Monday, June 05, 2006

Baptists and the Bible

There are many of you that went to years of Vacation Bible School when you were children. And, many of you continue to work with Vacation Bible School each summer through the ministry of this church.
For those of you who are alumni of Vacation Bible School in a Southern Baptist Church, you will recognize this:
I pledge allegiance to the Bible
God’s Holy word
And I will make it a lamp unto my feet
A light unto my path
And will hide its words in my heart
That I might not sin against God.
Do you remember? Perhaps you had the honor of being selected one day to hold the Bible up at attention. What were we doing with generations of children when we taught them that pledge in the opening or closing ceremonies of thousands of Vacation Bible Schools? We were teaching them an important concept that is at the heart of the Baptist tradition: the concept that our “ultimate authority for our faith is found in Jesus Christ as mediated through the Bible.”[1]
All Baptists treasure the Bible. Through the years we have disagreed about the nature of the Bible. It is inerrant? If so, which theory of inerrancy do we follow? There are at least five types of inerrancy according to David Dockery and some theologians argue for more.[2] Many Baptists, including this one, believe that “inerrancy” is not a good word to describe the Bible. All Baptists treasure the Bible, but sometimes we have disagreed about its nature.
All Baptists treasure the Bible. Not only have we disagreed about its nature at times, but we have also disagreed about how to interpret it? Are the creation stories in Genesis 1-2 literal history or theological saga? Should we understand God’s salvation through a Calvinist lens or an Arminian lens? Will the world ultimately come to an end along the lines of Dispensational Premillennialism, Historic Premillennialism, Post-Millennialism, or Amillennialism? Each of these areas has produced significant battles among various Baptist groups at different times during our 400 years of history. All Baptists treasure the Bible, but sometimes we have disagreed about how to interpret it.
So what is a healthy Baptist understanding of the Bible. Using the text from 2 Timothy 3:16, I’d like to suggest three things which I believe instruct us on the proper understanding of the Bible as Baptists.
I. A Healthy Baptist Understanding of the Bible Recognizes it as a Witness Rather than a Rulebook
Back when I was “young and foolish,” I used to umpire Little League Baseball. Yes, I know, I was out of my mind during those days. But, I also needed to eat, and the job paid me enough one summer to do so. But, when I umpired Little League Baseball, I frequently carried a copy of the rules of Little League Baseball to the games with me. Fortunately, I never had a dispute serious enough to need to consult the rulebook. But, if I ever needed it, I had it there to consult.
I love golf. I don’t play it well. But, I love to play it. But, the way I play golf, I have never needed to call for a ruling on my lie in the rough. In fact, I don’t even carry a copy of the rules of golf in my golf bag. If I ever have a question, I’ll simply ask the people I’m playing with and get their opinion. But, if I was on the PGA tour, you better believe that I’d know the rulebook legalistically because one mistake could cost me thousands of dollars.
Baptists should view the Bible differently. The Bible is not a rulebook. It is a witness. I realize that statement might be shocking to some. “You’re lessening the value of the Bible,” someone might say. No, actually, I view the Bible much more comprehensively than being just a rulebook.
Are there rules in the Bible? Of course there are. We could mention with the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount for starters. But, the Bible is more than that. It is it mostly a witness of God’s activity with creation and human beings. The Bible most importantly bears witness to the Christ event and its significance for humanity. If we see it just as a rulebook, we run the risk of becoming legalistic and missing the deeper purpose of the Bible.
Paul Fiddes, the Principal of Regent’s Park College at Oxford University tells a story about three men who witnessed an elderly woman being mugged on a street in London. They chased after the man who, in an effort to escape ran into a train station and onto the platform. The men who were chasing tried to follow but were stopped at the barrier by the ticket collector because they did not have a ticket. They tried to explain what had happened and asked if he’d let them continue their pursuit. The ticket collector adamantly refused to let them pass without a ticket. They asked to use the phone in his office. Again, he refused. Finally, they purchased tickets, went onto the platform, caught the man and used a pay phone to call the police. The judge who tried the case sentenced the mugger to 5 years and then added that “the incident should be brought to the notice of the railway authorities.”[3]
You see the point? Some people view the Bible only as a rulebook and their Christian life becomes a maze of legalistic rules. Now, I believe there are things we should and shouldn’t do as Christians. However, I believe the Bible is about more than rules and I believe the Christian life is about more than legalism.
II. A Healthy Baptist Understanding of the Bible Seeks Proper Interpretation Rather Than Ignorant Idolization
It is important for Baptists to recognize as they read the Bible, that it is a collection of literature, some of which is almost 3000 years old. The oldest portions of the Bible to be written down date to around 900 B.C. The most recent portions of the Bible date to the second century A.D. It is literature from different cultures and different historical periods. It is important to realize that we live in one era and to understand properly the literature from another era sometimes takes work at interpretation.
