Tuesday, July 9, 2013



If you're lucky, one of my posts will follow roughly a straight line of reasoning:
Or, if it's especially thought-out, might go on a few detours along the way of the main point:
This post is more like this:
You have been warned.

In one sense, this post is nothing new. I'm hitting on a familiar topic for me of late--the nature of faith and truth, and the interplay between them--which I have already written on not only in my very last post but also in the three-part Metatheology series I did just a few months ago. But this topic is so fundamental (not only for the Christian but for everyone) and so complex that I feel that I can never really addess it "enough". It's kind of an obsession of mine lately. I intend this post to be my most complete treatment of it yet.

First Things

First let me try to define, as clearly and charitably as possible, the view I am arguing against: the treatment of the theological "truth" we believe as primarily propositional, consisting of enumerable facts, correct information, or bodies of knowledge, the Bible as our primary source for this truth, and the essence of Christian faith as believing this truth. I'm hesitant to attach a label to this somewhat nebulous cloud of meanings because so much can be obscured and hidden behind a label, but it is somewhat in the same vein as the "biblicist" view that sociologist Christian Smith argues against in his book The Bible Made Impossible.

I'm also hesitant because I know that any Christian reading the above definition will immediately respond (if only in his head) along the lines of "Of course that's not what I believe! Being a Christian is much more than just agreeing with doctrinal statements and knowing facts; it's a transformative, holistic relationship relationship with God, through Jesus, by the Spirit that transcends pure logic!" I couldn't agree more. The problem is that when you say something like this, you are still expressing your belief that the truth of Christianity transcends mere facts and propositions in a factual, propositional way. It is possible to believe this truth in a way that undermines and contradicts it and is better described by the statement, "All Christian belief is conscious and propositional." If you hold to a definition like this which makes out truth and belief to be reducible to a list of facts you affirm, adding the proposition "The truth of Christianity transcends mere facts and propositions" to your list profits you nothing.

I hope I have made the tension I'm struggling with a little clearer. Consciously believing something is an entirely different matter than living it, but it is possible to believe and affirm this as if they were coterminous. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Now that I've tried to show how traces of this view of truth may persist in the unconscious thought patterns of a believer who consciously believes otherwise, let me return to expounding more on this view and some way I see it manifested.

The Bible

I'm going to be quoting a lot of Wayne Grudem in this section, not because I dislike or disrespect him (he's done a lot more to use his intellectual gifts to serve the kingdom of God than I have), but because I have a copy of his Systematic Theology handy, it is a very clearly written and complete treatment of the subject, and I do disagree with quite a few things in it. Anyway, he starts off by stating his two guiding assumptions throughout the book: "(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only absolute standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists and that he is who the Bible says he is; the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them." In other words, the Bible is the ultimate source of truth, the clearest and primary source of self-revelation from God we have, and the firm foundation for our faith.

If the Bible is God's absolute standard of truth and revelation to His church, the means by which we know Him, then it follows that knowing the truth of the Bible better or more fully will be holier, an unqualified virtue. Knowing God becomes roughly (or functionally) synonymous with knowing His word to us. His entire self-revelation to us is centered on the Bible; other means of revelation, like the inner communication of the Spirit or the revelation of nature, may help us to understand the words scripture better and see God more clearly in them, but ultimately these are all subordinate to the Bible. Grudem explains Jesus' role as the λογος (Word) of God as the most perfect communicator of God's message for us: "Among the members of the Trinity it is especially God the Son who in his person as well as in his words has the role of communicating the character of God to us and of expressing the will of God for us."

What does this look like in practice? If we believe the Bible is the ultimate source and standard of truth, our view/definition of what truth is will be informed by the truth we find in it. And what form do we find truth in the Bible (or any book)? To quote Shakespeare, "Words, words, words." The Bible's unique role as the living word of God means that its infallible words provide a window to God's revelation to us as to His nature and will. When we are in a state of faithful submission to God, guided by his Spirit and using the proper interpretive methods, the Bible teaches us everything we need to believe and live as the children of God. It serves as a kind of truth test; you may be familiar with talk of "being Bereans" (Acts 17:10-11) or "filtering truth through scripture"; the words of the Bible serve as the ultimate foundation on which all other trustworthy truth must be based.

