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Creative Bible Teaching
By Lawrence O. Richards, Gary J. Bredfeldt
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1998 Lawrence O. Richards and Gary J. Bredfeldt
All rights reserved.
This Bible: The Need for and Nature of the Bible
It really isn't a very impressive sight. Actually, it's just a small, lily-pad-covered pond like a thousand others in Yellowstone National Park, yet this one is surrounded by a large parking lot. Most of the time the lot is full. Why the attraction? The answer is found on a sign that park visitors stop to read as they take the boardwalk around the lake. The sign tells tourists that this little pond is the "watershed of two great rivers." A few drops of water leaving the pond down a very tiny creek to the west flow through a variety of streams and rivers eventually to reach the Columbia River and finally the Pacific Ocean. Another few drops of water flowing out of the equally tiny creek to the east eventually flow to the Missouri River, on to the Mississippi River, and, finally, to the Gulf of Mexico.
A watershed is the elevated point at which water flows in one direction or another. The Bible, or more accurately our attitude toward the Bible, is a watershed issue in Christian teaching. The Bible teacher's view of Scripture will serve to determine the direction and purpose of his teaching ministry. If the Bible is regarded as a purely human book with doubtful stories told by pre-scientific persons in an effort to understand their world, the teacher will most likely approach the Bible seeking to demythologize its message. On the other hand, if the Bible is regarded as the inspired, inerrant revelation of God to human beings in a specific time and place, then the teacher's approach to the Bible will entail admiration, respect, and even a mandate for obedience to its teachings. How have Bible teachers understood this Bible we teach? In which directions have their understandings taken the flow of their teaching? What is the nature of the Bible, and how does its nature affect how we teach it? To answer these questions, we must first consider the need for the Bible. Why did God give us this Bible in the first place?
THE NEED FOR THE BIBLE
Consider the words of J. I. Packer.
What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set for our lives? To know God. What is the "eternal life" that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God.... What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God.
Packer's point is absolutely correct. Nothing could better describe the purpose of mankind than to know their Creator in an intimate and personal way. But how does one know God? An even more difficult question is this: How does one know that one knows God? Figure 3 depicts two foundational views of what is meant by "knowing God." These two primary views of knowing God are both embraced in our day.
Two Views of Knowing God
The immanence view. The first of these concepts of knowing God sees knowledge of God as the result of a search within the seeker. We might term this view an immanence view of God. The word immanence means "within" and carries the idea of something completely immersed in another thing. Those who hold this view contend that God is one with His creation. God is believed to be of the same essence as His creation. Immanence views of God understand God to be a force or power and impersonal in nature. God cannot be separated from creation and, in fact, is found within the created order of things. It is contended by immanence proponents that something of the divine spark or force is found in each person. Therefore, to know God, the seeker must know himself and discover within "the self" the qualities of God.
This position has its historic roots in Eastern mystic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but today it finds its expression most prominently in the New Age Movement. Several books have helped to popularize this view of God. Author and actress Shirley MacLaine, through her book Out on a Limb, brought increased public attention to the New Age view of God as immanent. And more recently, the runaway best-sellers Embraced by the Light and The Celestine Prophecy have contributed to the widening acceptance of New Age thinking. Prominent physician Larry Dossey described the immanence view of God in Healing Words, his best-selling book on prayer, as the "modern model" for understanding God and prayer. After explaining that prayer is "nonlogical" and "evidence for shared qualities with the Divine—the Divine Within"—he writes,
The way prayer is conceived by most Western religions is far different from this: God is installed outside us, usually high above, as if in stationary orbit, functioning as a sort of master communications satellite.... God up there, us down here ... isolated creatures of the moment locked into a linear, flowing time, confined to the body, and awaiting death, ultimately sinful and unworthy, and whose only hope is to be redeemed by the merciful act of a Supreme Being. Although this version may be comforting for millions of people—those who are convinced they are "saved" or "chosen," or who belong to some religious in group—it causes immense confusion and guilt for others, and has been the source of untold nastiness in human affairs throughout recorded history. When compared with other religious views worldwide, this exteriorization of God ... appears to be "pathological mythology." ... The old biblically based views of prayer, which are still largely in vogue, were developed when a view of the world was in place that is now antiquated and incomplete.
For those who hold the immanence view, knowing God does not involve knowing objective information about God or even knowing God as a person. Knowing God involves a communion with an inner force, the "Divine Within." In the process, the seeker reaches a state of tranquillity and peace. Since knowing God does not involve propositional knowledge about God, knowing God is a personal and undefinable experience that is distinct for each seeker. God does not reveal Himself to the seeker; He instead is revealed by the seeker through a personal search for a God-consciousness.
Those who hold to the immanence view of knowing God have a very definite view of the Bible. To them, the Bible is not God's revealed and inspired Word. The Bible is a record of human beings' quest for wisdom and divine consciousness. The Bible is a wise book, among many wise books, but it is to be no more revered than any other book of human sayings and truisms. If one embraces this view of the Bible, teaching the Bible would take on a far different role and nature than it would for those who embrace the Bible as the written revelation of the living God. For those who hold to the immanence perspective, teaching the Bible is simply using the Bible for its illustrative value in showing the learner how to reach a God-conscious state of inner tranquillity.
