I recall a number of years ago hearing Rev. John Stott speaking at the University of Queensland. John Stott has been a keen thinker, a prolific writer and rector of All Souls', Langham Place, London. He has been an outstanding Evangelical leader in the Anglican Church worldwide. I had invited a friend who was a high churchman to come with me to hear him. The first half of Stott's address was on what Christianity is not - it is not a set of beliefs, a set of rituals, a set of moral codes. At this point my friend walked out. For him these were the very essence of it all. Stott went on to emphasise what Christianity is - it is accepting Jesus Christ as our Saviour, acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord and knowing Jesus Christ as our Friend.
Stott, of course, was not denying the importance of beliefs, rituals and moral values. What he was strongly highlighting was that a person can have all of these and not be a Christian. Our sessions have begun with "saving faith" and factors that promote growth of our relationship with the Lord. Along the way we have, in fact, spoken about a number of things that we believe. We now look more specifically at our Christian beliefs.
This week as we move specifically into considering the beliefs we have as Christians, we are not going to forget that the foundation of the Christian life is our relationship to God in Jesus Christ.
□ Reviewing the Week
#1 Why can I be sure that I have eternal life?
□ This is a critically important question. The answer could, in fact, be copied down from p. 17 of It's a Great Life! In that context, of course, it was a condensation from the week's readings - so it may be best to rethink and clarify the answer written there. As group members share what they have written, listen carefully to ensure that they have clearly grasped the good news of God's gift and that they have assurance of eternal life because they are depending on that gift. If there are areas of uncertainty, deal with these sensitively in the whole group, then follow the matter up further on an individual basis after class or at some other time.
□ The Importance of What We Believe
The cartoon is based on one in Paul E. Little's book How to Give Away Your Faith, p. 117 (IVP, 1966). It is a helpful talking-point for the transition from our consideration of faith as relationship (cf. the comment on Stott earlier), and the foundations of our faith. In our scientific age, "religion", far from being dead, seems to be proliferating. We are all urged to tolerance. A bit of religion can be a good thing, we are told. The tough part comes when we insist on truth in matters of religion. Religious truth is seen to be a relative thing. If it seems to help you, it is valid - it only has to be "true for you".
A number of years ago I attended the first L'Abri Conference at the University of Queensland. It was held in the Abel Smith Lecture Theatre. A number of people had trouble finding the venue on the first day. One speaker put it something like this, "You believed you knew where the lecture was being held. Some of you were right, others were wrong. But it was not enough to have belief. The question is whether your belief corresponded to reality!"
Hare Krishna, Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Transcendental Meditation, Yoga... no, they can't all be right! How has God revealed himself? We affirm that he certainly has - in Scripture and in the Christ - and that here we find the only sure foundation for faith and life. It is the very basis for "accepting Jesus Christ as our Saviour, acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord and knowing Jesus Christ as our Friend."
□ The Bible - the Foundation of What We Know
□ It is important in this and later sessions for group members to have some understanding of the Basis of Union. Wherever possible, reference is made to this document. At this point, it is helpful to show a copy of the Basis and to read this statement directly from it. The statement makes it quite clear that the Bible is not just important for Christian growth, but for all that the Church believes and does. We gain insight into how the Biblical writers themselves view the Scriptures from Heb. 12.1-2.
□ "God has spoken" We cannot know God unless he chooses to reveal himself. This is true, in a relative sense, about knowing any human person too, but it is absolutely true about God. Our knowledge of God comes, not by human investigation or discovery, but by revelation. It comes about because God wants us to know about himself, because he wants us to know his love, because he wants to include us in his family.
□ "Of old" "in these last days" These words suggest to us that God's self-revelation has come in two major sections, as witnessed by our division of the Bible into Old and New Testaments. Show briefly the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. God, of course, is consistent in his Being and in his revelation of himself. His revelation was progressive, as people were able to receive it. Not only so, however, for some was preparatory and promise, while "in these last days" the revelation has been fulfilment. The writer to the Hebrews is very much focussing attention on the fulfilment "in these last days".
