Afraid of the Bible?

Why do some people feel a relentless need to attack the credibility of the Bible?

These attacks were (for many years) aimed primarily at an assumed contradiction between the Bible and science. The notion that the Bible requires a certain age for the Earth fueled these efforts to discredit the creation narrative. What many still do not realize is that the assumptions behind the science vs. creation debate are faulty (see: Confusing faith and science).

The endless attacks on the Bible beg the question: “Why are people so afraid of the Bible?”

It cannot be denied that the Christian Scripture played a central role in the founding and formation of our nation. The first English settlers looked to the Bible to guide them. “The influence of the Bible on their literature, their music, and their lives came with them. Their Christian faith was as much a part of who they were as their audacious spirit.” (Woodrow Kroll).

Perhaps this fact from history is behind many of the recent attacks aimed at Christianity and the Bible. Some feel that Christians have enjoyed status as the reigning ideology for long enough. Whatever the motivation, there is a growing band of anti-Christian missionaries who joyfully celebrate the marginalization of Christianity. But don’t let them fool you into believing that they are safeguarding us from some sort of Christian imperialism. Closer to the truth, they despise the influence the Bible carries on moral conclusions of voting members of the nation. Because the Bible doesn’t support their desired lifestyles, they increasingly see it (and those who take Scripture seriously) as an enemy to their cultural agenda for reshaping American life.

The tone of condescending ridicule aimed at the Bible has been common fodder for late-night comedians, and the media. What is more disturbing is the number in ordained ministry and on seminary faculties who encourage people not to take the Bible seriously. This reminds me of the New Testament warning that “a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Many of these ministers insist upon some sort of allegiance to the Bible even while they discredit it as a reliable moral guide for life today. With all their doubts about the integrity and reliability of the Bible, I honestly wonder why they don’t just get another book to teach and follow.

One of the latest waves of anti-biblical rhetoric  follows a pattern of listing strange laws meant to govern Israel as a nation during the Old Testament era and scoffing at how incredulous they sound to modern times (see: A strange yet realistically hopeful book). Another approach picks out the transparent stories about the bad things done by some of the main characters of the Bible. These things are all used to make the closing argument: “You cannot look to the Bible as a reliable guide for life today.”

Some critics are even more misleading by suggesting that the Bible promotes slavery, oppression of women and genocide. These accusations are not based on careful historical research of ancient Near Eastern contexts. Most often they are taken out of context and manipulated to serve a biased agendas.

I am not suggesting that everything in the Bible is easy to understand or accept. It is not easy to read about God’s judgments, but perhaps our perspective misses the greatness of his mercy in allowing rebellious creatures to live. Although we do not understand all the laws meant to govern Israel as a nation during OT times, we do know from repeated emphasis in the New Testament that believers today are not under those laws.

The fact that the Bible reveals its main characters violating God’s will for things like marriage and sexuality actually strengthens the authenticity of the text. As author, Dick Keyes wrote, “I never felt the God of the Bible was asking me to put on rose-colored glasses. Even the heroes of the Bible were described unsparingly in appalling moral failures—lies, sexual aberrations and murders.”

“I did not have to give up the honesty and realism that I had valued. Cynicism claimed that the world— both inside and outside of our heads—was profoundly broken and bent. I realized that the Christian faith had been saying this for two-thousand years, and Judaism for longer than that” (Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion).

The honesty of the biblical narrative reminds us that we are all sinners who have not lived up to God’s plan for us. So I come back to one compelling question: “What way of seeing things corresponds most with reality and does not contradict what I clearly know to be true?” Asked differently, “What seems to be the most plausible way of seeing things in light of what we know about humanity, the observable world and its history?

I believe the biblical narrative and the Christian worldview it presents offers the most logically consistent and plausibly realistic understanding of life and the world. It simply does the best job explaining the world we encounter each day. And it offers the best explanatory frame for the most extensive range of evidence in the world and in the human spirit. There is no other way of understanding the world that corresponds with reality as comprehensively.

Steve Cornell

How to study the Bible

Do you desire to be a good student and/or teacher of Scripture?

