To the laymen, there are only two tools for evaluating if a teaching is biblical or not, and both tools use the proof-texting method. Proof text relies as an argument on the existence of a text or verse, a literal text in the bible. For example, a teaching on salvation by grace is proven biblical by showing Ephesians 2.8 and 9 – we are saved by grace through faith, not because of works. In this approach, there must be a verse or word in the bible, in order for something to be biblical. Conversely, if there is no verse or text, then it is implied that the teaching or thing is neutral or no longer against the bible.
The tools are: 1. is the teaching in accordance with Scripture, and 2. Does the teaching contradict Scripture. There are other tools but in the marketplace, only these two are used. As will be plain later, these two are not sufficient to screen anti-biblical teachings. By analogy, they are useless strainers that cannot even screen an elephant. The worse doctrines can get through them with much ease.
This is the usual scenario.
A pastor is found to be very imposing and dictatorial and the congregations are getting weary and much abused already. So, one day, a brave member confronts the pastor and tells him that he is very direct and commanding and maybe he should be more empowering, seek consensus in his decision-making and be more participatory in his leadership. The pastor rebuffs him and quotes a verse:
Hebrews 13.17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
And the pastor warns him what happened to Miriam the sister of Moses when she committed insubordination. Plus, he says, David did not kill Saul because he was God’s anointed, which means the church is not to touch or fight against the pastor who obviously, in this context is the anointed one.
In this example, we see how, the first tool fails to screen out a wrong teaching or action or behavior.
Another example is when a member is found smoking a cigarette. The pastor promptly takes him aside and privately warns him that Christians do not smoke and it is a sin to destroy one’s body by smoking. It is unhealthy and Christians adhere to the highest tenets of health living being good stewards of God.
The member calmly asks the pastor where in the Bible does it mention smoking. Of course, the bible does not mention smoking, even marijuana or illegal drugs like shabu. The member, who is well-read, begins to cite the teachings of Charles Spurgeon who up to now is considered the most respected evangelical preacher in Christian history. Also, there is Martin Luther who led the church out of idolatry and wrong teachings about salvation. Both Spurgeon and Luther were avid smokers and defended smoking in their writings. They claim that a good and virtuous Christian must smoke. CS Lewis loved by many for his many books like Narnia, also smoked a lot. All Christians in Germany today smoke cigars after dinner.
The pastor is dumbstruck. The most important doctrine of our protestant faith came precisely from Luther himself, the doctrine of salvation by faith. The pastor is devastated.
So, the second tool also proves useless.
Actually, the two tools are used mainly to support our orthodoxy more than it is to make our teachings biblical. We are more concerned about preserving our denominations than we are of obeying Scripture accurately. Orthodoxy is about conformity and control, to ensure that there is unity and adherence within a particular group or denomination.
Most expand this tool to include their statement of faith or doctrinal statements. However, since these are bulky, they often just hang on the wall or sit inside the desk. They are never around when it counts. We need to bring these doctrines to the work table so that in the everyday life, our ideas, actions and values are biblical. We will know if watching a movie, the movie is biblical or not. We will know also when listening to the debate on the HR Bill, whether a particular argument is biblical or not. We need to push our red lines closer to where the action is.
Biblicality obviously extends beyond the text and through the text. A literal reliance on text or proof texting will make our Christianity not only emasculated but also very ineffective in transforming the world and ourselves.
CS Lewis loved to hide the text when he preached. He advised preachers to hide the text so that the hearers will not be able to see it. Lewis knew that sinful hearts will anticipate the text and while you are reading a passage the hearer is already one or two words ahead of you, running ahead of you and in the process, the text loses its power, especially its power to surprise. Lewis makes much of this power of the Word to take people by surprise and by hiding the text, he believes the Word can come to us anew, with new power and fresh insights. He also advised us to change our bible versions each year so that the rut we develop in our bible reading will not skew our understanding of the text. Of course, we will rely for authoritative interpretation on good bible versions but in bible reading, we need to regularly change versions.
Francis Schaeffer pointed out that during the period of the enlightenment, the Christians, especially the Christian scientists, actually read two bibles or books: the written Book the Bible and the Book of Creation. From that latter book he says, people could read about the glory of God from the stars and heavenly bodies. From this, they believed scientists were able to grasp laws of physics with the belief that God is a rational being and so they deduced that the laws of nature must also be rational. This rationality helped to establish science, without it, people could only conjecture through chaos and unpredictability and never arrive at a reliable conclusion. Empirical methods would not work in an unstable universe. With that belief in a rationale God, they could bravely explore and examine creation with confidence that things do not just move or alter without cause or reason. In measuring a trajectory, Schaeffer explained, scientist could predict that their rocket would land on the precise spot on the moon because the laws of physics were stable and rationale.
Biblicality extends beyond text, obvious in this discussion on The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien who wrote the greatest trilogy in our lifetime, The Lord of the Rings, gives us an example of what many think is not biblical but is really quite biblical. When he was interviewed one time by a journalist, they talked about fiction and the closing question of the journalist was whether fiction encouraged people to escape from reality. Tolkien’s reply really astonished me. He said, there are two kinds of fictions, one that leads to an escape from reality, and the other, that tells you that this not the place you were meant to live in.
Tolkien was a very godly man, and they had a small fellowship, including CS Lewis, called the Inklings. These people wrote fiction and talked about a reality that many would call unreality. Many Christians today look down on all fictions, like they were all the same with the occult Harry Potter. Many Christians will not even read literature for that matter, thinking, only books that cite Scripture explicitly are worth reading (even movies for that matter).
But Tolkien’s great theme actually gives the best rendition of the intense drama going on in the plan of redemption. What Tolkien described for those who did not read the trilogy, is a magical ring that controls all the powers of the world and for those on the good side, only Frodo, a small, weak Hobbit could handle it, the rest get overpowered by the ring when they take hold of it and eventually become evil like the maker of the ring. The goal was to carry that ring and walk to the volcano right in heart of enemy territory and drop it into the burning lava in order to destroy it. There was this irresistible temptation to use the ring and even Frodo suffered this a few times, for the ring could give the holder fantastic powers, but also will make them evil. Frodo did not want the ring, nor cared for the powers it bestows, which was why he was the only one qualified to bring the ring to the volcano. The best heroes, the most powerful warriors, did not qualify because of their desire for power which the ring could exploit to ultimately control them.
Jesus is typified here in the story of Tolkien, as Frodo. The biblical life death struggle is also seen in the story, when Jesus would not grasp power but instead chose weakness and powerlessness. This is a beautiful example of what is biblical. Every Christian should read the trilogy in order to get a better glimpse of the cosmic struggle between Jesus and the enemy and how Jesus struggled with the temptations.
CS Lewis also give us his share of beautiful and powerful fiction, the Chronicles of Narnia, although unlike The Lord of the Rings, Narnia is much more easily identified with Scripture texts, except maybe for Aslan, the personification of Jesus in the story. Aslan is actually a lion, a ferocious and dangerous lion.
Narnia has this beautiful conversation between Lucy and the Beavers, in C. S. Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Beavers are describing the great lion, Aslan, to the children. Mr. Beaver says,
You’ll understand when you see him.”
“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.
“Is– is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
Yes, God is not safe but he is good! In a sermon by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, this idea of presenting Jesus as a ferocious lion was picked on. Why a lion? He asked. Williams proceeded to show how in Lewis works, we see the depth of biblicality, and presenting God as a lion shows how much Lewis has grasped the true nature of God in Scripture.
There are many things that we will miss when we don’t have sufficient tools for understanding biblicality. We will not understand for example in what way was Rembrandt masterpiece, The Prodigal Son, a biblical rendition of the biblical story or not. Was Rembrandt’s theology accurate when he portrayed the facial expressions of the characters in the story the way he did in that painting? Or, how about Michelangelo? Could we say the theology of Michelangelo was more superior than ours when he depicted Eve under His arms when He created Adam?
What textual analysis will not give us is the expression on the face of the father in the story of the prodigal son, or what was the tone of voice of Jesus when on the boat he told the disciple, you men of little faith. Was he harsh, loud, commanding, soft, inviting, warm, or neutral? When God said Be Holy For I am Holy, was it given as a command or as an invitation? How do we read the word Maranatha at the end of the Bible? It is the last prayer of the Christians, “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.” Was it uttered in sheer desperation, in disgust, triumphantly, joyfully, or neutral?
What is biblical is more than the text or words presented in Scripture. It extends beyond and through it.
Psychology and counseling has made big inroads into Christianity, good and bad. Actually, one part of the difficulty is the resort to pseudo-psychology among preachers which adds to the complexity of the problem. Pastors for example will in order to change the mind or behavior of their members resort to brainwashing or pavlovian indoctrination and wrongly attribute it to good biblical psychology.
