How Not to Treat the Bible

February 25, 2016

Dr. Braxton Hunter | President
Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, IN

**This article was previously posted by Dr. Braxton Hunter on his website www.braxtonhunter.com and is used by permission.

Dr. Hunter is: former president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE), professor of apologetics at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana

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EDITORS NOTE: Dr. Hunter wrote this article about a year and a half ago for his own site and at the time Brian Zahnd had just engaged in a debate on Calvinism that he enjoyed. Since then, he’s been told that Zahnd’s views on some important issues are out of step with his own. Dr. Hunter is uncertain about the details of his theology.

I’m not always realistic, but I try. It’s something that, for me, requires a lot of work. What I have found to be a necessity for getting to the root of a problem – in my family, work, etc. – is the ability to stop and ask myself one simple question, “What is actually going on here?” For example, last week after preaching in downtown Evansville, IN, a man approached me and said that he was very upset and would likely not be back to that particular church. For about thirty minutes we discussed whether or not one should spank their kids, go to seminary, read books other than the Bible and the nature of hell. The situation was not improving. My new friend was growing more and more adversarial by the moment. I really wanted, as a Christian apologist/theologian/preacher to believe that things really were as they seemed. I wanted it to be the case that the root of all of this was a misunderstanding on his part about some theological or practical Christian issue. If I could only harness the intellectual and spiritual prowess that I had honed over the past fourteen years of study his eyes would be opened and instantly a transformation would occur that would render the man the most agreeable church member in Evansville. That didn’t happen. Instead, I asked myself the simple question, “What is actually going on here?” This led to the realization that he had been asked by a member of our church security team not to keep moving in and out of the sanctuary. Only then did I remember that the very individual was constantly in and out of the service charging his cell phone and such. While I usually don’t care about this sort of thing, in his case, it had become a huge distraction. Case closed. 

However, the same simple question, “What is really going on here,” is one I bring to bear on theological and biblical issues as well. I’m immersed in a theologeek culture that I love, but that is sometimes characterized by the high-minded, holy-cloud mentality found in the philosophers of Acts 17:21 of whom the bible says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing some new thing.” This often leads young Bible-scholars and theologians to erect complex and daunting towers of proof-texts in an attempt to build some new construct or system atop the pages of the sacred text. These begin as theories that serve as fodder for coffee house discussions, then they become alternative hypotheses of interpretation, next they may become new perspectives as the progenitor of the idea publishes a book on the subject. The final step may or may not involve this formerly bizarre concept being crystalized as doctrine. . .  Don’t get me wrong this can be a good thing. Sometimes, though very seldom, there is something that has gone unnoticed for centuries that needs to be teased out. Unfortunately, the lust for that holy grail of theology leads to some strange things. Theologians can end up looking less like scholars and more like mad scientists in a lab mixing and stirring various scriptural texts together in an attempt to find some way of elucidating a “truth” that is not there. Alchemy. Often it is in such moments that the Scientist needs to remember the hermeneutical principle of asking, “What is really going on here?”

It is at this moment that I should mention that my latest preacher/theologian infatuation involves a man named Brian Zahnd. Brian took part in a highly publicized debate on Calvinism recently and while some of what he says I cannot help but reject (much to my chagrin) his sermons articulate this principle with words I had not thought to use. He says, “Taking its cues from the scientism of a bygone era, Western Christianity has tried for too long to make the gospel a kind of scientific formula—a pseudo-science of Biblical facts, atonement theories, and sinner’s prayers—when it’s more like a song, a symphony, a poem, a painting, a drama, a dance, and, yes, a mystery.” Now, while I cringe at the preemptive use of the term “mystery,” and actually think the “sinner’s prayer” would fit well into Zahnd’s imagery, (ala the wedding proposal/moment of marriage/invitation and agreement to dance etc.) I agree with him that often we tend to miss the point in an attempt to clinically and lifelessly probe a passage until it gives us either something new, or confirms our latest hypothesis.

