Yesterday evening, KNWA - Northwest Arkansas News - reported on a story out of North East Arkansas, where a local church disassociated itself with a man who a short time earlier had come out as gay. It is interesting that this even made the news for several reasons. Suffice it to say, if in our own back yard a member of a local country club was dismissed for not obeying the 90-degree rule in his golf cart, it wouldn't have made the news. If a member of a local Rotary, Lions, or Kiwanis club were dismissed because they no longer aligned with the purpose and mission of these organizations, we'd never know about it. Why is this newsworthy?
The underlying premise upon which we are supposed to be outraged by this event is that church membership is as much of a right as the right to chose who to have sex with. What is the right of church membership? Let's start by making sure we understand what a church member is a member of. What is the church? The church is both visible and invisible, local and universal. The invisible, universal church is the collection of all who have been redeemed by Christ's death on the cross for their shortcomings, while the visible local church is a gathering of like-minded believers for the purpose of preaching and learning, praying and worshiping, service and evangelism, baptism and the Lord's supper. For the purposes of this discussion, emphasis must be on the term "like-minded."
The U.S. declared its independence from Great Britain because we were no longer "like-minded." Business partners dissolve their businesses because they are no longer "like-minded." People leave churches all the time because they are no longer "like-minded." Why is it a problem for the church to initiate that separation? It's not as if the church said "you can never again take part in our services." It's not like the church told this man he could never come to the food pantry for food when he is hungry or ask for alms when he is poor. When a church makes the decision to disassociate itself from a member, they only prohibit the former member from voting, and most of the time from receiving the ordinances of the church. Put simply, this is a case of a church member and a church no longer being "like-minded."
So the first right of church membership is to be like-minded with the church. Scripture points out several other aspects of the right of church membership. Church members have the right to die to themselves daily. Church members have the right to give up their time and money to fulfill the mission of the church. Church members have the right to attend services on a weekly basis. Church members have the right to go and make disciples of all the nations. Church members have the right to do a lot of things that don't quite seem like rights - they seem more like responsibilities.
So it really boils down to this: church membership is not a right. To the extent that it is, it is a right to give sacrificially of yourself as a church member to the church. Following Christ and becoming a member of the church will cost you your sexuality, whether you are homosexual or heterosexual. It will cost you your wealth, whether you are rich or poor. It will cost you everything - Jesus demanded no less. This is what it means to die to yourself daily, take up your cross, and follow Him. Church membership is costly. When we allow anyone and everyone to be members of the church without the cost Jesus required, we cheapen its value. This is a principle that must be applied uniformly across a broad range of sins away from which a person will not turn, but it is a principle that must be applied.
After the Supreme Court handed down the notorious same-sex marriage case, I wrote a blog analyzing the decision and suggesting nine things Christians should do in response. The first one was to understand why the Bible is the ultimate moral authority for all mankind. Can you articulate why the Bible is the ultimate moral authority? Here are a few ways to explain the authority of Scripture:
1. Ontologically. Ultimately, the authority of Scripture presupposes the existence of God. If God does not exist, then His Word doesn't exist either. Before we can establish the authority of Scripture, we must establish the existence of its author. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of existence. The ontological question of God asks simply and profoundly, "what is the nature of God?"
God is not God if He is not defined as a being greater than any being that could possibly be conceived. Now, this great being can exist only in our understanding or imagination, or He could exist in reality, or He could exist both in our understanding and in reality. But if God is defined as a being greater than any being that could possibly be conceived, He must exist in both our understanding and in reality. It isn't as great to exist only in our imagination than it is to exist in reality, and isn't as great to exist only in reality than to exist in both our understanding and our reality. Therefore, God must exist in both our understanding and in our reality.
