April 24, 2010

Meet @ the Text

The following is adapted from a sermon given in the fall of 2009. Some elements of oral delivery have been maintained.—Editors.
2010 1511 page18 caput as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 3:14–4:4).
It will be interesting when that happens someday, won’t it? “Men will not put up with sound doctrine but will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
Actually, this seems to already be happening in the Christian Church—and in the Adventist Church in particular. But first let’s explore the passage itself and consider what it meant when Paul wrote this letter to Timothy.
Minds Stuffed With Scripture
When Timothy receives this letter, he’s a young man pastoring in Ephesus. But that isn’t Paul’s focus here. Paul goes back years earlier, referring to Timothy as a child—long before anyone knew Timothy as a young Christian pastor.
We know from Acts 16 that Timothy came from a mixed family. His Greek dad was apparently not a believer; his Jewish mom and grandmother were believers. These women believed in Yahweh; they came to believe in Yeshua—Jesus—as well. They were the definition of Judeo-Christians.
To a Jewish parent in this period there would have been no greater objective than to stuff their children’s minds with Scripture. Jewish children typically began learning to read and memorize the Hebrew Scriptures by the time they were just 5 or 6 years old. This would set the tone for that child’s entire life. The whole life of the Hebrew was centered on Scripture.

2010 1511 page18Torah study, writes Jewish scholar Shmuel Safrai, “was not restricted to the formal setting of schools and synagogue, . . . but became an integral part of ordinary Jewish life. . . . The sound of Torah learning issuing from houses at night was a common phenomenon. When people assembled for a joyous occasion such as a circumcision or wedding, a group might withdraw to engage in study of the Law.”*
To the Hebrew, Scripture was life. Jews were known as “people of the ear,” because their religion was based not on images of God but on the Word of God. Scripture filled their minds and spilled out into their everyday conversations.
Our Spiritual North
In 2 Timothy Paul shares his own very high view of Scripture. Remember that Scripture at that time still would have been largely the Old Testament, since many New Testament books had yet to be written. Paul says all Scripture is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
A few weeks ago at church I borrowed an exercise from my friend Chris Blake. I asked everyone to stand up and close their eyes. Then I asked them to point to the north. We had people pointing every possible direction. When they opened their eyes, it looked like the game of Pick Up Sticks. Using a compass, I pointed to where north really was.
That’s what Paul is saying about Scripture. Spiritually, he says, a north does exist. But how do we know where it is? The Word of God. Regardless of how you might feel about it, there really is a spiritual north.
When John Elway was a rookie quarterback for the Denver Broncos, he made an error people still talk about. Instead of lining up behind center, Elway lined up behind his left guard. Think about it: The left guard didn’t have the ball. Only the center had the ball. What was going to happen when Elway shouted “Hike”? Yeah, the center was going to hike the ball to no one.
Fortunately, before Elway said “Hike,” the left guard looked back and motioned for Elway to move to the center.
There are times spiritually when we need to move to the center, to realign ourselves. “For the time will come,” writes Paul, “when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3, 4).
It’s important to acknowledge that we all, at times, fit this category. Our fleshly hearts do not want to be pierced by the counsel of Scripture. And when we’re shown that we’re on the wrong path, our natural reaction is to “gather around ourselves” people whom we know will agree with us, allowing us to feel better about ourselves.
You also find this dynamic in the ?blogosphere. When we’re grappling with something, when we’re in conflict, how great does it feel to find a community of people, online or offline, who agree with you?
But a blog is not our spiritual north. Nor is a group of friends who think ?like us. Only the Word of God is our spiritual north.
Feeling Liberal
With some reticence, I share my ?experience working for two Adventist magazines over the past 10 years—and why I felt like such a liberal at one of them and such a conservative at the other. My feelings had everything to do with approaches to Scripture.
My first job was working at the Adventist Review, at the world church headquarters outside Washington, D.C. I had great respect for the editors I worked under, William Johnsson and his staff. At the same time I was often perplexed about how our ability to function at the magazine was disrupted by some folk on the conservative ?extreme of the Adventist Church.
We’d run an article on approaches to worship and we’d get many, many letters; often anonymous, full of criticism, drawing not from the Bible but from tradition and, in a very narrow fashion, from the writings of Ellen White and other Adventist authors.
I remember running features on Spirit-filled young people doing ministry in the inner city or on a mission trip. But because the young person in the photo wore a necklace or friendship band, we’d tell the magazine’s designers to airbrush the jewelry from the photo. Some among the magazine’s readers couldn’t tolerate seeing in the pages of the church’s primary journal the adornment they regularly observed on others in their congregations—or on their own children and grandchildren.
In the face of all this, it was easy to feel like a real liberal. I didn’t think the world was going to end if we used a variety of instruments in worship—in the spirit of Psalm 149 or 150—or if we ran a photo of a young woman wearing a friendship band or a purity ring her father had given her. The arguments extended by those who insisted on never seeing images of jewelry in the Review often seemed to lack biblical integrity, particularly when they ignored the whole of Scripture’s references to appropriate Christian adornment.
To be honest, my view of those very conservative readers wasn’t that they were appealing to Scripture, but that they were appealing to received tradition and to arguments assembled without reference to the entirety of God’s Word.
But I don’t have to pull examples of this from 10 years ago. In the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week, I saw a letter to the editor from an Adventist who explained that Adventists “interpret the Word of God through the writings of Ellen White.” Now Ellen White’s is a powerful Christian voice used by God to focus this movement on the truths of Scripture; but she didn’t understand her own role—nor has this movement ever understood her role—as our primary interpreter of Scripture.
