“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”
Augustine of Hippo
How do you respond when you’re sharing or discussing your faith, and the conversation suddenly tails off to the left or right? How do you handle the curve?
There has never been a shortage of people able to mangle Scripture to accommodate their particular worldview (or their missteps). I’m not talking about fielding the gibes of atheists or those holding anti-Christian sentiments—rather people who want to hold to the Bible, but feel that certain parts are more applicable than others. Or they misinterpret or misapply or over-extrapolate. An-eye-for-an-eye and all that. Often they’ll argue that certain ideas are culturally dated and need to be reinterpreted or reconsidered. Really?!
OK, before I ride that high horse, a little confession—there are some ethics in the Bible I might change if it were solely up to me. The world according to me. Sounds great, right? A chicken in every pot, and free high-speed Internet for all. Half off your tithe. While that may be a great way to get elected, it looks just like rebellion to a loving God.
But that’s how most of us live, really—we follow our own rules. So right away we have a problem, and somebody has to take the rap. Once again, enter a loving God.
The Permissive Will of God
We don’t get to make the rules—God does. And God has two states in which we can live: His perfect will or His permissive will.
A good friend told me recently he was discussing Matthew 19 with someone who felt that Jesus was saying divorce is OK by God. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives…but from the beginning it was not so” (ellipsis mine). If what they want to argue is that God allows divorce, correct, God allows divorce. God allows us, through free will, to do pretty much anything we want. But with Jesus there is always a higher ethic in play. Divorce is not God’s perfect will, and not everyone gets it. Got it.
Is this condemnation of divorced people? Absolutely not—but that’s a sidebar.
Ready for the curveball? Here’s the extrapolation: If God “changed his mind” on the ethic of divorce, why should we stick to a wooden interpretation of other ethics? (Fill in your choice of any particular ethic here I suppose.)
Two More Tools
The purpose of this post is not to negate the above extrapolation (though it is certainly and necessarily negatable). Clearly you can work through the argument yourself without being told what to think. The real purpose of this post is to share two tools that can help you handle the curve—to help you think through these issues with sound doctrine, in the whole context of Scripture.
The first tool is actually two books: The Mini Bible College Handbooks (Old and New Testament versions) by Dick Woodward. These are robust, devotional commentaries by the master of devotional Bible study. If you want to appreciate the meaning and context of any particular piece of Scripture this is a great place to start. The commentaries are tied to hundreds of online audio lessons that have accompanying written materials, and the doctrine is incredibly rich. Because Dick taught this material in Mini Bible College lectures some people associate these handbooks only with the lessons, inadvertently overlooking the rich theology that pours out of these books when used as standalone resources.
The second resource is Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. This classic apologetics reference staunchly defends the authority and inspiration of Scripture. It is written in a problem/solution format, covering scores of questions—old and new—that critics and doubters raise about the Bible. Norman Geisler (PhD, Loyola University Chicago) is the cofounder and former dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary, and the author of more than seventy books, including the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Thomas Howe (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) was professor of Bible and biblical languages and director of apologetics at the Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College.
Cherry Picking Augustine
The more I study the Bible, the more I am impressed that it is indeed the holy, inspired, inerrant and infallible word of God. The process of coming to this appreciation involved rethinking personal biases, including an inclination to reject some of what I didn’t like or fully appreciate in the Gospel. But Augustine got there way ahead of me.
Augustine of Hippo has few peers in theology and rhetoric. He lived long before the canon of the New Testament was settled, and much of our Christian doctrine survives from Augustine’s original theology. Here are some choice bits from this remarkable fourth century theologian:
- Because God has made us for Himself our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.
- There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.
- Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.
- In order to discover the character of people we have only to observe what they love.
- Faith is to believe what you do not yet see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe.
- Love begins with a smile, grows with a kiss, and ends with a teardrop.
- God provides the wind, Man must raise the sail.
- Patience is the companion of wisdom.
- Christ is not valued at all, unless he is valued above all.
- Miracles are not contrary to nature but only contrary to what we know about nature.
- I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.
- Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.
- Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.
- Sin is energy in the wrong channel.
- If you understood him, it would not be God.
- In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
- The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.
- The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.
- For what am I to myself without You, but a guide to my own downfall?
- Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.
- He who denies the existence of God has some reason for wishing that God did not exist.
- The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.
- Now the Apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says knowledge inflates: but love edifies. The only correct interpretation of this saying is that knowledge is valuable when charity informs it. Without charity, knowledge inflates; that is, it exalts man to an arrogance which is nothing but a kind of windy emptiness.