Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Response to Michael Coogan's CNN Article | Part 1 | The Doctrine of Scripture

Public criticism of the Word of God is often articulated by people who disdain it. It will often include examples of biblical, ancient near eastern practices that are markedly different than what we would ever see today. There are, indeed, many forms of justice and standards of living that are referenced and even commanded by God in the Bible that we do not see executed in our justice systems today. All objections to the Bible are simply ways in which to self-arbitrate the needlessness of observance and belief. Nonetheless, some of the most common criticisms are leveled at the way in which God dealt with sin.

For example, Exodus 21:17 says that “anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” One might wonder when their sibling should die as they have heard countless curses uttered from his or her lips about their parents. Leviticus 20:10 also says that anyone who commits adultery should be put to death. Again, one might think that about half of their family tree is now liable to the death sentence because of this “outdated” law if it were still in effect. On the surface—to them—it is a laughable thought. On and on it goes.

Granted, there are many passages in the Old Testament that list sin after sin, including their consequences. Many of these punishments are, in fact, capital punishment. There is, however, an underlying reality to the whole issue of sin that is always overlooked and usually missed entirely by those who think the Bible is inconsistent in its teaching. It is even unrealized by many Christians; that is, the inescapable judgment of sin, which results in death—even still. Romans tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23), (emphasis mine). The fact that any one of us has lived even a few years of our lives is an unfathomable mercy that Peter tells us is meant to give us time to repent of our sin and believe on Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:8–9). This brings us to the second reality, which is the forgiving and merciful nature of God in spite of our sin, which was appropriated at Christ’s expense, but on our behalf—if we believe. The second portion of that Romans verse says, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As far as God is concerned we are all deserving death, but He has made a way through the sacrificial replacement of the death of Jesus Christ in order that sinful man might be reconciled to God, having their debt paid. Notice how the justice of God never slips, even in light of his loving-mercy. Jesus took the burden of our judgment so that the Father’s perfect justice might be satisfied by His perfect Son. Only the perfect, eternal God could absorb all of the sin of every man and woman who would believe. His death atoned for our sin and His resurrection to life gives us eternal life as well.

People can be quick to judge the Bible as out of date and entirely ridiculous upon reading much of the Pentateuch—five books—known also as the Law of Moses, but they would be remiss to think that the law of God and the demand for holiness has become a moot point simply because a secular world does not believe in the Creator God, or His definition of sin and the consequences that will come with it if His Son, Jesus Christ, continues to be forsaken.

I write all of this as a response to an article posted on the CNN Opinion website by—believe it or not—a lecturer on Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Harvard Divinity School, Michael Coogan. With a bit of naiveté at the time, perhaps, I expected at first glance that someone was finally advocating some basic and practical, biblical virtues that the Word of God certainly has to offer about life and the family. Needless to say, I was dead wrong. The title of the article is called My Take: The Bible Has Some Shocking ‘Family Values'.

I want to break down the article by the main topics that Coogan broaches and then help to shine some light on his problematic presumptions that he builds from. As we go we will affirm the testimony of the Old and New Testaments together in spite of his attempt to frame God’s Word as contradictory. I think this will be helpful because many of us have wondered what we are to think about some of the things we read about in the Old Testament.

Coogan’s first glaring error that is common among many liberal theologians is plainly stated at the beginning of the article. Namely, he starts his whole spiel on the presumption that since the Bible was penned by human authors it must follow that their writings are based on personal views and marked with biased perspectives that are shaped only by their individual circumstances. This is your typical vanilla, cookie-cutter approach to liberal theology. This false notion explicitly denies that the Bible was ultimately breathed out by God. Coogan claims that the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture is a misunderstood confusion and that if people understood that the Bible was only written by mere men, then they would no longer be confused about it. Perhaps this would solve their perceived confusion, but it would only add to their self-deception.   

When your attempted exposition of Old Testament passages starts with a false view of Scripture, then your interpretation of Scripture will inevitably follow and lead to similar conclusions—false ones.  It was clear that the rest of the article was doomed to be written from the wrong standpoint. By Scripture’s own testimony, it is of paramount importance to know and believe that the Bible is in fact the Word of God, without error. It is not only inerrant, but it is infallible, perspicuous, and authoritative for all matters of faith and practice.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). Jesus said that “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44) as well as affirm all of the Scriptures as being the living Word of God when He told Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). In equating Paul’s writings with the Old Testament Scriptures, Peter says, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16) (emphasis mine). This Peter is the same one that Jesus said would help to build His church.

When we assail the doctrine of Scripture, friends, we assail the doctrine of God. They go hand in hand. What you believe about Scripture reveals what you believe about God. What you believe about God will determine what you believe about Scripture. We either believe the testimony of Moses, the Prophets, the Psalmists, the apostles—all of whom wrote what God impressed—and the Son of God Himself, or we believe the testimony of the world. One’s sovereignty and authority truly reigns, while the other’s merely feigns.

