In the second part of the “how to think” section I explore the unique status ithat Christians grant to a 4th source of human knowledge: the Scriptures.
The purpose of this course is to look at the difference that the fourth source of knowledge, i.e. the Scripture, has on our ethics. We will look in detail at this source in future weeks but for now we will speak generally about the Scriptures as a concept. Christians place the Scriptures in a special category because they believe it to be the word of God. It is understood to be an inspired and authoritative revelation to human beings of God’s character. Now to be fair we may argue that God’s character can be known through the other 3 sources of experience, tradition, and reason just as well as it can be known through Scripture. And indeed, I believe that people can obtain at least some knowledge of God through these other sources; however we must understand the knowledge from these sources in the right way. Insights about God that comes from experience, reason, or tradition must be examined in light of what we know about God through in the Scriptures. If the insights are congruent with Scripture they may be understood to have a degree of validity if they are incongruent or contradictory in comparison with the picture of God in the Scriptures than believers must defer to the Bible and reexamine/rethink their insights.
Part of the reason why Christians defer to Scripture can be observed through lessons learned from our history. For example I belong to a denomination that traces its origins back to Menno Simons. Menno Simons was a part of a larger movement called Anabaptism and in his day there was an extremist minority within Anabaptism that justified all kinds of heinous behaviour and doctrine (including polygamy, a complete disregard of personal property, and the belief that they were God’s soldiers sent to purify the world of evil through violence) because they believed they had experienced God telling them that this was the case. Menno Simons’ main contribution to the Anabaptist movement was to say that the reason why these extremist Anabaptists ran amok in their belief and behaviour was because they did not properly understand how to interpret their experience. He said that our experiences of God come from the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures and it is therefore impossible for that Spirit to communicate something that directly contradicts the Scripture. For that reason Menno said that the inner word (i.e. experience) must be interpreted under the authority of the outer word (i.e. Scripture). I think that Menno is right on the money here. In my observation, understandings of God that privilege experience, reason, or tradition above the Scriptures tend to fall short. They look far more like products of the human imagination rather than the dynamic, surprising, and loving God of Scripture who always does the unexpected and departs so significantly from anything that human beings could dream up.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous pastors of the 20th century. He was deeply committed to living a life that was pleasing to God as can be seen in one of his most famous quotes: “only the believers obey and only the obedient believe”. For him it was impossible to pull apart right living from faith; yet Bonhoeffer faced significant challenges that made living out his ideal extremely difficult. He was born in Germany in 1906 and was just shy of his 27th birthday when Hitler came to power. Bonhoeffer and like-minded believers quickly found themselves in the minority in their country when it came to how they responded to the rise of the Nazi party. Most either welcomed or condoned the new regime; Bonhoeffer and others, however, quickly became known as the “believer’s church” a group which outwardly opposed Hitler.
As Bonheoffer’s life unfolded his radical commitment to Christ forced him to make many difficult ethical choices. Here are a few of the more prominent ones: he had to decide whether to remain in the United States in 1939 or to return back to Germany—the question came down to whether he valued his life more or the health of the German church. He had to decide whether or not to participate in the customary Nazi salute. Perhaps most famously, Bonhoeffer, a man who believed that following Christ meant living a life of non-violence, had to wrestle with whether or not he should become involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Throughout all of these incredibly difficult circumstances, Bonhoeffer remained convinced of the need to discover the will of God and to act within that will. Although our situation may never be as extraordinary as Bonhoeffer’s we can be sure that we will find ourselves faced with “moral dilemmas”. We will face complexity. We will face tension. We will face times in which careful discernment will be required, when the answer to our problem is not as simple as “looking up the answer”. For this reason we require a model for approaching ethical thinking that is, what my former professor John Stackhouse, would call “appropriately complex”. This is a big part of the reason why it’s important to be careful thinkers.