Furthermore, the Bible is not a superstitious good-luck charm. Have you heard of the “Bible Code.” It is a silly notion that hidden in the text of the Bible in its original languages, almost like a find-a word puzzle, there are messages from God that predict the future. What a silly notion! Can you imagine why, if God had such an important message for us, he’d hide it in the original language of the text? It makes no logical sense. God’s message in the Bible is for all to understand, certainly using good rules of interpretation.
Most of us are tempted to read the Bible this way. We form an idea or opinion about something, perhaps an ethical dilemma or a theological belief. Then, we search the Bible looking for verses to support what we believe. We then take those verses as proof-texts to argue our point. That is not the proper way to interpret. That is called isogenies, reading into the text what we want it to say. We should rather attempt to do good exegesis, taking from the text its message as we interpret the verses in their context.
Hardy Clemons, pastor of FBC in Greenville, SC, tells about a trip through Albemarle, NC with his wife one day when they stopped at a restaurant for a quick lunch. The waitress rang up the tab. The total was $6.66. He said that she then made the statement, “I can’t charge you that. I’ll have to charge you either $6.65 or $6.67.” Clemons made a joke about the matter. She said, “This is no joking matter, Sir. Don’t you know what that means? 666 is the mark of the beast in the Bible. This means that if you pay me $6.66, we could both have bad luck. God could get us!”
Clemons told her, “I interpret the Bible differently than that. I don’t think that 666 means that God is out to get people.”
She then replied, “Look mister, there is no interpretation. Either you believe the Bible or you don’t!”
I remember when we lived in Waco, TX, there was a suburb of Waco named Hewitt, TX. The prefix on the telephone numbers of Hewitt was, you guessed it!, 666. There was a woman in that little town that actually brought legal action against the phone company and forced them to allow her to change her telephone prefix for fear that the 666 would bring her bad luck.
The Bible is not some superstitious idol that brings us good or bad luck. To understand it properly, we need to interpret it.
III. A Healthy Baptist Understanding of the Bible Recognizes that It is Both a Divine and Human Book
The Bible did not suddenly fall out of the sky to humanity. It developed and was written down over hundreds of years. The Bible is the cooperative effort of both God and humans. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that it is “inspired.” Again, Baptists have differed over what this word means. Some believe that every single word is divinely dictated by God, a verbal inspiration. Others hold to dynamic inspiration, the concept that God inspired the writers’ ideas but they used their own words to write out of their fully human capacity.
Therefore, when we have a healthy understanding of the Bible as both divine and human, we can avoid two pitfalls. Those who think the Bible is only divine run the risk of bibliolatry, the notion that the Bible, because it is divine, should be worshipped. But, those who think it is only human run the risk of skepticism, saying that it has no true spiritual relevance because it is only humanly produced. Both of these notions are problematic for thinking Christians.
The best way to view the Bible is the way we view Christ, the message of the Bible. The Bible proclaims that he was both divine and human. And, so, our understanding of the book that witnesses to the work of Christ should be viewed similarly.
What if this summer when Pam and the girls visit Texas for a month, they write me a letter. I am so happy to receive the letter that I carry it around with me constantly. I read it several times a day. I draw strength and love from the letter. But, wouldn’t it be ridiculous if when they returned home, I ignored them because I was too busy reading the letter? Sometimes, I fear that good, Baptist people have such a skewed view of the Bible that they actually worship it more than the one that the Bible points to. I don’t worship the Bible. I worship the one the Bible points me to. The Bible carries the message.[4]
In 1988, at the SBC in San Antonio Texas, Southern Baptists were at the peak of our Civil War about the Bible. Dr. Joel Gregory preached a sermon at that convention in which he described the strange destruction of an old, Irish castle. The castle owners no longer lived there and it began to fall into ruins. Weeds and wild animals eventually took up residence in the old castle. The local village people began to use the stones for their own needs such as roads, or to build or repair their own homes.
One day, Lord Londonderry, the only surviving member of the family that had originally occupied the castle, returned to his ancestral home. He was shocked to see the castle’s gradual destruction. He immediately hired a contractor and ordered him to build a wall around the old castle to keep out trespassers. He then returned to the city.
Three years later he came back to see the castle again. What he saw shocked him. The castle had completely vanished. But surrounding the spot where the castle had once stood was a high, thick wall that enclosed nothing. Londonderry sent for the contractor and asked him, “Where’s the castle?” the contractor replied, “The castle? I thought you wanted a wall! I built the wall with the stones from the castle. Why should I travel many miles to pay good money for rock when the finest stones in Ireland were right here beside me?”
Gregory opined that sometimes Baptists, in their attempts to defend the Bible, actually run the risk of building an orthodox wall but they lose the castle in the process. The Bible is basic to Baptists as a witness to Jesus Christ. As Baptists, we need a healthy understanding of this wonderful book.
[1] Buddy Shurden, The Baptist Identity, p. 10.
[2] Gary Parker, Principles Worth Protecting, p. 26-27.
[3] Paul Fiddes in Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Bible, p. 52.
[4] This concept was taken from an illustration used by William Powell Tuck in Our Baptist Tradition, p. 41.

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