Bible writers are not mystery writers, seeking to withhold the “answer” from the reader until the final page, nor seeking by Delphic utterance to give many conflicting answers in one.
Even when it is used to express divine truth, the language of the Bible is the language of men, and was meant to be understood.
God is able to communicate to man. His words then, CAN be understood by sensible men who want to correctly understand them.
Meanings men read INTO the Bible rather than read FROM the Bible are not Bible words at all. We need to avoid saying, “God says” when HE really did not say.
He does not teach us to be separated from other saints. He calls for us to be united in the body into which He has placed us. I propose that the way we can be united is by forsaking denominational loyalties, by giving up traditional names and preferred practices as necessary in order to restore ourselves to the unity which pervaded Christ’s assembly in its first days. In the early church, denominations were a no-no (see 1 Corinthians chapters 1-3). Restoration is the way to go!
In a 9/1/96 CHRISTIAN STANDARD article, WOODROW PHILLIPS suggests that many who have sought after reformation through restoration seem to run aground on proper interpretation of the Bible. Knowing the Bible calls for all Christians to be united, they find no way to be in unity with some who read the Bible differently than they do. Many who read the Christian Standard are associated with the undenominational Christian Churches/Churches of Christ who, in general, do seek reformation through restoration. In this restoration, early leaders included men named Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, so some refer to the reformation as the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Most now in congregations who feel they are part of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ fellowship do agree, although we may disagree on many things, that the Bible is the Word of God. As such, it is the Creator’s sure guide for us to follow, both in what we believe and in all our religious practices. Early 19th-century proclaimers of this restoration adopted a slogan, “NO BOOK BUT THE BIBLE, NO CREED BUT CHRIST, NO NAMES BUT THOSE DIVINELY GIVEN.” These are still goals of many in our reformation.
The possibility of all Christians joining together in one Christian church seemed attainable if we all accepted these worthy goals, which appeared to be tools to “cut away” the religious accumulations of the centuries, those names and traditions that divided Christendom. The slogan called for continuing reformation to return to basic beliefs and regulations of church life. “BACK TO THE BIBLE” is an inspiring call when heard by those who love the author of the Bible and who seek to please Him!
Alexander Campbell, in the early 1800s, realized a plan of operation might well be pointed out to fulfill the dream of contemporary saints becoming really like the Lord’s church spoken of in the New Testament. He pointed out the obvious fact (it is an excellent guide for proper interpretation of the Bible) that all should observe that the Bible contains teachings which can be divided into the essential, the important, and the indifferent. Paul did this. Shouldn’t we also? Is it not still true that “the greatest of these is love”? OUR attention might well be focused on those things which are most important.
Surely, with this pointer to proper interpretation, all who honored the Bible as the rule and guide for following Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord would again become one body. Finding what mattered most to God, we would all see to it that in these most vital matters we thought and acted alike. But it didn’t happen that way. We've “partied” too much! We want to honor Jesus, but by our divisions we dishonor Him who wants us one (see John 17). Woodrow Phillips sees in history evidence that the finest of slogans, and the most determinedly proclaimed calls for Christian unity are not keys to the enigma that finds Christian believers who are called to exist in one united body instead satisfied to separate into warring parties. (And proud of our parties, to boot!).
PARTIES ARE PARTISAN
Would not every one of our religious parties fall under the same condemnation Jesus gave to those of His day, especially the Pharisees? (See Matthew 23). In each party we see ourselves as the only group with enough knowledge, sincerity, and integrity to be “the proper interpreters” of God’s revelation of Himself. We see our party as savior of the true church of the Lord. We think that all should unite behind our banner. Then God’s will is sure to be done. Dissenters are wrong. We are right.
Woodrow Phillips asks, “Is there no answer to the beliefs born of honest study and carefully-worded interpretations of the Holy Scriptures which keep us from seeing one another as true followers of Jesus Christ?”
Some propose that the way to unity is by all others setting aside their prejudiced (and perhaps wrong) interpretations so that we could be together in unity. Yes, I said “all others” were to set aside “their” bad interpretations, and of course accept “my” and “our” good ones, our PROPER interpretations!
