Thursday, February 23, 2006

On Scripture and experience

[Before I go on to the body of this post, a much greater concern demands attention: Please say a prayer for the survivors of the mudslide on Leyte island in the Philippines. There's no telling what grief they're going through or how many miracles may yet be wrought as answers to our prayers.]

One of the things of "liberal" Christian theology is that it sometimes views the Scriptures as metaphors chronicling people's religious experience throughout time. Today, then, these metaphors allow us to understand and express our own subjective experiences and thoughts about God. In his newest book, popular Emergent pastor Rob Bell writes this about Adam and Eve:

Is the greatest truth about Adam and Eve and the fruit that it happened, or that it happens? This story . . . is true for us because it is our story. We have all taken the fruit. We have all crossed boundaries. . . . This is why the Bible loses its power for so many communities. They fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible is just about things that happened a long time ago.*

Now I agree that the Bible isn't simply about things that happened long ago, because a lot of it is still happening, chiefly, Old Testament prophecies about the Day of the Lord are coming true right now, for the Messiah has come and is coming soon. But Bell is flat-out wrong when he writes that biblical records are true because they match our experiences.

This year, I'm learning not to expect anything as far as my "walk with the Lord" goes. I've found little but daily shovelfuls of sin and dirt in my life, and I've "felt" or "experienced" the Spirit less than ever before. But God is faithfully bringing me up out of the mire of a lot of bad theology that says that what we experience or feel really matters in Christian faith. It's not that our religious feelings or experiences are to be ignored; in fact, many of them are directly produced by the Holy Spirit in our lives for the glory of God. We must understand all of our feelings and experiences in light of Scripture and the God who is with us. But when we let our faith and hope fix attention upon ourselves like that, I can only find room for despair most of the time.

I've never liked Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. I don't know why; something just grates me about it. But reading it through again, I'm seeing how much these downright human (i.e., sinful) Corinthians are given encouragement from things external and objective to themselves. The whole first chapter is about their hope from a salvation that had and yet has nothing to do with their experience of Christ or their earthly progress in holiness. Paul sees that it's all based entirely on prior, present, and future things of God, many of which (with regrets to Rob Bell) "happened a long time ago": God's choice, his calling, and the work of Jesus Christ.

In 1:2 he says the sinners at Corinth "have been sanctified in Christ Jesus" (past perfect tense!) and are "called as holy" (kletois hagiois). Then he tells them that the Lord Jesus "will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:8). Why? Because God called them into fellowship with his Son (1:9). Then he goes on and mentions in their salvation nothing about their merit or experience or feeling or sinlessness, but God's choice (1:27, 28) and calling (1:24, 26). Then he says that being in Christ is God's doing and that Christ "became to us [conveying both past action and externality] wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1:30).

The beautiful and biblical fact is that the Bible is actually about a lot of things "that happened a long time ago," things upon which we can build a sure and solid hope. When the Word of God becomes mere metaphor for my own experience, I have no hope. And I can't worship, because all I really have to worship is myself. (I mean, if it's only metaphor and poetry and image, how can any of that even confirm that God actually exists?) Perhaps we should turn to the words of a wise German pastor from seventy years ago:

It is not in our life that God's help and presence must still be proved, but rather God's presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day. Our salvation is "external to ourselves." If find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ. . . .

What we call our life, our troubles, our guilt is by no means all of reality; there in the Scriptures is our life, our need, our guilt, and our salvation. Because it pleased God to act for us there, it is only there that we shall be saved.**

*Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 58-9.

**Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 54.


Ryan P.T. said...

Yes, yes, and yes. Except what was that dispensational comment about "OT prophecies are happening"? Perhaps I misunderstood.

All I'm thinking about nowadays is this Emergent church business, and how the new thing is the old thing. We need to do some serious--dare I say it--conversing about this, Drew-man-fu.

Drew said...

Dispensational? Nay, my friend, that is wholly Covenantal/Calvinist. (C'mon, give me some credit.) The Church is the promised restoration community of the OT prophets, the true Israel.

Ryan P.T. said...

Aye, you've exposed my ignorance of Covenant Theology. I think I'll read Mike Horton's new book and pretend I've known all along. My apologies.

Paul M. Kingery said...

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Let me know what you think.


Paul M. Kingery, PhD, MPH

BlueNight said...

I've long disliked the rampant emotionalism and anti-intellectualism in the church. I've found that when I talk about belief, it's the black-or-white true-or-false of logic, as in "the light bulb is on." When others talk about belief, it's often "how much I believe", as in "how much I like CSI: Miami" or "how much I love my child." This manner of speech reveals to me that many people think of belief in terms of feeling, and not in terms of thought.

My blog is on this general theme, and finding the bits of theology in daily life..