Wineskins Archive

January 9, 2014

Following God’s Scriptural Direction (May – June 1996)

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by Bob Hendren
May – June, 1996

G.C. Brewer reviewed K. C. Moser’s The Way of Salvation in the Gospel Advocate on May 11, 1933. This is an excerpt from his review:

. . . The most pleasing as well as the most striking feature of the book is the author’s faith in and reverence for God’s word. [emphasis GCB]….The whole book is purely exegesis and explanation. The teaching on one passage of Scripture is construed in the light of all else the Scriptures say on the subject. There is no second-hand or borrowed use of a passage to sustain an argument without regard for the real meaning of the passage; no hackneyed or stereotyped citing of passages to prove an “accepted view” or “a brotherhood idea.” The author’s independence of all denominational views or brotherhood ideas, or of what the “fathers” taught, or what has been “our doctrine” is the most encouraging thing that I have seen in print among the disciples of Christ in this decade.

Brewer continues by expressing his delight that Moser’s work “is a hopeful sign…that we still have men who are sincere and courageous enough to make an independent and individual study of God’s word.” I do not know if G. C. Brewer could write as approvingly of what passes for exegesis in many areas of our brotherhood today.

We see some hopeful signs, though it is difficult to break away from the defeating habits of faulty hermeneutic and the resulting defective exegesis. As a people we have often been unwilling to take the risk of abandoning what has stopped our progress cold and trapped us in ever more virulent circles of self-destructive behavior. Something is radically wrong with the way we have viewed and applied the Scriptures. The question of how we use the Bible is crucial. The poet Robert Frost noted, “Something there is in nature that doesn’t love a wall.” So, something in the nature of Bible usage spells either the division and disillusion or faith-building, constructive discipleship. Using the Bible in the wrong way causes the sorts of problems we see on every hand, with folks willing to debate at the drop of a syllogism. Wrongful Bible interpretation means wrong-headed congregations, and an increasingly frustrating experience for those who want to grow closer to Christ and to each other.

This is a topic that will not go away. We may go away as a movement, but this question will not disappear. Either we start putting more trust in the text than we have placed in our rules and traditions, or we can only retreat further into even more apathetic dreariness.

Scores, perhaps hundreds, of young preachers are casting about, finding the old hermeneutic inadequate, designed only for the polemics of a day that has long vanished, and yet unsure what approach to using the Bible is best. They have a desire to work for the Lord, but the tools they have been handed are unfit for the task. They see the futility of preaching unity and practicing division. Many are poised to give up or give in. The best will probably give up, and those who give in will offer a half-hearted, career-oriented loyalty to traditions in order to maintain their livelihood.

Any attempt to move in a new direction must be biblically informed. I personally have no respect for a movement which does not take the Scriptures seriously. The Bible itself must be restored to its rightful place of prominence in the churches. There is simply no point to changing anything unless we have the warrant of Scripture. Introducing this need is crucial, for it is no human project, it is nothing less than what God demands of his people.

Jesus had an ongoing controversy with two leadership elements in Judaism, Sadducees and Pharisees. In both cases the problem revolved around their misuse of Scripture. The Sadducees were “clearly wrong because they were ignorant of the Scriptures as well as God’s power,” Jesus affirmed (Mark 12:24). The Pharisees were guilty of substituting their traditions for the Word of God: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!” (Mark 7:7-9 RSV). In similar ways, we have entirely too much biblical ignorance, a massive lack of confidence in God’s power, and the continued affirmation of tradition over Scripture.

Returning to a true reliance on Scripture is the very basis of our adventure of faith. To throw ourselves unreservedly upon the Word of God will require the dismantling of several cherished traditions which have, from long usage, calcified not only our progress, but also dulled the very tools which are designed by God “to demolish arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We must be ready to heed Paul’s advice to Timothy:

Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (2 Timothy 1:13-14 RSV).

We must have an openness to the Holy Spirit.

