F.A.Q.: The Dirty Half-Dozen (Minus One)

I was recently asked to do a post on what I believed to be the top five misconceptions regarding biblical Christianity (or, phrased another way, the five most popular wrong ways to read the Bible). After giving it much thought, this is my list. Any post like this is inherently dangerous, but I hope to be fair to each of these. By no means am I disparaging those who hold to these beliefs; rather, I think these beliefs themselves are horribly flawed, regardless of their popularity.

1. Gnosticism

Gnosticism is one of the oldest heresies on the books, but it seems it just won’t die. Instead it simply shifts subtly and keeps right on trucking. In its earliest iterations, gnosticism was a special scheme for salvation in which one required secret knowledge (the gnosis) in order to be saved. Gnosis was taught by Christ to the true disciples (which could be any or all of them, depending on who you read), and these disciples taught it to their own true students. In short, what we read in the Bible is totally insufficient for salvation; we still need the gnosis. This has, for the most part, been pushed to the background, but another component of gnosticism is alive and well: the concept that all things physical are inherently evil. Gnosticism is dualistic: the physical is evil and the spiritual is good. (In the Gospel of Judas, for example, Judas is esteemed above all other apostles because he alone took steps to free Jesus from his evil, earthly, physical form — namely, he had him killed — so his good soul could escape its fleshly prison.)

Most of us wouldn’t go to that extreme, but we still see anything on this earth as evil, while things of a spiritual kingdom of God are the true goods in life. To a certain extent, this is true; the three great enemies of the soul are the world, the flesh, and the devil, after all. But this fails to read even the first chapter in the Bible, Genesis 1. When God created the world, He declares it good at every turn. While creation is marred by sin a mere two chapters later, it isn’t destroyed beyond repair. The grace of God continues to work in the world to redeem it, and all of creation groans in eager expectation of its redemption (Romans 8:22-23). The physical isn’t inherently evil; it’s simply sick, disease, sin-stricken, and it needs the salvation of God the same as our souls. After all, we look forward to the resurrection (and perfection) of the body — not casting the physical form aside entirely to dwell as spirit alone in the New Jerusalem. If a physical form were truly beyond the pale, God would never again give us bodies of any sort.

2. Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism has many tenets, and I don’t have space to address them all here. Suffice it to say, however, that it is a system of belief (including a way to read both the Bible and church history) which is incredibly prevalent in the small churches of America today, particularly in the South. This is the doctrine which gives us both the rapture and the sort of “support the nation-state of Israel at all costs) Zionism many of us grew up hearing. (And believing.)

Dispensationalism began in 1830 and owes its existence to one John Nelson Darby. Darby, after hearing a dream from a young girl in which believers simply disappeared at the return of Jesus while others were left behind, conceived of a theology which would allow Christians to leave the world before a period of intense persecution (The Great Tribulation), ending in Christ’s real second coming and the end of the world. At first, no one took him at all seriously, but his views came to gain traction in America. Darby’s theology was picked up by Dwight Moody and Cyrus Scofield, the latter of which popularized it in a study Bible bearing his name. Tellingly dispensationalism experienced its largest periods of growth during America’s darkest times: the Civil War, World War I, and Vietnam. After all, when times get tough, it’s comforting to think you’ll go to heaven before it gets any worse.

The problems with Dispensationalism are manifold. First, it should be noted that the rapture (and militant Zionism) didn’t exist until Darby invented them in 1830. For the first 1800 years of church history, no one read the Bible the way he did, and no church ever made such things official dogma. In short, it’s simply too new to be true (unless, for some inscrutable reason, God hid the truth for almost two millennia and decided to let everyone believe lies). Second, it’s an inherently American phenomenon; Dispensationalism is very much a fringe theology in the rest of the world (if it exists there at all). Since America is not God’s chosen nation to bear in solitude the true Gospel, I think this should worry us. Third, the writings of Paul consistently tell us there are no Jews or Gentiles in the Christian age and in the salvation of Christ. Jesus himself as well as Peter say salvation comes through no other door than the cross of Christ. How, then, can we believe Jews who reject Christ will be saved — and deserve special respect and protection because somehow they remain God’s chosen people? A God who chooses the world through the gift of His Son will not make that gift irrelevant by saying we can be saved by doing exactly what we were doing before he came. Zionism just doesn’t add up.