I truly don’t want to make this a post about Calvinism, but I see it there in technicolor. The story of the Bible is one of choice. God repeatedly affirms, “If you do this, I will bless you, if you do that I will bring you down.” The story of the Bible is one of choice. Without genuine libertarian freedom, there is no genuine ability for sacrifice. Without the genuine ability for sacrifice there is no genuine ability to love. Yet, God is love and commands us to love. Jesus died for every individual in a universal atonement so that anyone who chooses to place their faith/trust in him might be saved. Yet, budding reformation enthusiasts tend to get so pseudo-sciencey with the atonement/sacrificial system and clinically probe and mix enough that they come away with a peer-reviewed limited atonement. Now someone is sure to misunderstand and think that I am saying that an honest exegetical investigation is not necessary or a bad thing. God forbid. Others might think I am conceding that the most rigid and academic work on the atonement actually does give us a limited one and we should just ignore that. God forbid! What I’m merely getting at is a clarion call for sobriety in theology. When your work brings you to a conclusion like limited atonement, the best thing might involve asking the question, “Is this really what’s going on here? . . . Really?”

Lastly, after fourteen years of staying away from this sort of thing for fear of being called a liberal, I’m going to mention a rock song. Secular? You decide. In the year 2000 U2 released a song called Beautiful Day that cleaned up at the Grammys. What most casual fans never heard was an early version of the song called Always, that only appeared on the single release of Beautiful Day. Remember CD singles? Now you feel old. The song speaks of the need to answer the question, “What is really going on here?” The whole album, that it would have been on, was about the need to remove clutter and cling only to All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Because of this, the song uses imagery like “crack the bone – get to the marrow,” and “get down off your holy cloud – God does not deal with the proud.” Always draws to its close with “turn each song into a prayer – now and forever.” I had already been thinking of this what’s-really-going-on approach to the text when I got in my car and heard the song. I’m not saying God was speaking through a rock band or anything. I’m just saying that the song was in many ways a reminder that truly understanding the Christian faith requires you to be a student of the Word and a lover of Jesus.

Always
U2

Here today, gone tomorrow
Crack the bone, get to the marrow
To be a bee and the flower
Before the sweetness turns to sour

What we have we’re gonna keep, always
What we’ve lost we don’t need, always
What is it that won’t let you sleep, always

Be the arrow and the target
Put your head over the parapet
Be uncool, yes be awkward
Don’t look in the obvious place
The soul needs beauty for a soulmate

Get down off your holy cloud, always
God will not deal with the proud, always
Well if you dream then dream out loud, always
Eternally yours, always

I want you
I want you
I want you
Touch me now inside
I wanted to be a man
I wanted to call

You say you come to know yourself, always
Don’t find yourself in someone else, always
And always wear a safety belt, always
Wait for me I’m running late, always
This is the moment that we share for always
Turn each song into a prayer, always
Now and forever
For always

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Braxton hunter

NOTE: I wrote this article about a year and a half ago for my own site and at the time Brian Zahnd had just engaged in a debate on Calvinism that I enjoyed. Since then, I’ve been told that his views on some important issues are out of step with my own. I’m uncertain about the details of his theology.

rhutchin

Dr. Hunter wites, “The story of the Bible is one of choice.”

A lot of bad choices by many it seems. Adam/Eve, Cain, Ismael, and pretty much everyone else (Daniel is a nice exception). Then, good choices. God chooses Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon and others to carry out His plans.

Regarding salvation, some say that God saves those who choose Christ (as the Arminians). The Calvinists say that God adds to this number by saving those He wants from among those especially depraved who reject Christ. The Universalists say that God chooses to save everyone. There could be harmony amongst the various views as no one is going to complain if God chooses to save everyone. However, the Calvinists had to say that the number of people choosing Christ as the Arminians say is zero. Then those opposed to Calvinism said that God could not save people if they did not first accept Christ; if a person rejected Christ, that was his choice and God had to respect that choice and not force him to be saved. The debate rages on.

Ultimately, God seems to make the really important choices. God chose to create this world; He chooses who will be conceived, who will be born and who will die in childbirth; He sustains the life of each one who is born and no one wakes up each morning but by God’s providence and death is God’s call to judgment; and God will destroy this world sometime in the future on His time schedule.

So many choices. The story of the Bible is one of choice.

    norm

    “Choose you this day whom you will follow.”

