Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on issues of the day…
Pardon the somewhat odd title – let me explain: While evangelical Christians can look down on other Christian groups for adding to Scripture, or twisting Scripture, or misreading Scripture, or allowing man-made traditions to trump Scripture, the sad truth is, we often can do exactly the same thing.
We all need to be on guard here. None of us have a perfect take on these things. But I continue to be amazed at how many people who have been Christians all their life and been faithful church-goers all their life seem to miss some real basics of Christianity.
As but one example, once I was sharing with a guy just a few home truths about Christian discipleship, obedience, holiness and the like. I mentioned how we need to take the warnings of Scripture seriously, and that a life of growing obedience and sanctification is the expected path of any disciple of Christ.
He responded by saying, ‘wow that’s pretty sober stuff’ (or words to that effect) – as if he had never heard that or read that his whole life. But it is just normal Christianity. It is there as plain as day in the New Testament. But we seem to view such basics as strange, unusual, and even surprising.
How have we gotten to the place where the plain words of Scripture no longer mean what they are supposed to mean? How can we read them a zillion times and gloss right over them, and not pick up on their clear intent? How have we so missed out on what is so rather plainly stated?
It seems we have managed to drug ourselves, anesthetise ourselves, blind ourselves to the plain teachings of Scripture. We have bought so many traditions of men, and allowed our own culture – even our own Christian culture – to dumb us down that we can’t read a biblical text and let it speak to us as it was intended to.
Sure, we all come to Scripture with rose-coloured glasses on, or with blinders on, or with cultural baggage, etc. But the first step in correcting this is to admit that we have a big problem here, repent of this, and ask afresh the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth as we read the Word of God.
All of us are culture bound, and limited by the effects of sin. We are all finite, fallen and imperfect. And when we become Christians, we are involved in progressive sanctification. Perfection in this life eludes us. So we expect to do all things less than perfectly, including how we read Scripture.
But we cannot let that become an excuse. We need to keep praying with the biblical writers such requests as: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Psalm 119:18). Or as Paul put it in a slightly different context: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” (Ephesians 1:18).
We all need to keep praying that our spiritual eyes will be opened, and we will see what God is saying to us through his Word, and not allow all sorts of things to cloud over all this. An attitude of humility is always vital here. We do not always get it right, and we do not always read his Word correctly.
So a continuous attitude of openness and humility, with time spent on our knees in prayer, will never go astray. We can never assume we have fully arrived, or have the Bible all figured out. Sure, we have confidence and conviction of basic truths, and we are not to be in a state of perpetual doubt and vacillation.
But we also need to know that God is still leading us further as we read his Word and seek to understand it properly. I have changed various (minor) doctrinal positions over the years, and expect to keep doing so. The basics will stand, however, and should not be readily abandoned or toyed with.
We all will keep growing in our understanding, and part of that will mean jettisoning man-made teachings and understandings which we have allowed to take the place of Scripture, or be put on a par with Scripture. So I guess I should conclude this somewhat rambling piece with these words: every time we open the Bible, we need to pray for God to powerfully speak to us through his Spirit. Pray that his truth will always come forth as we read.
By the way, as an endnote to all this, I notice one type of tradition that evangelicals at least claim they have nothing to do with. We take pride in putting Scripture first, not man. We reject the idea of an infallible Pope who we must submit to or defer to. But it seems there are plenty of popes in the Protestant world as well.
All sorts of big cheese leaders are put up on a pedestal, and if anyone dares to critique them, their groupies come out in force, denouncing you. I have found that when I dare to disagree with some of these big leaders, their fans will lash out at me, as if I am attacking Jesus himself.
We have as many infallible and untouchable leaders in the evangelical world as anyone else does, and woe to those who dare to say anything critical about them, or compare them and their teachings with the Word of God. Their loyal and dedicated followers will defend these guys to the hilt, and attack those who think otherwise.
So we really need to stop pretending we are so much better than other faith traditions. We evangelicals have plenty of our own problems, including following man-made traditions over against the teachings of Scripture. And we can so easily read Scripture in a haze or a stupor, where the clear teachings get lost and perverted.
As I say, we must keep praying and stay humble. Jesus spoke so often about those who have ears but cannot hear, and about those who have eyes but cannot see. We really don’t want to be those sorts of people.