This is a high view of scripture indeed. Grudem writes on the sufficiency of scripture: "This does not mean that the Bible answers all the questions that we might think up, for 'the secret things belong to the Lord our God' (Deut. 29:29) But it does mean that when we are facing a problem of genuine importance to our Christian life, we can approach Scripture with the confidence that from it God will provide us with guidance for that problem." Through scripture God teaches us everything we need to know as Christians: what to believe, how to think, and how to live as His redeemed children. He communicates with us through His written word; we communicate with Him through prayer.


With this view of scripture in the back of our minds, Grudem then defines doctrine as "what the whole Bible teaches us today about some particular topic." In combination with the Bible being the very word of God, meaning that "all the words in Scripture are God's words in such a way that to disbelieve of disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God," this means that doctrine is simply what God says in His word is true and, therefore, what Christians should believe. If someone doesn't believe sound doctrine, it means he doesn't believe God, isn't "thinking biblically", and instead hears what he wants to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).

Scripture is the necessary and sufficient source for our doctrine: "In a very practical sense, it means that we are able to come to clear conclusions on many teaching of Scripture...This doctrine means, moreover, that it is possible to collect all the passages that directly relate to doctrinal issues such as the atonement, or the person of Christ, or the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer's life today. In these and hundreds of other moral and doctrinal questions, the biblical teaching about the sufficiency of Scripture gives us confidence that we will be able to find what God requires us to think or do in these areas." As stated above, the words of the Bible are considered the ultimate and only trustworthy foundation for the truth about what we are to think or do in matters of faith. In practice, this process of learning truth from the words of the Bible and then applying it to life, guided and sanctified by the Spirit, is how the "Christian life" works.

And again, this truth is generally considered to be primarily propositional, a natural fit for the words by which we express it. The "Gospel", the doctrine of doctrines, the ultimate point of the Bible, is said to change all of life, but is also easily reducible to four simple points that anyone can hear and understand: 1) God created us in His image, loves us, and wants to to unite us and all creation in Himself, 2) People sin and reject God by nature, and can't reconcile themselves to Him, 3) God appointed Jesus, His Son and equally God, who became human, lived a sinless life, and died, as the Savior of humanity and of the whole fallen creation, and 4) We enter into relationship with God by the Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Here we see where the strong emphasis on confessions, creeds, and statements of faith arises from. If the words of the Bible are God's very words that we must believe, it is important that we state what they are saying as clearly and unambiguously as possible and unite in agreement with them. The "confessional church" is set apart from the "world" by its confession of/faith in the gospel message of Jesus Christ as expressed in statements like the Apostles' or Nicene creed; further, different denominations or sects of the church are distinguished from each other by the different doctrines they hold about matters like the nature of the trinity, the role of faith and works in justification, the sacraments, or other church practices. Churches are sure to distinguish between "open-hand" and "closed-hand" issues to explain how the denomination down the street is okay and Islam is a false gospel, even though we don't exactly agree with neither of them. Disagreement on a closed-hand issue (something the Bible speaks clearly about) can lead to deliberate separation to avoid compromising on belief in the words of God.


With all that said, I'm going to stop speaking charitably now and start making explicit the implicit and problematic assumptions I wove into that description. As I stated at the outset, this approach to Christianity assumes a certain epistemology (view of belief) or alethiology (view of truth), namely that the "truth" we believe is primarily propositional, consisting of enumerable facts, correct information, or bodies of knowledge of the kind that can be expressed in the text of the Bible. So truth is fully expressible in "words, words, words" and fully manipulable by rational discourse. I think this is the only epistemology in which Grudem's summary of the sufficiency of scripture makes sense (emphasis added): "The sufficiency of scripture means that scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have in each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly."

James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom unpacks the fascinating concept of a "philosophical anthropology": a certain philosophical view of human nature which is implicit in a given system of beliefs or practices. (And which may be quite different than one explicitly stated in the system as Grudem does in Systematic Theology) In this case, the philosophical anthropology assumed is, as Smith outlines, that of people as primarily thinkers of thoughts, or believers of (conscious, primarily propositional) beliefs. Of course this does not mean that Christians are then told to believe only intellectually with no attention to emotions, but conscious, confessional adherence to the "truth" is assumed to be the center or essence of faith from which less-conscious things like right feeling and sanctification flow. Because we are in control of our beliefs, it is supposed that we're supposed to watch them (to "have faith", which is to some degree considered to be a gift) and trust God to work them out into a changed, "Christian life", beginning when we confess Christ for the first time.

