Sola Scriptura? Five “Texts” that Compete With Scripture

bereanThe Reformers cried, “Sola Scriptura!” Latin for Scripture Alone! By it, they planted the Bible at the top of the heap when it comes to ways Christians obtain truth. The Scripture texts get the final say. When Paul and Silas came to a pretty hill-town called Berea, here’s what happened: Continue reading

Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 2

[This is part two of a two-part entry. Click here for Legalism’s Knockout Blow, part 1]

Mural, St. Sulprice, Price

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Why would God kick a guy when he’s down? Isn’t he supposed to be loving and kind? Why would he pick on Jacob at the lowest point in his life? Is he that uncaring?

Or could it be that he’s lovingly trying to condense a lifetime of legalism into a single encounter that he might uproot it once for all?

Verse 25 makes the stupefying claim that puny, frightened Jacob prevailed against infinite, Almighty God. What’s going on? These Scriptures present an acted parable—depicting how legalism stretches its tentacles into every area of life with God.

First tentacle: the idea that we are on equal footing with God. Legalism, by nature, demotes God to our own mercenary level and imagines we can go nose-to-nose with him. Was Jacob indeed on equal footing with God? Of course not. God wrestled him the way a father wrestles his five-year old. And, like the five-year old, legalists don’t get it. Like Jacob, they imagine themselves “winners” in the eyes of God; they believe they can, by human effort, merit his approval. Continue reading

Three Cheers for Vocabulary!

The surgeon says, “I have to pull out that little hangy thingy in your gut-parts that doesn’t do anything.”

The mechanic says, “I’ll have to brush off those shiny screwy ceramic thingies with the little metal tip.”

The contractor says, “I’ll just yank off those flat bumpy whatch-a-ma-call-its from the top of your house and see where it’s leaking.”

You’d be looking for a new surgeon, a new mechanic, and a new contractor. In each of these fields, we want experts. We want dedicated workers who have studied their craft and mastered it. We want a surgeon who knows the difference between an appendix and a spleen, a mechanic who knows the difference between a spark plug and a coil, and a contractor who knows the difference between a roof shingle and roof vent.

And I want a pastor who knows the difference between justification and sanctification, propitiation and redemption, the Hypostatic Union and the Mystical Union, Omniscience and Omnipotence. I want a pastor who has studied the craft and mastered it (not that you can ever master either God or Scripture, but you can be proficient in it at least). I know that some will immediately read me as saying all I care about is theological vocabulary… No. There is immeasurably more to being a pastor or church leader.

But clarity on theology is an indispensable foundation for everything else. Don’t tell me how to live unless you know deeply from Scripture what divine resources God has offered me, how they work, and how Jesus used them in his life… the soul-stirring vocabulary of the Christian faith.

In the realm of the spirit, I want to train you to become your own mechanic.

In olden days, everyone had the same Bible. We’d all read: Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1, NKJV). Immediately the preacher was forced into explaining justification… and we’d all learn it. Over the years, we’d develop a fairly sophisticated picture of justification as distinct from, yet related to, sanctification. We’d understand why Martin Luther attempted to correct his church’s theology on the doctrine, and why it mattered so enormously.

Today, however, we read in a dozen translations, some bland variation on: “having been made right by faith” and nobody needs to explain it. In fact, by obliterating the theological vocabulary, the reader isn’t even alerted to the existence of an entire theological system summed up in one word. When a mechanic says “carburetor” he calls to mind a whole piece of machinery and its interplay with the other machinery. One word conjures a vast, systematic picture.

So it is in Scripture: justified, justification, justify, just, righteous… there is an ocean of wonder to explore in this one great word.

Take the word “gospel.” It has morphed into a thousand things, mostly shallow, and mostly emotional. Yes, the gospel is good news, but it is the title for a precise theological bit of good news: that Christ died for our sins, etc (1 Cor 15:3) and that if we mess with it, then we’re to be damned (Gal 1:8,9). God help us all if “gospel” means so much that it stops meaning anything.

By losing our vocabulary, we’ve lost the riches and the wonder. We’ve lost the clarity. We’ve lost the powerful and beautiful inter-linkages that tie all of Scripture together.

We’ve also lost the subtle distinctions that protect us from heresy. After all, the early church split over a single letter: whether Jesus, in his deity, is homo-ousios (the same substance) or homoi-ousios (similar substance) with the Father. Picky? Yes! Essentially picky. Life-changingly picky. Picky the way you hope and pray your surgeon is picky. Vocabulary matters enormously.

The authors of Scripture never shied away from long sentences and big words. They developed a sophisticated vocabulary and weren’t afraid to use it.

