Originally posted 11 Feb 2005
From Surprised by the Voice of God, by Jack Deere
This is chapter 17 from the Jack Deere’s book. The book is about how evangelical Christians, who believe the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God can also believe that God speaks today, outside of the words of Scripture. His book is a magnificent treatment of the topic, which includes practical methods, theological discussion, personal testimony and helpful advice in avoiding the many excesses that may result from the application of this viewpoint.
Augustine had an entire book of confessions. Perhaps you will indulge me for just a single chapter of my own. Here is my confession: Somewhere along the way in my academic study of the Bible, I became a Bible deist. You probably studied deism in one of your high school history classes. The framers of the Constitution of the United States were mostly deists. They believed in a religion of morality based on natural reason, not on divine revelation. They believed in God, but they didn’t think he interfered with the natural laws governing the universe. He created the world, and then left it alone – like someone who wound up a giant clock, and then left it to run down on its own. A Bible deist has a lot in common with the natural deist.
They both worship the wrong thing. The deists of the eighteenth century worshiped human reason. The Bible deists of today worship the Bible. Bible deists have great difficulty separating Christ and the Bible. Unconsciously in their minds the Bible and Christ merge into one entity. Christ cannot speak or be known apart from the Bible. At one time, Christ did speak apart from the Bible. He used to speak in an audible voice to people on their way to Damascus, give dreams, appear in dreams, give visions, give impressions, and do miracles through his servants. However, the Bible deist believes the only one who does these things today is the devil. In fact, the devil can do all the things Christ used to do. The devil can speak in an audible voice, give dreams and visions, even appear to people and do miracles. Jesus doesn’t do these things any more. He used miracles and divine revelation in the first century to wind up the church like a big clock, and then left it alone with only the Bible. The Bible is supposed to keep the clock ticking correctly. That’s why a Bible deist reads a passage like Isaiah 28:29:
- “All this also comes from the LORD Almighty wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom”
and in his or her mind, translates it into something like this:
- “All this also comes from the Bible, which is wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom.”
Bible deists have a tendency to substitute the Bible for God. They actually deify the Bible. Bible deists read John 10:27 like this: “My sheep listen to the Bible; I know them, and they follow the Bible.” They hear Jesus say, “If I go away, I will send you a perfect book” (John 16:7). What God used to do in the first century is now done by the Bible. If the Bible can’t do what God used to do – heal, give dreams, visions – then the Bible deist maintains that these things are no longer being done, and that we don’t need them anyway.
Bible deists preach and teach the Bible rather than Christ. They do not understand how it is possible to preach the Bible without preaching Christ. Their highest goal is the impartation of biblical knowledge. Their highest value is being “biblical”. Actually, they use the adjectives “biblical” and “scriptural” more often than the proper noun “Jesus” in their everyday speech.
THE SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE OR OF ONE’S INTERPRETATION?
The Bible deist talks a lot about the sufficiency of Scripture. For him the sufficiency of Scripture means that the Bible is the only way God speaks to us today. He loves to repeat slogans like “The Bible is all I need to hear from God” and “What the Bible says is what we should say, and where the Bible is silent we should be silent.” Although the Bible deist loudly proclaims the sufficiency of Scripture, in reality, he is proclaiming the sufficiency of his own interpretation of the Scripture. Bible deists aren’t alone in this error. When many people say they have confidence in the Bible, what they really mean is they have confidence in their ability to interpret the Word, in their own particular understanding of the Bible, in their own theological system. Nobody says this out loud, for fear of being labelled arrogant. But they demonstrate it when they refuse to fellowship with those who baptise differently, or with those who have a different view of the gifts of the Spirit, or with those who hold a different view of the end times. Many Christians agree on the fundamentals of the faith, but are so confident that in the debatable areas their interpretation is the correct one that they separate themselves from those who differ with them.
The Bible deist is especially guilty of this because he conceives of the Bible and his interpretation as one organic whole. After all, the Bible deist has consistently applied grammatical, historical exegesis to the text. Above all, he has a good theological framework, and his interpretations are consistent with his theological framework. He stands squarely in a tradition that is hundreds of years old and has many illustrious names within it. With that tradition behind him, plus his own personal skills and abilities, he is sure he is right. Oh, there are times, when he can admit to the possibility of being wrong – for humility’s sake, or better, for the appearance of humility. Otherwise, he might give some people the impression that he thinks he is infallible. But in his heart of hearts he knows there is only the minutest possibility he might be wrong in any of his individual interpretations.