This represents a constellation of beliefs not so much about God Himself as about ourselves (believers who have been given the truth) and how God relates to us (through the words of the Bible). I no longer believe this view aligns with reality or with the Bible. If you hold it, you probably won't be convinced by hand-wavy arguments about the nature of reality (i.e. experience), so let me given two quick Biblical examples. The thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 is assured of his salvation by Jesus Himself, despite (unless we insert some extrabiblical interpolation) knowing virtually nothing of what we consider "fundamental" knowledge of the nature of Jesus, let alone the rest of Christian doctrine. And again, Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 18:3 that "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". In my year-plus of experience so far of teaching little children in Sunday School, I've found that their capacity for (and interest in) facts, bodies of doctrines, and statements of faith is pretty slim. These things are supposed to be the core of what it means to be a Christian?

Damage Done

Maybe you still don't share my suspicion. Maybe you are willing to defend your view of belief over my "postmodern" one; maybe you can't see how such a heady discussion really matters one way or another. Let me share some examples I've seen of where it breaks down.

Constantly warning/watching about believing "the devil's lies from the pit of hell", which are correspondingly believed to be propositional in nature, like the ancient heresies. This means that if you discover one of these lies, confess it, and refute it with scripture (e.g. someone with a spending problem confronts it with verses about God's heart for the poor, our role as stewards of what we've been given, and some good old justification by faith/new identity in Christ), you are then considered to have been delivered from it by the power of the gospel; any future struggles are then attributed to lingering sin and all we can do about them is to pray, remind ourselves of the verses, and "believe harder". After all, if people are primarily believers of things, then the real problem was your not fully believing some part of the Bible, which has now been resolved. Does this sound familiar to anyone but me?

Doctrinal division leads to (and is even assumed to be synonymous with) deep church-level schism.  If doctrine is what God (through the Bible) says and all of God's words are true or trustworthy, then a doctrinal difference means that one of you is misunderstanding, misreading, or disbelieving God's words with a less-than-authentic faith, and it sure isn't me!

It also easily leads to an elevated view of the intellectual side of Christianity; if the Bible is how we know God, then studying the Bible and having a fuller and more correct knowledge of God means we're holier for knowing God better, right? My favorite blogger Morgan Guyton recently put up a beautiful and cogent response to the recent Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage, which I urge you to read. He outlines two competing visions of holiness in the church: one as "correctness, or fidelity to a set of commandments" and the other as "a state of the heart in which we have been emptied of all obstacles to loving God and our neighbor".

The first view of holiness he describes, which centers around developing "biblical thinking", a "biblical worldview", or a "biblical stance" on issues, is brought out especially by the gay marriage debate because
it pits the Bible against civil rights, which makes the opposition to homosexuality utterly confounding to liberals who get mad and call you a bunch of names, which increases your holiness points through persecution.
In other words, construing holiness as doctrinal correctness leads to viewing the way in which we resist conformity to this world (Romans 12:2) or wage spiritual warfare against the rulers and principalities of evil (Ephesians 6:12), which Christians are called to do and commended for doing, as affirming and practicing the things the Bible affirms, and condemning and fighting the things the Bible condemns (such as abortion or homosexuality), which means confronting and opposing those who support them (doing the opposite of Romans 1:32). Being despised, spat upon, or jeered at for doing so is taken as a sign that you're doing it right; after all, the unbelieving Romans did the same to Jesus. So is being seen as narrow-minded, ignorant, or intolerant (while resting assured that you really aren't but are instead taking a stand for the truth of the Bible); after all truth, by nature, is intolerant, isn't it?

