Module 2: What we Dwell: read.watch.reflect.practice


read.


The Bible and the Inward Testimony of the Holy Spirit

 

The Bible in the Church Today

            Jim, a former student, walked into my office and slowly closed the door.  “I have something to tell you,” he said. “Nell is dying.  I just visited her, and you need to hear what happened.” 

While studying at Western Theological Seminary, Jim had gotten to know Nell, a former missionary who had retired to Holland, Michigan.  After her husband died and her health declined, Nell had offered students room and board in exchange for help with shopping, cleaning, and cooking.  In the two years that Jim had boarded with her, they had become friends.

Jim told me that during his visit, Nell had asked him to read something from the Bible.  Initially uncertain what to choose, Jim thought of the last chapters of Revelation—the beautiful images of the holy city coming down from heaven with the river of life flowing from the throne of God.  As he was reading, a woman stood in the doorway, quietly weeping.  Jim finished the last chapter, said his final goodbye to Nell, and turned to leave.  The woman in the doorway motioned for him to join her in the hallway.

            “I’m Nell’s daughter,” she said.  “I want to explain to you what just happened.  When my mother knew death was near, she told us, ‘I want to hear the Bible one more time before I die.’  In these last weeks, we have been reading the whole Bible to her and had come to the last chapters of Revelation.  Without knowing it, you completed her final request.”

            This story has stayed with me over the years.  Nell’s words, “I want to hear the Bible one more time before I die,” witness to a relationship with the Bible that is not only rare among Christians, but almost incomprehensible to many of us.  I struggle to imagine myself (or anyone else I know) in similar circumstances saying something like this. Nell’s final request suggests that the Bible was more than a book to her.  It was her friend, her conversation partner and her source of guidance and comfort.  She wanted one last conversation with her beloved friend before she died.  

            The inconvenient truth about the church in the West is that the Bible has ceased to play a formative role in the lives of believers. In the words of the prophet Amos, we are experiencing a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (8:13).  The Bible has never been more available or aggressively marketed—you can have a runner’s Bible, vegetarian’s Bible, weight loss Bible, green Bible, teenager’s Bible, to name just a few. Yet the Bible has never been less read.  Biblical illiteracy is extremely high.  When polled, most Christians demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the content of the Bible, and the knowledge some claim to have could be material for a stand-up comic:  Joan of Arc was the wife of Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple, Saul was the king of Israel who encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, and Joshua, the son of Nun, was the illegitimate child of a women in a religious order.  

            Christians confidently proclaim what the Bible has to say about hot-button issues.  They aggressively defend its infallibility, even its inerrancy, but they do not take the time to read it.  There are many reasons for this famine of reading and hearing the words of the Lord, and many concerned Christians have analyzed them. The arguments are varied and some more complicated and esoteric than others.  All agree that Christians simply do not make time to engage the Bible. We are people in a hurry and on the run. We turn to inspirational books that are fast reads and easily digestible. These books take the place of the Bible as the source of inspiration and instruction for holy living, a situation about which the Belgic Confession warned the church already in 1561: “Therefore we must not consider human writings—no matter how holy their authors may have been—equal to the divine writings.” (Article 7)

 

The Indwelling of the Spirit

            The Bible played a formative role in the life of Nell.  Her words indicate that she took the time to engage it, and over time it came alive.  It became a trusted friend that led her into the presence of God. Such a personal relationship with the Bible is encouraged by the Reformed tradition.  We believe God is a sovereign whose decrees create and sustain the world, but the Sovereign of the world is not a distant, austere ruler.  God loves the world and its people and desires to be with them.  The name of our sovereign is Immanuel, God with us, and he is merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.   

            From start to finish, the Bible tells of God coming to his people and dwelling with them.  It tells of God establishing a house, setting a table, and eating with his children.  God comes and dwells in the tabernacle; in the temple of Jerusalem; in the person of Jesus Christ, who in the famous words of the Gospel of John, became flesh and tabernacled among us; in the person of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sends and who dwells in people’s hearts as a comforter and guide; and at the end of time, in the house of God that comes down from heaven. 

