Wineskins Archive

December 19, 2013

An Authoritative Gospel in a Humble Personality (Apr-May 1997)

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by Tim Curtis
April – May, 1997

On the last day of 1944, Hiroo Onoda, a young lieutenant in the Japanese army, arrived on the island of Lubang, about 75 miles southwest of Manila. His assignment was to conduct guerrilla warfare against the American forces who were expected to attempt a landing on Lubang and the rest of the Philippines within the coming weeks. When the Americans did mount a successful offensive on Lubang about a month later, something which to them was little more than a “mopping up” operation, Lieutenant Onoda led a small group of soldiers into the jungle and began the mission for which he had been trained: to conduct a covert operation of disruption against American forces for as long as possible.

Onoda was a man of exceptional valor and loyalty. Like many Japanese soldiers in World War II, he was prepared to take his own life rather than surrender, but in his case, specific orders were given not to take his life. He was to stay alive as long as he could in order to do maximum damage to the enemy. As he made his way to Lubang, he recalled the promise of his division commander: “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.” Onoda vowed to himself, “I will fight till that day comes.” It did indeed come… 30 years later. On March 10, 1974, on the orders of his former commander, Horoo Onoda formally surrendered to the Philippine authorities. For 30 years he had manned his post, unaware that the war had ended just six months after he had gone into the jungle. Two others had been with him for portions of that times. One died after 10 years, and the other was killed in a gun battle with Philippine police about a year before Onoda surrendered. At the time he was found, Onoda was making plans to survive another 20 years in the jungle.

One of the most remarkable things about Onoda’s story was that several attempts had been made to find him and bring him home to Japan. Once Japanese officials learned that Onoda was continuing to fight a war that had long since ended, search parties spent months at a time trying to locate him. Leaflets and newspapers were dropped from helicopters. Loud speakers blared messages from several family members, including his father. Onoda, convinced that Japan would never surrender, misinterpreted these attempts to find him. He even twisted things around to believe that the Japanese army was using these efforts to secretly encourage him to stay in the jungle, the very opposite of what they were trying to do. In his autobiography, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, Onoda wrote that he and his two comrades “developed so many fixed ideas that we were unable to understand anything that did not conform with them. If there was anything that did not fit in with them we interpreted it to mean what we wanted it to mean.”

As a people with a history of making a stand based upon a rather peculiar method of interpreting the Bible, that ought to get our attention. I know of no more graphic illustration of the waste that inevitably comes as a by-product of a mind too confident of its own ability to discern truth. That certainly is not to say that truth is always cloudy and indiscernible. An “anything goes,” “your interpretation is just as valid as mine” mentality is equally destructive. But Onoda’s honest confession does teach us the need for caution in reaching definitive conclusions, a caution born out of humility.

When Isaiah’s contemporaries had the limitations of their understanding indelibly imprinted upon their minds by the Babylonian exile, and were understandably confused about what God was up to. God taught them this lesson in humility:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways,” declares the Lord.” As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8,9).

A man once told me that he could not accept the changes in biblical interpretation some were advocating in our brotherhood because of where it would lead. In his mind, it would be just a matter of time until we started using instrumental music, stopped baptizing people for the forgiveness of sin, and had women preachers. (Those three always seem to go together!) In other words, he could not accept the validity of a certain way of thinking because it would be disruptive to what he already held to be true. That still seems somewhat dishonest to me. To say that something can’t be true solely because of the conflict it would cause with another truth we hold doesn’t appear to be in harmony with the spirit of our heritage.

One of the greatest attributes of our movement has been our emphasis on biblical truth. Has any other religious group more frequently asked, “What does the Bible say?” That is one of the qualities that has attracted thousands of people to our fellowship over the years. But the vice that inherently lies around the bend from such a virtue is the notion that we have found all truth, and if someone reaches conclusions other than the ones we’ve already reached, they obviously have been blinded by the devil.

What foolish arrogance it is to think that God can be fully captured by our finite minds, that we mortals can examine the expanse of his word and have the correct answer for every question that arises from it. Worse yet, that we even know all of the right questions. Does God ever smile and shake his head at our attempts to boil his word down to formulas, equations, and patterns that fit neatly into the logic of our minds? Tom Olbricht wrote in Hearing God’s Voice, “The old, old story is not a page from the textbooks of logic. It is a page, rather, from the life of the living God, who so loved the world that he gave his only son.”

Lest we misunderstand, let’s be quick to recognize that the answer to such pride isn’t a spineless, watered-down, “thus suggests the Lord.” Instead, we need, as P. T. Forsyth declared in 1907, “an authoritative Gospel in a humble personality.” John Stott, in Between Two Worlds, wrote that the metaphors used to describe the expression of the word of God, such as sower, herald, and ambassador, all remind us that one who speaks for God “is a servant under someone else’s authority, and the communicator of somebody else’s word.”

A few years ago I studied the Bible with a man who wanted to be a part of our fellowship but was held back by his roots in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Like a lot of people, he wasn’t really sure why he believed what he was supposed to believe, so he contacted his pastor for some backing in Scripture, and we studied the Bible together. After a while it became apparent to both of us that the only reason he interpreted certain scriptures the way he did was because he had been taught to interpret them that way. There was no way for me to escape the question, “How much of my interpretation of the Bible has the same weakness?”

At that point in my life I became more convicted than ever that I wanted to let the Bible speak for itself without making it jump through the hoops of my preferred hermeneutical method. As I recall the history of our movement, that is exactly how we got started. Do we now have the courage…and the humility…to return to that spirit? Wineskins Magazine

Tim Curtis

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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