Trust: A Lesson (being) Learned

TrustI spent some time recently going through some old posts here on the old blog. It didn’t take long before I noticed a bit of a recurring theme: Trusting God. Funny, you’d think that for all my discussion on the topic that I would be some sort of master at it by now.

Thank again.

It’s true that I do indeed trust God. Yet time and again I find myself beginning to doubt. It’s nothing deliberate, mind you. As soon as I realize what I am doing and detect the Spirit’s ‘check’ I am (usually) quick to try and do something about it. But in the end I am forced to face the question again and again. Why do I ever doubt him at all?

It’s not like I have a reason to. Looking back over my life I can see his hand in everything that has ever happened to me. His precious, fatherly care is strikingly evident as I recall all the ways he has providentially been at work, even taking into account my own mistakes and failures. It’s easy to look back and detect his presence and I am confident in his promises going forward, yet it is in the present where the issue of trust can become an issue.

In fact, it is the issue.

We are saved by faith. But what is faith? I tend to boil it down to nothing other than trusting obedience. It’s not just trust. Trust alone, which does not produce walking in the light, is no trust at all. And rote obedience manifested out of anything but trust can lead into all sorts of trouble. Instead it is in the harmony of the two together where true biblical faith is found.

I want that kind of faith. It is a faith that saves. It saves me from the mistakes of my past as well as their consequences to come. But it also saves me in the present from anything that would stand between me and the whole life of God available in the here and now.

Be Still

“He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” – Mark 4:39-40 (NRSV)

Jesus brings peace. His disciples had fear and angst, yet with a simple spoken word Jesus brought order to their chaos. How encouraging is that to you today? Who of us does not live a single day of life without some issue weighing on our soul? Who doesn’t have a fear, or some level of angst, about a particular circumstance in life? I know that, if not careful, I can become quite absorbed in the concerns of day to day life, to the point of downright despair. But the words of Jesus comfort my soul and give me hope.

“Peace. Be still.” And there was a dead calm.

What issue has you concerned today? Are you dealing with a financial burden? Do you have a relationship problem? Are you dealing with some form of emotional toil? Let me take it even deeper: Do you have sin in your life? Jesus can help with that too. After all, his words calm the fiercest storm that nature has to offer. His feet tread upon the raging waters. If he has such command over nature around us, can he not take control of your nature as well? If you don’t think so, consider his rebuke: Have you still no faith? The answer, if we live in sin, or fear, or angst, has to be, “No.”

Therefore I offer you this simple solution: Trust in Jesus. If you know him, great. Walk in the light that has been given you. If you do not know him, let him meet you. The story in Mark says that Jesus rode in their boat “as he was” (v. 36). There is no pretense with Jesus. He is who he is, and he wants you to know him and be known by him. Let him ride along in the boat of your life; let him bring peace to your storms.

God’s Toe?

Those of you who follow the latest in particle physics have probably seen today’s news from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) detailing how scientists have made a significant discovery that might shed some light as to how the universe originated.

The discovery centers around the question of how — after the Big Bang — matter came into being. According to accepted relativistic and quantum theory, when the universe exploded into existence an equal amount of both matter and antimatter should have been created and, simultaneously, canceled each other out, leaving nothing left from which stars and planets could have been formed. As I understand it, the recent particle collisions at Fermilab have shown that when particles called B-mesons decay into muons they produce more matter than antimatter about 1% of the time. In other words, these tests appear to provide one possible explanation for how matter came into being. Theorists feverishly searching for science’s definitive answer to the universe’s true origins — otherwise known as “the face of God” — have referred to this discovery as possibly “the toe of God.” Exciting indeed.

I am fascinated by the promise of particle physics in helping us understand how the universe works. But I am equally certain that particle physics can never ultimately answer the question of how the universe came into being, or why. Amazingly, ten billion dollars and seven trillion electronvolts cannot produce the answers that a $15 purchase at your local bookstore can provide. While it’s not a scientific manual or collection of technical papers, the Bible is the definitive key to understanding both where the universe came from and why. These words speak for themselves:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

The simple truth of this single sentence is that God is the Almighty Creator of all that is. Furthermore, the New Testament reveals both how and why:

(Jesus Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

Jesus, who is both the agent of creation and the one by whom the universe is sustained, is also the purpose of creation. All things have been made by and for him. He is both the means and the end.

