Monday, February 3, 2014

Stop Quoting the Bible

Without Context

Look at the Forest and the Trees

"Biblicism" is a term that is hurled by liberals at those who take the Bible in the ordinary sense of its words ("literally" as they say) and treat it as authoritative for belief and behavior. The very idea that an ancient book written over thousands of years by who knows how many human authors could trump our enlightened thinking and morals!

But there are other ways the term is used. One of them is the same as what is sometimes called "proof-texting." This sort of biblicism asserts a truth and attaches a Bible text or texts to it as proof without sufficient regard for whether the text(s) actually establishes or supports the asserted truth. 

Andree Seu Peterson
World Columnist 
Recently I have come across two examples of this kind of biblicism in the work of a writer with whom I have disagreed before, Andree Seu Peterson, columnist for World magazine.  I will adddress one of them here and the other, I hope, at another time.

In the column considered here Mrs. Peterson addresses a "confession" by a Christian counselor that into his   mind popped the thought that the death of his parents would mean his enrichment by way of receiving his inheritance. Mrs. Peterson poses this question:
How do you call this one? A proof that we are hopeless sinners and our thoughts are only evil continually? Or, a temptation of the devil that can and must be rebuked for a victory in Christ? Our belief regarding that single question will affect everything we do today as we take our hat and coat and walk out the door.
Note two things: (1) She allows us only two options: (a) such thoughts reveal we are hopeless sinners whose thoughts are only and continually evil, or (b) such thoughts are temptations that provide the opportunity to rebuke the devil and attain a spiritual victory. Is there not at least a third possibility? Perhaps the thought tells us how deeply ingrained and powerful is the sin that remains in us as Christians. Perhaps the fact that we are troubled by such thoughts reveals that we have new natures, however weak and struggling they may be, that are in conflict with such sinful thoughts. And, yes, we can and should resist such thoughts and seek to win victories, though as the arising of such thoughts apparently "out of nowhere" tells us, how tough this battle is. (2) She asserts that our answer "will affect everything we do today" though she does not tell us how. One assumes this is hyperbole, unfortunately the kind of hyperbole to which those who promote a "Christian view of everything" are prone. 

She goes on to say, "The answer must be found in Scripture, of course," and then tells us with the quotation of three texts which of the two options the Scriptures endorse :
We find there that we “once were alienated and hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21). (That sounds to me like this is no longer the case.) We find that we are given the doable command to “love the Lord … with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). We find that we are exhorted to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
Note four things here: (1) She assumes that these three texts tell us the Bible's answer to the question she has posed. As a matter of fact they by no means summarize the whole of what the Bible says on the subject of sinful (or in her view potentially sinful) thoughts. (2) She rightly asserts that Colossians 1:21 speaks of a past reality, but then assumes this is all the truth there is about the Christian mind. The truth is that, while the Christian mind is no longer in its basic orientation alienated and hostile, it, nevertheless, like the whole of the Christian's, renewed and being renewed nature, is capable of thinking and thought that is alienated from God and hostile to God. This is part of the amazing "contradiction" of the Christian who finds constantly that there is warfare within him/herself. (3) She asserts that the first of the two great commandments is "doable" but does not tell us what she means by "doable." Surely it does not mean  "perfectly doable." But, surely also it does not mean "easily" doable. (4) She then, without telling us how it relates to to the first two texts, quotes a text that exhorts us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. If our minds are not alienated or hostile,  and if loving God with the mind is as doable as Mrs. Peterson implies, what is this transformation by the renewal of the Christian mind?

What is the consequence of the stringing together of three texts:
So if we have a new nature, what do we make of a sudden thought like the counselor’s one about his parents’ death and his financial gain? Based on Scripture, I see it as a demonic notion put into the man’s head. And what do we do with a demonic notion put into the head? We rebuke it on the spot: 
“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
Notice three things: (1) Assuming that she has grasped what the Bible says, she then, by a line of logic I cannot follow, tells us that based on the teaching of Scripture she believes the thought of one being enriched by his parents' deaths is a demonic suggestion. Well, yes, but a demonic suggestion that finds no fertile ground in the  mind of the Christian? (2) One must "rebuke" the devil on the spot. Where did the devil or rebuking him come from those three texts? (3) She moves from calling for rebuking the devil to a text that tells us to resist him. Is rebuking the devil the same as resisting him? Perhaps, but it seems to me that rebuking the devil is something done by Christ and the angels while resisting is something the Christian does and implies a enemy with which one can fight but not a toothless enemy. When I pray  Compline (The Book of Common Prayer's devotional exercise at the completion of the day) before I go to sleep, I am reminded that I must resist my adversary the  devil who is going about seeking whom he may devour. He is going about. He wants to devour me.  I must resist him so he doesn't get to accomplish his purpose. 

