Recently I helped my boss decode a rather obtuse document, in which the writer had used obscure words instead of plain language. “This is,” I said, “an example of what happens when people go to the dictionary for permission instead of guidance,” and my boss thought that was an astute observation. Just because the word chiaroscuro is in the dictionary, for example, it doesn’t mean that anyone is edified or informed when you use it in a sentence. I’m sure you’ve read documents where it seems the writer’s primary purpose was not to convey a message, but to see how stupid he could make you feel.
Some people seem to use the Bible for permission instead of guidance. Instead of learning what the Bible has to teach them, they use the Bible to justify their pet notions. They say their ideas are biblical, and in an invalid sense they are right, but their notions are read into the Bible rather than out of the Bible.
Here some of my personal standards for making sure that a ‘biblical teaching’ is in truly biblical.
It must be historical
Jesus does not say:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will overcome it for a while, but in the nineteenth century it will be restored.
—Matthew 16:18, Reversed Fractured Version
In truth, the Church has always been present:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.
—Matthew 16:18, NIV
Unless Jesus is a false prophet, the gates of hell never overcame the Church. So that means that if I am on the right track, I must be able to find theologians in all ages who agree with me. If my idea was mainly advanced by heretics, that’s a big red flag. If there was a period in Christian history before my notion was known, then I have to ask myself, “Why did God hide this great truth from the apostles and disclose it personally to me?” If that question does not seem absurd, then instead of a podium and a microphone, I need a psychiatrist and a social worker.
Jesus does not say:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, but they do not practice what they preach. So you must disobey them and show them for the frauds they really are.”
—Matthew 23:1-3, Reversed Fractured Version
In truth, even hypocrites can be good teachers:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
—Matthew 23:1-3, NIV
One thing I have learned the hard way is that if you are not a good musician, getting a better instrument won’t help. On the other hand, even a lousy instrument sounds good when a master plays it. So we see how God can transmit His truth even through a flawed Church. We see this in the startling fact that even while Luther was being pushed out of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope himself commended Luther’s theological writings! No matter whose side we take in that dispute, it is clear that orthodoxy persists despite it all. We must heed the Holy Spirit’s testimony through the saints of the historic Church.
It must be practical
Paul does not say:
I know that this man—whether in the body or apart of the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard some special truths, truths that he can only tell to special elite Christians.
—2 Corinthians 12:3-4, Reversed Fractured Version
In truth, esoteric or secret doctrines are most likely bogus:
I know that this man—whether in the body or apart of the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
—2 Corinthians 12:3-4, NIV
Throughout the New Testament, we learn that there are things we are simply not allowed to know. I notice that Jesus seeks to save our soul, but heretics seek to impress us with their wisdom. There are lots of people who use the Bible as an intellectual Swiss Army knife to solve all mysteries and settle all disputes, but Jesus is not one of them. Jesus’ interest is in saving my soul, not satisfying my curiosity.
Jesus does not say:
Whoever says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, not just the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “How nice of you to go to the extra trouble, but the important thing is that you understand the way of salvation!”
—Matthew 7:21-23, Reversed Fractured Version
In truth, whoever has faith with their mind by believing must also have faith with their body by obeying:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
—Matthew 7:21-23, NIV
Therefore, any theological notion that has no practical value in bringing people to faith or perfecting their obedience is pointless. When Jesus returns, He will commend our service, not our sophistry, so I am leery of any theological notion that does not produce obedience.
It must be pastoral
John does not say:
Whoever does not master theology, does not know God, because God is a clever guy.
—1 John 4:8, Reversed Fractured Version
In truth, true spirituality bears fruit in the heart, not necessarily the intellect:
Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.
—1 John 4:8, NIV
There are people who tell it like it is, who set the world straight about sin, who let the chips fall where they may. They don’t mind if they offend people, claiming the people were convicted of sin. Above all else, they don’t want to be soft on sin. But Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin, and our job is to preach the good news, and that if we should cause even the least of His to stumble, it would be better for us to wear concrete galoshes and sleep with the fishes. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to rescue it, and if we are His followers, we should be rescuing people with our love, not haranguing them with our insecurities.
John does not say:
For God so hated the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that the good people shall not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world to condemn the world, and to airlift his little ones out of this evil world order.
—John 3:16-17, Reversed Fractured Version
In truth, God loves that evil world you live in:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
—John 3:16-17, NIV
God is love; God is light and there is no shadow within Him. Jesus died to save sinners, not to judge them. Correct theology gathers, it does not scatter; it attracts, it does not repel; it edifies, it does not deflate; it calls to action, it does not call to slumber; it lifts sinners up, it does not put them down. So if someone preaches a bogeyman theology, it is at best the truth wrongly presented, and at worst it is the lie that Jesus is not triumphant and that Satan is not defeated.
Therefore, I do not consider a teaching to be biblical until it passes these tests:
- It appears in all parts of Church history and in the mainstream.
- It moves me to service, as well as contemplation.
- It equips me to help others.
- It emphasizes Jesus’ work, not Satan’s work.