Then we have to consider the most damning evidence against it: the rapture itself. In this view of the end times (eschatology), Jesus ends up coming back not once, but twice. He returns to take the church with him, the world continues spinning, and then he returns again to usher in the end of the world and final judgment. Some argue this first “Second Coming” happens only in the clouds, but . . . why would Jesus stop halfway to the earth? Since we’re assured everyone will know when Christ comes back, why hide behind blobs of water vapor and leave it to the “left behind” to figure out what happened? That doesn’t sound like coming in glory and power to me (see Mark 13:26 and its parallels). At no point does the Bible even imply Jesus will come back a second and third time. We look forward to the Second Coming wherein all will come to a close — and thus eternity begins. No one ever says we should truly watch for the Third Coming of Christ. (Because there isn’t one.) The word “rapture” doesn’t appear anywhere in Scripture. To be fair, neither does “Trinity,” but at least Trinitarian Christianity has always existed and always been considered implicit in the biblical text.

Dispensationalism may be extremely popular (especially in my own context), but it simply doesn’t add up biblically, theologically, historically, or any other -ically. No one gets left behind, but everyone will face judgment at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

3. Newspaper Hermeneutics

This is another popular thing to do. “Hermeneutics” essentially boils down to “interpretation”; a hermeneutic is a system for interpreting the Bible (or other things). “Newspaper hermeneutics,” then, means interpreting the Bible according to the newspaper. We read the newspaper headlines (“War in Syria,” “Russia Rises,” “United Nations Passes Resolution,” “Churches Affirm Gay Marriage,” “Star Wars in Theaters Again”) and instantly jump to our Bibles (typically to Revelation and Daniel) and scour the pages until we find some verse or two we can squint at and find said headline. In this way, we make everything in the Bible prophecy: nothing can be fully historical since we haven’t seen it in the newspaper yet.

There are obvious problems with this. For starters, since the youngest book in the Bible is some 1920 years old, I think it’s safe to say the overwhelming majority of it has already happened. Secondly, this fails to take into consideration things such as genre and original audience. Revelation, for example, is apocalypse intended for the first century Church, and it uses symbolism readily understandable by those early believers. I personally believe almost all of Revelation (and all of Daniel) has already occurred, which definitely excludes the sensationalist journalism I get every day from the various media outlets. Finally, this sort of thing is what we call eisegesis, a “reading into” the Bible what we want to find. If, for example, I want to prove someone is The Antichrist, all I have to do is find specific verses, take them out of context, and make my case. (I mean, I can quote a psalm to prove God doesn’t exist if I want to do things like that.) Instead of reading the Bible, piecing it together, and letting it speak for itself — then accepting it for what it truly says — newspaper hermeneutics force the texts to say what I think they should say — and so I end up with a God and a Bible which very much look like me and which in fact look nothing like the real God or His true revelation.

Don’t get me wrong: Christ gives us multiple commands to watch for the signs of the end times, and we should be watchful and ready when they come. I just don’t believe we need to twist Scripture in order to see them, but, rather, we should use Scripture to help us recognize them when they do appear.

4. “Jesus Is Everything in the Old Testament”

I realize Christ is the fulfillment of the law. I understand the Old Testament ends on a note of eager expectation awaiting the coming Messiah. I do. But by no means does every single verse in the entirety of the OT scream “This is about Jesus!” Certainly specific texts do. There’s an entire type of psalm called messianic psalms, for example, and they clearly speak of the Christ to come. Isaiah’s Servant Song, Malachi’s messenger of a new covenant or a return of Elijah, etc., all are obvious references to the life and person of Jesus. But I find it both intellectually dishonest and simply wrong to make every verse say something about Christ when they obviously don’t (another instance of eisegesis).

