no end. Y’know what I mean?

I don’t read books on post-modernism, but I read enough from those who do that I know what I’m about to write will smell pomo to some of my readers. So, since we’re going to throw things and shout insults, let’s get started.

Today, all kinds of people are blogging and writing their lists of the books we all should have read. Most of them, predictably, are reformed, conservative and seriously theological. It’s the “What Theologians Wish You’d Read” kind of list.

I have a library of books, and I read most of them. I also think about books a great deal. I don’t just think about books, but I think about how I feel about books, what we claim for books, and especially how we relate these books to the one book that we say God inspired: the Bible.

I’ve made a discovery. Or a rediscovery. When I share it, it’s going to make some of you pretty sure I’m unsafe and in serious need of a slice of discernment.

I’m pretty sure that we are getting way too many books out of the Bible. Or to say it another way, I don’t think we can get out of the Bible and with Biblical authority, all the kinds of material that evangelicals, conservatives and culture warriors claim to get from it.

Yes, that’s right, I’m pretty sure that “Biblical Guidelines for Financial Success” and “Biblical Principles For Parenting Your Teenager” may be great big doses of exaggeration. “Some Very Human, Fallible and Possibly Mistaken Ideas About Things I Read In The Bible?” I don’t think that title will be flying off the shelves but it’s a lot more accurate.

When I teach the Bible, I try to frame my student’s understanding with this illustration. Imagine a huge library. You are on a tour of the library with God. He points you to 66 books (some not even books, just essays and short pieces) and tells you to make a xeroxed copy of them and bind them into a book. These 66 books are of a diverse background of authors and situations, but they share many interrelated themes. Some are commenting on others. Many quote from one another. When you read them, you discover that God himself is prominent in most of the selections.

This book, when compiled, God says, is his message to humanity. Actually, his perfect Word-message was Jesus, but Jesus is not available to those who didn’t see and hear him. So this selection of writings is a presentation of Jesus and his message in context and in language for every person. For that reason, it is one book, harmonized and connected through Jesus Christ.

God has given his authority and inspiration to these writings, and to what they are together. His authority is assigned to the Bible, and not to any other book in the library, now or in the future.

This is just one of many ways I characterize the Bible for my students. Now, suppose that I brought in a popular systematic theology text, or a multi-volume Bible commentary much larger than the Bible itself. What could I tell my students is the relationship of the Bible to these other books?

Does the systematic theology text present the contents of the Bible in another form? Are the divisions, vocabulary, outlines and discussions in that Systematic text identical to the Bible? Do they have Biblical authority? Did the author derive out of the Bible a similar divine endorsement for the presentation of his message?

One might ask why didn’t God present his message to us as a systematic theology text? If it is “as clear” and “as authoritative,” as the Bible because it contains the Bible in a digested, systematized, reworded form, what is the reason God did not do us the favor of inspiring both?

Now imagine that I hold up this theology book in front of those who revere it. Here’s my talk:

This isn’t the Bible. It’s not as clear as the Bible. As a revelation of God, it’s not as accurate as the Bible. It doesn’t have the authority of the Bible. Its author was in no way, shape or form inspired by the Holy Spirit. This book does not make the Bible plainer. It doesn’t help you understand the Bible’s message better. It’s not more efficient or useful than the Bible. No one single divine promise comes along with this book. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to your knowledge of God if you read this book or not.

Further, carving up the Bible into little pieces and rearranging them is not the same thing as the Bible. This author’s use of the Bible is not inspired, and that includes his presuppositions, cultural influences, education and language. This includes stacking lots and lots of Bible verses one on top of another in long lists to prove points. That arrangement, in and of itself, is not the Bible’s arrangement of the text and shouldn’t be mistaken for the way the Bible used the texts. The Bible’s arrangement of texts is inspired; this author’s is not.

The title isn’t inspired. The index isn’t inspired. The sales aren’t inspired. The reviews aren’t inspired. The fame of the author makes no impact on this book as compared to the Bible. Any book that has “Biblical” in the title runs into an inherent contradiction in that no discussion of the Bible can be Biblical in the same way the Bible’s inspired conversation is Biblical.

Our entire conversation about God, including that conversation that occurs in books of “Biblical” theology, parenting, marriage, self-help, history politics, psychology, finance, economics, politics, science, art, music, church growth, evangelism and so on, is NOT INSPIRED or AUTHORITATIVE.

The attempt to bring Biblical authority or any aspect of Biblical revelation out of the Bible and into anything other than the Bible is a failure.

In that sense, this book must be seen as a human effort to understand the Words of God, and while the author may, more or less, succeed in grasping the meaning of the Bible under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, his ability to write, publish and communicate that illumination happens entirely without any Biblical authority at all.

Don’t look for me headlining the next Christian booksellers convention.

When someone sells you a book on Biblical parenting, it’s a book on parenting, and it may have some good advice, and it may have a lot of Biblical truth. But it has no Biblical authority as a book and it’s not Biblical revelation in the same way the Bible is revelation. God hasn’t written a book on Biblical parenting, and no one’s book on the principles of Biblical parenting come anywhere close to the book God would write. The best Biblical parent was Jesus, and he never had kids.