Exposed to rigidities like these, it was easy to feel comparatively liberal. At the time “liberal” meant, to me, appealing to Scripture as the final authority. “Liberal” also meant a Hebrewlike willingness to grapple with hard passages for ourselves.
Feeling Conservative
More recently I worked as editor of Adventist Today. This opportunity appealed to me journalistically because I saw it as a chance to honestly tackle issues in the church. However, I felt disappointed by some surprising attitudes toward Scripture that I encountered within the Adventist Today and Spectrum constituencies. I had hoped for a climate of: What does the text say? Instead I often found a climate of: Why does the text matter?
For example, at a time when many young men and women who struggle with homosexual tendencies are making courageous decisions to be true to the counsel of Scripture and live lives of abstinence, we’re seeing a confusing push in the other direction from liberal Adventist thought leaders. One Adventist religion professor wrote that homosexual practice is “not sin, though it was condemned in Scripture, reflecting apparently the Hebrew understanding of the times.”
2010 1511 page18There’s no question that our churches have not been safe harbors for people struggling with homosexuality. People with homosexual temptations need community—and we have often shamed them and sent them away into communities of darkness.
Instead, they should be able to come into the light and find community and support within our churches. Homosexually oriented Adventists who choose abstinence, such as Wayne Blakely, ought to be treated as heroes, considering the burden they carry. But for Adventist leaders to undercut the clear, Bible-based teachings of this church about sexual sin is simply irresponsible.
I’ve also been surprised to see doubts raised about whether Jesus Himself was as smart as we are. Once in an online discussion about creation and evolution, someone pointed out that both Jesus and Paul had referred to Adam and Eve as literal individuals. The response from an Adventist thought leader? “Of course, Jesus and Paul believed in Adam and Eve. They lived in the first century, and that was their understanding at the time.”
Do you see what’s going on here? It isn’t What does the text say? It’s Why does the text matter?
In Scripture, Jesus also refers to Daniel the prophet. Yet we have some Adventist professors saying that there was no Daniel the prophet—that the book of Daniel was written hundreds of years after the events it prophesies. They are essentially arguing that Jesus must not have understood as much about Daniel as they do.
Are they sure they want to go down this road? Until recently, scholars also cast doubt on whether a King David existed. Researchers may have found independent, archaeological evidence of King David’s palace itself. Are we not allowed to believe in the biblical text until it’s been independently confirmed?
To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with this approach to Scripture—the idea that we can set aside clear biblical teachings because we think we understand more now. This seems much different to me, much more dangerous, than grappling with the meaning of a text.
Out of curiosity, I decided to see what Desmond Ford, the controversial figure of Adventism’s great theological debate of the 1980s, thought about these things. Last winter I emailed him in Australia. Here’s what he wrote back:
“These examples that you used present an attitude toward Scripture that the Christian Church has repudiated for 2,000 years. These men have given the Word of God a nose of wax. The best of evangelical scholars in other communions would be horrified by these departures.”
Do you see the irony here? At times, this movement has struggled to make room for those who took a high view of Scripture, who grappled with the biblical text but arrived at different conclusions. Yet today we have “thought leaders” willing to set aside major teachings of Scripture altogether. Incidentally, these aren’t dull minds we’re talking about; they’re very bright. In fact—and here’s the great tragedy—these are the people who are supposed to be carrying the torch for the deep study of the Word of God.
What the Adventist left seem to overlook is that spiritual things are spiritually discerned. You can’t always quantify and qualify the Word of God. Instead, you enter into it by faith and by prayer. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.
Needed: A Strong Adventist Center
We need a strong center in the Adventist Church: people who are willing to say, “You know what? We can meet at the text. We can grapple with it together. There’s enough room here for discussion and different perspectives. As long as you’re willing to respect the authority of the Word of God, there’s room for you.”
In their book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus,† the authors describe what a Jewish seminary is like: “If you crack open the door of an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva study hall, you might expect to be greeted by utter silence. . . . Instead what will greet you is the din of multiple conversations. Pairs of students will be standing at podiums facing each other, animatedly discussing the fine points of each text. Bespectacled students will have one hand poised over an open volume while the other hand gestures wildly, the debate waxing and waning. If one student doesn’t understand a passage, the other tries to explain it. Together they think of possible interpretations of the text. This gathering of students is called a havruta, and each student is studying with a haver, to master the text. . . . The word haver means someone who is willing to partner with you in grappling with the text.”
The Adventist Church can be this type of place. Historically we’ve called people back to the Word of God, and this is what we need to do again. Our young people should come to our churches and schools and have their minds stuffed with Scripture—then scatter to the four winds. But for this to happen with our children, we need to be in the text ourselves, so that it’s spilling out of our minds into our lives and everyday speech.
The Adventist Church’s first fundamental belief is the authority of Scripture. For this reason alone, to be squarely in the center of the Adventist Church is not only the best place to be; it’s the only place to be.
*Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern, eds., The Jewish People in the First Century (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1976), pp. 968, 969.
†Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), p. 66.
Andy Nash is a journalism professor and lay pastor at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. His new book is Paper God (Pacific Press). This article was published April 15, 2010.