Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reason and Revelation

Is reason a beautiful gift that God has given us so that we can understand His Word? Or is it a tool of Satan to deceive us? The answer, from a Lutheran perspective, is "Yes."

Yes, when God created human reason, it was good. But also, yes, when mankind fell into sin, reason (like everything else in human nature) became diseased, polluted. In and of our sinful nature, we are unable to reason in accord with the mind of God. Only the reborn man, brought to faith by the Holy Spirit, has recovered the ability to comprehend the things of God. Yet all people, including Christians, at least sometimes reason according to the flesh.

Perhaps some who profess the Christian faith only think that their thoughts have been taken captive by the Word of God. It may become evident, when they reason about the spiritual truths revealed in Scripture, how much their thinking is formed by God's Word, compared to how much they are "reckoning without their Host." How can one tell this? One cautious yardstick might be how quickly they come up with a rationalization to answer anything in God's revelation that conflicts with their feelings or opinions. Or, perhaps - in view of the weakness that afflicts even the most faithful - it would be fairer to measure according to how often they finally choose to believe that rationalization instead of the Word.

Enough offensive generalities. Let's look at some scandalously specific examples. There are plenty of evangelical Christians, for instance, who adamantly profess the "inerrancy of Scripture," even going so far as the "sola scriptura" principle that the Bible must be the only "source and norm" of Christian faith and life. But many and many such evangelicals will say, or agree with the saying, that Baptism by water does not bring regeneration, forgiveness, faith, or salvation - especially to infants or to those who are not immersed.

Yet such believers must say this in the teeth of Scripture, which says that baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21; Mark 16:16); that it brings rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5); that it washes away sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16); that it incoporates us into Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:4-5; Colossians 2:11-12); that it is welded to faith (Mark 16:16; Col. 2:12; Ephesians 4:5) as well as to sanctification and justification (1 Corinthians 6:11); and, moreover, that its validity depends neither on age (Acts 2:38-39) nor on immersion (Mark 7:4, where the original Greek speaks of large pieces of furniture being "baptized"). It is indeed not just a human rite of passage or sign of submission, but a miraculous act of God, who in Christ cleanses His church "with the washing of water by the word" (Ephesians 5:26; see also Hebrews 10:22).

In light of this unanimous testimony of Scripture to the power of Baptism, the quibbles of evangelical Christians are exposed as a rationalization based on their own thoughts and opinions. When push (from the thoughts of their hearts) comes to shove (from the mind of God), which one overthrows the other? Reason or revelation? Doubt or belief? By this you may judge whether their reason is held captive by God's Word, or by another. By this you may see whether they are being led toward, or away from, the precious and loving gifts of God. And by this you may also perceive why I, and plenty of other Bible-believing Lutherans, choose not to let the evangelicals instruct us on what sola scriptura means.

In past posts, I have already answered a multitude of objections to what the Lutheran church, and Scripture itself, teach about Baptism. The biggest and most explosive objection has to do with another sola - sola fide. We are saved "through faith alone," proclaims the whole Protestant Reformation. Luther requires Baptism. That's something in addition to faith. Therefore Lutheranism fights against the very heart of Protestantism. Right?

That's a pretty cynical line to take against the man who famously scrawled the word sola in the margin next to Romans 3:26, arguing that man is justified by faith alone. In effect, Luther coined the phrase sola fide. And does he deny it by asserting that Baptism is necessary? If he does, he is in good company. What Peter and Paul write to the churches, as shown in the citations above, they write to the baptized. And when they preach in the Book of Acts, baptism is the very first thing that happens to those converted by their message. Above all, it is Christ who says that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5), and that "he who believes and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). And lest you point out that he mentions faith before baptism, consider Matthew 28:19, where he prescribes first baptism, then teaching in the church's key brief for making disciples. If baptism being necessary conflicts with your first article of faith, don't blame Luther. Take it up with Peter, Paul, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

But does the necessity of baptism conflict with sola fide? Not if baptism is the act of God that establishes faith! What does Colossians 2:9 ff. say about this? In Him - Christ, the man in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily - in Him, Paul says, you are complete, whole, perfect (verse 10). That is to say, in Him you have been circumcised with the circumcision made without hands (v. 11). That is to say, in Him you have put off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ (still v. 11). That is to say, in baptism, by which you were buried and raised with Him through faith (v. 12). All this is the working of God, from Jesus' bodily resurrection to your spiritual resurrection by baptism. It was done without hands, by the working of God. It has everything going for it that Old Testament circumcision had, except that the only one who actually bleeds is Christ; He has been circumcised on behalf of all. And it has additional benefits beyond what came packaged with circumcision. Baptism exchanges our old, dead flesh for new life (v. 13), forgives our sins (vv. 13-14), delivers us from the power of the devil and his angels (v. 15), and sets us beyond obligation to the shadows and forms of Old Testament ritual (vv. 16-17). The key is baptism, "in which" (Paul's words), in which you were buried, raised, and all these other things.

Or look again at pretty much every other verse I have already cited. Jesus says one makes disciples by baptizing and teaching. Couldn't this be because baptism is a means of disciple-making? Jesus said one who believes and is baptized shall be saved (and that one who does not believe shall be condemned). Doesn't this suggest that, even if some who are baptized do not believe, all who believe are certainly baptized? In Titus 3 Paul says we are saved by the baptism of rebirth and refreshment in the Holy Ghost, yet at the same time He says this is "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy," overflowing onto us through Christ. Isn't it possible that Baptism, insofar as it saves us, is an example of "God's mercy" rather than "works of righteousness that we have done"?