Psychology has challenged Christianity to look deeper into humanness and gender, issues that have long suffered under extremist and militant biases, sexist and chauvinist included. Psychology has also put on the map certain important ailments the bible talks about like depression and addiction. Psychology creates new data through empirical and systematic studies and although it is a young science, the information we get have expanded our understanding of Scripture, especially, how the mind works, how integrated our life is and how we relate with each other.
But there are bad things we need to thresh out and throw away. The use or misuse of the medical model is one. A counselee coming to a Christian counselor after his marriage breaks apart because of his having an affair may be told that he is really sick, he is going through a difficult phase of midlife. Sin is never mentioned during the counseling for that could add to the psychosis and in America, that could lead to a lawsuit which many counselors avoid at all cost. The counselee is not told he has sinned and is not told he needs to repent and be forgiven despite that statistics show irrefutably that most of the patients in the mental hospital suffer from one form of guilt or another.
What in counseling is not biblical? What tools do we have to evaluate if a teaching in psychology is biblical or not?
There are hermeneutical guides that supposedly help to make a teaching biblical. But the sad truth is that many do observe it and yet produce teachings not even close to biblical. One “great” theologian was observed in parties to always isolate himself from the crowd, unable apparently to relate well with people. Do we require a healthy human heart to read Scripture well? If a person is psychologically unfit, will his biblical hermeneutics be also “unfit”?
The world is also moving towards more secularism and materialism, and theology is not unaffected by it. People in seminary are more cognitive now, and they tend to intellectualize scripture more than experience it. Even Jesus has become simply an idea, no longer a person.
The first question we ask in our bible study is, “What does the verse say?” Contrast that with the Ignatian question, “What do you feel?” The goal of our bible study is to impart knowledge, ideas, truth, information, etc. All are intellectual and cerebral. Again, contrast that with the Ignatian goal which is to help the reader encounter God as a person, an experience, involving the mind, body, heart and soul. There is a role for deep and analytical study of Scripture but it is only secondary to letting the Word become alive in us, not just remain in our heads. The Word has become flesh and truly we have turned the flesh into words again.
Actually, the hermeneutical rules we use in seminary are inadequate and in some cases inappropriate. They are no different from our court room rules on evidence. I believe the hermeneutical rules grew from an envy of science, from the terrific success of science and the concomitant prestige it brought along. Christianity became a copy-cat, it had to be also scientific and to be branded as unscientific was like the end of the world for many in seminary.
Scientific methods were thus incorporated into hermeneutics in order to attain what is in vogue or what is fashionable, i.e. religion also needed to be scientific. Law is also the same. It tries in every step, in every breath to be scientific, that things be as objective and unbiased as possible and able to be empirically proven. So the rules are designed like a scientific experiment, which utilizes empirical methods to establish facts. Science when applied to metaphysics or religion is called scientism, a philosophical bias. There have been devastating results like what happened to the critical approach to the bible in the search for the historical Jesus. The church in that period, after the crisis of two world wars, and under the great influence of rationalism, sought a way to ferret out the true Christ from all the hogwash of stories, myths, fables, superstitions and Jurassic thinking. The goal of higher criticism was to identify Jesus clear of the debris of legends and miracles. This became popular among the European theologians who were infected with the scientific virus then.
It is wrong to apply the scientific approach to religion. They are not harmonious, the approach is not at all appropriate. The scientific approach relies heavily on the principle of mutually exclusive proposition which means that the opposite of true is false. Without this principle, science cannot build a system of facts or knowledge. Science will also reduce the subject matter to its barest minimum that can be studied in a microscope. Furthermore, science will push away the subject matter by distancing it from the student in order that the study and the conclusions are arrived at objectively. This cannot be done in religion.
When we do that, Jesus becomes merely an object, a lifeless idea, an atom to be studied under a microscope. He becomes an impersonal being who cannot affect us, to whom we need not surrender our lives to. When we apply the scientific method of reducing objects to their barest minimum, the gospel is also fractured. It becomes simply accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior and anyone who adds to that is anathema. The gospel is more than accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. The Hebrew minds actually goes the opposite direction to reduction. The Hebrew minds moves instead towards complication, integration and holism. The bible teaches that we are saved to Jesus and also to the Body, which is why community is very important.
Many in fact graduate from seminary totally unaffected by the subject matter of their study. They graduate in pastoral care without becoming pastoral in their hearts. They graduate in biblical counselling without their paranoid or obsessive, controlling habits being addressed by scripture.
When the scientific approach is used, when the subject matter is pushed to a distance, distanciating in order to make the study objective, the subject matter can no longer affect the student. The material of study does not affect them at all, the weeks or months of study of the Book of Romans or the Gospels only enhance their knowledge and makes them more competent but not godlier. That is why many people graduate from seminaries without being affected by the subject matter. They actually graduate like they have acquired a new weapon which they can add to their existing arsenal of weapons. Seminary becomes simply a way to make these students acquire more control and become more determined sinners rather than become more surrendered to Jesus.
Hermeneutics apparently does not work well during crisis. When America was debating the issue of slavery, George Whitfield and Billy Graham, were both in favour of slavery. It’s very hard to argue in favour of the emancipation of slaves because the bible does not advocate for it. In fact, if we follow the bible correctly, the bible actually teaches that there is nothing wrong with slavery. It is not immoral or unjust. The problem is the inhuman treatment of slaves but not slavery as an institution. In the bible, there are many teachings about humanizing the treatment of slaves. If we treat slaves like they were members of our family, there would be nothing wrong with it. Honestly, if we were alive back then, at that point in time when Whitfield or Billy Graham was faced with this issue, we would have easily fallen on the wrong side of the debate. And yet, the abolition of slavery, even though not mandated by Scripture, may have been the greatest contribution of Christianity to modern civilization.
I think the bible recognizes that there is really a natural caste system in the world in that not all can be lawyers or doctors. Only a select few will ever become CEO of big companies. Millions or billions will toil till they die as ordinary labourers and not because they are menial jobs but because the order of things in this world just won’t require that many leaders or Presidents or judges or doctors. The pyramid was built like that, with 3 million slaves and one family of Pharaoh. Inherently therefore, there is nothing wrong with slavery. It is wrong though when we look down on slaves or mistreat them. When we however honour them as much as we honour judges or Presidents, or pay them equally, then slavery need not be outlawed anymore. This is probably why the Bible does not command us to abolish slavery or condemn it as sinful.
Similarly, CS Lewis said, there is nothing immoral with having a man as head of the woman which many feminists oppose. The arrangement brings about order and reason. What is wrong is when that headship is used not for the good of others, when a man uses his headship not for the sake of the woman. So also with slavery, what is wrong is when those 10% above, at the top of the pyramid, mistreat those below. When 90% of the wealth is owned by 10% of the people in this planet, it becomes indecent and gross. But when 10% of the people with so much money become stewards to ensure that 90% of the people get a decent meal every day and no child dies of starvation, that would be heavenly
A very common approach to the bible is the formula method. We often hear of advertisements in churches and in conferences, for example, 5 easy steps to prayer, or 5 steps to a successful marriage, or 5 steps to godliness. These are formulaic approaches that are clearly not biblical. It almost shouts to us a guarantee, if you do it as instructed, you are guaranteed success. The teaching provides a formula, a process involving several steps. The formula implies that when one has mastered the steps, success is sure to follow. It is like saying, there is a secret formula, a password or PIN, which if you can get access to, you can make your life work. God will have no choice but to give in to your prayers. If you have the formula, your marriage cannot fail. God is viewed here as simply an ATM machine, where we use the PIN or formula. If we press the right buttons, God will have no choice but to respond favourably.
Many actually have this mentality when they come to Scripture, they go there to take more control of their lives, even control God, instead of surrendering their lives to Christ. The goal is mastery more than godliness. We see this in the encounter with Jesus in John 7.
14 Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach.15 The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”
16 Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. 17 Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. 18 Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. 19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
20 “You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?”
21 Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. 22 Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. 23 Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? 24 Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
This goes into the heart of what is biblical. We may ask ourselves, if we were present in the time of Jesus, when we met Jesus, how would we know he is biblical?
Here, the challenge is not to judge by mere appearance but to judge correctly. Jesus was to all present, an uneducated man but then he was saying something that only educated men knew. The heart of the matter is found in verse 19 – Jesus says, why are you objecting to much to my teaching, accusing me of being unfaithful to God’s word in Scripture when you yourselves do not even care about obeying God’s word. Why do you bother about God’s word not being accurately interpreted when you don’t care about God’s word.
The answer to what is biblical is found in verse 17, anyone who chooses to do the will of God, anyone who loves God’s commandments, he will know if Jesus is biblical. People can be so roused up by the Bible and try to control us with what being correct and accurate interpretation should be but underneath, they really don’t care about God’s word. But the irony is that, the one who is not like that at all but who instead is so concerned about obeying God, it is really that person that can tell even without proof-texting, or showing verses and bible references, who can discern what is biblical and what is not.
NT Wright goes farther. He says, people can be so occupied with reciting and chanting verses and correct doctrines and proper hermeneutics but lack substance and content. We have the correct recital of the justification by faith doctrine but forget that God will not just judge us based on what we recite with our mouth or even believe in our hearts, God will judge us as a whole. God will look at our entire life when he judges us. We cannot hide behind correct doctrine.
We make our distinctives based on the most shallow markers. We are not Roman Catholics because we do not make the sign of the cross, worship idols, recite inane repetitive prayers. We are Christians because we read the Bible and share the gospel. If we were to follow John 7 to judge correctly, we will judge people based on the Greatest Commandment to love.
The need for control is a western propensity. So when Western Christians read Matthew 18.20 where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them – what they see is something they can get from God in order to gain more control of their lives. They cannot see that the whole passage is really about community and not about prayers being answered. When Jesus encouraged people to pray – ask, seek and knock, that passage did not mean we can take from God, for example, money or power like an atom bomb we can own and wield to increase our control. The last verse is very telling actually, Jesus ended it by saying, how much more will he give the Holy Spirit. The implication is to not so much wealth or prosperity or independence but of being bound up in community with one another and intimacy with God. God is saying He is so eager to give us Himself which means we can never be separated from him, in contrast with the Western perspective of taking from God and leaving God alone and walking away from God after we have taken from him.
On the matter of grace, the spirit of the person reading the bible must be towards surrender and kenosis. Many come to scripture in order to find assurance which in the end means gaining more control of one’s life and thus never surrendering to Jesus. There is this very common attitude of using the bible or God as a talisman to ward away evil. We are very superstitious people still. We believe that if we have prayed or had our quiet time that morning that nothing wrong will happen to us the rest of the day. We believe that if we have been good, no bad thing will happen to us. We believe that God will always bless us only with good things, not bad things. So when bad things happen, we think that we have failed in our spirituality or else, we think we have committed a sin or offended God. And yet, we are so driven to go to Scripture in order to get our world in control. And when it intensifies, we become more obsessed with controlling things so that nothing will go out of control and nothing will take us by surprise. Legalism will thus result into slavery, slavery not just for us but also for people around us, but grace results into freedom but we are not at home with freedom.
8We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 9We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. NIV I Timothy 1
The goal of grace is the death of the self precisely. But the sinful flesh refuses to die. The flesh and the spirit battle with each other. The agenda of the sinful flesh is to survive, to make our lives work without God. Falling from a plane 1,000 feet in the air without a parachute is the freedom God gives us which requires letting go of our dependence on the self and this first means letting go of our agenda. NT Wright explains that the phrase “repent and believe” in the bible actually means that, to give up our agenda, citing writings of Josephus written about the same period as that text. The context of Josephus’ writing was a Roman army that had besieged successfully an enemy encampment and sent this message to ask the enemy to surrender, repent and believe, meaning give up your agenda about how to save your selves, and embrace the agenda of Rome, and more precisely, the agenda of this invading Roman army at your door.
Control is at the heart of legalism. The more control, the more legalistic a person is. Grace is the opposite. It feels like falling off a plane at 1,000 feet without a parachute. Grace is actually violent to the soul because the soul wants to be in control, wants to pay, wants to be worthy, and wants to perform. Grace on the other hands gives us what we do not deserve. Grace says at the label portion, we are not worthy. Although grace sits in the middle of our heart, as we were designed by God for grace, but as fallen beings, we resist grace. Grace is built-in within us, like part of our DNA. We as little children know by heart, without anyone teaching us, that we want to be loved unconditionally; we want to be loved not because we have high grades or are pretty. We want to be loved just the way we are, warts and all. We hate it when people love us because we are pretty or because we are good in class. In the fall, we have started to wage war against grace and when grace comes to us, we feel like we have been assaulted, beaten and abused. That is how grace feels.
Seminary education has not only distanciated the subject matter, imitating the secular schools and applying scientism into religion. Seminaries also have applied the same parameters of learning as the secular schools. The goals of seminaries now are to provide 1. Skills, 2. Habits, 3. Knowledge, and 4. Attitude, the same goals as secular schools. These are aimed at providing competence to the students, precisely to give them more control. Seminaries need to focus instead on 1. Core beliefs or images, 2. Self-awareness, 3. Reason, and 4. Character. The Jesuits correctly teach from St Ignatius, that the beginning of real learning is in self-awareness. The mind or presence of mind has been divorced from the rest of the self. Many are not aware that they are scared or angry or lascivious or are pushing people away. That should be the first target of seminaries. Within, as one journeys in self-awareness, one ultimately bumps into the self, both the false self and the true self. We all have images of ourselves, vows we have made when we were growing up. These form the core beliefs within us so that many times, people seem to say one thing with their mouths, but in their hearts, they are saying the opposite. They say they trust in Jesus and in the next moment spin out of control into panic attack which at the bottom is saying I don’t trust God.
This is the model we follow as the process of change, based mainly on the Beatitude:
Reason is also important. It was Thomas Aquinas who wrongly taught that man was fallen but his mind or reason was not. In his Summa Theologica, he exhaustively discussed the fact of the natural law using reason, and no man I am sure can add to that discussion. And yet, we often are faced with strong Christian leaders whose minds or reasons are not affected by Scriptures. This again is seminary’s task, how to affect the reason with Scripture. For how is it that a pastor who knows Scripture well can sanction divorce or lawsuits between believers?
Finally, character: all our habits put together makes up our character. Seminaries too must engage in this field of endeavour, building character, not just brains. The bible is clear: knowledge puffs up but love builds up.
There are many wrong reasoning to be sure. Just imagine what kind of mind would write the great American Declaration of Independence, saying that it is a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and adds further, that all people are invested with inalienable rights (intrinsic and inherent in our beings) to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness, and yet, for the original framers of that great declaration, the label human did not apply to blacks or Africans, nor to women. How could they even conceive of it without including most of the people of the world? How could godly men and women go to the New World and believe they are the new Israelites and the Indians, the Sioux, the Apaches, etc. are the Canaanites who have to be massacred? This is reason unaffected by Scripture reading Scripture wrongly.
The Afrikaners or Boers also went to Africa with the same theology, and tried to exterminate all the blacks in Africa, and failing that, implemented the cruel and vicious apartheid to exclude the blacks from Africa! Apartheid was done all in the name of Christianity using the Bible as their guide.
When the colonizers first left Europe, the only reliable textbook in their hands was Aristotle’s writings, and Aristotle taught that slaves had no soul. Thus, the church commanded the colonizers not to evangelize the natives, only to rule over them with the sacraments, which is why we have the innocent and weak Sto. Nino, a tool to enslave and pacify non-white peoples within Roman Catholic colonies all over the world.
There is a nice movie, Abraham Lincoln, that depicted what purportedly took place in the young American Congress, when Lincoln wanted the Constitution amended to illegalize slavery. The movie dramatized the debate going on between those in favour of slavery and those against. One cannot help noticing that almost every argument hinges on the Bible. The pro-slavery were very vehement in insisting that the slaves were not humans thus they were not included in the principle of equality stated in the Declaration of Independence.
In the Nuremberg Trial, were the concentration camp guards were convicted of heinous crimes against humanity, the evidence showed that these people were decent, God-loving, Bible believing folks, who loved their families and went to church every Sunday. Their defence was that they were simply following orders but in so doing, they managed to exterminate almost 6 million helpless Jews! And the entire Lutheran church was complicit in this crime. How does the Bible play a part in all these madness?
It makes it more imperative therefore to know how we can make our teachings really biblical. What is biblical then?
We have to begin with the Fall. When I ask my students: “Is life more sad or more happy?” Many say, “it is more happy.” And that tells me right away their wrong theology right from the start. The Fall tells us that we have been kicked out of the Garden. When a gold-fish is taken out of the fish bowl and dumped unto a hot pavement at noon day, what does it feel? What does it feel like living in a fallen world then? We may have lived too long outside the garden to really know the difference but that is to say there is nothing inherent within us that would argue against becoming comfortable in a fallen world, that Tolkien perhaps could actually be just encouraging escape from reality and that reality may really be the “fallen world” we live in and there is no other world to speak of, that this is where God meant for us to live in, period. Of course not. Something in us always tells us this is not the place God called us to live in. We were meant to live in the Garden and deep within each one of us, we know and we are certain and that is why Tolkien is right. Everyone wants to someday go home.
The prodigal son is actually a continuation of that story in Genesis. Here, God takes up again the theme, of being outside the Garden. In the heart of the prodigal son, he says, “O how much better it is at home, there is much food there.” It is really hunger that drives him home, not some esoteric or profound realization of his sinfulness, but just simply the realization that there was this better place he could go to. Of course later on, he theologizes and rehearses a nice Lenten prayer: I have sinned against God alone. I do not deserve to be treated as a son anymore. And yet, the beginning tale is about what Tolkien wrote about, that inside us, a fiction is exploding, that drives us home.
