Saturday, January 10, 2015

Loving Scripture Rightly Is Loving Jesus

Jon Zens has written some helpful materials on organic church, particularly his rebuttals to critiques by Ben Witherington and others of Frank Viola's and George Barna's book "Pagan Christianity" (which is a lousy title for a fine book). He calls himself an "itinerant encourager of relational communities", which I can appreciate. And as I spend more time thinking about being the church and what that is supposed to look like, I find myself spending time in, say, Facebook groups of people who have left institutional churches, either to join or start an organic church or to become that which seems best described as "lone-wolf Christians" (in some cases, revealing that they hold to heretical doctrine). As I watch the way many of such people talk and the things they say, it would appear that the reason many of such people have left churches is because they cannot stomach biblical theology or serious study of God's Word. This strikes seriously against how things ought to go.

Adding to the noise is an article by Zens to which I was directed in one of these groups. I am alarmed at the poor grasp of of the relevant issues that it exhibits, so I'd like to bring forth a response here and urge those who are disgruntled with or who have left institutional churches to cling tenaciously to and contend for the faith once delivered for the saints (Jude 3). We should be the church in the way that God has commanded and exemplified in His Word and as a result when our local churches assemble together, we ought to obey Scripture.

However, if you jettison Sola Scriptura, you are left rudderless, relying on nothing more or less than human tradition at every single turn, and you have no way to adjudicate between competing proposed traditions. The result could be a group of people that may or may not describe themselves using the word "church" but that does sort of resemble a gathering of people whose professions are at least sort of Bible-y, but it could also be further down the spectrum toward someone who says "I'm a Christian" and yet affirms child sacrifice and sexual immorality (hey, as long as "the Spirit leads", right?) and disaffirms the Trinity and/or the doctrine of Hell or of the severity of sin. Or you could have the Roman Catholic, Mormon, or Oriental Conciliarist (aka the "Eastern Orthodox") church or the Watchtower or the Branch Davidians or Aum Shinrikyo or Unity Church or Christian Science or Seventh Day Adventism or...

Imagine with me a hypothetical - two men meet each other and begin discussing religious ideas. One believes it is obligatory to affirm that Jesus is God and uncreated. The other believes it is obligatory to DISaffirm those statements. Each of them claims that God spiritually led him to say what he says. Each of them accuses the other of quenching the Spirit (which the New Testament commands people not to do) (as if we're bound to obey Pauline writings or something).

Which of them is right? Is there a way to know which is right? They both claim to be Spirit-led.

There is no way to know who is right, unless an authoritative statement higher than and outside those two men can adjudicate between the competing opinions - an objective standard. I suggest: the God who made the heavens and the Earth and all humanity, who has set His law to govern all humanity and written it on human hearts, and who will judge everyone someday according to that law, if He has said something, what He has said has authority over, is superior to, and carries more weight than anything any individual creature or group of creatures might say.

So, what is that revelation from God Almighty? Did God leave us rudderless and without light in this world? Or would Zens agree that the Bible is God's Word, breathed out in order to communicate His law and His Gospel to humanity?

If Zens would not agree with that, we have an entirely different question on our hands with much more alarming consequences. But if Zens does agree, then I simply do not understand how he could consistently hold to the position he lays out in this article. Sadly, a great deal of the article draws inappropriate conclusions from historical trends, only some of which Zens correctly identifies. Let's examine it piece by piece.

(Sola Scriptura) came out of the Protestant Reformation's Five Sola's

Already we have a problem. Is Zens unaware of the powerful current undergirding the Reformation, the desire to return ad fontes, to the sources? Those Five Sola's were meant to serve as a reminder that the Reformers were trying to turn back the clock to before papist corruptions had so thoroughly twisted the faith that most of Europe held at the time.
But even if that weren't the history, a truly consistent Sola Scripturist today does not appeal to the Reformers as the source or origin of his doctrine, nor as the authority undergirding it. Rather, it is because the revelation from God actually teaches that people should pay attention to revelation from God more than to the opinions and traditions of any given human(s).

