A Saint’s Final Request
Jim walked into my office and slowly closed the door. “I have a story for you,” he said. While studying at Western Theological Seminary, Jim had gotten to know Nell Smith, who along with her husband Edgar had been missionaries in Nigeria and had retired in Holland, Michigan. After her husband died and her health declined, Nell offered students from the seminary room and board in exchange for their help with shopping, cleaning house, and cooking meals. In the two years that Jim had boarded with her, they had become friends.
“Nell Smith is dying; she is under hospice care,” Jim said. “I have just come from visiting her, and you need to hear what happened.” He proceeded to tell me this story.
“After visiting for a while, Nell asked me to read her something from the Bible. I was uncertain what to read, and then I thought of the last scene in the revelation to John and the beautiful images of the holy city Jerusalem coming down from heaven with the river of life flowing from the throne of God and watering the trees on each bank. As I was reading to her, a woman came and stood in the doorway. She was quietly weeping.
“When I finished reading, I said my final goodbye to Nell and started to leave. The woman in the doorway motioned for me to join her in the hallway. ‘I am Nell’s daughter,’ she informed me. ‘I want to explain to you what just happened here. When my mother knew death was near, she made a final request. She said, “I want to hear the Bible one more time before I die.” In these last weeks, we have been honoring her request. We had been reading selections from the Bible to her and had come to the last chapters of Revelation. Without your knowing it, you have completed her final request.’”
Nell’s final request, “I want to hear the Bible one more time before I die,” reveals that the Bible was more than a book to her. It was her companion, her conversation partner with whom she had shared her joy and pain and from whom she had received encouragement and comfort. The Bible was more than a document containing information about God; it was the voice of God. It was more than moral instruction; it was a light on the pathway leading her into the arms of God. She wanted to have one last conversation with her beloved companion before she died.
The memory of Nell’s request has come back to me frequently this summer as I witnessed two denominations that have been formative in my life, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, bicker and break apart over the interpretation of Scripture. It saddens me because we in the Reformed tradition are better than this. We have a rich tradition for interpreting Scripture, a tradition that has touched the hearts of readers and has produced saints like Nell Smith. We are capable of conversations about difficult issues that are richer and more generative than the ones we are currently having.
In the essay that follows, I will summarize a Reformed approach to Scripture. This approach emphasizes the work of the Spirit manifesting its fruit in the hearts of believers— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—and highlights how the Spirit’s heart-work produced Scripture. We who interpret the Bible today join our ancestors in manifesting this fruit of which patience is crucial and is the virtue most needed in difficult conversations.
I realize that in these polarized times much of what I say will fall on deaf ears. We are a church breaking apart in a nation breaking apart. Yet, I believe that there is life yet in the Reformed tradition and in its particular approach to Scripture. Perhaps what I say here will quicken a heart or two, restore some pride in our tradition, and foster the patience we need to deal with our current crisis and the ones surely coming in our future.
Our Sovereign is Immanuel
The Bible played a formative role in the life of Nell Smith. The Bible became her trusted companion who led her into the presence of God. Such an intense, personal relationship with the God mediated through the Bible is nurtured by the Reformed tradition. In this tradition, we learn that God is a Sovereign whose decrees create and sustain the world. But the Sovereign of the world is not a distant and austere ruler. God loves the world and its people and desires to be with them. The name of our Sovereign is Immanuel, God with us, and our Immanuel is merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
From start to finish, the Bible tells the story of Immanuel coming to earth and dwelling with us. It tells the story of God establishing a house, setting a table, and preparing a meal for us. God comes and dwells in the wilderness tabernacle; in the Jerusalem temple; in the person of Jesus Christ, who in the famous words of the Gospel of John, became flesh and “tabernacled among us”; in the person of the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts to comfort and guide us; and at the end of time, in the holy city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven so that God can dwell forever with God’s people (cf. Revelation 21, 22, and Isaiah 2:1-4).
The Threefold Work of the Spirit
While the Bible tells the story of God dwelling with us, it is itself the product of this indwelling. The Reformed tradition affirms a threefold work of the Spirit in producing the Bible. First, the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of the people of God and prompts them to confess to God their sin, praise God in their joy, lament to God in their pain, and act justly, kindly, and humbly. Second, the Holy Spirit inspires believers to gather together these promptings of the heart–their confessions, praise, laments, laws, wisdom, stories, and letters—and preserve them in a book. Third, the Holy Spirit guides believers in the interpretation of this book. Often called the theologian of the Holy Spirit, John Calvin emphasized the inward testimony of the Spirit who seals the Word in our hearts:
“The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in people’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (Institutes 1. vii. 4).