Jesus warned of ignoring the “power of God.” A power shortage exists when God’s Word is seen as a legal brief to be analyzed and applied in proof text fashion. This approach not only nullifies Scripture, it robs it of all its God-given power. We are not naturally gifted in spiritual matters. When we substitute Aristotle or other human philosophical logical systems we make logical hash out of the Bible and reject God’s power which encourages sanity and unity (Cf. 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 4). Nor can we rely on a brotherhood “consensus” about texts, as in “we settled that 40 years ago.” This makes the church the norm for the Bible, rather than the Bible the norm for the church.

The Spirit who dwells in us works to guarantee the integrity of the gospel by constantly reminding us of the One who is the center of the proclamation—Jesus! This is why Paul can speak to Timothy, as above, of guarding the gospel “through the Holy Spirit who dwells with us.” How can the indwelling Spirit guard the gospel? By insisting that the center of the gospel remain Jesus! Thus, if one is not teaching Jesus, who is the content of the gospel, then he or she cannot guard the gospel. Jesus is the key, not only in terms of content, but in terms of interpretation. Thus Paul is bold enough to say, “just as the truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21).

One cannot be a custodian of the gospel if the content is not maintained. How foolish it is to think of contending for the faith when one only contends earnestly for questions of ecclesiology or methodology. How different our history would have been during the dark days of contention over evangelistic efforts like the Herald of Truth, the use of church budgets, and understanding “the church as such” if Jesus had only occupied center ground!

Even a defense of a favored hermeneutic is inadequate to be termed “contending for the faith.” This is so, because the hermeneutic will always be a human procedure. While God is logical, in the highest sense, he is not subject to human logical constraints. One could not make God, for example, subject to Aristotle’s rule of the excluded middle. For God indeed might be both A and not A in some areas where we simply lack sufficient understanding. But when one has respect for the Spirit, and understands the Spirit is interested only in glorifying Jesus and convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come (Cf. John 16), then even the hermeneutic will seek to glorify God.

We must be ready to scuttle limiting formats.

Somewhere along the way we invented formats which would enable us to talk and argue among ourselves. If a person was going to have a decent debate over some point or other, some kind of agreement over the rules was necessary. You can’t agree on rules, though, if you don’t have rules. So, an adversarial hermeneutic developed along the line of the minimum we could accept from each other. This is the origin of such formats as, “The Bible teaches in three ways, direct command, approved example, and necessary inference,” or, the usage of formal logical systems like Aristotle’s. The payoff for this procedure is that it enables us to debate one another, getting into some exciting sermonic fireworks. However, you cannot find these formats anywhere in the Bible. Search carefully, but they will elude you, for they are simply not there. Such formats limit our ability to see what Scripture truly has for us. It puts a distorting filter on how God is able to reveal himself to us in the Bible.

As far as I know, God could use the Bible to teach us in hundreds of ways, some of which might involve the conditions mentioned above, but scores might not. How, for example, do we know that God is holy? Are we commanded to know this? Yes, but certainly there is more to it than just obeying a command. Do we infer it? Yes, but it’s far more obvious than a mere implication. Every mention of God contains some hint of his holiness. Do we have an example? Of course, dozens of them, but we also have the responses of people who take God seriously, and we have the tremendous hymns of praise in the Psalms which command nothing, are far weightier than implications, and serve as much more than an example.

One might say that the creation of this interpretative system resulted from an over-reliance on analytical methods. Unfortunately, our devotion to analysis has not been complemented by a similar devotion to synthesis. When I was in the Marine Corps back in the Korean War, I knew how to take my M-1 rifle apart piece by piece. This was necessary to clean it, but it wouldn’t shoot that way, it had to be reassembled. Hermeneutical devices designed only to analyze leave us textually paralyzed. Worse, they impose so many limits on those thinking through the text, that they simply cannot see the whole for picking among the parts. It is frightening that such creedal articles are taught as though they were to be found in Scripture.

