What is progress?

Progress
With the upcoming European elections, there has been a lot of talk about progress in Ireland lately. Every election sign promises a “way forward,” a “balanced approach,” or “people before profit”. Of course, for the elections, the conversation is mainly about economic progress, but there is also a lot of talk about progress in other areas of society as well. Here are a few:

  • Political progress: society might say that democracy today is a more highly developed kind of government than the autocratic empires of ancient times, or even than the communist regimes of the more recent past, that there are no God-ordained kings to rule over common people.
  • Scientific progress: society might say that we understand the world today better than we did before, knowing that it is not flat, not the centre of the universe, and not created by some divine being with too much time on his hands.
  • Ethical progress: today society no longer tolerates slavery; no longer tolerates the tyrannical oppression of women; and, more recently, no longer tolerates differences of opinion on whether moral limits exist with respect to sexual orientation and expression.

The general consensus is that all this “progress” is good and that it all leads to a more fruitful, equal society. And that makes sense from the secular perspective of modern society, but what about from the Christian perspective? Does God consider these types of “progress” as progress at all?

Well, the answers aren’t always straightforward to obtain, but there are a few principles that we can apply when considering whether human advances are considered progress in God’s eyes:

  1. Humanity is not on a constant path to perfection
    At the beginning of the Bible, we learn that “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” [Genesis 1:31]; that is, it was perfect. Then, two chapters later, after the man and woman that God had made had sinned, God cursed the earth and mankind. From that time on, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth…. And not only the creation, but we groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” [Romans 8:22-23]. The narrative of the Bible is not that humanity made a mistake thousands of years ago and has been working ever since until it can be perfect again; the narrative of the Bible is about a broken creation with a broken people, both of which are redeemed by a promised saviour. And though that promised saviour has come, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” [Romans 8:19], the time when all will be made right. Because we are part of this broken creation, we can’t trust that every time humanity moves along with a political, scientific, or ethical development that we are approaching God’s standard of perfection.
  2. God’s standards for human behaviour are found in his Word not in human consensus
    One of the consequences of the sin in Genesis is that we don’t always want what God wants. Sometimes we do—and sometimes even society does—but usually just in vague terms like peace, love, and justice. But often we all just want our own freedom; we want to be our own gods, choosing what we should be able to do. This is a result of sinfulness. Paul describes sinful humans like this:

    For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him… and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie…. [Romans 1:21-25]

    Although this curse is partly removed by the work of the Holy Spirit when we become Christians, part of this blindness remains. This means that we can’t trust ourselves to know better than God’s instructions. And when it comes to progress, we can’t trust the consensus of society when determining whether something is right or wrong. So back to some of the examples from above, we can’t redefine the definitions of the Bible (marriage, gender, start of life, etc.) using whatever definition we think is most fair, or even most loving. When the Bible says that marriage is between a man and a woman or that gender is a God-ordained distinction, we have no right to try change that or stand silent as others do. At the same time, we can celebrate when society ends slavery or when political developments lead to a society that reduces the oppression of the poor, because we know these changes uphold Biblical truth. Therefore, human “progress” is only really progress if it brings us more in line with the truths revealed to us in the Bible.

  3. God’s call to humanity is to Christlikeness
    The discussion so far has been on the progress of humanity as a whole. But part of the narrative of the Bible is that, as Christians, we are not lumped together with humanity, but sent into humanity as light into darkness. For that reason, our biggest concern should not be the progress of society as a whole but our progress in the mission that God has given us. This is what Paul calls “progress” in Philippians 1:25, a call to which he gives by commanding,

    Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. [Philippians 1:27-28]

    Paul then goes on to explain in the rest of Philippians just what it means to live a life worthy of the gospel, following Christ’s example of humility and looking forward to the ultimate redemption of creation. That being said, we don’t ignore the progress of humanity as a whole; we work to advance it by advancing the gospel. But knowing that the progress of humanity is outside of our control, we also don’t lament how the world is falling apart, wishing to go back (or forward) to a simpler, more moral time. Instead, knowing that all things—including humanity’s progress and our progress in the faith—are under God’s control, we focus on following Christ’s example and becoming more like him, knowing that this is achieved by the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the kind of progress that Christians should be talking about.

