The B-I-B-L-E

It’s that time again, dear readers. I know I’ve written this message quite a bit, and I know you’re tired of hearing me rant and rave about it, but it’s necessary to address said topic once more. You see, I just got my hands on this year’s State of the Bible report, and it’s . . . well, it’s terrifying.

By now you’re already saying, “This again? This guy worships the Bible.” As a friend once said, the Baptist Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible, but here in the Christian Church, I’ll have you know we have Father, Son, and Holy Potluck (we seem slightly scared of the Holy Spirit, too, to be honest). In all seriousness, I don’t worship the Bible (or the potluck). I don’t think the word of God is God; I know, however, the Word of God is. I will not worship a book, but I will praise the One who is revealed to us in its pages. With that said, it’s easy to recognize the significance of the Bible: it is God’s primary way of revealing Himself to humanity, our best source to learn about Him and His will for us. Nothing which does that can be taken lightly.

Unless, of course, you don’t want to accept it at all.

According to the data gathered by the Barna Group, the number of people who fall on that side of the spectrum is growing. Of the 2,030 adults in the U.S. included in the survey results, 32% never read the Bible at all and only 16% read it daily. More alarmingly to me as a minister, only 93% of practicing Protestants and 88% of practicing Catholics hear the Bible read in church at least weekly. What do they do the other 7%/12% of the time? If we aren’t using Scripture every time we worship, what are we using? What forms the basis for our preaching, the latest issue of Time? If we don’t always read the Bible in our worship services, how can we possibly expect people to always read their Bibles at home? Well, the data are in: we don’t and they don’t, either. In fact, even the desire to read isn’t always there. A full 9% of practicing Protestants and 22% of practicing Catholics say they have no wish to read the Bible more often than they do. Outside the church, among those Barna classifies as “antagonistic” (those who see the Bible as a fully human book designed to control others), that number skyrockets to 91%.

Also frightening to me are the responses to what is being read. I can’t really argue with the 52% (of 668) who feel peaceful or the 49% who are more hopeful after reading Scripture. What bothers me is the mere 1% who feel convicted. That’s right: of the 874 people who responded to the question in 2016, almost nine of them felt convicted or guilty in some fashion. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting the primary function of the Bible is to inspire guilt, but the word of God should encourage us to be better, to sin less, to change our lives, and I can’t imagine that process beginning without a catalyst, a felt need — a sense that something in rotten in Denmark, a prodding of the Holy Spirit’s convicting grace. But I guess that goes hand in hand with the fact a full 7% of 341 respondents read the Bible and give no thought whatsoever to how it might apply to their lives.

There’s no reason to apply it, though, when something else can do the job. Of practicing Protestants, those who consider their faith very important and who worship at least monthly, 98% believe the Bible is a holy book — and 8% believe the same of the Quran, and 1% say no text is sacred. Ten percent believe all so-called holy books are simply different takes on the same faith and teach the same truths, and 13% maintain the U.S. Constitution is more important to teach and maintain morality (not law, morality) in our country than the Bible is. Then again, 6% believe it’s worse to be labeled intolerant than immoral, and 19% see no problem with being called either one, so why bother with a biblical morality at all? Again, these figures are for practicing Protestants. American adults on the whole paint a far more dismal picture.

What is considered unimportant remains unknown; the acquisition of knowledge requires a certain investment of caring about the subject matter. It should come as no surprise, then, to discover 7% of adults surveyed believe Paul was the disciple who betrayed Jesus and 5% think he was the first to see the resurrected Christ (only 56% and 57%, respectively, selected the correct answer from the available options). Moreover 3% believe Scripture says nothing whatsoever about serving the poor, another 3% say the Bible strongly encourages prostitution, and 53% thinks the word of God strongly discourages pornography (with 31% responding it’s totally silent on the subject).

It gets worse. Of a sample of 1,025 adults, few of them let the Bible inform their views on social matters. The following said the Bible has zero influence on their views of these issues: abortion, 47%; LGBT concerns, 53%; refugees, 45%; money, 50%; immigration, 57%; and war, 54%. The numbers for practicing Protestants: 11%, 20%, 12%, 6%, 24%, and 25%, respectively. Not even all Protestant Christians let the Bible speak to how they view the world, and the figures for Catholic Christians are no better. Small wonder, then, no one else consults the word of God on these matters.