So it is extremely difficult for Bible deists to concede that they themselves might be presently holding an erroneous interpretation. They refer to their opponents’ interpretations as “taken out of context,” or as a failure to apply consistent hermeneutical principles. Or, in some cases, where they have little respect for their opponents, they chalk up their opponents’ views to just plain sloppy thinking. In those rare cases where they have to admit that their opponent has out-argued them, it wasn’t because their opponent had truth on his side. No, their opponent was a skillful debater – actually he was downright tricky. In one case, a theologian I knew was asked why other knowledgeable interpreters of the Bible held a different eschatological position from his own. “Sin,” came the terse but earnest reply.
The Bible deist is so confident in the sufficiency of his interpretation that it is difficult for him to be corrected by experience. He usually has negative comments about subjective things like feelings and experience. He doesn’t realize it, but it is more important to him to know the Bible than to experience its truth. This is the inevitable result of exalting the mind over the heart, and knowledge over experience. It also explains how someone full of biblical knowledge may be able to give a better explanation of humility than an elderly lady in his church – but possess so little humility when compared to her. Haven’t we all witnessed this tragic disparity?
WHAT PRODUCES A BIBLE DEIST?
If you asked me why I held these kinds of positions, I would have told you the Bible clearly taught them, and I followed the Bible, not experience or tradition. But I had another motive for being a Bible deist and resisting subjective revelatory experiences. I wanted to preserve the unique authority of the Bible. I was afraid that if any form of divine communication other than the Bible were allowed, we would weaken the Bible’s authority and eventually be led away from the Lord.
I thought it was possible we could be taken over by emotional instability and guided by ever-changing feelings. Authority would then be transferred from the objective standard of the Bible to the subjective state of the individual and there would be no universal standard to which we could appeal. Unity would be diminished in the body of Christ, and we would end up as in the period of Judges where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25 NASB). I thought there was virtually nothing to gain from allowing subjective revelatory experiences, and everything to lose. Nothing to gain, because these experiences could not add anything to the Bible, and the Bible already supplied everything we needed. And everything to lose, because all I had to do was look at the Corinthians and the chaos caused by tongues in order to see what could be lost by allowing these things. It wasn’t worth the risk.
During the days of my Bible deism, I thought the above were my only reasons for my views of the role of the Bible. Looking back ten years later, I can see there were more powerful forces at work in the unconscious realms of my heart. I could easily blame my Bible deism on my teachers and the traditions I unquestioningly swallowed from them. I could blame it on a very closed system of education which punished deviations with expulsions. But I was never the kind of person who was afraid to deviate or to question. The truth is, Bible deism appealed to a serious weakness in my heart. The weakness was a fear of being hurt. I didn’t like emotions because they caused me to lose control, and if I lost control, I became vulnerable. And vulnerable people get hurt. I had been hurt a lot. Although I didn’t know it back then, I blamed some of those hurts on God.
Now I know that I attributed the deepest wounds of my heart to the hand of the Lord. He could have prevented the wounds, but he didn’t. Where was his sovereignty when I needed it? Why did some of my most desperate prayers fall from my lips to the ground unanswered? My heart was filled with fear of God – not the biblical fear of God, but a fear of intimacy with him. I wanted a personal relationship with God, but I didn’t want an intimate one. An intimate relationship would give him total control, and a voice out of some dark unexplored region of my heart told me that his control would bring me pain again, more pain than I could bear.
So I decided that my primary relationship would be to a book, not to a Person. It’s so much easier to relate to a system of interpretive rules and a set of traditions than to a Person. With Bible deism, I could be in control. My principal task in life was to study the Bible and to cultivate the intellect. I didn’t need my emotions for this task, just discipline and willpower. No emotions meant no loss of control. And that meant no more hurt.
If I had a question, I could ask the Bible. I didn’t have to risk asking a God who might give me a painful answer. Besides, God and the Bible were practically the same. What he didn’t say in the Bible, he left up to me. I found the things I liked in the Bible and ignored the rest. So all in all, it was a safe, comfortable system. And for me, it was also becoming a lifeless system.
