This is the second part of a two-part series on “Discerning the Word of God, An Exposition and Application of 1 Kings 13.” You can read the first part here
D. Scott Meadows
Given the limitations of this presentation, we can only quickly survey some modern challenges to the orthodox Reformed view of Cessationism and the sufficiency of Scripture—some even coming from the Reformed community. The order of my concerns is like a series of concentric circles from the outermost rings to the center, where the last ones are the most likely ways in which we ourselves have sinned against the biblical principles we have seen.
Postmodern Language Skepticism
While postmodernism is probably impossible to define to everyone’s satisfaction, one of its conspicuous traits is a skepticism regarding any objective, fixed meaning from language texts of any kind, and this applies to the postmodern view of Scripture. Alphabetical characters and the words and sentences they form are merely the use of symbols that may mean different things to those who write them and those who read them. There is no single “correct” interpretation to any given text. Each reader must experience the text for himself, and decide for himself what it means to him.
We hear this philosophy informally “in the street” by people who have never heard of postmodernism when they deny that the Bible can be objectively and universally interpreted. Their motto seems to be, “That’s your interpretation,” with the suggestion that your interpretation is only valid for you.
An obvious philosophical problem with postmodern language skepticism is that it is self-contradictory. Postmodernists write books and give speeches to advance their views that at the end of the day language is incompetent to communicate the same ideas of a writer and speaker to a reader and hearer. The next time you debate a postmodernist, tell him you are glad to hear that he trusts the Bible as God’s Word and Jesus Christ as the only Savior from sin. When he protests, thank him for agreeing with you, and explain that this is what his words meant to you! This is essentially what a postmodernist is doing to the words of God in Scripture. While misunderstanding in language communication is certainly possible, it is by no means necessary. It is patently obvious that great ideas are communicated by language through the centuries and across the globe, and that many people reading the same text typically come to the same fundamental understanding of its meaning. Without this, the great books of Western civilization would not be worthwhile, and newspapers would be incapable of reporting effectively what has happened to other people in other places.
Theologically, this nonsensical approach to language is plainly a blatant attack on the Scriptures themselves. If the words of the Bible have no objective meaning, then they are quite irrelevant after all, except as an existential amusement.
The God who gave humanity language in the first place is certainly capable of using it to reveal His mind to men. The testimony of one Christian faith shared in common by believers across the ages and around the world illustrates the objectivity of the truth revealed in Scripture.
For purposes of discussion, let us define a “cult” as a pseudo-Christian religious group outside the mainstream of historic Christianity, characterized by a rejection of some of the basics of universal Christian belief and an exclusivist mentality condemning all outside their group. By this definition, modern cults include well-known movements like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Christian Science, as well as a host of little-known groups like the Urantia Foundation.
Every one of these began and prospered as people departed from the Bible alone as the sole standard of faith and practice. Their founders either claimed to possess a new revelation outside the Bible or to have a unique supernatural insight into the Bible absolutely necessary for the salvation of others.
At first appearance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to have an orthodox view of Scripture. They recognize only the sixty-six books of the Bible as Holy Scripture and have confessed that all their doctrines must be demonstrably true by a Scriptural standard. Then gross inconsistencies appear. Charles Taze Russell, the group’s founder, made outlandish claims for his series of books called
Studies in the Scriptures:
If the six volumes of “Scripture Studies” are practically the Bible topically arranged, with Bible proof-texts given, we might not improperly name the volumes “The Bible” in an arranged form. That is to say, they are not merely comments on the Bible, but they are practically the Bible itself. . . . Furthermore, not only do we find that people cannot see the divine plan in studying the Bible itself, but we see also that if anyone lays the “Scripture Studies” . . . after he has read them for 10 years—if he then lays them aside and ignores them and goes to the Bible alone . . . our experience shows that within two years he goes into darkness. On the other hand, if he has merely read the “S. S.” with their references, and had not read a page of the Bible, as such, he would be in the light at the end of the two years. (Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1910)
Since that time, Jehovah’s Witnesses have produced The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures which is not a faithful translation at all but perverts the text in many places to support their heretical views. Their literature is produced by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and has usurped the Bible’s place of authority in the minds of modern Jehovah’s Witnesses. This appears from the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses will typically reject biblical challenges to their doctrines even if they cannot answer those challenges from Scripture.
Mormons point to other writings as divinely-inspired like the Bible. They make this claim for The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price, not to mention a belief in continuing word-revelation through modern prophets, especially their President.
