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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Answering Erica's Question

My daughter Erica asked me a great question on Facebook and I wrote a response. For the three of you who read this blog but who are not on Facebook, I am posting the exchange here. It's kind of long -- you've been warned.

Erica Krogstad wrote: Question, pastor-man. I was talking with a woman at the phonathon... it was a frustrating night anyway, a man said that homeschooling is a sin... and anyway, the woman said that she didn't count 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (I'm assuming those are the verses she was talking about) because they weren't spoken by Jesus. And Paul does say (2 Tim. 3:16) that "All Scripture is inspired by God," but that's him saying it. Where do we get the idea that we can absolutely trust things that were written after Jesus' time that he hadn't said himself, but that we implicitly assume he intended in his teachings?

So here is my attempt at a response.

When people dislike any particular policy that Christians have adopted because of a teaching that is biblical but not specifically articulated in the gospels, it is tempting for them to fall back on the "Jesus didn't say that, and I only accept what Jesus said" defense. I'm going to deal with that first before the specific question of the inspiration of all of scripture.

Note that the people who generally make this argument, at least in our time, are those who are disgruntled with what they see as a legalistic or condemning approach on the part of other Christians. And there is an aspect to this in which Christians need to confess that we have too often been condemning and judgmental where we have no right to be. Scripture gives us the right to judge those within the church for their conduct because it reflects on Jesus -- but we have no right to judge the lifestyles of those outside the church. (Paul makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.) Christians in America have made a growth industry of passing judgment on society. Biblically this is none of our business. One reason why western civilization has retreated from Christianity over the last several generations is because Christians have too often failed to be salt and light and instead have positioned ourselves to judge those outside the church. In fact, the divorce rates and rates of addiction to things like gambling and pornography are just as high in the church as they are outside, tragically. We have totally missed Paul's injunction cited above.

So we need to confess that and repent of it and change what we can in this regard. That's first.

Second. There is a growing segment of the Christian church -- usually composed of those who have been educated in religion, metaphysics, and spirituality by the culture rather than the Bible -- who want to "just follow Jesus" by which they mean that Jesus is sweetness and light, beauty and love and compassion without all the unpleasant side effects like judgmentalism and condemnation and hatred and suicide bombing and "God hates fags" and all that. Sounds nice. And personally I'd just as soon not be associated with any of that baggage either.

Here, however, is the question. How do we as Christians deal with the fact that the Bible -- including Jesus -- speaks not only grace and acceptance and love and joy, but also speaks a hard word of judgment on sin? I don't see how we can avoid this. It was Jesus himself -- sweetness and light -- who said, "“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean" (see Matthew 23:27). Jesus said lots of things like this, and he also cleansed the temple, and he told people that most of them were bound for destruction (see Matthew 7:13). Jesus spoke honestly about judgment and condemnation -- not in order to hurt people, but in order to bring people to repentance.

And I think this gets near the heart of the matter. We don't want to repent. We would much rather have a God who says, "I accept you just as you are! Don't ever change unless you really want to." So we avoid, if we can, hearing God's word of judgment on our sin, even if that means there are certain parts of the Bible I just won't listen to.

So let's move on a little bit to those parts of the Bible outside Jesus' own words. The black letters, if you will. Your question, Erica, implies that somehow Jesus' own words are trustworthy and everything else must be proven. Hmm. If I wanted to start from that point of view, I might argue that Jesus himself unequivocally affirms the integrity and the usefulness of the Old Testament, AND (this is critical) he also points to himself as the fulfillment (not the dismissal) of the Old Testament. (See Matthew 5:17-20 for one place Jesus affirms this.) So Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, begins to teach us how to use the Old Testament not as a rule book, but as a guideline for living under his authority, in his Kingdom.

The trouble is, we don't want any guidelines unless they affirm what we're already doing, so we hear these guidelines -- given by a loving God for the benefit of his beloved people -- as harsh judgment because they call us to repentance and change.

Jesus' teaching, however, is not the focal point of Christianity. It is important, but not the focal point. Instead, Jesus' death and resurrection is the focal point of Christianity. Jesus' own teachings help us to understand him and his death and his resurrection. Jesus' teachings on the Old Testament help us bring the entire history of Israel, what Jesus calls "the Law and the Prophets" to bear on him. It is no accident that Jesus was Jewish -- God had been preparing the way for him for over 1500 years through the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Monarchy, and all the rest. So (contra Marcion) Jesus only makes sense based on the history and scriptures of Israel. Jesus does not (thank God) come to deliver a message of moral niceness in contrast to the judgmental Jewish rules that had gone before. Rather, all that had gone before -- Patriarchs, Prophets, Priests, and Kings -- are witnesses and foreshadowings to help us understand Jesus in his height and depth and greatness when he finally arrives.

What about the rest of the New Testament? Paul, Peter, John, and the other authors of the New Testament come from the same covenant community as Jesus. They are Jews, steeped in Jewish history and scripture. Their task is exactly the same as Jesus' own task -- they are making sense of Jesus' death and resurrection by reexamining the Old Testament and applying it to a new context. Some of the Old Testament suddenly leaps into brilliant light when they do this, because they are finding God's word to be effective and faithful in a new way as they apply it in a new context. Peter does this brilliantly in his sermon in Acts 2, for example. Paul, though he never met Jesus in the flesh, is the perfect tool for God to use because he was steeped in the Jewish traditions and interpretations, and once he became convinced of Jesus' identity as the Messiah, he shifted his interpretation of the Old Testament to understand Jesus, his cross and resurrection as the fulfillment of the law.

