Bray on Scripture: Experiencing God’s Love

Gerald BrayThe denomination I belong to has been labelled many less than positive things. In fact, I was recently asked about a written statement I made in 2016, where I called REACH “exclusive and condescending.” Presiding bishop, if you are reading this, I still love our denomination. But returning to what other people have called REACH, I’ve heard: dry, cerebral, bland and academic. And that was just this past week. While these descriptions are true to varying degrees, another label I wear proudly is that we are bibliocentric. Though some Christians are irked by our staunch commitment to biblical preaching and teaching, it is a mistake to conflate being fully persuaded about the centrality of the Bible with boring bookishness. Previous posts in this series have argued that without Scripture we will worship idols; Spirit filled ministry is Bible saturated ministry; and God’s Word is sufficient to sustain faith. I hope those older posts went some way towards persuading my readers that the Bible is a staple for the Christian life, now I want to challenge believers who know that but no longer delight in reading God’s Word. In other words, knowing about the Bible is not the same as treasuring it because we experience God himself when it is read and preached.

In God is Love, Gerald Bray writes, “Scripture is the language of God’s love for his people, and if it does not speak to the soul, then it is not doing what we ought to expect from the Word of God. Ultimately, the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself but which it confirms and supports as the standard against which everything else must be judged.” Bray makes two linked points: firstly, our expectation when we read the Bible should be that we will not only learn of but experience God’s love, for his words speak to our hearts; secondly, this does render the Bible less than authoritative or objective, so while we encounter God in his words we must also pay attention to what he says. This can be illustrated with the conversations we have every day: someone is behind speech so I cannot divorce what is being said from who is saying it. Conversation is personal. This is no less true of Scripture than it is of speaking to my neighbour. Bray wants us to remember that behind the Bible is a lover, the God we were made to enjoy and delight in. Studying the Bible is therefore where we experience the love of God, as he addresses us and answers our hearts’ longings. We would do well to approach our devotional reading or the preached Word on Sundays with that expectation, for “the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself,” which brings us to another point Bray makes.

Even though Christians reject the idea of holy or sacred objects “there is Holy Scripture because the Word of God is present in it, proclaimed by it, and made efficacious thought it.” Similarly to the previous point, Bray writes, “We treasure his words…because we sense his presence in them.” If it is true that behind the affectionate words found in Scripture is a person then we must affirm that he is present when they are read. Sadly many Christians today limp between Sunday highs, ecstatically powerful times of worship, which usually means the band was tight. But if we understand the points Bray is making we would forget such a limited view of God’s presence and exchange it for a more biblical understanding and expectation. We are not merely hearing the words of God when the Bible is read we are being invited, or ushered, into his presence by those very words. God is no more present in the spine tingling atmospheres many churches manufacture than he is when the plain Word is read. When we open the Bible and seek God’s presence in his speech we can actually experience him in a way that far surpasses engineered emotions. If only we believed this when we opened our Bibles.

Bonhoeffer on Scripture: God’s True and Sufficient Word for Christians

BonhoefferA few weeks ago I started what I hope will be a series of posts developing a robust theology of Scripture. The first two articles looked at the writing of John Calvin: firstly challenging those who set their opinions about God above what he has revealed about himself; and, secondly, correcting the common error of separating the Spirit’s ministry from biblical truth. In this post I am going to do little more than quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer at length and append a few comments. But if the name Bonhoeffer is unknown to you then I encourage you to put this article aside until you have read a little about his life and writing. Below I have arranged four quotations from Bonhoeffer under three headings, two attributes of Scripture and our approach to it.

The Bible is true

Bonhoeffoer wrote, ”We have become accustomed to seeing religion as something that corresponds to a need of the human psyche, something that then satisfies this need. Something that is supposed to lead from the restlessness of our existence to calm, from the mad rush of our lives to tranquility. Something in which, quite removed from our jobs, professions and everyday lives, we can come to our true selves. Then we say religion is something beautiful, something valuable, something necessary for a good life. It is supposed to be the only thing that can make one truly happy in the depths of one’s being. Meanwhile we tend to forget the one decisive question, whether religion is also something true, whether it is the truth. For it could be, of course, that while religion is a beautiful thing, it is not true, that it is all a nice, pious illusion—but still an allusion. And the most furious attacks on religion have been sparked by the fact that people in the church itself have often talked as though the question of truth were only  a secondary question. But whoever so speaks only sees religion from the perspective of human beings and their needs, not from that of God and his claims.”