When we realize that we are living outside of the garden, that we were meant originally to live inside the Garden, with lots of food, uninterrupted air-conditioning, labour that does not produce frustration, a beautiful wife (look at her picture under the arm of God at the Sistine Chapel when God was just creating Adam, according to Michelangelo) and peace – no anxiety, no stress, no fighting, wow, that’s enough to make us storm the gates of heaven.
The problem is that no one storms the gate of heaven anymore. It is useless for God to place a guard at the gate, an angel with a flaming sword he waves constantly that those who dare enter will be cut to pieces. No one storms the gate, all are comfortable in their new home. There is no one who cries in desperation, Maranatha, Lord Jesus come quickly, I can’t bear it anymore.
We need to come to Scripture as men beset by this angst of someone abandoned in a lonely planet like the movie, The Empire of the Sun, a beautiful evangelistic movie about a young boy separated from his parents, who were missionaries in China. When they were fleeing China when Japan invaded it, in the mob on the pier, the parents were able to board the American ship taking them to safety but the boy did not get on board and spent three years alone in China, an American boy, son of a missionary, stranded in a war torn land, full of fear, until he was finally reunited with his parents who came to look for him at the end of the war.
So what does a godly man look like who lives in a fallen world? I think Isaiah 53 describes it well, a man of sorrows, acquainted with all kinds of grief. The godly man basically is a man who mourns. Everyone in a fallen world suffers losses daily, at each moment of the day. Grief becomes the mainstay of holiness. When we utter Maranatha, it is with desperation, a cry for succour. It is a man at the end of his rope, at his wit’s end, crying out, “enough, enough, I have had enough, Jesus, please come quickly, I can no longer endure it!” This is the constant prayer of the godly man living in a fallen world.
Life in a fallen world obviously is chaotic and messy. There will be much ambivalence too. Merton speaks of the complementarity of opposites and it means being able to embrace the tension of contradictions. Our hearts are wild. We can love and hate someone at the same time. We want to kill and love someone at the same time, yes we do. And it is part of who we are. People make formulas for spirituality precisely because they want to control this chaos. But the only way to enter it is not to manage or control it but to be engulfed by it. Jesus demonstrated the right way, by entering as the spoken Word, as a little baby, into the chaos of our lives, and helpless and powerless, he began his ministry, from the bottom up, from the inside out. He became a servant, not a commander, and loved, not ruled. He suffered and not escaped, but plunged head on, to die for us. This chaos he did not repel nor avoid, but entered with his arms open wide. He was willing to be hurt by it and to be pained by it. There was no other way.
When we read the bible then, we must read it with tears like a man who has been kicked out of the garden and wants Jesus to come return quickly or else he will die.
Life on planet earth sucks. Anyone looking for relief must either storm the gates of heaven (at the east gate and be cut to pieces and cooked like barbecue) or else, go to the west gate, it is open but its road pass through Calvary and the Cross. Adam was sentenced to fail in his work and Eve to a failed marriage. Anyone who teaches otherwise, that life on earth can get better or should be better is trying to sell you the London Bridge.
Second is love. We must learn to read the bible with love as the basic denominator. Love is the greatest commandment. Love fulfils the law. We must define sin as not just breaking the ten commandments, like cheating or lying or stealing or killing. We must according to CS Lewis, define it as refusing to love or breaking the greatest commandment. When we do, we notice that we fail all the time. It is love also or the failure to love that will drives us home.
In psychology, like in the DSM4, the bible of psychopathology, a mental illness occurs only when the person is already dysfunctional. In other words, if a wife is controlling to the point that people around her, like herchildren or husband, feel asphyxiated, the psychologist will still not label her as obsessive compulsive. It is only when she becomes dysfunctional, meaning, she can no longer work or hold a job, that the doctor decides she is pathologic . However, as far as the bible is concerned, she already is violating the greatest commandment before she becomes dysfunctional. Love will bless people, will give them oxygen, and not strangle them by controlling all details in their lives because one is so afraid. Also, the obsessive person needs to see that there is no fear in love and love casts out all fear.
Love also denotes a relationship. Many people teach the bible as though people can survive without relationships. As society modernizes, it also becomes more individualistic. Scripture is often interpreted as addressing individuals, the reader, instead of the whole community, together, not apart, not individually. Thus we see discipleship class or training encouraging people to apply the Word of God and to grow as Christians individualistically even though the Bible is clear, that we grow only when all parts of the Body works correctly and works together with the other parts of the Body. But society teaches that individualism is more valuable than community, so, hermeneutics also follow suit which is wrong and destructive of the Body. Paul for example, when he wrote that we are the temple of God was referring to us, plural, not singular. We must learn to read the Bible first as referring to community and only secondarily to us as individuals.
John of the Cross taught that it is our love for Jesus that will guide us in our search for him. We will surely find him if this love is our guide. St John of the Cross defined a novice or beginner in Christ as someone who desires Jesus, who longs for Jesus, who misses Jesus each day, each moment. He got this doctrine from the Song of Solomon when the bride always pined for, hunger for, thirsted for, the bridegroom Jesus. She looks for him desperately and says his love is sweeter than wine.
That passion and desire is what we need to make our spirituality sweet and meaty. It is not in the end our will nor our strength nor our faith nor our intelligence that will help us cross the critical thresh-holds, but it is our love for him, which even in the face of obstacles, adversaries, temptations, will bring us to Him. What will make sex, fornication, pornography, wealth, fame, and power look shabby and tasteless? Nothing will, except the love for Jesus. And we will not love him because we want to. We love because he first loved us.
We have lost so much of our sense of community that we may not understand how and why Bonhoeffer went around Europe and America to unite the churches in the hope of preventing the outbreak of the Second World War. We come to church on Sunday and sit beside people and never see Jesus in them, never see the Body. We go home and never realize that the guy beside us during worship died afterwards of poverty or hunger. We don’t care and we don’t want to know. Church is no longer a family, it is just a congregation of highly individualistic Christians. Brothers and sisters are no longer what they meant in the Bible but just mere casual words used in greetings.
Relationship must underscore any hermeneutical approach. If it does not promote community or intimacy, it is probably wrong. CS Lewis said, the worse sin of mankind is that we have learned to survive without the intimacy of God. We have been without God’s love for too long we can now survive without it. Father Connoughly pointed out that the way we relate with people is also the way we relate with God. What our relationships are like today tells us what our relationship is with God.
Grace was discussed earlier and it forms part of the guideline for correct hermeneutics. We must be able to sense or smell grace or its opposite, control. The more control, the less grace. When we feel the teaching beginning to espouse mastery and expertise, and less ambivalence and contradictions, then it’s probably headed the wrong way, towards acquiring more control. Dr. Larry Crabb insists that our goal should not be to become holy for that can quickly degenerate into idolatry. That goal can be so easily controlled and manipulated. But, he says, relationships are harder to manipulate. He tells us that our goal should instead be to know Jesus and to be known by Him. The focus is relationship with Jesus, not our performance, or being competent or to have mastery over our selves. Teresa of Avila warned us that even our desire for spirituality can become obstacles to our finding Jesus.
Larry Crabb seem to have his own definition of the worse sin of mankind when he said that the greatest sin of mankind is his demand to make his life work without God (taken from Jeremiah 2.2). This is what is driving sinners, a stubborn belief that he can make his life work without God. Jeremiah 2.2 says we have committed two sins, we have rejected God the source of living water and run to the desert to dig our own cistern, a cistern that cannot even hold water. This is madness but it is what is inside all sinners. We run to everything but God. We think wealth, glory, and power will satisfy us and deep down within us, we know they won’t but we still stubbornly insist when all that God wants from us is for us to stop struggling and to rest.
God says, “In quietness and in trust is your strength, but you would not have any of it, you insist on riding swift horses so God says, “I will make your enemies faster than you.” This is our dilemma. We want control and we will not surrender no matter the cost. And this spirit of control pervades all throughout every nook and cranny of seminaries today. When we have identified that spirit of control and spoken against it, we are closer now to what makes us biblical.
Humanness is also a part of the criteria of being biblical. Do we ever wonder why Eugene Peterson seems to be singing an entirely different tune in all his writings, like he was listening to a different radio station? Why does Peterson describe David the way he does in his books? Peterson follows a long line of thinkers, originating from Abraham Heschell, the famous Jewish theologian who taught that to be fully human is to be truly holy.
Many of us actually study more of the divinity of Jesus than his humanity and that is very sad. We need to study more of his humanity because he came as the second Adam, to show us how it would really work. We could not see it in Adam because he failed. It is in Jesus’ humanity that we finally get to see the glory of God within us. When God created us, he made us humans and it is in our humanness that we reflect His image and His glory. So, Heschell teaches us, that the more human we become, the more we reflect that glory. And humanness must become a vital component in our approach to Scripture.