Worse than apathy is antipathy. Again speaking of the general populace, 53% believe the Bible is oppressive towards the LGBT community, 37% towards women, and 26% towards various races. Almost one in five (18%) won’t read the Bible at all simply because of their views on homosexuality. But we’re also upset with the moral state of America. A full 81% say morality is declining in the United States, with 39% attributing it primarily to corporate corruption and greed, 33% to the negative influence of the various media, and 27% saying it’s because people don’t read their Bibles enough (the choice of only 55% of practicing Protestants). I can’t deny the influence of Hollywood and Wall Street, but they seem to me to be symptoms rather than root causes. If more people read the Bible and had a personal relationship with the God who inspired it, the symptoms just might get better.

I realize I’ve just thrown a lot of discouraging statistics at you. We can all see the Bible wields increasingly little influence in our society, not least because no one read it and believes it. The obvious solution is to teach it and preach it, to develop new paths of discipleship so as to increase one’s points of contact with Scripture. But that won’t be enough. We must do more to preach Christ and him crucified, to point to the God of the Bible, both in word and in deed. As people come to love God, they will love His Book. As they learn more about the Book, they learn more about God. As they learn more about God, they love Him more, and the cycle repeats. So while we must get more Bible into the hands of more people, we must start with loving them in the name of Jesus. Both components are crucial in making disciples who will make disciples.

That requires us to commit ourselves to the Bible. We, as individuals, need to read it and apply it to our lives. We must adopt a biblical worldview in all areas of life, fix before our eyes a cruciform lens sculpted by the Word of God through the word of God. Only then will we see the lives of others change as they, too, pick up the Holy Bible.

Tolle lege.

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The Bible Fireside Chat

Any man will tell you: when a woman utters these four words in this exact sequence, his stomach drops, his heart skips a beat, and he immediately begins mentally reviewing his sins over the past decade:

“We need to talk.”

Friends and readers of both sexes, I don’t mean to alarm you. I don’t wish to frighten you. All I want to do is have a nice fireside chat with you for a moment. But with that said,

We need to talk.

I want to begin by acknowledging it’s always dangerous to begin a blog with a second set of four words, but I’m also going to say them, too:

It seems to me . . .

It seems to me our churches don’t take the Bible very seriously.

Before you close this tab in righteous indignation, let me explain what I am not saying. I’m not saying we think it’s trivial or insignificant. I’m not saying we try to marginalize it, demythologize it, or otherwise de-value it or empty it of content. And I’m not saying we don’t (on the whole) try to reorient our lives around its message.

What I am saying is we simply don’t know what it says and that its full proclamation is sadly lacking in many churches today. By “many churches,” I mean congregations throughout the entire spectrum: Christian Church churches, United Methodist Church churches, Episcopal Church churches, Baptist Church churches, all of them. All of us. I fully realize the gravity of this charge, so let me state my case.

My first real hint of the level of biblical illiteracy rampant in our pews came during seminary. A required textbook, Barna’s Futurecast (2011), gave me these research statistics:

  • 45% of all adults believe the Bible is accurate in its principles (p. 132)
  • 63% believe David killed Goliath with a sling and stones (p. 134)
  • 60% believe Peter walked on water (p. 134)
  • 44% read their Bibles at least once per week (p. 171)

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s pretty bad, but Chris, these are issues of belief and practice, not knowledge of content.” So let’s have some more stats, this time from the 2015 edition of the American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible report (pp. 68-70):

  • Only 74% of practicing Protestants could correctly identify Abraham’s son of promise from a list of four names
  • 35% of adults ages 18-30 believe Mary has a book of the Bible named for her (Esther was given as a possible response)
  • Only 61% of those ages 31-49 believe the Bible strongly encourages serving the poor

If you’ve ever played a round of Bible trivia with your friends (or watched the average Jeopardy! contestant fail miserably in Bible-related categories), you can come up with many more (and more personal) examples.

We simply don’t know our Bibles anymore. And it seems the younger you are, the less you know (even relatively speaking; it’s a generational thing).