This same thing goes for theology, marriage, evangelism and so forth. God’s Word is Holy Scripture. If the publisher says that Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life is somehow the Spirit’s message to the church, that’s wrong. I’d like to use a more colorful phrase but this is a family show.

I am saying this for one reason: theologians and their various versions of Christianity are wearing me out. Don’t get me wrong. I want to hear what theological writers say and I think some of them are closely on track with scripture. I’m not a skeptic that God’s Word can be understood and communicated. I’m a communicator of God’s Word by calling and profession. But I don’t believe I need to “wrestle” with a book by John Piper as if it were scripture, because it’s not.

We can’t and don’t get all these books out of the Bible. The Bible isn’t a book that was given to become the raw material out of which ten million other books derive their inspiration and authority; books that often are contradicting each other at various points, yet all still claiming to be Biblical.

If the Bible doesn’t push a subject forward, then writing “What Would Jesus Eat?” doesn’t make that subject important. Democrat or Republican books on Biblical politics? Same problem. Books with vocabulary that no one finds in the Bible? Ditto. Counseling books? They aren’t the Bible morphed into another form.

When we’ve got people running around with a Biblical view of every subject because someone wrote a book saying 100 times more than the Bible ever said on the subject, we ought to be suspicious. Is it more than the Bible says? Then it’s likely more than God has to say to you or me on the subject.

“It’s a good book, but it’s not the Bible.” Neither was the author, the school he teaches at, the radio program he preaches on, his last book, his reviews, his fanclub or his opinions on whatever subject.

The Bible is a wonderful gift. It is, however, unique, in what it is and how its truthfulness operates in God’s economy. The Bible is the Bible, and anything that claims to present the Bible filtered through the grid of theology or social causes or culture war analysis may be right or wrong…but one thing it’s certainly not is God’s authoritative Word.

Comments

  1. Nice writing and greatly expressed thoughts. Came to my mind the Message. Maybe it’s just me but many are inspired by the spirit. Would I go as far as sects that have gone in directions I myself would not go…..nah. Sometimes I wonder if I would follow any. At this point I am not. Reggie who played for the Eagles and then the Packers got so tired of it all he decided to study the Bible in its original text to find out for himself. He died before he got far enough. I don’t have that time.

    What a privilege it must be to have the time. When Jesus called the disciples it was privilege to follow a teacher and he was known to people through the area. Also fathers of the young men would have been thrilled to have their sons following under instruction. I’m tired of assuming….Assume….oh well

    66 Books and within them is the expressions of a father who wants us to know he loves us. Now many would say but look at all the people that died because of what this book said about what He said. I would grant the right to look at things that way after all God is sometimes like the oil on a ducks feathers and the water rolls off. Sometimes I think it was a privilege for those to give up life so it would further a cause in the story of life about love. What were the names of the people who held back a portion of the proceeds of land. Sorry I’m lazy. Point is did God really slay them? Maybe the conviction was so heavy they could not bare it. Anyways they became witnesses through all of time to everyone who reads it. Seems important

    Some books are worthless and some are very good. My preference are the ones that outline the times and exactly what it was like in those days. Mostly explaining how the people of the time would have understood what was being said. Try today to do something nice for some one. It might not work but then again it could

  2. This may sound heretical (though maybe not so much among some in the iMonk community), but I honestly believe all our stories (those who follow Christ) could be like addendums to the Bible. The Book of Rick would be short and maybe not too compelling, but it’s a story that fits the message of God’s love for someone who doesn’t necessarily deserve that love, who sometimes still causes the Father to do a face-palm, and who rests assured in the saving grace of his friend, Lord, King, servant and savior, Jesus Christ. I’m guessing many, many others here would be nice tag-ons to the end of the Word as they’d fit in nicely with the overall theme and message of the Bible.

    • That’s really all the Bible is though, isn’t it. A series of stories told around little sections of “Thus saith the Lord”. We’ve made it and all scriptures into so much more than they ever were. The concept of a canon is meaningless outside of a community all agreeing that yeah, those are our common shared experiences (or our means of control of the masses).

      I would push back against naysayers and say, no, that’s not the heart of atheism, that’s authentic christianity and true religion centered around faith.

  3. Off topic and I’m sorry to a wonderful expression of ideas. I disagree a little in the fact the Holy Spirit still speaks through the expression of writing and does have authority in a form that expands to the future in ways we might understand yet still the foundation Of a living word. Where in the great black book are the personal writings of Jesus. All of it came through man. Well now we certainly have got everything right haven’t we. Keep the inspired bit and all the great sayings through time. I am certainly aware of the spirit and the communications he has for each of us in a personal way. 66 books or writings express this to me.