Guyton's final point is that there is a great disconnect between what many, many Christians believe from Paul about justification by faith alone and how they believe this. By intellectualizing our definition of "faith" or "belief" to primarily mean "affirming correct doctrine about God", we are able to prize holiness-as-correctness as an example of the faith Paul speaks so highly of, while I suspect that he himself would have considered it to be more of a work that we do (or think) to merit salvation, rigid obedience to a law that tells us what to believe rather than how to live and that allows us to clearly define an in-group and an out-group in regard to salvation just as the Jewish leaders did with the Mosaic law.
To understand holiness as the pursuit of correctness is exactly like the gospel that Paul’s opponents were preaching to the Galatians and Romans. You cannot betray Paul’s teaching more perfectly than to take Paul’s words and make them into the new “law” that saves us. And yet so many evangelicals have basically become modern-day Galatians substituting a new “law” for the old “law,” not recognizing that putting all our trust in God’s mercy and renouncing the self-justifying pursuit of correctness is the only means by which our hearts can be conquered for Christ, who then gains the access to crucify our sinful nature and resurrect us into new life.
Using the Bible as the ultimate measure of what is true also simplifies debates tremendously. If the Bible says it, then I believe it and that's all there is to it. If the Bible doesn't say it, I'm suspicious of it and hold it at arm's length, believing it on a subordinate level only after filtering it through scripture. If the Bible says it's wrong, than I know it's wrong and don't have to listen to anyone who says otherwise, only to convince them of the truth I have from the Bible. Would you want to have a lengthy, deep conversation with someone who hews to these rules of engagement? Did Jesus?

Finally, focusing on truth as what can be known and applied directly from the Bible is dualistic, that is, it erects a wall of separation between this [physical] world and the spiritual world to come; "the kingdom of heaven is at hand", but not too close! Emphasizing "biblical thinking" or developing a "Christian worldview" breaks down as it becomes very hard to get the "Christian perspective" on things not spoken to by the Bible, for example shopping malls and sports stadiums (both of which James K.A. Smith argues are very influential in our culture). Since these things didn't exist when the Bible was written and it of course doesn't speak of them, a heavily Biblical focus on addressing them leads either to a thinly veiled "Christian" version of secular culture (it's okay to be a consumer as long as you buy "Christian" things from "Christian" stores in a "Christian" way!), extremely vague and rather unhelpful gospel tie-ins ("Jesus is Lord of the NFL, so sportsmanship counts"), or simply overlooking them outright as irrelevant to the "Christian life".

For the reasons given above both from practice and the Bible, I think an uncritically mind-centered approach to the Christian faith is unwise. Again, let me emphasize that this approach is not exclusively intellectual (it might make a big deal out of "loving" God, but that love is assumed to start with seeking Him in the scriptures) nor is it always (or maybe ever) stated explicitly, but rather is assumed implicitly and worked into a larger body of doctrine and practice.

A solution: Holiness as a state of the καρδια

Let me now try to be more constructive and work towards a better way to relate scripture, doctrine, and intellect to the Christian faith. Of course Christians in general affirm the importance of both right thinking/head level belief as well as love/heart-level belief; the present confusion is in the relation of these things. For my subsequent argument I'm going to assume (that is, not lengthen this post further by arguing to support) that God made us with both cognitive and affective faculties, and He aims to transform and use them both for to enact His plan of redemption, restore shalom, and advance His kingdom. Sounds like a safe assumption to me.

Let me return to Morgan Guyton's post to state what I see as a better approach: holiness as a state of the heart. Here's how he puts it.
With the first form of holiness, the basic guiding question is “Am I perfectly correct?” With the second, it’s “Am I perfectly loving?” To this second holiness, sin is a problem not just because the Bible says it’s wrong, but because it prevents me from seeing Jesus’ heart and being perfectly loving to others. I want to be liberated from whatever idols and addictions corrupt my love and make me oblivious to the needs of others, whether or not they are explicitly named in the Bible. When I go to the Bible, I am not looking for a set of correct opinions about issues; I am looking for a savior to follow and imitate. I understand every teaching in terms of how it will purify my heart so that all my instincts and intuitions are Christlike.
This opens up a whole new dimension of faith: Christians aren't supposed to believe something just because it's in the Bible so God said it so it's true and to disbelieve it is a sin. The point of Christian belief is not simply correctness/knowing what is true, but knowing the Truth, Jesus Christ, and being recreated in His image.