Now what does it mean to rebuke the devil?
How do we rebuke the devil, so as to make him flee? We refuse to entertain for a moment longer the evil idea he put in our heads, and we say, audibly if necessary: “I rebuke you, Satan! That’s not me thinking! I’m a new creation!” And we commence to pray and to thank God for this ability to send the devil fleeing—that accuser of the brethren who was “disarmed” and made a public spectacle of and “triumphed over” by the cross (Colossians 2:15), so that his only remaining power toward a Christian is the power of the bluff.
Notice four things: (1) Rebuking the devil means not holding the thought he puts in our minds and saying to him audibly or not: "I rebuke you." Does the Bible teach us this, or, as suggested above, does it teach us to engage in ongoing resistance?  (2) The thought is not my thought but the devil's thought. Does the thought come only from the devil or does it at all arise in me? When Paul says that the evil he does is not really him doing it, he means to say that the evil is not in accord with his true identity in Christ and with his new nature that does not want to do it, but he does not mean to say nor does he say that evil is entirely alien to his inner being, for he is "canral, sold under sin."  (3) She says we thank God for the ability we have to send the devil on his way. We have such a power to put him on the run? True the Bible says he will "flee from you," but it seems that he keeps coming back and that resisting with the result that the devil's "fleeing" operates in something other than a formulaic manner. It's a battle against a pesistent and resourceful foe. You are constantly engaged in a war of reistance. (4) The devil has no other power in a Christian except to bluff as though he did have real power, for Colossians 2:15 teaches that the devil has been disarmed, humiliated, and defeated by the cross. The devil is bluffing when he presents us with (at least potentially) sinful thoughts? Or is he operating on the basis something he knows about his power in relation to a weakness of our nature?

So what does this analysis of the issue and strategy for addressing it mean?
A thought becomes a sin only where the line is crossed and the thought is entertained rather than instantly rebuked. This fact makes all the difference in the Christian’s attitude and experience of hope. If we venture out with this biblical understanding, and realize that not every bad thought that presents itself is a sin but is a temptation meant to be triumphed over, that our faith may come through as gold (1 Peter 1:6-7)our Christian lives are transformed from lives hamstrung by a sense of chronic defeat to lives of godly optimism and triumph: 
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son …” (Colossians 1:13).
 Take note: (1) A thought is not sinful unless it is entertained. If the devilish thought is not rebuked immediately, then it becomes sinful. Who says the thought is not sinful? Why does the thought occur at all? Is it entirely alien, that is, from the devil, or is there anything in the nature of a Christian from which the thought arises or that is an ally of the devil? (2) Realizing that thoughts themselves, if immediately sent running, are not sinful gives us hope as we realize that these thoughts are not sins but opportunities to defeat temptations.  And where is the Christian's cry with Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"  (3) Thus we can be optimists, whose faith is being refined and  who are not defeated but triumphant as we have been delivered out of kingdom of darkness and delivered into the light of Christ's kingdom. Yes, we have reason to be optimistic. We will will. But what is true in principle now is true only partially now and will be reality only when we are conformed to the image of Christ in the world to come.

 We know Mrs. Peterson must work within non-negotiable constraints on the number of words she may employ for any column. We do not know to what kind of editorial revisions this column has been subjected. Nevrtheless, it is incumbent on Mrs. Peterson and her editors, when they purport to say what the Bible says, to make sure that the Bible says what they say it says.

There are things that need to be brought to bear on attempts, such as this column illustrates, to address practical and experiential problems of the Christian life from the Bible. 

(1) If the first rule of real estate is "location, location, location," the first rule of interpreting the Bible is context, context, context. What do these words mean in relation to other words? The words of its sentence, paragraph, book? The words as intended by the author and understood by the original audience? The words as understood within the historical, cultural, and ecclesiastical world in which they occur? (These are exegetical questions.) What do the words mean in their relation to the whole of the developing (the progressive unfolding of)  Biblical revelation?  (These are questions of Biblical theology or redemptive historical significance.)

(2) We agree with Mrs. Peterson's assumption that there is Biblical teaching on thoughts such as those occurred to the Biblical counselor. That is, we believe in systematic theology and in Biblical ethics. We hear today from those too enamored of Biblical theology such things as that systematics involves the imposition of a philosophical system on the Bible and that systematics is necessarily conditioned by the times and conditions which it is produced so that its usefulness to us is severely limited. With these arguments, assumptions, and assertions we disagree. But, doing systematics means that you have to make sure you are dealing with all the relevant material, that you are understanding one strand of teaching in relation to other strands, and that you construct a rational system of doctrine or ethics based on all the relevant materials rightly related to one another.

3) Issues such as the  Mrs. Peterson addresses  in this column are pastoral issues that involve the application of Biblical truth to the practical circumstances and experiential struggles of Christians. That suggests that pastoral experience and wisdom are relevant. We do mean that individual believers should not read, interpret, and apply  the Bible to themselves and other individuals but it does mean that they ought to avail themselves of the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of pastors. Moreover, it is one thing to practice this kind of pastoral care with oneself and family members and friends. It is another to publish one's conclusions in a national magazine that "instructs" other Christians.

4. The truth of the Bible is simple (can be stated straigtforwardly and clearly so that it can be understood by others). Faith is simple. It does not die the death of a thousand qualifications. But neither is simplistic. The truth requires fulness, nuance, and qualification or it runs the risk of not being truth but error. Faith must be complex in the sense that it must be grounded in a right understanding of Scripture and applied to the complicated realities of life.

We appreciate Mrs. Peterson and World magazine, but it is concerning to find these kind of mistakes in rightly handling the Word of truth so frequently. Perhaps World would be wise to entrust pastoral counsel  to those who are qualified, called, and overseen as they handle that Word and apply it to the people of God - that is, to ministers.

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