Fake News…in the Church

Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89, ESV)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed the famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, Historians have marked this event as the beginning of a revival known as the Reformation. It is the most important event outside the pages of Scripture. Sadly, most people know very little about it or why it happened.

Social media today is filled with what Donald Trump calls “fake news.” It is usually disinformation that is intended to promote or destroy a political position. Since I have people among my Facebook “friends” on both sides of the current political fence, I often chortle at what people will believe, but it begs the question, “How do we know what is true?”

Fake news was Martin Luther’s struggle with the Roman Catholic Church in his day. Like so many political groups today who solicit funds from their political base, the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was selling “indulgences” to their base. Buying these indulgences would supposedly shorten a deceased loved one’s time in purgatory according to the highest office of the church. But doing good works had never rid Luther of the nagging sense of guilt that afflicted his soul. It wasn’t until he recognized that real forgiveness was to be found in God’s grace, applied to him by Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Luther recognized the sale of indulgences (among other things) for what it was — an elaborate fund raising scheme that was duping innocent people into a false sense of security. So he objected by nailing his 95 Theses (grievances) on the door of the church.

This event was not well received by those in the church hierarchy, so Luther had to defend his objections, leading ultimately to the question of “How do we know what is true?” Interestingly, it is the same question raised by Trump’s term, “fake news.” Those who followed Luther’s lead recognized that truth is not a political position. It is not the “spin” determined by a body of human beings, even if they are church officials or people in power. Truth, for the Reformers, was objective and revealed by God in Scripture.

The Reformers were not monolithic. They had different approaches to a number of issues, but what they did agree on was the source of truth. In some relatively minor areas, they did disagree on what Scripture taught (hence, we have many Protestant denominations). But the final authority was Scripture, not the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.

In our day Protestants and Catholics still disagree on the source of truth, but now the disagreement is compounded because there is a large portion of the society that doubts the existence of truth. Postmodern relativism has created a world in which every statement is fake news to someone. Every statement is someone’s spin.

But the legacy of the Reformation — the reason that it is the most significant event outside the pages of Scripture — is that it identifies that truth is objective and then it defines its source — God Himself. In the words of King David, “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89, ESV). Thank you for your courageous stand, Dr. Martin Luther. Thank you to the many other Reformers who were martyred for firmly standing for the truth. May many in this generation say with you, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

The Last Commands

The last statements of both the Old and New Testaments are promises that God’s people draw great comfort from. In Malachi the last statement was a promise to send the forerunner to Messiah—a type of Elijah who would turn the hearts of families back to each other before the Lord comes. In Revelation the last statement is the promise that the Lord will come again.

Before each of these statements there is a command or a warning from which we deduce a command. These statements are strikingly similar: “OBEY THE SCRIPTURE!” (Mal 4:4) and “DON’T CHANGE A WORD OF SCRIPTURE!” (Rev. 22:18-19).

To many in Western Christianity today the Bible is just a book of proverbs and aphorisms. Its stories are metaphorical: David and Goliath is the story of every underdog; Daniel and the Lion’s Den describes every unjust persecution; the story of Ruth is the outline of every romance novel. To most today, they are not historical events but cleverly devised fables that must have had a tremendous press man.

When we divorce the Bible from its historical context, we do so both to our shame and to our peril. The last commands of both testaments remind us that the ignoring of the Scripture is a very present danger. It is to our shame because we have the history before us. For most of us the failure to understand what has happened in any historical setting is the failure of our choices. Late night comedians make much of the choices of many of our youth to understand pop culture over civics, geography, or history. Before we laugh too hard at our young friends who can’t explain the different contributions of Matin Luther and Martin Luther King, we need to be sure that we can distinguish between Joseph, the son Jacob, and Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Our failure to understand the history of the Scripture, however, is more important than merely avoiding embarrassment in Jeopardy—the Lord revealed Himself and His will through those historical events, writings, and pronouncements. To ignore them in favor of the latest sports statistics, movie trivia, or political controversy demonstrates our priorities. And the Lord takes notice. The Great Commandment calls upon us to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, not our favorite sports team or pop musician. There is nothing wrong with following these entities, as long as we keep them in perspective.

The last commands of the Old and New Testaments to obey the Scripture strike a healthy sense of reverence (some call it fear) in the hearts of those that are truly Christ’s. They live their lives trying to please the One before Whom they will one day give an account rather than trying to make sure that people have the right impression of them. That’s why God warned His people through Isaiah, “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be,’ declares the LORD. ‘But this is the one to whom I will look (the NIV uses the word, esteem): he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.’” (Isaiah 66:1-2, ESV).

Scripture . . . on Scripture

Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105)

Martin Luther led the Reformation to reclaim the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. My life, also, has been transformed by the Scripture, but Luther and I are not alone. Consider how the great saints viewed the Word of God.

Moses’ last words of instruction to the Hebrew people were, “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Deuteronomy 32:47, ESV).

Joshua’s first instructions from the Lord included, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8, ESV).

David wrote Psalm 19 to describe the two primary ways in which the Lord reveals Himself: natural revelation in creation and special revelation in the Law. That is where he says that the Law is “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold” (10). Later he penned a literary masterpiece, Psalm 119, in which he creates an eight line stanza for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Almost all of the 176 verses mention some important quality of the Law.

At the close of Isaiah’s prophecy, he quotes the Lord as saying essentially, “I am not impressed by what you can build or do for me; I am impressed by the one who trembles at My Word” (Is 66:1-2).