We must exegete first ourselves, our humanity, before we can exegete God’s Word. An introvert or severely paranoid or narcissistic person cannot read Scripture correctly. And before he can exegete himself, he must grow first in self-awareness. How could he study himself if his own being is hidden from him, if he is not self-aware or is blind to his own true nature. How many Christians are unaware that they are controlling or are angry or fearful? How many are aware they are numb or deadened? Only when we have come alive can we really read Scripture.
In a way because of the way Scripture is arranged, it is also correct or possible to ask if Jesus was biblical. Was his reading and interpretation of Old Testament correct? Jesus almost every step of the way wanted to make it known that He was biblical, that his ways were in accord with the Law and the Prophets. It was the people, the lawyers and Pharisees, who could not go beyond the text. Jesus adhered to Old Testament like a clingy lizard but in many ways too, he went beyond the text and through the text. He re-imagined the text so to say when he said, in the Old Testament, when you killed someone, you will have committed the sin of murder which is against the law of Moses but I also say to you, when you hate someone in your hearts, you have already committed murder. He did the same thing with adultery, saying, if you look at a woman with lust in your eyes, you have committed adultery already. Jesus was not adding to the law, he was simply reading it with much aliveness.
Iain Provan, a noted Old Testament expert, also teaches that the way to becoming biblical is by sounding off on our humanness, using our humanity as the sounding board to find the truth. We find in the Torah a slight detour in the sense that it is not directly addressing the establishment of a godly society or the discipleship of a people but as found out early by John Calvin, is actually engaged in a form of worldly accommodation. The law did not intend to impose the perfect rule or create a perfect society but to aim only at establishing what is achievable within realistic and practical limits. In other words, we will find it difficult to use the Torah as the basis of a just society. Provan cites for example the ideal position of women as equal with men seen in the Genesis story, but which is contradicted in the Torah. Jesus does the same thing citing the institution of divorce in the Torah, because people were hardhearted, meaning the Torah was really a form of divine accommodation. Job perhaps gives us a glimpse of how we can become biblical. Job actually supersedes the Torah in his assertion of his righteousness (Job said so many things that anticipated Jesus and obviously were higher than the standard of the Torah) and Jesus can be seen doing the same thing – it was said in the law that if you commit murder, you will go to hell, but if you hate a person in your heart, you have committed murder (which is a higher standard). So also, in many other passages, Jesus exceeds the Torah. He actually tells the Israelites of his day to exceed the Torah saying, if your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees or the High Priest, then you will not get to heaven. What is important is not that the Torah is engaged in divine accommodation, but that in looking at the Torah and the whole Bible, we need to see it the way Job did or Jesus did – using their humanness as the sounding board. This humanness is all about our original design, the way God made us and it is that design which is precisely the image of God in us. And the most central part of that design is Love which Jesus reiterates many times. What is the greatest commandment? He replies, love is! It is not actually new though he calls it the new commandment, but it is only new in the sense that now he is looking at it from the correct lens, no more from the lens of divine accommodation. There is no need to do that now because the Holy Spirit is given to us to do what is impossible for human beings to do. That is why, Jesus is sometimes pestered with the question, but that is impossible, who can achieve what you are commanding? And Jesus would reply, with men it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. We now have two things together, our humanness and the Holy Spirit (which means we are not advocating a form of humanism which is not biblical). We are saying, we can now truly live out our original design as a human being, to be truly human the way God designed us to be. And when we are truly human, then we are godly because now we are existing and living in the image of God. We display His image when we live as truly human being – able to love as a human being should.
Gnosticism has long been a secret nemesis of Christianity. It teaches a spirituality that is devoid of flesh and physical existence. It teaches that we can know God without the body and only the spirit is important. Prevalent in today’s thinking is the dualism between body and soul and many Christians actually believe the soul is more important than the body. This is exacerbated by the Cartesian mind-set which because of its emphasis on empirical knowledge has relegated the soul to the region of superstition. Now we have Christians who think that worldliness means an occupation with the body or the physical well-being and they believe it is our duty to move to the opposite extreme which is to be only occupied with the soul.
To be truly biblical, we need too to have a good grasp of our humanity, not only in its psychological dimension but also in its physical dimensions. Sex for example has suffered much onslaught from fundamentalist Christians or puritans who look down on it as base or carnal, not worthy of mention in religious discussions. And yet, our spirituality is so tied up with our physical well-being.
Many churches actually conduct prayer vigil throughout Fridays and overnight into Saturday morning. The members have just worked a long week and the church is now making them dive into a prayer vigil where they are expected to connect with the Divine being, sans their bodies, or in their physically exhausted condition. It seems we need badly a theology of the Body as the Benedictines have taught us long ago. Before we can pray, we need to be composed, collected, rested and at peace. For the more rested we are, the more we can hear God.
Sexuality and prayer with rested bodies are part of our Christian spirituality. Sometimes we think wrongly that because Paul says to stop sex when we want to devote time to prayer, that it implies, sex is inferior to prayer, which is gnostic pure and simple.
Sex was made by God and so our bodies too. God must be able to connect with these as much as with our prayers. God must be able to sit in the middle of our sexual intercourse as much as in our prayer time. To say otherwise is to degrade the body and sexuality. In turn, we must be able to worship God through our lovemaking as well as in our eating of luscious and rich food and wine. There is a sinister attack going on that debases our human appetites like sex and rest and eating, and promote a Spartan and stoic spirituality, that is obviously anorexic (nervosa). We need a spirituality that is robust and full of passion, running wild with imagination and engaged fully with God and all his creation in all its facets. In other words, a holistic spirituality that brings together our soul and body, our hearts, minds, strength and soul, to bear on God in worship. A soul alive!
We need to return to St. Ignatius who taught the right blending of the emotions and reason. After the enlightenment, Christianity began to grow a distrust of the emotions, that emotions were deceptive, unreliable and unstable. After many years of highly cognitive or cerebral spirituality, we have arrived at a numbed and deadened Christianity, without feelings, wooden and dutiful. Ignatius taught us that our emotions are actually the work table of God and it is in and through our feelings that He speaks to us. When we throw away emotions, we also truncate the self. We need to come to God with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength. In other words, together, as integrated whole selves. His book Spiritual Exercises helps us discern through this dark labyrinth we call our hearts and he has very solid and Biblical guides for discerning through it.
There is a big struggle when it comes to the balance between the self and the Holy Spirit. We cannot say everything is to be done by the Holy Spirit as though we have no responsibility whatsoever. How do we balance the two, our human will and the Holy Spirit? A good way is to just assume or act like everything depended on us, our will, and everything is our responsibility. We will work as though God is not there. But in strategic moments, we must pause, stop and be still. These are the moments of being in His presence. In the middle of a sermon, we pause even for a split second to see if He is there, if he is still with us. When on a road trip to a ministry site, we stop the car and everyone listen and pause, and discern if the Holy Spirit is still with us. These are strategic moments because through these pauses we are able to tell if our works are indeed God’s work, are indeed empowered by Him and not by our flesh.
Biblicality also requires a certain level of pragmatism, a need to embrace painful contradictions in life. The church is the most difficult of all to be biblical in. From Henri Nouwen, we have this quote – “I don’t want to be connected with the body because it all broken and it’s too much to deal with in which I could relate myself with it. But He also stated that we are called to be community. We called to be together, in a fellowship of the weak to proclaim Jesus as Lord.” Many have given up on the local church and contented themselves with a theoretical universal invisible church that is always united and never in a scandalous squabble with brothers and sisters. The local church is always a shame and a scandal. How do we reconcile it with the idealism of Scripture. I tis here that Nouwen reminds us in that quote above, that we are called to be precisely a fellowship of the weak, fellow sojourners, all wounded healers. It is in this weakness that our eyes are forced to squint to take a hard look to see if Jesus is really there. We cannot idealistic and fantastic for we will lose our credibility. We also cannot lose hope because then we lose our gospel. The bible talks of the hiddenness of the church and it is precisely hidden because it is at the intersection of life and death. We have to hold both ideal and real in one hand and hope with all our hearts we are right somehow in what we desire, while at the same time engaging fully and honestly and courageously the reality before us. Christians are not cynics. Cynics are realists and so are Christians but cynics have no hope. Christians are not cynics because we have hope, a hope that will not disappoint us because it is laid there by the Holy Spirit.
The Roman Catholics and Evangelicals seem divided on this issue. The former is on a journey and looks for Jesus while the latter, has found Jesus and therefore, is no longer looking for Jesus. In the past though, both were true and Christians believed the two together, simultaneously. They had found Jesus and yet, were also still looking for him, like the two guys on the Road to Emmaus after Jesus’ resurrection. The two positions, however, from the perspective of scientism are contradictory and mutually exclusive. They should not be held together or kept simultaneously because they are opposites. Under the principle of mutually exclusive proposition the opposite of true is false and if one is true, then the other must be false. If we have indeed found Jesus, we don’t need to look for him or if we are looking for Jesus then we have not found him, simple.
