I have just finished reading Surprised by the Voice of God by Dr Jack Deere, from which I quoted in my posting God is Testing Our Availability. In this book Deere, a pastor and once a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, explains how he moved from the position that God speaks only through the Bible to an expectation that God speaks to his people today, if only they will listen to him.
The chapter which struck me most is called Confessions of a Bible Deist (chapter 17). This relates to some of the themes I explored in my series The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, and especially in Part 6: Conclusions.
For some of you I may need to explain first that a deist is someone who believes that God made the universe but since then has stood back and let it get on on its own. They are perhaps the scoffers of whom Peter prophesied that they would say: “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4, TNIV). It should be clear to all that this is not at all the Christian perspective, although some deists outwardly conform to Christianity. Deism was well known in the 18th century (many of the founding fathers of the USA were deists), and it is still common today. Freemasonry is in fact fundamentally a deistic religion, although its incompatibility with Christianity is made clear only to those who get into it deeply. Deere notes that the 18th century deists worshipped human reason, and it seems to be true today at least that deists give a higher place to human reason than to divine revelation.
Some Christians today, although not quite deists, hold to what is in practice an almost deistic position, that since the days of Jesus and the apostles God has let the world get on on its own, and will intervene again only at the end of time. Some who hold this kind of position are theological liberals. But others are what Deere calls “Bible deists”. Deere describes them as follows (pp. 251-253) (emphasis in all of these quotes is as in the original):
The Bible deists of today worship the Bible. Bible deists have great difficulty separating Christ and the Bible. Unconsciously in their minds the Bible and Christ merge into one entity. Christ cannot speak or be known apart from the Bible. …Bible deists preach and teach the Bible rather than Christ. They do not understand how it is possible to preach the Bible without preaching Christ. Their highest goal is the impartation of biblical knowledge. …
The Bible deist talks a lot about the sufficiency of Scripture. For him [PK: what about her? – but then most Bible deists don’t let women teach Scripture] the sufficiency of Scripture means that the Bible is the only way God speaks to us today. … Although the Bible deist loudly proclaims the sufficiency of Scripture, in reality, he is proclaiming the sufficiency of his own interpretation of the Scripture. Bible deists aren’t alone in this error. …
So it is extremely difficult for Bible deists to concede that they themselves might be presently holding an erronoeus interpretation. They refer to their opponents’ interpretations as “taken out of context,” or as a failure to apply consistent hermeneutical principles. Or, in some cases, where they have little respect for their opponents, they chalk up their opponents’ views to just plain sloppy thinking. …
The Bible deist is so confident in the sufficiency of his interpretation that it is difficult for him to be corrected by experience.
How does Deere know about Bible deists? Because he used to be one, as he admits. (So was I, for my first few years as a Christian before I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit – but that story needs to wait for another time.) Deere notes (pp. 254-255):
I had another motive for being a Bible deist and resisting subjective revelatory experiences. I wanted to preserve the unique authority of the Bible. I was afraid that if any form of divine communication other than the Bible were allowed, we would weaken the Bible’s authority and eventually be led away from the Lord. …
My heart was filled with fear of God – not the biblical fear of God, but a fear of intimacy with him. I wanted a personal relationship with God, but I didn’t want an intimate one. …
So I decided that my primary relationship would be to a book, not to a Person. … With Bible deism, I could be in control.
Deere goes on to say (p. 257):
One of the most serious flaws in Bible deism is the confidence the Bible deist places in his abilities to interpret the Bible. He assumes that the greater his knowledge of the Bible, the more accurate his interpretations are. This follows logically from a hermeneutical axiom the Bible deist often quotes: The Bible is the key to its own interpretation. In other words, the Bible interprets the Bible the best. Wrong! It takes more than the Bible to interpret the Bible.The Author of the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In fact, he is the only reliable interpreter.
And if the Spirit’s illumination is the key to interpreting the Bible, isn’t the Bible deist’s confidence in his own interpretive abilities arrogant and foolhardy? How does one persuade God to illumine the Bible? Does God give illumination to the ones who know Hebrew and Greek the best? To the ones who read and memorize Scripture the most? What if the condition of one’s heart is more important for understanding the Bible than the abilities of one’s mind? Is it possible that the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand Scripture might be given on a basis other than education or mental abilities?
I could quote a lot more of this, but better still you should read the book. I will summarise just one more section. Deere looks at the story of the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, and concludes (pp. 263-264):
During dinner, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ ” (vv. 31-32). God supernaturally “opened” the disciples’ eyes to recognize Jesus. He wasn’t making dumb people smart. He was letting these two disciples see who the Lord Jesus really was. …Unless the Lord Jesus opens our eyes, we will never really see him. The disciples used the same word whenever they said that Jesus “opened the Scriptures to us.” Unless Jesus opens the Scriptures, we will miss much of their truth. We can read and memorize the Bible without Jesus. We can teach the Bible without him. But our hearts will never burn with passion until he becomes our teacher and enters into the interpretive process with us.
Now it seems to me that Bible deists include both those who use the fundamentalist approach to the Bible and those who use the scholarly approach. What they have in common is that they reject the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying the Bible to contemporary life. Some of them are cessationists, as defined in The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 6: Conclusions, but there may be others who accept some gifts of the Holy Spirit but do not in practice accept that he speaks today to guide in the interpretation of Scripture.
It seems to me that Bible deists are missing out on a huge amount of what it means to be a Christian. For it seems that, while they may assert that the have a relationship with God, they are missing out on the real benefits of such a relationship, the intimacy in which we not only speak to God but hear him speaking to us. Well, that is the theme of a lot of the rest of Deere’s book. I am sad for what Bible deists miss out on for themselves. But they can also do real harm to others, for as Deere writes at the end of this chapter (p. 268):
When someone thinks they have mastered the Bible, or mastered it relative to others in their circle, they inevitably become corrupted through the pride of knowledge. Remember, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). … Instead of operating as the sword of the Spirit, the Bible in the hands of the Bible deist becomes the bludgeon of the bully. They use the authority gained by their superior knowledge of the Bible to bully the less knowledgeable.
To this I would add only that sometimes this supposedly superior knowledge of the Bible is in fact very superficial, of the fundamentalist kind in which verses are wrenched out of context. Even where lip service is paid to Hebrew and Greek it is clear that the interpretation is in fact dependent on a misleading English translation.
Let me finish with the following from Deere, which is more or less the end of his book (p. 358):
Somewhere along the way, though, the church has encouraged a silent divorce between the Word and the Spirit. Divorces are painful, both for the children and the parents. One parent usually gets custody of the children, and the other only gets to visit occasionally. It breaks the hearts of the parents, and the children are usually worse off because of the arrangement. Many in the church today are content to live with only one parent. They live with the Word, and the Spirit only has limited visiting rights. He just gets to see and touch the kids once in a while. Some of his kids don’t even recognize him any more. Some have become afraid of him. Others in the church live with the Spirit and only allow the Word sporadic visits. The Spirit doesn’t want to raise the kids without the Word. He can see how unruly they’re becoming, but he won’t force them to do what they must choose with their hearts.So the church has become a divided family growing up with separate parents. One set of kids is proud of their education, and the other set of kids is proud of their freedom. Both think they’re better than the other.
The parents are brokenhearted. Because unlike most divorces, they didn’t choose this divorce. Their kids did. And the Word and the Spirit have had to both honor and endure that choice.