This whole business is a function which we have created out of our cultural environment, and it now holds us prisoner. We must attain a viewpoint which allows us to rise above our culture. As Anthony Thiselton notes, “hermeneutics in the more recent sense of the term begins with the recognition that historical conditioning is two-sided: the modern interpreter, no less than the text, stands in a given historical context and tradition.1 A compelling point is made by D. E. Nineham: “We must not construct a portrait of Jesus which merely bounces back to us our own viewpoints and assumptions.”2

Can we permit a culturally developed hermeneutic to keep us back from developing a greater appreciation for Bible truth? All the scaffolding which remains of past interpretative systems must stand ready to be exposed to the searchlight of faithful study of the Scriptures. We should not shrink from this task, though we should not approach it as gleeful nihilists. We are not interested in tearing down, but merely in clearing the ground so that greater construction can occur.

We should be ready to cast out the standard topical sermon.

We must return to expository preaching as the normal expression of our teaching. Topical sermons tend to leave us in charge of the text, as we blithely propose subject matter and use Scripture as proof text to validate our previously decided conclusions. This is intolerable for a church which exalts the truth. Exposition of the text leaves God in charge of the Bible, not speakers. I decided to preach through books of the Bible over 30 years ago. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has forced me to deal with Scripture I would gladly have skipped if I had been using the topical approach. Expository preaching compels the teacher to deal with the whole Bible as it exposes those who hear it to the whole range of truth. No longer can we take refuge in a few brotherhood proof texts; we must have a belief that is as wide as God’s Word itself.

Without such a commitment we tend to skate over the surface of our own preferences. What will “wow” them this time? What will be considered “sound” by those who listen for accents of orthodoxy? If you are committed to preach on Romans, for example, you will have to deal with chapters 3, 4, and 5 whether you understand them in a brotherhood frame or not. You will not be able to run off to James 2 in the hope that James will trump Paul’s teaching in Romans. You will have to stay right with the text, and let it stand on its own, as the apostle meant for it to do. You will trust that the Spirit of God will make sense out of what the apostle is saying if you put in an honest job with the text.

Respect for the text will deliver us from the curse of having to look over our shoulders at those checking on our soundness. If the text testifies that salvation is by grace, not human works, we will have to be honest about it, whatever the consequences to our careers. This will certainly expand our appreciation for these texts, and will challenge the listeners to provide more space for God to work in their minds and hearts as well. As a lady said to me the other day, after hearing an expository lesson on John 6, “The text truly says that it is God’s will for those who come to Jesus for salvation to make it. God is committed to our salvation! He really wants for us to go to heaven!” There will be many such joyous discoveries when the Word is free from human constraints.

We must be ready to let the Bible define our real needs.

Legalists are not the only persons misusing the Bible. Well-meaning ministers and teachers who are more tuned to rapid results than long-range goals can also manipulate the Word (Cf. 2 Corinthians 4). The attention given to felt needs seems to them the only legitimate needs. This often sabotages laying a solid basis of grace, based upon the Word, which will be there whatever need may arise. Of course, distinguishing between felt needs and real needs is slippery business. The preacher or teacher may automatically assume his training and biblical insight qualify him to identify and surface real needs apparently hidden but actually present in the lives of believers. I believe God’s Word is not only the true answer for the real needs that we have, but also is the best aid in identifying those needs. This can be humbling business and will take great patience and prayer.

At a seminar I conducted several years ago, some persons showed up who hoped the seminar would address specific needs they identified in their lives as crucial. I was largely unaware of this situation, and was in the process of developing the biblical texts in a more general way. The local minister, compassionately reflecting the attitude of those persons, who had little if any background in the Bible, asked me if I could focus more on these “felt needs” than the text itself.

Part of me wanted to say, “We must have confidence in the text to do its work, and it will do it.” Still, in my heart I knew these people were in a crisis. They would not wait around for the text to do its work. At that point, perhaps the minister has little choice but to reflect the fruits of his biblical research rather than leading people through the actual process of examining the text.