The Bible is sufficient

“We want to keep this firmly in mind: the word of God, as found in the Bible and as it sounds forth to us in the proclamation of the gospel, needs no decoration. It is its own decoration, its own glory, its own beauty. This is certainly true. But as is especially true of human beauty, the word of God cannot withdraw itself from the decoration of those who love it. As is true of decorating that which is truly beautiful, the decoration of the word of God can only consist of making its own inner beauty shine forth all the more gloriously—nothing alien to it, nothing false, nothing artificial, no kitschy trinkets and no cosmetics, nothing that covers up its own beauty but only what reveals and brings it to light.” Throughout the ages churches have been tempted to update the gospel message (you can read what Paul says about that). Christians have also sought innovative methods to reach people. But I have to agree with Bonhoeffer: Bible teaching has and always will be God’s means of growing his church, numerically and spiritually. The word of God needs no decoration, just faithful proclamation and a commitment to and confidence in the truth.

The Bible nourishes Christians

DevotionalIn an exposition on parts of Psalm 119, Bonhoeffer said, ”There is no standing still. Every gift, every increment of knowledge and insight I receive only drives me deeper into the word of God. For God’s word I need time. To rightly understand the commands of God, I must often ponder their meaning for a long time. Nothing could be more wrong than the kind of intense activity or emotional high that denies the value of hard thinking and reflection. Such engagement with the Bible is also not just the business of those who are especially called to this vocation but the business of anyone who wants to walk in God’s ways. Admittedly, it is often the case that God calls us to act quickly with no delay; but God also calls us to quietness and meditation. So I am often both permitted and required to halt for hours or days over one and the same word until I am enlightened with the right insight. No one is so advanced that he or she no longer needs to do this. No one may believe that he or she has been excused from this because of too many other active responsibilities. God’s word claims my time. God himself has entered into time and now wills that I give him my time. To be Christian is not something that can be handled in a moment, but demands time. God has given us the Scripture, from which we are to discern God’s will. The Scripture wants to be read and thought about, every day afresh.”

Conclusion 

The Bible is true and sufficient, able to make us wise for salvation and also shape us for service (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is God’s means for maturing believers, strengthening faith and correcting error. If we have understood this then it will show in our treatment of the Bible, for we will search and meditate on what God says. An unread Bible is not a sign of being too busy but a statement that hearing from God registers low, if at all, on your list of priorities. It is no wonder that our spiritual growth is stunted. The woman who refuses to refuel her car is not surprised when she has to stop on the side of the freeway. Listen to Bonhoeffer once more, “And those who love this word of God that has sounded forth for two thousand years have not let themselves be talked out of contributing the most beautiful thing they could make as its decoration. And their most beautiful work could be nothing else than something invisible, namely, an obedient heart, but from this obedient heart there springs forth the visible work, the audible song in praise of God and Jesus Christ.”

Four God Given Uses for the Bible

DevotionalI recently taught 2 Timothy 3:10-17, on two separate occasions, and found myself stirred by this familiar passage. While studying at college it was a favourite to cite among both students and lecturers concerning the doctrine of Scripture. Without going into any of that I want to unpack the four ‘uses’ of Scripture mentioned by Paul in 3:16, and how we might employ them in our own Bible reading. Paul writes “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable [or useful] for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. Below I will make brief comment on each of those and then suggest how they might inform your response to God’s Word, whatever passage you are reading.

Teaching truth

Firstly, the Bible is given to teach us, to inform our thinking and positively shape our doctrine. Since Scripture is given to us by God – which is at least one of the important implications of it being breathed out by him – we should allow it to build our theology. Too often we treat our Bible reading the same way we do motivational quotes; or, worse, the sum total of our Bible reading is cherry-picked and inspiring verses suited to fridge magnets but unable to inform our beliefs. God gave us the Bible to shape our minds and reveal himself to us. So the next time you are meditating on a passage of Scripture, one of the questions to ask is this: what can I learn from God and about him, what is he teaching me?

