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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

ECM and Clarity--Is it humble?

[Understand that as I work through these posts, I am not saying these issues relate only to the emerging church movement. I also am not saying that every emerging church has these issues, some will not. All I am saying is that the emerging church movement (or ECM for my lazy fingers to type) has been a recent and/or prevalent catalyst for certain topics. I also understand that the ECM discussion may stir up topics for me that others do not see as germane. I am not claiming to be an expert and will confess that in many ways I feel like an outcast in my own generation.

If it appears I am painting the ECM with too broad a brush, I would encourage you to consider it should be even broader. Any atempt to address specific churches, pastors or teachers has typically resulted in me being considered mean, rude or non-brotherly. Instead, if an element of a movement causes us see an area of a concern, we should see if that broad brushstroke doesn't also cover some of our own ministry. Quite frankly, much concern I have about elements within the ECM are problems we have long had within our own fellowship of churches.

Furthermore, it is not my desire to be mean, pugnacious or divisive. I believe we are called to refute error when we see it. However, I do not believe this has to be personal, rude or demeaning. Justin Taylor has an excellent series of quotes from John Newton (1, 2, 3) regarding refutation. I hope I exercise the positive dimensions expressed in those quotes when addressing controversy. If you spot words or ideas in conflict to the standards addressed by Newton, please bring them to my attention.

Understand also, that I do not believe that modernism is glorious. Modernism has major problems too. I have no explanation for God's sovereign choosing of me, so I am baffled, yet grateful for His divine continuous working in this world. I do not believe science has all the answers and I do not deny that there is mystery in this world. These posts are in no way an attempt to call people back into modernity. I believe Christ's message trandscends all era and times, therefore I would not call myself a modernist either. Understand that this is not a nostalgia quest for me.

Understand also, that it makes me nauseous that I find it necessary to introduce a post with such a caveat.]


ECM and Clarity--Is it humble?

Have you ever had a person come to you with a "word" from God? "God told me you should buy this house! God told me you should apply for that new job!" even "God told me you should serve in this ministry!" Don't you just chafe at that? How do they know God told them that? Furthermore, if it is about me, why wouldn't God come and say that to me? Why did He need to go through that person?

But could the person speak with conviction regarding other issues? "God says it is wrong to lie. God says you should wait until marriage to become intimate. God says you should do that which is honoring to your parents." Can each of these things, grounded in Scripture, be said with clarity and conviction? Certainly, a person can say these things with confidence, for God has not only told them, but He has told all of us in His Word. These words come with authority, because they are not based on a person's feelings, emotions or thoughts, they are based on God's revealed Word.

Though Israel, the apostles and the early church all saw the Scriptures as authoritative, we eventually had to fight the battle over whether Scripture really has ultimate authority in the life of a believer. Once that battle was behind the chuch (as far as formally articulated positions) the next battle came over inspiration. Some were wiling to accept that the Word has authority, they just weren't sure what portions of the Book counted as Scripture. The church was again called to articulate a clear statement affirming that all Scripture is God-breathed. But with authority and inspiration being settled, the question has moved to perspicuity. Can we really know what the Scriptures are saying? Aren't some passages really hard to understand? Can those passages have any authority?

