On Simplicity and Scripture: Struggling with the Word

One thing I’ve noticed over the years of being involved and associated with different ministries and programs is this: we seem to crave simplicity. Not that I have a problem with simplicity, it’s just that, in certain contexts, it becomes dangerous.

Let me explain via a couple of scenarios that I find quite common:

  1. I attend a church service in which the preacher’s text is a single verse. And from that verse, the speaker (who is usually quite gifted), paints a beautiful and complete picture of the Christian life. He points out things I have never seen, he reveals things hidden in the original text (because the rough accent mark is used, this word is inverted, giving the word a completely different meaning, etc) Life is g0od. I am enlightened. Until a few days later I try to explain my new-found knowledge to a friend. Questions are raised. The puzzle pieces which fit together so neatly a few days ago now have imperfect edges. I explain that I must have missed some of the points. I assure my friend, the fault must lie with me.
  2. I come across a difficult passage in scripture. I re-read it. I re-re-read it. I consult Strong’s for each word in the passge, including “the“. I check different translations. Finally, I stumble across a translation that abstracts away enough of the text that I make some sort of sense out of it. I am elated. I mark the verse down as “Assimilated” in my Conquer the Bible Diary.
  3. My wife asks me a question about a verse or a passage of Scripture. I begin answering her as best I can. My answer is incomplete and only raises more questions (But if that is true, then wouldn’t that mean…). I grow exasperated. She becomes frustrated. I finally answer the question with an answer to this effect: Well it sort of works like this, blah, blah, and somehow works together with blah, blah, and I’ll look into it and get back to you. I never exactly get around to answering the question.

I hope you can see the common thread that runs through each of these examples.

  1. A speaker takes a single verse and builds a system around it.
  2. I, in my desire to “understand” God, am willing to trade away his word.
  3. I, in my desire to end my wife’s questioning or to get back the television show I am watching or to avoid having to change my life due to the implications of Scripture, simplify the word of God, and in so doing, show contempt for it’s authority

This is where I see the danger in desiring simplicity. God did not give us a single verse, he gave us his complete word. God did not give us 500 translations to pick and choose from, there are good ones and there are bad ones, and we are to seek HIS meaning, not the verson that is simplest or the most expedient or the most culturally correct. God did not say that every verse would take five minutes to explain, he did not say that his teachings would fit in an email tag line or on a T-shirt. We are to struggle with the word, we are to wrestle with his meaning. No single verse can give us a complete understanding of God. No ten minutes of study will equip us for life’s battles. No man-created system can ever replace a dynamic relationship with Him.

Predestination, Free Will, and Obedience

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that predestination and free will are mutually exclusive, but I’m not so sure that I buy it. Scripture talks about both predestination and choice and from my understanding of this issue, the two can exist quite happily side by side.

The best analogy that I have for what I’m talking about is this: Let’s say you and I sit down to play a game of chess, and I have absolute foreknowledge (i.e. I know every outcome to any move I make). From my point of view, I can determine your resulting actions with my first move, what’s more, the knowledge I possess makes the actions that I cause you to make, a conscious choice on my part. But this is the interesting part: from your perspective, you are just playing a game of chess. My foreknowledge does not affect your game in any way, unless you choose to think about it (and to dwell on it). Of course, if we were to flesh the analogy out a little more to represent Him more fully, God would also have the advantage of having created/fashioned his “opponent”, the chess board, the rules of the game, and everything else involved.

So how can God hold people accountable for what he has pre-determined?

The short answer is because he is God. Come to think of it, that’s the long answer as well. As a parent, I have to say that it’s not that much different with my 18 month old son, and I’m not anywhere close to being omni-anything (omnivourous, maybe). There are plenty of times that I know he is tired, or very suceptible to some temptation and I choose to put him into a situation where I “know” he will fail. And I punish him. Even though I’ve been responsible for his training, even though I can see it before it happens.

But doesn’t that make us into puppets? How can God take pleasure in puppets?