Lydia

Excellent post! We really need to get away from stifling labels that keep us from discussing and pursuing truth. I see it like this: conservatives like to think and they support individual freedom and responsibility. Of course, I have been labeled everything from Pelagian, Jezebel, Open Theist and more. But the one I am most proud of is that of “works salvation”. And that is because I think too much of Christendom stays stuck at the cross, navel gazing and need to include the new life of resurrection. As Leonard Verduin put it, the imbalance is on pardon not renewal.

“Theologians can end up looking less like scholars and more like mad scientists in a lab mixing and stirring various scriptural texts together in an attempt to find some way of elucidating a “truth” that is not there. Alchemy. Often it is in such moments that the Scientist needs to remember the hermeneutical principle of asking, “What is really going on here?””

Exactly!

“Taking its cues from the scientism of a bygone era, Western Christianity has tried for too long to make the gospel a kind of scientific formula—a pseudo-science of Biblical facts, atonement theories, and sinner’s prayers—when it’s more like a song, a symphony, a poem, a painting, a drama, a dance, and, yes, a mystery.” Now, while I cringe at the preemptive use of the term “mystery,” and actually think the “sinner’s prayer” would fit well into Zahnd’s imagery, (ala the wedding proposal/moment of marriage/invitation and agreement to dance etc.) I agree with him that often we tend to miss the point in an attempt to clinically and lifelessly probe a passage until it gives us either something new, or confirms our latest hypothesis.”

If you ever get a chance, check out NT Wrights video series “Surprised by hope”. Of course, I disagree with him on some things from other writings but from a big picture view he is well worth checking out. At least he makes one think instead of indoctrinate. I shared his module about Hooe and beauty with an atheist artist who grew up in a rigid Reformed home and she wept. Art, she can understand. God has been presented to her as a wrathful monster. So, Jesus Christ and serious Art? You betcha!

I would sub the word “wonder” for mystery. We have so much potential to create, invent, fix, encourage, love, etc, etc. this is missing in too many dead churches who are drowning in sin sniffing minutia and authoritarianism. It stifles the “fruit” of salvation.

I am a bit familiar with Zahnd. A while back we exchanged views briefly on the necessity or not of what we call “orthordoxy” and what it really is about. We were not in agreement. :o) but that is another topic. I have not kept up with him.

Lydia

Excellent post! We really need to get away from stifling labels that keep us from discussing and pursuing truth. I see it like this: conservatives like to think and support individual freedom and responsibility. They have little in common with oligarch types.

Of course, I have been labeled everything from Pelagian, Jezebel, Open Theist and more. But the insult I am most proud of is that of “works salvation”. And that is because I think too much of Christendom stays stuck at the cross and needs to include a focus on the new life message of the resurrection. As Leonard Verduin put it, The imbalance is now toward pardon not renewal.

“Theologians can end up looking less like scholars and more like mad scientists in a lab mixing and stirring various scriptural texts together in an attempt to find some way of elucidating a “truth” that is not there. Alchemy. Often it is in such moments that the Scientist needs to remember the hermeneutical principle of asking, “What is really going on here?””

Exactly!

“Taking its cues from the scientism of a bygone era, Western Christianity has tried for too long to make the gospel a kind of scientific formula—a pseudo-science of Biblical facts, atonement theories, and sinner’s prayers—when it’s more like a song, a symphony, a poem, a painting, a drama, a dance, and, yes, a mystery.” Now, while I cringe at the preemptive use of the term “mystery,” and actually think the “sinner’s prayer” would fit well into Zahnd’s imagery, (ala the wedding proposal/moment of marriage/invitation and agreement to dance etc.) I agree with him that often we tend to miss the point in an attempt to clinically and lifelessly probe a passage until it gives us either something new, or confirms our latest hypothesis.”

I would probably sub ‘wonder’ for mystery but I get the marvelous point!

