Thursday, September 11, 2008

thoughts on the stability of God and Scripture...

Over at my pastor's blog, I posted a response to a discussion on what it means when doctrine changes. I am re-posting it here, slightly modified:

I agree with the statement "the only constant is change" from a philosophical perspective. I think of Heraclitus' words, "You cannot step into the same river twice..."

Of course, from a theological perspective, there is one true "constant": God. But, since none of us can grasp God's essence, we rely upon what we believe to be God's true revelation: Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. So, in effect, this revelation becomes our "constant." (thinking of LOST, anyone? :-D)

Actually, Scripture becomes more of a constant than Jesus, because it is still tangible. Jesus is primarily known via the witness of Scripture. Sure, there are spiritual experiences, but those are usually not sufficient foundations for doctrine. And that's really what we're dealing with here, right? What is the true Christian doctrine? And do we know it?

So, the "unchangeable" God (however you define unchangeable) is known to us primarily third-hand: God -> Jesus -> Bible. Of course, we believe the Spirit of God flows through all this, so God is known "first-hand" by faith, but if we're talking about tangible knowledge, i.e. knowledge that we can actually see, Scripture is the most obvious choice.

So, it seems to me that what most people mean when they ask "Does God change?" is really something like: "What is unchangeable about the Bible?" The assumption is that if we can figure that out, we'll know what is unchangeable about God. But is this really a fair assumption?

What if we found out (as we already have) that statements in the Bible are not always literally true? Does that mean that our faith is no longer solid? I think most Christians would say, clearly, no. What if all the available evidence someday suggests that the Bible is completely false (this seems unlikely)? Does that mean God, or God's Word, has changed? Do we have to cling rigidly to inerrancy in order to save the Bible from corruption? I don't think so. Because God is not dependent upon the Bible, the Bible is dependent upon God.

It seems to me that the Bible gives us an outline of God's Truth, and we humans have, over the centuries, filled in the gaps, with various answers. Some of those have resonated with the Christian faith as a whole and have remained with us, some have not. (Obviously, if we got rid of Jesus' divinity, Christianity would be rather vapid.) But if our faith in God is dependent upon the complete stability of the Bible, we will be disappointed, because the Bible will always be, to some degree, a reflection of the people who are interpreting it. It's just unavoidable.

This doesn't mean that we should just give up and announce that "everything is relative" or whatever. It means, rather, that we must decide where we will stand, based upon what seems the most true to us and the whole Church, and live there, relying upon God's justice and mercy to ultimately make everything right in the long run. It means that we live with both grace and conviction. God's Word (properly understood) and the gift of faith - both being extensions of God, are NOT changeable, but everything finite is, and since we are finite humans, we will have to live with the tension of both certainty and uncertainty at work in our lives.

Christians have only two covenants to work with: God's covenant with Israel, and the new covenant in Jesus Christ. So, we can't try to appeal to some "newer" covenant. Everything we believe has to be guided by the new covenant with Christ. So, what does that covenant look like? What are Jesus' main themes? What was his purpose? What did he tell his followers to do?

While we may never know true stability, answering those questions will guide us as we negotiate this ever-changing world. If we believe that, we won't need to fear change, because we are trusting not in our own stability, or even the stability of Scripture, but in the stability of God.

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