There’s a post on Facebook that has been floating around for a while that I have a real issue with. This is an article about my issue with it.
The post is a cartoon drawing with two scenes. The top scene is a man on his knees praying toward the Clouds of Heaven asking, “God, please speak to me!” The next scene is a large hand reaching out of the clouds to hand him a Bible. While I get the point (if you want to know what God said, read the Bible. “G-doi!”[Little shout out to Wreck it Ralph for that one.]) I immediately reacted against it. “Oh come on! God is a lot more personal than that!”
A certain man had two sons. He was a busy man, and worked in his office with the door closed. One day, one of his sons knocked on his office door, and asked to speak with him. In response, the man slipped a piece of paper to his son that said, “I love you, son. If you have any pressing concerns read my notes I left you.” The son left and went to read his father’s notes. A little later the other son knocked and asked to speak with him. Immediately, the father swung open the door, and invited the child into the office and showed him what he was up to.
Which son did the man show more love to? Which one do you think will continue the family business when they are older?
Consider this verse: John 20:31–“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
I learned this verse in AWANA, a program for children to learn Bible verses from an early age, based on the idea of 2 Timothy 2:15, “Study to show yourself approved, a workman that needs not to be ashamed rightly dividing the word of Truth.” Though I barely understood these words as a 7 year old, I did understand the idea of Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed: AWANA. I got the Citation for completing the whole program and purchased the white gold citation ring with my name and that verse on it, as a reminder of my pledge to “rightly divide” His Word.
It was in Seminary that this”training” came into question. I heard a professor from Wheaton, John Walton, say these words which would shock most of my many self-proclaimed fundamentalist friends:
“The Bible was not written to us. We believe the Bible was written for us, like it’s for everyone of all times and places. But it wasn’t written to us. It wasn’t written in our language, it wasn’t written with our culture in mind or our culture in view.”
I am inclined to agree with him to a point. If the Bible was written “to” us (and for this writing, I say us representing American, technological, free people) it would have been written in English, and He probably would have used emojis. 🙂 Just saying. The Bible records two very distinct conversations: The Old Testament records God’s personal involvement and conversation with the people of Israel as a testimony to the Nations of His Goodness and unfailing love for all who would Hear His voice and keep His word; the New Testament records the conversation between Jesus Christ, the Son of God, his followers, and the people of the whole known world at that time. Even this verse in John 20:31 is written to John’s audience at his time. Just because it has been translated into English does not mean that it was written directly to “you” O ye noble English speaker.
Let me put it this way. Which is more meaningful to you: to get a letter from a friend with inside jokes and shared understandings? Or to read a letter from your dad to your older brother who are both fishermen who talk about life using fishing metaphors and you’ve never been fishing a day in your life? (A little shout out to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs for that one.) “Better is a friend who is near than a brother who is far away.” Solomon said to his son.
I’ve been deep in the languages, and submerged myself into some of the contexts of the Bible. The Word of God is so much more profound than in English: but it’s also a lot simpler than most teachers make it out to be. What really gets me fired up about this, is It’s also a lot more interpersonal than most Christians think it is, and also a lot less intrapersonal than most American Christians think. Let me explain.
I have sat under teachers who have said, “You have got to have a relationship with this book.” I cringe every time, because a book can’t talk back, can’t hold you, can’t convict you, except on your terms. It’s a lot easier to tie yourself to a book than it is to stare into the face of another human being eye to eye. Especially if the book isn’t even written directly to you in the first place.
On the other hand, I have watched my fellow believers swaying to complete misappropriations and misapplications of the Biblical Text. As a result they emotionally mislead many and themselves to their own disgrace. It’s a lot easier to read whatever you want into the words of the Bible than to read it as a conversation between two other people, in which you hopefully know One of the parties very well. Or rather in which One of the two parties hopefully knows you very well.
Both of these approaches are shallow and lead to error. One sucks all the blood out of a body, the other suffers from internal bleeding. What is the answer? Is there a third way?
Paul, suffering persecution unto the end of his life, passed the torch to his “son in the faith” Timothy saying this, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
“From whom.” I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Paul means here. One helpful note from translation: the “Whom” is plural! That throws out the idea of it all coming back to God teaching you, which is what I thought at first. Paul is writing a letter, so it could be he’s referring to something or someone not referred to in the text like teachers in the past, but . . . The word could be translated “who” or “what.” And directly after he says “knowing from ‘whom’ (pl) you’ve learned it he goes on to describe the “sacred writings” of the Old Testament.
This is common sense. Interpretation is not a science; it’s an art. In electricity, energy passes from a positive electrode to a negative electrode. Interpretation is like tracing the path of the bolt of lighting between them. In communication the positive electrode is the speaker, the negative electrode is the listener. The meaning is the spark they share between them.
Many people would love to load a bunch of meaning into 2 Timothy 3:16 as the verse for the authority of the whole Bible: Old and New Testament. Paul wasn’t referring to his own letters, he was referring to the sacred writings of the Old Testament. To say he meant more than that is to set up another negative electrode with which there is no “spark.” The New Testament is gonna have to look somewhere other than this statement of Paul for its authority, which I do affirm.
Let me share my interpretation of this passage: Paul is praising Timothy for how he has grown in Bible study. This is an older man commending his follower in how well he has followed him. And when Paul is gone, Timothy will 1. Know what he’s been taught. 2. Be deeply assured in faith about it, and 3. Know the sources that it is based in.