Peter Enns also put up another post in a similar vein, asking "Does Jesus care more about what we do or what we believe?" He acknowledges that of course they aren't mutually exclusive and both are important, but "I had a dollar for every time I've seen that theory not put into practice, I wouldn't have to work." He asks, which of these pleases Jesus more?
Loving those we disagree with, enemies, strangers, and other inconvenient people who wander into our lives while we also have unsettled theological issues about the Bible, God, Jesus, Christianity, the universe, humanity, etc., or… 
Focusing our energies on establishing, maintaining, and defending “sound doctrine” to the extent that we either do not have time or it does not enter our mind to show loving kindness to others–or, we justify sacrificing loving kindness in our efforts to establish, maintain, and defend proper thinking about the Bible, God, Jesus, Christianity the universe, humanity, etc.
He concludes that Jesus probably cares more about right do-ing than about right thinking, using the example of the Pharisees, who "said one thing and did another…those who put right thinking over right behavior." (Of course, the Pharisees were also very concerned with right behavior; more on that later)

Let me try to develop a concept which I think really is central to the Bible's own anthropology (view of human nature). The Greek word καρδια (kardia) is translated as "heart", but I think to us this tends to mean "feelings", "emotions", or maybe "conscience" (as in, "follow your heart"). The definition given by Thayer's lexicon is a bit more multifaceted:

1) the heart
a) that organ in the animal body which is the centre of the circulation of the blood, and hence was regarded as the seat of physical life
b) denotes the centre of all physical and spiritual life
1) the vigour and sense of physical life
2) the centre and seat of spiritual life
a) the soul or mind, as it is the fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavours
b) of the understanding, the faculty and seat of the intelligence
c) of the will and character
d) of the soul so far as it is affected and stirred in a bad way or good, or of the soul as the seat of the sensibilities, affections, emotions, desires, appetites, passions
c) of the middle or central or inmost part of anything, even though inanimate

"The centre of all physical and spiritual life", including the soul, thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavours, understanding, intelligence, will, and character--that's a lot more than just the emotions! What we have dozens of English words to categorize and describe, Greek gets across in a single Swiss-army-knife of a word: καρδια. It is from the καρδια that both godliness (Matthew 22:37) and ungodliness (Matthew 15:19) spring, in the καρδια that we dialogue and question with ourselves (Mark 2:6,8, Luke 24:38), in the καρδια that we will or intend things (John 13:2), that we rejoice (John 16:22, Acts 2:26) and have sorrow (Romans 9:2), with our καρδια that we believe in God (Romans 10:10) and in which Jesus resides (Ephesians 3:17). The καρδια is the center of our identity and where in modern thinking it's easy to hermetically seal off our thoughts, emotions, and actions from each other, the καρδια is the wellspring of them all.  James K.A. Smith thinks a better translation of καρδια might be "gut"; I would almost go so far as to suggest an even better one: "self". (Though ψθχη, psyche, might be an even better fit) Try reading some of the passages containing καρδια in the link above and see how these fit.

Human consciousness runs far deeper than we think. Thoughts, intentions, decisions, emotions, desires, hopes, dreams, imaginings, fears, and actions all swirl together in a turbulent mixture, and sometimes all our conscious minds are capable of doing is skimming its surface. With this cauldron-analogy in mind, it becomes clearer how faith can be a "state of the heart". Faith is not simply a new ingredient added to this mixture, something we do, think, or feel differently; it is a total reorientation and transformation of the whole thing; the parts we're aware of and the parts we aren't. It affects not just the conscious phenomena of our thinking and doing, but the unconscious roots of these things which we have no direct control over; this is why faith cannot be manufactured or invented but must be, to this extent, given to us (and why the debate over what kind of "free will" we have to choose faith in God misses the whole picture, as if faith consisted of nothing but a series of conscious thoughts and choices). If we think of faith as primarily an emotional transformation, it becomes hyper-charismatic, experience-oriented hysteria. It we conceive of it as changed living, we get empty legalism or ritualism. If we consider it to be primarily correct belief, we get cold intellectualism.

This view of faith assumes a different philosophical anthropology, which was the biggest thing that jumped out at me from James K.A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom. He argues that people are not primarily or originally thinkers or believers but lovers who are oriented towards, desiring, and constantly striving after or "intending" an ultimate goal or prize. For a person of faith, this goal is God Himself, which profoundly affects and reorients the entire God-intending person starting from the heart, not the mind.

It also incorporates a different epistemology that hints that a strictly propositional, rational, logical model of what truth is may not be "the whole show"--that there is a greater, more personal Truth out there than what we can fit into bodies of knowledge and statements of faith. This should challenge our approach to doctrine. Which truth are we seeking in our theology and doctrine--truth as logical correctness or "that which corresponds with reality", or Truth as the person of Jesus Christ (John 14:16)? James 2:19 makes the inflammatory point that knowing things about God is not good in and of itself; even the demons do that. The Truth of God is the object, not merely the subject, of our knowledge.

