I had hoped to get this posted yesterday, but alas, more pressing matters were at hand. This chapter of God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology is a bit longer than the first (see last week’s post) and covers everything from general revelation to interpreting the Bible. The headings below are most of the headings in this chapter (I excluded the couple that I didn’t have any quotes to put under) and you can see just how much ground Bray covers.
I’ve got a lot here, but if nothing else, check out Bray’s comments about interpreting the genealogies (under the Interpreting The Bible heading), as well as his brief critique of the prosperity gospel (under this first heading).
The Finite and The Infinite
To what extent is it possible for human beings to acquire a knowledge of God by their own efforts? The Bible tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, and so anyone capable of admiring the heavens ought to have some knowledge of God. The apostle Paul confirms this and adds that God has revealed his eternal power and divine nature to everyone—a truth that we have suppressed in our rebellion against him.
From a Christian standpoint, this “natural theology” is essentially applied revelation, which is one reason why it is criticized by unbelievers. If natural observation merely serves to confirm what a Christian already knows by faith, the question must arise as to whether Christians have manipulated the data in order to get the result that suits them. In the Christian version of natural theology, there is no room to disagree with the biblical revelation, which remains the touchstone of our knowledge. Christians do not use natural theology as a basis for their faith, but only as an apologetic device by which to demonstrate that what they believe corresponds to what can be seen and known by observation. The validity of natural theology is therefore decided not by whether it is objectively true but by whether it is useful for evangelistic purposes. If it is, then Christians will use it, but if it is not, they will abandon it and look for some other way of presenting and defending their beliefs.
A Christian who makes an argument for the existence of a supreme being from natural theology would presumably have to conclude that this being is the God whom he worships on the basis of revelation, since otherwise he would not be professing Christian faith. But if that is the case, the conclusion has been determined in advance and the arguments used will be those that support it. If there is any negative evidence, it will be either discounted or reinterpreted to give the desired result.
The proof of God’s existence lay in his bounty to those who did not know him or worship him as God. Unlike other deities, he did not take care of his own people exclusively, or respond only to their requests. His universal presence was not merely a means of helping believers wherever they were; rather, it demonstrated his concern for the entire world. Paul’s point was that, at the level of nature, God treats all human beings equally, and when the apostles sought to persuade unbelievers of his existence, it was to their innate sense of gratitude for the blessings that they had received that they appealed.
In recent years we have also seen the spread of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which preaches that believers will receive special blessings from God in this life. Messages of that kind have a special appeal to the poor and underprivileged, but they must be resisted. This is not because we do not want to help the poor but because the promise that becoming a Christian will automatically bring material blessing is false and cruel to those who are taken in by it. One of its worst effects is that, if the promised prosperity does not arrive (as it seldom does), the explanation will almost certainly be that the intended recipients are too sinful to be worthy of it. Nothing could be more perverted than a gospel which depends on human performance, yet that is ultimately where prosperity teaching leads. Jesus did not promise his followers an easy life, but the very opposite, and we must not fall into the trap of suggesting otherwise.
Furthermore, the assumption that the supreme being must be personal, which comes naturally to those with a Christian heritage, cannot be justified on the basis of natural theology alone. It was not the belief of the ancient Greeks, who invented the notion of a “supreme being,” and modern atheists see no more reason than they did for coming to such a conclusion. Men like Plato and Aristotle believed in it, not in him. They would have thought that the personification of ultimate reality compromised its supremacy by reducing it to the human level (which is what the Greeks had done with their gods). In the final analysis, we have to agree that if we take this line of argument to its logical limits, the philosophers are right to say that we shall never encounter the Christian God. Our finite minds cannot comprehend his infinite nature, and any attempt to do so will end in failure or idolatry—or both. Natural theology has its importance and is taken seriously in the Bible, but it is a preparation for the gospel and not a substitute for it. It gives people enough knowledge for them to be able to respond to the message of salvation but not enough for them to work it out for themselves.