After the Exile, Ezra the scribe “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10 ESV). He would later make a covenant of obedience with those among the returning exiles who “trembled at the command of God” (10:3).

In a chapter describing the false prophets of his day who ignored the Law, Jeremiah quotes the Lord, “‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the LORD, ‘and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who use their tongues and declare, “declares the LORD.” Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams,’ declares the LORD, ‘and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all,’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:29-32, ESV).

When Jesus began His ministry His first recorded sermon included those famous words, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19, ESV). Then, on the night before His crucifixion, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV).

Paul’s last letter declared, “All Scripture is breathed out by God . . . I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Tim 3:16-4:2).

Peter also identified the Scripture as of divine origin when he wrote, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, ESV).

There are other people in biblical history that were transformed by the Word of God (consider kings Hezekiah and Josiah). Like these people the re-discovery of the Word by Martin Luther and the Reformers was what changed the world 500 years ago; real revival will only happen when the Church today does the same.

The Significance of the Reformation

The Significance of the Reformation

The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130, ESV)

Five hundred years ago this month, an event took place that changed my life. No, I am not that old — despite what my kids think.

In October, 1517 an Augustinian monk nailed a list of grievances to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany and ignited a revival that historians have called the Reformation. Martin Luther’s issue ultimately was quite simple: The Judeo-Christian Scripture is the final authority in the world. Certainly many other ideas have spun off of that one, but this is the root which became the foundation of our civilization.

I was a naive, confused college student (interestingly, at a Lutheran liberal arts college) when I was first confronted with this idea, but not in the way you might think. Instead of promoting Luther’s idea, the faculty of my college had bought into the notion that to believe the Scripture was the height of ignorance. Only a fool would believe that Moses walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, that Jonah could survive three days in the belly of a fish, or that Jesus could walk out of His grave. I can only imagine what Luther himself might think about those who identified themselves with his name!

The fervor with which the faculty at my school repudiated the Bible’s authority made me wonder “Why?” If this book were just an anthology of myths and legends, why are there whole courses at this and other colleges describing why we should not believe it? Why are there endless books being written to explain away events that they tell us are comparable to Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan? That fervor, rather than causing me to scoff at the fools who could believe such nonsense, drove me to it. I had to know whether it really was true or not.

That same issue — Truth — was behind Martin Luther’s stand against the excesses of the Roman Church. The circumstances he faced were different than mine, but the issue was the same, and that’s why that event changed my life. Yet I had more wrestling to do: What were the answers to the weighty questions that were raised by my professors? How can I reconcile seemingly unbelievable events with the modern world? As I pursued the Truth, those answers slowly came.

About this time I heard a noted (evangelical) theologian say, “The Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself and His will to men.” Although some of the answers were still fuzzy in my mind, it occurred to me that, if this man were correct, nothing was more important than finding out about Him. So I began a practice of reading through the Bible annually, which has continued to this day, and I intend to keep doing it until the day I die. At first I didn’t understand a lot of the history I was reading; I certainly didn’t understand many of the rules the Lord imposed upon His people, but it was His revelation of Himself. Through it I came to know Him. Slowly I began to make sense of the world around me.

David understood what I experienced when he wrote, “The unfolding of Your Word gives light” (Ps 119:130). Truth is not usually a lightning flash and boom of thunder (it can be, read Psalm 29). It is a methodical unfolding of His Truth. Sometimes, as with Martin Luther, it compels us to take a stand, but the courage to do so happens in the quiet moments as He reveals Himself.

Hermeneutics

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4).

             A lot of people think the Bible is a “magical” book, a veritable fortune cookie that kicks out a wise platitude every time it’s opened. Nothing could be further from the Truth!

             One of the most important – but forgotten – courses in seminary is the one on hermeneutics, the science of interpretation. As Evangelicals we believe in the “Grammatical-Historical method,” that is, that the text of the various books of the Bible should be interpreted according to the standard rules of history and grammar.

             While there is a Divine component to the Scriptures, the various books were written by men who lived in space and time. Their writings reflect the history and culture of their day and it is impossible to interpret their writings correctly until we understand something of their circumstances. In those few places where the history and setting are obscured and unknowable, we assume that this will not inhibit a proper understanding of the passage, but for most of the Biblical writings, the context is apparent, or at least available to the reader.

             Likewise the biblical writers used the standard rules of grammar in their writings – subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs and adjectives – all of the parts of speech that we learned in Junior High/Middle School English. What is confusing to some is the fact that in certain places the writers of Scripture record obvious figures of speech, just as we speak and write in our world. The passage above is an example.

             How can we tell that Jesus intended His statement from the Sermon on the Mount that “if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt 5:29), to be a figure of speech and not taken literally? No one actually did it, even though they followed Jesus wholeheartedly. And there are many other examples…

             The point of this blog is that anyone that can read can understand the Bible. Children who are just learning some of these principles of reading may have some trouble in places, but there are still passages that can make sense to them. For most of us, though, the struggle is either a matter of taking time to do it and/or a background in which we have been taught that the Bible cannot be understood without someone interpreting it for us.

             But down through the centuries men have recognized that God desired His Word to be understood by the common, ordinary people. When the common language of the people was Greek, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into that language – the Septuagint. When the common language became Latin, Jerome translated it into that language. It was called the “Vulgate” (from the Latin word for “common”). In England John Wycliffe and William Tyndale were persecuted because they dared to translate the Scriptures into the English language so the common people could read it, and in Germany Martin Luther translated it into German.

             The point? YOU CAN READ AND UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE – JUST DO IT!