Don’t quote the Bible less, quote it better

Recently, I read an article by Rich Little about the dangers of quoting the Bible as Christians. The author correctly identifies some dangers and gives some helpful insight, but the impression he gives is that there isn’t much of a place for quoting Scripture in today’s world. His advice—to himself and to others—is to quote the Bible less when we are in danger of quoting it improperly. My advice is different: instead of quoting the Bible less, we need to quote it better. Let’s look at each of the dangers he identified and see how we can avoid them to use the Bible properly.

Note: The headings are quoted from the original article.

  1. “No Scripture is written to me”

    This is a great point. We can often sit down with our Bible, open it up, and say, “What is God saying to me in this verse?”—which is good question to ask but the wrong place to start. When we start there, we are likely to understand the verse out of context, and then quote it out of context too. But the heading is misleading; we should change it to “No Scripture is written only to me.”

    When we read a book of the Bible, we need to know the audience to whom the book was written. We need to know what the passage said to the original audience. We ask questions like: Why is it there? What would be missing if it wasn’t there? Then, once we know what the passage said to the original audience, we can learn what it says to us by asking questions like: What does this passage tell me about the kind of person that I am? What does this passage tell me about who God is? What does this passage tell me about Jesus and his work? What does this passage tell me about how to honour God? And for the most part, the right answers to those questions will be just as applicable for everyone to whom you are going to quote the passage.

    So when it comes to quoting scripture, we need to ensure that what we’re saying to whomever we are quoting it is the same thing that the passage is actually saying. If you can do that, then you don’t have to fear ripping the verse out of context. And the other thing to do, as much as possible, is to communicate the context when you are quoting Scripture. This helps ensure that both you and the person to whom are quoting understand what the text is really saying.

  2. “No Scripture is written to ‘Them'”

    This is another great point. But the danger of is that we can lose all of our confidence in defending Christian truth, thinking that we should first convince everyone to be Christians before we bring the Bible into discussion. The problem that arises then is how can we convince people to be Christians? How can we convince them to believe? The New Testament makes a consistent connection between believing and hearing the good news. For example, in Romans 10, after concluding that there is no distinction between Jewish people and Greek people (the “us” and “them” of New Testament times) when it comes to righteousness, Paul asks:

    How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? [Romans 10:14]

    The point is that it is necessary for all to hear the “word of Christ” [v. 17]. And where else will people hear this good news except in the Bible? There is nowhere else, so we use the Bible to show people the truth: that everyone (both “us” and “them”) has fallen short of God’s requirement for morality and that our only hope is faith in Jesus. The way to avoid the danger of quoting in an “us” vs. “them” mentality is to remember that there is no distinction between us and them; we all have fallen short, and we all need God’s grace just as much. But, if anything, this should drive us to quote the Scriptures more boldly—both to “us” and “them” alike.

  3. “Scripture contains errors”

    While the author makes another very helpful point—that the authority of scripture doesn’t fall down when we see variations between modern translations—the presentation is misleading, which can lead to a false conclusion. His basic point is that there are minor things in the Bible that are unreliable so we should only focus on the major things, simply “witnessing the perfect Christ of scripture.”

    The issue here is a misrepresentation of biblical inerrancy. Biblical inerrancy is the belief that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything which is contrary to fact” [1]. This is the doctrine that has always been held by believers. Now, to say that Scripture (as we have it today) contains errors is grossly misleading. Though modern translations are not inerrant in themselves, they are inerrant to the extent that they reflect the original manuscripts. And they do so very well. Different translations represent different attempts to present the same truth. When Paul quotes Old Testament Scriptures [e.g. Romans 3:10-18; 1 Corinthians 2:9; etc.], he quotes them in a different language, he speaks them to a different culture, and he doesn’t worry that the wording is not exactly the same; that doesn’t stop him from saying that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” [2 Timothy 3:16].

    Variations in wording between modern translations have no impact on the inerrancy of Scripture, and they should not make us hesitant in quoting it. They should, however, affect how we quote it. We shouldn’t get hung up on the syntax of a particular sentence from a particular version, and we shouldn’t make big stretches in interpretation because of alternate meanings or the connotations of particular English words. We should use whatever Bible study tools we have (multiple translations, lexicons, commentaries) to understand what particular texts are saying and verify the truth of whatever it is we think they do say. The more confident we are about a passage’s meaning, the more confidently we can quote it to others.