I had tasted life in my early Christian years, and I never would have embraced Bible deism just because of the hurt in my life. The hurt was the open door, but it was my pride that welcomed Bible deism through the door and gave it a home in my heart. For much of my Christian life, I’ve thought myself wiser than most Christians. Since I thought myself wiser than others, it was only natural that I should be in control of them. If God only spoke through the Bible, then the one who knew the Bible the best would be the one who heard God’s voice the best. Therefore, the person who heard God the best, would know best what everyone else should believe and do. This system fit in perfectly with the proud state of my heart. In Bible deism, I found a wonderful tool to keep myself from being hurt and to give me control over my life and the lives of others. The fact that I had an intellectually-oriented personality – I loved to study – helped me to be an even more effective Bible deist.
By now you’ve probably figured out that Bible deism is not so much a theology as it is a system that caters to a personality type. It’s a system that religiously proud, hurt, intellectual people find hard to pass up. It offers us a justification for our pride without having to repent of it, an anesthetic for our pain without having to endure the surgery to heal it, and an outlet for our intellectual pursuit without having to submit our minds to a God whose ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts. To put it very simply, I had the kind of personality that made me much more comfortable relating to a book than to a Person.
When the principal thing in your life becomes the study of the Bible, you have become a Bible deist. But usually a practicing Bible deist does not recognize that they are a Bible deist. Whenever people accused me of being a Bible deist, I assumed that they were just lazy and didn’t want to make a careful study of the Bible. They just weren’t disciplined enough to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and whatever other discipline was necessary to hear God speak. They weren’t interested in things like the Sitz im Leben of a biblical text. They probably wouldn’t even recognize a Sitz im Leben if they sat on one. I assumed these lazy detractors were just part of the cursed rabble that didn’t know the law (John 7:49).
(Incidentally, I have just given you a test to determine whether or not you are a Bible deist. If you have grown angrier as you have read the last few pages, then you probably are a Bible deist. If you are still trying to figure out what a Sitz im Leben is, then read on. I think you will enjoy the rest of this chapter.)
These were my reasons, conscious and unconscious, for being a Bible deist, and wanting nothing to do with dreams, visions, impressions, or audible voices. There may have been even worse reasons than these, but if you want those kinds of confessions perhaps you ought to read Augustine after all. But before you pick up a copy of his Confessions, let’s go on to a disconcerting thought about the Bible and authority.
THE BEST INTERPRETER
One of the most serious flaws of Bible deism is the confidence the Bible deist places in his abilities to interpret the Bible. He assumes that the greater his knowledge of the Bible, the more accurate his interpretations are. This follows logically from a hermeneutical axiom the Bible deist often quotes: The Bible is the key to its own interpretation. In other words, the Bible interprets the Bible the best. Wrong! It takes more than the Bible to interpret the Bible.
The Author of the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In fact, he is the only reliable interpreter.
And if Spirit’s illumination is the key to interpreting the Bible, isn’t the Bible deist’s confidence in his own interpretive abilities arrogant and foolhardy? How does one persuade God to illumine the Bible? Does God give illumination to the ones who know Hebrew and Greek the best? To the ones who read and memorize Scripture the most? What if the condition of one’s heart is more important for understanding the Bible than the abilities of one’s mind? Is it possible that the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand Scripture might be given on a basis other than education or mental abilities?
AN OMNISCIENT BEING IS NOT IMPRESSED WITH INTELLIGENCE
What kind of people does God speak to? Who is the best at interpreting the Bible? Who is the best at interpreting dreams, prophetic utterances, and other forms of God’s revelation? Actually, all of these questions are one and the same: “What makes a person skillful at understanding God’s revelation?” Whether the revelation comes in the form of the written statements of the Bible, in a contemporary prophetic utterance, in a dream, or in a vision, the answer is the same. There is one key that unlocks the meaning of all divine revelation.
The Bible deist believes the best interpreters of God’s revelation are those who have the best interpretive methods, are most knowledgeable in the original biblical languages and the historical backgrounds of the biblical period. In short, the best interpreters of God’s word are the people who are the most intelligent and disciplined. It seems much of our current religious education operates on the lost beatitude: Blessed are the smart, woe to the dumb.
After all, where would God be if he didn’t have any smart people to witness to smart unbelievers? What if God was left with just a handful of businessmen or blue-collar workers, say, people who fished for a living – whose only qualification for ministry was that they loved God and wanted to be with Jesus? Where do you think God would be if he fell into that predicament?