The question then becomes, how can we understand God if He is greater than any being that could possibly be conceived of in our mental capacities? Put simply, we could not unless God took steps to reveal Himself to us. If He exists beyond our comprehension, we could not understand Him without His revelation of Himself to us. Unless that revelation is spoken or written in such a fashion that we could understand it, the revelation would be meaningless and God would exist only in our speculation. Existing in reality and our understanding is greater than existing in our speculation, so God had to reveal Himself in a manner that we could understand.
Only now can we address the question of whether God revealed Himself in written and/or spoken word. First, the Bible claims that it was inspired by God (1 Tim. 3:16). God is not God unless He is the most powerful being we could conceive. That all-powerful being would certainly have the ability to manipulate human affairs in such a manner as to ensure that Scripture was written exactly as He wanted. Furthermore, God is not God unless He is the smartest, most knowledgable being we could conceive of. Therefore, anything God wrote would be based on infinite knowledge. God is not God unless He is more just than any being we could conceive of. Therefore, anything God wrote would be absolutely just and right. God is not God unless He is more truthful than any being we could possibly conceive of. Therefore, anything God wrote would be absolutely true. Any word written from the position of infinite knowledge, infinite justice, infinite righteousness, and infinite truthfulness can only be said to be infinitely authoritative!
2. Morally. The question remaining after the ontological proof of God's existence, His necessary revelation of Himself, and the authority of that revelation is whether the Bible contains the moral requirements of this great God. The skeptic will say that the moral code of Scripture was defined by the ancient Hebrew culture. This is known as the dependency thesis - that all morality inherently depends on cultural and sociological factors. Dependency invariably leads to one conclusion considering the variety of cultures in the world - that morality differs from culture to culture. This is known as the diversity thesis. However, observation suggests that morals do not necessarily differ from culture to culture.
For example, the unjustifiable homicide is wrong from culture to culture. The unjustifiable rape is wrong from culture to culture (in some cultures there is justifiable homicide and rape). If morality is relative based on cultures, then murder and rape are not always wrong, since a culture or individual might allow for it. Yet unjustified murder and unjustified rape are always wrong, so morality cannot be universally and absolutely relative. Even so, many relativists are absolute in their demands for moral relativity. They believe that we should never affirm our own moral values as absolute and that moral absolutists are absolutely and always wrong. Look at all the absolutes in that statement in favor of relative morality!
Ultimately, relative morality always leads to the notion that nothing has any objective value, including morals. All morals in this mindset are individual. However, we have already shown this to be morally unacceptable since it allows for the unjustified rape or murder. Since relative morality is morally unacceptable in that regard, there must be objective morals somewhere. Based on our ontological understanding of God, He must be the source of those morals. But why should we trust the Bible as the source of those morals?
3. Understanding Bibliology. A lot of people who attack the credibility of the Bible don't know anything about it. They may know what it says, but they don't have a clue how it came to be. We've already demonstrated how it was necessary for God to reveal Himself to us in word. The Bible says that "no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." (2 Peter 1:20-21). What these men wrote is called an autograph. We have not found any of the original autographs, but we have found thousands of copies, what we call manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts contain what are called variants - slight discrepancies between different manuscripts of the same verse. Therefore, the academic field of textual criticism arose by which scholars in the ancient biblical languages try to ascertain what the original autograph said. The two basic rules of textual criticism are: 1) older manuscripts (those written closer to the date of the original autograph) are more likely to be correct, and 2) the best manuscript of a text explains all of the other manuscripts.
Skeptics tend to latch onto this point, arguing that we cannot bet our eternity on a book that has variants. What they fail to explain is that in reality only about 10% of the Old Testament is even disputed among these scholars, regardless of whether they are atheists or Christians. Most of those disagreements focus on spelling or grammar that has no affect on the meaning of the text. Furthermore, there is no doctrine of the Christian faith that rests solely on an Old Testament Text on which scholars disagree what the original autograph said. In terms of the New Testament, the reliability factor goes up substantially. Almost all scholars agree on over 99% of the original words of the New Testament authors. As with the Old Testament, no doctrine of the Christian faith rests solely on one of the few words on which scholars disagree.