The five basic steps of Bible study listed below will provide a helpful guide to keep you on the right track in understanding and applying the Bible.  Each step answers a particular question in relation to Bible study.

1. Preparation: Am I ready?

It is important to come to Scripture with a prepared heart. An attitude of humility and submission to God is the best way to approach God’s Word.

  • James 1:21a ‘Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the Word ….’
  • James 4:6-8a ‘…God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.  Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and He will come near to you…’
  • Isaiah 66:2b ‘…this is the one I esteem; he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my Word’ (see also – I John 1:9).

2. Observation: What do I see?

When approaching Scripture, it is best to allow the Word to speak for itself.  We must avoid reading into a text something that is not there.

Six questions will help this step of Bible study: When? Who? Where? What? Why? and How?

Some additional things to notice:

  • Repeated words that imply emphasis
  • Obvious changes of subject
  • Connecting and contrasting words: therefore, but, since, and.
  • Illustrations: nature, cultural things. (Sermon on the Mount,  book of James).
  • Key people, places, verses, themes or challenges
  • A command to obey, a promise to claim, a sin to avoid, an example to follow

3. Interpretation: What does it mean?



Steps one to three will help protect you from misguided applications of Scripture. Wrong ideas and confusion often result from careless interpretation or a failure to interpret Scripture before applying it.

When interpreting the Bible, our aim should be to arrive at the valid meaning of a text. The primary consideration for doing this is context. By using various contexts, one can arrive at an accurate understanding of the meaning of Scripture. The valid meaning of a text could be a literal, metaphoric or symbolic reading. The important issue is to arrive at the valid meaning based on context. This is especially important if a less expected meaning is chosen. Scripture is to be treated with great care as God’s Word (II Timothy 3:16-17). Careless interpretation of Scripture can lead to incorrect views about God and misdirected living. As a general rule: “If the plain sense makes sense, use no other sense or it will most likely be nonsense.”

Four contexts must be considered: The key to Bible interpretation is context.

  • Historical context: Is there anything in the culture, geography or history of this Bible book or passage that will help in understanding the meaning?
  • Grammatical context: Does the meaning of specific words or phrases in the original language help in understanding the meaning?
  • Immediate context: Does the flow of the chapter or book of this passage aid in understanding its meaning?
  • Theological context: Does the teaching of Scripture in other places add to a proper understanding of the meaning of this passage?

Be careful not to take Scripture out of context simply to prove a point or support your own ideas. The Scripture must be taken in its normal sense unless otherwise specified. Scripture is a completed progressive revelation. Some of the things God did and required at earlier times, He does not do or require now.  The Old Testament sacrificial system had its purpose when it was revealed, but today we are no longer under it because of Christ. We must be careful not to apply our assumptions to Scripture unless they are in agreement with the clear teaching of properly interpreted Scripture.

4. Evaluation: What do others say?

There are many Bible commentaries, introductions, as well as other available helps for our use.  After you have completed steps one through three, it would be wise to consult with other Bible teachers. (see: The Expositors Bible Commentary series; The NIV Application Commentary series; Old Testament Commentary Survey by Tremper Longman III; New Testament Commentary Survey by D. A. Carson).

5. Application: How does this apply to my life?

Application of God’s Word to our lives is not optional. Diligent application of Scripture is a mark of spiritual maturity illustrated in the lives of godly men and women.

  • James 1:22  ‘Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.
  • Hebrews 5:14  ‘But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.’
  • Ezra 7:10  ‘For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.’

God’s children should have as their goal the application of His Word to every area of life (see, Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Application of the Bible must first be personal before we extend it to others (see, Matthew 7:1-6).

Steve Cornell

See also: 

A realistic understanding of the world

When asked why I believe in Christianity and follow the Bible, among other reasons, I admit that I can’t find an alternative worldview that corresponds with reality as comprehensively as what I find in the true account of Christianity.

This doesn’t mean that I find everything easy to understand or explain because of Christianity. Life is painfully complicated and even parts of the Bible (on which Christianity is based) are difficult to explain. Some biblical passages are written in cryptic prose; others are hard to absorb on an emotional level.

