[Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by John Rankin] [Opening Statement by Robert Price][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]
 
Is the Bible Coherent?
 
Opening Statement by John Rankin
Well, good evening, and our topic is, "Is the Bible Coherent," and there are many ways in which we can go about it, and I'm going to look at it in basically two ways, topically and ethically.

The one overriding quality about the Bible is that it's a story. It's a story from the word "go," it's a story of God's relationship to man and woman, made in his image, the story of our relationship to each other, and as such it's organized on the basis of telling that story, from Genesis all the way to the end of Revelation. And therefore, the main point, or a main point of its coherence, is how to tell that story.

And what's very crucial for any Biblical believer to understand is that it's a story first and doctrine second. So often times Christians, or other people in religion, put doctrine or teaching a dogma first, but the doctrines that we see in portions of the Bible make no sense apart from the story. So the first observation is that we need to know the story on its own terms.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, Genesis chapters 1 through 3, there are three doctrines that give us the boundaries for this story. These doctrines are interpretive for the entire Bible: creation, sin, and redemption. Genesis 1 and 2 is the order of creation, it's how God made the universe, why He made it, and who we are in this creation.

Then the introduction of sin, which is a reversal of the order of creation, where we have the freedom to say yes or no to God's order, sin is saying no. And then, once sin comes into the universe, there is the promise of redemption, and that's reversing the reversal, or bringing us back to the purposes of the original story. And so from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20 is the contest between sin and redemption. And the last three chapters of Revelation is a celebration party, when redemption is complete. And so this is the Bible's own, self-determined coherence.

Now, of course there is great scholarly debate on the nature and the source and inspiration of scripture. I won't touch that, it's a huge subject. Bob may, and I'm glad to interact on it, but the coherence that I'm addressing here is based on taking the text as we have it, the 66 books. That's the Protestant understanding, 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament, taking the 66 books that we have and understanding how they cohere, how they hold together, and so, creation, sin, and redemption as a way of telling us the story.

Now, topically and ethically. In the order of creation, and we will not understand the story of the Bible without understanding the order of creation, redemption restores us to the purposes of the order of creation. Therefore the contents of Genesis one and two are determinative; they interpret for us the basis and the rest of the Bible.

In the order of creation there are four subjects, and these are the topics that are introduced to us in a very specific order: God, life, choice, and sex. In the beginning, God, so that's the first understanding. Then God, who is bigger than space, time, and number, makes the universe, makes man and woman, in human life, in his image, is the crown of God's creation to use the language from Psalm 8. So God, and then in particular, human life.

Once life is made, the next element is the gift of human freedom, and I'll circle back to that shortly. God gives us the freedom, as his image-bearers, to accept or reject the gift of life he's given to us. If we accept it, we enjoy it forever. If we reject it, we reject it forever, and that's a simple ethic there in Genesis 2. God, life, choice, and then sex. And once man and woman are made, and once they're given the gifts of freedom, then the gift of sexuality is defined: one man, one woman, one lifetime. And so we have boundaries to human sexuality. God, life, choice, sex.

Now, what is the reversal of that? If this is the order of creation, what is the reversal? Well, instead of God, life, choice, sex, it is sex, choice, life, God. And if we look at all pagan religion, all religion that's not founded in the opening chapters of Genesis, you will find without exception, they justify sex outside of marriage. They permit adultery. They make a religion out of sacred prostitution. And once you take sex outside of marriage, then choice becomes its hand-maiden, to protect the fruits of illicit sex. That is a source of ancient abortion and ancient infanticide practices, and it carries up to the modern age as well.

And of course, if you're going to expose an infant, or if someone comes up with a sexually transmitted disease, or if, in sexual promiscuity there is divorce, and children are caught in the crossfire, you see those types of choices, to protect sex outside of marriage, is going to directly or indirectly assault the gift of life, which is the gift of God. And if we assault the gift of life, we assault God.