In determining what ancient texts make up Scripture, the rules are quite stringent. As to the Old Testament, we want to know what Jesus considered Scripture during His life on earth. The Old Testament canon (literally measuring stick) - those books that were authoritative Scripture of the Old Testament - were settled in roughly 164 BC. The Hebrew and English Old Testaments are identical save two features. First, the Hebrew Old Testament is in a little different order for no important reason. Second, the English Old Testament breaks up some of the books. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the minor prophets were one book, 1 & 2 Kings were one book, and so forth.
As to the New Testament canon, three rules were applied to determine whether a book was authoritative Scripture. First was the Rule of Faith. For any writing to be considered Scripture it had to conform to the doctrines and faith established by Jesus. Second, the writing had to have demonstrable apostolicity. In other words, the author had to be in direct contact with Jesus and be an apostle (literally messenger). These authors had a divine imperative to write Scripture. Finally, the writing had to be universally accepted by the early church as authoritative Scripture. The apocrypha - books found in the Catholic Bible that are not in the Protestant Bible - are books that are lacking in one of these three areas.
Often times, people ask why there are so many English translations of Scripture. Scholars often translate Scripture for different audiences and purposes. Furthermore, Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic don't always translate well into English. So translators are constantly working to make sure that the text as it was written is translated such that the translation communicates to modern audiences that which was intended when it was originally written. There are basically three kids of translations: 1) functional equivalents - translations that are as close to a word-for-word translation as possible, 2) dynamic equivalents - translations that are more thought-for-thought translations, and 3) paraphrases - translations that paraphrase the original manuscripts and offer commentary as to modern understanding and application. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these approaches, and it is often a good idea to have one functional equivalent, one dynamic equivalent, and one paraphrase to read when doing more in depth Bible study.
Consider for a moment how this collection of ancient writings, written by at least 40 different people on three different continents over the course of thousands of years could all tell the same story that points to Jesus Christ. Consider the high standard of a writing making it into Scripture. Consider the accuracy to which scholars have determined the original words of Scripture. Consider that there are thousands more manuscripts of Scripture than there are of Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey - which is universally accepted as authentic. Then consider again the necessity of God to reveal Himself in word and His ability to manipulate human affairs such that every word of Scripture is exactly as He wanted it. Scripture is authoritative!
4. Understanding Hermeneutics. Inasmuch as many do not understand the origins of Scripture and its reliability, even fewer understand how to read Scripture and apply it to their lives today. As such, they claim it isn't worthy of trust as an outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant collection of ancient writings. But once we understand how to interpret Scripture, we quickly see that there are timeless truths that are as applicable today as they were thousands of years ago.
This is what we call hermeneutics - the art and science of interpreting Scripture. It is a science insofar as there are some rules to interpretation that when followed properly produce a good interpretation of Scripture. It is an art in that as the cultural underpinnings of society change, so do the means by which we must communicate what Scripture means. Communicating God's truth a thousand years ago was different than communicating truth today, and communicating truth today is different than it will be ten years from now. This is because culture instills in us certain presuppositions about how life is and how it is supposed to be. The problem is that the presuppositions two thousand years ago are much different than the presuppositions of today.
As a result, the first step in hermeneutics is an active effort to lay aside those presuppositions and approach the text as it is. In doing so, we can take the second step in hermeneutics - understanding the historical and cultural background of the text. Who wrote the text? Who was he writing to? Where did these people live? What were they facing? How did they live? When was the text written? All of these questions are essential to understanding the meaning of the text.