SUCH A VIEW does not always accompany an honest search for unity. It seems to be a position born of both pride and arrogance. But it is a position that some of us in fact do hold. We come to this position because of our great love for Jesus, and our overwhelming desire to serve Him faithfully. We know Jesus! Of course we want all others to see things much as we do.
Because we are different persons, living in diverse cultures, speaking separate languages and holding unique prejudices, we understand and interpret Scripture from individual points of view. Will we, must we, see every detail of doctrine and practice exactly alike? In Ephesians 4, Paul lists some major matters we do need to see alike. In Romans 14 and in his letters to the troubled church of God in Corinth, he shows that those Christians, and that contemporary saints as well, need not see all matters exactly alike. We won’t agree on everything. Why would we? How could we?
Is there any other possibility for seeking to be one in Jesus, a way that would not violate Scripture or conscience? Is there a road to travel toward the unity of the church, a way that can be walked in love without compromise? There surely is a way or we struggle in vain to be what our Lord (remember His prayer in John 17) wants us to be.
JESUS BRINGS US ALL TOGETHER
Our unity is in Christ! It’s not in unanimity of opinion or practice. We believe the church (all who make Jesus our Lord are by Him added to God’s church) is His body, His bride. By His love and through His sacrifice, we are redeemed. He has bought us. We all belong to Him. We can no longer overlook this simple truth: We each belong to Jesus.
Here is the road (the Way) we should be able to travel (together, following the same guide) without “dispute about words,” as Paul wrote to the younger Timothy. Each of us, and all of us, have chosen to walk with Jesus. Note that this Way is not my way, not your way, not our way, but His Way... It’s He who called us and bought us and made us His own! It’s the Way of Christ. And the Word we seek to properly interpret is the Word of Jesus.
WOODROW PHILLIPS proposes that we each recognize as brothers both the saints who do agree with all our opinions and also those who do not. Meanwhile, we continue faithfully teaching gospel truth as each understands it from the Bible, interpreting as best we can God’s commands and principles for holy living. Our knowledge of truth does not need to be completely, exactly alike. It surely won’t be! We can be united on basic Christian beliefs. Without abandoning what we believe (except any idea that only those in our party belong to Christ), we could still recognize that others who have claimed Jesus as Savior and Lord also seek the goals we hold to be valid. No less than we, they also are His!
JESUS makes each of us a part of His one body. Can we not recognize as brothers ALL who have been saved just as we have been saved? He who added us added also brothers whom we reject. We think we’re better than they. And some of them imagine they’re better than we are! Those who have been accepted by Jesus surely should be acceptable to us who also were accepted even though we surely are unworthy. It may be that only those who share our every preference and practice are truly in Christ. This seems very unlikely, and yet many of us choose (we seem) to believe it!
In Acts chapter two, Luke tells of believers in Christ who, on its birthday, were added to the church of the Lord. When we have repented and are immersed (it’s done in water) into Christ, we also are added by Him to His church. I intend to remain a “Christian only,” an undenominational Christian. I seek unity with all who also are HIS. Our call for restoration started out well. The reformation of which Woodrow Phillips and I are a part once knew we in our group were not all of “the people of God.” When our unity movement was young, we did not then claim to be the only Christians as some now so proudly do.
We are fallible human beings, totally dependent on God’s grace given us in Christ to ever enter into eternal glory. Woodrow Phillips testifies that, in the interval before that final consummation of this age, he intends to seek and accept all opportunities to walk and worship with any who hold to the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. God’s Word is not to be used to separate us from others who also as disciples of Christ love and serve Jesus. The living Word, Jesus Christ, makes us one by bringing us each (individually) into His one body, God’s church. Parties we’ve joined on our own!
By what right would we think we should divide ourselves from other sincere disciples who, just as we do, seek to walk with Jesus? He added us and them to His church. Together we are His church, His family, His body on earth. Yet the roll book is in Heaven where He is. It’s suggested that for us to be in unity with persons who see some things differently than “we” do will “corrupt” our church and make it different than we want it to be. But “our” church belongs to GOD. The decision is not ours. Jesus does not need to ask permission of our party leaders before He brings another into His family!