This is not to suggest that our sermons and Bible classes become dry, academic, theological lectures. Not at all — and if you’ve heard me preach, you probably wouldn’t describe my sermons that way [I hope]. The people of God crave the deep things of God — let’s take them there, assuming we’ve taken ourselves there first. Let’s patiently build the concepts in their minds. Let’s lay out a rich feast for hungry souls. Let’s integrate deep truth into real life. Let’s go beyond the surface.

Pick up any collection of sermons from a hundred years ago and notice the dramatic contrast: ours today are painfully dumbed down. Sorry.

Paul validated his ministry saying, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, NKJV). Do we declare the whole counsel of God? Or do we settle for funny stories, thin sentimentality, and relentless exhortations to duty.

Three cheers for the meat of God’s Word and the vocabulary that expresses it!

And three cheers for any preacher brave enough to teach it.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17, NKJV).

 

WORD

[Four Letter Words is available at a special price, one day only: $5.99 (list $13.99). Here’s an excerpt from the chapter, WORD, click here to purchase specially inscribed/autographed copies of Four Letter Words] Please spread the word. Thanks.

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God Is…

The Apostle John detonated a religious explosion when he wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He actually wrote it twice (v. 16). No other religion ever made love the heartbeat of God.

Christians own “God is love.”

We might not have always radiated his ideal standards, but we’ve never budged from this mother of all religious premises. We don’t simply say God has love, or that God shows love, or that God—after he’s been fed enough sacrifices—is loving. No. We say, God is love. Followers of Jesus brought that message to the world. Like the original, original, Original Pancake House, there are many copies, but only one original.

That original, found in John’s first Epistle, only echoes a thousand whispers of biblical teaching. John didn’t invent this truth; he only summarized it from all that Scripture already said.

He supremely learned it from Jesus. Jesus taught, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13) and, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Does love prove the superiority of the Bible? Only if a loving God is important to you. Otherwise, it makes no difference.

The Main Thing

The love of God is the main theme of the whole Bible. The different authors of the Bible’s sixty-six books, hold up God’s love like a diamond, and make it sparkle from a million angles.

Moses highlighted this love as part of God’s abiding marriage covenant with his people. If God was jealous, it was only because the people he loved went after other lovers.

David composed songs about God’s love—friend to friend, and man to God. For David, God wasn’t just “the Big Guy up there,” he was closer than a brother, and more gentle than a shepherd.

The Prophets painted God’s love as a portrait of a mother nursing her child, or a lover wooing his beloved. “The LORD has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you’” (Jeremiah 31:3).

The Gospels depict God’s love as a fire burning in Jesus’ heart. Sometimes it was warm and tender: when Jesus ate fish with his disciples, when he turned water to wine, and when he healed lepers and embraced society’s outcasts. Other times, his love burned red hot: when he drove the crooks out of the temple with a homemade whip, when he shredded the Pharisees for loading impossible burdens on people who sought God, and when he died for our sins—the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world.

The Epistles (most of the rest of the New Testament) analyze God’s love. They tell us it flows from the heart of God in infinite measure, and that it’s grounded in the death of Christ. These books humble us by comparing our puny love to God’s massive love: “This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:10, NLT).

Every major part of the Bible teaches the love of God. In symbols, in ceremonies, in parables, in healings, in miracles, and in plain teaching, the love of God pulses from the Bible’s beginning to its end.

Search the religious literature of the world. Dig through the annals of history. Explore religious books from any culture, anywhere in the world. You’ll never find a match to the Bible’s beautiful claim that God is love.

Yes, God is more than love. But that he is love, and that his love is such a big part of him, makes me feel secure. In the Bible, I read a grand narrative of a God who made me, lost me, and loved me enough to buy me back at immeasurable cost. I feel safe with this God, and safe in his universe, now and forever. God’s love is a crazy big love, and I’m glad to rest in it.

Because of Love

Even so, we who follow Jesus still get in trouble for believing the Bible. How can we be so narrow to say that the Bible is God’s only book? Hasn’t God revealed himself in all the religions of humankind?

I know I’m only digging my hole deeper with some friends in this conversation, but I will say that if there is any truth or goodness in any other religious book or teacher, it is only a distorted memory from a race created by the Bible’s God, but now wandering in darkness away from him. The Bible’s teaching is original. Everything else is a copy of a copy of a copy.

I’ll hold up my shields till the spitballs subside.

If a God of love has inspired any book, the only real contender is the Bible…

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Word! (Chapter 7 from Four Letter Words)

Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.