While there are painful and complicated issues that are beyond my full comprehension, I come back to one compelling question: “What way of seeing things corresponds most with reality and does not contradict what I clearly know to be true?” Asked differently, “What seems to be the most plausible way of seeing things in light of what we know about humanity, the observable world and its history?

I believe a Christian worldview offers the most logically consistent and plausibly realistic understanding of life and the world. It simply does the best job explaining the world we encounter each day. And it offers the best explanatory frame for the most extensive range of evidence in the world and in the human spirit.

There is no other way of understanding the world that corresponds with reality as comprehensively as Christianity.

For an overview of a Christian worldview, see here and here.

Steve Cornell

 

Seven guidelines for understanding the Old Testament

  1. The laws revealed in the Old Testament (O.T.) were not originally given for us to follow today as God’s will for our lives. They were required of God’s people during Old Testament history to distinguish them as they lived in ancient near eastern cultures (see: Misreading the Bible).
  2. We don’t understand all of the reasons for some of the laws in the O. T., but we know that the times during which they were written were exceptionally evil. Although some laws appear to us as unusual, it likely reveals our lack of understanding regarding the circumstances of the time. The laws were at least meant to distinguish God’s people from the nations around them. 
  3. The O. T. was never intended to be a complete or perfect expression of God’s will. It was provisional for a specific time and pointed to a new covenant that would be a fulfillment and replacement of the old covenant (see: A truth we must accept).
  4. Those who follow the Bible should not quote laws directed to Israel as if they are God’s will for people today unless reaffirmed in the New Testament. We should not, for example,  look to detailed legislation in Leviticus to specifically guide us as followers of Christ.
  5. We only apply Old Testament Scriptures to our lives if they are taught by Jesus and the apostles. Jesus is the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament (see – Matthew 5:18-20). Although He was “born under the law” (Gal.4:4) and “fulfilled all righteousness” (Matt.3:15), Jesus wrapped up the era of biblical history where the law regulated the covenant relationship of the people of God. Jesus is the new locus of authority for God’s people. He established for us what is pleasing to God.
    (see: Christ is the end of the Law)
  6. The primary way O.T. law speaks to us is in the revelation it gives of the holy nature of God in contrast with our sinfulness. This prepares us to see our need to be forgiven and reconciled with God through the grace offered in Jesus Christ.
  7. Those who mock people for following Scripture should reflect on their hypocrisy because they also hold to standards (even the one they’re using to discredit those who follow Scripture). Why do they expect others to accept their ethical code as reasonable?

Steve Cornell

10 Methods of Bible Study

  1. Analytical: detailed examination of a passage in which the text is divided into its smallest parts.
    1. Book – chapters – paragraphs – sentences – clauses – phrases – words – grammatical points
    2. Diagram the passage to understand grammatical structure, flow and connections.
  2. Inductive: a detailed examination of a larger portion of Scripture in which the notation of key words, persons, places, and things takes precedence over grammatical points.
  3. Historical: a detailed study of the historical situation surrounding a book of the Bible including cultural and geographical information.
  4. Critical: a detailed study of academic questions surrounding the text and circumstances that produced the text.
    1. Higher criticism: a study of authorship, recipients, unity, date, and geographic reference in Bible books.
    2. Lower criticism: a study of textual variants and text types in the history of the transmission of the Bible.
  5. Topical: tracing a particular topic throughout Scripture and making relevant observations and conclusions.
    1. Note repeated words or emphases.
    2. Follow the progress of revelation on the theme.
  6. Theological: tracing the development of a particular doctrine throughout a section of Scripture and making relevant observations and conclusions.
  7. Biographic: a detailed study of the personalities in the Bible noting their individual traits, motivations, thoughts, circumstances, and actions. Ask: who, what, where, when, why, how?
  8. Rhetorical: a detailed study of the communication methods used by Biblical authors.
  9. Comparative: Cross reference Scripture with Scripture based on some common word or topic.
  10. Devotional: a study aimed primarily to gain spiritual encouragement for one’s soul.

