THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER

Maybe it’s just me, but as I follow Christian dialogue today, and in particular Christian blogging, there seems to be (imho) a kind of polarisation and exclusion that is totally unnecessary and does a lot of damage. If you like, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Or, the failure to hold two biblical truths in their biblical tension.

Let me give some examples. Take the recently resurrected debate inspired in the main by John MacArthur called ‘Strange Fire,’ in which such an emphasis is put on the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit over against the ‘gifts’ of the Spirit, that he preaches ‘cessationism’ (basically, the gifts ceased with the NT) and then (literally) condemns to hell all Charismatic brothers and sisters who practise the gifts of the Spirit. There has been a response of hurt and yet compassion on the part of Charismatics across the world (most have admitted the crazy and dangerous extremes of some), who admirably insist that John MacArthur is still their brother in Christ and as such needs to be supported in prayer. Those nearer my age will know this debate has been raging since the 60’s – the fact is that the Scriptures clearly reveal, if you do your exegesis properly, a case for the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit. They complement one another. Maurice Smith and Frank Viola, among others, have responded graciously and eloquently on this issue.

A slightly different example, viz. that of the living Word (Jesus) being played off against the written word, as if they do not belong together or need each other. Let me state it up front. I am not among those who in past decades have held a view of the Bible which has virtually led to its worship, i.e. bibliolatry. Too often man-made, mechanical, fundamentalist and rigid views of biblical inspiration have been held to the extent that the Trinity could almost be defined as Father, Son and Holy Bible. In my early denominational days anything that even smelt of the Holy Spirit was held at arm’s length, one brother confessing that he would get physically nauseous at the mention of ‘the Spirit,’ admittedly in the heyday of the Charismatic movement and some extremism. I love my Bible to bits (it’s falling apart – some would say it means I’m put together?) but I love the living Word, Jesus, above all. The Bible, this wonderful and divinely inspired book (cf 2 Tim. 3:14-16; 2 Pet. 1:18-21) is not my Saviour but Jesus is. I appreciate the way OT scholar and ex Dallas Professor Jack Deere, who was brought from self-admitted spiritual barreness to abundant life in the Spirit, once put it (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit): ‘Jesus is not a doctrine, a theology, an abstract principle, a ministry, a church, a denomination, an activity or even a way of life (my emphasis). Jesus is a person, a real person. And he demands that we put him above all these good things. None of these things died for us; the Son of God did.’ However, let us not throw out the Bible as a reliable, historical witness to Jesus Christ and turn it into an ‘inspiring book’ Helen Steiner Rice style (with respect) providing helpful thoughts which ‘the Spirit’ brings to my attention as my personal needs and circumstances require. C’mon, are we spiritual babies needing dummies (pacifiers) or mature believers who understand that the Bible releases its treasures through serious pursuit and hard work! [cf Paul’s earlier counsel to Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:14ff – and yes, I am aware that Timothy did not have a leather-bound, red-letter KJV version of the Bible at hand (as one oldy used to say, ‘If it was good enough for Paul it’s good enough for me!)] My Seminary colleagues will recall a certain principal of ours known for his slogan, “Gentlemen, it’s not a case of ‘either or’ but ‘both and’… it became a little bit of a joke among us, but it carries truth!

Another example, that of the sovereignty of God (all the Calvinists cheer) and human responsibility (all the Arminians cheer). Fortunately as a young student I read J.I. Packer’s excellent ‘Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.’ Therein he makes clear that all theological topics contain pitfalls for the unwary, for God’s truth is never quite what a man would have expected. Thus with evangelism and God’s sovereignty (both taught in Scripture), we are dealing with an antinomy in the biblical revelation, and in such circumstances our finite minds simply don’t cope. An antinomy is ‘a contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary’ (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). In theology, at any rate, it’s not really a contradiction so much as one that appears to be one. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable (e.g. God has predestined his elect, yet we are to evangelize), both undeniable. J.I. Packer shows in his book how a right understanding of the sovereignty of God is not so much a barrier to evangelism as an incentive and powerful support for it.

Coming to the contemporary Organic Church perspective (which I hold to, and is defined in my blogs), I notice an understanding or misunderstanding of ‘church’ as just a group of people who believe in Jesus and casually ‘hang together’ Mt. 18:19-20 style (totally ignoring its context). Yes, it includes that! However, in the dialogue between church structure and spontaneity, let’s not lose sight that even in organic church there is need for minimalistic, simple structure, as e.g. they had in the early Church of Acts 2:42/NIV, ‘They (the newly-repentant and baptised) devoted (i.e. ‘committed’) themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (Bonhoeffer, ‘the life together’), to the breaking of bread and to prayer (lit. ‘the prayers’). We also know from Acts that Paul planted small, organic, indigenous, identifiable grassroots communities in ‘locate-able’ places, under the majestic and functional headship of Jesus. So for example, the church at Corinth, Thessalonica, etc. Please let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water! Organic Christians, while being the Church 24/7, also have the responsibility to assemble somewhere, sometime, for mutual teaching, edification, encouragement and exhortation, yes even mutual worship [cf. 1 Cor. 14:26ff; Eph. 5:19ff (the exhortations in Ephesians are firstly corporate); Heb. 10:23ff] [no great detail is given of NT ‘church structure,’ in order to safeguard Christ’s body from formalism, institutionalism and blue-printism]. As a natural consequence, such healthy local churches and the members within them become missional in the local market place and among the untouched ethnic groups of the world.

A friend of yesteryear, who studied at Prairie Bible Institute in Canada during the campus awakening of the 1950-60’s (?), reminded me of Prof. Maxwell’s dictum, The hardest thing in the world is to keep balanced. It is you know. Speak to an equestrian. Let’s endeavour to hold God’s truth in biblical balance, lest we unwittingly do damage to ourselves and the kingdom. The best way is to read the Bible, the whole Bible, and let the living Word interpret it for us by the Spirit. Note Jesus’ beautiful clarification to his confused followers following his mysterious resurrection: Lk. 24:44ff (MSG), ‘Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.’ He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way”… I.e. from the perspective of the centrality and supremacy of the risen Jesus of the Gospels!

Justin Mulder has written powerfully, experientially and in a fresh way on the subject of how to read the Bible – see his blogs at http://justinmulder.wordpress.com

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