Catch the 66 to Heaven The books of the Bible are “bus truth” — they’ll get you there
One of the much-used illustrations of postmodernism comes from Stanley Fish who tells of two classes who read different things out of the one set of data. Fish was teaching a linguistics class and wrote on the blackboard a number of names of authors:
The question mark was put beside the last name because Fish could not remember whether the name was spelled with one n or two. As it happened, the next class was studying seventeenth-century religious poetry. Fish told this class that it was a poem, so they took Jacobs as a reference to Jacob’s ladder; Rosenbaum (German for ‘rose tree’) as a reference to the Virgin Mary, a rose without thorns; Thorne as a reference to Christ’s crown of thorns; and Ohman as meaning ‘Oh man.’ The shape of the poem was thought to be like a cross.
Fish’s conclusion was that “interpreters do not decode poems, they make them”. A more convincing conclusion might be that the state of moderns poetry must be alarming indeed if it can be readily mistaken for a hurriedly constructed bibliography. Even more alarming is that the same kind of thing could easily happen in a church. In fact, it is happening. Truth is treated as something which is subjective rather than objective.
According to John North and Robert Forsyth, there are two kinds of truth — beetroot truth and bus truth. Beetroot truth is subjective — you like beetroot or you loathe it. The issue of right and wrong does not come into it; it is a matter of taste. Many things in life can be safely placed in this category. The other kind of truth is bus truth — if a bus runs over you, you will be squashed, whether you believe it or not. This is objective; it coincides with reality.
In the aftermath of September 11, Bill Clinton proclaimed: “Nobody’s got the truth.” He blamed intolerant fundamentalists of all faiths for the terrors in the world. In effect, he was saying that all truth is beetroot truth.
Christianity, on the other hand, claims to be bus truth. Jesus said: “I am the truth” (John 14:6). Later, He stated: “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Christian claims are therefore not presented as true for one person but not for another. They are presented in absolute terms. If we trust Christ alone for salvation from our sins, He is the cornerstone, chosen and precious; if we reject Him, He is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence (1 Pet. 2:6-8).
What has happened in recent times is that the beetroot approach has come to infect the evangelical church. The evangelical position on the Word of God, for example, is that Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Stephen Davis wants to be an evangelical but he writes: “I believe the Bible is or ought to be authoritative for every Christian in all that it says on any subject unless and until he encounters a passage which after careful study and for good reasons he cannot accept.” According to this gobbledygook, the Bible is bus truth unless you think it is beetroot truth.
To name names might be regarded as uncharitable and judgmental, but a number come to mind: Fuller Theological Seminary; the Murdoch takeover of Zondervan Publishing Company; IVP; Christianity Today; the Evangelical Theological Society; G. C. Berkouwer; F. F. Bruce; G Eldon Ladd; Clark Pinnock; John Sanders; and Stanley Grenz. In 1987 James D. Hunter claimed that nearly 40 per cent of Evangelical theologians have abandoned belief in biblical inerrancy.
Let us look at just two cases of liberal evangelicalism — or is it evangelical liberalism? In his commentary on Matthew, R. H. Gundry says that Matthew “freely and creatively” edited his sources. So, for example, Matthew turns the visit of local Jewish shepherds (Luke 2:8-20) into the adoration by Gentile magi from foreign parts (Mt. 2:1-12). In other words, Matthew was more of a novelist than an historian.
The second one to look at is Paul Jewett. On the question of the role of women in the Church, he says that there are two Pauls. The great apostle is made to argue against himself (1 Cor. 11:9 versus Gal. 3:28). The result is that Jewett’s lopsided interpretation of Galatians 3:28 (“in Christ there is neither male nor female”) governs his rejection of passages that speak of the subordination of women. Given such an approach, the only conclusion is that parts of Scripture are more inspired than other parts.
Sometimes the truth is not so much denied as sidestepped. In David Wells’ view: “Today, evangelicalism reverberates with worldliness.” Wells considers that evangelical churches have “now turned in on themselves and substituted for the knowledge of God a search for the knowledge of self”. In 1991 George Barna found that more than 50 per cent of evangelicals agreed that “the purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment”. Supposed evangelicals do not seem to be aware that they are playing on the wrong field, according to the wrong set of rules.