The Scandal of Particularity
To write the history of antiquity putting Israel at the center is rather like writing the history of Europe from the standpoint of Luxembourg, a country that is geographically central but otherwise insignificant. Yet that is precisely what the Bible does, and the truth of its claim has been borne out by events. It is no exaggeration to say that while the great empires of the past have disappeared into history, the tiny nation of Israel still exists and has spread its wings to the far corners of the globe, bequeathing to us not only Judaism but Christianity and Islam as well. All over the world, children are still named David and Rebecca, but not Nebuchadnezzar or Nefertiti.
From the very beginning, Israel was a nation that knew it had been chosen, called, and set apart by God. What brought the nation together was not a ruthless superhuman power that crushed all opposition to its rule, nor was there any achievement on Israel’s part that attracted God to it. The glue that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, and that has bound them to each other through thick and thin, is love—God’s love for his people and his determination to keep the oath that he swore to their forefathers, that they would continue to exist and to be his people until the end of time.
Divine Revelation to Israel
From a theological standpoint, what matters most is that, from the time of Moses onward, God’s revelation to Israel through the prophets and others was recorded for posterity. How far this record corresponds to the original revelation is impossible to say because those to whom it was given are not available for comment. Most likely, what we have is a distillation of what was originally revealed to them, giving us the substance of what God said but not every single word. At the end of John’s Gospel we read that if everything Jesus said and did had been written down, there would not be enough books in the world to contain the material, and that seems to be a reasonable guide to the relationship between God’s revelation to his chosen messengers and what we know of it now.
A book is also a public document in the way that oral tradition is not. Oral records depend on the reliability of those who transmit them, and if the transmitters alter them there is not much that anyone else can do about it. But a written text cannot be so easily changed, even if copyists make mistakes in transcribing it. Writing offers a relatively fixed reference point that does not depend on the transmitter nearly as much as oral communication does, and it makes the texts accessible to people like us, who have no contact with the original author(s) or transmitter(s). If the Word of God is to be passed on intact from one generation to another, writing is the best way of doing it.
A better guide to the authority of the different texts can be found by examining the commentary material that has survived from ancient times. Christians started writing commentaries on the Bible in order to help preachers and teachers understand its more difficult passages. It therefore follows that they wrote only on those books that were used in the life of the church. The astonishing fact is that there are commentaries on every Old Testament book that is in the Hebrew Bible, but none on those that are not.
Divine Revelation to The Christian Church
One major difference between the Testaments is to be found in the time and place of their composition. The Old Testament was written by largely anonymous people over many centuries. It describes the growth and development of God’s people as their circumstances changed over time. It records the lives of great men like Abraham, Moses, and David, which serve as both a warning and an encouragement to us today. The New Testament, on the other hand, is the product of a single generation. We know the names of most of those who wrote it, but relatively little about the people mentioned in it. We can piece together the character of men like Peter and Paul, but we do not have enough information to be able to reconstruct a complete biography of either man and are not even told when or where they died.
At the end of the day, the divine inspiration of the Scriptures is seen in the power they exert in forming and feeding the people of God. The law of Moses would not have been worth preserving otherwise, since much of it has no application outside the ancient covenant community, and that has now disappeared. The Bible is a book for believers who appreciate its teaching and respond to it because in it they hear the voice of the Lord speaking to them. Centuries of common experience have ensured that the Bible remains at the heart of the church’s life today, feeding us spiritually as it has fed hundreds of generations before us. Long after the disappearance of the original contexts in which its various parts were written, God continues to use them to inform and instruct those who seek to follow him today.
How The Bible Was Revealed
To those who find it strange that God should have communicated his universal message to particular individuals in their own language, which then had to be translated (sometimes by those same individuals) into other tongues, several possible explanations can be given, although none of them is expressly mentioned in the Bible itself. First, God relates to us as individuals. Even though we belong to a community, he speaks to us on a one-to-one basis and uses particular people to proclaim his message to the wider group. Even Jesus, despite the fact that he occasionally addressed large crowds of people, often said important things to only one person.