Compare that with what Coogan said in his first paragraph of the article:

“[Pastors and politicians] routinely quote the Bible as if it were an unassailable divine authority—after all, they assume, God wrote the Bible, and therefore it is absolutely and literally true. But that is a misconception. As the Bible itself makes clear, its authors were human beings, many of whom are named: David, Isaiah, Luke and Paul. These human writers wrote over the course of more than a thousand years, and their writings reflect their own views and the values they shared with their contemporaries. So it’s not surprising that inconsistencies are frequent in the Bible, both trivial and profound” (emphasis mine).

What troubles me so greatly is knowing all along that he is an Old Testament lecturer for distinguished educational institutions. To think that there are Bible students under his teaching is extremely disconcerting. Nonetheless, this train of thought is everywhere and it is easily accepted because if you can decide that the Bible is inaccurate and therefore irrelevant to modern times, then you have nothing to worry about regarding the condemnation of sin. Consequently, Hell is denied as being literal. Logically, it must then follow that there is no accountability to anything other than the feeling of the moment. All attempts at moral standards are subject to shift.

Let’s take this a bit further. If one is to believe that the Bible was simply written by the personal and whimsical perspectives of men alone, with no divine movement whatsoever, then it would be relegated to an equal standing with the depraved writings of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy. It couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, this is one of the many things that distinguish Christianity from all other world religions: the claim that the Bible alone was written by God.

Let’s think about this. In spite of the religious books that they hold to as authoritative, just about every major (and many minor!) world religions and cults claim that the Bible is a good source of teaching, pleasant reading, or even authoritative in nature to a degree, but it is always with the addition of their supposedly divine, extra-biblical texts. The Mormons, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witness’, Christian Scientists, etc. all accept the biblical text—in part. In fact, they all have a place for Jesus in their religion as well. This alone should help clarify who borrowed from whom. The Bible says nothing of Joseph Smith, Muhammad, or Mary Baker Eddy, yet these and so many more have something to say about the biblical text and about Jesus, e.g. that he is a prophet, teacher, or the Christ, etc.  Where the Bible and another religious book may disagree, the Bible will always take second place as it is also seen as a man-made document having been updated with amendments, or addendums, so to speak. Christianity, however, has never borrowed from another religion or pieced together a special blend of religion. It is solely and emphatically derived from the teachings handed down by the prophets of the Old Testament and through the apostles and writers of the New Testament, all of which were given to them by a single source—Yahweh, the Creator God.

If you were to read any book and then find evidence for it not being true, then you could rightly dismiss the books truth claims. An embarrassing example of this is in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and its implications on the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith claimed he had the only pure Old Testament documents—with an emphasis on Isaiah—and that anything after the age of the apostle’s was contaminated, which would include all of the translations of the Bible in current form, thus setting Mr. Smith up for having the only access to divine truth. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been dated to a few hundred years before Jesus Christ and they are the exact copies of the Old Testament that we have in our Bibles today. This utterly destroys Joseph Smith’s sayings and exposes his lies.

The Bible has stood the test of time, having undergone the most intensive forms of scrutiny. It has yet to be shown in error. It must be remembered that the Bible is an ancient document, which means that a proper understanding of the Bible—it’s authors, contexts, genres, historical data, prophecies, etc.—is needed in order to properly understand it. The beauty of it is that it consists of actual documents that can be tested. In a word, the Bible is falsifiable, meaning it makes statements of fact that can be tested in order to prove it as true or disprove it as false.

Faith simply comes in where we cannot validate any other way, for instance no one was around at the creation—not even Adam. We either believe God when He says that He created the world, or we do not. Your faith is either in His Word, or in the supposed possibility that there is another way everything came into existence. We believe what God has said and we believe what God has promised. We believe the Word He left us that testifies to itself. The alternative would be to believe fallible opinions of ourselves and other men over and against the trustworthy nature of Scripture itself. Doubting the Bible is simply not reasonable. In fact, the very fact that the Bible was written over thousands of years substantiates its veracity all the more. It does not negate its accuracy as Coogan suggests.

Let’s look at what else the Bible says about itself. Consider 2 Peter 1:16-21:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty . . . We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain . . . We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it . . . Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine).

The thought that the gospel of Jesus Christ was just another man-made religious bandwagon was common back then, too! The authors who were used by God through the prompting of the Holy Spirit knew that they were being used to put God’s Word on paper, not their own views and values.

The Pharisee, Gamaliel, who evidently was not a Christian, knew about the inevitability of man-made gospels and religions in their day when he warned the Sanhedrin who was trying to convict Paul for preaching the gospel in Acts 5:

“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Consider John’s gospel. It started with a clear statement that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Not only does it say that God is the Word, but that the Word became flesh and lived with them—Jesus Christ. These men who wrote were either eye-witnesses, or associates of eye-witnesses who researched the events in the New Testament. Even in the Old Testament, the people who wrote the books were eye-witnesses to many of the events.

Through these examples and texts it is interesting to see how coherent and fluid our Triune God works. As one breathes out his invisible breath on a crisp morning only to see its presence manifested in the air before him, so does God breathe out His Word to manifest it in our world so that we may know Him and His Son, Jesus Christ.

“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (Jn 8:31–32).

What Coogan and others like him fail to do is believe God and honor Him as holy. The call to all of us who read the testimony of Scripture is: Do you believe God?

To Be Continued . . .

In Christ Alone,