The Bible tomorrow
Garry Williams, MA, MSt, PhD
The Lord knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:8-11) and tells us to let tomorrow worry about itself (Matthew 6:34), so we should not be too preoccupied with the future. Nonetheless, Scripture also tells us to be alert to tomorrow’s needs, commending the example of the ant (Proverbs 30:25).
Sometimes we can work out the pressing issues of tomorrow by observing pressures rising around us today. Today’s pressures suggest to me that we will face increasing questioning and hostility on two fronts, each from a quite different strand of our surrounding culture.
The first front comes from the growing problem that today’s secularism has with the Bible. The problem here is not simply rejection of the Bible. In the past, rejection of the gospel for most people was coupled with residual acceptance of at least some aspects of biblical morality. For example, many who rejected the lordship of Christ inconsistently clung to the outer shell of biblical teaching on marriage and sex.
It was only ever the outer shell, because, of course, a truly moral marriage according to the Bible is lived under the lordship of Christ. But even when that kernel was lost, there remained a residual adherence to the simple idea of heterosexual monogamy.
Today, this residual effect of the previous spread of the gospel in our nation is disappearing and leaving society increasingly opposed to the Bible’s teaching. We already see in Canada the kind of effect this process can have.
Rather than facing rejection of the kernel of the gospel coupled with continuing acceptance of the shell of biblical morality, we increasingly face non-Christians seeking to take the moral high ground against the Bible. They reject even the outer shell of the Bible’s moral teaching.
We can expect more of this kind of challenge, with increasing attention being paid to what are perceived as ‘unholy’ texts in the Bible – now, even under suspicion of being a hate-book.
This situation, though tragic, is not beyond the Lord’s power for turning evil to good. We see this in a number of ways. First, the attempt to sustain a non-Christian morality using a developed ‘moral’ vocabulary (largely concerned with ‘rights’) invites us as the Lord’s ambassadors to engage in a strong presuppositional apologetic.
This apologetic searchingly probes the metaphysical foundations of the new morality to expose its foundations as actually non-existent. It demonstrates that the only hope for grounding a proper concern for treating people rightly lies in the self-attesting Word of God.
Lessons from the past
Second, the new anti-biblical morality makes it harder for people to think they are Christians because they adhere to the shell of Christian morality even while rejecting the kernel of the gospel.
If people are clearer in their own minds where they stand, then humanly speaking there will be less disentangling to do when we preach the gospel.
Theologically, we can take the rising attack on the Bible as an invitation to revisit some writings of the early church. Whereas the Reformers faced in mediaeval Catholicism a corrupted Christian theology, the early church leaders faced in hostile paganism something more like the rapidly de-Christianising culture of our own day.
They were familiar with moral revulsion at the command to kill the Canaanites in conquest and with attacks on the ethics of Mosaic law. From some of them we may learn how not to react to such challenges (for example, by denying historical realities in Scripture and resorting to allegorisation, as found at times in Origen). From others, such as Augustine in his reply to the Manicheans, we may find safer paths.
The rise of a competing morality is also a challenge to the way we live. While the ancient pagans often scorned Christian teaching, they were also frequently silenced by Christian living.
It is thought that the dramatic extent of Christian charitable activity in Cappadocia in large part explains the collapse of paganism in that area. It may be that in our own day the undeniable moral quality of Christian church and family life will make pagans stop and listen to a message they initially thought immoral (1 Peter 2:11-12). Under the Lord’s hand the changing moral atmosphere may make this easier.
A society rushing headlong from the Bible will have increasingly obvious and painful problems in sustaining flourishing patterns of community and family. Even as non-Christian morality seeks to take the theoretical moral high-ground, it will be rendered manifestly vulnerable by its own practical crisis.
Lastly, while we have considered the moral shell, we need to remember that the shell is not the ultimate issue. The shell affords opportunities, but it would be possible to get so caught up with the shell or outer framework of morality that we lose our focus on the gospel.
Tomorrow, we will increasingly find ourselves challenged on the morality of the text of Scripture, and we will need to give an answer. But we cannot stop with the conquest of Canaan or the meaning of Sinai’s law. We will need to be sure to preach the Lord’s conquest by the cross (Colossians 2:13-15) and his gospel of the Jerusalem above (Galatians 4:21-31).
The author is director of the John Owen Centre, at the London Theological Seminary