Mar 262014

The problem

Have you ever had a non-Christian friend (or “non-friend”) come up to you and say something along the the biblelines of “Your Bible says XXX which clearly can’t be true and so it can’t be trusted”? Or maybe you have read something in the Bible and have struggled to reconcile it with your experience of life and understanding of how things work.

Some common examples of this include:

  1. Science has disproved the Bible so we can’t rely on what it says about God or anything else
  2. The Bible makes statements about every-day life which are demonstrably untrue
  3. The Bible contradicts itself so we can’t trust it
  4. The Bible says things which may well have been true when it was written but just doesn’t relate to our society or culture today

There are many possible responses to these sorts of questions – such as:

  • If the Bible says something it must be true and so, even if we don’t understand it, our experience and our view of other things must be flawed – which might be ok for us but doesn’t really help in debate and discussion with those people who don’t “believe the Bible” to start with
  • The Bible is there to provide some general principles but we shouldn’t take it literally – which may help to get round some of the issues but can leave us, and others, unsure of what we actually can reliably depend on from the Bible
  • There are some passages which we can’t depend on but everything else is fine – which results in a cut-down version of the Bible which is probably different for each of us and undermines the overall authority of the word which God has given us

I was prompted to think about this last week when in conversation with a friend of mine who was looking into the question of how we understand and interpret the Bible. I was reminded of the importance of recognising the “genre” or “type of literature” of different passages and that it is only when we do this that we get a fuller appreciation of what the Bible is saying and how it should be understood. In effect, the importance of treating the Bible on its own terms as opposed to how we might want to read it.

We are used to dealing with these issues in everyday life – we know what to expect when we are reading novels, science reference books, biographies, emails, song lyrics, letters, newspaper articles, history books and blogs but we often fail to recognise that there are many different types of literature in the sixty-six books which make up our Bible (and often different types within particular books).

So, taking the examples above, how would this understanding of genre help respond to the critiques and comments which we, or others, have as we look at what the Bible says?

Science and the Bible

There are a range of these types of issues which come up – ranging from the fairly trivial to those which have caused much heated debate and disagreement.

At the fairly trivial end of the spectrum is the objections people make to the statement of Jesus when he talks about the sun rising (Matthew 5:45) resulting in comments such as

Science has shown that the earth goes round the sun and therefore the Bible can’t be trusted

This ignores the fact that the point of what Jesus is talking about isn’t planetary motion but more the way in which God treats people impartially. It also ignores the fact that, even today in general conversation, we are highly likely to talk about the time when the sun will rise. It is a standard expression, not intended to be a scientific statement.

Much more challenging, and more hotly debated, are discussions about how everything started and the bible and scienceidea that science has explained how the universe came into being and life (in all its forms) has developed, that this contradicts the biblical account of creation (particularly in Genesis 1-2) and so the Bible can’t be trusted.

People take differing positions on this – from believing that the Bible should be treated as a science text book and that all the conflicting discoveries are flawed in some way, through seeing the Bible’s creation account as a statement about the identity and purposes of God to saying that it shouldn’t be taken literally anyway. An example of some of the issues which need to be considered can be seen in a recent post (“Was Adam an historical figure?“) looking at questions around Adam and Eve. I’m not suggesting that I agree with everything in that article but rather that the questions raised are some of the things which need to be considered as opposed to just treating everything in the Bible as a statement of historical fact.

Statements which just don’t seem true

An example of this would be Psalm 12:7

   “You, Lord, will keep the needy safe and will protect us forever from the wicked,”

And we can look at many situations in the world, and sometimes in our own experience, where the needy aren’t kept safe nor protected from those who would seek to harm them – and so it is easy to claim that this promise isn’t true.

But if we look closer we see that this Psalm is a  prayer to God for help, not a statement from God as to how he will behave in each and every situation.

Contradictions in the Bible

Again, there are many instances which people point to.

