Sue Cyre, of Theology Matters, writes:
A recent article by the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, Jack Haberer, claimed that Scripture is “packed with contradictions.” Our recent Nov/Dec issue of Theology Matters with the article by Josh McDowell affirmed the trustworthiness of Scripture. Either Scripture is trustworthy or it is not. It cannot be both truthful and also filled with contradictions.
I’ve chosen to respond to Haberer’s article because his “contradictions” are echoed by many people in our culture. They are “contradictions” you may hear by young people in your church or members of your family or neighbors. It is important to have thoughtful answers to the types of arguments raised by Haberer.
Haberer reflects that in his first pastorate a dozen people engaging in same-sex behavior came to him for counsel and while he “believed their desires and practices ran contrary to God’s design for their lives,” it appears that he did not lead them to repentance. He admits instead that, “I restrained my judgment in order to love them in the grace-filled ways that Jesus modeled.”
Cheap grace vs. true grace
In other words, according to Haberer, God’s grace means that we do not call sin, sin. If we love someone as Jesus did, Haberer seems to reason, we shouldn’t call them to repentance and transformation. Implicitly at least, we give them the impression that their behavior is acceptable to God. Yet there is not a single place in Scripture where Jesus “modeled” affirmation of sin. Instead he told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more; he watched the rich young ruler walk away because he refused to repent of his covetousness; and he called the Pharisees white-washed tombs. Yet, from the cross Jesus welcomed the repentant thief into the kingdom.
Haberer claims he is motivated by grace. Yet it is not biblical grace, but the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer described,
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Bonhoeffer compares this cheap grace with true grace:
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. … It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.
Haberer would not want to claim that his approach of overlooking sinful behavior is more loving than God’s approach of redeeming the behavior. So, Haberer locates the problem in Scripture, which Haberer posits is “packed with contradictions.”
And to bolster his contention that there are contradictions, he sets up a straw man claiming that if you don’t accept contradictions you have a “tendency toward selective literalism.” Those are not the only alternatives: either selective literalism or contradictions.
Reformed Principles of Interpreting Scripture
The historic Reformed approach to interpreting Scripture is to understand the original author’s intent and meaning and then apply that meaning to our lives. The Reformed understanding is first, that when a passage of Scripture is not clear in itself, other passages add clarity. The Westminster Confession articulates this principle, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (6.009)
Second, not all Scripture is to be interpreted the same way. Scripture contains various literary forms which are each interpreted differently. So, the poetry of the Psalms is interpreted differently than the historic narratives; the apocalyptic form of Revelation is interpreted differently than Paul’s letters.
Third, in addition to God’s commands, Scripture includes descriptions of sinful human behavior. David committed adultery with Bathsheba but Scripture is not advocating adultery. It is describing the sinful, flawed human beings that God worked through to achieve his purposes.
Fourth, not all Old Testament commands apply the same way under the New Covenant in Christ. Jesus tells his disciples that kosher food laws no longer apply (Mark 7); yet he deepens the moral law in Matthew 5. The book of Hebrews tells us the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ, the great high priest and final sacrifice.
Responding to the supposed contradictions
1) Haberer says, “for example, the Bible that tells us to ‘choose life’ and commands people never to kill, also reports divine directives to go to war and to execute criminals.”
Response: The Bible does tell us to choose life. And one of the 10 Commandments is “you shall not murder.” According to Scripture, no individual is to take the life of another person. The underlying principle is that life belongs to God and therefore we do not have the authority to take a life. For the very same reason, God can declare that life forfeit if the person has taken someone else’s life.
Scripture even makes a distinction between premeditated murder which carried the death penalty and manslaughter or accidental killing which had a lesser penalty (Numbers 35). If a person was accused of murder or manslaughter, there was a trial and there had to be at least two witnesses (Deu 19:15). An individual did not meter out the penalty for a crime, but the nation of Israel, under God’s authority, held court trials and applied penalties.
And God can commission governmental authorities to defend life by the sword if necessary. So there is no contradiction, but rather different applications of the same underlying principles.