The third step in hermeneutics is to determine what the text meant when it was written and to whom it was written. This is why it is so important to understand the historical and cultural background of the letter. In this step, we ask what did the author hope to accomplish? What did the various figures of speech mean to the original audience that may not make since today? Understanding the impact the author was trying to have at the time helps us identify the timeless truth that the author's statements were founded on - the fourth step in hermeneutics. Often times, understanding the timeless theological truth varies in difficulty between the different genres of Scripture. Understanding the timeless truth in an epistle is relatively easy many times - the authors flat out speak the theological truth. It can be more difficult to spot in narrative literature sometimes. Ultimately, these timeless truths are the first goal of hermeneutics.
If understanding the timeless truths of Scripture is the first goal of hermeneutics, then the second goal (and final step) of hermeneutics is to understand the modern application of that truth. How should we live in light of the truth of Scripture? What does God want me to do with this information? How must I change? As you can see, by going through the proper procedures of Bible interpretation, we find timeless truth that we can apply today. Scripture is not irrelevant - it is authoritative!
Coffee? Check. Devotional? Check. Prayer time? "Yes, but man look at that squirrel. Oh no, I forgot to pack the kids lunches. I wonder what we're going to have for dinner tonight. Ooo, I need to remember to pick up the dry cleaning." Does this sound familiar? If so, there is a book you need to pick up called Praying the Bible by Donald Whitney.
I could study the Bible all day and not get bored with it. I can hear God's Word preached by some of the greatest preachers of our day via podcasts. I can certainly fellowship too. But when it comes to prayer, I pull up my prayer list, begin to pray, and quickly find my mind wondering. I have the same routine, and I've started wondering whether God is getting tired of me saying the same thing every morning. Save my kids. Fill me with the Spirit. Give me grace to minister. It's always the same. So I picked up this book on Praying the Bible.
After defining the problem with many Christian's prayer methods, Whitney provides a simple solution: pray the Bible. The method is quite simple:
1. Read the first verse or sentence of the passage of Scripture for the day. Whether you are going through a designated reading plan or reading a devotional book, it doesn't matter. Just read the first verse or sentence and then stop.
2. What comes to mind? Pray about it. This is not the time for an in depth study of Scripture. Listen to God speak through His inspired, written Word and respond in prayer. After you've said everything you have to say in response, move to step three.
3. Read the second verse or sentence of the passage and repeat. It's just that simple. Read the verse, pray, read a verse, pray. That is what conversation is, right? One person speaks, the other responds. Too often we feel like we must come to prayer and talk for thirty minutes only to get to the end and realize we've only talked for five or our mind has wondered into Neverland. Use this method to turn prayer into a conversation.
This works great with the Psalms - words specifically written as prayers to God. However, Whitney also shows his readers how to pray through the epistles and narrative sections of Scripture as well. He tells several stories of how this has impacted people's prayer lives for the better. He demonstrates how Jesus, the early church, and more recent giants of the faith have prayed through Scripture to energize and renew their prayer lives. He concludes with practical tips on selecting Psalms to pray and praying through Scripture in small groups.
A book review is not a review that does not think critically about the book reviewed. One issue that I wish Whitney would have more clearly addressed is the use of a prayer list in the practice of praying the Bible. I personally have a list of things that I pray through on a routine basis. Some things I pray for daily. Others I pray for weekly. Some I pray for once each month on a special day. My Logos software is a huge help in organizing these prayer needs. What is the best way to pray the Scripture and let it frame and guide your prayer time while getting through all of the prayer needs you must pray for? Whitney does have an answer, but it is buried in an end note.
At times the book gets a little repetitive, a fact exacerbated by the brevity of the book. While this may seem like a negative to the book, both of these things are good things. The repetition helps you retain the material. The brevity of the book helps you read it in the time it would take you to watch a movie and for about the same cost.
All in all, this is a book I highly recommend. Whitney masterfully teaches the content of the book in a very practical manner, even to the point of requiring the reader to put down the book and practice some what he teaches in it. Revitalize your prayers and your quiet time. Go pick up a copy of Praying the Bible by Donald Whitney.
I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I am a candidate for a Ph.D. in ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a JD from the University of Arkansas, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.