There is the interesting example of Proverbs 26:4-5 where two seemingly contradictory statements contradictionsappear side-by-side:

   “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” (Proverbs 26:4)

“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5)

And it’s easy to look at these and see that they are taking extremely opposite positions – but this ignores the fact that the book of Proverbs is asking us to think about how we live and, in this case, recognising that it is appropriate to behave in different ways in different situations.

Much more challenging are questions which are asked about the four Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus and the seeming contradictions which appear there.

One example of this would be the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus with:

  • Matthew having “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1)
  • Mark having “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome” (Mark 16:1)
  • Luke has “the women” (Luke 24:1) who are later identified as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the others with them” (Luke 24:10)
  • John just has Mary Magdalene (John 20:1)

All accounts have Mary Magdalene present but there are differences regarding who else was there.

But this shouldn’t cause us a problem if we think about these accounts being a form of biography with information gleaned from different witnesses (which even today is recognised as resulting in mixed messages) and material carefully selected and presented to tell a particular story. Rather it should encourage us to look more deeply at each account and try and understand what the different writers are trying to communicate.

Relevance, or otherwise, of the Bible

We can look at statements from the Old Testament about how God’s people were supposed to live including references to mixing seeds in fields, not making clothing from two types of material or “clipping the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:19-27) or statements in the New Testament regarding the role of slaves (Ephesians 6:5-8) and claim that these are of no relevance today and hence the entire Bible is irrelevant.

These are easy statements to make. It is much harder to look carefully at these passages and understand the context in which they were written, the reasons for what was written and the underlying principles which they teach which may apply to us today.

The challenge for Christians

I suggest that it is unreasonable of us to expect our non-Christians friends, the media or society in general to understand the different genres which we find in the Bible.

But, if we believe that the Bible is God’s word revealed to us, then surely it is reasonable to expect that we would be prepared to do the hard work to understand what it is saying on its own terms and, from that base, work through the questions which are raised either from our own study or by questions from others.

Mar 192014

A couple of days ago I was reading an article by NT Wright (published in 2002) where he makes a challenging assertion:

The very existence of the church is an affront to the principalities and powers in general (Ephesians 3:10) and to Caesar in particular, because here within his empire is a growing king-spadesgroup of people giving allegiance to a different lord—as Luke says, to ‘another king’ (Acts 17:7). The church, through its exodus-shaped life (1 Corinthians 10:1–13), is also a revelation of the true God. Paul’s strong pneumatology, which he does not retract in the face of muddle, sin and rebellion in the Corinthian church, ensures that he sees the very existence, let alone the obedient life, of the church as a vital sign to the world of who its rightful God and Lord now are.

N. T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 246.

In this article, as he frequently does, Wright is making the point that the gospel message of Jesus as Messiah and lord is a direct challenge to Caesar who was, himself, claiming to be the lord of the world.

In Paul’s day, the communities of people who believed in Jesus were relatively small and could have easily been dismissed as politically insignificant but this didn’t prevent Paul proclaiming his message that the man who was crucified by the Romans had been brought back to life, demonstrating the validity of his claim to be Messiah and Lord, and that his authority was supreme.

Over the centuries those belonging to the Christian church were persecuted, the Christian church became the state religion of the empire, the church became a powerful political organisation and then – in most countries – its influence declined. Now, in some countries Christians are oppressed, in others the church is part of the establishment, in others the church is free to exist and worship but isn’t seen as significant in public life.

If Paul were still writing and speaking I think he would be accused of making the same claims – in whatever context he found himself – that there is another king and that this king is Jesus (Acts 17:7). And I think that one of the challenges facing the church today is that we have allowed ourselves, in many cases, to forget that this claim is true and that it should powerfully affect all aspects of our lives. And, as a consequence, we are not being the positive influence for good that our contexts need us to be.

What difference would it make if each of us who are follower of Jesus recognised the authority of Jesus over our lives, if we were prepared to leave everything and follow him, if we were prepared to submit our desires and goals to what he wanted?

What difference would it make if all our churches fully recognised that Jesus is king, that his agenda is agendawhat is important – not ours – and he invites us to be part of his mission in the world instead of us inviting him to be involved in ours?