Now, why should we trust Peter or Paul or John or whoever wrote Hebrews or even Luke (NOT a Jew!) when they start doing this? They're not Jesus! Fact is, Jesus both anticipated and affirmed this process. In John 14:25ff, Jesus says, "These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." Again in John 16, Jesus says, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." Among other things that were yet to come -- we are so prone to hear this as predicting events surrounding the end of the world for some reason -- was the formation of the New Testament. Fact is, Peter and Paul and John and Luke and the rest were not writing on their own, making up their best guess at how the Old Testament applied to Jesus and what the "rules" are for those who follow him. Rather, they are writing inspired texts -- not meaning that this was effortless for them (see Luke 1:1-4 -- it was work!) but rather meaning that God himself guided what was written, sometimes for specific contexts and other times establishing ongoing principles that lie in continuity with the ongoing principles embodied in the Old Testament.

Jesus also understood that those who would follow after the disciples would have to put their trust in him through the disciples and their testimony. Jesus affirms this as well. In Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, and again in Acts 1:8, and in other places Jesus tells his disciples that this is their task -- to pass on accurate faith in Jesus by bearing witness. In John 13-16, Jesus repeatedly refers to the disciples being his witnesses, and in John 17 he specifically prays for those who will believe through their testimony (that's us, among others!). Jesus anticipated and affirmed this process of those who were eyewitnesses being his witnesses and faithfully teaching other followers to obey all that he had commanded them.

Finally, the New Testament is formed (as hinted above) through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the primary "yet to come" events that will greatly shape Christianity after Jesus' ascension. Studying the history, one can see an amazing progression of growing authenticity and authority for some writings (Romans, for example) while others are respected, but lose their identity as "scripture" very quickly (for instance, the Didache or the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas, all of which were considered scripture in some early circles but eventually fell by the wayside as the Spirit shaped a consensus among churches as to what was included in scripture). The question of authority is not dependent on authorship, either. Why isn't Paul's letter to the Laodicaeans considered canonical? We don't actually have a copy of this letter, of course, but Paul obviously wrote one (see Colossians 4:16). I believe the Spirit, for whatever reason, decided that letter did not belong in the canon and so it was not copied and redistributed, even though Paul must have thought it was pretty worthwhile. If we suddenly discovered a copy of it, it should not now become scripture simply because it was written by Paul. The question of authority for the books of the New Testament rests on their proximity to Jesus (that is, do they have intimate connection to an eyewitness of Jesus?), their consistency with the books that are clearly in the mainstream of the New Testament with regard to Jesus (the gospels and Romans, mostly), and their acceptance as "scriptural" -- authoritative -- within the life of the post-apostolic church in the first two and a half centuries of the church's history. These are the grounds on which some have argued for or against various books in the canon -- James, for instance. But James meets all the above criteria, and even though Luther didn't like it, it still belongs in the New Testament.

So can we trust the New Testament? I believe yes, for several reasons:

1. Jesus affirms the Law and the Prophets and names himself as their fulfillment.

2. Jesus expresses his confidence in the apostles' ability to serve as faithful witnesses for him not because of their skill or strength but because of the Spirit's power and presence.

3. The writers of the New Testament (including the gospel writers, by the way) were grappling with the Old Testament texts and the experience of those who had met Jesus in order to make sense of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection. They come from the same covenant as Jesus, and they grapple from the point of view of close proximity to Jesus, to his teachings and his death and resurrection.

4. Jesus specifically promises that the Holy Spirit will help flesh out the movement that begins with his resurrection. If we don't trust that the Spirit is involved in the formation of Scripture, we have little to go on because the gospel accounts themselves are then unreliable.

A final few words about these arguments in our day. Sadly, most of the voices that call for "just following Jesus' own words" today are those arguing for wholesale acceptance of homosexual activity within the Christian church. Our western culture has decided that homosexual activity is not a sin, and so biblical texts that proclaim otherwise are a problem. We must either ignore them or discredit them, and the easiest way to discredit them is to say that "Jesus never said anything like that." Sorry, but it doesn't hold water. Though Jesus never mentions homosexuality, he does refer to the created order of male and female and God's intention for marriage, and he does specifically affirm the authority of "every jot and tittle" of the Old Testament. The biggest trouble with this is, however, that by ducking under the Bible's word of judgment on sin, we too easily miss out on God's gracious word of love and forgiveness. If I said, "Jesus never spoke against overeating, therefore I should be able to engage in gluttony whenever I want to", I put myself in a very dangerous place where my own sin may well be the death of me. Instead, Jesus calls us to die to ourselves (not from our indulgence) and be resurrected by the presence of his Spirit in our lives. Repentance (death) and resurrection is the pattern of the Christian life. Those who reject their need to die to sin -- all sin, including judgmentalism and arrogance and hypocrisy -- are de facto rejecting the grace of God and settling for a cheap imitation.

Great questions, honey. I'm sure you will have some follow-up thoughts!

I love you!

Dad (the pastor-man)


  1. Thanks Jeff! And thanks Erica for asking the question:)

  2. Excellent question, and excellent response. Thank you.
    If Saul of Tarsus was present at the stoning of Stephen, which occurred circa 36AD, and Jesus was crucified in circa 33AD, might it have been possible for Saul and Jesus to have crossed paths?

  3. Bruce, I've often wondered about that -- but Paul seems to indicate in his writings that he was not an eyewitness of Jesus (that seems to be the implication of 1 Corinthians 15:8, for example). My guess is that Saul / Paul was still in Tarsus at the time of Jesus' crucifixion and came shortly after to Jerusalem, probably to study. Great question!