The transcendence view. The opposite and alternative view of knowing God could be termed a transcendence perspective. This is the view that is embraced by historical Christianity. This theological truth proclaims God as different and distinct from His creation in essence. He is considered to be "totally other" than that which He has created. "Totally other" does not mean that He cannot be known by human seekers at all, but that He cannot be found in His creation. He does not reside in creation. He is distinct, and He is not dependent on His creation for His continued existence. He is higher and greater than anything He has created, and, therefore, all human efforts to fully understand Him and contain Him are fruitless. Rather, God must make the first move if He is to be known. God truly is immanent as well as transcendent, but it is because He chooses to be; "immanence" in the Christian sense of the word means that God is close to His creation, not that He is part of it.
Imagine taking a stroll through a famous art museum or institute. On each wall is a priceless painting, and throughout the halls are sculptures—all created by one highly gifted artist. As you pass through each hallway and exhibit area you gain an ever greater appreciation for the handwork of the artist. By the time you leave the museum you feel you almost know the artist. You have detected something of his heart and even his attributes. Surely, by studying the artist's creation you can learn much about the artist. But do you know the artist? Is this kind of intuitive knowledge of the artist the same as a personal knowledge of the artist? What if the artist were to make himself known to you by making contact with you? What if he were to send a representative or a letter telling you of his purpose in creating each painting or sculpting each statue? Would you know more of the artist than you did merely looking at his creations? What if he went still further and entered the art museum? What if he actually walked the halls of the institute with you? Would this not produce a greater knowledge of the artist?
Bible believing Christians insist that this is exactly what God, the Creator-Artist, did. Although it is true that He made Himself known through His creation in what theologians call natural or general revelation, He did more than that. He communicated with us. He communicated to His creatures in a means known as special revelation. Through special revelation God makes known those things about Himself that otherwise could not be known. He does this in two primary ways. First He reveals Himself through His written Word, inscribed in the pages of the Bible. Second, He also reveals Himself in the incarnate Word, the person of Jesus Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us.
By a careful study of the creation, the seeker will come to know something of God's divine nature and His invisible attributes. This is a knowing about God. But, through the special revelation of the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ, God can be known in a personal and intimate way, that is, in a relationship. The transcendence view is a revelatory view. It holds that God is a personal being who transcends His creation and must reveal Himself if He is to be known at all. Apart from divine revelation, God would remain the unknown God. This then is the role of the Bible, to make God known.
The Unknown God
If God has revealed Himself in both natural revelation and special revelation, why is it that people do not know Him? Why is God the unknown God? God is unknown to us for two basic reasons—His nature and our nature.
His nature makes Him unknown to us. Isaiah quotes God as He describes His own lofty and distinct nature in these words: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isa. 55:8–9). God is unlike us in His cognitive capacity. We cannot understand His rationale for His actions. God must come to us, for we certainly could not come to Him given this kind of gulf of understanding. In a similar way, God explains Job's limitations in comprehending and knowing the God of creation. "Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave—what can you know?" (Job 11:7–8). "How great is God—beyond our understanding! The number of his years is past finding out" (Job 36:26). God is by nature impossible for us to probe. He is the unknown God because He is higher, deeper, and beyond human search. But He is not limited in His ability to find us and make Himself known to us.
Our nature makes Him unknown to us. Not only is God beyond us, we are limited by our own sin and our tendency to suppress any of the truth God has made known. Paul reminds us that sin has blinded us to revelation from the Spirit of God. "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). Satan too has a part in blinding us from seeing and comprehending divine truth, including the gospel of Jesus Christ: "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4).
God has indeed made truth about Himself known, but human beings suppress that truth, choosing to believe lies instead of the revelation given by God in nature. In a passage of profound importance, Paul wrote,
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Rom. 1:18–25)
God is, for all intents and purposes, the unknown God. Not unknowable, for God can make Himself known, but unknown because of our state and condition. How then does the unknown God make Himself known? Through special revelation, through His Word, inscribed in the Bible and incarnate in Jesus Christ, God has acted and willed that He be knowable.
God Made Known
In nature God has left a calling card. He uses it to draw our attention so that He can make His clearer and more personal revelation plain. Paul spoke to this in Acts 17 when he addressed the Athenian philosophers:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. "For in him we live and move and have our being." As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring."
Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:24–31)
Through God's natural revelation we come to know about God. We learn of His divine nature, His creative role, and His invisible attributes. But it is in the person of Jesus Christ that God makes Himself known in an intimate and personal way. Through God's special revelation in Christ we actually come to know God. John tells us of the incarnation of the Word of God. God became flesh that we might know Him.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.... No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. (John 1:1–5, 14, 18)
Excerpted from Creative Bible Teaching by Lawrence O. Richards, Gary J. Bredfeldt. Copyright © 1998 Lawrence O. Richards and Gary J. Bredfeldt. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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