  4. “Proof-texting is unbiblical”

    The author’s next point helps us avoid another dangerous pitfall of Scripture quotation. The argument is that slicing Scripture into small chunks and reassembling it allows us to defend any doctrine we please, or even make up new doctrine altogether. This is a great point because we need to be very careful about how we piece together arguments from scripture; we cannot use out-of-context verses to build up false arguments.

    But just because we can’t use small (or even big) portions of Scripture out of context, doesn’t mean we can’t use them at all. We can use in-context verses to defend and explain truth. Let’s look again at Paul’s use of Scripture. For example in Romans 3:10-18, he cites no less than 10 separate passages from the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures—in a different language to a different audience than the original—in order to point out that no one has a righteousness of his or her own. Or, for an even stronger example, let’s look at Jesus being tempted by the devil in Luke 4. When attacked by a verbal challenge to turn a stone into bread, how did Jesus respond? With a single sentence from the book of Deuteronomy: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” And twice more before the end of verse 13, Jesus quotes Old Testament Scripture in single sentences as his only defence. Jesus was not one of the original audience members for any of those texts, but he still used them in tiny chunks, knowing that they impacted his life and his behaviour and knowing that they proved the devil to be a liar. Of course, in this passage, we also see the devil using small, out-of-context verses to try to cause Jesus to sin. So it does show that proof-texting verses falsely is dangerous, but our solution should be Jesus’ solution: the answer to misused Scripture quotations is not fewer Scripture quotations but properly used Scripture quotations!

  5. “The Bible is not God”

    The truth that the Bible is not God is a great truth. If the Bible were God, then our God would be far too small. In a general sense, all of creation (including the Bible) points to God, declaring his glory, but the Bible also does more than that. The Bible functions as God’s communication to us. In it, he inspired each author to write exactly what he intended them to write. And today when we read the Bible, we have exactly what he intends for us to have. God’s power has not been compromised by 2000 years of the copying of manuscripts.

    The Bible is not God, but the Bible is how God has told us about himself. The Bible is how God communicates his will to us. And most importantly, the Bible is how God has revealed his Son to us. And God has decided in his Bible to do more than just tell us history about his work; he has also “breathed out” to us what is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” [2 Timothy 3:16-17]. So no, we don’t worship the Bible because it is God, we worship the God of the Bible who has given it to us. And we worship him in the way he has instructed us in his Word. And when we debate—both with Christians and non-Christians—about truth, we do so using the very words of Scripture because that is how we measure truth. And when we correct—both our own views and others’—we correct it using the teaching of Scripture. And when we share the Bible with others, we quote it confidently—precisely because it is God’s word.

So to conclude, we shouldn’t fear studying Scripture diligently, and we shouldn’t fear quoting Scripture to other people. God has blessed us by providing us with a gift that “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” [Hebrews 4:12]. We shouldn’t be afraid to wield it, both to save ourselves and to save others. That’s how the New Testament church used God’s Word and that is how Jesus used God’s Word. So feel free to use it!

References

[1] Grudem, Wayne. 1999. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, pg. 42.

Why Jesus never went to college

Trinity Campanile

In the midst of preparing a pair of talks for the Christian Union in Trinity College Dublin this week, I started thinking a bit about college. In today’s society, we have a near obsession with college education, looking for the perfect qualification for the perfect job to bring us perfect happiness. So why is it that Jesus never found it necessary to go to college? These reflections are what I came up with:

