Sunday, November 22, 2015

Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 7 - HOW TO READ)

This series explores the nature of Scripture (specifically those aspects which many of us find uncomfortable) and what our approach to Scripture should be as a consequence. This exploration is needed because our intrinsic human biases cause us to assume that God's nature / aims / priorities / etc all line up with our modernistic worldview, which focuses on detailed accurate synergistic information. However such an approach to Scripture clashes with many of its properties. Our response tends to be to curate Scripture, or to minimize our engagement with the aspects we find difficult to explain. Instead, we should engage with all of Scripture as God designed it, and challenge our perspective on it when needed. What does it look like when we value the uncomfortable aspects of Scripture?

The series so far:

  1. Introduction
  2. Progressive Revelation
  3. Relationships and Cognition
  4. Morality and Evil
  5. Coping with Evil I
  6. Coping with Evil II
  7. How to Read (this post)
So far I've spent a long time justifying my belief that God is more interested in the meta-cognitive goals of person-hood, expression, and relationship. Now I want to start exploring the practical aspects of reading Scripture. 

Scripture's purpose, specifically, is to be a collection of some of the individual progressive revelations of God's person-hood throughout history, which taken together He has deemed to be the most universally useful expression toward encouraging relationship with Him. It does this in an incredibly dynamic way. If we focus on cognitive information and a harmonious synthesis of theology, we can miss a lot of what the Bible has to offer toward relationship with God, and at its worst it can lead us to minimize aspects of Scripture to the point that they are almost useless to us. How should we approach Scripture keeping relationship in mind, and balancing the usefulness and limitations of cognition toward this ultimate aim? I have some general principles to share, but this is something I'd like to grow in more, so please share your own thoughts!

How to Read Scripture:

1) Immerse yourself in the passage, allowing every aspect of yourself to be impacted by the experience. We don't expect each expression of a person to be perfect and balanced - and likewise with each revelation - but they are unique and beautiful and insightful. By reading Scripture and inviting the Holy Spirit to speak through it, you are touching an aspect God, a deliberately designed expression of Himself! Never let this slip by you. 

2) Utilize flawed cognition to your relational advantage. Despite its limitations - which I have emphasized in my defense of God's relational aims - cognition is central to our approach to Scripture for obvious reasons. Firstly, Scripture is written in a language, meaning cognition has to be engaged to even start experiencing it with your other non-cognitive faculties. Secondly, 'Immersing yourself in the passage' is something that's not under much of our direct control, since all our faculties are overwhelmingly influenced by external circumstances, our subconscious, and each other. However, cognition is unique in that it is also (at least partly) consciously controlled, which gives us an avenue to steer and focus our other faculties of experience. If we are discussing how we should control our approach to Scripture, this control has to occur through our cognition

3) Attempt to cognitively understand what God intended for people to experience from his designed expression in Scripture. How Scripture's designed relational purpose is realized - or whether it is realized at all - varies between individuals. Our cognition needs to understand the intended experience if it is to steer our experience in the right direction. 

4) Deliberately consider multiple different experiences of God from the passage in mind. I think this is one of the most productive ways to attempt to properly experience God's expression through Scripture. These different perspectives help us break out of our worldview and so avoid subconscious worldview hijacking of our cognition, so we can consider God's intentions for the passage more clearly. But more profoundly, they help us stick to the first principle of relational experience (rather than cognitive accuracy). If we understand another person's relational experience, it allows us to experience an echo of God ourselves. In addition to the hypothetical 'universal intended experience' we're trying to understand from a passage, it's as if we were experiencing a personalized expression of God by proxy (albeit one with greater potential for error in our understanding, and with less universal benefit than Scripture itself). 

5) Start with some 'high yield' perspectives. Perhaps most useful is that of the original intended audience or of the author, since these are clearly going to be integral to God's intended experience of his expression in that passage of Scripture[1]. Also helpful to consider are the experiences of early and/or orthodox church consensus[2]. A final group of helpful perspectives are those of individual saints who you discern to be relating well to God in a holistic sense - these may be dead or living saints, famous or privately known[3]. 

