Why Do People Question the Bible?—Herman Bavinck

hbavinckHerman Bavinck’s nineteenth-century Reformed Dogmatics is solidly biblical and confessional. He faces the difficult questions and seeks answers in line with the teaching of Scripture and the godly tradition of the church. In this discussion of biblical authority, he takes a step back and reflects on why it is that men critique and question the Bible. It is salutary to note that the cause is not primarily academic or scholarly—it is moral. At the heart of every objection to the gospel is the sinful will, a fact that should be remembered by those who are engaged in counseling and apologetics.

Many and very serious objections are raised against this view of the inspiration of Scripture. They derive from the historical criticism that questions the authenticity and credibility of many biblical books. The challenge comes from the mutual contradictions that occur time after time in Scripture; from the manner in which OT texts are cited and interpreted in the NT; and it comes from the secular history with which the narratives of Scripture can often not be harmonized . . . (Editor’s note: Bavinck is not arguing that there are errors; rather, he is arguing that there are many apparent difficulties.)1

It is vain to ignore these objections and to act as if they don’t exist. Still, we must first of all call attention to the ethical battle, which at all times has been carried on against Scripture. If Scripture is the word of God, that battle is not accidental but necessary and completely understandable. If Scripture is the account of the revelation of God in Christ, it is bound to arouse the same opposition as Christ himself who came into the world for judgment (κρισις) and is “set for the falling and rising of many” [Luke 2:34]. He brings separation between light and darkness and reveals the thoughts of many hearts…By itself, therefore, it need not surprise us in the least that Scripture has at all times encountered contradiction and opposition. Christ bore a cross, and the servant [Scripture] is not greater than its master. Scripture is the handmaiden of Christ. It shares in his defamation and arouses the hostility of sinful humanity. . .

The battle against the Bible is, in the first place, a revelation of the hostility of the human heart.2

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  1. For further explanation, see Herman Bavinck, ”Prolegomena,” in Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 447-448.
  2. Ibid., 439-440.

 

Count Your Blessings

sheaves17 Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.”

Deuteronomy 8:17-18 (ESV)

The 1965 film classic Shenandoah features a memorable and outlandish prayer. With his eight children seated for dinner, the father, played by James Stewart observes, “Now, your mother wanted all of you raised as good Christians. And I might not be able to do that thorny job as well as she could, but I can do a little something about your manners.” After a forgetful and now convicted son removes his cap, Stewart then leads them in a thoroughly ungrateful prayer:

Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway Lord for this food we are about to eat. Amen.

Few have the gall to say it outright, but many think the same as this movie father; they see themselves as “self-made” men and women. This attitude was certainly a temptation for the Israelites, so God issued them a warning through Moses.

As they stood on the brink of plenty, Moses reminded them of the source of their wealth. The Lord had promised them a rich land, one flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 8:7-9). There they would eat and be satisfied (Deut. 8:10), build good houses, and live in them (Deut. 8:12). Their herds, flocks, silver, and gold would multiply (Deut. 8:13). All this was assured by God’s generous provision, so they must not think that they had gained their wealth by their own power and might (Deut. 8:17).

This was no excuse for laziness. They still had to tend their flocks and herds (Deut. 8:13) and build their houses (Deut. 8:12). But God gave them the circumstances, talents, energy, insights, and protection to do so (Deut. 8:18), and their wealth should remind them that they were a covenant people.

Shenandoah was set in Civil War America, 30 years before Katherine Lee Bates penned the words to “America the Beautiful.” Stewart’s character would have sung a different tune had he absorbed the biblical truth found in that song text, a truth that extends to all nations who enjoy bounty—that “amber waves of grain” and “the fruited plain” are due to the fact that “God shed His grace on thee.” As it was in Moses’ day, prosperity is a function of God’s mercy and grace, and the nation which ignores His benevolent handiwork is ripe for judgment.