For example, I recently made a curriculum to teach the messianic prophecies of the OT. When comparing lists others had compiled, most of them gave somewhere in the 300-400 range. I read them all. And what I found was that most, in my opinion, have nothing to say about Jesus. “A rod will come out of Jesse” means Jesus. “Enoch was translated that he should not see death” does not. That doesn’t mean “Oh, well, this is talking about the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.” It means, “Enoch was translated that he should not see death.” We can’t even apply all of the details of David’s life to Christ, even though he was a Davidic king. After all, nowhere does the New Testament tell us Jesus was handsome, or that he loved someone named Jonathan in a special way, or that he committed adultery and murder, or that he had a terrific singing voice (no matter what Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Schwartz might write.) Were both shepherds and kings? Yes. Both descendants of Jesse? Check. But the comparison stops there. Some verses are simply about David and not Jesus. And so goes the rest of the Old Testament.

5. Scripture Alone

My last grand error of note is the one which will ensure I get my share of hate mail for this post. It will make me sound like . . . well, not a traditional Protestant. So let me just say it:

I don’t think the Bible alone is enough to set the doctrines of the faith.

Don’t misunderstand me. The Bible is sufficient, the sole source of our knowledge as Christians. The problem is that it can’t be read in a vacuum — and no one really reads it that way anyway. We all approach the text with presuppositions, with cultural influences, with biases and prejudices and wants and desires and personality quirks. It’s simply part of being human. But another part of human is to err. We can make mistakes in our own independent readings of the Bible. The way I read a particular text may be totally wrong (like Darby *cough*). So how do I get this corrected instead of propagating false doctrine? By reading it in community. By being in dialog with other Christians, both the living and the dead, I am able to get a much bigger picture of what’s going on. I can see how the Bible has been read by others and how the consensus has been across thousands of years. In this fashion, I can be pretty sure that if I’m the only one to interpret a passage a specific way, a way that contradicts literally everyone else, then I’m wrong. If I read the Bible and end up a unitarian, I’m wrong. If I don’t believe in the resurrection or the virgin birth, I’m wrong. We call this sacred tradition, the tradition of doctrine and interpretation upheld by the church. Ecclesial traditions, namely the traditions of specific congregations and denominations (like worship style, how many hymns, how often to celebrate Holy Communion, etc.) can all be changed as necessary. But sacred tradition, things like the Trinity, the theandric nature of Jesus Christ, etc., can never be changed. If I go against them, I’m wrong.

And so Scripture is the sufficient source for all things, but I can’t trust myself to read it correctly 100% of the time. Thus I must appeal to other readers, to tradition, to make sure I have my Bible right. In short, I can’t just read it and say, “Well, my version of things is true for me, and that’s good enough.” I have to read it with others and come to understand the Absolute Truth. So I just can’t believe the Bible alone is enough (even though it is). This isn’t the Bible’s fault — it’s mine.

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There you have it. These are the top five things Christians can get wrong, in my opinion (or at least the five most prevalent errors I encounter in my own life and ministry). I don’t pretend I know everything or that I have all the answers, and you are welcome to disagree with me (provided, of course, you can provide the requisite theological rationale for doing so). As always, I invite us to reason together, that we may come to the Truth.

Frequently Asked Questions #1: What about the Old Testament?

A side series on this blog is titled “Frequently Asked Questions.” In these F.A.Q. posts, I’ll address questions I get quite often from various people.

Probably the number one question I get asked about Christianity isn’t anything about the gospel, the deity of Jesus, or anything like it. The most frequently asked question I receive is “What about the Old Testament?”. It’s easy to see where this one comes from. Christians consider themselves under the plan of salvation and the lordship of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament, but we also say our holy writings contain the Old Testament record of Yahweh’s relationship with the Hebrew/Jewish people. What, then, is the relationship between the two? Do we have to follow the law of Moses, or do we discard it entirely — or is there a third way?

