|What Makes Us Who We Are (1 of 7)
A View of Scripture
June 6, 1999 / 2 Peter 1:19-21
Most people know they need guidance for their lives. Just over a thousand randomly selected persons were surveyed on behalf of a life insurance and financial services company in February 1999. Three-fourths said they believed they were created by God for a purpose, but only 45 percent of those said they understood what that purpose is.1
The question more people in that survey said they would like to ask God than any other is this: "What is my purpose on Earth?" One-third (34 percent) said that would be their question. The next two questions in terms of the percentage of people wanting to ask them were "Will I have life after death?" (19 percent) and "Why do bad things happen?" (16 percent).
To some of us, it would seem strange that anybody would want to ask such things of God. With no arrogance or sarcasm intended, we’d likely reply that he has already answered them. And you might even be able to cite some chapter and verse numbers from the Bible on these topics. Christians believe that God does communicate with the men and women he has created in his image and that the primary vehicle through which he does so is the Bible.
Two Definitive Affirmations
There is surely a sense in which we may say God speaks to us through both nature and persons or events in our lives. But ultimately he has communicated with us through select persons called "prophets" and through the written accounts of their God-supplied messages. "And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet. 1:19-21).
In this text, Peter affirms the value and trustworthiness of the early church’s Bible — the writings of the Old Testament prophets. Moreover, he said, their words had been confirmed and made the more certain to him and his fellow apostles by their personal experiences with Jesus — particularly in mind here was the Transfiguration (cf. Matt. 17:1ff). Thus he was emphatic in urging his own readers to "pay attention" to the words of Scripture for themselves.
This parallels Paul’s classic text about the Word of God: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Paul’s use of the adjective "God-breathed" (Gk, theopneustos) to describe Scripture is particularly important. It is his way of saying what has already been quoted from Peter in negative terms: "No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
Although the Bible was written by men, they were not its ultimate author. Scripture is truly and actually God’s word. Although written in human vocabulary and at times and under circumstances we study as normal human history, it was the activity of the Holy Spirit in those prophets that determined the outcome of their speaking and writing. Like sunshine passing through a stained-glass window, it took on the "coloring" of a given author’s personality but nonetheless provided illumination and warmth only because it was coming from the God who is light (cf. 1 John 1:5bff).
The reason why evangelical and conservative Christians — how I hate having to use such labels to modify a term so holy as "Christian"! — give so much emphasis to a high view of Scripture, pay particular attention to the original languages of the Bible (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and discuss hermeneutical method with such passion is that we rest our faith on the sixty-six documents that collectively make up the Bible.
Today’s sermon is the first of seven on the general theme "What Makes Us Who We Are." And we’re beginning at the beginning — with Scripture. And the fundamental thing that makes us who we are is our view of the Word of God. I’m not trying to write a creed for the Church of Christ with this seven-part series. I’m not even trying to set the creed for this Church of Christ. But I will be articulating the credo (Latin for "I believe") that undergirds my ministry in this fellowship and in this congregation. I will no more presume to speak for you in these seven sermons than I presume to speak for you whenever I teach here. For I affirm the principle of "private interpretation of Scripture" for everyone who will hear, read, or hear/read about anything I may say in this series.
Private Interpretation of Scripture
How did Moses and David get beyond the limitations of their time and place to know the mind of God? How can we be sure that Paul was expressing heaven's will about husband-wife relationships in Christ rather than his personal prejudices? How do we know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Here is my answer to these questions: God enabled certain specially chosen individuals to know the otherwise unknowable or interpret the otherwise merely puzzling and communicate those insights correctly. The result is "God-breathed" Scripture.
At that point, with a certified Scripture in hand, the process called inspiration ends. Contrary to the haughty and patronizing attitude some interpreters exhibit, their efforts at interpreting the Bible are not on a level with the original documents. They are not incontestable, as our historic failure to see the Bible alike demonstrates. We don’t and won’t see the Bible alike on many subjects because of our psychological wirings, diverse life experiences, and personal predispositions. The limitations of our ability as students — coupled with the personal blinders and cultural baggage we bring to the interpretive task — caution us to exhibit great humility with our conclusions.
The fundamental truths of Scripture that are essential for salvation are much more conspicuous than its more contestable subject matter. The deity of Christ is more straightforward to Bible readers than anyone’s position on church worship or government. The centrality of the cross is plain in a way that eschatology isn't. Scripture is much more explicit on the divine attitude toward homosexuality or lying than on dancing or choosing which (if any!) movies to attend. One who is equally dogmatic on all these subjects loses credibility very quickly.
We are called to be good students of the Word. Every interpretation one derives from careful study and honest reflection — his or her "private interpretations of Scripture"2 — should be held dear until fuller or clearer facts come into view. God will judge not only our facts (or lack of them) and conclusions (closer to or farther from the truth) but our integrity with them.