2) Haberer says, “The Bible that prohibits stealing, heralds the slavery-fleeing Israelites’ plundering of Egyptians’ wealth…”
Response: The Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold and they willingly offered it. It is described by Scripture as “plundering” the Egyptians. “Plunder” is a military term. It is used when a nation conquers another nation and carries off its wealth. The underlying principle is that all property belongs to God and is to be used for God’s glory. He allowed the Egyptians to have those precious metals, but they used them for idolatry. God allowed the Israelites to come into possession of the gold and silver so that they could devote them to the worship of God–which they eventually did in the temple, after the unfortunate episode with the golden calf.
Scripture intends for us to see that Egypt was conquered but not by Israel. The Israelites did nothing but watch as the mighty hand of God moved against Egypt in the plagues. Each plague was an assault on an Egyptian god (Ex 12:12): Ra-the Sun god; Osiris-the god of death, etc. The living God was defeating the false gods of Egypt. And God says repeatedly his reason for this attack is, “So they will know I am the Lord…” The plagues were an opportunity for Egypt to repent and follow the living God. Instead the Egyptians were judged by God for their refusal to repent.
3) Haberer says, “The Savior who promised to fulfill the Law also promised to turn son against father and daughter against mother-in spite of the commandment that children honor their parents.”
Response: It is difficult to know what text the Outlook author is referring to since he doesn’t offer any citation. However in Luke 12:53 Jesus tells his disciples, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, ….”
And in Paul’s letter to pastor Timothy describing the last days, he includes “children will be disobedient to their parents.” The basic point is that human sinfulness turns children against parents and parents against children. In addition, those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior will also cause a disruption in relationships with those who do not accept Christ; they may be hated and at times persecuted by unbelievers. However, Malachi prophesies that God will send a prophet like Elijah and “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers….” (Mal 4:5)
Adapting to sin instead of repenting
4) The Outlook author argues that “we have felt free to approximate and adapt God’s will” and then gives the example, “how many couples wishing to be married can present a prenuptial resume that matches the virgin purity of Adam and Eve?”
Response: Sadly Haberer is correct in observing that many couples have engaged in sexual relationships outside of marriage. What the author fails to understand is that when the church sees itself as “adapting” to this behavior rather than rebuking it and leading people away from it, we’re leaving people with no knowledge of the life God calls them to live…a life filled with blessings.
The Confession of 1967 declares, “Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man’s alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself…The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by man when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.” (9.47)
Statistics show that 25% of our young people have sexually transmitted diseases, some of which have no cure. Those couples that cohabit before marriage do not have happier marriages but are in fact statistically more likely to divorce. When Scripture teaches that two people become “one” in a mysterious way through the sexual union, it becomes clear that multiple unions, hook-ups, and serial relationships not only destroy that “oneness” but destroy something inside us.
There is a difference between helping people to repent and accepting sinful behavior as if it is of no consequence.
Haberer’s conclusion is that we have to “adapt our aspirations and benchmarks.” In other words, accept the sin in our own lives and in others as the best we can hope for. Adapt. Yet, if we could adapt to sin and still find joy and salvation, why did God send Christ to die for us? Why did the Father send the Spirit to lead us to repentance, and to receive the grace and power to live an amended life? Cheap grace is no grace at all.
Haberer’s interpretation of Scripture is typical of many liberal/progressives in the PC(USA) and in other denominations. It is not uncommon to hear these kinds of statements made at a PC(USA) General Assembly. It may also be the reason for much of the decline in membership of the PC(USA). Denominations that are growing are those that have a clear understanding of the authority of Scripture. Mark Noll, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame has written, “The Protestant bodies whose rates of growth in recent decades have exceeded general population increases–sometimes far exceeded–are nearly all characterized by such labels as Bible believing, born again, conservative, evangelical…” (The Old Religion in a New World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 177).
Read our Nov/Dec issue of Theology Matters on the Trustworthiness of Scripture by clicking here.
Read the story online at http://www.theologymatters.com/