6) Allow your cognition to function naturally and form a harmonized view of God as a person. Try to see God through each of the expressions you experience which you deem to be intended by God, or genuine healthy relationships. Remember you are trying to understand a person in the light of all their complex expressions. Don't make a God up who wraps perfectly around all these 'experiences' (this can never take into full consideration the dynamics of person-hood). Instead try to understand the God who expresses Himself in these ways

7) Don't let our modernistic worldview hijack your cognition and make an idol of it. This is an imperfect process and does not define 'relationship', though it is useful and natural.  Do not be distracted away from the aim of relationship with God.  Remember that the hypothetical 'universal intended experience' is actually going to be a spectrum of experience, just like any public expression in earthly relationships. Do not become obsessed with the difficulties of forming a harmonized view of God. Focus on God's intentions for Scripture (rather than picking 'the best' interpretation), and focus on God as a person (where Scripture springs from Him, rather than the reverse). Where cognitive perplexity exists, relate to God through this (some perplexity is a normal part of any relationship).

Its more (or less) intuitive

This approach is fairly intuitive and natural - read the passage for what it is, and consider the spectrum of legitimate ways to experience God through it (even if they contain different mixes of cognitive gaps). Despite its simplicity and intuitiveness, this approach IS difficult - because our worldview isn't happy with cognitive gaps, and because this approach requires us to put aside our preferred priorities and seek God as HE wishes to be found.[4][5]


Reading Scripture should utilize cognition to focus the rest of our faculties and allow our whole being to experience God as He intends. At the same time we need to be vigilant not to focus excessively on our cognition, or elevate its importance above other aspects of relationship. One way to do this is to deliberately consider the spectrum of legitimate experiences of others through Scripture - including the original audiences and authors, church consensus, and individual saints. We should let our cognition form a harmonized view of God, a God who would express Himself through all these experiences. But there will always be perplexities of person-hood and relationship that our cognition cannot 'solve', and we need to be careful not to assume that this means something is 'wrong', and not to let this distract us from relationship.
  • Are there any other reading / interpretation techniques that you feel are important to enhance a proper relationship with God?
  • Do you agree that considering a variety of perspectives is important?
  • Do you agree that considering the whole experience - not just the cognitive aspects - is important?
  • When deciding which experiences are useful to consider in your interpretation of Scripture, how much attention do you pay to the cognitive aspects of that experience?
  • How do you feel about accepting inevitable perplexities when it comes to forming a harmonize cognitive view of God?

Coming soon...

  • Next I'll deal with some further issues people have with this approach to Scripture, specifically how it can seem to threaten traditional theological processes and the concept of 'inerrancy'.
  • After that we'll explore some specific examples of progressive revelation and how a relational approach to Scripture leads ancient and modern saints to Him, but through different cognitive paths. 


[1 - When attempting to understand the experience of the original audiences and authors, it can be helpful to remember how progressive revelation functions to serve relationship with Christ. Each passage was written to enhance as much as possible the revelation of Christ to the intended audience, taking into account their interpretive bias, and the historical processes God intends to drive as part of his expression to mankind. Thus this consideration can be helped a lot by an understanding of the times and cultures and language etc (which can seem daunting), but a lot of this can be gleaned from the Scripture itself. Important things to remember is that these audiences did not have subsequent revelation to balance their cognitive experience of God, that they had different priorities and worldview to us, and that they had genres of language that we aren't too familiar with in our modernistic society .]

[2 - Church 'concensus' is clearly not unanimous, and has also frequently been plagued by political and selfish motivations. However, the greater unity there is among those who seem driven by a desire to relate to the God of Scripture, the more authority this consensus has as a legitimate intented experience of God.  After all, the church - functioning this way - is the means by which we trust God to have chosen and preserved Scripture in the first place. This kind of concensus can allowing many doctrines labeled as heretical by the modern American/Western church, and can also be troubled by the influence of the current worldview (e.g. Greek thinking paved the way for modernism and tended to idolise cognition).]

[3 - The more you know a person yourself and are persuaded of there relationship with God, the less 'orthodox' their cognitive views need to be in order to be useful. Conversely, some 'orthodox' saints may have an experience of God that is less than convincing, and so may not be worth considering.]