IN THE WRITTEN WORD we learn that Jesus is our unity, our salvation, and our blessed hope. Ours no less and no more than that brother we may have thought we were free to accept or reject. We need to walk in humility with all who answer the Lord’s invitation, who seek to follow our Lord. Perhaps by what we have read, studied, believed, and obeyed, we may help some see His Word and His will more clearly. We hope this will be true. By learning of their pilgrimage toward Heaven, we will be able to hear, share, be blessed, and enlarge the confines of our minds and souls.
We can rejoice in all upon which we find ourselves in agreement. All Christians share much basic doctrine. Many of our practices are very much alike. Yet, differing “proper interpretations” (of course there ARE some) need not continue to be barriers to our oneness. They can be evidence that each of us needs to grow to be more like Him while we together seek to “put on the mind of Christ.”
Jesus is the door to our unity as believers in Him. There’s no other way. Jesus brings us together! Any Bible interpretation we make is only proper if it’s in harmony with His call to unity. So says Woodrow Phillips. So says Seth Wilson. And so say I.
He adds, “The problem is that human beings misinterpret both records because of preconceived ideas.” He thinks we tend to decide what we want to believe, and then distort, bend, and twist what we observe and what we read in order to make it fit what we determined was true. He says, “Sometimes called the universal rule of graduate work, the situation is described as make sure your data conforms to your conclusions. We’ve seen this method used in studies of breast cancer, studies of the effects of smoking tobacco, and in multiplied other scientific studies which (not surprisingly) always agree with the wishes of the sponsor of the study.”
About Genesis 1, he suggests, two groups tend especially to be guilty of this “universal rule of graduate work.” Many atheists start with the presupposition that the Bible can’t possibly be right. In their view, ignorance and religious superstition so dominate the Genesis account that whatever it says has to be wrong. That’s a view of many who deny the existence of Creator God. The second guilty group are some of us Christians who have an axe to grind. All biblical statements are to be made to fit particular theories of early thinkers and champions in our particular party. Some expect a 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth to start soon, and think Genesis 1 has to fit into a thousand-year timetable. And Christians differ about the length of the six creative “days.”
JOHN CLAYTON admits, “I too am guilty of interpreting the Genesis record in a way that fits my preconceived idea of what must, in my opinion, be true. It’s my conviction that true science and sincere faith in God are symbiotic viewpoints (they are mutually advantageous and supportive of one another). I maintain that the God of the Bible did the creating, and then told us about it in the Bible, His Word. When I use the words of Genesis consistently, and refuse to add to what is there reported, there is agreement between God’s Word and every true scientific fact I know of today.”
Consider one passage, in Genesis 1:9,10, “And God said, let the waters under the heaven be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear.”
Interpretations proposed by some Christians seem preposterous to some scientists. Some suppose that waters were a vault or canopy above the earth and the land was under this canopy. Others suggest that the waters produced soil and rock so that the crust of the earth was produced from water. Neither proposal seems possible in light of scientific knowledge.
The Hebrew word translated place in this verse is a word maqom, which means a place of standing. Used frequently in the Bible, it always refers to a specific area or locality. It’s never used to refer to a huge zone or region, but is much more specific. The word earth comes from the Hebrew erets and refers to something that people are living on, working on, walking on, and using to carry on their daily activities.
Some other places the words are used in Genesis are (13:4) unto the place of the altar... (18:24) spare the place for the fifty... (18:33) Abraham returned to his place, (1:12) And the earth brought forth grass... (6:17) everything that is in the earth shall die (41:56) famine was over all the face of the earth... Consistent with these usages, to what must we understand Genesis 1:9,10 to be referring?
It seems difficult to escape the concept that, at the time being referred to, the water of the earth was in one place and the land was in another. There is nothing said or implied that should lead us to believe that the water was in many places or that there were many lands (at that time). In fact, the evidence now indicates that’s exactly the way it was. Apparently, in some way at some time in the past, convection cells, heat differences, produced forces which have broken apart the present land masses, and rafted them away from one another. Did this occur at the time of the worldwide flood? Perhaps.