The Role of the Bible

Time to cite another source: an amazing sermon preached by Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church about scripture, Spirit, and community. I am currently in communication with Renovatus' web team about how to link directly to their sermons, but it is the first sermon in the "Both &" series preached on on June 30th 2013 on the sermon player.

Martin's main point around which he develops his message is that the principle of sola scriptura, as it has been developed and used in the 20th century, is misguided and wrong. (I will mention that I made a very similar point in my blog earlier this year) He outlines the approach to scripture he's pushing against: a hermeneutic that emphasizes the use of a Bible-only, historical-critical method to discover the original meaning of the text, which is assumed to be the "true" one and which we can then incorporate into our theology and live from. To this he makes the challenging statement: "scripture alone is not enough", before unpacking what exactly he means.

One of his big examples is Acts 15. In this chapter a disagreement arises among the early Christian church when some Jewish Christians begin to teach that circumcision "according to the custom of Moses" and obedience to the Mosaic law was necessary to be a Christian. So "the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter" and finally Peter announces:
Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
In other words, though God used to make a distinction between the Jews as "God's people" and the gentile (non-Jewish)  outsiders, He is no longer making any such distinction in the giving of His Spirit or the cleansing of gentiles' hearts by faith. He points out that the Jews have never been able to bear the yoke of the Mosaic covenant, their screw-ups being well-documented in the Old Testament, and that they should instead trust the grace of Christ for the salvation of both Jew and gentile. Then James gets up and announces,
Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.
James is quoting the prophet Amos (9:11-12), who is promising the restoration of the nation of Israel and the inclusion of the gentiles in God's kingdom--making the point that God's plan has always been to include the gentiles, so they shouldn't be surprised now. Finally, though he says the gentile believers shouldn't be required to follow the whole Mosaic law, he gives a few practical instructions for them to abide by for the sake of church harmony.

Martin's point is that Peter and James' conclusion here would be impossible to reach by following a scripture-alone, right-method-centric hermeneutic, given that the only scripture they had at the time was the Greek Old Testament which says nothing about any such exceptions for gentiles not having to obey the law. He puts it a bit more forcefully: "There is no way anyone ever, using some sort of good historical-critical method, could take that text from the Old Testament [Amos 9:11-12] and say this conclusively proves that gentiles don't need to be circumcised." And how in the world did James conclude that, of all the laws, abstinence from idols, sexual immorality, things that have been strangled, and from blood were the only ones that the gentiles should be held to? Though the apostles do pay attention to what scripture says in their decision, they don't seem confined to what it says: "They do measure all this experience up against the text...but the text does not directly address the problem at hand."

What Martin is getting at is this kind of barrier between the writing of the scriptures and our reading of the scriptures: the assumption that the Spirit inspired the apostles to write the inerrant scriptures in a way that is totally above and beyond anything we have available today in terms of "spiritual-ness". In other words, Jesus' promise in John 16;13 that "when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" was directed only to the apostles and doesn't apply to us. He describes it as saying, "The spirit only inspired the disciples, and what the Spirit showed the what we now have in scripture." This assumption of a unique kind of inspiration is a necessary component of our reading scripture in a way completely different than the apostles did (as in the above example): they were allowed to handle scripture in ways that we consider reckless or just plain wrong today because they were "inspired by the Spirit" in a way that we aren't, which allowed them to write new scripture. After all, no one today could be inspired in the same way or they could say things on the same level as scripture! Martin argues strongly against this view of inspiration as something that only applies to the writing and not the reading of the Bible: "The spirit that breathed these texts into existence is still here right now, and we need that spirit to help us to live these texts right now."