The Reformers wished to affirm that truth was found in Scripture, not in the numerous human traditions invented by the RCC.

Neither the Reformers nor the modern Sola Scripturist would affirm that this is the case. The problem is not and has never been the existence of traditions. Did Jesus condemn the tradition of meeting in synagogues anywhere during His earthly ministry? That's a human tradition.
The actual problem Sola Scriptura confronts is the elevation of human tradition to a level and authority equal to or higher than Scripture, which is nothing less than idolatry, valuing human opinions more highly than God's decrees.
Take Mark 7:1-13, especially 7-13. The Pharisees claimed to have a rule, a tradition handed down from the elders. It was old and respected and generally held to among the leaders and hierarchy of the covenant community of God. And yet, it was wrong. How did Jesus prove it was wrong? By appealing to the Scripture. The tradition was in conflict with Scripture, and therefore, it was incorrect. Thus Jesus tells us – do not invalidate the word of God by tradition handed down (v. 13). Scripture stands as judge over tradition. Scripture judges tradition in every case, because Scripture is from God and human tradition is not - that is true Sola Scripturism.

On that note, one wonders what substitute Zens would commend to replace Scripture as the final rule of faith for someone who wants to please God. Where is the other sure and certain source of true and unerring knowledge about God? We'll have to wait and see.

The Reformers ended up separating from each other and going in different directions.

Truly, it can sound noble-minded to lament divisions between professing believers in Jesus, and some instances of division are indeed sad. I'd argue that Luther's hard-hearted dismissal of Zwingli, for example, was sinful, to be sure. Yet that sort of thing is also expected in the New Testament; we are told to watch out for it. 1 Corinthians 11, 1 John 2. Acts 20, Acts 17:11, Matthew 7 - these and more inform us that we are to remain vigilant at all times, prepared to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.

What is Zens' alternative model? Does he advocate a Scripture + infallible interpreter model? I doubt it, and if he did, the divisions are far worse on that side of the fence. Does he advocate a model in which everyone "just lets the Spirit lead"? This is amazingly naive. It would be impossible to recount how many mutually and internally contradictory beliefs that I personally have heard from those who reject Sola Scriptura (in a de facto sense, if not a de jure sense). Does Zens take the Bible's teaching on human sin seriously? The heart of man is an idol factory.

Jeremiah 17:9 - The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?

Ecclesiastes 7:29 - Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.

Jeremiah 23:16Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you.
They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD.
17“They keep saying to those who despise Me, ‘The LORD has said, “You will have peace”’; and as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, ‘Calamity will not come upon you.’
18“But who has stood in the council of the LORD, that he should see and hear His word? Who has given heed to His word and listened?

21“I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied.
22“But if they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds.

25“I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ 26“How long? Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart, 27who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal? 28“The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth. What does straw have in common with grain?” declares the LORD. 29“Is not My word like fire?” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock? 30“Therefore behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who steal My words from each other. 31“Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32“Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the LORD, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the LORD.

With no way to know with certainty that a given idea burbling up from within an individual is right or wrong, I don't see how Zens doesn't end up in a morass of agnosticism through and through.

The Reformers also created their own human traditions that had no footing in Scripture.

The fact that Zens said this in his article, obviously thinking that it is pertinent to the matter at hand, makes me think that he has a very serious misunderstanding about the real issues here. As stated above, there is nothing wrong with human traditions per se. It is assigning them their proper or improper place that is the important thing.

What would Sola Scriptura have meant in the early church? Nothing. They didnít have a ìNew Testament.î You might say that some people could orally quote the OT, but the OT couldnít answer many ìNew Covenantî issues that would develop.