The long-range attitude of letting the text surface the needs is the most desirable course for those who consider the Word of God to be “living and active”. This approach is akin to the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching him to fish. The crisis of immediate needs often obscures the greater needs. The danger here is that a preacher may find himself even believing these felt needs are the only acceptable topics for preaching. Willimon quotes Harry Emerson Fosdick’s expression of this viewpoint:

Every sermon should have for its main business the head-on constructive meeting of some problem which was puzzling minds, burdening consciences, distracting lives, and no sermon which so met a real human difficulty . . . could possibly be futile.3

Willimon believes Fosdick’s “life-situation preaching” had certain weaknesses and the major one was taking cues for the sermon from contemporary life instead of the text. The text, then, is designed by God not only to answer our needs, but also to inform us what our deepest needs are. As Leander Keck notes:

Exegesis becomes fruitful for preaching when the text confronts the exegete, in solidarity with the congregation, with a word that intersects prevailing understandings and loyalties. Responses to this experienced intersection are not pious; they often include bafflement, irritation, or resistance. Instead of feeling guilty about them, one should recognize them as signs that an issue has been located that needs to be worked through, as symptoms that a word is being heard.4

We must interpret texts with an attitude of praise.

Doctrine must not be studied just for the sake of mastering dogma. This creates a corps of religious “experts.” We have so much complex dogma that only a religious expert can make his or her way through the minefields of doctrine. This is why we hear people say they can’t “do evangelism” because they don’t know enough arguments. Evangelism is not something you do, evangelism is something you are. Doctrine is not something you do, it’s something you are. Doctrine is given us so that we might have right ideas about God, about ourselves, and our fellow humans.

If our approach to study doctrine is that we must define it with the accepted terminology, so as to guard it from any possible wrong thinking, or in other ways tame it, it will never yield its meaning to us. We’ll be like the group in John 6 who wanted to know what they had to do “to work the works of God,” and are told “This is the work [note the singular!] of God that you put your trust in that Person whom He has sent.” Did they get it? Jesus was saying to them that trust is the only atmosphere in which anyone can possibly grow, and that trust is evident when one makes the Bread of Life his or her entire spiritual diet. They had been more interested in the loaves and fishes than thanking God for the Bread of Life.

This failure to approach doctrine in a spirit of worshipful awe usually results in more arguments and wrangling, all detrimental to our real growth. In Ephesians chapter one, Paul writes of God’s choosing believers “before the foundation of the world” by “designating them ahead of time to be His sons.” This is the biblical doctrine of predestination. If our object in dealing with this passage is to argue with Calvin we shall certainly miss what it has in store for us. If we approach it in a praise attitude rather than a dogmatic attitude, we will see something wonderful about God.

If we go at it to wrangle about the concept, forcing it into what we are comfortable with, using a Procrustean bed technique, we will not understand why Paul begins the section with “Blessed is the God and Father….” Paul is obviously in a praise context, not an argumentative one, so this is the key. “Praise God,” Paul seems to be saying, ”because he considered our needs long before we ever thought about them at all. In fact, not only did he think about us before we ever existed, but he also determined that by his grace we would be members of his family!”

How much gentler would our history have been if we had taken the time to praise God more and argued doctrine less. The Bible is interested in making us more like God, not more like those “debaters of the age” Paul condemns in 1 Corinthians 1:20. For Paul, a word of praise transcends all; “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord!” (1 Corinthians 1:31). If we are to be part of a movement that centers on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we must see that praise is not just a duty, but a way of seeing the truest heart of God.

Moving toward an openness to the Holy Spirit, possessing a willingness to scuttle limiting formats, having readiness to replace the standard topical sermon with thoughtful exegesis, and interpreting texts with an attitude of praise will not move us to where we need to be unless our faith is in God for the long journey. As Scott Peck has noted, I cannot grow in any manner until I am willing to give up a proportionate amount of the old self. I would say, “I must be willing to give up all of the old self, then I can grow!”

Anthony C Thiselton. The Two Horizons. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980, p. 11.

As quoted in Thiselton, p. 57.

William D. Willimon, Integrative Preaching: The Pulpit at the Center. Abingdon Preacher’s Library. Abingdon: Nashville, 1981.

Leander E. Keck, The Bible in the Pulpit. Abingdon: Nashville, 1978, pp. 63-64).
Wineskins Magazine

Bob Hendren

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