Note from CORE Executive Director, Dennis D. Nelson: Congratulations to Mark Mattes, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, for being chosen to give the commencement address at the recent graduation ceremonies for Leadstar Theological College in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Our prayers are with the faculty, staff, and students of that school, as well as with all of the graduates, as they serve God in a part of the world where the Holy Spirit is moving in a most powerful way. We are very grateful to Dr. Mattes for reminding us that we need to read, heed, believe, and obey the entire Word of God for it is there that we find assurance of His love, His will for our lives, and the message of salvation.
In Jeremiah we read of one of the last kings of Judah, Jehoiakim, and his response to the word of God. After Jeremiah dictated to his scribe Baruch the words of prophecy given to him by God, Jeremiah instructed him to read this document in the temple. Jeremiah himself was restricted and forbidden to enter the temple. When the king’s officials heard these words, Baruch’s document was taken and he and Jeremiah were told to hide. The official Jehudi was told to bring the book before the king and read it to him. “It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him. Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes. . .” We learn that several leaders urged the king not to burn the scroll, but he would not listen to them. Instead, the king commanded the police “to arrest Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet. But the LORD had hidden them” (36:22-26)
This is one response to God’s word when it challenges us: whittle it down, reject it, even burn it. Especially if what it says accuses us, we want to get rid of it. Unfortunately, Europe and North America have a long history of copying King Jehoiakim’s attempt to eliminate the word whether they admit it or not. One of America’s greatest presidents, Thomas Jefferson, during his tenure in the White House, took scissors to the Gospels and cut out all those passages which he felt no rational person could believe. So, Jesus walked on water? Out that goes. Or, Jesus turned water into wine? Well, no scientific person can believe that. So, it goes away too. But the biblical injunction to love your neighbors as yourselves? That stays because any rational person can figure out that it is in their self-interest to be kind to others. After all, if you are charitable to them, then they will be nice to you. And, you never know when you might need a favor. Jefferson represented what is called the “Enlightenment” perspective.
Not only Jefferson, but the major universities in the West, for well over a century have supported a scholarly industry to foster a skeptical attitude toward the scriptures. It goes without saying just how off base this antagonism toward the word is. God’s power shouldn’t be pitted against our own, unless of course we want to sin. Instead, a faithful approach understands that God’s power is the power upholding created powers within all things, allowing everything to be. Apart from God’s power we wouldn’t exist; nor would we be able to claim any freedom whatsoever. The heirs of the Enlightenment surely misunderstand the whole dynamic between God and people. On top of that, the Bible shouldn’t be sliced and diced as so many critics do—as if the Bible were like a dead specimen dissected in a scientific lab. Instead, the Bible is God’s word, God’s inspired message to people, first to his old covenant people and then of course to us, his new covenant people, always coming to us with the divine promise in Christ. It is a living, powerful book; it provides meaning, purpose, and identity to those who find themselves described in its pages. It accuses sinners in their sin and gives mercy to all those who need it. It provides purpose and meaning to all who find their lives scripted in its pages. It empowers you in ministry.
Nor are the Bible’s miracles to be suspect. The truth of biblical events comes to us as testimony. Unless we have compelling evidence otherwise, we should take such testimony at face value. Miracles are no affront to science, since science acknowledges the fact that we can’t assume that the past is like the present or that even other places conform exactly to how things happen here. It is entirely possible for a thoughtful person to believe in the Bible’s miracles, and if Jesus is in fact risen from the dead (and he is), then we should believe the testimony that the prophets and apostles give us.
In a word, we should be like neither King Jehoiakim nor President Jefferson! In those countries where so many people have become beguiled by biblical skepticism, church attendance has gone dramatically down. That said, the true gospel of Jesus Christ is to forgive sins and grant life and salvation. All this empowers men and women in Jesus’ name so that they can live full and free, abundant lives, experiencing the full gamut that life has to offer.
God Authors Life
Obviously the heirs of the Enlightenment have a hard time with authority. They see it as a threat to their own power. But they are off base. Look at the root word in “authority”; it is “author.” What God is doing in scripture is exhaling an authoritative word that crafts our lives. God is working through scripture to bring you to Jesus, to empower you with the Holy Spirit, to lead you to acknowledge and praise the Father—and in fact the entire Holy Trinity. God authors your life in scripture by leading you to the manger where the infant Jesus lay and to the cross where he died for your sins and to the room at Pentecost when he poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples. God gives you the promise in the scriptures that he is for you. And, as Paul puts it: if God is for us, who can be against us?
My teacher, a Frenchman, Paul Ricoeur, did not share in these views which disown the Bible. In contrast, he said in the Bible we are to look for matters that lie behind the text, within the text, and in front of the text. Yes, with respect to “behind” the text, he said, look for the history described by the Bible. He felt that that was important, but not nearly as important as “within” and “in front of” the Bible. By “within the text,” he said look for the patterns repeated through the Bible across its many authors and pages so that, for example, we see Jesus as the Lamb of God not just in the Passover meal but also in the Gospel of John. Finally, by “in front of the text” he said, “Ask yourself just how different your life would be if you believed God’s word and took it at face value? How would you change your life?”
Dynamo of Salvation
The Bible, after all, is a powerful book. It conveys a mighty gospel—one which Paul calls the dynamis (dynamo) of salvation. The Bible gives us the truth both of who God is and who we are, and it empowers us to make a difference in this world. I love the description to the Psalter which the great Reformer Martin Luther gives:
Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself. There you see what fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sort of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of his blessings. On the other hand, where do you find deeper, and more sorrowful or more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God! . . . . when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for you fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them.
In other words, the scriptures give voice to our affections, our greatest joys and our deepest depressions; our feelings are comprehended and given meaning in light of the Psalter. It is the foundation and basis of your ministry. It is truth. Through the Bible our lives make sense even in confusing times and under heavy burdens, and when the power of the word is challenged even by well-meaning thinkers who peddle an alternate and weak approach.
This is Africa’s moment. God’s Spirit is powerfully using Africa to make the fire of Christian faith burn bright throughout the world. African Christians have a voice to speak to what ails many in the West. As the Psalmist says, God’s word is lamp to our feet and our light to our path. As the world moves forward into the future it is from Africa, from you, that the torch of faith and truth shines through your fervent speaking the good news. God’s word is living and powerful. From the word you will comfort the dying with Jesus’ promise “I am the resurrection and the life.” For those confessing their sins you will guide them with the promise “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” For those grateful you will share “Oh give thanks to the Lord for he is good and his mercy endures forever.” It is God’s creative and empowering word which has brought you to this moment — your graduation — and it will empower you as you move forward into your new steps in life. Continue to let God’s word shine in all you say and do.