Why? Perhaps because we think singing vegetables, fantastic though they may be, can teach our children everything they need to know about Scripture. We’ve exchanged worshiping together as a family in earshot of a sermon for children’s church programs requiring far more props than Bibles and featuring more games than reading. (Some programs are good; many are not.) Parents no longer disciple their children at home, the one place they should personally spiritually invest in their children the most.

And we ministers have failed far more people than just children.

How much Scripture is read during worship? Do we include a variety or just the sermon text? When you announce your text from the pulpit, can people find the book under discussion, or would they spend an awkward few minutes trying to locate Hezekiah 4? Do we choose songs which let us sing our Bibles? The psalms are songs, after all, and many hymns offer an abundance of Scripture. How are our Christian education programs doing? Are they well-attended? Do they teach the Bible first and foremost, or are they primarily topical discussions with a few prooftexts thrown in? Will someone learn biblical truths or attend for years and still think Moses built the ark and Deborah was a baker of delicious snack cakes? Bible studies are exactly that: studies of the Bible. Are you spending time studying and discussing the Bible, verse by verse if necessary, or are you having short speeches on The Controversial Topic of the Day Which Doesn’t Appear in This Chapter We Didn’t Really Read Anyway®?

Of first importance to me is the sermon. First, let’s talk content, and then we’ll discuss styles. I begin with a caveat: if you never preach about Christ and his atoning death on the cross in your sermon, all you’ve done is deliver a well-crafted lecture or inspirational speech. It is not a gospel sermon. But you can and should build everything around that core of the gospel — and that means drawing on the entire canon. Preach Titus. Do a series in Deuteronomy or Lamentations. Preach the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible. Yes, you should, as a pastor, constantly be reading other books and sharing those theological insights with your congregations. But the church is not a book club: if you’d rather preach Calvin supplemented by Paul instead of Paul with commentary from the Genevan on Sunday mornings, get out of the pulpit and get yourself booked on Oprah. (Although I’ve never seen her add an orthodox theology text to her book club reading list.) Preach the text — the text illuminated by other texts. Bring in John’s gospel to help teach his epistles. Use the Aaronic and levitical priesthoods in Leviticus to shed light on Christ’s role as high priest in Hebrews. Use the Bible to preach the Bible.

There are a variety of preaching styles, and any one of them can do this effectively. I’m an expository preacher, meaning my sermons delve into the passage and stay there; I try to explain — to exposit — those verses to the congregation. I do this because I believe it is the best way to preach the text of the Bible. But narrative and topical preaching have their roles, too — just keep them anchored to the text. Without wanting to disrespect the preachers who have gone before me, I admit I’m currently discovering an entire generation of preachers whose sermons are nothing more than a series of illustrations held loosely together by a select thematic verse or two. Don’t do that. If you preach only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes, then your congregation will learn only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes. But if you systematically preach Scripture, then your congregation will learn the Bible. There is a place for sermon illustrations, yes, but they complement the text, not the other way ’round.

My seminary’s motto is “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.” Christians, that’s our mission: taking all of the Bible to all of the earth. But to do that, we have to know it. We have to preach it. We have to teach it. We have to read it on our own in our homes. The only way to fix the biblical illiteracy of our churches and our larger culture is to once more become a people of the Book. Of one Book: the Holy Bible. Write its words in your hearts that you may help others to do likewise.

We cannot be obedient to God if we don’t know what He said.

F.A.Q. #7: What’s Up with All These Translations?

Christians have long been considered “the people of the Book.” While practically every religion has a sacred text of some sort (the Qur’an, Torah, the Bhagavad Gita), the Church of Christ seems to be especially dedicated to its scriptures. The Holy Bible is a constant across the faith; worship styles, church architecture, and other local traditions may come and go, but every believer experiences the normative (and life-giving) influence of the Bible. (Or at least we should.) This raises a fairly important question: which Bible? Do we believe things as they appear across translations, or do we establish dogma only on the Vulgate? The King James? Can we trust every translation and version to be faithful to the original manuscripts — or should we even care?