Some scientific theories conflict with Genesis. But scientific facts do not conflict with what Genesis actually says. Faithful Bible reading will carefully avoid adding to what the record actually does say. Many theories being considered in our day, while advanced by scientists who want to know no Creator, in fact fit hand in glove with what Genesis records as actual fact in that day when no human was present to observe and report on what was seen and done. God made the world. In the Bible, He speaks.
It’s my persuasion that the people of the Bible were people just like you and me. They experienced the same fear, stress, loneliness, emptiness, isolation, frustration, and sense of loss that we do. As I voiced that opinion, and mentioned my empathy for Jonah, there were two dissenting views presented. One was that Jonah was a chosen man of God, and thus did not have the problems that we have. The other view was that the entire story of Jonah is an Old Testament fable which is not to be taken as a historical event.
After the discussion, I was asked, “Why do you have to be so literal when you study the Bible?” The more I think about that question, the more I understand its importance. It needs to be applied in two types of situations.
1) DID BIBLE MIRACLES REALLY HAPPEN?
When we read of a situation where the Bible identifies an event or a situation as miraculous, there is a great literalness that the Bible itself attaches to the account. By identifying something as a miracle, the Bible is pointing out that the event could not occur by natural means. Many biblical situations are like this, including the birth, and later the resurrection, of the Christ. In Jonah’s case, the claim is made that a great fish was specially prepared for this event.
We must decide whether or not we believe that miracles ever could have taken place. If we admit miracles are possible in any way, then those events described as miraculous can be believed to have happened. If we deny that miracles could have ever taken place, then we really deny the existence of God, or at least of a personal God who can do what He wills on this earth.
2) ARE BIBLE STORIES TRUE?
Then there are other matters which might have taken place or that might be spoken of but not thought of as historical reality. That is, some events told of may never have actually happened. Events like the flood of Noah are historical events, which some believe did occur as described in the Bible, and which some prefer to believe did not really happen. Confirmation convinces some and is denied by others.
Bible scholars are divided on the question of what verification can be accomplished. Those who doubt that verification is possible look for other ways to explain Bible stories. They call them fables. Thinking their purpose is to give good lessons for life, they deny that the events in fact did occur as described. Those who take this position cannot consider the Bible as a God-breathed (inspired) totally correct guide for human lives. That is, if the Bible contains fables with names of people and places that didn’t really exist, how can we know what is fable and what is fact?
If the flood is not historical, why would we believe that the virgin birth or the resurrection is historical? Even the establishment of an assembly of God’s people and the events said to have happened on that birthday of the church of Christ can be viewed as fables designed to promote certain ideals.... Since fables are the product of human imagination, they cannot be verified as having actually happened. They may be placed in real locations and may involve real people and yet may be entirely false. Or they may be told concerning persons who never lived and places which exist only in the vivid imagination of the teller of tales.
TRUE OR FALSE?
Many details described in Genesis 1 can be confirmed as real and true by evidences recognized by all. Proofs are found all around the world that a flood did occur as described in the Bible. It is vital that we should take the Bible literally. God did create the world. God did send a flood. God will hold us accountable for how we live. He knows and cares what we do. God lives. He’s not a fable.
In 2 Timothy 3:16,17, Paul claims that God has miraculously seen to it that we have a reliable book. Its power in our lives and in the world testify to us that it is a living expression of God’s wisdom and care. The Bible is written for all persons of every age, every race, every culture, and those in every economic situation. We should not deny God’s capacity to change and mold lives through His powerful, eloquent, and true word.
God, who made the world, can intervene, whenever He chooses to, in the operation of those natural laws He put in place for its continuance. The Bible tells of particular times when He in fact has acted contrary to natural law. One of those times was when a large fish swallowed Jonah, transported him toward the place where God had told him to go, and then disgorged him alive onto dry land. The story of Jonah and the great fish is not a fable.
The Bible speaks truly of events which are far beyond the power of any man, super or not. But the miracles which are described in the Bible nonetheless really happened to real people. Corroboration of some details of miracles and improbabilities which are described in the Bible can be found by those who seek the truth. That’s a fact. If those which can be verified are proven true by confirming evidence, there’s then good reason to believe also those which are not susceptible to proof. None have been proved false. They’ve only been doubted. And yet they’re true!