  1.  Jesus already knew more than anyone could teach him
    As fully God and fully man, Jesus did not suffer from the curse of Adam’s sin from which all other people suffer. Among the various other shortcomings we inherited from Adam (mortality, a sinful nature, etc.), one effect of the curse is a dimming of our mental capacity [Romans 1:21-23]. This means that even the human component of Jesus’ knowledge already surpassed that of any human teachers. We see this clearly in the story of the young Jesus in the temple [Luke 2:41-52]. Additionally, through the intimate relationship Jesus had with his Father gave him access to knowledge that no others could know. For example, Nathanael under the fig tree [John 1:47-49], what people were thinking [e.g. Matthew 22:18, Luke 5:17-26]. There was simply no human education that could have instructed him.
  2. The Jewish college system simply would have taught him about himself
    Before anyone tries to argue that there were no colleges in Jesus day, we should note that there were first-century equivalents. In the Jewish system, the brightest of the young boys would have trained in the old testament (law, prophets, and writings), memorizing all of them by the age of 14 before studying under a particular Rabbi. But as Jesus tells two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, the law, prophets, and writings testify about him [Luke 24:25-27]. Of course there was also the Greek Academy, but the Greeks were really only interested in how the world works, which is much too simple a field of inquiry for him through through whom and for whom the world was created [Colossians 1:16].
  3. Jesus didn’t find his identity in his profession
    Jesus trained as a carpenter. He didn’t earn millions trading bonds, consulting businesses, or designing cities–he made tables and chairs. So often we tie our estimation of people to how much money they make or arbitrary levels of dignity we associate with their jobs. Jesus knew that his identity was not affected by the fact that he worked with his hands. Jesus knew his identity depended only on what his Father thought about him. This is the same Father with whom he shares an intimate, eternal, perfect connection of divine love. No wonder, he was always working as his Father worked [John 5:19-28].
  4. No education could have prepared him for his true earthly vocation
    Particularly in John’s Gospel, where Jesus continually references his ‘hour,’ [e.g. John 2:4; 5:25; 7:6; 12:23, 17:1] we see that all of Jesus’ ministry was focused on a singular purpose: his sanctifying death on the cross. As Jesus travelled through Israel healing the sick, announcing the new Kingdom, and gathering sinners to himself as disciples, each parable, sermon, and miracle served to identify him as the Messiah and to teach about the Kingdom he was introducing. Even this earthly vocation was something that simply could not be performed by any other men and certainly could not be taught. No amount of studying or research could have prepared him to endure the onslaught of the full wrath of the Father–that which was due us, not him–that Jesus faced on the cross. Only God’s power, inherent in Jesus’ divine nature was available to face such a torment. And thank God it was.
  5. No education could have prepared him for his true heavenly vocation
    The vocation of Jesus post-resurrection is primarily expressed in two titles: King and Mediator. As King, Jesus is the ultimate ruler of the universe, to whom every knee must bow and tongue confess as Lord [Philippians 2:9-11]. In this role, Jesus–through whom all things were created–holds all things together by his power and holds authority over all powers and dominions [Colossians 1:16]. Though human kings may be taught mathematics or politics as children, the ultimate King requires no such education. Similarly, as Mediator, Jesus stands between us and the Father, representing us to Him and Him to us. Because of this role, when the Father looks at Christians, He sees not the filth of our sin, but the righteousness of his perfect Son. It is because of this role that we receive all the benefits that Christ earned by his perfect life. No political science or law degree could have prepared Jesus for this role.

So now that we’ve seen a few important reasons why Christ did not require an education, but before you drop all your classes and take up carpentry, I’ll close with a pair of thoughts on why we shouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing (or not pursuing) a college education now.

  1. As Christians, we’re called to work
    Just like God gave Adam instructions in the garden, we also have instructions today. Our ultimate mission is to bring honour to him, and this works out in a number of ways. Probably the most important one is the way that we represent Christ to others. This involves both our behaviour (in that it is God-honouring and represents him to non-Christians) and our verbal witness as we share the good news of Jesus with those around us. Our choice of college and career affect our mission field but not our mission. The second way is to serve the world around us by our normal, everyday work. All legitimate professions provide some benefit to society and that is part of your service in God’s created order. Working well, and doing it in an other-person-centred way is God-glorifying service. Using your job to simply climb up the career ladder and achieve your own happiness is not.
  2. We can serve God with or without college
    Just like Jesus didn’t need college to perform his service, not all of us need college to do ours. Our ability to share Christ with others is independent of our college education, but some course choices might qualify you for a career in a field that is largely unreached. Of course, you have a chance to reach people during college too. And if you decide not to go to college, you may be better able to serve a different community. Choosing a course is not about finding your dream job or becoming famous; it’s simply a matter of assessing your interests and abilities and looking for a way to use them to bring glory to God in something you can be passionate about. If you think you can bring more glory to God in college, then go for it. If you think you can bring more glory to God without college, go for it. Either way, ensure that in all your work, you work in the name of the Lord [Colossians 3:17]. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a plumber or a physicist, you can use your job to serve God.

So to finish off, when we sit in lecture theatres or libraries long after we wish to be there, or stay up late writing essays that should have been finished much earlier. We shouldn’t simply ask whether or not we’ll get the grade we want or the job we want or even the acclaim we want, we need to ask whether our behaviour, our course, and our attitude honour Christ. Just don’t waste your time in college (or your college degree) by failing to use it to bring glory to the one for whom college simply wasn’t necessary.