Christian scholarship is not nearly as important as Christian scholars have led us to believe. The American church is easily deceived in this matter, for the Western world worships intelligence and education. As far as I know, neither the Bible in general, nor Christ and his apostles in particular, ever commend intelligence as having any significant role in understanding God or his Word. Quite the contrary. If anything, the Bible is rather hard on human intelligence. When the seventy-two came back from their preaching mission, they heard Jesus pray, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure” (Luke 10:21 )
Jesus praised God for hiding some things. What were these “hidden things”? They were the secrets of the kingdom, secrets about authority, power, spirits, and heaven. From whom did God hide these secrets? From the wise and learned, that is, from the intelligent and educated. The real secrets of the kingdom can never be penetrated by human intelligence or education. Later, Jesus gave his disciples the sternest warning: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:2-4).
We do not progress in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ by intellectual prowess. We progress by becoming like children. Remember how you felt when you were just three or four years old? Remember how much you needed your mother and father? Remember how you didn’t think you knew very much, but that was okay because mom and dad knew everything? God his secrets with the ones who manage to recover that childlike humility and trust. The problem is that we want to be smart grown-ups rather than dependent kids.
A WISDOM NOT DISCOVERED BY THE MIND
This spurning of human intelligence on the part of Jesus was not simply a tactic he adopted for the period of his own earthly ministry. He intended it to last for the duration of the church. Therefore, Paul wrote the Corinthians that not many of them were wise, influential, or of noble birth. Why? Because God had chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things to shame the strong, and the despised things to nullify the things esteemed in men’s eyes (1 Cor. 1:26-30 ). An intelligent person might take some comfort in the fact that Paul said, “not many of you” are wise. There were, obviously, some intelligent people in the first-century church, the apostle Paul being one of them. But Paul’s point is that intelligence doesn’t count for very much in God’s economy.
Still some might argue that God chose the apostle Paul because he was intelligent, even brilliant. Indeed, he had received some of the best theological training in his day (Acts 22:3). Apparently God thought that he needed at least one brilliant and theologically educated apostle in order to accomplish his purposes in the first-century church. But according to Paul’s own explanation, neither his intelligence nor his education had any influence on God calling him as an apostle. Actually, it almost seemed that God chose him in spite of these qualities, and then had to retrain him. Listen to Paul’s inspired explanation of his calling:
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life (1 Tim. 1:15-16).
Paul was not chosen for his intelligence – an omniscient Being can’t be all that impressed with our intelligence – but because God wanted to give the world a dramatic example of his mercy and unlimited patience. Paul’s life is not a tribute to the achievements of intelligence and education, but rather an enduring monument to the power of God’s limitless mercy and patience.
Paul adopted the view of the Lord Jesus. He wrote:
No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit (1 Cor. 2:7-10 )
You would think that the most educated of all the apostles would place a high value on his education. But Paul didn’t. The reason is simple. The wisdom in which Paul was interested could not be found in or with the intellect of man. It was a secret wisdom that God had hidden. It cannot be penetrated by the human eye, ear, or mind. It could only be revealed by God through his Spirit.
But someone might object, “That wisdom has now been revealed in the Bible. Now we have that wisdom because we have the Bible.” But remember, the leading Bible scholars of Paul’s day had the Old Testament. They had wonderful prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, and they could quote these prophecies effortlessly. In this sense, they possessed the wisdom of God, but when the Messiah came, they failed to recognize him. Why? Because none of God’s revelation, not even the Bible, can be significantly understood apart from the revealing ministry of the Holy Spirit.
A BIBLE NOT UNDERSTOOD BY THE DISCIPLINED
Again and again the words of Jesus to the best biblical scholars of his day keep ringing in my ears. These people studied the Bible more than 99 percent of the people in the church today will ever study the Bible. They had more of the Bible memorised than 99 percent of the people in the church today will ever have memorised. Yet Jesus said to them:
And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (John 5:37-40).
You may think that since these words were directed to unbelieving Pharisees, they have no relevance to us Christians. After all, we’re believers and followers of Jesus. So were the twelve disciples, with one exception. Jesus told them they had a greater privilege than the rest of the population. He said, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables” (Luke 8:10 ). Then, while they were on the way to Jerusalem for the last time, he said, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). But they had no idea what he meant (v.45), even though he had previously warned them he would be killed (v.22). Luke said that the meaning of Jesus’ words had been hidden from the apostles (v.45). If something that plain could be hidden from Christ’s closest followers, don’t you think other important things could be hidden from us, things that can not be discovered with our minds?
