Friday, May 28, 2010

Left Behind

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. (2 John 1.8)

Opening “The Book”

Part of me wishes modern Christians were as saturated with Biblical fascination as first-century believers were. Then again, part of me is glad we’re not. Right out of the gate, Acts 2.42 reports Early Church converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” In other words, they spent their waking hours together, sifting through Scripture, filtering it through the apostles’ doctrine, establishing it as their common bond, becoming intimately acquainted with one another around the table, and uniting themselves in prayer. Boy, doesn’t that sound ideal? Well, yes and no.

The first believers encountered the same challenges we face when discussing God’s Word—agreement. The only difference between them and us was they spent more time in study, which meant the average believer was more fluent in Biblical texts than today’s Christian. In part, this was because Jews comprising the Early Church’s majority could quote texts backward and forward. But the biggest reason involved unavailability of Christian writing. There were no gospels or epistles—no New Testament. Thus, the “apostles’ teaching” coupled oral history of Jesus’s life and ministry with Old Testament writing, more specifically, prophecy, since Early Church leaders almost exclusively relied on Messianic promises to prove Christ’s divinity and validate His message.

Yet the apostles discovered opening “The Book,” as they called the Jewish canon, declared open season on its contents. Alternative doctrines soon sprung up everywhere, all of them based on biased reading of non-prophetic passages. The unrecorded teachings of Christ were trampled by a stampede into new-fangled legalism and conventions crafted from Jewish law and ritualism. Despite the apostles’ concerted effort to halt this trend, it persists to this day. We still see doctrines quilted out of Old Testament patches improbably stitched together by New Testament threads teased out of context. That’s why, although I’d love more Christians to know God’s Word better, I’m relieved many don’t. Who knows how many more “Christian” schisms would subvert Christ’s message with woe-begotten emphases on arcane texts?

Where the Truth Lies

It’s often said there are as many meanings in Scripture as there are readers. Yet while we’re constrained to respect everyone’s right to believe according to his/her personal understanding or leanings, we’re by no means compelled to credence those beliefs—regardless who (or how many “who’s”) adopt them. At the end of the day, Christ’s teaching is where the truth lies. And any time we find scriptural interpretation at odds with the principles and practices He taught, we can dismiss it out-of-hand. It conflicts with truth. It may be lifted word-for-word from the Bible. It may be preached from pulpits. It may sound “godly” and profess “godliness.” But if it even slightly contradicts Jesus’s teaching, it’s unacceptable, extraneous doctrine that potentially leads to erroneous thinking and behavior.

Second John is addressed to a church—possibly the Church—teetering on disaster after entertaining doctrines contrived from scriptural selectivity. It appears the intended readers have fallen for deceptive teaching by assuming “scriptural evidence” makes it theologically sound. But listen to John’s response to their poor discernment: “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1.8) Contrary to what many thought then and many think now, the Gospel of Christ isn’t a jumping-off point to run rampant through Scripture and reach our own conclusions. Christ’s teaching is everything: the start, the course, and the finish. We continue in it. When we dash down secondary paths, we get ahead of ourselves. And when we run ahead, He gets left behind.

Continuity in Christ

So how do we avoid being led astray by over-reaching Biblical interpretation? We maintain continuity in Christ. We’re blessed in ways the Early Church couldn’t imagine, simply because we have Christ’s lessons and the apostles’ expansion on His teaching in writing. We not only know where the truth lies. We know where to find it. Thus, it’s imperative we steep ourselves in His teaching so we’re fluent in everything He said and did. Saturating ourselves with Christ’s teaching endows us with faculties to evaluate the rest of Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Any passage or interpretation that doesn’t harmonize with His instructions is irrelevant. It interrupts our continuity and leaves Christ behind.

All the same, we mustn’t mistake continuity in Christ’s teaching to mean there’s no benefit in remaining Scripture. Both He and the apostles commonly cited earlier texts to uphold His teaching. Thus, the more comprehensive our scriptural knowledge is, the more astute our understanding of Christ’s doctrine will be. In Matthew 22, the Sadducees—an obstreperous sect that prided itself in splitting Biblical hairs—pose a ludicrous question about a woman who’s widowed six times and married seven. “Who’s wife will she be at the resurrection?” they ask. Jesus replies, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (v29) They got ahead of themselves and missed the point. (In essence, Jesus corrects them by saying resurrection isn’t about mortality issues; it’s about freedom from them.) Scripture reveals God’s power. It witnesses Christ’s Lordship. It proves His teaching. Using it for any other purpose destroys our continuity in Him. Running ahead gets us nowhere. When we leave Christ’s teaching behind we end up completely lost.

When we use Christ’s teaching as a starting point to reach our own conclusions, we get ahead of ourselves and leave His principles behind.


Grant said...

Interestingly, I was just going through lecture 18 yesterday in this online series from Yale Divinity school:

Prof. Martin outlines some of the diversity of thought in the early church and how current orthodoxy panned out since then ... and still goes on today in fact.

I sometimes think that each of us "gets" from the bible what we bring to it. It's like a science fiction story where some kind of Magic Jewel causes people to reveal who they really are (are choosing to become/ making themselves into) by what they see when they gaze into it. In this way judgement occurs as their inner hearts are revealed and they are ultimately left without defences or pretensions about who they are. Naked before God as it were.

If I were a fiction writer, maybe I could actually write this ;-).

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts Tim. Always helpful.

TomCat said...

Hi Tim. First thanks for your visit and comment at Politics Plus.

On topic, thank you for a compelling piece here. I have long believed that any text out of context is pretext, because the Bible can be used to support any position. For example:

And Judas went out and hung himself.
Go thou and do likewise.
What thou doeth do quickly.

I can't imagine a better context than Jesus' teachings.

Jan said...

I really like this picture with your caption.

Tim said...

Grant, a most intriguing take--the Bible as a mirror of sorts, one that removes our self-imposed distortions and reveals us "naked before God." I like that very much. Of course, when we don't like what we see, we start looking for ways to cloud the mirror. And for many of us the easiest way to do that is by pulling at scriptures that distort Christ's teachings. If we can engineer ways to make others look bad, we don't look so bad after all, I guess. Thanks for this.

TomCat, it's great to see you here; welcome to S-F! I've long admired your balance and sense of humor at Sherry's place and don't know why it took me so long to get over to your blog and enjoy it more fully! I do love the "Judas" syllogism as the perfect example of how crazy things can get when we lash together a bunch of verses--and pretext is the perfect word for it, too.

When I was growing up, we didn't even need three scriptures; one would do. So, for instance, someone read John 3.19 - "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." He/she dropped the first half, and somehow gathered since movie theaters dimmed the lights to show films, going to movies was sinful. Imagine, I didn't see "Mary Poppins" as a child because I could go to Hell for it! Not that it matters--but then again, it does, because that same sort of lunacy is applied to far more serious issues, like inclusion, equality, care for the sick and poor, etc. We can't leave Christ's teaching behind!

Jan, thanks--and welcome to S-F as well! The picture just seemed to sum it for me, a person presuming to be a frontrunner, yet perilously isolated from the rest. It also brought to mind another favorite scripture: "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?" (Gal. 5.7)

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts. They add much to this post--and I'm always grateful for the help!


TomCat said...

Thanks, Tim. I'm so glad you did. I like it here. I just added you to the blogroll at PP, and if you see fit to add PP to yours, I assure you that, although straight myself, I am LGBT supportive.

Tim said...

TomCat, I'd be delighted to add you. Our chief purpose here is bringing everyone together and including the fine work of a straight brother is a joy indeed!


TomCat said...

Thank you, Sir.