Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

What is Prophecy? Part Two

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on June 4, 2012 at 2:25 am

Yesterday, I described my experience and understanding of what prophecy means, and how the churches of my youth understood Paul’s teachings about this spiritual gift. I grew up in Pentecostal churches, and I’m sure many readers with a similar background or current experience worshiping God will be able to relate.

Continuing to look at what Lindsay Harold said about prophecy in her comments on my site, it’s clear to me that she comes from a different Christian background. She felt that I didn’t understand what prophecy really is – which really means that I don’t share her particular point of view. Hundreds of thousands of Charismatic believers understand the scripture as saying that prophecy and revelation go hand in hand; hundreds of thousands of Baptist and Methodist believers would say that prophecy is really nothing more than just preaching. This just re-affirms the circular logic of the faithful:

  • My views are not my opinions – they are what God said in the Bible.
  • If you just take the time to read the Bible, you’ll see how valid my views are.
  • If you read the Bible and don’t come to the same conclusions I do, there something wrong with you.
  • Yes, I realize that there are hundreds if not thousands of different Christian beliefs that all say they base their ideology on the Bible, but their logic is faulty or they are reading it the wrong way.
  • My belief system is the final authority on how the Bible should be read and interpreted, because –
  • My views are not my opinions – they are what God said in the Bible.

Here are some of Lindsay’s other comments – again, very logical on one level, especially if you are already predisposed to believe.

In New Testament times, God was completing His revelation by revealing the mystery of Christ and His atonement and how the church was to function. However, revelation was closed with the completion of the New Testament. (Keep in mind that when Paul was writing, revelation was still going on).

Lindsay’s first sentence does have some grounding in the writings of the NT; however, her second sentence doesn’t. Where in Bible does it say that the time of revelation is closed? Well, nowhere. This idea, however, has been popularized by non-Charismatic pastors, most notably John MacArthur. In his lengthy essay Does God Still Give Revelation?he argues that no new revelation has been given since St. John wrote Revelations. (It’s interesting enough to read all eighteen pages, but if you want to cut to the chase, go to page 14. Or I can give you the super-super abridged version, “No, he doesn’t.”)

But his argument shows an unfamiliarity with how the NT was actually put together. The books were not written in the order that they appear in your Bible today – anyone who can read the notes before each book knows this. MacArthur seems to think that they were. The scriptures he gives are few and pulled at random from a number of texts – not presented in context. And, in fact, second century Christian leaders disagree with him. Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, both writing just after John’s Revelation was supposedly completed, believed that the gift of prophecy – as a modern Charismatic might interpret it – still existed in the church.

In the 1st century church, there was no such thing as a ‘New Testament’; there were only letters written to churches, and stories about the life of Jesus. No one who was writing thought they were establishing a ‘canon’ of scripture that would be considered the entirety of God’s revelation to mankind. They were simply writing down what they thought God had inspired them to write.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospels were not even attributed to the authors we know them by today until late in the 2nd century – 150 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Only in the early 4th century, during the reign of Constantine, would the idea of a book of complete and incontrovertible truth come along. The New Testament then was not so much ‘completed’ as it was assembled  – study the works of Eusebius to see how the books of the NT were chosen from among dozens of popular writings.

God has now given us the complete understanding of His commands and expectations in the Bible. He has revealed Himself to us in its pages. Thus, prophecy today does not consist of telling us new and previously unknown things about God and His commands as it once did. All that will be revealed to us (in this life) has already been revealed.

Believers who subscribe to this point of view often say that in Biblical times, prophecy meant ‘foretelling’, while in modern times, it simply means ‘forth-telling’.

Prophecy today consists of proclaiming the word that God has already revealed (i.e. proclaiming Biblical truths). It doesn’t have to be ONLY quoting scripture, it can also include explanations or rewording to make it more understandable, but there will be nothing fundamentally new because God has already revealed Himself.

In other words, when Paul wrote prophecy, he meant sermon. This really irks me when people who claim that the Bible is so inerrant that to change one tiny phrase would be blasphemous, then try to twist a phrase around when it suits them. Are we supposed to read the Bible as literally as possible? Or is it to be read metaphorically? Most believers say literally, when a literal reading supports their belief system, metaphorically when a literal reading challenges it.

Also, God now indwells the hearts of His people (believers) and speaks to them personally in revealing His personal will for their lives. We do not have prophets between us and God anymore. This more personal plan for individuals is not revelation (revealing God’s nature and commands for mankind), but God does speak to our hearts about His will for our lives and guides us through principles in His word. God can speak to us through the counsel of godly friends, but He does not tell another person things to tell me that I am commanded by God to do. The things I am commanded to do have already been given in His word. The things He has planned for my life particularly, He tells to my heart.

Again, why can’t Christians see the circular reasoning employed here? I know the Bible is true. I know this because God has spoken this truth to my heart. I know that God speaks to men’s hearts because it says so in the Bible.

