I gave the following talk to the Binghamton University Intervarsity Fellowship last Friday night. It's the second time I've spoken there. I was asked to speak on the topic of "scripture"...and keep it to 30 minutes (hah).
Before I got married I penned a list of qualities that my future wife should posses. She'd be blond, between 5'5” and 5'2”, Texan, know how to and love to cook, clean, and take care of children. She should be educated but not in theology so she would not compete with me, and she had to feel a deep desire to be a pastor's wife. That list was the measure of all females in my life for some time.
Then I met Anne. Anne is not blond. She's shorter than 5'2”. She's not from Texas. She has a seminary degree and never wanted to be a pastor's wife. She does cook and clean—but has this strange idea that I ought to share in these tasks—and she does do incredibly well with our increasingly large and noisy mass of children. Anne is not the the woman of my list.
The woman of my “list” doesn't really exist. She was a fabrication...In many ways the woman of my list was really just a projection of my own issues. But Anne is real. I can't shape her into my list woman and she can't shape me. And that is the beauty our marriage...the beauty of all good marriages I think. Anne is who she is. She tells me about herself in what she says, does, and does not do. I cannot change her. I don’t want to.
Scripture uses marriage to illustrate the relationship between the Church and Christ. The Church is called to know and love God as he is. I emphasize that because I think, call me crazy, that sometimes we prefer another sort of god—a god who meets our expectations and felt needs, a god who conforms himself to our personal “lists” rather than a God who reveals himself and to whom we must be conformed.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “revelation” as “a dramatic disclosure of something not previously known or realized...”and I think that is a fine definition as far as it goes. What I like about it and what I think is helpful about it for our purposes is that it catches the sense of “being shown” something that we would not otherwise see. Often when we speak of God we use terms of “discovery”. I “found” God. I “came to believe” that God exists. But scripture assumes that we would not “come to know God” with his first “revealing” himself to us.
God reveals himself to humanity in two ways.
First, through creation which is called “general revelation.” It is called “general” revelation because everyone, generally, has access to it. When you walk outside and see the stars this evening you'll be looking at God's general revelation. Psalm 19 tells us: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” (1-3)
In Romans 1, Paul writes this about the effect or power of God's general revelation on humanity: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived...in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." (Romans 1:18-21) Though God reveals himself perfectly and beautifully in nature, general revelation does not effect faith, it does not produce true knowledge of God--not because general revelation fails but because humans suppress or reject what general revelation succeeds in revealing. There are, according to Paul, no true atheists. Everyone knows God exists and that he is to be worshiped and served because God has “shown” it to everyone through general revelation but everyone willingly suppresses that knowledge. General revelation is then ineffectual.
Psalm 19, however, points to the second way God reveals himself to humanity. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes...the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” (Psalm 19:7-10).
God's “perfect” law, the Psalmist says, has effectual power. It revives the soul, makes wise the simple, causes the heart to “rejoice” and to “enlightens” the eyes or the mind. Scripture, special revelation, has power to effect change...to effect a real and true sort of “knowing” in those who receive it.
In the 19th century an atheist philosopher named Ludwig Feuerbach asserted that when humans speak of God, they're really speaking of unmet needs...and ultimately of themselves (admittedly I am summarizing and generalizing here). All human beings have unmet desires, physiological necessities, frustrated wants...these are what Feuerbach called “wish images”. What we call God, said Feuerbach, is merely a composite wish image, a pretend deity who is really nothing more than a personification of human desires...think back to my “list” woman. She was merely a representation of my own issues. The same is true, according to Feuerbach, when it comes to human “knowledge” of God
In some ways I think he is correct. And think that's precisely what Paul was getting at in the text from Romans 1 I quoted a moment ago. Left to our own devices, we reject God as he reveals himself and create little gods, personifications of our desires, interact with them and call ourselves “spiritual”.
People do all sorts of things with the approval of these gods. They start wars, end marriages, cheat on their wives, cheat on tests, disobey their parents, sleep with their girlfriends...often with the rationale “But I prayed about it first and God said it was okay” tacked on. I can't tell you how many times I heard that last one as a youth minister.
This problem of “god-making” is precisely what makes special revelation, scripture, so powerful. In scripture God does not leave us “to our own devices.” He makes himself known, he unsettles us, he overturns our imaginations and perceptions and wish images and in their place he gives a true living self-portrait. It can be disturbing picture. It doesn't leave us feeling easy. But that's because it is real and because he's real. God is not and will not be a god of our “lists”. He is not tame. He is not concerned to conform to our cultural perceptions of right and wrong or what is appropriate or inappropriate. He is who he is. And when you find yourself regularly walking away from the bible settled and at peace and affirmed...you've most likely misread it altogether.
...to be continued