□ "In many and various ways" Look at the way the Hebrew Bible is arranged. The words on its spine don't say, "Holy Bible", but "Law, Prophets and Writings". That arrangement holds some surprises for us. Law - that's surely all about God's rules for living, how God's people are meant to live. And yet we find it couched in the story of God's people, much of it under Moses' leadership as they escaped from slavery in Egypt. Prophets - to our surprise, the first section in the prophets is Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings - historical stuff 1 The books we think of as the prophets are in a second section. So God is seen to be revealing himself in and through the history of his chosen people, the Israelites - through obedience and disobedience, through kings good and bad, through wars and struggles... as well as through special spokesmen who bring the Lord's word of guidance, warning and promise. And then the Writings, beginning with the book of Psalms... So God has spoken through poetry and parable, vision and dream too.
□ "By the prophets" These words remind us that the words were not just immediate. They became "Scripture" - the Word of God written. The writings that we call the Bible were not just accepted "on the spot" as Scripture. In fact some of them were rejected. We think, for instance, of the story of King Jehoiakim in Jer.36 - burning Jeremiah's scroll because he didn't like it. It had to be rewritten. Much of what the prophets said would not have had a welcome at the time. But it was kept, and came to be recognised as the Word of God. The three divisions of the Hebrew Bible mentioned earlier represent in general terms the order of the process by which they received recognition. The Jewish Council of Jamnia in 100AD gave formal approval to what we call the "canon" of the Hebrew Old Testament. Looking at the New Testament we have the words of Christ and the testimony of the apostles. There are a number of writings (some of them gathered into a book called The Apocryphal New Testament) which never made it - and reading them we can understand why.
□ "By his Son" We are reminded by these words that revelation was progressive to fulfilment in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. He is the Word of God who "became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn. 1.14). In the Epistle to the Hebrews there is a strong emphasis on what happened "of old" as foreshadowing the reality that would come to be in Christ. This is seen in terms of revelation in Hebrews 1 and 2, a comparison between Jesus and Moses (ch.3) and Joshua (ch.4) and the Aaronic priesthood (chs 5-8), the covenant and sacrificial system (ch.9), and more.
□ We can only know about God because he has chosen to reveal himself. The process of this revelation has involved what we call inspiration. This is not a question of what we find "inspiring", but rather the work of the Holy Spirit within the personalities of the human writers to produce the Word of God written. The Greek expression used in 2 Peter 1.20-21 (pheromenoi) is also found, for example in Acts 27. 15, where they "let the ship be carried along by the wind." Paul calls the Scriptures "God-breathed" (theopneustos). This does not mean that the personalities, interests and styles of the human writers became invisible. In modem times, much study has gone into the human element in the Scriptures - seeing them as discovery rather than revelation. This has led to a radical and tragic change of teaching in which we then set ourselves up to make our own "picture of God". This is not the historic Christian faith which has strongly emphasised the Word of God written and the Word of God incarnate.
□ Statements of Faith
It is important that group members understand the place of Statements of Faith in the life of the Church. Be sure that they grasp the significance of the first two paragraphs -
"The Bible is our final authority in all matters of faith and conduct, but it is an historical collection of divine revelation, not an organised statement of what we believe!
"So across the centuries - often because of the pressure of unbelief or of false belief a number of other important statements of faith have been made. These are secondary to the Bible, and need to be interpreted in the light of Biblical teaching."
The Church of today needs to "declare and guard the right understanding of the faith." It can only do this as it holds fast to the Scriptures as the primary reference point.
□ Keep on Growing!
In encouraging group members in the third week's readings in It's a Great Life!, draw attention to the cartoon on the front of the leaflet. We noted last week a number of factors that lead to spiritual growth. Reading the Bible was one of these. But, if there is to be growth, truth has to flow into trust, faith has to lead to action.
© Peter J Blackburn 1995, 1999