So "scripture alone will not take you far...there must be a dynamic interplay between the Spirit, scripture, and the community of God". To the astute Bible reader who says, "I don't need any of those voices in community, all I need is the Bible, and I just do what the Bible says", he answers, "No you do not...that makes it sound like you're not doing interpretation." Don't repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees who "search the scriptures" diligently but still miss their testimony about Jesus (if we think this is because they weren't using the right methods, we miss the point). If the power that enables us to read Truth from scripture is not found in our careful study and correct hermeneutical methods but is from outside us, it means that no one has any kind of privileged, unfiltered access to what scripture "really means". This means that besides just the text, we need the Spirit to help us to interpret and apply it in community. "The goal in reading scripture is never simply to grasp the author's intent, but to experience the reality of the God who inspired those texts in community." Other interpreters of the Bible are not out there for you to disprove with your brilliantly superior Bible exposition skills, they are part of that interpretive community just like you are. He criticizes the assumption often present among Protestants that "the folks who understand scripture the most are the most educated folks...thank God for somebody who's done enough academic training!", echoing 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, which says in v19, "For it is written, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'"

He argues for the "Christocentric hermeneutic" that I've come to believe by way of other authors like Peter Enns and Christian Smith. He puts it quite simply: "The point of scripture is to reveal Jesus" (who, recall from above, is the Truth we're after in the first place). The actual words of the Bible are not somehow elevated above other words of other books; the whole point is the Word (John 1:1) that we come to know through them. It is possible to miss the Word for the words. Martin hits on this point again and again so it's impossible to miss: "If you worship scripture, then it's highly possible you miss the point of scripture, which is Jesus", or "if our reading of scripture, our reading of that word, doesn't point us to love and worship the Word...then reading scripture is worthless for us."

If you couldn't tell, I'm kind of a fan of this sermon and I highly recommend listening to it in full. The only (minor) point of contention I have about it is that I would say, agreeing with the historical-critical method, that there is an "original meaning" to any Biblical text, and that while it's wrong to hold that this is the only meaning (preventing yourself from "seeing Christ" in that text), we likewise shouldn't allow the Christocentric meaning to crowd out the original one and become the only one we see. For example, interpreters who can't see the Song of Solomon as anything other than an allegory of Christ's love for His church miss out on the (ahem) "richness" of the original book as a song between two (human) lovers and what we can learn from it about love (which my church did a sermon series about last year). In other cases knowledge of the original meaning of a text might be crucial for seeing Jesus through it, such as when Hebrews talks about how Jesus fulfills various parts of the Mosaic covenant (which presupposes that the reader has extensive knowledge of the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant and what they mean).

The Role of Doctrine

So if we're reading scripture not to simply correctly exegete logically sound truths about God using the right hermeneutical methods but to know Him through Jesus Christ, what then of doctrine? Simply saying "correct doctrine isn't everything" isn't enough; this can easily sound like you don't care about doctrine or are anti-intellectual. A credible alternative explanation of the proper role of doctrine is needed. If this view of people as lovers first, (conscious) believers second is true and these beliefs are rooted in a faith that extends below the surface of our consciousness, what role is doctrine supposed to play? The answer must be more nuanced than either "none at all" or "it must be Biblical (that is, correct)".

I have found it really helpful to draw an analogy between doctrinal belief and works. (In defiance to those who would consider doctrinal belief to be a part of "faith" and set it in opposition to works, which I don't think Paul intended at all) We are commanded to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), which of course we can't presently do, yet we hopefully aren't branded heretics or kicked out of our church for not being perfect. (If anyone knows of a church of all perfect people, let me know so I can apply to join) Yet I think it's an unspoken expectation that our theology must be, if not complete, "Biblical" (that is, correct, that is, perfect or free from error) in all it covers. I'm suspicious of this. Saying that you must believe a "fundamental" doctrine to be saved (or "truly in Christ" or something synonymous) sounds a lot like saying you must perform X ritual, discipline, or good deed to be saved. Yet we call one "legalism" and the other "Biblical doctrine".

Now we can make sense of how the Pharisees, who followed the regulations of the law perfectly and carefully read their Bibles to develop right thinking about God, could so completely miss Him when He came to them in the flesh. The truth is that faith is rooted and centered in the heart (καρδια), not in our beliefs or our actions. Though both of these things certainly matter to faith and affect it, they don't control it in such a way that we can simply focus entirely on either (or both) and just leave the rest to God. We're tempted to reduce faith to things that we have direct control over like actions or beliefs (yet we're still somehow susceptible to sin in both), but faith is a renunciation of control to God, who knows and is sovereign over our καρδια.