            The Bible is the story of God’s coming and dwelling with his beloved people, but it is also itself the product of this indwelling.  The Reformed tradition affirms a threefold work of the Spirit in producing the Bible.  First, the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of the people of God, searching them out, convicting them of sin, and prompting them to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.  Second, the Holy Spirit inspires them to gather together these promptings of the heart—their songs, laments, laws, wisdom, stories, and letters—and preserve them in a book.  Third, the Holy Spirit guides believers in the interpretation of this book. John Calvin emphasized the inward testimony of the Spirit:

The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason.  For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in people’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit  (Institutes 1. vii. 4). 

              

            The work of the Holy Spirit in producing the Bible suggests the work that believers must do as they seek to embody its truth.  Because the Holy Spirit has prompted the hearts of particular people and has guided them in composing what was on their hearts, believers need to know everything they can about these people. Because the Holy Spirit authenticates the truth of Scripture in the hearts of believers, they need to know everything they can about their own hearts.  In short, to engage the Bible deeply, believers need to know two things:  the historical context of the people who composed it and the context of their own hearts.     

The Context of the Bible

            Students of the Bible need to learn all they can about the life and times of the people of the Old and New Testaments.  The Spirit inspires these people in their particular context with their particular language, culture, and cosmology, and then the Spirit takes up their expressions of their faith and makes them a vehicle of God’s revelation for future generations.  The Reformed tradition recognizes that the Bible is part human and part divine, a recognition that is rich with significance but presents particular challenges to modern Christians. 

            One of the main challenges that Christians face is honoring the human part of the Bible, in other words, the particularities of our ancestors’ language, culture, and cosmology.  The people of Israel, for example, lived in what they understood to be a three-tiered, geo-centric universe consisting of the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth.  This picture of the world is present not only in Genesis but throughout the Bible.  It was a sensible and accurate picture at the time, drawn from people’s careful observations of the world.  With the aid of telescopes and microscopes, we now see farther out and deeper into the world than did the people of biblical times.  We draw a very different picture of the way the world is structured.  Further generations will draw still different pictures as they continue to learn more about the deep structures of our world. 

            How does the presence of Israel’s antiquated view of the world affect our understanding of the authority of the Scriptures?  Believers have struggled with this question from the beginning and have adopted a fairly consistent answer.  From Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to C. S. Lewis, believers have talked about some version of accommodation.  Their explanation goes something like this: God is a personal God, and therefore God seeks a relationship with people.  God speaks to them, but the conversation is not among equals.  God needs to accommodate himself, to speak in terms that people limited to their own situation can understand. 

            Calvin describes accommodation as God talking to us as a caretaker talks to a baby.  God babbles to us, makes sounds that we can understand and to which we can respond before we know the full language of God.  C.S. Lewis describes accommodation as the Spirit taking up human material with all its flaws and creating an “an untidy and leaky vehicle.”  He continues that we might have preferred something along the lines of “unrefracted light...something we could have tabulated and memorized and relied on like the multiplication table.”  But he suggests that not getting the perfect Bible we might have wanted has had the effect of making the Bible come alive for us.  Lewis says that the very elusiveness of the Bible to our rational minds demands a commitment of both mind and heart, and thus it becomes clear to us that when we engage the Bible “there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and temper, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him, in His own way, to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself.” (Reflections on the Psalms)

            The Reformed understanding of accommodation moves in the opposite direction of much of rational apologetics and inerrantist theories of Scripture that are so popular in many churches today.  The inerrantist theory of Scripture is based ultimately on a syllogism: God is perfect, the Scriptures are the word of God, and therefore the Scriptures are perfect.  Based on this syllogism, people assume that the Bible contains perfect knowledge in all areas of human inquiry and that its factual accuracy is a proof of its divine origin.  But this argument makes faith a rational act that human beings make on their own, a deduction made in the head instead of a movement of the Spirit in the heart.  The inerrantist view of the Scripture is heavily influenced by the belief in human autonomy and the power of human reason that is so prevalent in modern, Western culture.