    Didn’t sleep a wink last night. My house had a little dog named Cody who didn’t sleep in it. First time in almost 15 years. I howled and cried most of the night as more of my heart broke open.If you can’t break a heart then nothing can enter in. I believe Jesus and his heart was always broken so we could enter in. Well anyways all the howling and crying won’t bring him back here. One of the kindest beings I have ever seen on this world. I’m almost certain the pain is not finished but neither are the beautiful moments I got to share. If you get a chance drive like you really care about the person in the other car. It’s something Cody would have done just out of instinct. You see when the cats came to drink and he was drinking water he would back away and let them first always

    • Oh and your welcome along with a thanks. Good and bad still creates learning in their own special way. So many expressions are empty because no one hears them.

      • That Other Jean says:

        I’m so sorry that your dog died, w. No matter how long they live, it’s never long enough. I hope that remembering him will bring you joy and lessen the pain. Cody sounds like a terrific dog.

    • Love you and your tender heart, w. Take care and I’ll be thinking of you again today.

    • Christiane says:

      Big hug, W.

      Our pup is getting older, he’s blind now and has developed Cushing’s disease, which thankfully is being successfully treated. I love the little guy so much. He is ‘therapy dog’ to my dear husband who has been in hospital three times in recent years. Some day, we will have to say ‘goodbye’ to the little one and that will be a sad day . . . . heart-breaking, and I also will weep.

      But I will remember him. ‘Love’ is eternal.

      P.S.
      Dogs have souls. They go to heaven. My priest, Father Bryan, a very humble man, agrees with me on this.
      Your dear pet is with God and you will see your pet again. The animals have a special connection to God. And we can learn from the animals about God also:

      “7“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
      or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
      8or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
      or let the fish in the sea inform you.
      9Which of all these does not know
      that the hand of the Lord has done this?
      10 In His Hand is the life of every creature
      and the breath of all mankind.” (from Job 12)

      Our Lord is making all things new. Creation awaits its renewal. 🙂

  4. Was it Mark Twain who said “I’ve discovered you can learn a lot about commentaries by reading the Bible”?

    • Ronald Avra says:

      I have seen the statement attributed to Johnny Cash.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Tolkien’s favorite line: book reviews will tell you more about the reviewer than the book.

      So true.

      • I subscribe to Boardgamegeek.com’s newsletter. Someone recently had a post about “the best WORST reviews for top-rated games”…in other words, this guy went through the reviews of games that are pretty much considered classics and found the 1-star reviews just to see what the haters wrote. Some of the scathing reviews were pretty funny. Clever writing.

  5. Ronald Avra says:

    Appreciate Micheal’s perspective.

  6. Dana Ames says:

    I take Michael’s point, and would have wholeheartedly agreed with him in my Evangelical days. At the same time, the piece is still too much “Bible only”. Part of the reason I was in the wilderness then was because I had come to see that “the Bible says” is meaningless. Interpretation is the issue, and always has been, most pointedly illustrated by the Reformation and subsequent lasting divisions in the western churches.

    All issues are hermeneutical.

    Dana

  7. But there is a reason all these extra-biblical texts exist. Because the truth is, as loth as we may be to admit it, that it is impossible to read the Bible without interpretation. First of all its written in ancient dead languages that take a great deal of expertise to master. Second, the dirty little secret of Bible textual scholarship is that there is no one to one relationship between original manuscript and translation. The ancient texts are an amalgam of “best” texts and scholarly “preferred” texts chosen among variant readings. Interpretation is inherent in the entire enterprise.

    The Bible is a hard read. One of the hardest. Can we read Homer or Milton or Chaucer or Shakespeare or Dante without notes and commentary? Then what makes us think we can do so with the Bible? These fundamentalist views of the Bible make it sound like a magic book that casts a spell on its readers. This is the reason we have 10,000 sects and denominations all who are convinced they are the only ones reading the “real” Bible.

    • I tell people that Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel” is the best book, other than the Bible, I’ve read about God’s grace. I have to admit that I throw in “other than the Bible” in case people find it heretical if I didn’t add that qualifier. 😉

  8. Burro [Mule] says:

    VcmtthcnclsnthtpplwhsprtthBbl
    glrhtrlbBhtflrhtrhtntsrdnntdrtmrf
    trdtnFnyfthmwrxpsdtthLdTstmnt
    lbnyltlpmcbdlwryhtmrftprcsnmn
    tdcphrtnlsssmnshwdthmhw.

    Hint: Manuscripts of the Bible deleted vowels and often alternated left-to-right and right-to-left lines.

    Sola traditio

    • My head hurts, but I think I figured out most of it thanks to your helpful hint, Mule, but there are gaps and possibly some errors. This exercise helped me understand just how difficult working with such manuscripts is, and this one is even in my own language.

      “I’ve come to the conclusion that people who support the Bible from [or form] tradition and are set in their other life the Bible are the…tradition. If any of them were exposed to the Old Testament in manuscript form they…would be completely unable to decipher unless someone showed them how.”

      Am I close?

  9. I prefer “summa traditio” – all Christian traditions/rites have a say, all have things right, none get ultimate veto.

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