Just as we're being sanctified in our lives and actions, so we can also expect to be sanctified in our doctrine and thinking. This means that just as God doesn't want us to wear a veneer of "good works" to look acceptable to Him and others but rather to be "authentic", so I think it's more important to be sincere and authentic in our thinking than it is to hold onto a shallow doctrinal correctness that may only serve to hide deep doubt and questioning. It means that just as we should be slow to condemn each other for our actions, we should also be slow to stick someone with the "heretic" label for their theology, remembering that both come from the state of their καρδια (which you can't see). In my previous post I argued, echoing John Owen, that the manner of our faith is more important than the matter, but an even better way to put it might be that when Jesus Himself, as the Word of God and the Truth He wants to communicate to us (not just the ultimate communicator of the truth in the Bible) is the object (not just subject) of our faith, matter and manner become inseparable from each other.

What of parts of the Bible that seem to emphasize correct doctrine? For instance John says you can identify the Spirit of God by a doctrinal confession: "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already." (1 John 4:2-3) And Paul says in Galatians 1:9 that "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." (Alternate translation: "Let him go to hell!") And Paul admonishes Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16 to "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching." Doesn't it seem from these verses that correct doctrine or teaching is central and essential? Only if you already believe it is, and if you assume that creeds and confessions are supposed to be purely cognitive (which I don't think the apostles did). If we see increasingly correct doctrine (orthodoxy) as one manifestation of saving faith in Jesus, not as irrelevant to it or synonymous with it, along with correct actions (orthopraxy) and correct feeling (orthopathy), these verses make perfect sense and there is no difficulty at all.


Read this post again. And again. And then maybe again, reflecting on its sheer brilliance and the truth of its words until they sink deeply into your soul and metamorphose your thinking, doing, and feeling. Don't even bother reading your Bible until you've done so.

Only kidding. I hope something (or more than one thing) in my ramblings jumped out at you as God speaking through my words in a way that will change how you live. But just in case, let me offer a few challenges.
  • Why do you read the Bible? What are you looking to find when you do?
  • Can you think of any beliefs you may hold purely cognitively that make little or no functional difference in your faith or how you live? (This is convicting for me regarding headier doctrine regarded as "essential" like the Trinity)
  • When someone disagrees with a valued point of your theology, how does it affect how you think about them? How you act toward them?


  1. Wow and wow. I need to read more of your posts even if I don't have a chance to really interact with them. That was a lot, but a very interesting argument. I don't think I could put down everything I could want to say without re-reading the post several times and being up half the night, but there is one point in your final challenges that makes me a little wary and that is the second one about "purely cognitive" doctrine.

    I'm wary because a lot of the doctrine that might fall under that header in my mind (the trinity, the nature of Christ, etc) have to do with the very person of God which is fundamental in knowing God and fundamental to salvation through Christ even making sense. I just can't help but think of the small amount of knowledge I have of the Church Fathers (who have become an interest of mine). They fought hard over doctrine, especially as regards the nature of God. And these were men only a few or sometimes even less then one generation removed from the time of the Apostles and the time of Christ. I would also argue that doctrine like the trinity are very practical when we see them in context. As an example I offer the Nicene creed (for ref. Nicene creed text here: This is the trinitarian creed and it lays out what the Church affirmed about the nature of the trinity. Notice the part about the Son especially. It affirms Christ as the one who was crucified for us and risen in victory over death in the context of the Trinity which sheds some light on how such a salvation is possible. There will always be some mystery, of course, but the Trinity is an integral part of "making sense" so to speak, of the core of the Gospel. It's oftentimes a veiled part and not brought front and center, but it is necessary. Without it who is Christ that he claims to have risen in victory over death and to have made atonement for me? A mere man who could never have been more of an atonement for all of mankind then a bull or a goat because he has as much sin as the rest. Or merely (for lack of a better word) God who cannot die and still be God. The Trinity is a wonderful mystery and it ties in deeply with the Gospel which is needed before anything can truly happen in our καρδια. Those heady doctrines are, properly viewed, small windows into God. To really seeing Him and grasping (if only ever so lightly and) His depths. A person who does that can't help but be changed.

    Don't know if that made any sense. My mind goes kind of like the twisty picture in your disclaimer 24/7. But that's my rather long-winded thought on a rather short point of your post (but I think it speaks a little bit to the overall picture)

    1. I'm not saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is useless, but that it's easy to lose sight of why it's important and reduce it to a merely intellectual proposition that you defend "because it's true" but aren't really sure what would practically be lost if it weren't. Your response is a great example of how we can counteract this and integrate it with the rest of our faith.