The work of the Spirit in producing the Bible suggests the approach that believers must take as they strive to embody its truth in their lives:
1) Because the Holy Spirit has prompted the hearts of particular people over time and has guided them in expressing their faith, believers need to learn everything they can about their life and times;
2) Because the Holy Spirit seals the truth of Scripture in the hearts of believers, they need to know everything they can about their own hearts. In short, to engage the Bible deeply, believers need to know two things: the historical context that shaped the people who composed and compiled it and the historical context that shapes their hearts.
The Context of the Bible
Students of the Bible need to learn all they can about the life and times of the people of the Old and New Testaments. The Spirit inspires them in their particular context with their particular language, culture, and cosmology, and then the Spirit takes up their expressions of faith and makes them a vehicle of God’s revelation for future generations. The Reformed tradition recognizes that the Bible is part human and part divine, a recognition that is rich with significance but presents particular challenges to believers.
One of the main challenges that we face is honoring the human part of the Bible, in other words, the particularities of our ancestors’ language, culture, and cosmology. The people of Israel, for example, lived in what they understood to be a three-tiered, geo-centric universe consisting of the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth. This picture of the world is present not only in Genesis but throughout the Bible. It was a sensible and accurate picture at the time, drawn from people’s careful observations of the world. With the aid of telescopes and microscopes, we now see farther out and deeper into the world around us than did the people of biblical times, and we draw a very different picture of the world than they did. The “beautiful book” of the universe—a term from the Belgic Confession—continues to reveal truth to us that we thankfully add to our understanding of God and bring into conversation with the book of Scripture, believing as we do that the two “books” are complementary.
Another particularity of our ancestors’ culture was their understanding of gender. The people of Israel understood men to be both physically and morally superior to women, and this understanding was expressed in a patriarchal society in which men ruled the clan and women were deemed their property. Recall, for example, this commandment, obviously addressed only to men: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The people of Jesus’ day shared the same understanding of a man’s place in society, which is why the teachings of Jesus were so controversial. When Paul summarized Jesus’ teaching—“[In Christ] there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all on in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)—he was working out the fact that Jesus had laid a new foundation for human society. Note as well here that Paul saw Jesus as undermining the notion that God had ordained slavery. For those in Christ, neither slaves nor women are property to be exploited, however long it took the church to realize the truth of this.
Suffering from high mortality rates among infants and adults, the people of Israel needed to be fruitful in order to multiply. Therefore, they sanctioned polygamous marriage, stigmatized barren women, and saw homosexual behaviors as a personal choice that wasted precious seed and threatened the survival of the community. It is only recently that the various sciences have had the tools to study the unfolding of human life from the moment of conception and have learned that heterosexuality and homosexuality are orientations and not choices. The realization that sexual attraction is an orientation and not a choice is yet another revelation from the beautiful book of the universe and needs to be factored into the revelation of the book of Scripture and should be part of any conversation about what God desires of us.
How does the Bible’s ancient historical context affect our understanding of the authority of the Scriptures? Believers have struggled with this question from the beginning and have adopted a fairly consistent answer. From Augustine to Aquinas, from Calvin to C.S. Lewis, believers have talked about some version of accommodation. Their explanation goes something like this: God is a personal God, and therefore God seeks a relationship with people. God speaks to us, but the conversation is not among equals. God needs to accommodate us, to speak in terms that we in the limitation of our particular context can understand.
Calvin describes accommodation as God talking to us as a caregiver talks to a baby. God babbles to us, makes sounds that we can understand and to which we can respond before we know the full language of God. C.S. Lewis describes accommodation as the Spirit taking up human material with all its flaws and creating an “an untidy and leaky vehicle.” He continues by noting that we might have preferred something more inerrant, “unrefracted light…something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.” But he suggests that not getting the perfect Bible we might have wanted has had the effect of making the Bible come alive for us. He says that the very elusiveness of the Bible to our rational minds demands a commitment on our part of both mind and heart, and thus it becomes clear to us that when we engage the Bible “there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and temper, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him, in His own way, to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself.” (Reflections on the Psalms, 111ff.)
