Pursuing a better Enlightenment

Or, do you study the Bible like an atheist?

Below is a recent paper I wrote responding to Charles Spurgeon’s lecture The Preacher’s Prayer.

Since the Enlightenment there has been an obsession with rational inquiry. That is, the prevailing opinion was that if humans simply studied, thought, and reasoned well enough, we could build better technology, a better society, and even a better morality. Reason alone was sufficient and it was applied to arenas of science, philosophy, politics, and religion. As Michael Legaspi has described in The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, the Bible suddenly became subject to academic scrutiny and analysis. This happened most profoundly in Germany, but critical biblical studies spread to both sides of the Atlantic and in many ways birthed liberal theology. [Fittingly, such liberal theology is marked by championing reason over divine revelation, whether explicitly or implicitly. It is happily at home in the Enlightenment and with modern man.]

And in my own study of the Bible, I have often felt the pull of this Enlightenment tendency—though would not have called it that! That is, I am often tempted to study the text devoid of prayer. I look at the Greek, consult commentaries, check all the cross-references, journal about the passage, and stare at it for hours. And yet I am slow to pray! Perhaps I will briefly ask the Spirit’s help in understanding, but only in a perfunctory manner. When wrestling with doctrines and hard texts I am prone to think my reason is sufficient for understanding, and my actions reflect such an Enlightenment perspective. While I pray for conversion and spiritual growth, I hardly pray for my daily bread, for safety in driving around town, or for wisdom on ‘practical’ matters. Per the Enlightenment, I have divided my world between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. For the sacred I call out to God and for the secular I call upon my own abilities. Yet how far the Enlightenment tentacles go, if I conceive even of Bible study as a secular activity not needing God’s help!

What does this have to do with Charles Spurgeon and prayer? He suggests a different course and it is an exceptionally helpful corrective. In the beginning of his lecture he comments, “Texts will often refuse to reveal their treasures till you open them with the key of prayer” (57). What Spurgeon helps us to do is to spiritualize the text. He reminds us that the Bible is not simply an historical document, but the very word of God. Secular students of the Bible are limited by the natural tools at their disposal when studying. Yet while Christians possess commentaries, textual analyses, and Greek lexicons, we also posses Someone of infinite more help: the Spirit of God!

He who taught the apostles “all things” and brought to their remembrance all that Christ said to them (John 14:26), “carried men along” as they prophesied (2 Peter 1:21), and “breathed out” the very words of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), also indwells the regenerate believer. He is “the Spirit of truth” who comes and “guide[s] you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit is the one who opens up God’s word to God’s people.

How then do we gain access to this Spiritual insight? As Spurgeon notes, it is through prayer! There we plead with God that we would behold wondrous things in his law and that he would give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. As God has sovereignly initiated his own revelation to people in general—through nature and through Scripture—so God sovereignly reveals himself to specific persons. The pattern is the same: we come to know God through his gracious self-disclosure. We only discover what he reveals.

Therefore, let us not study the word of God as atheists. Instead let us by faith pray to God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that we would comprehend even the very thoughts of God. For “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).

Advertisements

Modern Man and the Ancient Church

The modern man no longer needs one another. He needs others but he does not need another.

The modern man sits in his modern condo and uses modern appliances to do modern things. Others made them, but he does not know them.

He has never been to the store and he has never been to work. He stays at home and is more efficient that way. Others grow his food and work alongside him, but he does not know them.

Because he is a modern, the man shops online. He buys online and returns online. Packages arrive and depart from his doorstep. Others produce for him, but he does not know them.

The modern man has no thoughts of family. He does not need a wife for sexual fulfillment. He has limitless partners awaiting him online. Others please him, but he does not know them.

He also plays online. He does not have friends come visit him, or he visit them, but he meets his friends on video games and website forums. He sometimes posts on their social media accounts. Others leisure with him, but he does not know them.

The corporation moves him across the country. He lives near his parents now, but it makes no difference. Others raised him, but he does not know them.

 

Our man is a modern man through and through. He is an individual and the Enlightenment has succeeded.

The modern man is lost in a sea of anonymity. If this became mostly true with the advent of department stores, it has been made perfect through online shopping.  The modern world is far too efficient and rational for life to be personal.

But it was not always this way. There was a time in Western society when men and women knew one another. Buying shoes, getting a tool fixed, traveling, and acquiring food were once personal endeavors, but they are no more.

I was reminded of this fact when my state got hit with 30+ inches of snow and the most remarkable thing happened. People met each other and if not for the first time, then certainly the first time in a long time.

Forced by the shoveling to venture outside, neighbors were with one another. By necessity we spurned Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, and everything else that draws us into isolation. Doors opened, kids played in the snow, dogs ran up and down the street, and neighbor helped neighbor. We got to know one another.

A few days later I visited the home of a 70+ year old saint and there I noticed an old church pew on his front porch. When asked why he had it, he responded, “I want to bring back the days when people were neighbors. Back then, we knew one another”.

 

In this age of rampant individualism the Church stands in the unique position as being the people of God. When individuals wonder about their place in society, the church has the opportunity to show them the body of Christ. There they can know and be known. There they can be one with others who are radically other (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The church is a community of faith that brings Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, liberal and conservative, young and old, together as one man (Ephesians 2:15).

God’s eternal purpose has always been creating and setting apart a people for himself. This was true for Adam (and Eve), Abraham (and his descendants), and Christ (and his brothers and sisters). And this glorious reality–God making those who were not his people to become his people–is displayed every Lord’s day in local churches across the globe.

There brothers and sisters gather around the table for the family meal (the Lord’s Supper). There they gather to celebrate the adoption of new family members (baptism). And there they gather to sing praises to God, communion with him through prayer, and hear from their heavenly Father through his word. There the Church makes the people-creating gospel visible.