I think it’s important to understand the process of compiling a new version of the Bible. There are several different approaches, and each one has its own merits. Some translations seek to provide a literal, word-for-word version of the manuscript. If, for example, the Hebrew reads “his countenance fell,” then these versions also read “his countenance fell” instead of something like “he was saddened.” Literal translations have the advantage of extreme faithfulness to the verbiage of the manuscripts, but what they gain in fidelity, they can sometimes lose in readability. Take, for example, the first editions of the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The translators set out to make the most literal English translation in history, a feat which they accomplished — at the cost of sounding like Yoda. Preserving the word order of the source languages meant keeping some verbs at the end of the clause or verse, and so the finished product was a little hard to keep up with at times. (Unless, of course, you happened to be a small green Jedi master who lives in a swamp on Dagobah.)

On the flip side of the literal/word-for-word translation are “thought-for-thought” translations, the most extreme being paraphrase versions of the Bible. Thought-for-thought translations aren’t concerned necessarily with the words themselves; rather, they prefer to rephrase the meaning behind the words in a way the target readers would understand. In keeping with my original example, instead of a Hebrew verse reading “his countenance fell,” these would opt for “he was saddened” or something along similar lines. A more concrete example is the New Living Translation’s (NLT) John 3:16. Instead of the “only-begotten son” of the original Greek, it reads “one and only son.” Every translation does this on occasion (yes, even the beloved KJV exchanges “born from above” for “born again” earlier in John 3), but some versions use this as a standard mode of operation. The paraphrase editions such as The Message and The Voice give up on word-for-word translations altogether and instead use contemporary language exclusively (including modern slang and other colloquialisms which weren’t even invented at the time Scripture was being written).

Of course, some translations try to straddle the fence and use a combination of both word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations. The most common of these is probably the New International Version (NIV), and this approach may account for the translation’s success in church circles worldwide. If you ever want a spectrum of translations mapping out which ones fall under what translation style, you can find a pretty good one in most Christian bookstores or online here and here.

Alright. We understand the basic options in putting together a new version from the source texts. But what sources do we use?

Modern translations are typically made from the Greek and Hebrew texts used by biblical scholars, which are themselves carefully compiled and edited to give a “best reading” from the original manuscripts. I have to say “best reading” because not every manuscript is identical. Thousands of scrolls exist, and some of them have been adapted or edited by the scribes for various reasons (for more info on this, see my earlier post here). For this reason, many Bibles have footnotes or other notations explaining how a word could be translated a different way or that a specific verse or passage doesn’t appear in other manuscripts. The New Testament of the King James Version, for example, was translated from the Textus Receptus (“Received Text”) and supplemented by earlier English translations (particularly for Revelation). Since its creation in 1611, other manuscripts have been uncovered which offer a new best reading or majority text which differs from the one used for the KJV, and these texts are used for newer translations. In other words, because we have more and better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts than we did 400 years ago, we understand that some verses probably aren’t authentic and are thus either removed entirely or annotated in newer, more accurate translations. (For the die-hard KJV-only crowd: I’m not saying your preferred version is bad; I’m just saying there are better ones on the market nowadays, both in terms of accuracy and readibility, even though they potentially drop some of your favorite verses. And I guess I’m also saying it’s kind of silly to say a single translation in a language spoken by a fraction of the world’s population for only a couple of hundred years is the definitive version/the only “real” Bible; I mean, Jesus didn’t sound like Shakespeare.)

The multitude of versions of the Bible shouldn’t necessarily be a source of concern for the Christian. Each one fills a niche in terms of readership. For example, I would be hard-pressed to find a middle school student who loved the beauty of the King James or felt up to the task of handling the NASB, but I just might be able to get a seventh grader to dive in to the NIV, NLT, or CEB. On the other hand, a scholar wanting to work with the English text will probably reach for an NASB, ESV, or RSV, but the same scholar might not consider The Message to even be a real Bible. Each one conveys gospel truth and the full body of our sacred writings; they merely package it differently so as to make it accessible to a wide range of readers — believers and nonbelievers alike.

And just because you asked (okay . . . you didn’t, but I know you really wanted to), I prefer either the English Standard Version (ESV) or the NASB for my own reading and devotions, and I find the NIV and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) useful for teaching and preaching. I just personally prefer a literal, word-for-word text (which is also why I use a Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament for all of the above — but that’s another thing altogether).

