On Floating Axheads and Hungry Dragons

The Bible sounds weird to people today. There is no denying that. It is a compilation of 66 individual books, written over a very long period of time, in three different languages. It communicates God’s word in the idiom, speech and garb of a culture that perished long ago. This is why, in every seminary text on homiletics, there is a lot of discussion about how to communicate the Bible’s message to a contemporary culture.

In fact, in my sermon notes, I always included this picture from a preaching textbook[1] as a reminder about what my role was – to faithfully communicate God’s word to the people in the congregation.principalizing-bridge

Millard Erickson wrote a good bit about this conundrum, and the unbelieving response of the theological liberals. What he wrote is worth pondering:

One problem of particular concern to the theologian, and of course to the entire Christian church, is the apparent difference between the world of the Bible and the present world. Not only the language and concepts, but in some cases the entire frame of reference seems so sharply different . . .[2]

The average Christian, even the one who attends church regularly, lives in two different worlds. On Sunday morning, from eleven o’clock to noon, such a person lives in a world in which axheads float, rivers stop as if dammed, donkeys speak, people walk on water, dead persons come back to life, even days after death, and a child is born to a virgin mother. But during the rest of the week, the Christian functions in a very different atmosphere.

Here technology, the application of modern scientific discoveries, is the norm. The believer drives away from church in a modern automobile, with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, AM-FM stereo radio, air conditioning, and other gadgets, to a home with similar up-to-date features. In practice the two worlds clash. In the Christian’s biblical world, when people are ill, prayer is uttered for divine healing, but in this secular world, however, they go to the doctor. For how long can this kind of schizophrenia be maintained?[3]

All this is surely true. Thus, Erickson continues:

Here we must ask the question, What must we retain in order to maintain genuine Christianity, or to remain genuinely Christian?[4]

Erickson went on to list a few of the answers different people and institutions have given to this problem. What makes somebody a Christian? What is it about “the faith” which transcends cultures, from the 1st century to the 21st?[5]

  • Is it the institution of the church itself? This is Roman Catholicism’s answer. But, perhaps, some passionate Baptists ought to chime in here with a hurrah, as well (for very different reasons!).
  • Is it the cultural interpretation (and reinterpretation, and reinterpretation, etc.) of how God has acted in history?
  • Is it in the shared experiences people of faith have always had?
  • Is it the outward behavior, the zest for social justice, equity and democracy which is true Christianity?
  • Or, is it in the rule of faith, the doctrines and teaching of the Scriptures?

The Christian has always replied that doctrine defines what the faith is, and that doctrine is contained in the Holy Scripture, that “perfect treasure of heavenly instruction . . . the true centre of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”[6]

So, then, how do we contemporize the Christian message for men, women, boys and girls in 2017? Here we come to the great divide, the great chasm.

Erickson wrote that some men see themselves as translators; they seek to retain the same Biblical content, but re-package it in a more intelligible form. Anybody who has tried to teach older people how to use a computer has done this. I remember (years ago) trying to explain “File Manager” from Windows 3.11 to my grandfather.

“Imagine it’s a big file cabinet,” I said. “Inside this cabinet are all sorts of files, where everything on your computer is organized.”

I translated “File Manager” for my grandfather. I accurately explained what it was, but I used his own contemporary phrases and reference points as a bridge to explain this mysterious technology to him.

montoyaOthers, however, are transformers. These people seek to make major and systemic changes to the content in order to communicate it the modern listener. “[T]hey do not really regard the essence of Christianity as bound up with the particular doctrines that were held by ancient believers. Thus, it is not necessary to conserve or preserve these doctrines.”[7] Often, these folks use Christian language, but they mean something completely different. As the learned Spanish philosopher Inigo Montoya remarked, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means . . .”

You find these transformers in the so-called “mainline denominations.” These are those denominations which have been hemorrhaging members for decades, dying a slow and pitiful death, because they abandoned true Christianity a long, long time ago. These men do not regard doctrine as containing the true essence of Christianity. They cling to other things, like personal experiences, a perpetual reinterpretation of God’s in biblical history, subjective shared experiences, or an external social ethic.

As J. Gresham Machen noted so long ago, this is not Christianity at all – it is another religion. It is opposed to everything Jesus taught and came to fulfill:

It is perfectly clear, then, that the first Christian missionaries did not simply come forward with an exhortation they did not say: “Jesus of Nazareth lived a wonderful life of filial piety, and we call upon you our hearers to yield yourselves, as we have done, to the spell of that life.” Certainly that is what modern historians would have expected the first Christian missionaries to say, but it must be recognized that as a matter of fact they said nothing of the kind.[8]

Hear, hear!

When we preach and teach the Bible, whether as loving parents, long-suffering Sunday School teachers, bible study leaders or Pastors, we must be committed to be translators of the Word, not transformers. We must read the text, study the text, understand the essence of the doctrine being taught in a particular passage, and build a strong bridge from the Bible to 2017 – and back again.

Note that we are not giving a ‘dynamic equivalence’ of the biblical statement. What we are doing instead is giving a new concrete expression to the same lasting truth that was concretely conveyed in biblical times by terms and images that were common then.[9]

Amen.

NOTE: For an excellent discussion of this “interpretive journey,” see J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 39-49.

Notes

[1] J. Scott Duvall & J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 46.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 116.

[3] Ibid, 117-118.

[4] Ibid, 118.

[5] The list which follows is from Erickson (Christian Theology, 118-122).

[6] 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1, “Of the Scriptures.”

[7] Erickson (Christian Theology, 123).

[8] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (reprint; CrossReach Publications, Kindle ed.). KL 359-362.

[9] Erickson (Christian Theology, 129).

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