Does Zens believe that God is active in history and provides for His people? I do. I think Jesus told the truth when He said in John 10 that His sheep hear His voice. Early churches would have had varying amounts of God's revelation. Perhaps they had former, reformed Pharisees in their ranks like Paul, who knew huge amounts of the OT by heart. Perhaps they had many of the epistles of Paul, Peter, and John. Perhaps they knew someone who had been discipled by John, or perhaps the church was founded by Andrew, who stayed to teach them for significant time before moving on. Zens hears "Sola Scriptura" and thinks of leather-bound books. The actual issue at hand is: What did God say? Whatever we know that He said, we will obey it.

This is not a particularly helpful question to ask at this point in history anyway, for we have full Scriptures in our hands now. Let God worry about all the ins and outs of the past and the future. We have our orders - to follow God's decrees at all times.

From 30 to 50 AD there were no New Covenant writings, yet the Lord's work went powerfully forward

True, but how is that relevant to today? The real live apostles were teaching then, as were those who knew them and were discipled by them. Those men are all dead by now, but we have what God preserved as His Word to guide us.

What would Sola Scriptura have meant from 250AD to 1600AD? Nothing. The Scriptures were kept from the "laity" and were exclusively in the hands of the "clergy".

Zens' error here is the same as that which the papists and conciliarists commit - they assume that the true history of the people of God is extant in its entirety and available to us today. This is an incredibly naive view of history. Jesus said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His church. The concept of the remnant within and beside an apostate majority is all through Scripture - why think that the same would not obtain throughout the years between the earliest church and the Reformation? There is no reason not to think that God preserved His people in ways and locations of which we are ignorant, to the histories of which we don't today have access.

Also, it is, again, not the same to say "Sola Scriptura is not what we should follow today" as it is to say that a whole lot of people from 250-1600 disobeyed God and didn't embrace Sola Scriptura. Why does Zens believe this fact is relevant?

There was no "Bible" until 400AD

That's demonstrably untrue by, if nothing else, the existence of Athanasius' 39th Festal Letter and Codices Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, and Sinaiticus. One wonders to what Zens could be referring here.

And then the only Bible version was the Latin Vulgate done by Jerome. This was the only "Bible" until the late Middle Ages when versions in German and English began to appear.

Whence then does Zens think all the Greek texts from which the modern Greek New Testaments of Nestle-Aland or UBS come? And what of the various other manuscript sources in languages such as Coptic, Syriac, and such? It is honestly difficult to chalk this up to anything other than gross ignorance.

This point is also irrelevant - past disobedience does not justify continuing that disobedience.

Even after the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, the Bible came into the hands of some people, but still very few could afford a copy (or have the ability to read it). The ideal of every family, or every person, having their own copy of the Bible is a post-1800 notion.

This also is irrelevant. Scripture is binding whether you read or hear its message spoken aloud.
And, again, what is Zens' alternative?

Since 1500 church leaders and "lay" people - even many cults - have exclaimed "Sola Scriptura."

Just like tons of people claim to be "led by the Spirit" in creating their unbiblical doctrines, or claim to be an infallible interpreter, so that people will abdicate their own responsibilities to hear and properly follow Scripture so as to follow the infallible leader.

There are 25,000 denominations

Zens here labors under numerous important misconceptions.
To make it worse, he is echoing papist and conciliarist arguments, as if the fact that people sin means that God's Word is unreliable or unhelpful.

a gezillion (sic) dogmatic and contradictory interpretations of the Bible

If he thinks that's bad, what will happen when everyone says and believes whatever "the Spirit" leads them to say and believe?

We must face the reality that what Sola Scriptura actually means for many is that they equate their interpretation of Scripture with God's mind

As if borrowing from Catholic Answers weren't bad enough, here Zens takes a page from postmodern liberalism and joins them in their own ridiculous folly. Obviously any text has to be interpreted, just as Zens' does, or this article you are reading does. The question is: Are you interpreting it correctly?
Would it be a correct interpretation for me to tell you that Zens' article is about the price of cheese in Zambia? No, it would not be correct.

