I was wrong. Today a friend sat across the table from me and said, “Your teaching is wonderful and terrible.” When he explained, I realized that I was wrong. You see, I have been so intent on focusing on the meaning of the text that I often made people feel as if their experience with God and their sincerity in the faith was in question. That was never my intent. The only thing I am interested in pursuing is obedience according to the best possible understanding of Scripture.
This conversation came up over a remark that I made about the dietary laws. What I said is this: “If you aren’t keeping the dietary laws of Torah, then you aren’t a member of the tribe of Israel.” Some people found this very confrontational and far too aggressive. After all, most of us (including me) were taught that the dietary laws didn’t apply to Christians. Most Christians firmly believe that these laws, and a great many others, were fulfilled (finished) by Jesus and set aside by Paul. So when I say something about inclusion in the tribe of Israel connected to eating bacon, people get upset. They wrongly conclude that I am challenging their faith in God and their experience of grace and forgiveness. They think that I am saying, “If you eat pepperoni on a pizza, you aren’t going to heaven.” What I meant was that the text suggests that what you eat is an indication of which tribe you belong to. What I meant is that after I examine all I can about Scripture, I come to the conclusion that I need to change my eating habits. But what you do with the text is up to you. You and I can examine the text as much as possible, but obedience is the goal and that is always a personal decision.
Let me assure you that I am not saying eating pork will send you to Hell. What I am saying is that those of us who are serious about obedience to the Lord are therefore required to search the Scriptures for the best understanding we can possibly get of the text. What I am saying is that when we do the homework, when we investigate the culture, the language, the history, when we ask the questions about worldview, we discover that many of the things we thought we knew turn out to be very different. This does not mean any of your experiences with God are in question. It means that the interpretation of those experiences, or the way that you fit them into your theology, might be challenged. It means that you will probably have to look harder before you can confidently say, “This is what I believe.”
In the contemporary Christian world believers have the tendency to take one of two approaches to Scripture. They either listen to the pastor or the teacher or the professor and adopt whatever he or she says (concluding that since this person is more qualified, he must know the truth), or they opt for the “Holy Spirit” way of knowing. The “Holy Spirit” way is to simply read the Bible (usually in English), pray about the verse, meditate on it and then let God “illuminate” the meaning. When they have the proper feeling, they assert that God has shown them the truth of the passage.
The problems with the first approach are legendary. Every preacher, teacher or professor (including me) makes mistakes. Sometimes they are big mistakes. Every man is historically limited, culturally biased and theologically predisposed. Even the greatest theological teachers tend to be products of their own time. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn a great deal from these people. I spent a year reading Thomas Aquinas while writing my dissertation. I learned a lot. But adopting the thoughts of great teachers makes us responsible for their thinking, and that means we need to know why they thought as they did. Ultimately, we are accountable. We must do the homework. We must study to understand. Running to the web for a “useful” quotation just won’t work when our lives before the King depend on this. So read Luther, Calvin, Piper, Heschel, Augustine and Cullman. But read critically. Ask why, why, why. Read as if you were overhearing a debate. Question the statements. Examine the answers. Decide for yourself – and then be ready to be corrected again (as I have so often discovered). And if this applies to the giants of the faith, I can assure you it applies to the pastor in the pulpit. Any pastor who doesn’t encourage challenge and debate is probably not a shepherd.
The second method is even more dangerous, principally because it provides no means for critical correction. If I am convinced that God told me the truth of the passage, what possible evidence could ever show me I am wrong? And if there is no way to show that I am wrong, what can it mean to claim that I am right? The problem with this “Holy Spirit” epistemology (how we know things) is that it makes me the Lord of the castle. I might claim that I am listening to God alone, but in the end all I have is my personal self-fulfilling witness. These people are the most intractable believers, and perhaps the most convincing. They also lead congregations to Belize where everyone drinks cyanide Kool-Aid. No, of course, they aren’t all crazy, but the unquestionable claims of “Holy Spirit” epistemology have been dangerous for believers for centuries.
What is the answer to these problems? The text! The only guide for faith and practice is the text of Scripture. Everything must be measured by the text. And that means my obedience, no matter how sincere, is subject to consistency with God’s Word. Over and over I am required to learn what the Word says, in its context, to its people, all the while paying as much attention as possible to my own paradigmatic limitations. God doesn’t give me contradictory messages, so when I see something that doesn’t match up with another statement in Scripture, I am not at liberty to ignore it. I can’t write it off or dismiss it as “old.” “Let every man be convinced in his own mind” doesn’t mean that I only need to adopt the creeds of the Church. I must come to conclusions about what God demands of me by myself. In my journey, I find that the more I study, the more I am convinced that God’s expectations for obedience haven’t changed since Genesis. But I had to come to this conclusion through years of searching, questioning and struggle. And I expect that I have a long, long way to go. Anyone who is serious about obedience faces exactly the same challenge. We must put aside our traditions where they are no longer consistent with the text. We must examine every claim as the Bereans did. We must look and look and look until we have done all we can – and then stand ready to be corrected if necessary.
A man can learn anything if he is willing to make a mistake.
I was wrong. I am not challenging your experience of God’s wonder, grace and pleasure over you. I was wrong to even leave that impression. It is not about your experience. It is about the meaning of the text. What you do with it after you and I have investigated the text is up to you.