And even though the disciples were believers, Jesus still had to warn them against being influenced by the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:5-12 ).
In principle, we acknowledge that we would never have become Christians apart from the supernatural revelatory ministry of the Holy Spirit. But now that we are “in,” we seem to think that we progress through intelligence rather than through the revelatory ministry of the Holy Spirit. We seem to think that the Bible can be understood through patient, disciplined, academic study. We presume that because Paul wrote about divine mysteries and because we can read, therefore we can understand these mysteries. It is true that the Holy Spirit does enter into our lives the moment we become Christians (Eph. 1:13), but that does not guarantee he will automatically illumine the Word of God for us.
A VOICE NOT HEARD WITH THE EARS
If you are not yet convinced that intelligence plays a limited role in the understanding of God’s voice, consider an incident in the life of Jesus that conclusively proves this very point. You would think that if God spoke in an audible voice, it would be crystal clear and that all would understand it. But remember the text I quoted before where Jesus prayed, “‘Father, glorify your name!’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again'” (John 12:28).
Even though the voice was clear and audible, only some heard him! Why could some not hear his voice? Was it due to their low IQ, poor interpretive skills, or inferior knowledge of biblical backgrounds? Revelation can’t get any clearer than an audible voice. If someone fails to understand the audible voice of God, it demonstrates that the key for understanding God does not lie in human intelligence. The key must lie somewhere else.
The key that unlocks the meaning of Scripture is not held by institutions of higher learning. It is found in the hand of Jesus Christ. The privilege of receiving it from his hand does not go to the intelligent. It does not go to the educated. It does not go to the powerful and the influential. The key is given on an altogether different basis.
The best interpreter of any literary work is usually its author. Many authors, however, refuse to comment on their works once they have been published, leaving readers and critics to find in them whatever they please. Is God that kind of Author? On the one hand, it may seem so. He was perfectly willing to let his Book become nothing more than dead letters to many of the best biblical scholars of Jesus’ day (John 5:37-40). They never heard his voice in the Bible, and he let them use his Book to argue against Jesus, his Son and their Saviour. He has let others of us within the church use the Bible for destructive purposes (2 Peter 3:16). But for some people, he personally enters into the “interpretive process” and explains the meaning and application of his Word.
THE TEACHER OF THE HEART
Remember the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)? When Jesus began walking along with the two disciples, they were prevented from recognising him. They even told “this stranger” how sad they were about the recent death of their master, Jesus. At that point he rebuked them, saying, “how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (vv. 25-26 ).
Jesus was not accusing them of stupidity. Their foolishness was not attributed to their defective intellects. Nor was the problem with the clarity of the Scriptures. According to Jesus, the Scriptures very clearly taught that the Messiah would have to suffer before he could enter into his glory. The problem was not with the condition of their IQ, but with the condition of their hearts.
After the rebuke, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ). This was not just a sermon to the two disciples. It was also a personal message from Jesus to his whole church. He was telling us that the greatest preacher in the church is, and always will be, Jesus himself. He is the pre-eminent preacher and teacher of the Word of God. He has not relinquished that position to anyone else, nor will he. He can’t be impeached, and he’ll never resign. Wherever the Word is preached or taught in power, it is because the Lord Jesus Christ is there speaking through a human voice and supernaturally revealing himself.
Jesus was telling us something else very important about the Bible as well. Luke says that Jesus “explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v 27). Although the Bible was clear the two disciples could not understand it until Jesus explained it to them. The word “explained” is the word in Greek used for translating a foreign language. It is also used for the spiritual gift of interpreting the gift of tongues. In other words, at critical points in our lives, when we most need to understand and apply the Scripture, it will be like a foreign language to us unless the Lord himself explains its relevance to us. To be sure, we can construct theological systems and teach some accurate doctrine without his help, but if we really want to meet him in the Scripture and understand his ways at the decisive moments of our lives, he must personally explain it to us.
At the conclusion of that wonderful sermon, Jesus sat down to dinner with these two disciples. During dinner, “their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he walked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'” (vv.31-32 ) God supernaturally “opened” the disciples’ eyes to recognize Jesus. He wasn’t making dumb people smart. He was letting these two disciples see who the Lord Jesus really was. The word translated “opened” is also used by Luke in Acts 16:14 when the Lord supernaturally opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s preaching.