Challenging error

Correcting errorSecondly, and with a little more difficulty, we are told that the Bible reproves. The Greek word used here, along with the next, is a hapax legomenon, which simply means this is the only place it occurs in the New Testament. After you have finished impressing your friends with your newfound linguistic jargon, note that this is significant because it makes the specific sense of the word elusive. Technical discussions aside, commentators and translators seem to agree that it carries the idea of challenging false doctrine or beliefs. This would make it the negative side of our first use. While the Bible is profitable for building up true theology it also tears down wrong beliefs. So, applying this use to our reading of Scripture, we should ask: does this portion of the Bible challenge or correct erroneous ideas I hold?

Correcting sin

Thirdly, with the discussion above in mind, this word most likely refers to behaviour, making it the negative of the fourth use (below). The Bible is given to us by God not only to shape our minds and beliefs but also how we live, speak, work, rest and treat others. This is often done through teaching us truth. But since it is included in a list where that idea is already present we can assume Paul is speaking about morality or ethics—more simply, how a Christian honours Christ in all of life. God instructs us how to behave. When we listen to God’s Word it will result in repentance, putting off what God calls sin. For example, in James 2 we read, ‘Do not be partial’ (2:1). God calls out discrimination, on whatever grounds, and exhorts Christians to repent of racism and classicism, among other things. Thus, the next time you are reading your Bible, reflect on how God is challenging your behaviour, and allow his definition of sin to shape your life.

Training in righteousness

Finally, we are told that Scripture positively shapes our behaviour, training us in righteousness, creating people that please God. If the previous point moved us to ask what we should stop, then this word makes us ask: what should I start? Where is my Christian life, obedience, and love deficient? God does not only desire that we refrain from sin, hearing and accepting his correction, but calls us to practical and positive expression of our faith. I know for myself this is often the hardest application to make, not because we struggle to understand what God demands but because we do. God calls us to express our faith through righteous action.

Four questions to ask in your Bible reading

  1. How is my theology positively informed by this truth?
  2. What errors in my theology are corrected by this passage?
  3. What sins in my life does is God challenging?
  4. How can I positively respond in obedience to God as a result of this text?

John Calvin on Scripture: “The Letter Killeth”

KJVOft quoted, and always from the KJV for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” It is then claimed that ‘Bible heavy sermons’ or ministries overcommitted to teaching from Scripture are unhealthy, even deadly. Instead, the inane logic continues, our ministries and preaching should be ‘Spirit led’ and lively, happily free from the dull old book.

Ignoring the laughable irony of quoting a Bible verse to prove that the Bible need not be prioritised, a careful reading of the verse in its context will show what Paul is and is not saying. For starters, the next verse refers to letters carved in stone and Moses (3:7), while a few verses earlier Paul mentions tablets of stone (3:3). Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of death with the apostolic ministry of a new covenant in the Spirit. Interestingly, this ministry involved the writing of epistles (like 2 Corinthians) not ‘Spirit soaking’ and ‘fire circles.’ To conclude that the “letter that killeth” is the Bible, rather than the Old Testament law, is to horribly misinterpret the passage.

It seems Christians in the 16th century were making a similar mistake by mangling 2 Corinthians 3:6. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy” (1.9.1). Calvin says we should ask those claiming that the “Spirit giveth life” which spirit they mean since the apostles and early church did not despise God’s written Word. “Rather, each was imbued with greater reverence as their writings most splendidly attest.” Listen to Paul, a few verses on from that verse ignorantly cited, “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Thus Calvin asks, “What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?”

Perhaps the gravest and most damaging mistake of those who misuse 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the wedge that they drive between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Calvin cites John 16:13 to show that the Spirit’s ministry was not the forging of  some new doctrine but the restatement and filling out of the gospel of grace. He goes on, “From this we readily understand that we ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (1.9.2). As I argued in my previous post, God has given us his Word in order for us to know him and to keep us from creating gods in our own image. Those who refer to the Bible as a letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking with one hand what they give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not from the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself. Hear Calvin, “[The Spirit] is the Author of Scripture: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Thence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there.” Preachers, ministries and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to reading and teaching the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst.

Coming back to 2 Corinthians, Calvin points out that Paul refers to his preaching of the truth as the ministry of the Spirit (3:8). He argues that this undoubtedly means “the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (1.9.3). Baying like an animal, falling on the floor or prophesying in an unintelligible tongue is not the power of God’s Spirit; it is nothing more than frenzy and hype. The seemingly unexciting and dreary practise of opening the Bible is where we will see and experience the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.