            Recognizing the significance of accommodation does not, of course, end the debate about the authority of the Bible and its meaning for today.  In many ways it intensifies it.  Believers must assume responsibility for interpreting the Bible.  To use C.S. Lewis’s provocative word, they must “steep” themselves in it.  They need to study it carefully and determine eventually what God intends to say.  They need to distinguish between the “spirit” and the “letter” of the Bible, the kernel we carry forward and the husk we leave behind, as trite as this overused metaphor is.  And as we all know, one person’s “letter” is another person’s “spirit.”  Both sides in heated debates over the interpretation of the Bible believe the Holy Spirit has testified in their hearts to the truth of their position, and therefore they often refuse to listen to each other.  They simple declare, “The Bible says,” and for them that is the end of the matter.  But the fact of the matter is that the inward witness of the Holy Spirit only becomes clear over time, sometimes over great lengths of time.  We know from the history of the Church that it has always taken Christians a long time to reach clarity and consensus about difficult issues like the trinitarian nature of the Godhead, the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ, the role of slavery in society, the role of women in the church, and the moral status of homosexual orientation.  The Holy Spirit gives testimony in our hearts, but discerning this testimony takes time.  Unfortunately, the church is seldom patient and often chooses to split over contemporary issues and, thereby, in effect compromises the work of the Holy Spirit.    

The Context of the Human Heart

            Because the Holy Spirit authenticates the truth of Scripture in our hearts, we as followers of God need to learn all we can about the context of our hearts.  The human heart is permeable and heavily influenced by the various powers of our world, although we tend to think the heart is autonomous and its own master.  The heart is more like a cloud shape-shifting in the air currents than a rock washed up on the lake shore.  The heart is open to the influence of the Holy Spirit, but is also open to the influence of other spirits, ranging from parents, teachers and pastors, to the proverbial “Joneses” with whom we want to keep up.  The values and rituals of any particular culture always have heart-shaping power. The powers swirling in our hearts are legion, yet they enter at such an early age and operate at such a deep level that we are often unaware of their existence.  These powers make us anxious.  They conflict and vie with one another to influence our view of the world and to determine the “habits of our hearts,” that is to say, our behavior.    

            We need to examine our hearts, for some of the powers influencing us are harmonious with the work of the Holy Spirit and some are not.  We need to discern the spiritual powers, so that our hearts are not conformed to the world but are transformed to the world as God intended it to be. 

            Above all, the work of self-examination takes place when we worship God.  In worship we come into the presence of God and experience the loving heart of God.  God’s heart becomes the standard by which we examine our own hearts, discern the powers residing there, and bring them into harmony with the purposes of God.  Self-examination requires humility, commitment, and, ultimately, help from beyond ourselves. Full participation in the life of a worshiping congregation is an essential ingredient in forming our hearts and interpreting the Bible. 

Of all the work involved in approaching the Bible, this heart-work is the most demanding and the most significant.  It is relatively easy to accumulate factual knowledge about the context of the Bible; it is harder for us to understand the context of our own hearts, examine ourselves, and open ourselves to the Spirit’s influence.  Misdirected longings and bad habits are the work of powers that do not want to be evicted.  In order to remain hidden, they offer clever and convincing arguments for their continued presence and for readings of the Bible (or simply not reading) that will leave them alone.

           

Conclusion

            Reformed Christians affirm some things quite extraordinary and contrary to the prevalent cultural view of reality.  We affirm that the Spirit hovers over the hearts of the people of God in the same way that it hovered over the waters of creation.  We affirm that the Spirit moves in the hearts of people to preserve the word of God and that the Spirit enlivens this word in the hearts of people today.   Highlighting the work of the Spirit in generating, preserving, and enlivening the Bible is one of the wonderful contributions of the Reformed tradition.  Nurtured by this understanding of the word of God, Nell could say at the end of her life:  “I want to hear the Bible one more time before I die.” May the same be true of us. 


Dr. Thomas A. Boogaart

Dennis and Betty Voskuil Professor of Old Testament



watch.

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reflect.

Consider the questions below - ponder them in your mind and in your heart. Then write out your answers before meeting with your group.

As you read, how do you...

...find yourself resonating with the ideas offered in the essay?
...find yourself experiencing resistance?
...imagine that indwelling the scriptures could impact your faith journey? Your role as a leader on campus? Your discernment process?

practice. 

Continue to commit to memory a beloved passage of scripture.















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