Open Letters to a Son 1: The Bible Part 1
‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall run from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.’ (Amos 8:11f.)
To my Son:
If you were to ask me, my son, what is one of the most deceptive, destructive, dangerous ideas that has ever intruded upon mankind, I would have to say it was an idea that was encapsulated in a question. It is the first recorded question asked right at the dawn of humanity. You can find the first words of this question in Genesis 3:1, where we read of the Serpent, who had entered the Garden and all that was good and all that was of God, and simply began by saying, “Did God actually say…?”
You might be saying to yourself, “Well, that is just poetry and it is only poetically saying that a symbolic first question came from an allegorical serpent in a metaphorical garden…”
My response to you would be, “None of that detracts from my answer.” Remember, this is a hypothetical question that I had you ask. I’m simply giving my real answer to that hypothetical question. It is a question that I genuinely wish you’d ask because I genuinely want to give you my answer. And my answer is that the question, “Did God actually say…?” captures one of the most deceptive, destructive, dangerous ideas that has ever intruded upon mankind.
“I didn’t ask.”
"I didn't ask."
I know, I know, but I wish you would because it is a deceptive, destructive, dangerous idea that I can see encroaching into your consciousness. I can hear that question echoing in your own questions and comments. I sense its presence in some of the ideas that you share, the points that you make, and the arguments that you put forward. It is an insidious question, my son, and one that I am afraid has seeped its way into your ideological foundations. Before I lose your attention, will you allow me to ramble a little bit more on this topic?
Sorry, a long quote.
From the first chapter of J.I. Packer’s book called “God Speaks to Man” we can read this:
The New Testament represents the Church as inheriting through Christ all God’s promises of spiritual life and welfare (see 2 Cor. 1:20; Rom. 15:8ff; Gal. 3:16ff; and cf. Rom. 4:16-23; Heb. 6:12-20; 10:15-23; 13:5f.) The Church, therefore, has the promise of constant instruction, assurance, and guidance from God, just as Old Testament Israel had. Not, indeed, that the Church is promised a perpetual succession of prophets speaking by immediate inspiration, as in Old Testament times; instead, the Holy Spirit, ‘who spake by the prophets’, is given to abide with the Church and to interpret, authenticate, and apply Old Testament and apostolic teaching to each Christian generation (see Jn. 14:16, 16:7-14 with Jn. 6:45; 1 Cor. 2:4f. With verses 1 Cor. 2:9-16; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:6; 1 Thess. 1:5, 2:13, 4:9; Heb. 3:7ff.; 1 Jn. 2:20-27). This is how the promise of divine instruction is to find its fulfillment in the Christian era. In the light of this, we would expect to find the Church of every age, including our own, firmly convinced that the prophetic and apostolic witness of the two Testaments is the Word of God; clear as to its central message concerning Christ; and able to see plainly how this message impinges on men, with its demand for conversion and a life of faith, hope, love and obedience. To the extent to which clarity on these matters is lacking, we are forced to conclude that the Church is unhealthy and out of sorts.
He goes from there to discuss that the church is unhealthy and out of sorts. Regardless of whether or not you believe what he is saying, you certainly must admit that when you read this, you were filled with questions of definitions of words, meanings of phrases, and perspectives of ideas. I imagine… though, I do not want to overstep my bounds and make assumptions needlessly… I imagine that you were questioning what “the word of God” is actually referring to, what comprises “apostolic teaching”, and “which central message” is being referred to. Maybe I’m wrong, but if a paragraph like this could elicit such clearness of thought for one generation reading it and could produce multiple questions to another, you might say that he is at least right that “... clarity on these matters is lacking…” You seem to me to be unsure as to whether or not, well, “Did God actually say…?”
A Shorter Quote.
Packer goes on to state on the next page, in response to a generation that has essentially lost the Word of God: (I know you may be contemplating what I could mean by “lost the Word of God”, but just consider that for me, “the Word of God” is clear and distinct and foundational to everything else that I believe and hold to be true. If for you, it is not, that is the “lost” part that he is referring to.)
… it is not as if the Bible were no longer read and studied in the churches. It is read and studied a great deal; but the trouble is that we no longer know what to make of it. Mesmerized by the problems of rationalistic criticism, we can no longer hear the Bible as the Word of God. Liberal theology, in its pride, has long insisted that we are wiser than our fathers about the Bible, and must not read it as they did, but must base our approach to it on the ‘assured results’ of criticism, making due allowance for the human imperfections and errors of its authors.