Would it be an intellectually honest challenge for me then to say "But aren't you really just equating your interpretation with the text itself?" This is at its root Satanic - "Hath God indeed said?" This is that against which we are cautioned in 2 Timothy 2:14 - "Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers."

It is nonsense. Words mean things, whether they are in the Bible or on Jon Zens' blog. Zens does not live or talk like that in any other arena of life. Nobody can be consistent in such a view.

In America there is the fairly prevalent notion that "Bible knowledge equals knowing the Lord."

I agree, and I agree with Zens that that is a faulty and dangerous notion. I know it is faulty and dangerous because the Scripture says so. I think it is fair to ask at this point how Zens knows this to be true, if not by means of Scripture.

Paul crisply captured what should be our Christ-reality

But why quote Paul here as if his writings carry any more weight than those of Zens or the homeless guy across the street?

Are we to gather around the Scriptures or around the Living Christ?

This is merely liberalism 2.0, and a false dichotomy. We can't know anything about Jesus except through His Word, can we? Again, what is Zens' alternative?

it is a fact that people hide behind Bible study and church services to avoid having a living encounter with Christ.

This is clearly true, but the answer is not to jettison Sola Scriptura, but to call the churchians of America to put all their traditions fearlessly to the test of Scripture. What we find in Scripture is the call and command to have just that - an encounter with the living Christ by repenting, placing our faith in Him, and building His kingdom every day. It is not by following whatever opinions burble up from within our sinful, twisted hearts.

Do we just assume that first-century believers met in front of a pulpit, listening to a sermon every week?

Yes, far too often American churchians do just that. The answer is not to reject Sola Scriptura but rather to embrace what Scripture teaches about what the church is and what the church ought to do.
Sola Scriptura is not equivalent to meeting in front of a pulpit, listening to a sermon every week. Far from it.

This would mean that the majority of believers from 30AD through 1800AD would be lost because they did not read the Bible.

This is mistaken for several reasons.
First, the Facebook user to whom Zens responds here did not say "...and if you don't read your Bible regularly, you are damned to Hell."
Secondly, the situations are, as noted above, entirely different. We do have all of God's Word today. Just because some people didn't have it all back when and where they lived has no bearing on whether I should put God's Word in its proper place of highest authority in my life. I don't have to know what became of all those people in history to know that God's revelation is of a higher authority than human ideas.

when the early church gathered together, they had no scrolls in their laps.

And should we not trust in the Lord to provide during that time when His Word was not widely available? He had and has a plan. He is working it out for His sometimes inscrutable reasons. But again, what has that to do with how we, today should act?
Acts 2:42 - They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Let us neglect none of those elements of gathering as a church. Zens, it would seem, would have us neglect the first of those - the apostles’ teaching - because people in the past were unable to do it quite as readily as we can today. Instead of lowering standards, let us instead give thanks to God for His provision in our modern times - any number of Bibles at our very fingertips.

There are people in churches all over the world where religious freedom is more a dream than a reality who live and die for even one single page of the precious Scripture, and it’s not unique to the modern period. Christians have done that for millennia. Zens’ model would seem to render completely superfluous the sacrifices of these martyrs and confessors.

They came together and shared the rivers of living water flowing from Christ through them.

Zens seems to be saying that instead of reading the Bible, we should “let rivers of living water” “flow” through us. But, of course, once again we must raise the question of how we can know what it looks like to let rivers of living water flow through us. How can we distinguish between two competing ideas of living waters?

They had no written texts in front of them, but the Living Christ was expressing Himself through each believer.

That may be, but on the other hand, there are often false converts within churches who present worldly ideas that are hostile to true religion. Without “opening the scroll”, how would Zens propose we identify such a person and such ideas?

even though the early believers brought no Book to the gatherings, every person who came was a living letter written by Christ, not in ink, but by the Spirit of the living God.