Another song, written more than a decade before the Civil War, captures the spirit God prescribed in Deuteronomy 8:1-20. It is usually sung at Thanksgiving, but its message is fit for every day and every task blessed by God, whether at home, office, construction site, factory, or “the fruited plain.”

Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide, For our wants to be supplied:
Come to God’s own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest home.1

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  1. Henry Alford, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” in The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, ed. Tom Fettke (Waco, TX: Word Music, 1986), 559. Written in 1844.


How Should We Interpret Biblical Narratives?

BibleHistorical narrative sections of the Bible can be some of the easiest to understand but the most difficult to interpret. We know what’s happening in the story of Jesus’ miraculously feeding 5,000 people and the account of David slaying Goliath. But why did the biblical authors write down those stories in the first place? Contrary to some teaching, the feeding of the 5,000 isn’t merely a story about sharing and David and Goliath isn’t merely about conquering obstacles. As a primer for interpreting such passages, here are some tips to unlock the meaning of biblical narratives from Robert Stein’s book, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible.

Interpret historical narrative in light of its context. The overall meaning of a Bible book and the immediate context of a specific passage can both be clues to a narrative’s meaning. For example, when reading about the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6:1-15, it’s important to remember what John says is the purpose of his entire Gospel: “These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The immediate context also gives an important hint about meaning. In verses 30-31, the crowd demands that Jesus do a sign to help them believe He is from God, and they suggest a miracle similar to what God did in Exodus by providing Israel with bread in the wilderness. From context, we see that the point of the feeding of the 5,000 is to demonstrate that Jesus is the promised Messiah from God whom we should follow.

Take note of authorial comments inserted in the narrative. Often biblical authors make inspired editorial comments, parenthetical insertions of sorts that give clues about a narrative’s meaning. Consider the repeated commentary in the story of David and Goliath concerning David’s lack of traditional battle weapons. The author says he “put off” the armor offered by Saul (1 Samuel 17:39) and that “there was no sword in the hand of David” (1 Samuel 17:50). And twice we’re told that he fought with a sling (1 Samuel 17:40, 49). One point of the story is to illustrate that God had anointed David as the warrior king of Israel. His victory was attributable to God’s empowerment, not impressive weapons.

Look for repetition of key themes. In Judges, we notice a cycle in the narrative. The author tells us that when Israel sinned, God gave them over to their enemies (Judges 2:14; 3:8, 12; 4:2; 6:1; 10:7-9; 13:1). Then, when Israel cried out to the Lord, He delivered them (Judges 3:9, 15; 4:4-24; 6:11-25; 11:1-33). From this repetition it’s clear that the narrative is meant to teach that sin leads to judgment and following God to deliverance.

Note the proportion of a story devoted to various details. Often an author gives more space to what is most important, as in Mark 5:1-20 where Mark devotes a full 20 percent of the narrative to describing the hopeless plight of a demon-possessed man (vv. 2-5). Jesus’ ability to cast out the demons and overcome such powerful evil merely with a word points to His vast authority as the meaning of the narrative.

Pay attention to what’s said in direct discourse. One way a narrator reveals why he’s telling a story is through the words characters say to each other. Jesus’ stilling of the storm in Mark 4 is a case in point. In that story the disciples say to one another, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). Mark was trying to communicate that Jesus is the master of nature, coequal with God the Father.

Of course, the fact that biblical narratives seek to communicate a message should not be used to evade the historical reality of the accounts. For instance, some scholars have tried to argue that stories of Jesus’ miracles are fictional, intended only to teach theological truths. But the Bible treats the miracles—along with all other events described in historical narrative passages—as real occurrences, and so should we. Yet don’t let your understanding of these passages end with the recognition that they really happened. God inspired the biblical authors to record them for specific reasons. By paying attention to a few details, you can learn those reasons.