[4 - Our modernistic mind will search for reasons to avoid worldview reform - e.g. by disregarding it as 'post-modernism'. This view is post-modern in the sense that it recognises the problems with modernism, but it is NOT postmodern in the sense of denying the reality or importance of cognition, absolutes, truth, consistency, etc. This approach relies upon the essential foundation of absolute reality and consistency in the person of God - but our experience of God should not derive all its meaning from how well we grasps all the cognitive details of God's absolute reality and consistency. The incarnation reveals how God is more than willing to 'empty himself', forgoing some aspects of His reality in order to better express others (e.g. His willingness and ability to relate to us).]

[5 - Even if we agree with this approach to Scripture, it doesn't make the difficulties go away! Our preference for cognitive information is deeply ingrained in our culture, and makes us constantly think about how this approach deals with cognition. What a shame to miss the beauty of the big picture, because we are thinking too much about how the picture is bigger than the sum of its parts and can't be contained in a cognitive description of it! What a shame to miss Jesus because we're thinking about how a person can't be described well with words alone! It can be good to understand how cognition and relationship interact - but Satan can use anything to distract us from actually relating to Jesus.]

Friday, November 13, 2015

Expressing Doubt Builds Faith


Many of us have felt guilty for feeling doubt regarding our faith, whether it be our whole faith or parts of it. I hesitated about using the word doubt in this article because of its potentially negative connotations. However, I choose to use it because it captures the emotion behind what many of us feel when we question or enquire about areas of our faith that we don't understand. Interestingly, Fuller Seminary completed a study on what is most helpful for young people to retain their faith and build maturity, and found that wrestling with doubts was a key. Experiencing doubt can be emotionally draining and a fearful experience, and this needs to be recognised and addressed. When looking at the Bible, it seems to portray God as being merciful (in some cases praising) towards those who express questions or doubts. Faith doesn't seem to be an unquestionable act of trust in God, but more a choice to trust God, whilst acknowledging and wrestling with our doubts.  

Opening questions to consider:

Is it right or wrong to question our beliefs?
Is it unhelpful or helpful to question our beliefs?

What does God expect us to do?
What does evidence suggest we do?

Two Mindedness is not Necessarily Helpful

I admit that the Bible does emphasise that it is not helpful to be two-minded in our beliefs according to James 1. After looking at many scriptures relating to uncertainty and faith, what James appears to be referring to here is a person who is permanently indecisive and without conviction in life. Most people would say that a person having no conviction about social injustice or various issues would be a person who is unhelpful and impractical to reality. Edmund Burke said "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".

Scripture and Doubt

There are many situations in the Bible where people experience a type of doubt and it is not always seen with disdain. What God appears to respect in His Word is the sincere seeking of truth that people partake in. As the Bible says "seek and you will find".  The prophets would repeatedly appeal to what God has done in the past as evidence of God's power and glory, rather than just claiming that God is God. This suggests that God does not expect blind faith, but faith based on evidence. Paul also took time to argue the gospel reasonably and based on evidence. If faith is based on evidence, then it is based on conviction of that evidence and not a fake conviction of nothing. God is more concerned about the sincerity of heart than about shallow publicly espoused allegiance to Him, as Jesus so often accused the Pharisees of doing. 

Mark 9 shares a story where Jesus answered a doubting man's prayer. Jesus said that he needed to believe in order to receive His assistance. The man replied that he believed, but also asked Jesus to help him with his unbelief! What the man requested seems to be an oxymoron, but Jesus had mercy on him and granted his request. It seems that an admission of faith while experiencing doubt can even have prayers answered! God doesn't seem to need our unwavering faith to bring about His purposes. This story suggests that Jesus is more interested in a sincere pursuit of Him, even if that pursuit involves admission of doubt.

Paul says at the end of Roman 14 that we need to be congruent (consistent) or true to ourselves. He says that if we go against our conscience, it is more or less akin to sin. In the context of doubt, this could mean that acknowledging the doubt and wrestling with it, rather than going on pretending it isn't there, is the more helpful way of living.