But the Bible is not that way. As the Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Niels Bohr wrote, in science, the opposite of true is false but in religion, the opposite of a truth could be another great truth. Merton says we need to learn to embrace contradictions, and find the complementarity of opposites. That is biblical.
In summary, what we have is this model of hermeneutics. It is a circle where we put our most beloved doctrines and tenets of Scripture. Within the circle is our freedom and creativity, the fictions of Tolkien and CS Lewis. Whatever fits inside the circle is biblical. NT Wright adds two more to this outer boundary, Creation and Covenant.These are the two main themes running through Scripture that Wright believes, when we wear it as our lenses in coming to Scripture, will shed light to Scripture in the way God intended it. I might also add, Kingdom as a boundary. Kingdom as part of the boundary reminds us to see for example Justice as God’s bias. Justice is so much a part of the way God is restoring creation and when he once again restores his Kingdom, justice will be its main characteristic. He is not biased in favor of the poor but He is biased for justice and his concern for the poor arises from this concern for justice.
Biblicality also requires a gender sensitive hermeneutics. First, that male and female are correctly defined in our theology. Second, that homosexuality is addressed properly. There are huge questions in here. One is the plaguing question of whether women can teach men or exercise leadership over them. Another issue relates to the process of normality. There obviously exists difficult psychopathologies that won’t go away even after we have been born again. To say a person is not really saved because the pathology has not ceased is to damn the person unjustly. Only 10% of practicing homosexuals actually get over their vices of fornication or masturbation. The bible is clear that homosexuality is a sin. But this refers to the homosexual practice or vice. Our homosexual tendencies do not define our identity. Our identity is in Christ. We are defined by Jesus. As African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson carefully pointed out, we are more than the sum of all our sins. This is why Jesus can still look at us and love us despite all our sins. When a practicing homosexual masturbates ten times a day and after he is born again, masturbates only twice a day, it is a cause for celebration. In that sense, we are saying he is within the range of normality. We must be able to appreciate what being normal is like before we can read Scripture. Only Jesus is perfectly normal but within our circles, we can also say that some are more normal than others. The more normal a person is, the greater the chance that his sense of what is right and just is also better than the rest of us. We do not trust seminary professors whose only credential is their fantastic academic grades. This is part of the definition of holiness, of being fully human or normal. And we need to be constantly approaching this point of normality, always struggling to gain normalcy. The goal is to become like children again as Jesus would put it. I have spent most of my growing up years trying to be numbed and angry and in the last 20 years, trying to regain that normalcy to becoming a little child again, vulnerable, with profound longings and fully alive. My teachers were my little kids. I had to listen to their hearts, study their hearts and seek to become like them, in the way they relate, how they got hurt and how they impacted others around them. Becoming normal also requires a good healthy community for us to grow into normalcy. Bonhoeffer’s father was the head of the psychology department of a prestigious university in Germany. Maybe it was from his father that he learned many of the things he taught about normalcy and healthy relationships. He said, we should not choose who will become our members. He was aiming for a rich variety in the fellowship. Our communities are not just to be composed of “yes” people, who cotton to all our whims and caprices. A healthy level of disagreement creates depth of vision and sharp understanding. If we are all alike, we will never arrive at the truth. Bonhoeffer said, if we choose our members, we will quickly turn into a cult. Another thing he adviced for good healthy community is a warning to its members: he who cannot stand solitude should not enter into community and he who cannot stand community should not go into solitude. This is the balance required for normalcy within the fellowship. The third issue in normalcy is the our macho bias. It seems we can forgive philandering men or even an IMF CEO who physically assaults a hotel maid with impunity but we cannot forgive homosexuals. We have a bias definition of sin, one sin is greater than another. We will need to unlearn this macho mentality also to arrive at good hermeneutics.
Psychology has greatly influenced and richly contributed to proper hermeneutics. But discerning which part of secular psychology is biblical can sometimes be vexing. First, we must accept the fact that Christianity does not have a monopoly of knowledge. Even unbelievers, and usually it is them who finds out first, can know facts and discern truths. All revelations of God from nature for example are open to the whole world, not just to believers. The rain falls on the land of the saved as well as the unsaved. A good example of this rich contribution of psychology into religion is in the matter of demonic possession. It is the Roman Catholic that has done much work in this field. They believe in exorcism (and we evangelicals do not, exorcism relies more on formulas and precise incantations) and evangelicals believe simply in casting out of demons. But the issue remains. God has given us the power to cast out evil spirits. Whether we do it by exorcism or casting out, it is still necessary to first rule out any psychological problems in the so-called possessed person. It is not healthy and could even be dangerous to immediately launch into an exorcism. Before we deem the person possessed by an evil spirit, we must make sure he is not just simply suffering from a psychotic fit, is delusional or simply lacks sleep, all of which has nothing to do with evil spirits. Once we have conducted all the treatments and test for psychological infirmities, and they show that the symptoms come from somewhere else, then and only then can we say it is possibly or probably due to demonic possession or demonic influence. When we cast out evil spirits in prayer out loud, in the hearing of the victim, without doing the preliminary tests and treatments, once the victim hears that there is a malignant person inside him, it could bolster and reinforce and strengthen the psychosis and deepen his delusions. He might be hearing voices because he has not slept for days due to insomnia from depression which heightens his sense of hearing to an exaggerated point (so he can hear the voices two or three rooms away, which means the voices are real but no one can pinpoint where it is) and to claim it is the voice of the demon, is to reinforce his psychosis and so he will think he is really hearing voices and there are people inside his brain. He will become more insane and it is our fault.
Imagination and creativity
Creativity as an element within the model relies a lot on the imagination. Many evangelicals fear or distrust the imagination which is why the proof-texting is very attractive to them because it removes surprises and uncertainty. Imagination can quickly go out of control. In the past, the use of allegory in the wrong places led to a lot of doctrinal problems. But within the boundaries set in this paper, there is definitely room for imagination and creativity. Without creativity and imagination, the Bible would turn into solid rock, cold and lifeless. It is in fact through imagination that we are able to discern the beautiful truths of the bible. Try to imagine Jesus as the magnificent story teller telling the story of the parable of the super righteous and hypocritical Pharisee and the lowly and ashamed tax collector praying in the temple. And compare it with just reading the text with no imagination at all. It was with such fantastic imagination that Michelangelo created the Sistine Chapel masterpieces. But there we also see such profound theology that is wholly biblical. When we listen with imagination at the reading of a Bible verse, we can also see the facial expressions, the tone of voice and the physical stance, even the direction of the heart. All these are not discerned through the text alone.
Nobility is another boundary we can add to this model. When we are able to perceive the gloriousness of God, His majesty, we cannot but be infected with a sense of nobility as we read Scripture. If we don’t, we will not infuse into the reading of Scripture the royal themes and colors they deserve. For example, when we read with ordinary eyes the status of Eve as the helpmeet of Adam in creation, we might think that helpmeet means a wife who supports the husband in menial work like housekeeping, cooking, having babies, taking care of children, and all that. But when our eyes are infected with a grand sense of nobility, we will interpret helpmeet to mean its highest implications, that Eve or our wives are our helpers, foremost, in the area of worship. The wife is the one who helps the husband worship God properly and meaningfully. This lifts the term up, into the level of God’s majesty.
But whatever you put in the circle, it must be important to you. This way, it becomes not just something you hang on the wall but something you use in your daily life, a way of reading Scripture, or lenses with which you see Scripture. The lenses ensure that you see Scripture the way God sees it. Also, it is with the same lenses that we view the world, we analyze psychology, and we analyze ourselves. This is called exegeting the world. We need to exegete the text, the world and ourselves. When Paulo Freire wrote that we need to critically examine the underlying philosophies and ideologies of our teachers, it involves exegeting our world with a biblical mind.
Using the bible like magic
Some people when they are afraid will resort to reciting bible verses as though the bible words were magical. This use of the bible like a magic incantation or talisman shows man’s desire to remove God from the Bible and turn the bible into a tool that they can manipulate or use to their advantage. Some people recite for example Psalm 23 – though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – when they are in a dark, scary alley alone. Some people when about to go through surgery will recite Isaiah 41 – do not be afraid – to calm themselves or to fortify their heart.
This is also similar to the behavioural approach in psychology, short of brainwashing. The Pavlovian conditioning can also have similarities here – to memorize verses so that the mind will not think of anything else except the verse being recited over and over again. The response is mechanical, robotlike and the focus is the behaviour, not God. Some actually believe this is an example of a good and correct application of Philippians 4.8 – whatever is true, whatever is noble, etc. think of these things. Filling up the mind so it cannot think of anything else is a common way of applying the Word of God. It is occupying the mind with nothing else but the Word. It is a form of dissociation and withdrawal from reality. The person is a zombie and works like a programmed robot. It does not relate at all with people around him.