For some reason, Zens here alludes to 2 Corinthians 3:3, a canonical Pauline writing. But he is actually tearing it out of context in doing so.

2 Corinthians 3:1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The whole point of Paul’s writing this part of the letter was to plead with the Corinthian church not to reject him, not to act like he was hostile to them on account of the evil testimonies of the false brethren, the Judaiser “super-apostles”, who were trying to turn the church against Paul, who in fact was the main evangelist responsible for founding the Corinthian church. Thus instead of his needing some sort of letter of commendation to them or from them, he reminds them, as he says later to Philemon, that they owe him their very soul. This passage has nothing to do with imposing some sort of dichotomy between knowing Jesus and loving the Word of God, nor with putting the burblings of our inner opinions on par with revelation from God.

Many take “the word of God” in Hebrews 4:12 as referring to “the Bible,” yet the context shows that a Person is in view, not a Book.

That may be. It’s also not particularly relevant to the question of, if we don’t listen to God above all other voices, how we can know what is right and wrong.

The Spirit inspired the Scriptures, but if the Bible is not approached and handled in a Christ-centered way

"Reading the Bible in a Christ-centered way" is often code for holding the “red letters” directly from Jesus’ mouth during His earthly ministry to be of higher importance and authority than the other parts of the Scripture. I pray that is not the case, for the implication of that view is that there is some sort of division and disagreement between persons of the godhead - the Spirit breathed out stuff that Jesus did not intend, or that Jesus would have preferred to overrule.

it becomes a dangerous tool that is used to justify abuse, create division and false teaching

But how does Zens know that abuse, division, and false teaching are bad? How does he identify false teaching? By the inner burblings of his opinions? This is no objective standard of truth.
And of course the Bible can be abused to justify all sorts of things. Such a thing becomes especially dangerous when one downplays its authority and the importance of proper exegesis in favor of “whatever you feel like doing”.

from 250AD to 1800AD, it would have been ludicrous and laughable for the person up front to say to those assembled, “Turn in your Bibles to Mark, chapter six.”

But what makes Zens think that it wouldn’t be more plausible for many churches to be in a position to have a guy that said “I’m going to read now from Mark chapter 6”?
And how is that relevant to our current situation?

The Scriptures are important.

It is honestly hard to see how Zens can consistently say this, as he seems to denigrate its importance throughout this article.

Father has Spirit-inspired them, and their sole purpose is to reveal the Son.

Quite so.
Luke 24:27 - Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
But again, that doesn’t give us any good reason to demote the Bible’s authority and place in teaching and sourcing our doctrine and actions.

Here we are, at the end of Zens’ article, and he has not given us any alternative to Scripture for adjudicating competing truth claims. No objective standard, no sure guide.

Why can’t we begin and end with Solo Christo – Christ alone?

Why do that when the Holy Spirit affirms the 5 Solas throughout the Scripture?
And how are we to know anything about Christ?

New Testament churches ought to follow the organic model not because we like Scripture less, but because we like it more, because it's what the Scripture teaches.


Lucian said...

if you jettison Sola Scriptura, you are left rudderless

Are you ?

you have no way to adjudicate between competing proposed traditions

Traditions are interpretations.

For instance, Jewish tradition and Christian tradition are, ultimately, rival or alternate interpretations of the same text, namely the Old Covenant.

The various Christian traditions are also rival or alternate interpretations of the same text, namely the New Testament.

They both claim to be Spirit-led.

They both also claim to be Scriptural.

what He [the God who made the heavens and the Earth and all humanity] has said has authority over anything any individual creature or group of creatures might say

No one denies that. But the real question is: What is the actual meaning of His words ?

Rhology said...

Traditions are interpretations.

Of what? Scripture? That's not what RCC or EOC claim in every case.

They both also claim to be Scriptural.

And in only one case is it possible to check each claim against a standard to test it.

No one denies that.

The people to whom this article replies do deny it implicitly.