Christian Scientists revere as God’s Word their book entitled, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, since that is the claim she made for it, “I should blush to write of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as I have, were it of human origin, and were I, apart from God, its author. But, . . . I was only a scribe echoing the harmonies of heaven in divine metaphysics.”
The Urantia Foundation makes a fantastic claim concerning its “bible,” The Urantia Book. It “was authored by celestial beings as a special revelation to our planet, Urantia.” Those who would inquire more than this about its origin and how we came into possession of it are told:
Once the stabilizing chain is cut from the anchor of Holy Scripture as the sole and sufficient Word of God for today, even intelligent people become very vulnerable to the most ridiculous religious claims.
Roman Catholic Challenges
With the recent passing of so-called Pope John Paul II and the installation of his successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, we have been impressed again with the depth and breadth of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence in our own generation. Now more than ever we ought to be aware of Rome’s serious errors and to warn the spiritually-naïve against her seduction.
Besides the obvious problem of the Apocryphal books in her doctrine of Scripture and divine authority, Romanism propagates other related and egregious errors. First, there is an inordinate elevation of church tradition as having an authority comparable to Scripture in doctrine and practice. “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” Rome is never very specific about an exact definition of this tradition, and so in practice it amounts to whatever beliefs and practices Rome would defend without Scriptural support.
Another major Romanist attack against Scripture is its insistence upon the authority of “the Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church” and especially of the Pope.
The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.” The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.
“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.
In practical terms, this short-circuits any objective evaluation of Romanism in the light of Scripture by its adherents. The moment a Roman Catholic considers the possibility that his church may not be Scriptural in a point of its doctrine or practice, he has already abandoned his church and is thinking like a Protestant. That explains the extreme difficulty of getting devout Roman Catholics to test their church by a biblical standard. Once capitulate to Rome’s lofty claims and you are trapped in a theological Catch-22 with no escape. Within Romanism, reformation by a Scriptural standard is impossible by theological definition, because in their view their errors have divine sanction.
The “charismatic movement” is named after its insistence that all the New Testament spiritual gifts or “charismata” are still active in the church today just as they were in the first century, including the miraculous gifts of healing, speaking in tongues, and prophecy. The latter two especially involve word-revelation like that deposited in Scripture. For example, the New Testament prophet Agabus announced his prophecy about Paul in the stock language of Old Testament prophets God used to write Scripture: “Thus says the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21.10¬11; cf. Exod 4.22; Josh 24.2; Judg 6.8; 1 Sam 2.27; 2 Sam 7.4-5; 1 Kgs 11.31; Isa 37.21; Jer 2.1-2, etc.). Likewise, the New Testament gift of tongues was the miraculous ability to speak in a language not known to the speaker, the verbal content being given by the Holy Spirit, and therefore possessing the nature of a divine word-revelation. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2.4). The Greek word for “utterance” (apophthengomai) is a technical term and was used in other ancient writings of the speech of an “oracle-giver, diviner, prophet, exorcist, and other ‘inspired’ persons.”
While conservative, evangelical charismatics may squirm at the implications of these things, their doctrine nevertheless implies that we are receiving divinely-inspired word-revelation which is completely on par with Scripture, since the rationale of Scripture’s divine authority is nothing other than the fact that it is God’s Word, just like the verbal messages that came through New Testament prophets and tongues-speakers.
The net effect of such misguided claims is to imply the insufficiency of Scripture and to distract attention from it for a more modern, relevant, and exciting Word from the Lord through gifted people in the church today. As always, the spiritual consequences of this error are and have been disastrous.
Grudem’s Doctrine of Prophecy
Wayne Grudem has written a mostly-helpful modern work entitled, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. He writes as solidly committed to a Reformed Baptist perspective except in this one particular area of the gift of prophecy. His views on this are especially evident in The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today where he wrote,
In this book I am suggesting an understanding of the gift of prophecy which would require a bit of modification in the views of each of these . . . [two] groups [cessationists and charismatics]. I am asking that the charismatics go on using the gift of prophecy, but that they stop calling it “a word from the Lord” simply because that label makes it sound exactly like the Bible in authority, and leads to much misunderstanding. . . . On the other side, I am asking those in the cessationist camp to give serious thought to the possibility that prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human and sometimes partially mistaken report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone’s mind. And I am asking that they think again about those arguments for the cessation of certain gifts. . . . I should make it very clear at the beginning that I am not saying that the charismatic and cessationist views are mostly wrong. Rather, I think they are both mostly right (in the things they count essential), and I think that an adjustment in how they understand the nature of prophecy (especially its authority) has the potential for bringing about a resolution of this issue which would safeguard items that both sides see as crucial.