But all these reduce scripture to a charm or a talisman or a magic potion with supernatural properties of its own, apart from God. The belief that the Word of God is from God implies, for them, that the use of the Word in that way must also mean, God is with the Word. If God is with the Word then the Word has power. It is actually a cultic approach not different from people who are superstitious. Superstitious people treat their objects of superstition as vested with miraculous power on their own. One reason they believe this way about the bible is because they believe that the Bible and miracles are interrelated, and so, reciting the Bible can cause miraculous outcomes.
Some people actually try to exorcize demons by reciting bible verses, even wave the bible like a magic wand over the possessed, to drive out the demons. It’s the same way they use the Crucifix – when they press the cross on the body of the victim just like in the movies when they drive away Dracula with a cross.
The bible is used correctly only when it defines our relationship with God and is totally useless without that relationship. Note that in the temptation, Satan even quotes the bible to fight Jesus. Some again interpret this wrongly as though the two had swords and were parrying each other using the Bible, reinforcing the idea that the bible is a magical weapon and either Satan or Jesus could wield it like any neutral sword. It is not true that Satan and Jesus were parrying with each other using the Bible as their swords, one sword each, each one using the Bible to defeat the other. This is horrible hermeneutics.
Satan cannot wield the bible as a sword because he is evil and defies God. The bible as the sword is the sword of God. When Satan uses it, it will not work. The sword only works to bring about goodness not destruction which is Satan’s goal. Satan can only use the bible to undermine the belief of people who believe in God. Satan uses the bible to deceive people and this clearly is not the way to use the Word. Jesus uses the Bible to build people up by building their faith. Faith always has an object – God. Faith can only exist if there is a relationship with God – one person to another person. In the hand of Satan, it has no power. The power in the story about the temptation of Jesus lies in Satan’s ability to deceive people. Satan is a liar. In the hand of Jesus, the Word has power only when it makes God known to people who with faith wants to be engaged with Him. The Word of God is about Truth, not lies. There is nothing supernatural or miraculous in the use of the Word. Miracles happen because of God, not because of the Word per se.
We can liken the Bible to a pair of eyeglasses, which helps people to see better. The bible helps people to see God better. And once they see God, though not always clearly, the Bible also helps them to stay connected with God. Inside of people, the Bible creates values and beliefs that conform with who God is and being so conformed, is how one experiences power and miracles. As we become more godly or more holy, we are more conformed to God’s character, in a way, we become like him.
When we are afraid, we recite bible verses not to magically dispel our fears but to revive our faith to see God and see our relationship with God as well as ourselves – when we see ourselves having some likeness to Him. Psychologically, it is helpful for Christians to recite the Word even in a superstitious way because like placebo, the mind can create beneficial feelings and beliefs, just like the mind can heal the sickness of the body just by believing – which is the power of placebo. In short, placebo is not wrong. Man was made that way. Man can believe things, he can believe he will get well and sometimes, he does get well, which is why placebos work. Scientific studies have shown that 20% of the time placebo works.
So, when we are sincere about knowing God through the Word but also, because of ignorance, so that we use the word like superstition, both usages of the Word could become effective – effective because it makes us more conformed to Jesus, i.e. it develops in us a character that is godly, and secondly, it is effective as a placebo. We need to grow more in the former and slowly get out of the latter, meaning, stop using the Word as placebo because it is mechanical, does not need a good relationship with God to make it work.
Using the Word as a placebo is to give the Word power even without a meaningful and living relationship with God. The object of our faith in that case is really our own imagination, which, again, is the power of placebo. The correct way of using Scripture is always within a living and dynamic relationship with God, God as a living person. The bible is internalized so that it becomes the reason and imagination and consciousness of the person as he relates with God. Overtime, the Word gets embedded in our character so we move and think as God would.
This is the same as the WWJD bracelet. Because of sufficient internalization of the Word in the mind, the heart and the imagination, we begin to act and think like God. But it should not be done in the brainwashing fashion but more like what transpires in good parenting. Children hear good teachings from the parents. They also see good modelling from their parents while hearing the good teachings. But best of all, it is the character and personality of the parents desired by the child that makes parenting effective.
WWJD should not be mechanical like one was a robot. It works only because we want to become like Jesus, think like Jesus and believe like Jesus. Doing what Jesus would do without that desire makes one a robot, simply dutiful or obedient but not loving towards God. It is no different from committing suicide in order that we will not sin anymore. We cut off our penis so we will not commit adultery or gouge out our eyes so we cannot see immoral things. If we use the bible that way, the object of our spirituality is no longer to have a wonderful relationship with God. Our object is just simply so we will not sin.
We must always be able to see the Living Person in the Word. The Word is not just text or ideas, it is a Person. When we are afraid, we can come to the text in Isaiah 41 that says, fear not. But then we also hear his comforting voice, behind the text. And beyond both, we see a loving Father who cares for his son/daughter. In this, the magic is no longer in the Word but in God, and our faith in God.
When we are tempted to sin, to lustfulness or to sensuality, we can recite the verse in 1 Peter 1.16 be holy, to keep away from sin but it is not just understanding with the mind, not to commit immorality, it is also to see how lustfulness violates our relationship with God, violates His character and violates God’s image in us – destroys our character.
The Word is read, memorized and studied in order to build character, godly character. With that character, we can now have a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God. We can also understand God better. Our lives will also have more power and more miracles. But these miracles are not there to make our lives happier or easier. Miracles are also there to make us more conformed to Jesus.
Miracles happen when we get close to God in a relationship that is experiential, not just cognitive. Our relationship with God is partly cognitive and imaginative because God cannot be seen except through the mind and the heart. Of course God can be seen in creation but it is like an afterthought or hindsight, like looking back to what already happened. Creation are like footprints in the sand. We know were God was, where God played, where God worked. But it is not God. It is also not pantheism – that creation and God are one and the same. Creation is the handiwork of God. Creations shows what kind of a God he is – orderly, masterful, grand, exquisite, glorious, and awesome. But that is like looking at his footprints after he passed by. Creation cannot show God in the present, only in the past. Our relationship with God is always in the present tense. Love is always in the present tense. To see God in the present tense, we need the Word, the Written Word (because in the olden days, people read two bibles, the written one and the unwritten one – the latter is the whole of creation, the stars, the sea, the atoms, etc.).
So, the only way we can see God who is invisible is through our imagination, a godly imagination as well as through our mind – our ideas, our thoughts or our reason. When the bible says we should love God with all our hearts and our minds and our soul and our strength, it also implies that we know God fully through all these faculties. It is the Word which trains and directs our faculties to see God as he truly is.
With the Bible, we can love God as he really is, not love him as we imagine him to be (based on pure imagination, a figment of our imagination). The bible describes God to us not just in telling us that God is big or God is powerful but also in defining our relationship to him. We cannot love him or relate with Him except biblically. This is the meaning of the text – help the poor, is this not what it means to know me, says the Lord. To know God is to know His character, that he is a God of Justice.
The way to use Scripture is to see it as a tool for knowing God. It is read and memorized not as a talisman or magic charm but as a way of forming the mind and eventually, affecting the reason. The other extreme of using the Bible as magic is to treat it as a text or book of ideas. When we come to it to analyse the words, the syntax, the Greek or Hebrew, it is basically using a cognitive approach that relies mainly on the mind interacting with a text or an idea.
That is very useful and helps to clarify the text which is needed for proper meditation. The correct way to engage Scripture is by meditation. The Greek word for meditation is derived from the digestive process of the cows. During moments it is safe to eat or it is cool enough, the cow will eat the grass, but it will just bite and swallow, bit e and swallow. When the sun is hot or if it stops because of a danger and runs, once it is safe and it is relaxed, under the shade of a tree, the cow will now vomit out the grass (regurgitate). The cow has several stomachs and the masticated grass is moved from one stomach to the other until it is so thoroughly chewed and dissolved. Only then will it stop vomiting the food from its stomach.
At that stage, the food is ready to be digested to become part of the cow – green grass turned into red meat and white milk. The food has been totally incorporated into the cow. This is how meditation works, by becoming so totally part of us. We meditate by reading, by reflection, by memorizing and even by prayerfully reading Scripture with the intent of making it part of us. It is digested in the mind, in the heart and even in the body and the soul. It thoroughly integrates into our being. We have Scripture read aloud to us also and in our imagination, we see God speaking to us. Some parts of the Word read will come alive to us and stay in us or with us. All the time, we know the Word is not just text but also a living person, more importantly , a Person.
When we come to the text, we prepare to listen to a Person, we prepare to encounter a Living Being, and we prepare to interact and relate with that person the same way we relate with loved ones. Through meditation, the Word will transform our thinking, our reason, our feelings, our desires so that we can see God for who he really is.