What should be obvious from Scripture is subject to a process of what “Rabbi” Duncan back in the 19th century called “cloudification”. For example, Clark Pinnock sees as unsettled the question as to whether God can be addressed as “mother”. If Pinnock cannot decide that from Scripture, he should be suing his primary school teacher.
Clark Pinnock and John Sanders have gone on to set forth the view that general revelation can save. The surfer on his surfboard can appreciate the waves so much that he thanks God. The gardener in her garden is so overcome by the beauty of nature that she can only acknowledge God’s handiwork before her. All very true and worthy, but if it goes no further the result is not saving faith. Saving faith occurs when the sinner turns from sin and rests on Christ alone. Paul tells us that the knowledge of the Creator through the creation does not save us but only leaves us without excuse (Rom.1:20).
Tim Costello is another who calls himself an evangelical. Yet he says that he does not believe that he has sinned enough to warrant a man dying for him. At one time, an evangelical who does not believe in substitutionary atonement would have been regarded as more odd than a humanist who said his prayers. Not so in the modern evangelical scene.
Even Robert Schuller is often accepted, despite the fact that he refuses to call people sinners on the grounds that this could damage their self-esteem. It is somewhat difficult to see how “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” can be reconciled with “Believe that you are beautiful with great possibilities”.
When truth is devalued, evangelicals think in terms of synthesis (A may be contrary to B but shall be incorporated into a larger truth, C) rather than antithesis (if A is contradictory to B, then A and B cannot both be correct). Hence, in John Stott’s discussion with the liberal David Edwards — entitled Essentials — Stott treated Edwards as a Christian even though he denied the physical resurrection of Christ. A decade before this, D. M. Beegle said the same thing about Willi Marxsen. David Wenham summarised this whole approach by condemning any thought that liberal Christians were non-Christians. The key word has become interpretation. With an interpretation, one can explain nothing and explain away anything.
How should we respond to this? We could keep on giving examples, but it might be more helpful to look to what Scripture tells us. First, we must maintain a right balance. We are to “quench not the Spirit”, “not despise prophecies”, but “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:19-21). Some simply react, but Paul expects his readers to sift. Richard Baxter said: “Many an error is taken up by going too far from other men’s faults.” To attack tastes in music in the same way as one attacks a denial of the resurrection betrays a lack of balance.
Second, we should seek that our love and knowledge grow in discernment (Phil. 1:9-11). We need to be able to tell the difference between true belief and false belief (e.g. 1 John 4:1-3) and strong faith and weak faith (Rom. 14). A person may build badly but still be building on the foundation of Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-15) i.e. some of what he does will come under judgment but he himself will be saved.
Third, we must never cooperate with obvious unbelief or immorality. One of the godly kings of Judah, Jehoshaphat (872-848 BC), erred greatly in aligning himself by marriage to Ahab, the Baal-worshipping king of Israel (2 Chron. 18:1). Jehoshaphat’s son, Jehoram, married Athaliah, Ahab’s daughter, and she led him astray (2 Chron. 21:5-6).
Jehoshaphat himself went to war on Israel’s side against the Syrians. This was to earn him a mixed rebuke from Jehu: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Therefore the wrath of the Lord is upon you. Nevertheless, good things are found in you, in that you have removed the wooden images from the land, and have prepared your heart to seek God” (2 Chron. 19:2b-3). Richard Baxter once commented that he would rather have the discord of the saints than the concord of the wicked.
Last, Scripture tells us to remain faithful to God’s Word. This is Paul’s repeated message to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17; 4:1-5). The gospel is still the power of God unto salvation (Rom.1:16 17). We ought not to panic at the sight of the latest fad or even the trends of the times. As W. Robert Godfrey put it: “We keep reinventing the wheel in this century, and it’s never round.” In the end, the linguistics bibliography ought not to be mistaken for religious poetry. Bus truth will prevail.