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November 22, 2014

The Bible: What we know, what we believe

The nature of the Bible is a cause for divisions among Christians. This is especially so among those who make large assumptions about the Bible without knowledge of its source and nature. It is helpful to consider what we know about the Bible before discussing what we believe about it. Knowledge about the Bible includes its sources, authors, genres, history, and translation. Incredibly, some treat the Bible as a unit, handed down complete, formatted, and in their own language. Such is not the case, of course. In contrast, the Bible is an anthology (compilation) of Hebrew and Christian writings, by various authors, in various literary forms. If we had “the Bible” in original form, it would consist of individual scrolls, letters, and at best booklets, all handwritten, and in Hebrew and Greek. The invention of the printing press, binding (codices), translations, and canonization led to the volume we now see as a unit, the Bible. A common factor in all of these developments is the human component; that might be significant. If we ascribe to the Bible things it is not, we deceive ourselves and diminish its power. Truth will bear away the victory.

There are several problems in validating the Bible. None of the original texts exist. Instead, there are numerous copies, usually partial, which reveal variations. We cannot be certain of the author in many cases, although scholarship is able to make reasonable confirmations. For example, tradition has Moses as the author of Genesis, but there is considerable suggestion of more than one author, and the earliest parts very likely come from oral traditions, including older traditions known from outside Israel. Clearly, humans wrote the Bible, translated the books, and decided what writings would be included in the Bible. The notorious Apocryphal books, for example were at first included with the King James Version, later removed, and remain in Catholic Bibles. Translation is less than perfect, particularly Hebrew to English. There are not equivalent words or expressions in many cases. At the very least, choices are made about how a text is to be translated. The literary forms in scripture are also important, among those recognized: history (and traditions), law, prophecy, gospel accounts, and letters. Each has its own characteristics and significance. These things are knowledge, therefore can be affirmed (or challenged) by anyone, believer or not.

We transition from knowledge to belief, sometimes imperceptibly. Among Christians, there is widespread belief that the scripture is inspired and that it is authoritative. These are beliefs, not knowledge, but that does not mean they are untrue. In fact, these beliefs might be considered foundational for Christians. These concepts come from many years of scholarship, tradition, and reasoning. They are affirmed spiritually. Of course, not everyone can accept that form of affirmation; not everyone can see or experience spiritually. Furthermore, inspiration is seen by some to be all-inclusive and absolute, by others to be more general. Other beliefs proceed from and are added to these foundational beliefs. They begin to diverge, and result in a range of practices and doctrines. Some of our beliefs about the Bible are more defensible than others.

If we begin with some common ground, we may be able to improve unity without sacrificing truth. We might agree that God is revealed and Christ promised in the Old Testament. God is described as creator. His nature as all-powerful, eternal, and just is also revealed. And then, Christ is revealed in New Testament writings and he is shown to be God come down to man. Therewith, the gospel is introduced, which is God’s plan for those who accept him. Understanding the nature of scripture is not necessary to accepting the gospel. God’s grace is discoverable in very simple terms, even to the very simple.

Despite the humanity involved in scripture, we trust and treasure scripture with reason: Jesus quoted extensively from the Old Testament and he affirmed the written law. In a sense, Jesus himself canonized most of the Old Testament. The gospels of the New Testament provide a strong apologetic for his messiahship; an unbroken chain of believers testifies to this; and (most importantly) the Holy Spirit continues to confirm him. From this line of reasoning you can see that, for Christians, all centers in Jesus Christ. If the Holy Spirit did not confirm him in the present, all the other suppositions and scriptures themselves would be very interesting, but suspect. This would be so because the claims of scripture itself could not be validated by experience. Bringing people into relationship with Jesus Christ is the critical point. The follower of Christ will experience the word of God from scripture because the Holy Spirit reveals those words, in real time. The believer will find the Bible authoritative for holy living, also revealed by the Spirit.

Others will make additional claims on the Bible, including opinions about infallibility, inerrancy, whether it is the “complete” word of God, and what inspiration means. There are difficulties in all these terms. I will leave those arguments to others, because they are not productive for the kingdom of God. The Bible works.