The Bible and Health Care

HealthcareAt the moment, we’re having a national brouhaha over health care, and many people are irritated and bewildered. Some have gotten notices that their current policies have been cancelled, yet the website for buying government insurance is malfunctioning. They’re stuck in no man’s land, and anxiety levels are rising. It’s a good time to put the matter of health care in biblical perspective. Here are 10 features of the biblical witness on the matter:

1. Doctoring is biblical. Jesus honored the medical profession by calling Himself the Great Physician and by inspiring a doctor, Luke, to write much of the New Testament (Luke and Acts). Furthermore, illness is real and there are physical resources for dealing with it, facts that escape devotees to Christian Science, which is neither Christian nor science.

2. God has graciously placed medical resources in nature. Proverbs 31:6 and 1Timothy 5:23 speak, respectively, of alcohol as sedative and palliative. These passages anticipate a range of medications available for such purposes, from anesthesia to antibiotics (e.g., aspirin from willow bark and penicillin from mold).

3. Healing was a sign of Jesus’ power and compassion. The Gospels are full of healing accounts, from Blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10 to the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8. And the prophets continually pressed their hearers to care for genuine victims of circumstance and oppression. Following His example and infused by His Spirit, Christians have been at the forefront of the healing arts throughout Church history.

4. Primary responsibility lies with the individual and the family. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul says, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” and in 1 Timothy 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” By extension, basic coverage for life’s essentials begins at home, and we should not burden others unless we can’t help it.

5. We are to be stewards of our health. In this connection, 1 Corinthians 6 teaches that our bodies should be regarded as temples of the Holy Spirit; Proverbs 23 tells us to “put a knife to our throats” if we tend toward gluttony. Though genes and physical circumstances have much to do with our health, much of it still under our control. And, incidentally, those who seek spiritual gain by “mortifying the flesh” (e.g., flagellation; hair shirt) miss the boat.

6. The Bible commends prayer for the sick. James 5 directs those who are ailing to call on the church for intercession. And yes, miracles can happen.

7. Worry is a sin. While careful stewardship of our bodies is our responsibility, anxiety over potential lapses and shortfalls in care should not cripple us. Jesus reminds us of provision for “birds of the air” and “lilies of the field” in Matthew 6, and asks, rhetorically in Luke 12, who can add a day to his life by worry. Furthermore, Paul posts the antidote to anxiety in Philippians 4: prayer saturated with thanksgiving.

8. We’re all dying. This has been the case since Adam’s fall, in Genesis 3, where God said that Adam and his offspring would return “to the dust.” In that sense, medicine is fighting a losing battle, and to presume to eliminate all maladies would be to emulate King Canute, who parked his throne on the seashore and then commanded the tide not to invade his land and soak him.

9. Those in Christ will inherit eternal health. As it says of the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain.” This is the real, extended healthcare plan.

10. There is no substitute for truth. Regarding health care, the economics are complex, the discourse heated, the public-policy ramifications enormous, and the politics incendiary. The “Father of Lies” (John 8:44) loves to sow confusion in the midst of the conversation.



The Honorable Profession of Arms

VeteransDay

 

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Luke 3:14 (NIV)

Though he would die by the sword, John the Baptist did not question the legitimacy of the sword. Though his death would be unjust, he did not doubt that justice could demand killing.

John had the perfect opportunity to condemn the soldiers for their soldiering. This was the man who called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7), the man who said that those who rejected Jesus would fatally face God’s wrath (John 3:36). Here then was John’s prime occasion to shame these troops for their use of arms, but he did not do this. His only counsel concerned money and veracity.

If thieves had come to John with the same question, “What should we do?” it is inconceivable that he would have said something as benign as “Keep your promises to one another, and don’t forget to spend time with your children.” This would have been absurd since the very profession of thievery was wicked. Similarly, it is unthinkable that he would have merely told prostitutes to avoid blasphemy and slanderers to mind their grammar. This would have been failure to address the root moral problem.