It may be of comfort that even an apostle acknowledged that portions of the Bible can be hard to understand. Peter said:
Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.--2 Peter 3:14-16
Some observations:
    1. Paul's letters = Scripture--This does not mean every thing Paul ever wrote is Scripture. However, Peter is saying that the letters the church had received from Paul are Scripture. He says that men distort what Paul says like they do the rest of Scripture. In one brief statement, Peter made it known that he considers Paul's letters to be on equal footing as the rest of Scripture.
    2. Some things are hard to understand--Peter acknowledges that Paul makes some difficult statements. He does not say it is easy to read or discern. He does not say that it takes no effort. Peter says that Paul has written the letters to the churches and some of the content is quite difficult.
    3. Peter loves Paul--Peter refers to him as a brother and beloved. This is after Paul has corrected Peter! (Galatians 2:11). Peter does not consider Paul's difficult writtings to be the by product of sin in Paul or a poor character trait. Peter says he loves Paul and that he is his brother.
    4. Paul is smart--In fact, Peter says that Paul's letters are a by product of the wisdom given him. Some portions are difficult, not because Paul was a poor writer or lacked knowledge. The text is difficult because he had been given profound wisdom.
    5. Paul's letters are useful--Peter only brings up Paul's letters because they help make Peter's point. Peter is expressing why the end times have not played out to completion. In this statement, with subsequent application for the church, Peter appeals to Paul's letters. He does not say, "This is what Paul was trying to say when he said..." Instead, he says "regard the patience of our Lord as salvation" just like Paul told you to do! He's not making a statement of clarification, he's making a statement of compliment. He is aligning himself, and his reader with a perspective they have already heard, understood and applied to their lives.
    6. The untaught and unstable distort Paul--Peter does not excuse the church for misunderstanding Paul. Instead, he condemns those who misunderstand what Paul says. Peter says the reason the miss the passage is due to their own instability and ignorance. Peter expects his audience to do otherwise.
      a. Unstable--Peter is really claiming that God will not grant them wisdom. They may ask for that wisdom, but they doesn't really believe God will grant it. In reality, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. James says that the man who asks but doubts God's ability to supply shouldn't expect it.
      b. Untaught--Peter is claiming that the Spirit is inactive or disabled in His ability to instruct them. The Spirit may have inspired it. He may have preserved it. But He is not functioning as a teacher. (The Spirit of God residing silently should be a troubling concept.) Peter then is claiming that they lack the annointing of the Holy Spirit.
    7. Missing the point can be destructive--Peter says that those who distort Paul do so to their own destruction. In fact, they do not just distort Paul, but they do this to the rest of the Scriptures. Since the problem is with the person and not with the author, their distortion extends beyond Paul to all of Scripture. They miss the point with Paul because they cannot handle the Scriptures at all.

In a nutshell, Peter acknowledges that Paul's writings are Scripture even though they are difficult. However, even though he considers them difficult, he expects the reader to understand them, for we have the Spirit to illumine the text. In fact, those who misuderstand difficult passages of Paul also misunderstand the rest of Scripture too. The complexity of the text does not diminish its authority.

While this is the traditional approach to Scripture, there is a new hermeneutic on the rise. It's called a "hermeneutic of humility." It's adherants claim that they, unlike so many arrogant Bible teachers of the past, are humble, admitting they don't know what the text means. They condemn a former perspective that believed the text has a particular meaning (authorial intent) that can be known and discerned by the reader. We should be more ambiguous, for direct statements are purely arrogant. But one cannot hold this perspective without being in bold defiance:
    1. Of Peter the Apostle--As we've already seen, this perspective disputes what Peter said. You can only practice this hermeneutic of humility if you are willing to say Peter got it wrong.
    2. Of the Apostle Paul--Paul tells Timothy that the Scriptures he has had from childhood (that would be the Old Testament only) were sufficient to produce a faith leading to salvation in Jesus Christ! Therefore, Paul did not see Old Testament passages as veiled and too difficult for Timothy to comprehend. In fact, he next directs Timothy to the fact that all Scripture is inspired and useful.
    3. Of Jesus Christ--Jesus tells a group of untrained and uneducated men that the only reason they can comprehend the parable is that God reveal it to them. Paul corroborates this idea when he says that the Word of God is not comprehendable unless God reveals it to us (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). In fact, never once does Jesus excuse the Israelites for misunderstanding Scripture, but He criticizes them for not reading and comprehending the Scriptures.

Hermeneutic of Humility advocates often cite Deuteronomy 29:29:
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.
They simply tell you they are celebrating the secret things of God. But is something which is difficult to understand the same as a secret? If I tell you something, even if it is difficult to comprehend, you could no longer say I was keeping it secret from you. Therefore, Moses is telling us that there are aspects to God which have not been revealed to us. There are things about God which He has not revealed, but has kept secret. However, it is inconsistent to then claim that God kept those things secret by revealing them in His Word. In fact, Moses says that the things revealed should now be proclaimed! Moses actually has confidence in the Israelites ability to understand the Scriptures, for he states that they should observe it! How could they obey what they do not understand?

And that appears to be the crux; obedience. Today, the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture is called into doubt, not over texts which are difficult to understand, but by texts difficult for our society to obey. Male headship is considered too vauge to know for certain, despite very clear text. Again, homosexuality is a topic too hazy, despite concrete statements. We can't know about the length of hell even thought Jesus said it is eternal. But this same humility is not exercised to ask Did Jesus really go to Capernaum? (as John MacArthur points out). This hermeneutic is not employed for all Scripture, but rather, only those Scriptures which our society finds hard to accept.

Because unregenerate society finds a text difficult to comprehend, we are encouraged to reconsider our approach. This is encouraged even though Scripture tells us they will be incapable of understanding.

A person dismisses the text because they claim they are exercising personal humility. However, they are really bringing God into a place of humiliation; stating that He is not capable of making His Word discernable to fallible men. We're not told it will be easy, but we are told God is capable. Peter says it will be difficult, but he also expected the people to understand.