I have a serious pastoral concern about this view not only because it apparently lacks Scriptural support, but also because it has a tendency to lower our guard against dangerous charismatic claims that prophecy comparable to that of the New Testament age continues in the church. An effective critique of Grudem’s position is beyond the scope of this presentation, but important contributions have been made by O. Palmer Robertson and F. David Farnell.
Subjectivism and God’s Will
Another application of the lessons of 1 Kings 13 is to maintain a whole-hearted and exclusive commitment to doing God’s will as revealed in Scripture. In a Reformed Baptist ecclesiastical environment committed to cessationism, we are less vulnerable to the theological threats we have just described, but we may yet be misdirected by an unhealthy, mystic subjectivism when it comes to discerning God’s will for our lives.
Charles Hodge’s treatment of “Mysticism” is masterful and we commend it highly. He carefully distinguishes between the “leading of the Spirit” which is Scriptural (Rom 8.14; Gal 5.18) and a mystical view of discerning God’s will which is against Scripture in these words:
Evangelical Christians admit that the children of God are led by the Spirit of God; that their convictions as to truth and duty, their inward character and outward conduct, are molded by his influence. They are children unable to guide themselves, who are led by an ever-present Father of infinite wisdom and love. This guidance is partly providential, ordering their external circumstances; partly through the Word, which is a lamp to their feet; and partly by the inward influence of the Spirit on the mind. This last, however, is also through the Word, making it intelligible and effectual; bringing it suitably to remembrance. God leads his people by the cords of a man, i.e., in accordance with the laws of his nature. This is very different from the doctrine that the soul, by yielding itself passively to God, is filled with all truth and goodness; or, that in special emergencies it is controlled by blind, irrational impulses.
Pastor Steve Hartland of Baltimore, Maryland, has preached a superb series on “Decisions, Discernment, and the Will of God” which exposes and corrects popular misconceptions and sets forth a proper understanding of Scripture’s paramount importance in the life of a Christian.
Since we discern the Word of God has been especially preserved in the Hebrew OT and the Greek NT,39 we have a special regard for the exact wording found there. This brings us to the scholarly discipline known as “lower criticism” in which careful judgments are made concerning ancient manuscripts with their textual variants and their relative merit as preserving the minutiae of the autographs.
Because of the strong and united testimony that the entire corpus of extant manuscripts give to the vast majority of Scripture’s original wording, too much has sometimes been made of this controversy, especially by those arguing for exclusive use of the King James Version, to the unsettling of immature believers. Extremists have written that any other Bible translations are Satanic counterfeits and tools of the New Age movement.
Still, the ongoing debate among serious and reverent scholars about the relative merits of the Received Text and eclectic texts reflected in the UBS 4th Edition of the Greek New Testament is not insignificant. We must be committed to discerning the Word of God, even down to its minute particulars.
Irresponsible Paraphrases and Translations
God’s Word is obscured today by blatantly irresponsible paraphrases and translations, especially when these are regarded too highly by the uninstructed. An old example from 1971 is The Living Bible, a paraphrase by Kenneth Taylor. The very notion of “paraphrasing” Scripture, expressing “the meaning of the writer using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity” and then calling it a “Bible” instead of a commentary on the Bible reflects a low view of the perfection and sanctity of the very words God has given by divine inspiration.
That this low view of the inspired text leads to a loose handling of it is evident in The Living Bible from countless examples. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” becomes “Humble men are very fortunate!” (Matt 5.3). The “jot” and “tittle” of Matt 5.18 which Jesus promised will not pass away have vanished, ironically, from Taylor’s rendering: “Every law in the Book will continue until its purpose is achieved.” In Acts 20.28, Paul’s warning to pastors to take heed to themselves as well as to the flock is also gone: “And now beware! Be sure that you feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his blood,” etc. These and a thousand other glaring errors make Taylor’s work useless at best, perhaps even dangerous.
A more current example of irresponsible paraphrasing is The Message by Eugene Peterson (NT, 1993; whole Bible, 2002). It makes The Living Bible look like a strict translation by comparison! Yet it has the endorsement of influential Christian leaders like Billy Graham and Rick Warren. Even J. I. Packer said of it, “In this crowded world of Bible versions Eugene Peterson’s blend of accurate scholarship and vivid idiom make this rendering both distinctive and distinguished. The Message catches the logical flow, personal energy, and imaginative overtones of the original very well indeed.” This is high praise from a Reformed theologian, but it is terribly misplaced because Peterson’s work does not catch the true meaning of the original very well at all.