Attributed to Mark Twain2

TOUCHY IDEAS

1. The Bible is the inspired Word of God.

2. The Bible is God’s only and final Word, in its own class, above all other religious literature.

3. The theology and ethics of the Bible transcend time and culture and are as applicable today as when originally written.

4. No other book has improved society or benefited mankind as much as the Bible.

TOUCHY SCRIPTURES

1. So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him. (Exodus 19:7).

2. I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth More than my necessary food. (Job 23:12).

3. The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers. (Acts 28:25).

4. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16,17).

5. For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21).

6. Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. (Revelation 22:7).

 * * * * *

EVIDENCE, VERDICTS, AND MAKING THE CASE

I’ll never forget the first time I opened Evidence that Demands a Verdict. First published in 1972, the book rocketed to best-seller status. Josh McDowell blew my high-school mind with his flawless logic and undeniable evidence for Christianity. He spoke my language. His book assembled massive amounts of data to support the Bible as God’s Word and Jesus as God’s Son. When I read his book, I felt excited. It was like an encyclopedia of unbeatable arguments for Christianity.

Surely my skeptical friends would be convinced. I was right; they were wrong. God rules! That’s how I felt, at least.

To my young mind, McDowell proved beyond doubt that no other religious book compares with the Bible in terms of the number and quality of ancient copies. He laid out proof of Christ’s resurrection that would stand in any court. He contrasted the Bible’s historical accuracy with the inaccuracies of other religious works. McDowell made the case. He put forth evidence that demanded a verdict.

I thought any rational reader would be convinced.

I was wrong.

For most people, the jury is still out on the Bible. I don’t know if it’s postmodern cynicism toward truth, or our inborn allergy to accountability. Maybe it’s a sincere disagreement with the facts, but the evidence that looks so conclusive to me is blatantly inconclusive for a whole lot of my friends.

But for me, there is something about the Bible that sets it in a class by itself. Unfortunately, I can’t prove it like a scientist can prove that a virus causes the flu. It’s hard to subject the Bible’s claims to empirical or rational verification.

So I won’t try. You can find hundreds of excellent websites and books that make the case for the Bible from logic, evidence, and history (you can find links on the Four Letter Words website). I’m all for that, and I’m convinced. But in this chapter, I’d like to take a different approach.

I’d like to look at the Bible’s beauty and love.

WHOSE GOD IS LOVE?

In the history of world religion, it is Christianity alone—drawing from its roots in Judaism—that demolished preconceptions by offering a God of boundless love. If you erase the Bible from history, good luck finding an all-loving deity.

Here are nine major religious perspectives and their core concept of god:

Buddhism

Buddhists do not proclaim a god of love, because Buddhists do not proclaim any god at all. According to BuddhaNet, a major online resource,

“There is no almighty God in Buddhism. There is no one to hand out rewards or punishments on a supposedly [sic] Judgement [sic] Day. Buddhism is strictly not a religion in the context of being a faith and worship owing allegiance to a supernatural being.”3

Buddhists, like Hindus and others, believe in karma, a soulless force that makes sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them—either in this life or the next life, or the next life after that. No doubt, Buddhists can be extremely loving people. But, if you need a God of Love, look elsewhere.

Islam

The one God, Allah, is bigger than, and outside of, creation. Though we can know his will, we cannot know him personally. Muslims do not normally speak of a relationship with Allah. Even when they speak of God’s mercy, it is usually set in the context of justice rather than relationship. One Islamic scholar states, “God does not reveal Himself to anyone.”4 Instead, he reveals his will, and we’re stuck with it. No one can question kismet—the unbending will of Allah. The God of Islam leads with authority, not love.

Hinduism

I struck up a conversation with a gas station attendant in Los Angeles. A calendar hung on the wall behind him with a drawing of a man in a golden suit. I asked the attendant about the picture, figuring it was a politician or celebrity. He answered, “Oh, that is god.” The calendar displayed a different god for each month. Scholars debate how to classify Hinduism. By offering a menu of thousands of gods, it is polytheistic. By claiming that ultimately all things dissolve into oneness—including the gods—it is pantheistic. By suggesting that all gods are aspects of a single Supreme Being, it resembles monotheism. Hindus are comfortable in all three camps. The main gods of Hinduism form a kind of trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. “They are respectively the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.”5 Each one has a female partner-god or consort. Though some of the gods may love their people—especially Devi, the Mother-Warrior goddess—Hinduism offers no all-supreme god of boundless love.