Unless the Lord Jesus opens our eyes, we will never really see him. The disciples used the same word whenever they said that Jesus “opened the Scriptures to us.” Unless Jesus opens the Scriptures, we will miss much of their truth . We can read and memorize the Bible without Jesus. We can teach the Bible without him. But our hearts will never burn with passion until he becomes our teacher and eneters into the interpretive process with us.
Long ago, William Law wrote,
Without the present illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God must remain a dead letter to every man, no matter how intelligent or how well-educated he may be . . . it is just as essential for the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth of Scripture to the reader today as it was necessary for him to inspire the writers thereof in their day. . . . Therefore, to say that because we now have all the writings of Scripture complete we no longer need the miraculous inspiration of the Spirit among men as in former days, is a degree of blindness as great as any that can be charged upon the Scribes and Pharisees. Nor can we possibly escape their same errors; for in denying the present inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we have made Scripture the province of the letter-learned scribe.
If what Law said is true, then you may want to ask, “Of what value are intelligence and theological education in understanding the Scriptures?”
Let me try to answer that question by drawing your attention to Paul’s advice to the young minister Timothy. He wrote to Timothy:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim. 4:7-8).
Paul told Timothy there was a lot of unprofitable philosophical and theological speculation going on in his day. Instead of paying attention to that, he was to “train” himself to be godly. Paul was using an athletic metaphor. Just as athletes disciplined their bodies for the rigorous training that took place in the first-century gymnasiums, so Timothy was to take the same pains and use the same discipline to train himself in godliness. Certainly physical fitness has “some value,” but it can’t come close to competing with the value of godliness. That’s what I would say about education and intelligence. They have “some value,” but they can’t come close to competing with godly character.
Education and intelligence have their roles to play in God’s kingdom. But their roles are limited. We can be extraordinarily educated and intelligent and still be “slow of heart.” It is the heart that is the key to understanding God and his Word.
If the heart is the key, then the heart should get the most attention. But what we usually do in the church and in our theological schools is to assume that the heart is right, and then strive after the cultivation of the intellect. The process should be reversed. First, we should strive after a pure heart, and then with the time we have left over, we should pursue education – being careful throughout the whole process that the heart is never neglected for one second (Prov. 4:23; Matt. 5:8; Mark 7:6-7 ).
Please don’t misunderstand my comments about education and intelligence. I am grateful for the theological education I was privileged to receive. I love both the criticism and stimulation that my educated friends give me. What I am criticizing is the widespread tendency to exalt education and intelligence over the formation of the heart.
Someone who has been called by the Lord to give themselves to the task of theological education can be a great blessing to the church if they cultivate a Christlike character above all else. But of all callings, I think the professional theologian’s is the most spiritually dangerous. Knowledge can be so seductive. The more we know, the easier it is to feel superior to others. Our hearts are more fragile than we realize.
And pursuing Bible knowledge with a weak heart may further weaken the heart. If our Bible knowledge grows faster than our love, we will become arrogant (1 Cor. 8:1 ). And arrogant Christians do more damage in the body of Christ than all the enemies of Christ put together. Let me illustrate this as we take up the subject of authority.
In the days of my Bible deism, I easily saw what a serious thing it was to say to a person, “Thus says the Lord, you should do thus and so.” It was easy to see how subjective revelation could be influenced by prejudices and desires. It was easy to see how visions and impressions could be given the authority of the Bible and then misused. What I didn’t see in those days was how easily all revelation can be misused. Even the Bible can be significantly misused to one’s own detriment or to the detriment of others. But this is not a sufficient excuse for discarding the Bible.
One winter morning my Hebrew syntax class managed to derail me from discussing the finer points of infinitives and got me on to the subject of divorce and remarriage. Students can be so sneaky. A student who had finished about a year and a half of his four-year program confidently asserted that there could be no biblical remarriage under any circumstances after a divorce. He was absolutely certain that this was what the Bible taught.
I said to him, “Suppose you have a twenty-three-year-old woman in your church. She married when she was seventeen. She has three small children. Her husband divorced her because he was having an affair. He has now married the woman with whom he had the affair, so there is no question of him and his first wife being reconciled. She is now left alone, a single parent with three small children. She asks your advice. What would you say to her?”