"Guaranteed truth" is a label that belongs to Scripture alone. Our honest studies will yield adequate but not infallible conclusions. Thus we can live in the confidence of faith without the arrogance of claiming for ourselves what can only be affirmed of the Bible itself. Walking in the light doesn't require swaggering through life with a chip on one's shoulder.
The Ultimate Danger
One Christian writer has cited an episode from the long-running sitcom Cheers that seems to depict the strange relationship many of us have with the Bible in America.3 Bartender-rake Sam affirms that he has undergone a moral awakening and transformation. He has made a new promise to God — from an eccentric and preposterous theology — to live a celibate life from that day forward. His commitment is strong — until an old girlfriend shows up with an amorous proposition for her old lover. Sam is overcome and leaves the bar with her.
The scene next day has Sam’s buddies at the bar asking about his fall from grace. To their amazement and consternation, he declares that "nothing happened." So he begins to relate his "spiritual" experience at the motel he had chosen. Preparing for his would-be romantic night, he happened to open a drawer in the bedside table. To his amazement, there was a Bible in it!
His lust was stronger than his pledge of celibacy, however, so he took his would-be lover and made for a second motel. Sure enough, there was a Bible there too! Five motels later, he gave up, told the woman he couldn’t go through with it, and went home. Norm, Frasier, and Cliff didn’t have the heart to tell him about Gideon Bibles. They let him think that God had miraculously held him to his vow with a series of supernaturally-placed Bibles. They’d been there all along. Sam had simply never paid attention to them. "Such is the plight of American Christianity in the past few decades. We have the Bibles, but we never see them. Almost every home in our nation has one or more Bibles, but our citizens are biblically illiterate."4
The Barna Research Group discovered a few years back that ten percent of the thousand people in one of its polls thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, 16 percent were sure the New Testament contained a book written by Thomas the apostle, and 38 percent thought the Old and New Testaments were written a few years after the death of Jesus.5
Taking Scripture to Heart
I’d like for every Christian to be a genuine biblical scholar, but I know that is both impractical and impossible. It is not unreasonable, however, to expect that every Christian should be a regular reader and prayerful student of Scripture. From the youngest member of this church to the oldest, our goal is to create an attitude toward the Word of God that will carry outside the walls of our classrooms and beyond the experience of a given worship assembly.
We want people to revere Scripture. We want to communicate both the importance and fun — yes, fun! — of Bible study. We want to provide incentives for small groups to form for Bible study and prayer. And we want to encourage mutual respect among people who exercise their right to personal study and who draw conclusions different from either mine or yours.
So long as the fundamental Christological doctrines are in place, reach your best personal conclusion about how and when the world will end. So long as you stand with us in the gospel, think what you wish of our organization, worship styles, or methods of ministry. So long as you see God’s love for you in Christ beckoning you to him, think what you will about a thousand subjects over which Christians have fought and divided over the centuries. Shame on us for dismembering the Body of Christ over trivial things!
The central message of Scripture is hard to miss. Do you doubt that is so? Let me close with a section from a book that is anything but theological and that is written by someone who bills herself as anything but a theologian.
One day the teacher, Frederick Wilkerson, asked me to read to him. I was twenty-four, very erudite, very worldly. He asked that I read from Lessons in Truth, a section which ended with these words: "God loves me." I read the piece and closed the book, and the teacher said, "Read it again." I pointedly opened the book, and I sarcastically read, "God loves me." He said, "Again." After about the seventh repetition I began to sense that there might be truth in the statement, that there was a possibility that God really did love me. Me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all.
Whether read directly from the Bible or from a secondary source that is echoing its message of love, hope, and salvation, that is the message. And taking that message personally is what makes you God’s child.
What a profoundly simple message from the Book of Books, the Word of God, the Message of Hope. I hope you will take it very personally today.
1 Julia McCord, "Life’s Purpose? Poll Finds Many Unclear of Their Own," Omaha World-Herald, April 17, 1999; cf. "Going to a higher authority," USA Today, May 28, 1999, p. 1A.
2 In 2 Peter 1:19-21 the claim is made that Holy Scripture did not originate in a given prophet’s personal understanding or in a merely human interpretation of an event such as the exodus or a locust plague. Prophetic utterances were traceable to the Holy Spirit rather than to some merely human process. It would be a mistake, however, to understand Peter to say that individuals may not study and come to their personal conclusions about Scripture’s content. To the contrary, the individual believer should not look to someone else to do his or her thinking about the Word of God. This is a fundamental difference in Protestant and Roman Catholic views of the Bible.
3 Thom Rainer, Great Awakenings (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), pp. 33-34.
4 Rainer, Great Awakenings, p. 34.
5 James L. Franklin, "Religious Notes," Boston Globe, October 15, 1994.
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