Do You Believe In A System, Or Do You Believe In Jesus?

I have lately been reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N. T. Wright.  This is a scholarly work written for a scholarly audience, yet it is written so as to be accessible to the educated layperson.  In it, Wright seeks to understand Paul and his writings by looking at the world Paul lived in and the formative influences of Jewish monotheism, classical philosophy, Greco-Roman religion, and the Roman politics of empire, and understanding how Paul spoke into and influenced his world.  Along the way, Wright lays out Paul’s worldview, making the point that a worldview is a set of glasses through which one looks at the world.  As these glasses are primarily used for looking at the world, very rarely will one actually look at the glasses themselves.  In the same way, a worldview is a set of basic ideas which are assumed in any discussion of how things are in the world at large.  It is through these assumed ideas that one typically evaluates other ideas, but very rarely will one actually question the assumed ideas themselves.

Today we are going to take the glasses off and look at some basic assumptions in the evangelical worldview.  These assumptions are:

  • The Bible, as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, reveals a readily apparent, fully coherent and comprehensive system of belief which provides answers to humanity’s most important questions.
  • Tamper with just one part of this system of belief, and the whole entire thing is laid waste.  Moral decay, chaos, and destruction will inevitably follow, in the Church and in the world at large.
  • Our job as Christians, therefore, is to protect and defend this system at all cost, come hell or high water.

These ideas are usually assumed in any discussion of issues such as human origins, human sexuality, gender roles in ministry, or any of the other hot-button issues of our day on which the Bible is presumed to speak.  A prime example is the debate over human origins and the proper understanding of the early chapters of Genesis.  The 2014 HBO documentary Questioning Darwin featured interviews with well-known proponents of young-earth creationism such as Ken Ham and pastor Joe Coffey, as well as interviews with evolutionary scientists and Darwin’s own story of his life work and what it meant for his faith journey.  The arguments made by the young-earth creationism proponents are all rooted in the above assumptions.  One minister who was interviewed went so far as to say, with a straight face:

If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said two plus two equals five, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and to understand it.

That is not faith in Jesus, or even faith in the Bible.  It is faith in a certain understanding of what the Bible is and how it speaks to us.  It sees the Bible not just as authoritative, but as the entire universe in which we live and move and breathe.  With such a view of the Bible, it is virtually impossible to see the Bible as it actually is.

Another example is the ongoing debate over gay marriage.  Those who oppose gay marriage frequently make arguments which assume the basic ideas listed above.  The Strachan posts I linked earlier this year are a prime example of this:  Complementarianism is part and parcel of the system of belief which is readily apparent from God’s inerrant Word.  Let complementarianism go, and the acceptance of homosexuality in the church as normal and even good is inevitable.  Call anything good which God has labeled an abomination, and you place yourself in severe moral jeopardy.

When you believe the assumptions listed above and allow these to shape your thinking on the issues of our day, your faith is not in Jesus Christ.  It is in a system.  Jesus Christ has a part to play in this system, to be sure.  But note the vast amounts of energy expended to defend this system of belief which is supposed to be readily apparent from a proper reading of Scripture.  Note the vast amounts of vitriol directed toward anyone who opposes or questions any part of the system, whether inside or outside the Church.  If the system goes, then Jesus goes with it.

As noted in my responses to the Strachan posts, it takes an awful lot of creative thinking to get from “Homosexuality in the church is OK” to “Jesus Christ did not die for your sins”.  But when one’s faith is in a system rather than in Jesus Christ, it is easy to see how one gets from here to there.  The Bible, and the system of belief revealed thereby, are how we know of Jesus Christ.  If any part of said system of belief is invalid, then the whole system is unreliable, and everything we know about Jesus Christ is unreliable.  Thus Christ did not die, and we are still in our sins.  If that is the inevitable ending point, then it becomes of paramount importance never to start down that road in the first place.  Thus the vast amounts of energy expended toward protecting and defending the system.  No amount of vitriol directed toward anyone who dares to question any part of the system is too much.

But if you believe in Jesus Christ, you know that no system of belief is big enough to contain him.  You know that Jesus is the big idea where all of Christianity begins and ends.  The Bible was given to us by God for the purpose of pointing us toward Jesus, and it is perfectly adequate for that purpose.  You don’t feel the compulsion to go down all these crazy rabbit trails of trying to reconcile the early chapters of Genesis with modern science, or trying to reconcile the history depicted in Joshua and Judges with the archaeological record, because in the final analysis that is not what the Bible is about.  You don’t feel the compulsion to fight the battle for an inerrant Bible because in the final analysis Jesus is the object of our faith, and the decision to trust Jesus is a decision we still have to make, whether we have an inerrant Bible or not.

As Christians, our faith is not in the Bible.  It is in a person whose life, death and resurrection was documented in the Bible.  To say, as per the assumptions listed above, that the reliability of everything we know about Jesus Christ hangs on the reliability and inerrancy of the Bible, is like telling your best friend that he or she does not exist because you looked up his/her birth certificate online and found some discrepancies–when said friend is standing right there in front of you.  If Christianity were really as fragile a thing as the assumptions listed above make it out to be, do you really think it would have survived the first three centuries of its existence?  This was a time when it was incredibly dangerous to be a Christian.  Do you seriously think people would have given their very lives, many in excruciatingly horrible fashion, for something which could be proven false if inconsistencies could be found in the source documents?

Come on, people.

There are ways in which trusting the Bible and trusting Jesus come together.  Belief in the Bible as a divinely revealed system of belief, as per the assumptions listed above, is not one of them.

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