The serious study of the Word as text is very important and includes looking into other materials helpful in understanding the text such as history and archaeology and philosophy. They provide the ground work for a good engagement with God through Scripture. Once we have that, we can now go to the Word to meet God. Our hearts are set on seeing God and surrendering to Him. It is His Word that really dominates us, as we in turn seek to make Him Lord of all. When we come to God we realize that He is God, King, master and owner of all, including our lives. The only way to come to Him is worship and adoration, surrender and obedience.
The more we obey, the more we can see God and the clearer His guidance gets. Our obedience must also be intelligent, always guided by the Word. We do not obey a god we just created from our own paranoia or insecurity, we obey the True God as revealed in Scripture. It is important thus to understand Scripture as normal people would – our own psychopathology will affect or skew the way we look at Scripture. For example, if we are very angry or full of rage, we will interpret Scripture as harsh and offensive. If we are very insecure, we will see Scripture as a threat. Legalistic people will always see Scripture as a burden. For example, normal people can look at the text – Be Holy for I am Holy, not as a command but as an invitation, not a burden but a sharing. It is good to have community hermeneutics so we can balance our dysfunctional perspective or lack of self-awareness. Scripture has to be discussed also to bring out angles or dimensions to Scripture that are hard to see. During the discussion, suddenly we are surprised that the Scripture seem to appear in a new light.
In conclusion, what we are saying is that reading Scripture has as its goal getting to know God so that we can relate with him more meaningfully and in the process, allow the Word to transform us so we become more like Jesus, and in turn allow us to engage God deeper because now we know and see Him as He really is, not just who he is but who we should be also because no one can really come to him just like that – like a tourist coming to the Eiffel Tower or a student looking at the Mona Lisa, a neutral observer studying a specimen. Only those with clean hands and a righteous heart can draw near to God. So, it is not just relating to God as He really is (Holy and Just and Loving) but also to be transformed so that as we draw near, our own selves become consistent with who He is. We will be totally destroyed and disintegrated when we come to Him in any other way. Which means if we do come near it is because we recognize that he is Holy and thus, we must be Holy too. For no one can draw near to him who is not Holy. Of course, He is not just Holy, He is also Loving and Just and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in love. And so must we be also, be full of love, justice and compassion. It is required of us when we come to God that we also be like Him, to honor who he is. When we surrender to Him we also become His son. There is no such honouring or worship or surrender in the magical or superstitious use of Scripture. It is really just us manipulating Scripture like the Magic Lamp of Ali Baba.
We need to be biblical. This means everything we do needs to be defined and determined by the Bible. It does not mean that because we study or quote the bible that we are already biblical. Even though we may have correct hermeneutics or exegesis, they will still not mean we are biblical.
I have said to my students that their grades are based not on how brilliant they are but based on how biblical they wrestle with the material in the class.
Three things stand out for me about this.
One is that we hold Jesus as a solid whole, integrated and fully alive, and very personal.
I have seen how Brueggemann wrestled with Scripture and when i compare it with say C. S. Lewis or St. ignatius, i can see several dimensions of Jesus. In Brueggeman, I see Christ alive in a narrative that is so imminent, so near and so real. In St. Ignatius, I also see such imminence but in a more personal way as though I could touch him.
The Orthodox churches have always had this penchant. In their Eucharist (Lutheran and Roman Catholic), they say that the elements transform into the real Christ, called a process of consubstantiation or sacramental union. This is the difference between Christ present in a figurative sense and Christ present in a mystical sense.
The teaching that we may be entertaining angels in disguise in Hebrews 13.2 who come to our home comes from this tradition of a mystical presence. This is prevalent in contemplative thinking especially Mother Teresa who said she sees Jesus in the poor and the dying (which is very difficult for some evangelicals).
Evangelicals have a similar penchant, when they say at the time they have a dramatic encounter with Jesus that indeed they have seen Jesus and that Jesus now lives in their hearts (which is really not different from seeing Jesus in the Eucharist).
The point is this. Christ is present in the Bible in the many dimensions that we use to engage reality and relationships. Christ must be real, integrated and personal if we are to wrestle biblically with the Word. Christ must not just be figurative or metaphorical or worse, just an idea known only in the mind or by reason (since reason is very limiting as G. K. Chesterton already argued ably). Christ most of all must not be distant and uninvolved as the Deists (who founded America) believes. He is near and desires intimacy with us. When we come to the Bible, we must have this anticipation, that we will meet Him, and we will see Him.
Secondly, we engage the Word as fully human, heart soul mind and body together.
Secularism or modernism has fragmented people and society and nowadays we are mostly just our mind or our reason. In turn we have lost many connections and are isolated from each other even though we are physically close to each other.
We cannot come to the Word unless we become fully human. To be fully human requires two things: honesty and courage. A truly biblical engagement has integrity and it means the courage to honestly face what is there, what is inside of me and what is around me.
Brueggemann commenting on the Psalms says, the church need not be the happiest place in town, but it needs to be the most honest place in town. In the first (above) and in this second part, in both, we need to be contemplative. Father Richard Rohr cited the funny comment of Father Thomas Merton about his fellow Trappists monks, that they were not really contemplative, they were just introverts. Contemplatives are very honest and courageous people because they are able to hold together great contradictions. There are many things in Scripture that are contradictory – success and suffering, love and truth, grace and works, relationship and employment, God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, etc. These require a lot of honesty and courage. Worship especially requires embracing the pain of living outside of the Garden of Eden and also embracing the ultimate victory of Christ as an act of defiance even though Christ has not yet come again.
Third, we come to the Word to surrender not to become experts.
Many come to the Word as experts to gain control of the Word and eventually God. The modern education philosophy teaches us to put the Word at a distance and this distanciating results for them into a Word that is objective and thus can be studied and examined scientifically. Scientism discourages subjective approaches and leads to more control so people who study the Word become experts, who control the Word (and God) instead of becoming more and more controlled by the Word.
Our goal in studying Scripture is to surrender and to make Christ Lord in all things – our money, our marriage, our career. We make Jesus Lord not by extreme faith where we believe in fantastic things. We do not need to jump off a 10-story building to show we have faith. Faith is important in our surrender to Jesus. It is faith that shows Christ’s Lordship in our lives (Jesus asked those in the boat, why do you have no faith?). Faith does not come by defying reality (survive a fall from the 10th floor) but more about deeply embracing reality (the misery and disappointment). Faith is about believing in people, in marriage and in reconciliation.
Jesus performed miracles, walked on the water and raised the dead which are spectacular and seem to point to the fantasy we are discouraging. What we want is a balance, a life filled with the fantastic powers of the Almighty and a life that deeply dives into life, into reality.
Perhaps, what the world is looking for now is not a Christianity that can survive a plunge from the 10th floor but a Christianity that can survive the onslaught of divorce, abortion, materialism and licentiousness. To believe in marriage, in purity, in giving, these may be where faith is more needed now.
Just remember that none of those who witnessed the terrible and mind-boggling miracles of the ten plagues in Egypt were able to enter the promised land (except for Joshua and Caleb). Miracles clearly do not produce faith that saves. it is actually the other way around, faith is what makes us behold miracles in the right way. That is why in Nazareth, Jesus could not perform his miracles because the people had no faith.
Paul said he was once a slave to sin, and Christ set him free, so now he makes himself a slave to Christ and to all men. This is the kind of freedom that comes from surrender to Jesus. Surrender comes not by doing something fantastic but by constantly and daily putting oneself in a position where one will need faith. We need faith to forgive. We need faith to love our enemies. We need faith to stop being anxious.
Larry Crabb pointed out that when we make it our goal to become holy, that goal can become quickly our idol. Teresa of Avila said the same thing: our quest for spirituality can be the obstacle to our seeing Jesus. St. John of the Cross points us in the right direction when we want to truly make Christ Lord and it is to make as our goal to know him, to sit at his feet, to continually want to be in His presence.
It is being present to Jesus that changes us. His love for us changes us. Christ love makes us lose all our enemies (because we know we are deeply loved). Failure won’t destroy us because we are loved. It is not because we love Jesus but because he first loved us that makes a world of a difference. Henry Nouwen was right when he said, how much more evil will I be if I do not pray (pray here is not the evangelical idea of prayer but the orthodox idea of prayer, to attend to the presence of God).
We wrestle biblical with the Bible (which sounds like an oxymoron). We also wrestle Biblically with life and relationships. We need to see ourselves in a biblical way.
Just because we read or quote the Bible does not mean we are Biblical.
The Bible teaches us a way to read the Bible and it is through these three ways: by seeing Christ as a whole being close and personal, by engaging that Christ in the Bible as a fully human person desiring relationship, and finally, to seek Christ’s mastery in all aspects of our lives, that he will become Lord in all things.