God is a Confounder, isn't He? Now I don't mean that He isn't also infinitely gracious and compassionate as a Revealer; for through His Word He has revealed much about His purposes and ways to finite creatures such as ourselves, knowing that without that revelation, we are truly lost.
But what I mean is that just when we think that we have got Him pegged; just when we think we understand everything about His methods, or can easily predict what He'll do next, He confounds our expectations by doing or saying something quite mysterious, something we can't explain.
I was thinking about this idea, and how it relates to the formation of theology. Traditionally Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God that tells the Truth about life, and shows us the Way to relate to God and man properly. Yet that Word which is such a gift to us also challenges us to interpret it accurately. And there's the rub-- it seems so many interpret so many things in it differently, yet all claim to have the right interpretation. How one interprets Scripture leads to the formation of a theology-- our understanding of who God is and how He and the universe that He created works. This in turn affects the development of the nature of our faith and also our daily life, for we act according to faith.
Now believing that there is such a thing as Truth, I believe that yes, there is a correct interpretation on most issues in the Bible-- one that our omniscient God would stamp His approval upon. But certainly we must admit that every one of us is interpreting the Bible in order to decipher its meaning and then live according to our understanding. Whatever your theology-- Pentecostal, Reformed or somewhere in between-- we as Christians read, study and interpret the Bible to the best of our ability, seeking the leading and aid of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would lead us into all Truth. We do so because this is our responsibility and privilege as believers: to rightly divide the Word of God; to defend sound, and rebuke unsound, doctrine; to be able to teach others. These are deadly serious matters-- the eternal destiny of souls requires that we listen to Jesus and hear what He is saying correctly, and help each other to do so as well.
So what are we to make of the vast differences of interpretation of Scripture, within the body of Christ, on so many issues? Why these differences anyway-- aren't we all working from the same textbook, so to speak? The Bible though, isn't like any other book. It does not offer a systematic theology, but rather presents a narrative of God's relations with humanity, using a variety of literary forms to weave its tale. And unlike other books, its truths cannot be apprehended by intellect alone, but must be revealed to us spiritually. They are rational, yes, usually logical, but also "the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". Jesus, when asked by His disciples why he spoke in parables, gave this reply:
"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
"'You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people's heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.'
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it (Matthew 13: 11-17)".
The Lord was speaking of the blind religious leaders of His day, who claimed to be searching the Scriptures in order to find God and gain eternal life, but who could not see the Messiah standing in the flesh right there before their eyes. These were educated, literate, intelligent men, but they could not understand the truths of the Bible because they were hard-hearted, sinful men, unwilling to really submit themselves to the authority of the Scripture.
Likewise all who come to the Bible and to the words of Jesus must be willing to humble themselves, and become willing to do what the word says. Jesus said, "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own (John 7:17)".
So the prerequisite for basic recognition of Scripture as God's revealed word is this humble willingness. Yet to understand even more deeply the profound truths in the Word, another condition must be met. We must be born again.
"I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."
In His conversation with Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again, Nicodemus seem surprised and perplexed by the idea of being born again. Jesus went on:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
Jesus showed Nicodemus that being born again is a spiritual matter, one connected with believing in the Son of Man (Jesus) for eternal life. So being a Christian means to be born again of the Spirit, to receive a new type of life from the Spirit.
Then later Jesus taught His disciples that the Holy Spirit to be given them when He was gone would enable them to remember and recall all of His teaching. The Spirit would lead them into all truth by revealing the things of Christ to their understanding.
To return now to our previous theme, it seems that although Christians of many denominations share these basic understandings of the nature of spiritual truth, nevertheless controversies still remain over other important issues. For example, are miracles for today? Are prophecy and tongues valid spiritual gifts? What is the baptism of/in the Holy Spirit? How do we know God's will- does God speak to us by an internal, subjective impression, or mostly through the correct interpretation of Scripture? Or both?
On these and hundreds of other issues of biblical interpretation, there are a variety of different answers given by many groups. Now I am encouraged by the fact that Jesus promised that our teacher would be the Holy Spirit, and that Holy Spirit would faithfully lead us into all truth. At the same time, I recognize that understanding spiritual truth is a daunting task, one that calls upon the rigorous use of the mind, with all its God-like faculties of reason and logic, and at the same time, to be led by the Spirit so that I "see" truths that apparently I would never have discovered by the use of mere unaided intellect.
Sometimes the Christian answers are simple, but they are never easy. For example, the gospel message of salvation is simple, "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures ...He was buried... He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures". But the profound nature of what took place on the Cross and how it affects every human being and how it is played out in the life of every believer in Christ is not at all simple. It requires that we spend much time in meditation on these truths, humbly entreating the Lord for insight into them by His Spirit, and asking Him daily for His grace in order to be able to apply to our lives the truths He reveals.
Perhaps because the Bible is such a profoundly deep book spiritually, and because of the effects of sin, our spiritual perception is murky, we should not be surprised that so often, human beings interpret the Bible differently from one another. There is room for all of us to mature and grow in our understanding. This of course does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid, but so often the controversies arise because of the challenging nature of the truths we are trying to figure out.
If God's word is hard to figure out, so too is He. And I like that. If He wasn't, maybe I would become proud and silly enough to think I could manipulate Him into performing my bidding. But God will have none of that. In His sovereignty, He reigns majestically over every aspect of life, completely and utterly authoritative. No one thwarts His plans. No one can force His hand. And He confounds us with His mysteries every day. Why do some prayers for healing go seemingly unanswered? Why are evil men allowed to commit their atrocities? Why does He speak to us in the way that He does? Where is He when natural disasters happen?
To all of these questions there are only partial answers given. Yet what we do know of God is also remarkable. We know that He is good. We know that He loves us with a love that is unshakeably faithful and true. We know that:
"in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 37-39)".
So long as we remain in our present in-between state, no longer of the world, but not yet fully redeemed, we will continue to make some mistakes in our reading of the Bible. We will continue to wrestle with determining the meaning of difficult passages. It is a worthy endeavor and one we are responsible to do well: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2 :15)."
Still there are times we must humbly admit our limitations, our fumbling when it comes to God's ways. We must be bold in our convictions yet meek as we admit we don't know all. With the Psalmist, we can proclaim about God's wisdom: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain" (Psalm 139:6).
And yet, we eagerly look forward to that Day when we will understand, when we will see and know:
"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor 13: 12)."