I think one reason we’re hesitant to make full use of the Old Testament is because many people, following an early church heresy called Marcionism, see the God of the OT as a separate, distinct God from the one of the NT. The OT God created the world — then destroyed it in water. He tried to get Abraham to sacrifice the son He had promised to him. He became a genocidal deity who ordered the mass murder of entire people groups in order to give the Israelites the Promised Land. Noted militant atheist Richard Dawkins famously wrote this in The God Delusion:

 “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

 Many people, though they disagree with Dawkins’ atheism, still feel some sort of sympathy for his assessment. How could a God who truly loves His creation commit the seemingly atrocious actions recorded in the OT? It doesn’t get any easier when we read in the NT that God is love (1 John 4:8) in such a way that He sent His only son to die for our sins (John 3:16, Romans 5:8). How can this possibly be the same God?

So, like Marcion of old, these people throw out the whole testament, saying it doesn’t reveal a true Christian God. (Others, as one friend famously phrased it, think God “really mellowed out after He had a kid.”) The cognitive dissonance, the tension of holding OT God and NT God as one figure is extreme.

Then there’s the whole matter of the law. If we live under grace and not law, as Paul writes in Romans and elsewhere, why do we even need to keep the Torah around? It’s not binding for us; it’s just a historical curiosity of sorts. We don’t have to offer sacrifices, or ritually bathe to cleanse ourselves of impurities, or drill holes in the ears of the slaves who don’t want to leave us. Salvation comes by grace through faith, not by obedience to a rigorous set of 613 separate commandments. So why keep them in the Bible? Why pay any attention to them whatsoever?

The main reason is because Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). At the very least, this means we can’t remain ignorant of the law; it should still exist and be part of our history and our faith. When Christ says he fulfilled the law and the prophets, however, it means that we can’t do it ourselves. The sacrificial system was completed by a single blood sacrifice, the shed blood of a God-man (Hebrews 10 [esp. v. 10]). The law requiring blood atonement wasn’t dismissed; it was fulfilled to the utmost.

Christ himself, before his crucifixion and resurrection, quoted the Old Testament with regularity. The same is true of many authors of the Old Testament. Even the order of the gospels is due to the use of the Old Testament in the NT. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience, and so he quotes Isaiah and other prophets regarding the coming Messiah in order to show how Jesus fulfills those prophecies. In short, Matthew uses the OT to prove the central message of the NT: Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Son of God. And so his gospel is placed next to the OT in your Bible (and in mine, too). Paul’s epistles do the same thing; Hebrews uses the priestly imagery of Leviticus; the General/Catholic Epistles mention Noah, Moses, and others; and Revelation borrows some of the imagery from Daniel. In short, we also keep the Old Testament around because so much of it is in the New and shaped its authors, texts, and foundation.

Alright; we still have the OT. But what do we do with it?

The law was fulfilled, and we live under grace. Just so. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn from the underlying principles of the OT in the age of the Church. It’d be pretty hard for most of us to deliberately leave part of our grain crops behind so others can glean the leftovers in accordance with Leviticus 19:9,23:22 or Deuteronomy 24:19-21, for example, but we can still show hospitality and love for visitors and immigrants. We look at the view of women (revolutionary for its time) and realize we need to take steps towards gender equality and reconciliation. We see rules made to set apart a people from other cultures and create a community of faith, and we continue to live Christian lives different from the moral standards of our surrounding world. All of these guiding principles are reappropriated in the Church, and we as believers still follow the guides set forth in the Mosaic Law, the Prophets, and the rest of the OT.

Of course, anything explicitly restated in the NT still goes, too: laws regarding murder, sexual sin, lying, etc.

Christians should find a faithful friend in the Old Testament, just as in the rest of Scripture. God still uses the OT to speak to us and provide us with guidance and identity. And if you look closely, you will see a loving God of grace readily apparent even in the Old Testament’s darkest moments.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24-26