So topically, the coherence of the Bible is one of two choices: God, life, choice, and sex, or sex, choice, life, and God. And as we look at the rest of the Bible, it all comes back to these four terms, how they're defined, and how they relate to each other. Not only that, I'll make the observation that every pagan religion deals with exactly the same topics. They're not orderly, not in a systematic fashion, but they all justify sex outside of marriage, and it reverses the order of creation in the Bible. So that's the topical understanding. What about the ethical understanding?

Now, what I just told you is, incontrovertibly, the content of Genesis 1 and 2. It's never been written out explicitly this way in church history to my knowledge, but it is assumed everywhere. I've written it in a book I've written, but when I talk about this, I don't find any controversy; this is the Bible on its own terms, its own coherence.

Now I will submit to you six ethical components. This is my language, this is my understanding, four from the order of creation, and two from the order of redemption.

When we speak about ethics, we're speaking about relationships. Ethics comes from the Greek words "ethos" and "ethikos," and it means social customs or habits, or how we treat each other. And so the greatest ethic of all, that Jesus repeated to his Pharisaical opponents was, "Love the Lord, our God, with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourself." Both of those are relationships, vertically, and then horizontally. That's what ethics are all about.

I see six ethical components in the Bible, and I argue that these are, consistently, all the way in Scripture found, no matter what part of Scripture we're in. So, for example, many people will say, well, isn't there a difference between the Old and the New Testament. Isn't the God in the Old Testament kind of un-nice? Isn't Jesus in the New Testament kind of nice, isn't there a conflict? There's a thousand questions, there's many different covenants spoken about in the Bible. Are they different? And I will argue that they're all part of the same story, it's a story of redemptive progress, and depending on what part of the story we're in, the ethics will be consistent. Well, what are these ethics?

The first ethic is the power to give. Yahweh Elohim, the name in the Hebrew for the Lord, God, He who is bigger than space, time, and number. His power is unlimited, His nature is good by declaration of Genesis 1, and He gives to us an entire creation. And we can accept or reject it. And so the power of the creator, from the outset, is the power to give.

Now let's contrast this with the most well known Pagan mythology, the Babylonian Genesis. The Babylonian Genesis which, by many scholars, is set against the genesis in the Bible, starts with no assumption of Gods and Goddesses who are bigger than space, time, and number. But a universe that, somehow, always was, gods and goddesses are finite. They're jealous, they're petty, they're sexually promiscuous, they beat up on each other and beat up on us for fun.

The way in which the universe is made is out of the split carcass of a dead goddess who lost a war. And then man and woman are made out of the dripping blood of another god so that we could be slaves to gods who beat up on each other and want to beat up on us.

And so the very assumption, the coherence, as it were, of the Babylonian Genesis is very simply this: destruction precedes creation. So let me ask you this: can you destroy what has not already been created? And yet all pagan mythologies, which are self-consciously mythological at their origins, start with destruction, not with creation.

Uniquely, going back to original, religious, origin text, is Genesis, starts with the creator, and destruction is the response of those who don't accept the order of God's creation. So the God of the Bible gives, the pagan gods take. One of two choices in life, give and it shall be given, that's healthy community, or take before you're taken, that's chaos and war. So the power to give is the interpretive hermeneutic. That's redundant. Hermeneutics means the science or method of interpretation. It's the interpretive basis for the Bible.

The second ethic is the power to live in the light. This is the nature of communication, and God said, "Let there be light." And the language of light is all the way through the Bible, and what it means is, wherever light is, darkness, by definition cannot exist. And this is true physically, we know in physics that darkness cannot exist in the presence of light. This is true ethically, those who live above-board, honestly, nothing to hide from others, they are free. And those who live in the darkness, they flee that type of openness and accountability. And spiritually, Jesus is the light of the world, and Satan is the prince of darkness. And Christians are also called to be, in the image of Christ, also, the light of the world.

So these are the first two ethical components, and those of us who are believers, God gives, we receive and give to others. That is the consistent ethic, the coherent theme of the Bible. The other five I'm going through now are subcategories of that. So the power to live in the light is the act of giving honesty and openness.