Alvin Perkins, Somerset, KY ©2014

March 09, 2014

Science and Faith

A recent debate on origins between Bill Nye and 6-day creationist Ken Ham http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/02/04/creation-debate-recap-science-religion-and-terrible-jokes/?iref=allsearch brings again to the forefront the seeming disconnect between science and faith. It is unfortunate that to some Mr. Ham is seen to represent Christians. That is not so. He represents a fundamental belief in six day creation that is anathema to science. As such he represents a small segment of Christianity. Bill Nye knows this, and took advantage of a debate he could easily win, but without persuading anyone of anything. Of course, Ken Ham’s premise is that Genesis is literal, that God created all and did it in 6 days, less than 10,000 years ago. Many -or most- Christians understand that the Genesis account does not purport to be science, but figurative ways to acknowledge God, the creator, and envision his creative acts. If Genesis is knowledge, in the scientific sense, it would have to be verifiable. What truth reveals is an earth that is 4 billion years old (and a universe much older) with species appearing over millions of years.
The debate, therefore, avoided the real debate, between atheistic evolution and belief in a creator God. There should be no mistake, the clear and often stated goal of evolutionists is not just scientific inquiry, but excluding God, at all costs. Darwin understood this well, and thought he had discovered If Christians, on the other hand, are compelled to use the Bible for science, they will be misled and do not bring honor to God. Our belief is that this is God’s world. Let science explain what it can; there really is no fear of what science can do to God. Science means “knowledge”, and as such it is truth. God is truth. God and science must converge on matters of nature and the universe, if we are all honest. What we all should do is hold science and scientists to their own rules. Frankly, many, especially atheistic scientists, are all too glad to exaggerate what we know about origins and development, or willing to lie. Their fear is that a slightly open door gives God a foothold. You would think truth should be adequate, and if God somehow slips in that could be a good thing. Not so for them.
The debate would have been more useful if science was the basis for arguments and a qualified scientist faced Bill Nye. There is plenty of science to debate. At different junctures, Darwinian evolution has had credibility; I would have no problem with this theory, but the major evidence over the years has not really supported the theory. First, the expected fossil evidence for progressive forms of development (that is evolution, after all) never materialized; and in fact, the fossil evidence points in another direction, sudden appearance of complex organisms. The discovery of genes, and then DNA and molecular biology were expected to explain the mechanisms of evolution by natural selection. Here too, not very supportive, as modern science only makes it harder to explain mutations and chance producing nature as we know it. Atheistic scientists are unwilling to admit the failures of the evidence to support Darwinism. They also fear the implications from the universe beginning in a moment in time (the big bang), which the evidence widely supports. What we have here is a battle between atheism and faith, not between science and faith.
Pure science will collect and follow the evidence. If science were ever able to disprove the basis of my faith, I would want to know the truth. So far, science has found the fingerprint of God in everything, to the dismay of the atheist. In fact, many scientists recognize that nature has the “appearance” of design; their goal is to explain away that appearance. Creation is more complex than ever imagined and as beautiful in detail as experienced in the visible. So much supports a designer, an intelligence involved in all of nature. It is flat wrong not to consider this in any hypothesis, as it is, so far, the only credible explanation.
These considerations are more than academic. Since Darwin, science has marched on to the exclusion of God. People have assumed science has answered all the basic questions and disproved the role of God. The result is our secular humanist world and a complete shift in morality and conscience. The bottom line is that science does not have an answer for how evolutionary mechanisms produce life.

March 11, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

We recently discussed (at BTC) the idea from Peter’s letter that we should be prepared to give the reason for our hope as believers. This came to mind as I read a book by Don Miller, Blue Like Jazz –an unusual book in the sense that he is a Christian author, but many things in the book you might find irreverent. But so much in the book speaks, or sings, of his love for the Lord. The climax of the book is how love for Jesus –our relationship with him, is like jazz, as more felt than understood. At the end, he tells of Laura, one of his good friends coming to know Christ, a triumph after her difficult journey. He was amazed at her new found confidence in her love of Jesus. But, he said: “People do come to know Jesus. This crazy thing really happens. It isn’t just me.”

Then he relates how jazz music was invented by the first generation out of slavery. “While it is music, it is very hard to put on paper; it is so much more a language of the soul. (You know, jazz can be set to musical score, but it will only be a guide, it is meant to express the soul of each musician.) I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something you feel. It is something difficult to get on paper, but it is no less real, no less beautiful. Jazz is a music birthed out of freedom, and that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality, our ‘music’ birthed out of freedom. Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands.”

“I want Jesus to happen to you the way He happened to Laura and to me. I want you to know Jesus too. My friends and I are singing songs about what God is doing in our lives. But what song will you sing when your soul gets set free? … I think it will be something true and beautiful. If you haven’t done it in a while, pray and talk to Jesus. Ask him to become real to you. Ask him to forgive you of self-addiction (self-absorption), ask him to put a song in your heart.”

When we have that song, it will be easy for people to see, as Peter wrote: “the reason for the hope we have.”