I’m not trying to cultivate an anti-science attitude. I love science and embrace it. But I also recognize its inherent shortcomings. Through science we can observe, with incredible precision and complexity, how the universe operates on both the largest and smallest scales. But those who are truly intellectually honest must ultimately confess that, in the end, the best science can do is point beyond itself in its search for answers.

Fermilab’s physicists may have revealed God’s toe. But Jesus Christ — and he alone — reveals God’s face.

See in that infant’s face
The depths of Deity,
And labour while ye gaze,
To sound the mystery;
In vain: ye angels gaze no more,
But fall and silently adore.

-Charles Wesley, Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, 5:3.

Does Revelation 22:18-19 apply to Revelation or the whole Bible?

So, does the warning in Revelation 22:18-19 apply just to the book of Revelation or to the whole Bible? As I see, I think two things can be said here:

1. I think that the primary way to interpret the warning in Rev. 22:18-19 is that it immediately and directly refers to the book of Revelation. If we read the verses in context, it makes the most sense that — at least textually speaking — the words of Jesus here refer directly to the words contained in the book of Revelation. Notice that back in 22:7 Jesus says, “And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book.” So logically and textually it makes sense that “this book” in both verse 7 and 18-19 means the book of Revelation. Remember, it’s not as if when John was writing these words he was thinking that his letter was going to be the concluding chapter of a 66 chapter book. He was merely recording what he saw and heard in his vision, and there can be no doubt that, at the most basic level, the warning in chapter 22 was for the book of Revelation.

However…

2. I think there is a basic principle here that is consistent with how the rest of Scripture has been understood and handled throughout history. From the earliest days of Judaism those who were charged with preserving the words spoken by the Lord knew that their duty was to maintain their precise accuracy. They took very seriously the words of Deuteronomy 4:2 – “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (See also Deut. 12:32 and Proverbs 30:6). The oral tradition employed by generations of Jews went to great lengths to ensure that the exact words were passed on. This was due not only to the fact that God commanded them as such, but also because of a larger theological reality.

The salvation that God provides is not based in some esoteric or philosophical teaching. No, the salvation God provides is based on His historical intervention in space and time. He did not free the Jews figuratively from the Egyptians, but literally. They did not symbolically walk through the Red Sea; the waters literally parted, the ground dried up, and they walked across on their own two legs. God literally saved them, and He literally spoke to Moses on the mountain and gave them the Law. The Jews knew full well that their salvation was based exclusively on actual words and deeds from God in history.

Therefore, it was of the utmost importance that they not simply preserve the essence of a teaching. Their duty was to preserve the actual record of the words and deeds. Therefore, they knew that to add or subtract, or to tamper in any way, with the Scriptures was to risk not only angering God but undermining the whole basis of their salvation. Thus the general rule of thumb with handling Scripture as a whole has been that it is hands off for any changing, tweaking, redacting, updating, etc. This mentality was adopted by the Christian church, which was originally comprised solely of Jews fully aware of and sensitive to this concern.

Since the words of Scripture are God-breathed, they are to be treated as sacred. So while the words of Revelation can textually be interpreted to mean specifically for the book of Revelation, theologically it makes total sense to interpret them to mean the entire Bible. The historical witness of the church confirms this handling of the Scriptures (one fine example is in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Article 8). From the early formulation of the canon on, the warning in Revelation 22 extended to every book that precedes it. The Holy Bible IS the word of God, therefore it is hands off. Our duty is to preserve it (and it has been wondrously preserved, as I mentioned in an earlier post), translate it, and faithfully interpret and apply it

The Reliability of Scripture and Its Various Translations

Recently I was asked to address the following two issues regarding Scripture:

1. The issue of whether or not we have copies of the Scriptures now that accurately compare to the originals.
2. How do you choose which translation to go by.