Animism

Animists find spirits lurking behind all things, including people, animals, plants, rocks, streams, trees, and thunderstorms. When the spirits are angry, worshippers appease them through rituals, spells and sacrifice. In the past, this has included human sacrifice. The spirits of animism do not love mankind in any special sense. Most animists resonate more with fear than with love.

Deism

There is a Supreme Being who created the universe and no longer interferes with its operations. Deists threw out any idea of miracles or supernatural influence in the world. Thomas Jefferson stitched together his own Bible by literally using scissors to cut out Scriptures he judged miraculous and therefore unworthy of Jesus. He claimed the true history and sayings of Jesus shined out from the false ones, “like diamonds on a dung heap.” He left the dung heap in the dung heap, and pasted up a 48-page Bible. It told the story of Jesus from his birth (minus angels and a virginal mother) to his burial (minus a resurrection).6 Deism offers an emotionally icy God of High I.Q. who watches from a distance, like a father who left behind a pile of money, and then abandoned his family.

Atheism

There is no god of love because there is no god. Would it annoy you if I pointed out again that ideas have consequences? Strip mankind of its Creator God of Love, and the most heinous crimes become not only thinkable, but actual. It is estimated that communism – in the service of atheism – has slaughtered more humans than any other system ever devised. Death by Government author, R. J. Rummel, estimates that communism in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia, killed (or let die) over 110,000,000 people—almost three times the number of humans who died in all the world’s wars during the twentieth century.7

Before you accuse me of breaking the needle on the “moron-meter,” I’m not painting every atheist as a genocidal maniac. One of my good friends is an atheist, and he’s a good-hearted, thoughtful, fun-loving guy. But how can you subtract God’s love from the core of the cosmos, and expect the world’s rulers to curb their lust for power? Why should they?

Wicca

Wicca is an animist religion, and like animism, believes in the spirits of trees and rocks and birds. Through spells, incantations, and rituals, Wiccans hope to persuade these spirits to play nice. Wiccans can exhibit great love for others; I have a couple of ex-Wiccans in my church, and they are kind-hearted people. But while they were in Wicca, no one ever offered them a God of love.

Gnosticism

This ancient philosophy/religion is on the rise, thanks to movies and books like The DaVinci Code.  It comes in many flavors and gloms onto a lot of religions: Gnostic Christianity, Gnostic Judaism, Gnostic Islam (the ‘g’ is silent). It’s basically a shape-shifter, except for a few core beliefs: Gnostics taught that matter was evil (your body), and spirit was good (your soul, all the invisible stuff). Since god is good, he has nothing to do with humans made of matter, like us. So he didn’t create us, and doesn’t relate to us. Instead, he spun off legions of mini-gods, called emanations or demi-urges, who spun off their own mini-gods, who eventually spun off mankind.

In essence, the Gnostic god distanced himself from filthy humans by creating myriads of go-betweens, like clerks in a government office, whose main job is to shield the boss from rabble like us. Can you feel the love?

Ancient Pantheons 

A pantheon is a roster of gods, and the ancient world offered loads of them. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons listed literally hundreds of gods. None of the big ones—Ra, Zeus, Jupiter, or Odin—could ever be mistaken as a god of love. Yes, there was love and an occasional spasm of kind-heartedness from them. But it never dawned on ancient people that an Almighty Creator God loved them and had their best interests at heart.

* * * * *

I attended three colleges and flipped through five majors to finally get a bachelor’s degree. During my stint at the University of Illinois (Chicago), I was one of a handful of “Classics” majors. We studied Greek and Roman languages, literature, and culture. I took my first classes in ancient Greek with a Jesuit priest named Father Tracy. Good stuff.

But I don’t remember ever hearing about any deity’s love in any of my classes. Credit Jesus and his people for first injecting a loving God into the theological bloodstream.

GOD IS…

The Apostle John detonated a religious explosion when he wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He actually wrote it twice (v. 16). No other religion ever made love the heartbeat of God.

Christians own “God is love.”

We might not have always radiated his ideal standards, but we’ve never budged from this mother of all religious premises. We don’t simply say God has love, or that God shows love, or that God—after he’s been fed enough sacrifices—is loving. No. We say, God is love. Followers of Jesus brought that message to the world. Like the original, original, Original Pancake House, there are many copies, but only one original.

That original, found in John’s first Epistle, only echoes a thousand whispers of biblical teaching. John didn’t invent this truth; he only summarized it from all that Scripture already said.

He supremely learned it from Jesus. Jesus taught,

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13) and, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Does love prove the superiority of the Bible? Only if a loving God is important to you. Otherwise, it makes no difference.