One example of Peterson’s flight from God’s Word will suffice. In Col 2.10, Paul wrote, “and you are complete in Him [i.e., Christ], who is the head of all principality and power” (NKJV). Believe it or not, Peterson mangles it this way, “You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him.” Many other of Peterson’s misrepresentations are even more offensive to those of us who reverence God’s Word.
Our concerns about these paraphrases remain in a lesser degree for poor, modern translations of the Bible, even though they take fewer liberties. Pastors especially must be very selective in choosing a Bible translation for preaching. One that is committed to a strict and formal equivalence between the donor language (Hebrew or Greek) and the recipient language (e.g., English or Spanish) is most agreeable to a high view of Scripture. “The best choice of translations on which to base expository preaching is . . . one which more literally follows the original languages and excludes as much of human interpretation as possible.” My preference is for the New King James Version, and there only seem to be a few reasonable alternatives amidst the plethora of English translations.
Failure in Scripture Exposition
Even agreement on the substance of all that has come before this leaves room for a seriously defective public ministry of the Word of God in Scripture. One of the most common and deplorable faults of the modern evangelical pulpit is simply a significant degree of omitting biblical exposition in preaching. This is manifestly inconsistent with the doctrine of an inerrant and authoritative biblical text. Indeed, as John MacArthur has written, expository preaching (in the sense of making the Bible text’s meaning plain to the hearers, not any particular homiletical form) is the mandate of biblical inerrancy.
We are not arguing that sermons should take the form of a verse by verse reading and commentary of an extended biblical passage; indeed, effective sermons rarely if ever take that form. Rather, a faithful pulpit ministry will be in its substance what the Bible has already revealed instead of thoughts spun out of the head of the preacher or taken from other sources like the news media, literature, or the preacher’s personal experiences and observations.
This is nothing else but a plea that those standing in the pulpit would “preach the Word!” (2 Tim 4.2). “Preach” here might be rendered “herald” (Gk. kerusso) with the sense of publicly proclaiming a message one already received from another, in this context, the revelation God has already given in Scripture. God does not send His messengers empty-handed with a charge to be creative orators. He has committed to us a very specific verbal message for relay. That message is the whole counsel of God in Scripture focusing especially on His glory through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Filling pulpit time with their own thoughts rather than faithfully reading, explaining, and applying God’s Word in Scripture is a mark of today’s false prophets. “‘The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat?’ says the Lord. ‘Is not My word like a fire?’ says the Lord, ‘and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?’” (Jer 23.28-29).
One final warning comes to mind as an application of 1 Kings 13. We must take what God has already said and proclaim it boldly and accurately. Well-meaning preachers through deficient education or careless study have aimed to preach Scripture but by erroneous interpretation have missed the Spirit’s true intent in a particular passage. We generally come to each sermon text with certain preconceived notions of its meaning before we study it or we may draw conclusions too hastily in our study. Then we are tempted to read our notions into the text without warrant. This is what we mean by “homiletical” (having to do with preaching) “eisegesis” (Gk., lit., “to explain into”).
We contrast this with the God-fearing approach to preaching always preceded by careful “exegesis” (Gk., lit., “to explain out of or from”), where we come to the inspired text as self-confessed ignorant fools yearning to know what God actually says in it and what He objectively means by it. We adopt the spirit which Eli recommended to the boy Samuel receiving God’s Word for the first time, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears” (1 Sam 3.9). This gospel humility spurs prayerful study of the text in its context applying all the helpful knowledge and tools at our disposal.
When we learn the message from God, then we must relay it as faithfully as Samuel did to Eli, even though like that message it contains many hard things that will grieve our hearers. We must take Micaiah’s motto as our own, “As the Lord lives,” a solemn oath formula, “whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak” (1 Kgs 22.14). Having discovered the mind of the Spirit in any particular passage, we can stand boldly before our hearers to proclaim and explain it with divine authority.
My pastoral brethren, the people before whom we stand as God’s spokesmen face great peril if they should ignore, forget, spurn, or mistake a counterfeit for God’s authentic Word. We have a great responsibility to promote their salvation by bringing God’s powerful Word in Scripture to them and warning them of the dangers of distraction from it. “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Tim 4.16).
To fulfill our divine charge, we must be able to discern God’s Word amidst all the modern confusion and relay His message without distortion. May God use these studies to sharpen your discernment and increase your fidelity as a herald of His sufficient and unchanging truth found in Scripture alone. Amen.
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