You have read so far so kindly, let me pause for a second. Is he talking about teachers or scriptures? Both are valid interpretations. We do need multiple teachers just like we need multiple eyes to see 3-D, and two people to verify truth. The grammar of the language Paul used to write this thought to Timothy could go either way, but the usage of the words for “learning” really make it sound like he’s talking about people. Multiple teachers.
So, he goes on to continue the same thought of 1. Knowing what he’s been taught, 2. Being deeply assured in faith about it, and 3. knowing the people who taught him. 4. by discussing the sacred writings. Aha! And how do these writings function? One thing to note is that, Paul at no point of this passage does Paul refer to the Sacred writings as God’s Word to Timothy. The Old Testament served the purpose of “giving wisdom that leads to Salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
We see from this snippet of conversation why wisdom is important (because it leads to Salvation), but how do the texts give wisdom? Could it be through seeing how the spark of meaning jumps between God and His people in a specific and personal way? Is it wisdom to take a letter between two people talking about cars, and put yourself in the position of the recipient, when you have no idea what a carburetor does? Or is it more humble to say, I would rather see what the letter meant to the original recipient before trying to understand what it meant. Which way is more human and accurate?
And what about this “faith” thing? Faith is internalization of truth as reality that externally shapes your world around you. But truth that is not kept between two people is not truth. It is a man talking to himself, and you can find that in any insane asylum. Faith is like putting your weight on a rock while climbing a cliff knowing it is sturdy enough to hold your weight. Woe to those who put faith in an engine to start that has only positive electrodes distanced from the negative ones. Because such an engine will not combust with true fire.
The beauty of the divinity of the Scriptures (which is absolutely true, and attested by Jesus Himself in conversation in the book of John), is that God speaks by divine revelation communicated very humanly between at least two people. Search the Scriptures and see if you find anything that is not written or spoken from one person to the hearing of another. Hint: before you go thinking about Proverbs, remember it was largely written from a father to his son. Kings, Chronicles, Samuel? Nehemiah? Hmmmm.
All of the sacred writings of Scripture have the very breath of God in them. When God breathed in the second chapter of Genesis it was to put life into the man. If you are reading the Old Testament, and you are not feeling the life in them, perhaps it is because you’re trying to suck air through a hole in God’s cheek, instead of aligning yourself with the person on the other end of God’s breath to whom He is speaking, and feeling in that moment “the cool of the day” in Eden, “the whirlwind of the storm” in Job, “the gentle whisper” to Elijah at Mt. Horeb.
It is because of God’s breath/spirit in these passages they are profitable for teaching, exposing, improving, and training in righteousness. Without God’s breath, they are not. Without God’s spirit they will not make the man of God fully complete to outwardly complete every good work.
Is it possible to read the Scriptures and miss God’s breath entirely? Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”
Let me regather: The point I made in the beginning is God is more personal than to hide himself behind words distant or disconnected from our own hearts. The way we handle the Bible: Old and New Testaments must be human/humble acknowledging that God spoke directly to others, and we can get in on that spark if we just line up the electrodes and watch the meaning unfold. That’s where the fire is! I’ve seen it! It’s real! He is real! Not only this, but God still speaks directly to us! He still directly speaks to each one who has the ears to hear, as the Holy Spirit living within His people guiding them into all truth, especially the truth of the Holy Scriptures. But the question of this whole grappling is “How personal is He?”
You see, dear reader, one of the reasons I hate sin so much, is it blinds us to the Goodness of God. That is why the “goodness/kindness/loyalty of God leads us to repentance.” And is it in a father’s accessibility to his children that we recognize God’s own goodness, or in a father’s cold detachment through a book that once meant something and is supposed to mean something again. Whenever I have gorged myself on the empty pleasures of this world, whether food, movies, wrongful sexual stimulation, it is SO hard to see Him. And I hate that. Because when I see Him, I enjoy His likeness in all things, especially in the face of another human being. That is where the same spark exists. Love is the true fire between two faces that kiss, and don’t let anyone tell you that physical touch means nothing to love.
It is exactly my point that God’s engagement with the people of God in the Holy Scriptures is just as personal as a kiss between two lovers. He made them, breathed into his nostrils, clothed them, spoke to them, instructed them, led them, said “please” to them, shared His secrets with them, performed great miraculous wonders for them, showed Himself to them, pursued them, wanted to be pursued by them, grew angry with them, was grieved by them, disciplined them, brought them back to life, saved them out of slavery, fed them, gave them water, adopted them, taught them, fortified them, fought for them, protected them, beautified them, glorified them, and sang songs of gladness over them. And that is just some of the things we have recorded! Then He walked among them and touched them, gave himself up for them, won the victory for them! He was their friend, their father, their God, their beloved. How much more personal can you get? Why would you think that God would be any less personally, actively involved in your life?
I think I’ll close this grappling with just one more thought. If the people of God represent God in the world, then they must pay great heed to this question. We become like the One we worship. And if we worship a God who is like a book, then the church will see itself as a book that the world can pick up and read and be saved, or a book that can be overlooked and rejected. If we worship a God who is personally, actively engaged with us in the same way He has been personally, actively engaged in the past, then we are going to go after this world. Why? Because that’s what Jesus did. He went after the world so that the world could have life through him, not through a book. It was Jesus the people of Israel rejected, not the Scriptures. It was God’s last demonstration of His forbearance to the people who had killed all his servants and been exiled and returned enslaved: “I’ll send them my Son. Surely they will hear Him.” Let those of us, who have been entrusted with the very gates of the Kingdom of Heaven, with which little children are so familiar, not be included in this woe: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”