If God had revealed himself to every nation in the many and diverse ways in which he revealed himself to Israel before sending his Son to them, it would be almost impossible to know whether Jesus Christ was the Savior of the world.70 If there were more than one way to God, it would be unclear whether one of them was better than the others, or which one we should prefer and why. Paradoxical as it may seem, insisting on one revelation given through particular individuals to one specially chosen people is the best way to guarantee equal treatment for all, and that may be why it was the way that God actually chose. Scripture is the language of God’s love for his people, and if it does not speak to the soul, then it is not doing what we ought to expect from the Word of God. Ultimately, the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself but which it confirms and supports as the standard against which everything else must be judged.
The Divine Inspiration of The Bible
The best way to look at these words is to see them as essentially juridical terms. The Bible is the written constitution of the church and must be interpreted as such. Its authority is absolute, and therefore it is both infallible and inerrant as far as the life of the church is concerned. No Christian preacher or teacher has any right to distort or minimize its teaching, and every word in it must be carefully weighed and its meaning considered. We do not have to worry if some parts of it (such as the Old Testament food laws) are no longer immediately applicable today, because that is often true of human laws as well.
From the standpoint of the ordinary believer, arguments about the “historicity” of the biblical text are important because our faith is based on truth, but such arguments are not the heart of the matter. The Bible is not the source of our doctrine and spiritual life merely because it contains no errors, since the same might be said of a dictionary or computer manual. Infallibility and inerrancy have their place, but divine inspiration remains the key to interpreting the text because that is what makes it the Word of God.
The Interpretation of The Bible
The main question we must ask of every biblical text is, what does it tell us about God? What does it say about who he is and about what he does? The second question is, what does this text say about us human beings? What are we meant to be and what has gone wrong? The third and final question is, what has God done about this problem and what does he expect of us in the light of what he has done? Seeking answers to these questions will help us interpret the Spirit’s message to Christ’s people collectively and to each of us as individuals.
What do the genealogies reveal about God? They tell us that he is a faithful Lord, who keeps his covenant from one generation to another. Whoever we are and however far we may have descended from the source of our human life in Adam, we are still part of God’s plan. Over the centuries we have developed differently, we have lost contact with one another, and we have even turned on each other in hostility, but in spite of all that, we are still related and interconnected in ways that go beyond our immediate understanding or experience.
Secondly, what do the genealogies say about us? They say that from the world’s point of view, most of us are nobodies. We live and die in a long chain of humanity, but there is not much that anyone will remember about us as individuals. Yet without us, future generations will not be born and the legacy of the past will not be preserved.
Finally, what do the genealogies say about God’s dealings with us? They tell us that we are called to be obedient and to keep the faith we have inherited, passing it on undiminished to the next generation. They remind us that there is a purpose in our calling that goes beyond ourselves. Even if we are not celebrated by future generations and leave little for posterity to remember us by, we shall nevertheless have made an indispensable contribution to the purposes of God in human history. So the genealogies bring us a message from God, even if they appear on the surface to be barren and unprofitable. All we have to do is ask the right questions, and their meaning will be quickly opened up to us.
Divine Revelation Outside of The Bible
The key distinction here is the difference between what is private and what is public. A private communication from God to an individual believer must be received and acted upon by the person concerned, according to the wisdom given him by the Holy Spirit. It is when such things move from the private into the public sphere that we must exercise the greatest caution. The Bible has been given to us as our common guide to God’s will, and it remains the permanent, fixed standard by which all other claims to divine guidance must be judged. Anything beyond that is private speculation and cannot be imposed on the church with the authority of God’s revelation. Just as someone in secular life has to consider whether a bright idea he has is legal before he acts on it, so a Christian must ask whether what he thinks is a word from the Lord is biblical before he does anything about it. If he decides that it is, then let him test it and see, as long as we all remember that the written Word is the final arbiter given to us by God and is the only authority to which the church is called to submit without reservation.