Few Bible verses expose the divorce between evangelical Christianity and the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) more clearly than 1 Peter 3:21. A leader of the "Young Earth Creationist" movement once wrote in his newsletter that 1 Peter 3:21 correlates Noah's ark with our salvation. Ken Ham's contention was that, in Peter's analogy, eight people were rescued from a worldwide flood by the door of the ark, which gave them access to safety; in the same way, faith is the door to salvation for us. One can hardly skim over Peter's words, let alone read them with care, without concluding that Ken Ham has let his "faith alone"-based reasoning trample roughshod over the clear sense of Holy Writ. Peter does not say that the eight souls were delivered by the door of the ark, or even by the ark itself; he says they were delivered by the waters of the flood. And corresponding to that, it is now baptism -- not faith -- that, according to Peter, saves you.

Isn't that shocking? To a mind formed by the flesh, driven by fallen human reason to overthrow the Word of God, Peter's statement simply makes no sense. It wasn't the ark that saved Noah and his family. It was the water that saved them. Reason tells us the flood is what they needed to be saved from. Revelation tells us the flood is what they were saved by. The next question is obvious: From what did it save them? Answer: From the very thing that its waters destroyed! That is, from the sin that had polluted and perverted the whole world until it seemed impossible that faith in God could survive (Genesis 6:5-13).

In the same way, says Peter, baptism now saves you. How? By putting to death the "body of sin" (Romans 6:6; Col. 2:11), and floating a newborn child of God to safety. By killing and burying the old man and causing the new man to be born and/or rise from the grave (Rom. 6:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus, in Christ's words, we are "born again" (John 3:3); that is, "born by water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). Having refreshed us with living water (John 4:10-11), the water of life (Revelation 22:17), God in Christ "has begotten us again" (1 Peter 1:3).

All that I have done here is use the hermeneutical prinicples I brought forward in earlier posts on this thread - especially the analogy of faith. I have argued from what the Bible teaches about Baptism, in response to objections raised by other sources of revelation.

And now we reach the point where one may see the peril of placing "the Inerrancy of Scripture" at the forefront of one's thinking about the Bible. To put it crassly, lots of folks have claimed to believe in the Bible's inerrancy. And yet, behold! what fruity conclusions they can reach, all while claiming to follow "Scripture alone." To make the words of John 10:35 ("The Scripture cannot be broken") a proof-text for this inerrancy doctrine does violence to the text, in my opinion. The intent of that verse is clearly to teach the unity of Scripture, not specifically its infallible accuracy. But on a deeper, hermeneutical level, I think it is dangerous to make a meal out of inerrancy, as opposed to the unity of Scripture.

Briefly, here's why. If you start your hermeneutics with inerrancy, your use of Scripture will most likely be focused on apologetics, on using reason to convince people of the accuracy of Scripture, and to lead them from there to its authority. Your argumentation will rely increasingly on data outside the Bible, will accent reason rather than revelation, and will ultimately cast Christianity in a moralistic form. The promises of the Gospel will be reduced to terms in an argument attempting to turn unbelief into belief by sheer force of logic and weight of evidence. But what if your opponent is not convinced? What if they see through your logic, or refuse to acknowledge the validity of your evidence?

On the other hand, suppose that your hermeneutics start with the unity of Scripture, the analogy of faith, the principle of sedes doctrinae, the whole ball of yarn that I have previously paid out and that all really spins out of John 10:35. Instead of arguing on the basis of valid inference and a "preponderence of evidence" in order to persuade doubters, now you are proclaiming a message made compelling by force of conviction. Moreover, you are proclaiming a message that has in it the creative, living, life-giving, sin-forgiving power of God at work within it.

Instead of engaging in apologetics, based on evidence outside Scripture, you are doing exegesis within Scripture, bringing the text out for others to view, setting it loose to drill down through their ears and into their heart and soul. Instead of appealing to the authority of Scripture, with (most likely) moralizing consequences, you are transforming people through the efficacy of God's Word in all its spoken, written, and sacramental forms. Finally, you are not issuing the kind of challenge that apologetics does, a challenge that invites a skeptical counter-argument. Rather, you are calling people to "be not unbelieving, but believing" (John 20:27), to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2), and to join us in "bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Far be it from me to entertain doubts about the accuracy of the Bible. I would not proclaim it if I wasn't convinced that it is God's pure Word, true in every detail. I will even grant that apologetics have their place - chiefly, to encourage Christians who feel worn down by unbelievers' attacks on their faith. But John 10:35, the analogy of faith, is much more helpful to Christian preaching and Biblical interpretation than the classic points of dogma on the Bible (i.e., "inerrancy, authority, clarity, and sufficiency" - by which one means that it contains all the information you need to know).

For no matter how the Bible stands in relation to external evidence at any given time, it always means the same thing within itself. It never contradicts itself. It is not a matter of private interpretation, but a message delivered to mankind according to God's single purpose (1 Peter 1:20-21). In it, God speaks with a single voice, albeit through the diverse voices of several human writers. Through it, God breathes on us (2 Tim 3:16) and preaches faith into us (Romans 10:17). And what He says, He means, though it may be "to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23), though it fly in the face of hallowed tradition or even our sanctified reason.

We may never be able to tell, with great accuracy, whether we are reasoning according to the flesh or the Spirit. It is easier to recognize that Scripture proclaims such-and-such a teaching, even though we may think, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" (John 6:60). If the analogy of faith is working on our side, it will force us to set aside our rationalizations and to wrestle with what the Holy Ghost is telling us. And until we know every possible construction of every word in the Bible, we will never be free to set aside the clear meaning of the text in favor of our own thoughts or feelings. Such is the wonderful bondage the analogy of faith places on our minds as we explore that Scripture which cannot be broken. But it is a liberating kind of bondage. For Christ says, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32).

No comments: