The more I study theology, the more I realize the impossibility of sorting it all out in my brief lifetime. The theological world suffers from a glut of information, doctrines, dogmas, creeds, commentaries, learned journals, scholars and opinions. It’s far more than I can process.
The other day, the editor of a magazine for which I’d written an article sent me a letter to the editor to which he wanted me to respond. Responding appropriately would have meant summarizing Catholic doctrine on a particular subject. I started with the old Catholic Encyclopedia and didn’t get much farther. After reading four or five related articles, I simply sat back from sheer mental exhaustion and gave up on the project. I looked around my small office at the mountains of books with which I’m daily surrounded. I have even more in the garage. I said to myself, “That’s it; I’m too old for this. Besides, nobody gives a toot what I think or say about anything anyway. Who am I to think that I can find my way through the labyrinthine maze that is Christian theology?”
What to do with Books?
So I started thinking about what to do with all the books? About a quarter of a century ago, I’d had a similar library of Bible helps, commentaries and books on theology. At that point, I’d become disillusioned with the Christian faith – at least the brand I then embraced – so I became an atheist. I was fed up with the intellectual dishonesty that seems to characterize so much of the leadership in the religious world. So I gave my books away. Big mistake! I’ve had to restore many of them at great cost in the years since I recommitted to Christ.
These days, I am just as disillusioned with the intellectual dishonesty, and exegetical incompetence, of many church leaders, as I was 25 years ago. I am in fact not especially happy with my own level of understanding. The more I learn, the more I encounter the paucity of my own comprehension and the more daunted I am by the prospect of understanding fully.
Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, said, “…where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Corinthians 13:8b, 9, 10, 12). I acknowledge the truth of those statements.
Throughout the ages, the people of God have struggled for a clear vision of what it’s all about. Peter wrote: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow…Even angels long to look into these things” (I Peter 1:10-11,12c).
From earliest times, the human race has wondered what God is doing with us, and how it will all turn out in the end. We struggle for a vision, for clarity, but clarity eludes us. We know in fragments. We see partial, ephemeral images. All of the disciplined, laborious theology, exegesis and thunderous preaching in the world are not going to make clear that which is intrinsically unclear. Granted, through study, we can gain some ground; but we’ll never understand comprehensively until the Lord returns and restores spiritual truth to the earth.
Over the years, I have often prayed for understanding of the Bible. I have sought to be honest in the way I read and use it. Yet, what I have come to understand is more often than not disturbing. The Bible itself, and how to appropriately use and apply it in daily life, has become the central Christian issue of our times. As we all know, efforts are underway to deny the Bible as a source of moral authority – especially when it comes to sexual behavior and murder. In some states and countries, if we publicly preach some of what is contained in the Bible, we can be fined or jailed. Much of this comes under the heading of “hate crimes legislation.” This legislation itself could constitute a “hate crime” for it demonstrates hatred of the Christian way of life and of the moral authority of the Bible.
Let’s face it; the Bible is on the ropes. The Christian faith is there along with it. Times are rapidly changing. Increment by increment, nations that once were viewed as Christian are becoming havens of anti-Christian, politically correct, socialism. My own country, Canada, is farther down the tubes than is the United States in this regard. The United Kingdom too is fast losing its Christian heritage. Europe is even more secular, socialist and anti-Christian. Commentators frequently talk about ours as the “post-Christian era.”
The Church & the Bible
It’s bad enough that the world around us doesn’t respect the Bible; what’s worse is that large elements of the Church show contempt for it as well. Bishop John Shelby Spong writes: “A literal Bible presents me with far more problems than assets. It offers me a God I cannot respect, much less worship; a deity whose needs and prejudices are at least as large as my own. I meet in the literal understanding of Scripture a God who is simply not viable, and what the mind cannot believe the heart can finally never adore” (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism by John Shelby Spong, p. 24). At the time he wrote that, Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark.
According to a survey taken last year by Barna Research (January 12, 2004), only 9 percent of “born again” adults, and 7 percent of Protestants generally possess a biblical worldview. In fact, only 51 percent of Protestant pastors adhered to a biblical worldview. Said a Barna news release: “The low percentage of Christians who have a biblical worldview is a direct reflection of the fact that half of our primary religious teachers do not have one. In some denominations, the vast majority of clergy do not have a biblical worldview, and it shows up in the data related to the theological views and moral choices of people who attend those churches.”
How bad is it?
According to Barna, the highest percentage of pastors with a biblical worldview is to be found in the Baptist Church (71 percent). At the bottom were the Methodists, with only 27 percent. It turns out that 56 percent of charismatic and Pentecostal pastors reject the biblical worldview and only 35 percent of black church pastors accept it. On average, only 28 percent of mainline denomination pastors hold a biblical worldview, which means that 72 percent don’t!
Barna’s survey revealed other disturbing data: Only 45 percent of seminary graduates wind up with a biblical worldview while 59 percent of those who did not attend seminary see the world biblically.
Overall, 53 percent of male pastors hold a biblical worldview, while only 15 percent of female pastors do so. (Six percent of Protestant senior pastors are women.)
The survey revealed that white senior pastors were more likely to hold to a biblical worldview than black ones (53 percent for the former, 30 percent for the latter).
Younger pastors were more likely possess a biblical worldview than older ones (56 vs. 50 percent).
Said Barna, “The research also points out that even in churches where the pastor has a biblical worldview, most of the congregants do not. More than six out of every seven congregants in the typical church do not share the biblical worldview of their pastor even when he or she has one.”
Other Barna surveys have revealed that a majority of Americans do not believe that Satan exists and that they are leery about the existence of hell.
Bible Losing Influence
The point of all this is that the Bible is losing influence in our culture because it has lost influence in the Church. It has lost influence in the Church for a variety of reasons. Whether we realize it or not, the Christian Church is in crisis. It is a crisis of belief and a crisis of biblical authority. If the Church does not derive its doctrine and practice from the Bible, where does it get it from — the surrounding culture? God forbid! Yet that is exactly what’s happening. Cultural values are becoming Church values, and biblical values are being rejected by the Church. Our morally degenerate, politically correct, secular socialist culture is calling the shots for the Church. The moral authority of the Bible has been successfully overturned within a significant segment of Christianity.
All this being the case, what’s the point of wrestling with issues of Biblical theology and exegesis? Telling the Church what the Bible says and means – or may mean – is increasingly like spitting into the wind. It’s too much effort for too little return. Either the Bible has authority in the lives of Christians, or it does not. If it does not, then studying it is a waste of time.
Just between you and me and the gatepost, I have observed that most people think with their gut, not with their brain. They decide first, then act, and then create a “theology” rationalizes or justifies the behavior. That’s “theology after the fact.”
As I’ve previously written, everyone has a personal theology. It may be informal, ill-formed and subjective, but it’s there. It is tested when we are challenged by an idea, a behavior or an event.
None of us knows about anything comprehensively. Human knowledge, including theology, is in a constant state of flux and revision. Not only is the Church in trouble, the Bible on the ropes, but Christians are facing massive epistemological problems. We are being challenged to articulate the basis upon which we make our knowledge claims. If we throw out the Bible, then we have eradicated one of the three basic ways of knowing: external authority. We are then left with two: reason and experience. If we leave ourselves with no moral or theological authority – i.e. the Bible – then the sky is the limit. Any theology is possible. Any morality is possible. We are left with moral relativism. If homosexual sex, marriage and ordination are allowable, then any other sexual behavior the Bible forbids is allowable. Why draw lines? For Jews, Leviticus 18 would cease to exist. For Christians, Romans 1 & Galatians 5:19 could be cut out of the New Testament. Once we begin the process of cutting, where does it end?
In earlier times, the German Rationalists dismissed all of the passages in the Bible that indicated supernatural happenings. Then Dispensationalist theology confirmed that there is no need for miracles today – we have The Word.
Hard Times for the Word
These days, the Word has fallen on hard times. Who believes it? Who refers to it to understand human nature and life on this planet? Who uses it as a moral guide? Who draws from it his or her personal theology? Who cares about studying it? It makes one wonder about Jesus’ words: “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). In context, Jesus was speaking about faithfulness in prayer (Luke 18:1). Could a Bishop Spong pray to a “God [he] cannot respect” on the basis of the way He is represented in the Bible?
For the Church, we live in confusing times. We’re not quite sure which hill is worth dying on. We don’t know whether we can trust the Bible or not. We look for guidance from Church leaders and scholars only to hear a discordant cacophony of uncertain sounds. In the end, we are thrown on our own devices. We must resolve what a myriad of scholars in centuries of study have not been able to resolve. It’s simply not do-able.
For me, the solution lies in four words uttered by Jesus: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22). God, not churches, church leaders, scholars, or the Bible, is the object of my faith. I trust God. He will take care of me. As Paul told the Philippians: “…being confident of this; that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
When I tired of hacking my way through the thickets of theology, I fall back on verses like those above. I know that Jesus the Messiah is my salvation (Hebrews 2:10). When I grow weary of arguing doctrine, the meaning of Scripture, and what is the true Church with people, I can turn to Christ for relief. When the ground of my faith is under constant attack by the prevailing culture, by Christians themselves, even by scholars and bishops, I can go over their heads, directly to God: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:6-7).
Life itself is humbling. We are often dwarfed by the enormity of our own ignorance. We are humbled by our sins of omission and commission. Aging and ill-health humble us. We realize that we are nothing but transient bits of dust, soon to blow away on some cosmic tide. Our sojourn on this Earth is short and not always sweet; then we are gone. New generations will come along to reinvent the wheel. They too will fail. Our experience will be their experience. There’s nothing new under the sun. They too will taste the fruit of good and evil; their own and other’s. They will be humbled by their self-evident inadequacy. Yet God will care for them as much as He cares for us. When they need Him, He’ll be there for them. Somehow, it’ll all come out in the divine wash. God is good, and He’s not willing that any of us should perish (II Peter 3:9). I take that to mean He’ll do what He can to save each one of us. Have faith in God; not in men, not in the Bible; not in science; not in society but in God. One final verse: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).