By the way, it is not necessary to suspend rationality in order to have faith. The opposite of faith is not reason, but sight (check it out for yourself). In other words, we can know truth logically and still have faith in it because we haven’t seen it yet. For example, we Christians have faith that Christ will return for us. We haven’t seen it yet, but we believe it will happen (and we live out our faith by acting according to our belief). We do, however, have good and rational reasons for our faith. God never asked us to simply believe for the sake of believing.

I disagree. I think there are a lot of examples in the Bible where God asks people to believe for the sake of believing. And certainly churches today ask us to buy the whole ball of wax they are selling, no questions asked. I’m supposed to believe in the miraculous, even though no one has ever seen any evidence. I’m supposed to believe the Bible was written exactly the way the church says it was, when scholars since Martin Luther himself have said that this cannot be possible.

Hebrews says that “faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see”. It’s a beautiful scripture, but represents the conundrum of the person of faith who doesn’t want to be seen as irrational. Faith is the assurance that what we hope for but cannot see is true. Faith is irrational. It could be called ‘false hope’.

Also, just because people cannot agree on what the Bible says does not mean that there is no true meaning. There is only one correct interpretation for Scripture. We just understand it either better or worse.

Pull away all the posturing and appeal to reason, and at the end of the day, this is what faith requires. People disagree, but I’m sure I’m right. And everyone else is wrong. I understand better than you do.

In general, though, the main points are pretty clear and most Christians agree on them. Holding up a prophecy (in today’s world, think of prophecy as a sermon or something similar) to God’s word to see if it matches is one very important way of determining if a person is speaking for God.

If it’s so clear and most Christians agree on them – why are there 20 different churches competing for my tithes in even the smallest American town? And it seems obvious to me that if ‘prophecy’ can be twisted around to mean ‘sermon’ – then I can pretty much get any pet idea to ‘match’ God’s word.

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Blogging the Bible

In Blogging the Bible on May 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm

By Rembrandt.

This week I’m happy to get started on what I hope will be a central feature of American Secularist – a blog of the New Testament. Back when I taught Sunday School on a regular basis, I was a real student of the NT, reading it through a number of times. I believed, and still do, that anything happening in a person’s life that is part of his Christian experience should be measured against the words written in these twenty-seven books.

But why, you might ask, would a secularist blog be interested in looking so closely at the New Testament writings? Well, if I wanted to understand Russian culture, I might spend a bit of time reading Dostoyevsky or listening to Tchaikovsky. If I wanted to delve into the French mind, a bit of existentialism might be in order. Just as it would be impossible to understand Thai society without an appreciation for Buddhism, I think it’s impossible to understand how Americans think without some knowledge of the second half of the Bible, and the teachings that stem from it. To be sure, there are other influences on American thought, but in the mainstream, the Bible is still the most influential book.

I hope to take a fresh approach to the early Christian writings, looking at them without any pre-conceived ideas, as either a believer or a skeptic. A ‘scholarly’ approach would be a little heavier than what I have in mind as well – there are plenty of books available along those lines, if you can stay awake long enough to read them. As I read the scriptures, I simply want to answer a few questions about the relationships between mainstream American ideas and the Bible.  Some of the questions rolling around in my head are:

  • what exactly do Jesus and the Apostles have to say?
  • can we be reasonably sure that the Bible as we have it today accurately represents their ideas?
  • are there any recent discoveries that help us understand the context of the New Testament?
  • what doctrines / beliefs have Americans constructed from these writing?
  • is American Christianity an accurate representation of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles?
  • what relationship, if any, does the New Testament have with democratic government?

To give credit where credit is due, I also hope to continue the task one of my favorite on-line writers started, but never finished. A few years back, Slate writer David Plotz started blogging the Bible, but seemed to lose interest after the Old Testament. As he comes from a Jewish background, I can understand why he wouldn’t have much interest in the New Testament – and I guess after blogging on the Bible for two years, he may have just wanted to write about something else. Nonetheless, I always enjoyed reading his comments, so I was disappointed that he didn’t keep going. Here’s what he had to say about reading the Bible through:

Should you read the Bible? You probably haven’t. A century ago, most well-educated Americans knew the Bible deeply. Today, biblical illiteracy is practically universal among nonreligious people. My mother and my brother, professors of literature and the best-read people I’ve ever met, have not done much more than skim Genesis and Exodus. Even among the faithful, Bible reading is erratic. The Catholic Church, for example, includes only a teeny fraction of the Old Testament in its official readings. Jews study the first five books of the Bible pretty well but shortchange the rest of it. Orthodox Jews generally spend more time on the Talmud and other commentary than on the Bible itself. Of the major Jewish and Christian groups, only evangelical Protestants read the whole Bible obsessively.

That last line is one I may have to disagree with – I’m not sure that evangelicals read the whole Bible obsessively; popular Christian books and television programs seem to focus only on those scriptures that reinforce particular ideas, like the prosperity gospel. But I’m committed to keeping an open mind – please call me out whenever I fail to do so.

Will you join me in reading every single verse of the New Testament?