THE MAIN THING

The love of God is the main theme of the whole Bible. The different authors of the Bible’s sixty-six books, hold up God’s love like a diamond, and make it sparkle from a million angles.

  • Moses highlighted this love as part of God’s abiding marriage covenant with his people. If God was jealous, it was only because the people he loved went after other lovers.
  • David composed songs about God’s love—friend to friend, and man to God. For David, God wasn’t just “the Big Guy up there,” he was closer than a brother, and more gentle than a shepherd.
  • The Prophets painted God’s love as a portrait of a mother nursing her child, or a lover wooing his beloved. “The LORD has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you’” (Jeremiah 31:3).
  • The Gospels depict God’s love as a fire burning in Jesus’ heart. Sometimes it was warm and tender: when Jesus ate fish with his disciples, when he turned water to wine, and when he healed lepers and embraced society’s outcasts. Other times…

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You’ve been reading an excerpt from FOUR LETTER WORDS: Conversations on Faith’s Beauty and Logic, by Bill Giovannetti.  © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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The Bible’s Top Ten Worst Verses

masthead_452_100Ship of Fools just released the results of its survey: What is the Bible’s worst verse? They asked readers to contribute verses and then conducted online polling to determine the worst.  Here’s how they phrased it:

We want you to tell us: which sacred text makes you reach for the red pen? Which hallowed verse makes you laugh for all the wrong reasons? Which blessed passage leaves you groaning with embarrassment? Which piece of holy writ troubles you at night, but at least keeps you awake in sermons?

The survey’s results were just reported in the excellent newletter from the Evangelical Alliance, a British organization.  Here are the Top Ten worst Bible verses, according to this online poll.  As I’ll discuss below, THEY MISSED THE WORST BIBLE VERSE OF ALL!!!!!!!! (sorry for shouting and exclaiming).

SHIP OF FOOLS’ WORST VERSES IN THE BIBLE

  1. The ban on women teaching in church (1 Timothy 2:12)
  2. Samuel’s instruction to ‘totally destroy’ the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:3)
  3. Moses’ command ‘Do not allow a sorceress to live.’ (Exodus 22:18)
  4. The ending of Psalm 137 ‘Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks’
  5. The gang rape and murder of a concubine (Judges 19:25-28)
  6. The condemnation of homosexuality (Romans 1:27)
  7. Jephthah’s vow which led to his daughter being sacrificed (Judges 11)
  8. God’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2)
  9. The instruction that wives submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22)
  10. The instruction that slaves submit to their masters (1 Peter 2:18)

As I said, they missed the TRULY WORST verse in the Bible, which I’ll get to soon. The incentive for this poll seems to be a desire to make the Bible palatable to our larger culture. This, surely, is a good thing… or is it? As the website says,

[The Bible] doesn’t have to be a textbook of infallible information and unbreakable laws to be God’s book. And it doesn’t have to be one big pile of lies and atrocity just because it has its dodgy bits.

Interesting. It doesn’t have to be “infallible” and its laws don’t have to be “unbreakable” to make it God’s book. Uhhhh… meaning the Bible is God’s book of potential errors and optional suggestions?

If the Bible has errors in it, would somebody kindly tell me where they are, because I’m banking my life on this book. Ditto for the “breakable laws.” Which ones? I’d like to know so I can teach my children which of God’s laws are mutable. Same for the “dodgy bits” which, if my dictionary defines British English correctly, means “dishonest or unreliable.”

So, the motive for the poll seems to be as follows: Let’s be good chaps, and ‘fess up to the dishonest and unreliable parts of the Bible, so that our unbelieving friends will know that we’re good chaps and feel better both about us and about the Bible, and perhaps give it another look, now that we’ve abandoned the brittle assumption that God’s Word is infallible and his laws are unbreakable.

God help us!

Yes, let’s VOTE on which parts of the Bible must be uprooted in order to make it palatable for society. Let’s create a Bible for the masses — a Bible edited under the principle of MAJORITY RULES.

Right. All it would say is, “God is love” and even that would be questioned.

I’m not suggesting that these verses and others pose no problems. I’m not suggesting they make me feel good, or seem right by my standards. I’m not suggesting that the poll is inappropriate — it’s important for us to know where the offenses lie so that we might be better equipped to evangelize. In context, most of these verses do not represent God advocating anything, or if they do, he’s just going  with some then-cultural norms.  (Check out the excellent analysis at the Evangelical Alliance).

Regardless of what these difficult verses are saying, the poll has a built-in dishonesty, because it omitted the WORST BIBLE VERSE OF ALL TIME… (you have to click “read the rest…” to get the big reveal).  Here it is… Continue reading