What is the atonement, how does it work, and what does the Bible have to say on the subject? While most Christians agree that Jesus Christ is the saviour, things fragment on further exploration
Wait, this is not the definition of a single word, what is going on?
I have in the past attempted to define various words used in the discussion of doctrine with varying degrees of clarity and depth. Usually, I cover such terms only up to the depth of my own needed understanding to discuss some other related topic. This time, however, I have no end goal in mind beyond laying out an index of ideas from which I can build.
In other words, I am going to sketch things out with the broadest possible strokes and then revisit the details in later posts.
This post, in a rapid departure from my usual format, is in response to an open letter by David to Vicky Beeching. I’ll confess I have not read the book in question and am simply responding to the form and content of the blog post in question.
In your open letter, you have the following words to say, and it is by according to these words that I will reply to you.
I’m not quite sure what you mean by the door of my heart, but I hope it is always open to reflect the glory of the God who is love. I also want to keep open the door of my mind and be open to reason, evidence and persuasion.
I hope, therefore that we can reason together. However, for us both, this will be tinged with the same conflict of interest – blogs by their very nature are about public attention and love in its nature is not. Let us continue then, assuming the very best of intentions but with the full knowledge that we are flawed.
Growing up in an Evangelical Charismatic church I thought I knew what it meant to be saved.
What do we mean by “saved”?
As far as my 12-year-old-self knew, you said the sinner’s prayer and then you were saved and going to heaven. Just wait at the rapture bus stop. While you are waiting, preach to people you would like in heaven with you and make them Christian too.
We quoted Romans 10:9-13 which described what we did in the sinner’s prayer (or so I thought). At the same time, we cited Ephesians 2:8-9 in case anyone started thinking that the prayer was what saved us. And we frequently made mention of John 3:17 and so we knew that it is Jesus that saves.
We glossed over Acts 16:31, where a man believes and his entire household are saved. Likewise, Mark 16:16 was only used at baptisms in case anyone got the idea that baptism was required to be saved even though “the Bible clearly says” as much.
The salvation we left out
There is a great deal that we leave out or gloss over when it comes to teachings on being saved. If we are to have a valid and unshakable doctrine of salvation all of these issues must be addressed.
…no human may legitimately claim or imply the unimpeachability of his opinion merely by adorning it with the words, “The Bible says…” in place of the more accurate statement, “I interpret certain passages of Scripture to mean…”; to grant that even knowing what the Bible says is no guarantor that one knows the meaning or value of what it says.
This, I would suggest to you, is exactly the principle of Agnosis that I wrote about before.
If we accept that man is flawed and that we are men, then we must conclude that we are flawed. Therefore, If it is true that we are flawed it follows that our reading of the Bible – no matter how seemingly accurate – must be flawed. If it is flawed, it is yet to be perfected. If yet to be perfected then all of the following must be true:
Our understanding of scripture must be examined periodically (John 5:39)
One or more parts of our doctrine will be errant (Matthew 7:3)
We may be unable to see where the flaws are (1 Corinthians 13:12)
We cannot rely on our understanding of scripture but on Christ alone (Proverbs 3:5-6)
In all things charity (love) and humility are vital (Proverbs 17:9)
Proverbs 16:18 teaches us that pride is always destructive. Therefore any doctrine proudly held up as perfect will crumble in time.
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
We would be fools to think we have gotten everything right. Our only recourse is towards humility. Maybe the Calvinists are right; perhaps the Orthodoxy is most correct, it could be the more liberal universalists are on to something, or perhaps the purest truth is known only to a madman preaching on a hillside. Whatever our doctrinal position let us embrace those who have a different understanding as brothers first and foremost as the scriptures direct.
One of the many things that disturb me about practitioners of modern Christianity is a reliance on translated text without a mind towards the source material.
When Christians insist that “the bible is clear” on some topic and then point to the English language edition for support – that worries me. It worries me because any translation is difficult and something is always lost in the transition.
I have read Galatians 5:9 where it says that a little leaven makes the whole loaf leaven. What if the translators were pushing an agenda? My theology would have that agenda in it. What if some vital clue was lost? What if some bias was introduced? My theology would be off-kilter too. What if a subtle point was obscured? How would I know I had missed it?
As a complete amateur in the field of linguistics, I am wholly dependant on the translation notes of the likes of Thayer and Strong. I have my suspicions that Strong may have had an agenda with some of his translations. When Strong gives the possible meanings of a word, there is often one (the one that is used) that sticks out as being quite different to the other possibilities. That bothers me. The best I can do is trust but verify.
The Bible was not written in English
I hope it does not come as a surprise to you to learn that the Bible was not written in English. (It was not). The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek and first translated into Latin. Anyone who reads any of those languages fluently is going to have insights that we, who only read English, lack.
I have learned that some parts of the ancient Hebrew are so obscure that without the Latin version for a comparison, translation into English is only so much guesswork. “I guess my theology is right” does not sound all that trustworthy.
How do I know that what I am reading is what the original author intended?
1 John 4:1 says to test every spirit. I take that to mean: Test every message that is preached. By test, I mean:
Look and check to see if it measures up.
Think about it logically.
Study and make sure.
Be as certain as I can be.
I cannot do that with Hebrew and Greek. The best I can do is check multiple translations and the translation notes. Anything I come up with must be subject to the caveat that it is based on other people’s interpretation. It could be flawed.
Trolls for Christ
Today, we have (what I hope are) well-meaning Christians hounding all and sundry on the Internet bombarding them with the English language translated scripture. Some are doing it in a way that borders on trolling. If there is one thing we can agree on scripture does not teach us to “troll for Christ”.
When the recipient of this Christian trolling knows scripture – in the original Hebrew – better than the Christian, all they are doing is making us all look stupid. When these people also offer a humble and gentle rebuke we have a choice expressed in Proverbs 9:7-9 – learn and be wise or demonstrate our lack of Christ-like-ness.
Humility is the only refuge
When it comes to debating scripture, teaching it, preaching it, or in any way talking about it – our only refuge from looking like fools is to remain humble. Unless we are fluent in ancient Hebrew and Greek, we are dependent on the translation work of others. We see only through the darkened glass of others, to quote 1 Corinthians 13:12.
To pretend we do not suffer from agnosis – a lack of knowledge – is both proud and very, very stupid; not to mention, self-deluded. Have you not read Proverbs 16:18 which says what pride goes before?
For that matter what about Psalm 138:6 and James 4:6? God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble. I will leave it to you to work out if “trolling for Christ” is humble or proud. (Hint: It is not humble at all).
I think it is the time that we Christians climbed down from our high horse and gave up the pretention that we are in any way experts. Proverbs 17:28 says that “Even a fool who remains silent is considered wise”. Let us be wise.