What difference would it make if each of us and each of our churches recognised that Jesus is king in our schools, in our workplaces, in our communities? And that he calls on us to be his representatives in those places and among the people who live and work there?

What difference would it make if we recognised our responsibility to speak out and act against those things which are wrong and unjust in our nation when those things go against the authority and kingship of Jesus?

salt and light

Jesus, famously, called on his followers to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Commenting on the idea of being salt, the late John Stott said this:

God intends us to penetrate the world. Christian salt has no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt cellars; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop it going bad. And when society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?

John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 65.

There is much more to be said about the role of those who have chosen to follow Jesus in how we can recognise, proclaim and demonstrate that Jesus is king – whatever our society would tell us. And I hope to pick this up again in later posts. But, probably more importantly, I hope to continue to work out what the lordship and kingship of Jesus should mean to me and what part I can play in being salt and light in his world.

Mar 142014

A couple of days ago Jo, my wife, nottingham castle
and I were in Nottingham and spent some time looking round Nottingham Castle.

The original castle was built in 1068 and after being burnt down and redesigned over the centuries was converted into a museum and art gallery in 1875.

We walked around the grounds and came across a small plaque which claimed to mark the spot where the English Civil War had started in 1642 when King Charles 1 raised his flag and called for people to rally round him.

civil war plaque

This marked the start of a terrible chapter in English history as the country was divided over whether to follow the King or to support Parliament.

Four years later it was all over – the King had been defeated and the Parliament forces had won.

But I wonder how long the scars affected lives and families and communities, as divisions had to be healed and senses of betrayal had to be dealt with. Those who had been spies and informers would have tried to blend back into society while those who had suffered at their hands could easily have looked for revenge.

And it made me think about something Jesus once said to those who were thinking about following him.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matthew 10:34–36)  

These are words many of us do not often, or easily, associate with Jesus. And we need to recognise that elsewhere he speaks about the peace he came to bring and the peace he offers to his followers. So what was he saying here, what did he mean?

It comes down to the question of loyalty – to whom are we loyal, who receives our greatest allegiance? In the Civil War, brothers who supported different sides in the conflict would still have been brothers but their allegiance to King or Parliament could have taken a higher priority and so the family would have been divided.

And the point Jesus is making is that he is looking for that first place of allegiance, that primary loyalty, in those who call themselves his followers. For many Christians today, at least those living in the West, the choices are less stark. They can choose to follow Jesus and their families or friends may think they are strange but it doesn’t always cause bitter division (although sometimes it can).

I have a friend who isn’t able to go back to his own country due to fears of what would happen to to him for being a Christian. I have another friend who was really concerned about how his family would respond when they learned that he had decided to commit himself to Jesus. For these people they had to answer the question of where their priorities lay and decided to follow Jesus while recognising the cost.

But what about those of us who don’t experience the divisions and breakdown in relationships that Jesus speaks about? Does it sometimes result in us not living the lives he is calling us to live?

In the passage I quoted above, Jesus goes on to talk about the priority he is looking for and it is clear he isn’t expecting half-measures:

  • He is looking for us to love him more than we love our parents and our children (Matthew 10:37)
  • He is looking for us, each day, to be prepared to suffer for him as he suffered for us (Matthew 10:38)
  • He is looking for us to find fulfillment and satisfaction in his plans for our lives as opposed to our own plans (Matthew 10:39)

These are hard, tough commitments but Jesus is totally serious in what he is calling for.

Tom Wright, commenting on this passage, refers to the example of St Francis:

leaving his wealthy home despite his father’s fury, to go and live a simple life of imitating Jesus as much as he could—and setting an example that thousands still follow today

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15, p.122.

And there are many examples throughout history, and probably many examples we each know today, of people who are prepared to respond positively and joyfully to the call of Jesus and find the fullness of life which he came to bring. And there are many of us who are prepared to sit on the sidelines and watch such people as opposed to taking up the challenge for ourselves.

If Jesus were to raise his flag in your street, in your place of work, in your church, amongst your friends how would you respond?