The third ethic is the power of informed choice. Fatalism, sorcery, astrology, pagan deities, certain psychologies, all will take away from the freedom of the human will from one angle or another. And what's very powerful about the Bible is that the sovereign God, who is bigger than space, time, and number, who has no limit of power whatsoever, gives us freedom to accept or reject the gift of life. And you see, only a free God can give freedom and not be diminished; an un-free God cannot give freedom. And so if God is free, unless you argue that God is a slave, but if God is free, we are free.

And the very language in Genesis 2 of freedom is two tenses of the [Hebrew] verb, "to eat," akol tokal, in feasting you shall feast. God gives us an unlimited menu of good choices and says, don't eat the forbidden fruit, which is poison, because if you eat it, you'll be dead and you won't be free, you can't enjoy your unlimited menu of good choices. And the idea of freedom in Genesis 2 is like a banquet. How many of us don't like the idea of a banquet? I've asked that question all over the country, and every once in a while someone raises their hand, just to be difficult.

But I do believe the church and human nature is unified at that one point, if we could just export that unity to certain parts of the world. So the whole nature of freedom, or the power of informed choice of the good God of the Bible, is that we are free, and the metaphor is a banquet. And if you look at all the pagan mythologies, I mentioned the Babylonian Genesis a little bit earlier, they're based on being enslaved by things that we cannot overcome.

The fourth ethic is the power to love the hard questions. The assumption in the order of creation is that Adam and Even were given the entire creation to rule over as stewards, to enjoy in the presence of their creator, who has unlimited knowledge, and the implicit reality is that everything is there for us to explore. As we go through redemptive history, we see the love of hard questions. We see the Queen of Sheba being given hospitality by Solomon, to ask her toughest questions. We look at some of the toughest questions that David or Jeremiah are allowed to scream out in pain to God.

I love the book of Habakkuk, the only prophet in the Old Testament who doesn't prophesy. He starts and asks a question of God, "God, how come you're unfair?" God answers and says, "I'm not, I told you this was going to happen." And Habakkuk concludes and says, "you're right, you did tell us, you're not unfair." But the point being that hard questions are invited. Jesus asked more questions than he gave answers, he was a classic, rabbinic teacher. We can't own an answer to something unless we first own the question. And so the love of hard questions is intrinsically Biblical and should be intrinsically within the church today.

The final two ethics, and these are redemptive ethics that reflect the first four ethics I gave to you, number five is the power to love enemies, that is the high point of the Sermon on the Mount. There are many good questions that surround this assertion I'm making, back in terms of Old Testament, I'm glad to field those questions. But look at Elisha, bringing in all the enemies who are trying to kill him, and he captured them by supernatural power, brought them inside the city where the king of the northern kingdom of Israel wanted to kill them, and Elisha said, no, you didn't capture them in war. And even if you did, you wouldn't kill prisoners. Give them a feast and send them home. So he gives them a feast, they go home, and they stop raiding the Israelites. And so the love of enemies triumphed.

And there are more details and nuances in the Old Testament, but this is the height of the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed, in Romans 5, "God loved us when we were yet enemies." And so how can those of us who are Christian do other than to love those who may be enemies in their thinking, or their thoughts, or their actions against Biblical faith?

And the sixth and final ethical component is the power to forgive, and this equals the bookends of scripture. The power to give is where we start. We blow it, we sin, and God forgives. He gives in the face of those who take from him. And that's quintessentially what Jesus, in his atoning death on the cross, is all about.

And so if we look at the Lord's Prayer, and we come to the very end, of course with "forgive us our debts, forgive us our trespasses." But after the Lord's Prayer is over, Jesus turns, in the Sermon on the Mount, to his disciples and says, "If you do not forgive men their sins against you, neither will your heavenly father forgive you your sins." And therefore the power to forgive is a biblical ethic that runs all the way through.

So to bring my thoughts to a conclusion, I've selected among many possible ways of describing the Bible's coherence, but topically, it's coherent from beginning to end. It's God, life, choice, sex, in the face of a pagan world view of sex, choice, life, God. And ethically, there are six consistent ethics all the way through scripture: the power to give, the power to live in the light, the power of informed choice, the power to love hard questions, the power to love enemies, and the power to forgive. Thank you.


  [Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by John Rankin] [Opening Statement by Robert Price][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]