Tax collectors were notoriously treacherous in John’s day. They had the freedom to exaggerate assessments, and they enjoyed the backing of the Romans should the locals protest. It is no wonder the people despised them. But when tax collectors asked him what they should do, he simply said, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13). The reason for John’s minimal response is obvious. Tax collecting in itself was an acceptable occupation. The same was true for military service.

It is, of course, a risky thing to argue from silence. If John the Baptist’s failure to condemn warfare was the only justification for war, then soldiers would stand on doubtful ground. But in Romans 13:1-7, Paul again spoke a godly word of clarification. In this instance, he explained that use of the sword was not only permissible; it could even be an act of service under God.

The traditional “peace churches” (Brethren, Quakers, Mennonites) have through the centuries refused to honor combat. They have now been joined by the mainline churches, where a romantic view of man rules. According to their understanding, to validate the sword would be to question and even retard the peaceful flowering of mankind.

John the Baptist suffered no such illusion. He showed soldiers the respect they deserved, and today’s Christians should do no less. But neither should churches shrink from offering moral and spiritual counsel to those who bear arms for their country. To don the uniform is not to enjoy a moral holiday, either in peace or war. Indeed, to don the uniform is to undertake grave responsibility – dutifully honoring both God and man.



Private Virtue, Public Prosperity

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.
Proverbs 14:34 (ESV)

George Washington often promoted the idea that America’s success depended upon her religion. He made the case in his famous Farewell Address in 1796, and he argued the same point several years earlier when he spoke to the synod of the Dutch Reformed citysfChurch: “You, Gentlemen, act the part of pious Christians and good citizens by your prayers and exertions to preserve that harmony and good will towards men, which must be the basis of every political establishment.”1 Politicians and clergy alike saw an indelible connection between personal righteousness and civic prosperity.

When Solomon, himself a king, wrote the book of Proverbs, he promised his words would be a source of instruction for wisdom, righteousness, justice, and equity (Proverbs 1:3). Often, that righteousness deals very practically with personal character issues such as sexual restraint (Proverbs 5:3) and a robust work ethic (Proverbs 10:3-5), but at other times the wisdom transcends private morality and touches on the public welfare. Thus, in Proverbs 14:28, Solomon wrote, “In a multitude of people is the glory of a king, but without people a prince is ruined.” It may be hard to apply this text in a contemporary small group unless one understands God is not simply concerned with individuals but with nations, their leadership, their prosperity, even their holiness.

The prince of Israel ought not to be quick to anger lest folly reign (Proverbs 14:29). God cares about social justice in the kingdom, for oppressing the poor is equivalent to insulting the Creator (Proverbs 14:31). Wicked kings cannot expect to last forever (Proverbs 14:32). Moreover, wisdom marks those kings who fear the Lord (Proverbs 14:33, c.f. Proverbs 1:7). Then, in verse 34, Solomon turned the table. It is not simply the kings who are to be slow to anger, content, just, generous, and wise. No, “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” In other words, the citizens themselves are to reflect the character of God. Should they choose lives of vice, the nation will suffer. In the meantime, those “servants” or citizens who live well will enjoy the favor of the king, while those who rebel will feel his wrath (Proverbs 14:35).

Proverbs 14:34 transcends ancient Israel and applies to any nation. Today, there is no theocracy, but this piece of wisdom still stands. Printed outside the governor’s office in the Oregon state capitol are words that reflect the ancient wisdom of Proverbs: “In the souls of its citizens will be found the likeness of the state which if they be unjust and tyrannical then will it reflect their vice but if they be lovers of righteousness confident in their liberties so will it be clean in justice, bold in freedom.” Solomonic wisdom inspired these words. Few people talk like this today. More importantly, who thinks like this?

Private sin has public consequences. No matter what one’s opinion about the height and width of the wall of separation between church and state, the nation benefits from local churches encouraging her members to faithfully follow Christ. Countries need Christians who know how to make righteousness a reality.

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1 George Washington, “Religious Opinions and Habits of Washington,” in The Writings of George Washington (Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1837), 405.