When I was growing up my hero was Wayne Gretzky: admittedly this isn’t a very original choice for a Canadian kid born in the 80s but no one can hold it against me for being mainstream on this one. Wayne after all is the “Great One”. The best player to ever lace up a pair of skates. I used to watch his games, pretend I was number 99 during road hockey games, and put every hockey card of his that I had in a special plastic case. However what was peculiar, even for the most die-hard, young Gretzky fan, was that I decided I was going to read his 250+ page autobiography—you know to really get to know who Wayne was—and that’s exactly what I did as a 6 year old. While my classmates were soaking up the plot twists of the Bearnstein bears, I was learning about the role that characters like Nelson Skalbania and Bruce McNall played in the career and life of Gretzky.
One of the things that I loved about Wayne then and still admire about him now whenever I watch old highlight clips of his on YouTube, is how easy he made the game seem. His ability to make split second decisions that were 9 times out of 10 the right ones is astounding. Watching him play was to watch someone who didn’t think on the ice but rather reacted. It’s this ability to intuitively know what to do that makes professional athletes so incredible. In a fast-paced game they need to be able to trust their guts.
A similar need is found in the world of ethics. Most of the time the moral decisions we make do not have a sense of urgency attached to them. We are often able to defer a decision, reflect on it, pray about it, and consult with others. There are however times in life where a moral decision must be made in a split second such as: when you observe an act of physical violence while you are going for your morning walk, when one of your co-workers slanders another fellow employee, or when you have to decide whether or not to lie to the people working customs about how much merchandise you purchased on your vacation. We need our guts and instincts in these moments; however we cannot reasonably expect to end up with a good result from these instincts if we have done nothing to develop positive ones. To do this we need to be like the elite athlete. The great athletes have all been blessed with tremendous natural ability; however the reason why they are able to react at the speeds they do is through years and years of practice and through being students of the game. To be able to trust our gut in the heat of the moment we need to similarly practice, practice, practice and to be students of good moral thinking. Doing this involves thinking carefully about who Jesus was, what he taught, and why he taught it.
The blogs which I will be posting under the heading “Fully Human: Living the Story of Shalom” were written as lectures for a study I have designed at the Neighbourhood Church. The course is designed to help people figure out how to be good ethical thinkers in light of their commitment to follow Jesus. I have made several edits from the spoken version in order to make for better reading. Today’s post is a part of the first session and it uses the story of the rich young ruler to illustrate why it is important for followers of Jesus to be careful thinkers. The next 2 posts will contain two more stories that further illustrate this point.
Three of the four gospels record a story about a rich man, full of zeal, who races up to Jesus in order to ask him: “good teacher what is it that I must do to inherit eternal life”. New Testament scholar Tom Wright points out that for the rich man this question would have been about more than just wondering what the minimum requirement would be to “get in” to heaven but rather meant: how must I live in order to please God?
Jesus’ answer, unsurprisingly starts with the commandments: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give a false testimony, honour your father and mother…The rich man responds, I have done all of this since I was a boy. Tom Wright notes that in making his statement of faithfulness the rich man is revealing his deep-seated yearning to please God and he is also showing an intuitive sense that there must be more to pleasing God than simply following the rules.
Jesus’ answer shows that the man’s intuition was right. Full of compassion, Jesus gives the rich man his answer. Yes there is more to living a life that pleases God: he says “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.” (Mk 10:21b). The man being wealthy, walks away dejected. Departing with his wealth was the one thing he could not do.
What this story illustrates for us is that Christian living is more sophisticated than simply carrying out the commands of God as if right living could be reduced to a checklist: yep I’ve avoided adultery, yep I’ve been kind to my parents, yep I haven’t stolen—I’m good to go! In our story the rich man did many things right but was deficient in the area that matters most to God—his character. He was unwilling to let go of that deepest part of who he was. He wanted to please God but not if that involved changing who he was.
Yet Jesus’ answer about the life that pleases God does involve us changing who we are. It means being willing to let go of everything that we hold to so strongly, it means being willing to be transformed, and it means picking up and following Jesus. Yet following Jesus is not nearly as simple as ticking things off a checklist. It requires careful thinking, it means paying close attention to who Jesus is, what he teaches, and why he taught it.
 NT Wright After You Believe, 13.