If you ever get a chance, check out NT Wrights video series “Surprised by hope”. Of course, I disagree with him on some things but from a big picture view he is well worth checking out. At least he makes one think instead of indoctrinate. I showed the module on beauty and hope to an atheist artist I know. He was raised in a rigid Reformed home and his view of God was of a wrathful father. He was bowled over. Here was a portrait of conveying Gods truth and the love of our Savior through the Beauty of Art, architecture and music. We forget that a lot of scripture is poetry. It is difficult to put poetry into a software program and come up with a concrete literal meaning.

There is so much missing in our churches when it comes to the “fruit’ of salvation. People are mired in sin sniffing minutia and authoritarianism. We should be creating, inventing, caring for, fixing, loving, encouraging and on and on. We should be curing cancer! Why not? We are about alleviating through care and compassion the inevitable suffering we all face and exists on earth.

We are missing the overarching theme of scripture. The amazing narrative of a God who provides us rescue and wants us to live out His kingdom now. (Albeit imperfectly)

I am a bit familiar with Zahnd. A while back we exchanged views briefly on the necessity of what we call “orthordoxy” and what it really is about. We were not in agreement. :o) but that is a topic for another day.

    Scott Shaver

    Too bad you waxed so “evangellical” in your last comment Lydia. I would be inspired by your words if the great Russell Moore had not declared this week on twitter that “the word evangelical now has no meaning” (in light of a possible Trump presidency).

    Rats…..! This guy Trump is thwarting everybody’s plans……according to Moore, even God’s. A guy that has the power to single-handedly render meaningless the term “evangelical” surely has the right stuff to lead a nation, one would think.

    Should we just call you a “gospel” Christian now like Russell Moore?

      Lydia

      You would have thought the SBTS Dean Moore and blog fan followers would have had this demeanor toward the vulgar, unethical PASTOR, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill and founder of Acts 29. Instead, they partnered with him for years. They have the strangest selective outrage.

        Scott Shaver

        Now Lydia:

        You know as well as I do that, with regard to Driscoll, they can simply follow the Dave Miller plan of deflection. Just deny that they ever promoted, praised or deferred to Driscoll despite written record evidence to the contrary.

        The irony is Miller decries publicly the deception, vitriol and dishonesty of Donald Trump while personally utilizing Trump’s modus operandus. Don’t do as I do….do as I say do, pots calling kettles black kind of thing.

          Lydia

          Yes, and as the Acts 29 plant by the SBC which hired Mars Hill staff, Sojourner responds, “Mark who?”

          As if none of the previous 6-8 years happened at all. .

          Integrity and character alive and well within the Reformed SBC church plant world. Just give them your money and shut up.

            Scott Shaver

            Lydia, check this https://t.co/4m5EzY0aPE

            Sounds to me like Moore would be happy if American Christians over 50 (especially Southern Baptists) would just hurry up and die off. Problem is, he’ll turn 50 before he can blink and eye and find himself in the same boat before “evangelicals” can be rehabbed to suit his liking.

            Perhaps the problem is he had a flawed understanding of the term prior to his ERLC appointment as well as the current election cycle.

              Scott Shaver

              Obviously, from his endorsement and praise for the article, David Platt shares the convictions of Russell Moore with regard to the rest of us “evangelicals”. Caveat being whether you do or don’t conform to our standards, please keep sending us your money.

              Didn’t know the IMB shared the ERLC’s platform for political commentary. Learn something new every day.

              Lydia

              Poor Mark is being persecuted.

              The Mars Hill pew sitters voluntarily gave those millions and millions of dollars without accountability or demanding a vote or having input on the budget. As adults they were convinced Driscoll was trustworthy and and representing Jesus Christ. How silly of them. Lesson learned. The budget process should be open and transparent. Not in the hands of a few ruling elders.

              The lawsuit will most likely go nowhere because as grown ups we have a choice who we give our hard earned dollars to. A lesson for us all in continuing to throw money where there has proven to be no accountability, transparency or stewardship. And throw it at people who were big supporters of Driscoll, Acts 29…. and told us over and over despite the vulgarity and coup: but he is preaching the true gospel.

              There might be a possibility of RICO style charges with the global fund. But then secrecy has always been Driscolls alibi. What can be proven?

Lydia

I am going to have to stop using iPad for this blog! There is a conspiracy between apple and today on posting!! :^) I always get an error on first post. Sigh.

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