February 22, 2011

Worship

I will praise you forever, O God, for what you have done. I will trust in your good name in the presence of your faithful people. Psalm 52:9

Believers need from the church certain functions to live a balanced, growing spiritual life. These functions might be: worship, fellowship, service, discipleship. These could be likened to a stool or chair, and the local church stands primarily on these four legs, on the foundation of Christ. Each leg has its own purposes and characteristics. While each can also be experienced outside the church, they should all be an integral part of the whole church experience for believers. The church can be dysfunctional when one of these is removed -- not provided in the church. Still, a stool can stand on three legs, and many believers will find the “missing leg” in other ways (eg. at another church; through a mission organization). Of course, a stool with two legs cannot stand. Similarly, a church effective at providing only two of the legs is not likely to prosper.

Worship might be considered the signature of the church. Most churches have a meeting they call “worship”. Sometimes, worship can be hard to find in these services; I have certainly experienced it. How could that be? I suspect the meaning of worship might be lost at times. And I believe this and other factors may mislead us to think we are worshipping when we are not. If you think of it, our worship service is where others meet our local congregation, it is how thy will know us. This makes it vital that worship be Christ-centered, and alive. Those who find a place of true worship are like to also find true fellowship among us. Now, worship is also a personal act, and our individual preparation can be at fault.

Worship is an act of exalting God (and Christ). In the assembly, corporate praise is directed upward to Him. The Spanish word for worship is adoración; worship is adoring God. As such, it is all about Him, and not about us. If you consider this assertion, you can observe during a service which acts are about Him (worship) and which are about us (something else). Truly, all of the service does not have to be adoration, but I would suggest that the more adoration, the more useful and meaningful. I would assert the most direct form of worship, especially in the church, is music. This can be validated by reading the Psalms, and especially the last five Psalms. One of the principle reasons so-called contemporary worship, or praise worship, is so popular is that it devotes so much time to adoration, especially praise music. It exalts God, and in most cases a lot of the “about us” is cut out.

Perhaps we have let the church evolve to the point where we spend so much of our time on the other things, that we have forgotten the real meaning of worship. The Acts church was known for, among other things, its praise. The Psalms are full of praise. The scene in Revelation 4 is of continual - and repetitious – praise of God, in Heaven. The church that devotes significant time to praising God will be motivated to fulfill ALL of its purposes. When I leave a Sunday meeting, if I have truly worshipped God, I am lifted up and better equipped. For me, active praise of God (worship) is one of my most important spiritual foods.
copyright 2011

February 22, 2010

Casa de Dios

It consists of a building complex and multiple parking lots, the whole complex surrounded by concrete walls with razor wire, an armed guard with dog on the knoll above – and even a guard tower. It’s not a prison, but Casa de Dios a megachurch just outside Guatemala City. It was quite an experience when my elder friend and her brother took me to their church this Sunday – at 7am. I expected the “early service” to be less populated; I was wrong. The auditorium was full, about 6,000 I think, and they have 5 services each Sunday. Their membership is about 20,000, I think. There is a full television production, no less than 5 cameras, and one of these mounted on a rather obnoxious boom which pans over heads in a section of the seating. About 200 ushers comb the crowd on various missions. When the offering is collected, you can even pay by credit card.
I have visited numerous churches in Guatemala and in the US. It is a classroom for me, observing and studying how “church” is done, wondering what God thinks of us, in these various forms. To be sure, the forms are various. When I think I have seen it all, I still get surprised, not always pleasantly. But here, worship I did. Preparatory to communion, when a trumpeter played “Above All”, how could I not worship? All the rest I could well do without. I like contemporary worship; this I would call commercial worship. Still, the spirit of God was there, he finds a way and has in virtually every church I have attended. He comes in the hearts of all true believers, and I believe he comes with me. The wonder is that he tolerates all our strange machinations. The truth is, it is not far from dynamic preaching to manipulation, from contemporary worship to theater, and from prosperity to opulence. For the pastor, I suspect it requires the special grace of God to stand before thousands of people and remain humble; many do not achieve it.
While I may seem cynical and hypercritical, my principal reason for concern about us and our worship practices is how much I have a heart (imperfect as it is) for truth and justice, so much so that I fear any of our departures can do injustice. If we taint the gospel of Christ with our self, we likely do harm to the kingdom of God. In medicine we say, first do no harm. The Holy Spirit does not need our theater productions, our high liturgy, or our cathedrals. He needs only one soul who lives the gospel and fellowships with others.
This megachurch and its pastor, Cash Luna (that is his name), teach the so-called prosperity gospel. In a nutshell, the message is: “you do not have because you do not ask”, taken to promise wealth. Here is how my passion for justice and this “gospel” meet: The most basic reason I have returned to Guatemala is my sense of justice for these people. You see, the indigenous people suffered greatly when the Spanish invaded. They were slaughtered and enslaved. For hundreds of years, this goes on. Their land, their lives, and their dignity were taken. True, the case can be made that the Spanish brought Christ. No, they brought the Catholic Church, which has done much good and some bad for the people, but Christ came in on their coat-tails, in spite of them, in a way. Today Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the Americas. It is also one of the most evangelized. So when I see evangelicals “repeating history”, abusing the hopes of the poor, I get a little sensitive. The people need Christ living among them, as we all do, not brought by an invasion or empty promises. Their reality is different from what the prosperity gospel preaches.
God still does work in this church, just as I could still worship there. They do many good works. They have about 3400 home groups, to me, the CHURCH. May God bless them. …It took an hour to exit the parking lot. Oh, and Casa de Dios is building a new bigger church. Copyright 2010