F.A.Q: Can We Trust the Bible?

One of the foundational principles — perhaps the foundational principle — of Christianity is that our book, the Holy Bible, is reliable. It is a true record of historical events, poetry, and prophecy which should be treated as authentic and authoritative. Its truths are absolute, not relative. The information contained within its pages serves as the final word on matters of faith, and any practice which contradicts Scripture should be reformed or abandoned. All of this is based on the premise the Bible is accurate and inspired by God. So . . . is it? Can we trust the Bible?

Most common claims against the reliability of the Bible seem to center on its composition. After all, the people who are said to have written most books were probably illiterate, and at the very least, the stories had to survive many, many years as oral history before being finally written down as a manuscript. Then one has to consider how those manuscripts have changed across millennia. Didn’t they break down like a game of Telephone? One guy writes down something, another guy copies it but makes a mistake or a change, the next guy does the same thing, someone else didn’t like what it said and so rewrote it according to a private agenda, and on and on throughout the centuries?

Well, no. That’s exactly what did not happen. I personally believe most of those questions are based on a really arrogant view that we, modern women and men, are inherently intellectually superior to anyone who came before us. We wouldn’t make those mistakes, but the poor benighted souls in ages past just weren’t so bright, bless their hearts, and so they made mistakes. Rubbish — as we shall see.

Let’s begin with oral history. It’s true that the New Testament wasn’t completely finished until the 90s AD (most date Revelation around 96, and it was the last book to be completed/written down). Most were probably codified between 60-80, with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) finished before 70. Even so, detractors say, that’s still at least a thirty-ish year gap between the death of Christ and written history about his life. (Let’s not even talk about the Old Testament with its books written across a span of around a thousand years by some estimates.) Could people have accurately told and retold the story of Christ and his church for decades before anyone (also accurately) wrote it down? Yes, they could have. It was common practice among ancient philosophers and historians to assess their students via recitation. You were not said to have truly learned from your teacher if you could not repeat what you had been taught verbatim. Some stories have the great Pythagoras (of theorem fame) not allowing his students out of bed until they could recite, word-for-word, everything learned the previous day. The rabbinic tradition of NT times did much the same thing: a disciple would be forced to memorize his lessons as spoken by his master. This included scripture, too; the Torah would have been completely memorized verbatim by age thirteen (at the latest). Memorization of orally-learned material was essential for the knowledge of the day to survive. (Similar methods are used among oral cultures even today.) It’s entirely possible — even highly likely — that the events recorded in Scripture happened exactly as they’re given to us.

What do we do, then, when we have seemingly conflicting reports? Not even the synoptics tell every story exactly the same way. Sometimes one leper is healed, sometimes ten; sometimes the tree cursed by Jesus on the way into Jerusalem withers immediately, and sometimes it happens much later. Can we reconcile these different accounts, or is this obvious evidence not even the authors can get their stories straight? Two considerations to take into account here are genre and private agendas. The gospels are ancient biographies, and they’re written as such. That is, they focus on the adult life of the main personage (Jesus Christ) with special attention to his death, outstanding circumstances surrounding his birth, and his teachings (especially when the main character can outsmart other teachers). Ancient biographies aren’t in chronological order; instead, they’re arranged either more topically or in the way that best presents the narratives. This is one reason, for example, the synoptics have the cleansing of the Temple just before the crucifixion, thus presenting it as a proximate cause, but John’s gospel places it at the beginning of the book, thus showing the zeal and authority of the Son of God. Agendas of the authors play into this, too. In my last example, John sets out to prove the divinity of Christ, so he highlights events showing exactly that: cleansing the Temple, the miracles/signs, the “I am” statements, etc. Luke is a historian/physician concerned with the plight of the poor and marginalized, so he includes the story of the Good Samaritan and other sayings of Christ featuring our duty to care for our neighbors. Matthew is a Jewish author writing to a Jewish audience, and so he focuses on the continuities between the covenants and how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah (the reason his book is first in the NT and thus closest to the OT, as a matter of fact). This isn’t to say that the texts are so agendized they destroy the truths they contain. Nothing is distorted or falsified; it’s simply presented in such a way as to promote a specific point or highlight a specific facet of Jesus’ life (or the life of Moses, or the Israelite monarchy).