The Reformed understanding of accommodation moves in the opposite direction of inerrantist theories of Scripture that are so popular in evangelical churches today. The inerrantist theory of Scripture is based ultimately on a syllogism: God is perfect, Scripture is the word of God, and therefore Scripture is perfect. Based on this syllogism, people assume that the Bible contains perfect knowledge in all areas of human inquiry and that its factual accuracy is proof of its divine origin. Accepting what it says about God is a rational act that human beings can make on their own, a deduction made in their heads, not a movement of the Spirit in their hearts.
Recognizing the significance of accommodation does not, of course, end the debate about the authority of the Bible and its meaning for today. In many ways it intensifies it. Believers must assume responsibility for interpreting the Bible. As C.S. Lewis so provocatively says: believers must “steep themselves in it.” They need to engage it very deeply and to determine eventually what God intends to say. They need to distinguish between the “spirit” and the “letter” of the Bible, the kernel we carry forward and the husk we leave behind, as trite as this overused metaphor is. And as we all know, one person’s “letter” is another person’s “spirit.” Both sides in heated debates over the interpretation of the Bible believe the Holy Spirit has testified in their hearts to the truth of their position, and therefore they often refuse to listen to each other. They simple declare, “the Bible says” and for them that is the end of the matter. But the fact of the matter is that the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit only becomes clear over time, sometimes over great lengths of time. We know from the history of the Church that it has always taken Christians a long time to reach clarity and consensus about difficult issues like the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead, the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ, the role of slavery in society, the role of women in the church, and, of course, the moral status of homosexual orientation. The Holy Spirit gives testimony in our hearts, but discerning this testimony takes time. Fortunately, one fruit of the Spirit is patience. Unfortunately, the church is seldom patient and often chooses to split over contemporary issues and thereby in effect compromise the work of the Spirit.
The Context of the Heart
Because the Holy Spirit authenticates the truth of Scripture in our hearts, we as followers of God need to learn all we can about the context of our hearts. The human heart is permeable and heavily influenced by the various powers in our world, although we tend to think the heart is autonomous and its own master. The heart is more like a cloud shape-shifting in the air currents than a rock washed up on the lakeshore. The heart is open to the influence of the Spirit who comes and dwells there, but is also open to the influence of other spirits, for example, other people ranging from parents, to teachers, to pastors, to the proverbial “Joneses” with whom we want to keep up. The heart is also open to the influence of the culture around us—culture’s values and rituals have heart-shaping power. The powers swirling without and within our hearts are legion, yet they often enter our hearts at such an early age and operate at such a deep level that we are not aware of their existence. These spiritual powers often conflict with one another and make our hearts anxious. They vie with one another to influence our view of the world and to determine the habits of our hearts, that is to say, our behavior.
We need to know our hearts and to examine the habits of our hearts for some of the powers influencing us are harmonious with the work of the Spirit and some are not. We need to discern the spiritual powers so that our hearts are not conformed to world as it is but are transformed to world as God intended it to be.
The work of self-examination takes place above all when we gather to worship God. For in worship, we come into the presence of God and experience the loving heart of God. According to John Calvin, God’s heart becomes the standard by which we then can examine our own hearts, discern the powers that reside there, and try to bring them into harmony with the purposes of God. This process of self-examination requires humility, commitment, and ultimately help from beyond: “the heart is deceitful above all things, who can understand it,” says Jeremiah (17:9). Therefore, full participation in the life of a worshipping congregation is an essential ingredient in forming our hearts and interpreting the Bible, and this participation is put at risk when churches break apart.
Of all the work involved in interpreting the Bible, this heart-work is the most demanding and the most significant. It is relatively easy to accumulate factual knowledge about the context of the Bible; it is harder for us to understand the context of our own hearts, examine them, and open them to the Spirit’s influence. The misdirected longings and the bad habits of our hearts are the work of powers that have taken up residence there and do not want to be transformed or evicted. In order to remain hidden, they offer clever and convincing arguments for their continued presence and for readings of Bible that will leave them alone.
When it comes to approaching the Bible, Reformed Christians affirm something quite extraordinary and contrary to the Western, materialist view of the world. We affirm that the Spirit hovers over the hearts of the people of God in the same way that it hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation. I mentioned the fruit of the Spirit above: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I see little evidence of this fruit in the conversations that the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church are currently having about the Bible. Especially the virtue of patience seems to be missing, the fundamental trust that if we stay together the Spirit over time—even great spans of time—will lead us into all truth, including the truth about God’s regard for people who experience same sex attraction. In the absence of this fruit, claims of certainty and purity ring hollow in my ears.