July 04, 2008

Independence and freedom

We do seem to have a natural yearning for freedom, as humans and as Christians. In Galations 5:1, Paul writes that: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. So, stand firm and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Paul was referring to “the law”, but the notion is broader for those who have been set free in spirit.
In the mid 1700s, America was a British colony. Much was well, and especially, there was unusual religious freedom. But there were the various taxes levied on the colonies, and other onerous laws, passed in England, without representation or consultation. These laws were at least a thorn in the side of the colonies. But, revolution? There was another wave, of discontent, a philosophical one, born perhaps of the success of the reformation, throwing off the dominion of the Catholic church. And, especially, the Enlightenment, Rousseau and others propagating the notion of throwing off the rule of the elect. In America, a few, especially Sam Adams, used the injustices of England's rule to promote revolution. In America the movement was successful. Had England chosen to address the few injustices, the revolution would likely never have happened, as the movement for revolution was not so much grass-roots, as manipulation of the circumstances by the few.
Where were Christians during this time? Maybe more silently practicing the gospel. Independence was not a Christian goal, neither were the “movers and shakers” of the revolution acting out of strong Christian motives. For Christians, even though our Lord is a God of justice, Christ was much more a Lord of peace. Recall that in Romans 13, Paul writes that governments and rulers are established by God, and we should obey them. In fact, he says that he who rebels against the authorities, rebels against God. Certainly, based on Paul’s writing, one could question the revolution. But again, a spirit of freedom is in us.
Perhaps the reason Christians stood by, or participated and led in the revolution, is an irony related to the quote above. We were set free from the law, but we can’t seem to be satisfied with that. Since the reformation, since the printing of the Bible in common language, too many have been stuck in the old testament: the law is easier to deal with than the freedom of the gospel. So, over the years doctrine and divisions have prospered, while freedom in Christ has suffered. Many or most Christians at the time of the revolution, as now, were “believers” in Christ, but still trying to live under the law. Read of the wars and carnage in the old testament and a revolutionary war is palatable. You will read none of it in the new testament.
It could be stated that America began as a God nation, but not so much a Christian nation. In practicing the old testament instead of the new testament, we have justified wars, annihilation of the native Indians (manifest destiny), the sale of Africans for slaves, and the civil war.
I think we all stand happy and proud to be free today. And I am thankful for those who gave their lives for our freedom, through all our history. Frankly, we have not historically lived out God’s plan for our nation. But we are free and prosperous. It is more important that we begin now to be Christ-people, true Christians who practice his mercy and grace. We need to practice and promote “the two commandments” (Mark 12), even more than the ten commandments. May we commit to justice (conformity to truth and reason), but also to love in the spirit of Christ.
Copyright 2008

December 05, 2007

Sermon on the mount

Studying from the sermon on the mount the past few day, I sort of got stuck at Matt 7:21 - stuck for 3 or 4 days, actually. It has always been puzzling that such seemingly productive followers, who could cast out demons and perform miracles in the name of Christ, would be rejected in the end (vs 22,23). I think the key is in vs 21: 'only he who does the Lord's will'. Wouldn't casting out demons and performing miracles be the Lord's will? Probably, but these are the highly visible popular things. It is likely more about daily service: loving enemies, taking care of the least. Christ says (vs 12) we should do unto others as we would have them do to us. He even says this is the sum of the old testament scriptures. He apparently really meant that. While some may concentrate on numbers of souls saved and miracles accomplished, the real measurable thing we can do is serve. Souls are saved by God, through Christ; service is that for which he needs our arms and legs. Because of His design, it can't be done any other way. Along the way, people come to believe, because they see Christ in us, and we have the opportunity to explain the reason for our hope.
Look, we can sit in church and feel good about being a part of what happens there, but God needs our hands more than our behinds. I think that is what Matthew 7:21 is saying. My take is, get up and serve. And, be prepared to give the reason for your hope.
Copyright 2007