We evangelicals unapologetically endorse the Bible as the word of God. This means that teachers of the Bible should take seriously the Apostle Paul’s charge to Timothy to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).
Over the past few decades, evangelical Churches have enlisted more lay people to teach the Bible than ever before. The primary arena for this has been small group ministries.
Although some Churches claim that their small group leaders are not asked to teach the Bible, being in these leadership positions requires interaction in the Word that involve elements of teaching. I’ve spoken to more than a few small group leaders who felt ill-equipped to correctly handle the word of truth in their roles.
We must do a better job with preparing those we entrust with leadership of small groups where discussion is focused on the meaning and application of the Bible. One area of instruction especially needed is how to understand and honor the unity and complexity of the Bible.
The Bible contains a collection of writings that unfold with profound unity over many years on the central theme of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. This means that we must compare Scripture with Scripture as we try to discern God’s character and will. We must be careful not to declare one truth from the Bible in a way that contradicts other truths.
When handled correctly, Scripture speaks with amazing unity given the span of years, authors and styles of the writings in it. But one must work hard to arrive at accurate interpretations and applications of biblical texts.
It’s possible to teach one truth (or one side to a truth) without respecting the necessary balancing truths found elsewhere in Scripture. This kind of carelessness often leads to presumptuous misrepresentations of God. One thinks of the divine rebuke issued twice against Job’s three friends.
“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
This is the kind of error is often found in discussions about the sovereignty of God and responsibility of humans. Subjects like this are good to wrestle with because they sharpen ones ability to respect biblical distinctions. And, on some subjects (this one included), finite beings must be prepared to recognize an inability to fully comprehend the infinite. We must distinguish things that contradict our knowledge from things that are simply beyond it. We also must respect the realities related to divine concessions to human sinfulness (see: Genesis 8:20-21; Mathew 19:3-9).
Those who aspire to teach Scripture should read authors who honor important distinctions based on careful handling of biblical passages. We can learn how to approach the text by consistently reading those who display excellence in Bible study.
On the above subject, one should read “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” by J. I. Packer or D. A. Carson’s treatment of the theme in “How Long O, Lord?” Packer’s “Knowing God” is also a seasoned example of how to approach a theme in a way that faithfully respects biblical unity and distinctions. More serious students should read “Exegetical Fallacies” by D. A. Carson and “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.
The study and teaching of Scripture deserves the discipline of excellence (“do your best”). A root issue behind failure to treat Scripture with this kind of care is often laziness. But loyalty to theological systems and ecclesiastical traditions over Scripture can also obstruct carefulness to honor biblical distinctions. In other cases, prideful determination to be “right” on a subject or to appear to “know your stuff” stands behind misrepresentations of biblical truth.
I am sure that in three decades of pastoral ministry, I‘ve failed to make necessary distinctions more than a few times. But, to avoid this, I’ve disciplined myself to read authors that demonstrate skillful handling of the biblical text. Over the years, in the area of biblical studies, I’ve benefitted greatly from (to name a few) J. I. Packer, John R. W. Stott, F. F. Bruce, Leon Morris, Carl F.H. Henry, D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, Harold O. J. Brown, Walter Kaiser, Richard Mouw, and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be).
I especially recommend consistent reading of good commentaries to learn the art of careful exegesis. If you’re not sure where to begin, consider a few of the following to get started:
D. A. Carson (Matthew, EBC), Douglas Moo (Romans, NICNT), Richard N. Longenecker (Galatians, WBC), Timothy George (Galatians, NAC), Gordon Fee (Philippians, I Corinthians, NICNT), David Garland (II Corinthians NAC), Joel B. Green (Luke, NICNT), William Lane (Hebrews WBC).
I especially appreciate authors who think deeply, carefully and compassionately about God’s word and ways. Many authors whom I have never met have ministered greatly to me in this area through their books. Along with Biblical Scholars, I read as widely as possible in other disciplines — fearing no perspective. Many years ago, I started listening to Mars Hill Audio with Ken Myers and purchased most of the books he featured on his audio journal. This has been invaluable.
An example of important distinctions
This desire to respect careful study and distinctions is why I remain so appreciative of Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. If you’ve never read this book, please add it to your list. Frankly, I was aware of his brothers work before reading him. Alvin Plantinga is an author who wrestles deeply with important distinctions.
As a brief example of important distinctions, Plantinga (Cornelius) explored the differences between sin and evil. He suggested that “all sin is evil, but not all evil is sin.” This is a distinction that deserves compassionate consideration. Here’s a small run from Plantinga of how this distinction is respected in his book.
“Everybody knows there is something about human life that is out of line or out of whack … every day brings us fresh news of old evils—of nature ravaged, of God blasphemed, of people cheated, battered, terrorized. Every day brings us news of people whose misery is almost impossible to fathom.”
“Evil is what’s wrong with the world, and it includes trouble in nature as well as in human nature. It includes disease as well as theft, birth defects as well as character defects. We might define evil as any spoiling of shalom, any deviation from the way God wants things to be.”
“Thinking along these lines, we can see that sin is a subset of evil: it’s any evil for which somebody is to blame, whether as an individual or as a member of a group. All sin is evil, but not all evil is sin. A killing by a two-year-old who picks up a gun is a terrible evil, but not an actual sin, at least not by the two-year-old. But a premeditated killing by a drug dealer of a drug enforcement officer is both evil and sinful. So is willful ignorance and silence about the evils perpetrated by one’s own nation. In short, sin is culpable evil.”
Exploring the example
Plantinga wrestles with distinctions that may be necessary when looking at the complexities of human behavior and how we label it. Thinking matters through truthfully and compassionately, he wrote,
“When one observes the rifts and scars of children whose parents took turns slapping, deriding, ignoring, bullying, or, sometimes worse, simply abandoning them; when one observes the wholesale life mismanagement of grown-ups who have lived for years in the shadow of their bereft childhood and who have attempted with one addictor after another to fill up those empty places where love should have settled, only to discover that their addictor keeps enlarging the very void it was meant to fill — when one knows people of this kind and observes their largely predictable character pathology, one hesitates to call all this chaos sin. The label sounds smug and impertinent. In such cases, we want to appeal to some broader category, perhaps the category of tragedy.”
“‘Tragedy’, however, “implies the fall of someone who is responsible and significant. It refers to someone whose significance has been ‘compromised and crushed by a mix of forces, including personal agency, that work together for evil in a way that seems simultaneously surprising and predictable, preventable and inevitable.’ A tragic figure is, in some intricate combination, both weak and willful, both foolish and guilty.”
“Remarkably enough, at the end of the day, it might not matter very much how we classify damaging behavior. Whether these behaviors amount to sin or symptom, the prescription for dealing with them may turn out to be just about the same. Nobody, for example, is more insistent than Alcoholics Anonymous that alcoholism is a disease; nobody is more insistent than A.A. on the need for the alcoholic to take full responsibility for his disease and deal with it in brutal candor” (quotes from: Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be).
Sometimes distinctions make us nervous. There is a feeling of security that comes with everything being a matter of right or wrong; truth or error. But sometimes life in a fallen world is not always easily categorized. Just think about the challenges related to one’s understanding of divorce and remarriage.
If we’re honest about God’s assessment of humanity from our (new) beginning, we’ll be a little less surprised by the messiness. God “said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21).
We who teach, preach and blog about God and His ways with humanity should pause to think carefully about how we represent Him. Let us not be found as those who darken God’s counsel with words without knowledge lest the Almighty respond, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2-3).
Let’s work hard to be diligent students of Scripture with compassion, wisdom and deep humility — to the glory of God.