Matthew states that even Jesus expressed a form of "doubt" when He cried "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?". I am not saying that Jesus necessarily intellectually doubted His Father's existence, but that He existentially doubted (experiencing emotional or intellectual doubt) God's faithfulness to Him while He was on the cross. We all go through periods in our lives where we experience doubt about God's existence, goodness, or our understanding of "correct" doctrine - whether it be emotional or intellectual. Christ seemed to be free to express his anguish without worrying about the judgement of religious lofty eyes.

Jude 22 also chimes in on how to deal with doubt. He emphasises the mercy that we need to show to those who doubt. Rather than thinking less of those who experience doubt, he appears to imply being slow to judge and quick to hear. 

Expressing Doubt Builds Faith 

I have been reading a book recently by Nancy Pearcy called "Saving Leonardo: A call to resist the secular assault on mind, morals, & meaning".  In it she brings to our attention a fascinating study by Fuller Seminary that investigated High School graduate's tendency to lose their faith after school. In the study they found a key factor that influenced whether youth kept their faith or not. They found that the most effective factor was not prayer or Bible studies, but the safe exploration of questions before leaving home. The college students said that the more they felt they could safely express their doubts meant that they developed higher levels of faith and spiritual maturity. Pearcy believes that the best way for teens to be prepared to give an answer for their faith (1 Peter 3:15) is by personally wrestling with questions. Jesus interestingly said that we are to be child in like some way. Pearcy and Francis Schaeffer said that being childlike is not about believing the first thing we have been told, but about a tendency to ask questions! Pearcy concludes that we need to have the attitude of Paul "Test Everything; Hold fast what is good". 

As counselling theory has well established, safely and honestly exploring our realities (without fear of judgement) helps us to have a greater awareness and understanding which equips us to live more fruitful and sincere lives.   

Doubt and Fear

The alternative extreme to double mindedness is when people engage in a blind following of one belief without questioning it or hearing and entertaining another's viewpoint. I wrote a post recently on the subject of Group Think, its' dangerous tendencies, and how to combat it. I do believe in the usefulness of constructive talk around what we generally see as evidence for the faith (and there is a lot), but if this talk is not balanced it can produce fear amongst people when they doubt something that is taken for granted. Why do we fear? It could be because it has been ingrained into us to believe blindly or else be condemned, instead of engaging honestly with our doubt. I have felt at times that the attitude within church culture can be that to doubt is a sin or a weakness. However, there is a more helpful and God honouring way to view doubt.If I love truth, and God is truth, then I love God. The search for truth comes first, if it doesn't, then we just believe whatever we first come in contact with, or whatever suits our fancy. That would not be honouring God to believe something for the sake of it. On a similar note, if I expect someone else to question their world view in the humble pursuit of truth, then I must also too. God wants us to love Him with our heart, strength and mind. I am not saying that we blow about in the wind 24/7, but how C.S. Lewis put it: "Faith... is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods". People believe things for many reasons, and it would often take a huge amount of evidence before their belief would change anyway. I believe the honest pursuit of truth is the attitude that God would find most helpful to work with, rather than a dogmatic adherence to creeds with the suppression of doubt.    


Scripture suggests that it is not evil to experience doubt, but part of the process of finding out who we are and why we believe what we believe. Instead, we can be true to ourselves. The Fuller Seminary study shows that being real, and safely exploring our doubts leads to a stronger faith. It suggests it is more dangerous to not safely question your faith. However, it is not helpful to always be wavering and double minded, but instead having a humble conviction about what we do have evidence for. Experiencing doubt is not something people can always avoid due to the enquiring minds God has given us, but it can be extremely frightening and painful. One way to help relinquish this fear is by sincerely searching for truth while having an attitude of trust towards God, that if He is truth, He will guide our sincere searching in the most helpful direction. We cannot ever understand everything. Being true to ourselves is the best we can do, and what I believe God wants us to exhibit. I am not suggesting giving up on faith, but suggesting the necessity to express doubt as a part of our faith.


Joshua Griffiths is currently doing a series talking about how relationship and the existence of knowledge gaps is essential for a full understanding and experience of faith - Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 3 - RELATIONSHIPS)