My response to issue number 1 is two-fold:

1. There is no other ancient document on earth that is as reliable as the Christian Bible. I won’t get into all the arguments to back that up, for they are many and covered adequately in plenty of other places. But the bottom line is this: The Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament that modern translations are based upon are very, VERY close to the originals, so close in fact that nothing else from antiquity even begins to compare.

(For more comprehensive arguments to back this up I would point you to a whole host of Old and New Testament scholars and apologists who make a great case for the reliability of the Bible. Check out stuff from Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Norman Geisler, D. James Kennedy, Gary Habermas and Ravi Zacharias, just to name a few.)

2. While the first part of my response to issue number 1 deals more with the academic/apologetic side, the second part of my response deals with the issue of faith. This statement hits the nail on the head: “I don’t believe that God would allow his Holy Word to be messed up by human beings.” In the end, that’s what it’s all about. No one can absolutely and 100% definitively argue from science, textual criticism, archaeology, etc. that the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testaments that we have are exactly identical to what was originally written. That is simply because we do not have the original manuscripts, so we are left to do two things: Keep working hard to continue the scholarly efforts mentioned above, but also rest in our faith that the same God who graciously revealed truth about Himself to mankind will also be faithful to preserve that truth for all generations.

Think about it for a moment. If you believe in God then you believe in the supernatural. If you believe that God is able and willing to reveal truth to human beings, then is it such a stretch to believe that He would make sure that this revelation is not perverted? Why would God go through the effort to reveal something to us but allow it to only be heard by a single generation? That makes no logical sense. It does make sense, however, that if you believe in God, and you believe that He has spoken, that He would also ensure that all generations of people would have access to the same truth. This, in the end, is a statement of faith, which is ultimately where we must find peace. Even if there is some unresolved dispute about a particular text somewhere in the Bible, it does not shake my faith. I still believe in revelation, and so I believe that the answer exists, even if we have not discovered it yet.

As for issue number 2, I will build off my answer from issue number 1 and say that God can even preserve the truth of His word even when it is translated into other languages. Once again, if He revealed truth only to the people who could read Hebrew and Greek, what good is the revelation? Surely the Holy Spirit can move upon the minds and hearts of both the translators who work with the texts and the readers who read it so that the truth of revelation is preserved and conveyed. If we accept this statement of faith, then really all that is left is to determine which translation (and I’m speaking of English translations from this point on) is the best one to use. On that topic there is much room for debate.

There are different translation philosophies. One camp believes that only translations that are as word-for-word literal are useful, while another camp believes that what matters is that the essence of the meaning of the text is preserved, even if not the precise vocabulary or grammar. So you have some translations that are very literal (like the NKJV and NASB), while others are less literal and use more contemporary linguistic styles (like the NLT). Others attempt to navigate between the two (like the NIV and NRSV), while some are so loosely translated that they aren’t really translations at all, but more like a paraphrase (like The Message). Honestly, I think a case could be made for just about all of these mentioned above, just as long as you keep in mind what they are. I love the NASB when I am working on a technical exposition of a text, because it is so literal word-for-word. But I use an NRSV when I do devotions or preach, because the language is more poetic and accessible and is easier to read in public. In any given passage I think there is room for the Bible student to debate which translation more accurately conveys the original truth of the text, but in the end God can speak to the reader through BOTH. But this brings us back, once again, to the earlier points I made up above: we need to be sharp academically and be aware of all the technical issues, but we also need to have faith that the God who effortlessly spoke the universe into existence is more than able to speak to my heart here and now in this moment.

In no way does any of this comprehensively address all that these questions entail, but if nothing else we can garner a few principles from it all:

1. The Bible as we have it today is very, very accurate and trustworthy.
2. All major English translations we have today are very, very accurate and trustworthy and are built upon the most recent archaeological discoveries and knowledge of the original languages.
3. God can and does still speak to us today through His timeless word.

The Holy Bible is unparalleled in all of human history. No other ancient book is as accurate, and no other book is as relevant to human beings. Its truth transcends all times, languages and cultures and has as much to say to the Wall Street banker as the bushman in the Outback, because it was inspired by the God of all times, languages and cultures. What a magnificent book!

“To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri.” Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: “Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God’? Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said, ‘If any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will. ‘ I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”

-John Wesley, Standard Sermons, preface, 5.