We can speak with authority because we can speak the Word of God. And when God spoke, He did not mumble.


  • At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is a good overview of what is at the heart of the EMC movement. When people ask what the EMC is I struggle to define it. I have been to several seminars at Shepherds on it and still have a difficult time explaining it. It is true that many people who begin to study the Word get frustrated and give up instead of preserving through the difficult passages. His Word is our only authority and is all that should govern our walk so we should give maximum effort in understanding it.

    Have you ever thought why are there such difficult passages? Many of these difficult passages have lead to church and denominational splits. The question I have asked myself repeatedly is how can men like John MacArthur and RC Sproul be so right on the doctrine of salvation and obviously are men of great knowledge and giftedness of God, however, they completely disagree on items like infant baptism, eschatology and ecclesiology. These are men who have devoted their entire lives to the study of Scripture and they can't agree on these things. God could have made things very black and white but for some reason He chose not too. Could it be because since the word is living and sharper he never wants us to get to the point that we know everything about Him (not that we could anyway)? Or is it just that we are fallen people trying to interpret the Holy infallible Scripture?

  • At 1:20 PM, Blogger danny2 said…

    good questions matt.

    I think that in light of 2 Peter 3, Peter acknowledges that Paul's writings are difficult because of the wisdom granted Paul but are distorted because of the unstable/untaught nature of those who distort.

    frankly, we'd all be disappointed if God were easy to grasp. we're talking about the Infinite, Supreme, Eternal, Glorious, Magnificent (i'll run out of words before doing Him justice) God. Allowing Himself to be described in words is a great condescension for Him. (however, He is supreme and can condscend accurately.)

    you've probably seen it with your boys. they ask you, "where does God come from?" this is a tough question with a very complex truth. you will struggle around for words to describe an Infinite Creator Being to finite created beings. though you may struggle, you know the truth that He has always existed and was made by no one. however, the unstable and untaught, in their effort to grasp the concept, will typically construct a theological system to answer the question that is a distortion of other Scriptures. (picture the mormons, who claim elohim is a man-god who was exalted to divinity but had a mother and father at one period, just like you or me. clearly they've distorted other texts to the point that they are worshipping a different God from the One of Scripture.)

    as for denominations. i tend to agree with what i saw on sfpulpit.com. the number of different denominations can be glorious to God provded they work in unity without demanding uniformity. of course, they need to agree on the essentials.

    every Bible teacher worth half his weight will admit that the text can be difficult and will also admit they have errors. he shouldn't stubbornly cling to those errors, but should be willing to conform to truth as it is revealed to him. however, the attack on perspicuity today goes far beyond rendering of difficult texts.

  • At 1:40 PM, Blogger Brad said…

    You've touched on it already, but perhaps it would be helpful to emphasize that although the scriptures are quite clear in setting forth the cardinal doctrines of the faith, especially those necessary for salvation, not all passages are equally perspicuous. To argue then for the perspicuity of scripture is not to say that every teaching of scripture is equally plain.

  • At 2:02 PM, Blogger Charity said…

    I struggle to understand how this "hermeneutic of humility" works in light of 2 Tim. 2:15 - How is it arrogant to obey God by studying His Word in order to "correctly handle the Word of Truth"? How can one "correctly handle" the Word if humility demands that we claim we can't really know what any of it means? Following this logic to its end creates so many scary scenarios for the believer.

    It seems to me that this hermeneutic can be boiled down to the phrase "Ignorance is bliss." If we can convince ourselves there is no way to know what the Bible's authors were actually saying, we can then excuse ourselves (in our own minds) from the necessity of careful study and daily application, especially, as you pointed out, of the more difficult passages. (How can I be expected to carry out the Biblical mandate of submission when I can't know for sure what it IS?)

    I don't believe for a second that people actually just leave the meanings of passages up in the air . . . Each person inevitably assigns his or her own meaning to a text, and can then avoid having to defend his/her view, because he/she can just fall back on the impossibility of knowing anything for sure, and even spiritualize it by making it sound like humility! Brilliant.

    A more fitting name for this concept may be the "Hermeneutic of Laziness."

  • At 2:51 PM, Blogger danny2 said…


    yeah, peter says some of paul's things are hard...not all. clearly, the Bible articulates that some things are not as clear as others.

    i think that's been stated a few times between the post and comments.


    i guess all the caveats listed at the beginning of the post don't apply to comments!

    seriously, i think your comments are accurate...often we make up our mind which passages we want to understand before we take a look at them.


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