Work/Study Sheet

Verse or Verses Questions, Comments, Outlines, Illustrations, Examples, Word Studies, Applications  Cross references
 

 

 Steve Cornell

In Step with the Master Teacher

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As I was studying the methods and content of the teaching of Jesus, the word reality kept coming back to me. Jesus kept things real in exposing religious hypocrisy. But reality for Jesus was far more than life in this world.

I also thought about a quote from a book we’re using in our parents of teens group:

“The more accurately you think about something, the healthier your life will be. The converse is also true. The more inaccurate your thinking the more dysfunctional your relationship with your teen will be — even if you assume your thinking is fine, which most of usually do.” 

“Reality can be a hard pill to swallow. But last time I checked, when you fight reality, you lose. Reality wins.” (Tim Sanford, Losing control and liking it, p. 10,14).

But what is reality? It depends on who you ask. If you look closely at the teaching of Jesus, any version of reality that disconnects earth from heaven is a dangerous kind of unreality. Jesus relentlessly insisted on this connection.

Earth and Heaven

As the Master Teacher, Jesus moved from what is seen and known to what is unseen and eternal. He transformed everyday earthly objects into lessons about God, heaven and eternity.

The people of his time had grown blind to the connections between earth and heaven. So Jesus connected the truth around them in the visible world with the truth before them in the Scripture — truth about eternity.

“They didn’t think of God’s word when they sowed seed, or the new birth when they felt the wind, or faith when they gathered the tiny mustard seed; but Jesus did.” (Warren Wiersbe, Teaching and Preaching with imagination, p. 161)

He connected what they could see in creation and life with truths about eternal life to come. Through many object lessons, he turned his listeners ears into eyes to help them see the truths he taught.

  • Jesus spoke of salt, light, wind, bread, vine and branches, flowers, trees, seed, fields white for harvest, birth, gates, coins, treasure, pearls, nets, cups, dishes, tombs…
  • Jesus used, fox, birds, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, serpents, fish, gnats and camels, a hen and her chicks, ….
  • He referred to physicians, shepherds, land owners, builders, friends, bridegrooms, virgins, farmers, tenants, sons, teachers, wine merchants, the rich and the poor, an unjust judge and a widow, blind guides,…
  • He spoke of banquets, weddings, feasts, temples, his father’s house with many rooms…

The teaching of Jesus is characterized by “an evident absence of artificial oratory” (C.H. Spurgeon). Yet what Jesus taught is consistently a combination of simplicity, and complexity that was often provocative and challenging.

Jesus told stories that often exposed the religious and social prejudices of the establishment. Yet there don’t appear to be any great shifts in tone and inflection; no special vocabulary or arresting theatrics, — just stories. The problem, however, is that in Jesus’ stories the wrong people win. The Samaritan shines as a keeper of God’s commands; the gentile demonstrates faith, the tax-gather goes home justified before God and the sinful women with a past is welcomed and forgiven. 

It was hard to miss his point — and they didn’t! 

Many times the simplicity of application cannot be missed. But this didn’t reduce the complexity and challenge. After hearing Jesus, one might respond with, “I get it … I think…” But wait,… does he mean…? Or, should I take it as …” His words invited deep contemplation and reflection. 

The elements of simplicity are unmistakably clear — on one level. When Jesus exposed hypocritical approaches to praying, giving, fasting; we get the point each time. But we also feel the challenge to consider subtle ways that we seek attention and praise for our acts of service.

When Jesus said, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” – we get it (Matthew 7:24). But it troubles us that so “many” people could call Christ “Lord” and engage in works of the kingdom (“did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?”) only to hear the Lord say to them,  “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Where are we hearing but not doing?

Back to reality

All of this takes us back to that word “reality.” According to the Master Teacher, the person who lives without making deep connections between earth and heaven lives in unreality. He might be a “man of the world” but if he thinks this is his only world, he is profoundly misguided. In 70-80 years, the connections will become clear.

To build your house on the rock, as a wise builder, you must follow the teachings of the one who continuously connected this life with eternity. He taught his followers to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. He taught us to think of reward with our father in heaven and to store treasure in heaven — that place where corruption cannot damage treasure. 