Alright, so the original manuscripts were alright. What about how they’ve changed since then? For the continued accuracy of the manuscripts, we thank the Irish. Irish monks during the so-called Dark Ages worked tirelessly to preserve any documents they could find; they truly saved the bulk of human knowledge from being utterly lost. They also kept copies of biblical manuscripts, preserving them verbatim. There are differences, of course, in some manuscripts. The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8 doesn’t appear in most of the earliest copies of the gospel, for example. Do we chuck it out? No, even if a monk somewhere down the line thought, “You know, people should know about this, and since it’s in this copy, I’ll put it in that one, too.” Most of the differences/changes are discussed in the comments on the margins of the copied texts (marginalia). Marginalia, incidentally, is hilarious. You can read comments from copyists complaining about their bosses, how hard their chairs are, how bad their hands are cramping, and just about anything else (in addition to “added vv. 3-7 because of inclusion in MS P35” and the like).

So we see the original texts were solid, and the copies passed down through history are pretty legitimate, too. But how do we know we have the books we needed? Wasn’t the Bible decided by popular vote, anyway?

Nope! This is probably the greatest urban legend regarding how the canon became the canon. Rumor has it that the first Council of Nicaea (called by Emperor Constantine in 325) set out to establish what writings would and would not be included in the Bible. They didn’t. What they did do was affirm what had already been selected. The worshiping church until that time used only certain of the texts floating around based on a few rather strict criteria: the Jewish Tanakh became our Old Testament, and New Testament books had to be written by an apostle, suitable for preaching/use in worship, and it had to agree with the regula fidei (the rule of faith — that is, it couldn’t contradict known doctrine or practices as handed down by the apostles). Even so, different people came up with different lists of what they thought should be included. The church father Irenaeus came up with the first real listing in ~180: the OT according to the Greek translation (the Septuagint, a.k.a. LXX), four gospels, and the letters of Paul. Origen (~250) and Eusebius (~325) omitted some of the epistles. The Muratorian Canon was the first list widely circulated (in ~200). Nicaea then affirmed the books already in use, and some years later (367), the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athanasius gave us the listing we have today. Thirty years later, the Council of Carthage officially closed the canon in its current form.

Since then, the canon has changed for Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church still count as canonical the Apocrypha, other books or parts of books originally included in the Tanakh. The Jews largely abandoned the use of those bits in 90A.D., and, building upon that fact as well as legitimate questions regarding content and authorship, Martin Luther moved them to reside between the testaments in the Bible. Luther also wanted to chuck other books from the NT, but he refrained. In any event, in the 1700s, a revision of the King James Bible removed the Apocrypha completely, leaving Protestants with the now-standard sixty-six books we have today.

The composition of the Bible is solid from start to finish, regardless of how many centuries it spanned in order to come to us in its present form. Modern scholarship is certainly up to the task of making new translations in any number of languages, each as accurate to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic as the earliest translations were (or even more so [sorry Vulgate fans]). The last real question of reliability, then, is whether we treat the Bible as inerrant (totally free from error in the original manuscripts in any fashion) or infallible (totally free from error in matters of faith and morals/dogma). The inerrancy debate has raged for centuries, and I’m not going to even attempt to solve it here. To me, it comes from whether we treat Scripture completely as literal history or if we take into consideration matters of genre. I doubt, for example, every event mentioned in poetry is 110% historically accurate, and the book of Revelation has so many different ways to read it most people give it a miss entirely. Regardless of one’s stance on if every Israelite king truly reigned during the given timeframes, we can all readily affirm the Bible lacks any error whatsoever when it teaches us the story of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the story of the church, and all manner of Christian doctrine as the church has understood it, always and everywhere.

I realize this doesn’t deal with what is, to most post-Enlightenment readers, the impossible: miracles, spiritual warfare, etc. But that’s another post for another day. This one is already long enough, but I hope it demonstrates to you the reliability and authenticity of the Holy Bible, God’s inspired word.