Evangelical Bible Worship (it’s a long one)

Posted: March 4, 2008 in faith, religion
Tags: , , , ,

bible_study.gifNow before you get angry and delete me from your google reader or favorites list, just give me a few minutes to explain myself.  I love God.  God loves me.  We’re on pretty good terms with eachother.  I believe the bible is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, and training in righteousness like Paul wrote.  I think there is a lot that we can learn from God as he speaks to us through his word (the bible).  Lately though I’ve really been wondering about the place that western evangelical Christians have given the bible in our lives and our churches.  I’ll explain more of those thoughts as I go on here and I’d love to get your take if you’re willing to work through this with me.

Like I said, I’ve been thinking through this for a while now, but it kind of came to a head Sunday morning as Jenn and I were watching Charles Stanley – Jenn’s favorite radio/tv preacher – before we went to church.  He made the statement (I’m paraphrasing here) that the bible is the source for every answer you need in this life and it is our instruction manual for life.  This statement rubbed me the wrong way, and I made that known to Jenn.  The fact that this statement rubbed me the wrong way rubbed Jenn the wrong way and a half hour discussion of the nature and function of Scripture in the life of the church and the believer insued.  As a sidenote, I love the fact that I can have these kinds of discussions with my wife and know that even if we don’t agree in the end we will still love and respect eachother more than we did before.

I have two main issues with this “the bible is the holy instruction manual for your life” theology or the idea that “the bible is all you need to really know and follow God” theology (aka sola scriptura).  That’s right, I – a man born and raised baptist and now a mennonite pastor – am questioning sola scriptura.  I don’t think the bible is the be all and end all of all information we need to live this life.  I don’t think the bible is the “holy instruction manual for life”.  I don’t think the bible is all you need to really know and follow God.  I don’t think Jesus taught these things.  I don’t think the majority of Christian history teaches these things.  I don’t think the bible itself teaches these things.  All that being said, I do think the bible has a very important place in the life of the church and the believer, but I think that quite possibly the bible has almost been elevated to the place of fourth member of the trinity in some evangelical theology.  I think that a lot of evangelicals have adopted a faith that seemingly sets up the bible as an object of worship, and not just something that should lead us to worshipping God.

Now that I’ve made that outlandish statement, here’s how I got there.  First of all, I’ve got a problem with the idea that the bible is some kind of “holy instruction manual for life”.  The idea that every answer you need to get through life is written somewhere in the pages of the bible and all we need to do is just search through bible with a fine tooth comb and we will find the answers we need no matter what situation we face.  I agree that there are a lot of important guiding principles in the bible that can help to inform our decisions, but I don’t think that the bible was ever intended to be looked at as an all encompassing instruction book.  Most of the bible is written in narrative or story form, some is in poetry, some is prophetic, and some – mostly new testament – is written in the form of direct instruction.  Even those passages though were written as direct instructions to particular people and churches and not just broad statements of fact for everyone.  I think with some studying and interpretation we can figure out how what was written can apply to our lives too, but most of scripture is not propositional teaching and instructions, it’s story.  When you read a story you can learn things from it that affect your life, but when a story is simply boiled down into points of fact it loses its integrity, it loses something of its effectiveness.  I am more and more convinced that people are creatures of story and not facts.  That’s why we read novels for fun and not encyclopedias.  We don’t naturally connect with facts, we connect as we can place ourselves in stories.  When we try to turn the bible into a book of facts intended to be an instruction manual we rob it of its natural beauty of story, and I think of a lot of its effectiveness to touch us.  As we find ourselves and can place ourselves in God’s story of creation, fall, and redemption we find out what it is to live a life that he created us to live and how to become people that truly reflect his image.

The other problem that I have with looking at the bible as the “holy instruction manual” or as the only thing we need to know and follow God is that I don’t think that’s the case.  There are a lot of situations that we find ourselves that the bible doesn’t tell us exactly how to handle.  Given there can be some principles that help us make wise decisions, but it doesn’t necessarily give us everything we need to make those decisions.  For example, right now Jenn and I are struggling with what to do come fall time: should Jenn go back to work and we find a care giver for Payton or should she stay home with him?  The bible teaches to love your children and to raise them to love and serve God (maybe stay home), but it also teaches that working for a living is a virtue and that it is imperative for the believer to use the gifts that God has given them for his service (maybe go to work).  Here the bible has some helpful principles to guide us, but it certainly doesn’t tell us what we should do in the end.  We need more to make this decision than just what the bible has to offer (more on this in a minute).  So you might think that of course the bible wouldn’t say exactly how to handle the situation because it’s kind of a personal and very specific situation, but what about something as basic as how Christians worship?  The bible gives us a lot of different principles as to what worship should look like (devotion to fellowship, devotion to studying scripture, singing, teaching, prayer, use of spiritual gifts, orderliness, etc.) but it doesn’t tell us exactly what it should look like.  We have hundreds of denominations out there in Christianity and almost all of them have a slightly different idea of how it is we’re supposed to worship God.  You’d think if the bible were intended to be a “holy instruction manual” it would be a little more specific on its’ instructions.

We need more than just the bible as Christians and as the church.  We need the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom.  Sure he can speak through the bible, but I think he can speak through more than just the bible too.  Jesus himself said in John 6 that the Spirit would come to convict us of all truth and righteousness.  It would seem that if we need the Holy Spirit, the bible isn’t enough.  I don’t think the Holy Spirit would ever contradict what is said by God through the bible, but I do think he has things to say to us that aren’t necessarily in the bible.  The church in Acts was devoted to the apostles teaching, the fellowship of believers, to prayer and the breaking of bread (commuion and meals).  The church wasn’t just devoted to the bible as its only source of information.  It was also devoted to prayer and the fellowship of believers.  The realized that they needed eachother to help understand Scripture and to make good decisions that would help them follow God with their lives.  They realized that God sent us the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom to make decisions that would help us follow God with our lives.  The bible isn’t enough.  I could go on and give a lot of other examples of places even in scripture where I believe it teaches that the bible isn’t all that we need to know and follow God, but I think I’ve made my point here.  When we say sola scriptura – by scripture alone – it gives us space to elevate the bible above the Holy Spirit himself if we say that all we need is the bible to live our lives by.  When we say sola scriptura it gives us space to deny that we need other believers and the church as a whole to discern what God has to teach us about following him.  The Christian faith was never intended to be lived alone in a broom closet with a bible.  The church is a community, not just a bunch of individuals.  We need eachother to help us live this life and even to understand and live out scripture.  We all have the Holy Spirit to help us understand the bible, but this doesn’t mean that we should exepct to be able to do it all on our own.

Well, I’ve said a mouthful here.  This is at least in part why I’m really struggling with what to lable myself recently.  I hate labels because they’re usually only good for stereotyping people, but realistically we all get labled by someone so I’d at least like to have some say in what my label is.  That’s another post for another night though.  What do you think?  Am I crazy, or am I on to something here?  If I’m wrong, I’m more than willing to be proved wrong here, I just want to do what’s right and faithful to God.  So let me know what you think; I know there are lots of you that read this regularly that haven’t ever left a comment and now would be as good a time as any.  On that note, I think it’s time to try to get some sleep.  At 1800 words, I’ve just written a term paper here so it’s time to rest the brain now.  Here’s to hoping that sleep finally comes my way again because the past three nights the sandman has been on vacation.

  1. Tim Kurek says:

    I agree with some of what you said. The Bible is God’s word to us and works in tandem with personal revelation of the Holy Spirit. Gotta love the book though!

    tim kurek


  2. Jon Kramer says:

    Some of what you said reminded me of what happened in Acts 15. When the church had to decide what was essential for the early gentiles to follow, they were forced to move beyond what Scripture taught. In the end, they could only say, “It SEEMED good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” I think it was Rob Bell or someone from his genre that really pointed out the immensity of the event to me – how it ought to humble us when we say, “The Bible says ‘x’ so I believe ‘x’.”
    Personally, though, I find that the best thing to guide us in our approach to Scripture ought to be the way that Jesus viewed and used it. I think that if we revere the book to that extent, we’ll do OK. And for me, for the most part, I have also really appreciated Wesleyan theology in this matter – especially in its fuller understanding of “The Word of God”.


  3. Daryl says:

    Love the post. I wrestled through this very idea a while back. I think one of the most important things to note is that word community that you mentioned. As a body we are to be in communion with the Holy Spirit and with others. We cannot stand alone.
    It is so true how in our modern thinking we have turned the Bible into a set of instructions/ facts and sometimes into a text book (think of College). Why just the other day I hear that there is a recipe for Apple Pie somewhere in the text.*

    * I can’t take credit for that joke. Thanks Greg.


  4. colin says:

    There are a number of non-fundagelical views of scripture you might want to also consider:
    1) Your anglican friends would remind you that there should be three equal pillars (or stool legs) to the faith:
    * Scripture
    * Tradition (the doctrine built up over time)
    * Reason (HS influence would be included in this group)

    No one of these would trump the other, but equally each would balance the other. Personal conviction balanced by the tradition of the community balanced by the teachings of the scriptures. This theology allows for an evolution in beliefs and values. It allows women to be treated as equals in the church and allows believers to advocate the rights of the gay and lesbian communities.This theology understands that beliefs cannot be stagnant and immutable, but rather that beliefs need to evolve in order to remain relevant. However, change must be done in a responsible and not in an adhoc way that embraces the past and present at the same time.

    [Insert fundagelical stone throwing here]

    2) Your post-chrisitan friends, on the other hand, would point out that the protestant scriptures are just an assembly of documents that are marred by time and translation. They written under dubious titles and authorships, copied under suspicious motives and specific books adopted by the councils under political duress (from the council of hippo up to the third council of trent). I am sure each one of those points is warranted a 1800 word argument, but for brevity I’ll skip it (unless someone wants to take me to task).

    The conclusion is that the documents that protestant communities use as a foundation are flawed and are not infallible nor immutable. Therefore, if they are going to be used in any part of your belief structure, it should be done with reason, critique, the community, and society. It cannot stand by itself because it is a product of the time – a product of a primitive civilization.

    [Insert fundagelical stone throwing here]

    Anyway, I’ve got a hankering for apple pie now.



  5. ExpatPastor says:

    I believe Mark Driscoll helps clarify this issue. He draws a distinction between “Sola” Scriptura and “Solo” Scriptura. It sounds to me like you are arguing more against “Solo” Scriptura than “Sola” Scriptura. Solo means that we read only the Bible which is a ridiculous notion because if your car breaks down, the BIble can’t help you much. Sola means that we hold the BIble in highest authority. We still read other books but our Bible stands as our metaphorical supreme court through which everything else (what we read, what we pray, prophesies we hear, how we live etc,) is evaluated. I hope that helps as you work this doctrine.


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