(had a few formatting issues with misplaced text when first posted, these should be fixed now… I hope)
I am going to go out on a bit of limb today, and hopefully this will start some conversation and you the reader can help me out. I believe there is some difference between believing the bible and believing the Word it contains. I know I am being a little sloppy with rhetoric here, and I certainly would agree that the ‘Bible contains, and even IS the Word of God’ and that the whole scripture is meant to reveal God to us and point ultimately to the incarnate Christ who lived, died, and rose again FOR US. I do not question its inerrancy, sufficiency, or infallibility. Nonetheless it seems to me that there needs to be some distinction between believing the bible, and actually believing the word as it pertains to us.
Let me set this up with a simple example: In Matthew 5:14 we read Jesus saying to his disciples; “You are the light of the world…” What I hope to establish here is that to say we believe this verse really does not mean anything. The question is “HOW do we believe this?” Here are a couple of ways.
- Historical: Yes I believe that Jesus was a real person who really said these words to a group of disciples who were gathered around Him on a hillside”
- The Ahistorical: Yes I believe that those words contain great truth, whether Jesus actually said them or not really doesn’t matter to me.
Now of course as conservative bible believers we prefer the first answer over and against the second, but both answers claim belief in the bible. A closer look reveals that the issue is not quite as simple as answer 1 and 2. Take answer #1. “Yes I believe that Jesus really said that to his disciples.” This can still be broken down into the following forms of belief:
1a. Yes I believe this to be historical, but I do not believe that Jesus really meant that His disciples were actually the light of the world, because that does not fit my theological framework where only Christ himself is the light of the world.
1b. Yes I believe this to be historical, and I actually believe that the disciples gathered there were indeed the light of the world.
1c. Yes I believe this to be the historical, and believe that as Christ was saying this Sermon it was not only true to the disciples gathered but to all disciples of His for all time, including me! Because of these words I believe that I, along with other believers, am the light of the world.
Of course I would hold to position 1c, but positions 1a-1c exist on a variety of issues well beyond Matthew 5:14. In fact it is very common for people to revert to a 1a type position on any text that they cannot fit within their theological framework. There are times when ‘reason’ forces believers to refute the plain reading of a text in order to fit their system. Take a verse like 1 Peter 3:21 for instance that states “Baptism now saves you…” Do you believe that text? Now I understand that we must argue from context, and we must follow the flow of Peter’s argument, but it is a good text to look at. Do you hold 1a, 1b, or 1c belief in that text? Or what of the texts regarding the Lord’s Supper “This is my body…” tell me are you 1a, 1b, or 1c?
Now I don’t pretend to have answers here, I don’t, but most certainly we must admit that there is a tendency amongst even the most conservative of believers to believe in different ways about different scriptures. The Calvinist always makes texts regarding election a 1c type of text, yet the passages that appear to proclaim an unlimited atonement get the 1a treatment. Of course on the flip side the Arminians do the exact opposite, giving election the 1a, and the unlimited atonement the 1c. The reason we have these issues is because in the “Age of Reason” we have no tolerance for paradox. We cannot allow ourselves to believe in both an unlimited atonement and still a doctrine of monergistic predestination. I would contend with you that the only reason we do not believe in both is because we have too high of a view of our own reasoning. (This is a place where I have to admit confessional Lutheranism as I know it has everyone else beat, they simply let it be a paradox an adamantly refuse to ‘deconfuse’ it.)
Now back to the original question regarding Jesus saying “You are the light of the world…” Answer #1 was the historical ‘yes’ answer which we then broke down into 1a,b, and c. However, we must be careful to not be so quick to write off answer #2 as being altogether faulty. In fact there is a version of #2 that is far more desirable than 1a or b.
The ahistorical answer can be broken down like this:
2a. I believe those words contain great truth, but I don’t know if Jesus ever said them, or even if Jesus is real, or the actual son of God. I do however believe the words contain truth.
2b. I believe those words contain great truth, but it is more allegorical, Jesus was a great teacher on par with other great teachers but to call his words absolute is wrong.
2c. Yes I believe those words contain great truth, and are absolutely true for all disciples at all times, and are the very word of God, I just simply do not believe that Matthew recorded the exact discourse but instead communicated to his Jewish audience the force of what Christ typically taught.
Of course there are other variations of both answer 1 and 2, but you can begin to see the complexity here. There are a lot of people out their fighting for the historical position, a lot of people who put their whole life into defending answer #1 in its general sense and fighting against answer #2 in its general sense. There is a problem though. Answer 1a, and 1b are still faulty, and though you defend the veracity of the scripture you may not actually be upholding the word of God at all. In fact I would go so far as to say the 2c approach (though I may find it flawed) is far superior to the 1a and 1b approach.
Chew on that for a while. It is one thing to simply believe the history, it is an entirely different thing to believe the truth contained in that history. It is quite possible to believe the truth contained in the actual history without believing the history, and there is the possibility of believing the history while not believing the truth it contains. Consider the case of evolution and creation, believing creation without dwelling on the implications of original sin and the promised Gospel contained in Gen 3:15 is probably worse than not believing literal creation but instead viewing it as a communication of the real truth of original sin and the original intent to bring forth the Gospel. Listen I am a hard literalist on creation, but honestly I have more in common with a 2c belief of creation than I do with a 1a, or 1b belief of it. I have met countless people who have little knowledge of the Gospel, if any, but will scream from the topic of their lungs if their child is exposed to evolution. Getting the history right is incredibly important, and I will not budge on literal creation, but there is much more to it than getting the history right. Of course creation is one example, open to any text of scripture and the same thought processes exist.
To all who made it this far, I apologize for the numbers and letters, and I hope this made sense, I really struggled to make this cogent, and I am not quite sure I succeeded.