John N. Clayton, in the November/December 1995 DOES GOD EXIST? reports on a mystery you also may find intriguing.
With all humans have done to the earth, except that it had been designed by a forgiving God, it would surely before now have been destroyed. Clayton comments,
One of the greatest demonstrations of the earth’s resilience is the way in which carbon is recycled in the environment. Carbon dioxide is the end product of just about everything we humans do. When we burn something, the vast percentage of what is produced, in addition to heat of course, is carbon dioxide. When animals breathe (animals includes the human species, of which there are growing numbers on earth), we exhale carbon dioxide. Overall, our measurements indicate that 7 billion metric tons (2,204 pounds in a metric ton) of carbon are added to the atmosphere every year by us humans directly or indirectly.
WHERE’S IT GO?
When scientists measure how much carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere, they find that only about 3.4 billion tons is actually staying in the atmosphere. The mystery is: what’s happening to the missing 3.6 billion tons each year?
Yes, plants take in carbon dioxide. Our first reaction to the question might be that the carbon is simply absorbed by plants and somehow recycled into the environment. However, studies done on plants show that they do not permanently lock up much carbon. When plants die, as plants surely will do, they decompose. The product of that decomposition is carbon dioxide. In the end, the amount of carbon that a plant absorbs in its lifetime is not too far removed from the amount it puts back into the air when it decomposes! It’s interesting that with the heavy destruction of plant life on earth (especially trees) over the past 100 years, there has not been a corresponding increase in the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere.
If not being absorbed by plants, perhaps then it’s being absorbed into our oceans. Studies done on ocean absorption of carbon dioxide show that no more than one billion tons of the gas can be absorbed in any year. That’s because carbon dioxide is not very soluble in water. A bottle of pop left at room temperature and at normal atmospheric pressure gives off its carbon dioxide in a constant stream of bubbles. In addition to that, the same problem of carbon dioxide given off during decay applies to ocean plants as to land plants.
The fact of the matter is that there is no answer at the moment as to what is happening to the missing carbon. There are many implications to this problem. Obviously the entire question of global warming, and the consequences of the Greenhouse effect are related to this question. The Gaia promoters would view this as another dynamic feature of the living earth. We would simply point out that the complexity of the creation is so enormous that man’s knowledge continues to be miniscule in the face of the facts. God designed the creation with the realization that there has to be incredible flexibility in the chemical systems to accommodate man and all the stress that man would place on the creation. If we take care of what God has given us, it should continue to provide for our physical needs. It is just one more way of knowing, through the things He has made, that there is a God.
John N. Clayton, of the DOES GOD EXIST? ministry writes of the many reasons why he, a science teacher, believes in the God of Creation, and why he accepts as His Word the book we call the Bible. He publishes and distributes helpful evidences. You could contact him... Check out his web site and e-mail address through our LINKS page.
One of my favorite places is a hideaway in Canada over 150 miles from the nearest city. The blue of the water, the color of the woods, the sounds of loons and gulls, the cool temperatures, the incredible beauty of the stars, the sight of moose, wolves, bear, beaver, and the joy of being in a canoe with no one else around -- these things refresh my spirit and make me forget the pressure and stress which accompany my chosen way of life. As far as I am concerned, this is as close to heaven as it gets here on earth.
MY WIFE does not see it that way. She sees the cold wind, the mosquitoes, the outdoor toilet, the cold water, the wood stove, the ice chest, the lack of electricity, the isolation without even a phone, the fact that there is no mall within driving distance, etc., as negatives that far outweigh the natural beauty she admits is there.
A COMPARISON like this is a tremendous way to see the beauty of the Lord’s One Body, the lure of a united faith in God. Spiritual things are not affected by insects, temperatures, and inconvenience. No matter what our likes and dislikes, we can find common ground in the spiritual.
When Paul said, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female... (Galatians 3:28), he stated a unity principle that resonates today as the solution to much of man’s ills. Union in Christ does not depend upon race, sex, nationality, economics, politics, education, IQ, social status, or even what we have done. We may find things that seem to be almost heaven here on earth, but the real thing will be so much better that any physical comparison does violence to it. JOHN N. CLAYTON, in DOES GOD EXIST? FOR SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1996.