“First of all you never interpret the Word by experience. You let the Word interpret your experience,” said the student.
I replied that I wasn’t even making an interpretation. I just wanted to know what he would tell the woman. Furthermore, I informed him that this was not a hypothetical situation. I was counseling very real people in two different but very tragic divorce cases.
“Well, I would tell her that the Word of God says that she has to remain single the rest of her life.”
“Do you realize what you have just said to her?” I asked the student. “You have just told her that she will have to raise three small children on her own. You have just told her that in a few years, when her sexual desires reach their strongest level of intensity, that she will have no legitimate way of satisfying them. You have just told her that if she remarries she will be an adulteress in God’s eyes. Do you realize that?”
“There you go again, citing experience to me,” he replied. “You can’t let experience determine how you interpret the Bible.”
“No, I am not interpreting the Bible by experience. I haven’t even begun to interpret the Bible yet. I just want to know if you are clear about what you are asking that woman to suffer. I just want to know if you realize the kind of life to which you have condemned her.”
“I didn’t condemn her to any kind of life. God is the one who says she has to remain single, and he’ll give her the grace to do so.”
I thought that was a pretty good answer, considering the position he had taken. Now we were ready to do a little interpretation. I asked him if he had considered the meaning of several important words in Paul’s statements about divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:8ff. He hadn’t considered the meaning of those words and didn’t understand why they might be significant. As the discussion progressed, it was clear his understanding of the divorce and remarriage texts was shallow. Yet based on this shallow understanding, he was prepared to say to that young woman, “God says you must raise your children by yourself. God says you can never find friendship and sexual pleasure with another man, even though it is not your fault that your husband committed adultery and left you for another woman.”
In my opinion, this was a horrible abuse of the Bible. At least it was an abuse as far as the student’s level of competence and biblical understanding went. He had no right to put that kind of burden on the young woman. Any time we say, “The Bible says” we run the risk of usurping God’s authority if our interpretation or application of the Bible is wrong. Instead of the authority being located in something as subjective as a dream or a vision, we have simply transferred that authority to our own interpretation, which may be every bit as subjective as anyone else’s dream or vision. Throwing out all subjective means of revelation does not protect divine authority, nor does it protect us from subjectivity or emotional instability. There are plenty of subjective, emotionally unstable, Bible deists running around loose in the church today.
SWORD OF THE SPIRIT OR BLUDGEON OF THE BULLY?
The student I just described thought of himself as a very stable person. He wasn’t stable. He was hard. He had bought into Bible deism’s first principle, that knowledge of the Bible is the highest value. This caused him to approach the Bible as a “subject” to be mastered. When someone thinks they have mastered the Bible, or mastered it relative to others in their circle, they inevitably become corrupted through the pride of knowledge. Remember, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). That’s when the Bible, as C. S. Lewis observed, “can take on a cancerous life of its own and work against the thing for whose sake it existed.” Instead of operating as the sword of the Spirit, the Bible in the hands of the Bible deist becomes the bludgeon of the bully. They use the authority gained by their superior knowledge of the Bible to bully the less knowledgeable. C. S. Lewis has not been the only one to warn us about the danger of becoming an “expert” in the Bible. Long ago, Jesus said, “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).
Owning a sufficient and inerrant Bible doesn’t guarantee we will get any help at all from the Bible. An inerrant Bible does not reveal the voice of God unless it is interpreted and applied correctly An inerrant Bible can even be put to destructive use in the wrong hands. Some have used the Scriptures to hurt people and to bring about their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). I know. I have used the Bible to hurt others and justify my own sin.
People who have a passion to know the Bible are capable of doing a great deal of harm to the church. Knowledge of the Bible leads to pride if it is not mixed with something else (1 Cor. 8:2). And unchecked pride in any form will lead to destruction (Prov. 16:18; 29:23).
In my enthusiasm to protect the authority of the Bible, I had committed the blunder that John Fletcher warned the church about so long ago: “embracing one error under the plausible pretense of avoiding another.” By trying to protect the Bible, I had thrown out all the other ways by which God might have spoken to me and even corrected me. I had even thrown out the key of which Jesus spoke, the key to understanding and applying the Bible.
To paraphrase Thomas Erskine, I had made the Bible my god, and therefore, did not often hear the God of the Bible.