Ask an author. Ask a movie director. If a human being can write a story and love his creation, if a director can make a film and be pleased and thrilled with his work, why can’t an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God create a universe, tell a story, and reveal himself in all His glory and be pleased with what he has done? Or to say it a different way: On the seventh day of creation, did you think that was going to be the last time that God looked at what He had done and said it was very good? Do you believe that when the world has run its course and God reveals to us His grand design, that He will look back at any place in time and say, “This was not supposed to happen…” do you believe there will be any blemish upon the canvas?

But if God has “stacked the deck” and pre-determined all things, why do we proclaim the gospel? Why bother?

In such a scenario, the reason for doing anything is obedience. In the chess game analogy above, we know the objective, but in life, we have a more limited sense of understanding of God’s ultimate goals. What I mean to say, is to some extent, we don’t know exactly what God is about. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

In the end, this ties back to everything I’ve said previously on this blog about gender issues and the church. We know that wives represent the church and husbands represent Christ, we know that the oneness of flesh and the mystery even of sexual union has some symbolism of God’s ultimate plan, but it’s not clear. And so we obey. Usually with great hesitation and with horrible motives, but as we draw closer to Him, with greater and greater fervency. And all the while, we think: When the light on the other side of the glass comes on and it becomes clear, what will we see, what will we be, and what will we know and understand of Him?

Piper, Driscoll, Contextualization, Postmodernism

I think I’m coming to hate the word “contextualization”. It’s not the idea behind it, it’s the thought that it is being held to the same level of importance as doctrine, and in some ways, as more important. At Desiring God 2006, Marc Driscoll said that we should have two hands, in the one, which is tightly clenched, we hold the unchangeable truths of God’s Word and in the other, which is open, we hold a contextualized, timely message. “And you’re anchored to the truth,” says Driscoll, “so you can be creative.” But what I get from this, is that the unchangeable truths have no unchangeable practical implications. What I pick up, is that we keep those truths held tightly in our hand, so that they are not able to get in the way of our “creative” ministry.

Even John Piper made the following statement shortly after Driscoll finished speaking and left the conference to catch a plane:

Let me tell you how I think and how I decide who I’m going to hang with. As I look across the broad spectrum of Evangelicalism and all the different styles, what concerns me is doctrine. And if Mark Driscoll holds those nine truths firmly in his left hand, then I don’t care what’s in his open hand.

He went on to say,

Now the problem is that some of us believe that what you have in your open hand may subtly undermine what you have in your closed hand. And so I would sit down with Mark and say things like, ‘Mark, you cannot be clever in the pulpit and be faithful to the gospel message.’ But what matters to me is doctrine, and I don’t care about form or style.

[quotes taken from Piper, Driscoll, and Contextualization]

And so, I say the hand analogy is bad, in fact, I say it’s fatal. We are to preach what God has given us. We are to dilligently seek his face, read his word. When contextualization occurs, I believe it is in the spirit of Proverbs 16:1 “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD.”

There is one more thing that we should remember about contextualization and Postmodernism, and that is this: Jesus Christ lived in a Postmodern world, so did Paul. You don’t get much more cynical or pluralistic than the Roman Empire. You would be hard pressed to find a people more inured to metanarratives (or incredulous, with apologies to Jean-Francois Lyotard). And when you look at Paul and Christ, the major way they contextualized their message was in deciding whether to start with Genesis or Matthew.

Sodomy in the Church

Marriage is not about you. This life is not about you. Consider:

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. Hebews 11:3

Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband. Ephesians 5:21-33

Marriage is about Christ and the church. It is a witness. It is a symbol. We do not need to ask ourselves why sodomy is so rampant in our culture. We need only look at the marriages in the churches of our nation. With every husband that refuses to lead, with every wife that lifts her head to rule, we have shown the world how we can place a skirt upon Jesus Christ. We have shown them that the words chosen to frame the worlds, were poor in their choosing. We have said to the world, “the sexes are identical” and they have responded with the homosexual movement, a movement whose very name means “the sexes are identical”. Should it come as a surprise? Our attitude toward sodomy begins in the home and in the church. Our attitude toward sodomy begins everyday. Because marriage is not about us. This life is not about us. It is all about God.