I know he said, “...liberal theology has long insisted that we are wiser than our fathers…” I’m not saying that is what you are doing. You have always demonstrated a respectful attitude toward me… I’m just quoting him. What I do see is that you can no longer hear the Bible as the Word of God the way I would hear your mother speak as the word of your mother. After taking some time to speak to the benefits of textual criticism, he ends this section with this statement:
Here lies the paradox of the critical movement: that it has given the Church the Bible in a way that has deprived the Church of the Bible…
This is what I see in you, my son.
This is what I see in you, my son. I watch as you go to the Bible to explore or examine what it says on any particular topic, sometimes because you just like to take the opposing view, but when you are not debating others and are simply left to discover what it says, you are left with a text that has no certainty: No certainty as to what is said, no certainty as to what it means, and no certainty as to what it doesn’t mean. The “Did God actually say…?” has become the only certain thing in your Biblical narrative, leaving you certain that anyone who takes a stance of certainness to be certainly in the wrong. When discussing any meaning to be found in the Bible, you remind me of Calvin in this comic strip:
(I hope that our conversations don’t end with the way this strip ends!)
The main difference between this comic strip, which is focused on Calvin dealing with seeing both sides of an issue, and your potentially immobilized stance in deciphering the meaning behind any particular text is that the challenge with the scriptures is not primarily about issues, topics, or stances. I freely admit that there are many things in the scriptures that are difficult to comprehend and sometimes have more than one plausible understanding, but those plausible understandings are much more refined and distinct when there is a believed, unbreakable link between what God does actually say and the written word. To say that a little more clearly: The Written Word of God (The Bible, The Scriptures) is the very Word that God has said.
Not just your dad’s Christianity.
What I hope you see, my son, is that the abandonment of the inerrancy of scripture (or at least the abandonment of the definition of inerrancy or possibly the adoption of a disputed definition of the inerrancy of scripture) is - at the very least - an abandonment of historic Christianity, not just your dad’s Christianity.
For example, the 1689 Baptist Confession: (Chapter 1: Paragraph 1 and Paragraph 7)
The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience (2 Tim. 3:15–17; Is. 8:20; Luke 16:29,31; Eph. 2:20), although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will which is necessary unto salvation (Rom. 1:19-21, 2:14–15; Psalm 19:1-3). Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in diversified manners to reveal Himself, and to declare (that) His will unto His church (Heb. 1:1); and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now completed (Prov. 22:19-21; Rom. 15:4; 2 Pet. 1:19–20).
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 19:7; Psalm 119:130).
Or we could go back to Augustine: (Letters of Augustine)
… I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of in truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason.
I know, I know, my son, my son… you have so many what abouts to ask and discrepancies to question and disagreements to address, I just ask that you do two things for me:
Number One: Stick with me.
Let me be a part of this journey that you are on. Not just as a cobwebbed father figure, but a true lay-scholar of the Bible, as a qualified elder in God’s Church, and as your older, more war-torn and beaten-down-but-still-standing brother in Christ. I know your mom would love to be an integral part of this journey as well. Watching you walk this path scares her sometimes, but not like it used to. God has shown her that you will one day be brandishing the sword of God’s truth as revealed in His word. (I don’t know. He tells her things sometimes, and I don't doubt it.) This world will need you, my son. There are countless ones who are lost to the deceptions of this world. Your fervency for finding the truth will be of immense value to the Kingdom of God in these final days.
The Bible Character that I most often think of, when I think of you, is young Timothy. Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:5–9 (permit me to do some minor editing in brackets)
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother [Grammy and MeeMaw] … and your mother [insert your mom's name here]... and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God … Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me [a pastor of a small church], but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…(Slightly edited 1 Tim. 1:5-9)
Number Two: Go to God.
I believe that you have a genuine desire to find truth, the truth, and be filled with a righteous conviction for that truth -- whatever that is and whatever that means. Don’t wrestle this problem with only the right arm of reason. Ask God to free up your left hand of spirit. You are material and physical, sure, but you are also a spiritual being. You are mind and spirit. Ask God to grant you spiritual understanding for spiritual truths that are granted by the Spirit of God (See 1 Cor. 2:6-16). If you are wondering what that even means… that’s OK. Just cry out to God on a daily basis. God tells the young prophet Jeremiah, “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (Jeremiah 33:3)
I post this open letter to a son here, because I have many sons (and daughters) in the faith who have similar questions.