A pilgrimage to faith in the integrity of Scripture
Enough things are lost in the average church to make some sort of lost-and-found department necessary, even if it is only a drawer in a desk somewhere. Church coatrooms often contain an interesting selection of old hats, overshoes, umbrellas, and gloves. Human memory being what it is, this is not surprising.
But what a shock it would be if the minister and his people gradually misplaced the Bibles until finally there were none left. In time, the memory of God’s word would grow dim, and no doubt some departure from the biblical norms would occur.
Apparently this very thing, this unspeakable and absurd thing, happened at the temple in Jerusalem during the latter years of the kings of Judah. Second Kings tells how the high priest “found the book of the law in the house of the Lord” (22:8, RSV). Righteous King Josiah, hearing the law read for the first time, tore his garments in horror at the thought of the wrath of God that must be directed against a people who so despised his words. Josiah did not try to shift all the blame to former generations, the ones who had let the Word of God slip away. He saw that the wrath of God was kindled against his generation, even though this wrath was rooted in the disobedience of their forefathers.
Chapter 23 then shows two things: the great idolatry and corruption that had followed the neglect and loss of God’s Word, and the vigorous reforms instituted by Judah’s horrified king. Vessels and priests had been consecrated to the service of Baal and other gods. Cult prostitutes had been plying their trade within the temple itself. The people had given their sons and daughters as burnt offerings to Molech. Josiah’s predecessors on the throne had dedicated horses and chariots to the worship of the sun. Even great Solomon had erected temples to heathen gods. Josiah rooted out all the worship of false gods, including the pretended altar to Yahweh that Jeroboam, son of Nebat, had erected at Bethel.
When this destruction of the worship of false gods was finished, there still remained the vast job of teaching the people about even such basic elements of the worship of the true God as the Passover. Josiah did all that could be done: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the laws of Moses …” (23:25). And his greatness included this, that he gave everyone a chance to share in the work of reform and return to the Word of God: “Then the king sent, and all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered to him. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which had been found in the house of the Lord” (23:1, 2).
The people must have responded with great zeal, for the return to the ways of God was sweeping. Yet when all this thrilling story is finished, “still the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah.… And the Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city which I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there’ ” (23:26, 27). This was a case, not of “too little,” but rather of “too late”!
I believe that these things “happened to them as a warning but … were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). If God’s chosen people, dwelling in the promised land, could lose the Word he had given them—and lose it right in his temple—then surely any Christian congregation or denomination can do the same.
And it seems to me that many are doing it. Not that we can now find prostitutes operating openly on church premises; we have not yet come that far. We seem to be on our way, though, for now within the church we hear about a “new morality” in which biblical standards are ignored or distorted. We do not yet hear of teachers of non-Christian religions being allowed to use the facilities of Christian churches; but whenever universalism raises its head within a church, whenever “Christians” claim that God is not so narrow-minded as to insist that men approach him only through Christ, whenever (and here almost every major denomination in America is indicted) a church shows by its allocation of manpower and money that it has relatively little interest in bringing the Gospel to the unevangelized—whenever these occur, the Church has taken another step toward acknowledging Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Mormon, or Taoist as the spiritual brother of the Christian.
The whole issue hinges on our attitude toward the Bible. Dare we neglect, lose, or in any way mishandle the Word that God caused to be written? Is the Bible authoritative or not? If it is, is its authority limited or not? If limited, where are the bounds? What higher authority is the basis for the judgment that the authority of the Bible is limited?
More and more theologians of our day are saying that the Bible is both inspired and errant. Many of these theologians insist that the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and other supernatural elements in the life of Jesus Christ are factual. They staunchly defend the deity of Christ, with all its implications for his personal authority. Yet they say that the proclamation of Christ needs no protective doctrine like biblical inerrancy. In this way they posit a strong dichotomy between the authority of the Bible and the Word made flesh.
I have listened to them and thought and prayed about their views. But somehow I keep remembering the days when I, a young man just out of high school, first learned why Christ was crucified. I learned it from the Bible. All of what I know about my Saviour I have learned from the Bible. I find there no hint that Christ was ever jealous of the attention men paid to Scripture. Rather, he made it plain that he accorded to Scripture the very highest authority, and he used the words of Scripture as the authoritative base of his own teaching.
From personal experience I well understand the theological attraction of an inspired yet errant Bible. Some years ago, while studying at a seminary in the Black Forest of Germany, I sat under two men who had taken their degrees under Karl Barth at the University of Basel. I had largely neglected Barth in my previous studies, and what a thrill it was to revel in the big, white volumes of his Die Kirchliche Dogmatik! In what he said about Christ, how Barth nourished my soul! But though he often spoke highly of the Bible, Barth convinced me that there were errors, inaccuracies, and contradictions in the text. For the first time in my Christian life, I was faced with having to decide which verses of the Bible were authoritative for me and which were not.
I clearly remember the morning when in my devotional time I read the first chapter of Hebrews, where the writer addresses to Jesus the verse from Psalm 45, “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.…” The thought came to me: How do I know that we ought to call Jesus God? Wasn’t Hebrews written by an unknown author? And don’t many theologians doubt whether it should even be in the Bible?
With deep shock I suddenly realized that, because I had come to limit the authority of the Bible, I no longer had any way to decide which verses were true. I had begun by believing that some records in the books of Kings contradict the books of Chronicles. I had gone on to wonder whether the Red Sea actually parted during the Exodus. I had doubted that Jonah could have lived for three days inside a fish. Now I was doubting whether or not Jesus was God.
For three days I struggled as the Christian Church struggled when it had to choose between the teachings of Arius and Athanasius. Like the Church, I chose to hold to the faith in the full deity of Christ. And also like the Church, I made this decision because that is what the Bible teaches. Since that day, the matter has been settled for me: To stick with the Bible is to stick with Christ. An inspired but errant Bible cannot teach me anything for certain, even about Christ. It cannot provide what I need more than life itself—assurance that my sins are forgiven.
As I see the theological landscape, those who hold to a fully authoritative Scripture are in a dwindling minority. Not long ago a pastoral intern came for a year of supervised parish work in the church I was attending. He came, not directly from the seminary, but from post-graduate work in the philosophy department of a large Eastern university. The transition to the world of the pastor—sick calls, Sunday school, preaching, visitation, funerals—was no doubt difficult.
Not long after this vicar had arrived, he assumed the duty of Sunday school teacher-training. There came a Sunday when the lesson was based on the Book of Daniel. For about an hour, the vicar presented the Sunday school staff with the latest word on Daniel, which adds up to the “assured finding of modern scholarship” that there never was any Daniel. One of the teachers then went right to the heart of the matter by asking whether the vicar wanted him to tell his students that there was no Daniel. The answer, of course, was no. That bit of enlightenment could wait until the children were older. And yet Jesus spoke to adults about Daniel as if he were an historical person.
If a minister, whether he is a Basel theologian or a seminarian, assumes the right to judge certain parts of Scripture erroneous, every person in the world should have the same “right.” And when minister and people exercise that “right,” we will move on toward a reenactment of the apostasy spoken of in Second Kings. I worry that for us, as for Josiah’s people, it might be too late.
But in hopes that it is not too late, let’s imitate the faith of Josiah. If we evangelical Christians have a higher view of the Bible than some others, let our doctrine be demonstrated by the amount of time we spend studying the Bible. May our spiritual descendants not be able to say, “Great is the wrath of the Lord, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book.”
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