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Volume 7, Issue 4: Doctrine 101

Listening to the Word of God

Chris Schlect

I grew up in a Presbyterian church. My memories of it are vivid: the quaint brick building had a high-peaked roof with a steeple, and the pastors wore black academic gowns just like Calvin did. I still love to sing many of the old hymns that I learned from those maroon-bound hymnals, and the words of the pastor's weekly benediction are still fresh in my mind.

Among my most striking memories of the old church is that of the Scripture readings. At a certain point in the service every Sunday, the pastor stood at the pulpit, opened to a marked place in his Bible, and prefaced, "Listen for the Word of God," before reading the text. The words still turn about in my memory: Listen for the Word of God.
This exhortation carries an assumption about the nature of Scripture which should be brought to light. Most importantly, notice that it does not identify Scripture itself as the Word of God. Rather, God's Word is seen as something that accompanies the words of Scripture. According to this exhortation, Scripture is but a conduit or catalyst that helps in the process of God revealing Himself to man. Or perhaps Scripture is a container for God's revelation. In either case, Scripture itself is not that revelation.
If Scripture is not God's Word, then what is? The common answer is that, ultimately, the Word of God is the Christ within us; thus revelation emanates from within us. What is Scripture's role? When it is read, the Word of God within us is somehow awakened. Advocates of this view have taught that the Bible is only as good as the person (or community) who embraces it. So then how do we know what is true? or good? The basis for such determinations is within each of us. And for each unique person there is a unique Word of God, and thus a unique system of truth and of ethics. One pastor happily proclaims, quite consistently, that there is no such thing as Christianity--there are only Christianities.
On this view, the true meaning of Scripture is in the eye of the beholder. It is no wonder that the communion in which I was raised ordains youth, women, evolutionists, abortion and sodomy advocates, and those who deny such doctrines as the virgin birth, original sin, hell and everlasting judgment, and even Christ's substitutionary atonement.
The practical and doctrinal problems resulting from the position outlined above are obvious. One person will find the text to teach Christ as the only way to the Father, and another will see in the text that Christ is not the only way to the Father. Any interpretation is possible. Such problems emerge from the notion that truth--God's Word--is subjective. Fundamentally, this is idolatrous: God's judgments are replaced with those of men. While it is true in some respect that Christ is within us, His Word does not emanate from within us. It is objective, written in Scripture.
We may easily criticize modernists for the lack of objectivity in their theology and the incoherence that it breeds. But be careful: we critics must be clean of the error we expose in others, lest we bring condemnation upon ourselves (cf. Rom. 2:1-3). As we approach Scripture, do we heed it as the very Word of God, or do we undermine its authority by listening for the Word of God?
Among evangelicals, many popular methods of Bible study actually mishandle the Bible. Most pitfalls include reacting to or applying a text before its original intent is understood. "What does it say?" should be the first question asked of a passage being studied, not "What do you think?" or "How does it relate to you?" Some published Bible study guides are especially poor in this regard, prompting the reader to ask questions that cannot be answered from the text: "How do you think Moses felt?" "What would you do if you were in Gideon's predicament?" "What would have happened to Peter had he not denied Christ?" Such questions encourage the student to search for answers in his imagination, and not in the text. These are not Bible study questions, they are self study questions. In principle, there is no difference between this approach to Scripture and that of the modernist.
The careful Bible student will first ask these sorts of questions when approaching the text: "What is the antecedent to this pronoun?" "Does context supply a definition to this term?" "Where is Capernaum?" "Which pagan poet is Paul quoting here?" [*] Such matters must be settled before a passage can be applied.
Today I am more presbyterian than I ever was. I attend a church that shares many things in common with the one in which I grew up. But it espouses a high view of Scripture; thus there is a marked contrast in the Scripture readings of the church of my youth and my church today. It was displayed a few weeks ago when an elder prefaced the morning's Scripture reading with these words: "Listen to the Word of God." What a glorious exhortation!

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