Calvinism/Arminianism Debate

Today I received an email via the contact form of this website from a visitor who asked the following question: Can you tackle the issue of Calvinism vs Arminianism and which has more bible backing?

Below is a modified version of my reply:

——————-

(Visitor),

Thank you for contacting me via the contact form on my website.

I would love to tackle a specific issue that you are interested in, but you have asked a very broad question that could never be addressed in one or two blog posts. I would be happy to consider writing something on one specific aspect of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. However, if you are interested in reading about the broader topic in general and all its various tenets, then I would recommend you read the following:

Calvinism Calmly Considered, by John Wesley

Objections to Calvinism
, by Randolph Foster

This website here arranges John Wesley’s standard sermons according to theological topic. Since Wesley’s sermons are absolutely loaded with Scripture, you would do well to read as many of those sermons as possible, particularly the ones dealing with topics relevant to the debate you originally mentioned, primarily the following categories:

Assurance
Backsliding
Conversion
Faith
Free Grace
Justification
New Birth
Original Sin
Providence
Sin
Soteriology

For brief outlines of many of these sermons, check out the Sermon Outlines section on my academic portfolio page.

I know this is a lot of reading, but it is a huge topic, one that has occupied the thought life of the church for hundreds of years by countless formal and lay theologians and which has massive ramifications. I would be happy to provide continual guidance as I am able along your journey of discovery and enlightenment.

God bless.

When Should the Bible Be Taken Literally?

Recently a friend asked me to comment on the Bible in regards to inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration, etc. Emerging from this discussion are the following remarks (paraphrased from the original) concerning whether or not the Bible should be read as literal. I welcome your comments below.

(Friend),

I think you have said some good things here, especially in regards to pressing the issue of what we mean by ‘absolute’ truth. I would summarize my thoughts by saying that I believe the Bible to be “absolutely true in all it affirms.” That does not mean that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. Obviously, a good deal of the Bible is written as poetry. However, we must be careful that we don’t allow this fact to be exploited, as many do, so that we end up reading critical historical narratives as simply allegory.

For example, so much of the book of Revelation is symbolic. I cannot say for sure exactly what is literal and what is figurative. I believe it is all true, but I suppose there is some room for debate on how it should be interpreted. However, I believe in the historicity of the resurrection, and I am prepared to back that up textually, historically and theologically. I am not willing to chalk the resurrection accounts up to poetry, allegory, or symbolism. Jesus Christ literally rose from the dead bodily. Period. It is up to us to be sharp in how we read and interpret Scripture, and that involves acquainting ourselves with the differences among various translations, the original languages (to an extent), rules of interpretation (otherwise known as hermeneutics), and the church’s historical position on a given text. I think too many people are sloppy in their reading of Scripture, but this is a dangerous practice.

Back to my statement that I believe the Bible to be “absolutely true in all it affirms,” this does not mean that I believe the Bible should be taken literally all the time. By saying “all that it affirms” I have to ask myself with any given text, “what is the Bible saying here?” Good Bible reading requires both discernment as to what is being said and faith to believe that what it is saying it true (even if not literal).

I think we can summarize this approach as reading the Bible “plainly,” i.e. reading it for what it is: literal history is literal history, metaphors are metaphors, poetry is poetry, etc. The Bible is written in many different literary styles and should be read accordingly. This is the basis for what is technically called the historical-grammatical method of interpretation.

Whenever in doubt, I tend to take it literally. In fact, unless something is written in a form that is obviously to be taken as allegorical/poetic/etc., I simply read it as literal. Sometimes this requires me to accept supernatural intervention that supersedes natural laws (like, for instance, the parting of the Red Sea, which I take to be literal and not figurative or explained away by naturalistic explanations), but then again, I believe in a God who created and stands above nature — which is a presupposition and a statement of dogma on my part — therefore it is no great leap for me to do that. But in the end the true task is to ask, “What is the author trying to tell me here,” and, “Am I willing to believe him?”

In sum, here is a nice little equation:

God is true (Romans 3:4) + God breathed out the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16) = The Scriptures are true (John 17:17).

Is that helpful?