A matter of perspective

How will you see things? How will you respond to the successes and trials of this life? If you live only on the horizontal level, only looking at things that are temporal, you’ll build your life fantasy not reality. Instead, join with Jesus Christ and make connections between what is known and visible to what is unseen and eternal.

Then when the torrential rain comes and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against your life, the rock-solid foundation of Christ’s words will withstand all the way into eternity.  

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).

Steve Cornell 

 

Longing for a better world

As we honor those who served and currently serve the armed forces of our nation, I find myself longing for a world without the need for military.

Obviously this world will never be without such a need. But have you ever given serious thought to why our world is so filled with evil and violence? Why can’t people get along and relate peacefully with one another?

No, I am not getting ready to sing what the world needs now is love, sweet love. But the endless wars that make up so much of world history are a sad reminder of our fallen condition. And most people intuitively feel that things are not the way they were meant to be.

The human story is certainly more one of war than peace. Someone cynically suggested, “Peace is that glorious moment in history when everyone stops to reload.”

Telling our story requires contrasting terms between goodness and evil; love and hate; beauty and cruelty; life and death; even war and peace. Themes of dignity and depravity are relentlessly recurrent in all cultures – at all times throughout history.

There are surprisingly few places to turn for thoughtful answers to why things are this way. Most efforts to explain good and evil are either based on scientific reductionism or naïve utopianism. I have only found one source to be wide enough to explain the complex dimensions of the human story and large enough to speak to innate longings of the human heart for a better world.

The source I have found most helpful is popular but not well understood — even among those who feel surprisingly justified in rejecting it. Mere mention of this source in academic settings typically invokes condescending reactions. Those who take the source seriously are wrongly treated as unenlightened and narrow-minded. Yet those who react this way rarely offer thoughtful alternatives for the dilemma of good and evil.

The source I look to offers truths that range from simple and accessible, to complex and mysterious. It speaks to a child and challenges a scholar. It covers the physical and the metaphysical. It reaches both time and eternity. It tells us where we came from; why we’re here and what went wrong. It addresses universal longings for peace and goodness by revealing where to find hope for a better future. It speaks deeply to universal human needs for forgiveness, freedom, and peace.

It is the most widely circulated and best-selling book of history. It’s main character came from eternity to humble earthly circumstances and died a brutal death. His death, we are repeatedly told, was a redemptive sacrifice for all people.

He transformed countless individual lives and human history itself more than any other person who has lived. He introduced himself as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who is, who was and who is to come. He said, “I was dead and behold I am alive forever and ever” (Revelation 1:18). The source is the Bible and the main character is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ remains the most amazing person who ever lived on this planet. Although born in obscurity over 2,000 years ago, the world can’t escape his legacy and global influence. No individual comes close to the impact Jesus made on humanity.

Jesus Christ is so amazing that he can only be fully explained by use of terms that defy normal categories.  We need terms that reach beyond our reality and shatter many of our common assumptions. Jesus,

  • fulfilled ancient prophecies in his birth, life and death?
  • predicted his own death and resurrection?
  • claimed to exist before Abraham was born?
  • claimed the right to forgive sins?
  • claimed that he would be the judge of all people?
  • claimed eternal duration for his words?
  • claimed equality with God?
  • claimed the ability to give eternal life to those who believe on him?

He is too much for us to fully wrap our minds around. His existence demands a God who breaks in on the natural order. Jesus Christ is so extraordinarily unprecedented that he shatters our categories and demands our worship.

Some people find the central message about Jesus a bit difficult to accept because it involves exclusive claims about the only way to God. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the father but through me” (John 14:6). “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” (I Timothy 2:6)

The sacrificial death of Jesus is repeatedly emphasized as something offered for the sins of the world, for all men; for the whole world (see: John 3:16,17; I John 2:1-2), but this inclusive demonstration of God’s love is the only way to be forgiven and accepted by God.

There is a better world coming where there will be no more war; no more need for military.

So while I give thanks for the faithful men and women who serve our nation, I long for “a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’ And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.’ And he also said, ‘It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.'”

Heaven is our point of reference! Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But we must not stand gazing into heaven because there is work to be done for the honor of God’s name, the advancement of God’s kingdom and the fulfillment of God’s will.

Steve Cornell