Archives for November 2013

Why We Need Bible Poetry

William Blake-Psalms

Illustration by William Blake; Edited to include Psalms cover page

In my last post, I made the case that by His own choice, God needs Man. You may want to read that if you haven’t already. In any case, I will briefly explain what that had to do with Bible poetry, and how it led to this post.

Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all focused mainly on the literal teachings of the Bible. However, the non-literal parts are equally, if not more important. While explaining how God needs Christians, I had to rely heavily on a parable and a paradox. Since paradoxes are neither literal nor logical, literalists generally try to avoid them. Thus, my study of why God needs us indirectly supported the idea that we need not only the literal teachings, but also the literature of the Bible.

If you’ve been reading other posts on this blog, you may have noticed that I’m against biblical literalism. My purpose is not to be argumentative or divisive, but quite the opposite. I want to help unite Christians in terms of how we understand the Bible. Unity in doctrines and beliefs will eventually lead to real unity.

In this post, I’ll use words like “stories,” “literature,” and “poetry” somewhat interchangeably. Each is a form of literature, and each stands in contrast to literal statements. In addition, we often find that stories and narrative accounts in the Bible are structured in a poetic fashion.

Are the Bible’s Literal Words More Important Than the Stories?

More specifically, I will respond to the this question:

Since Scripture passages containing stories, poems, and figures of speech seldom make a direct, literal point, are they less important than the literal passages?

My position, as stated earlier, is that regardless of whether the Bible expresses an idea literally or in figurative language, truth is truth.

Here are some reasons why we should pay close attention to the Bible’s literature, not only to the literal statements:

  1. The Bible mainly consists of stories and poetry, not propositional truth statements.
  2. God communicates to us through His Word in non-literal ways, especially through typology in the Law, imagery in the psalms, symbolism in the prophets, and parables in the gospels.
  3. Like most people in ancient times, the Hebrews saw poetry as the language of the Universe, not merely as a quaint pastime. This point is substantiated not only in Return to Genesis, but also in James Jordan’s book, Through New Eyes.

The authors of the Bible would have had no problem expressing ideas in literal terms. Instead, God inspired them to create figurative and poetic language.

Even the physical Universe takes shape in patterns as matter and energy obey the laws of physics. The Bible also contains patterns and symbols that we describe as poetry, though it’s not like western poetry.

As you probably know, the Bible contains great literature. Even the historical accounts don’t only recount facts, but trigger our imaginations in deliberate ways. The Bible’s authors wove experiences and ideas into lively tapestries that subtly reveal the underlying providence and wisdom of God. In the process, they made use of creative elements such as paradox, poetry, parallelism, personification, metaphor, analogy, anthropomorphism, irony, hyperbole, and symbolism.

I intentionally listed “paradox” first because God expects every Christian to understand that reality is often paradoxical. Our need to accept that two seemingly contradictory truths can both be true begins with our faith in the unity and trinity of God, and in the humanity and divinity of Christ.

Jesus intended for us to take His every word seriously, without devaluing His use of parables and other non-literal communication methods. Jesus also recognized and appreciated Old Testament metaphors and allegories, such as the symbolism behind the three days and nights that Jonah spent in the belly of a whale (Matt. 12:40).

In written form, this all comes under the rubric of literature. Since God, in the person of Jesus Christ, appreciated inspired literature, you may be wondering…

Why Literalists Don’t Appreciate the Bible as Literature

Poetry-Marcantonio Raimondi 251x300

Again, Christians with a literalist mindset generally neglect the Bible’s literary forms and expressions. They ascribe more value to the intellectual content than to that which appeals to their imagination. They do so despite the fact that the Bible’s literature can and should contribute immensely to our understanding of biblical theology.

 

Poetry by Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534)

Christian literalists dislike the very term, “Bible literature.” They seem to think that this term somehow makes the Bible comparable to, say, Shakespearean literature.

If they were to apply the same faulty reasoning to their belief that the Bible presents mainly propositional truths, that must make the Bible like other nonfiction books!

In fact, that’s their objective, isn’t it?… To present the Bible as a book that contains no errors of any kind, and that is in full conformity with our modern sense of reason and logic. I believe the atheist movement today is, in large part, an understandable reaction to these absurd ideas.

Since literalistic Christians understand God to be a supremely rational Being, they feel that the Bible must be reducible to an academic textbook. From this perspective, the poetry and literature can only be there to accommodate readers by appealing to our baser instincts, which are more emotional than rational.

Literalists devalue creative, emotive, and aesthetic elements of the Bible because they perceive them to be carnal, sensual, fictional, and/or mystical. However, none of this is necessarily true. Obviously, literature—especially that of the Bible—is not inherently sinful.

Fundamentalist or literalist Christians don’t like to bring creativity to their theological studies. They see themselves as “rational” people who isolate and analyze the literal truths of the Bible.

Literalists can’t deny that Jesus and other biblical figures came up with creative insights based on allegorical interpretations. They attribute this to divine inspiration, but insist that we not do theology that way today. However, if we’re beyond that, shouldn’t Jesus have also been beyond it?

Biblical literalism is a modern phenomenon that, without a doubt, was influenced by the rise of the scientific method. The question is…

Does God Want Us to Always Study the Bible in a Literalistic Way?

Biblical literalists seek to discover the mind of God in the Bible. In the process, however, they have substantially missed out on the heart of God. The mind of God is conveyed primarily through the literal and intellectual content, and the heart of God through the imaginative content, which we find in the poetry and other literary expressions.

We may also think of the literal and non-literal passages of the Bible as being comparable to latitude and longitude. Navigators need both measures to plot their location on the earth. In like manner, we need to understand both the literal and literary elements of the Bible to know our place in the world, in relation to Heaven.

In my experience, I’ve found the Bible’s literal statements to be like trees, and the literary-poetic language to be like the forest. Poetry gives structure to the text, and thereby helps us see the big picture. In fact, the Bible’ many “word pictures” convey much more information than what we might have gained from literal explanations.

The phenomenon of biblical literalism reminds me of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. When given the choice to receive either knowledge or life with God, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Given the connection between knowledge and power, this was a choice between grasping for power and an immediate reward, or choosing to grow through their relationship with God, in His time.

I can explain in only two sentences how biblical literalism is related to the Fall. Biblical literalists bring an Enlightenment perspective to the Bible. The Enlightenment is comparable to Adam and Eve’s Fall because it enshrined the falsehood that Man no longer needed God, whether it be for knowledge, power, wealth, or anything else.

I’m not pointing a finger only at biblical literalists. We’ve all been indoctrinated into Enlightenment views of knowledge and reality. To one degree or another, we’ve all been literalists.

Biblical literalism has turned out to be little more than a fig leaf covering serious doctrinal errors. Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist Christians have used it to selectively choose what they want to believe in the Bible. They freely criticize Christians who find analogies, allegories, and metaphors in the Bible, yet they themselves find such language where they will!

Biblical literalists often present themselves as sole defenders of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. In practice, however, that isn’t their foremost concern. They selectively comb the Bible for literal passages that appeal to their intellects and square with their presuppositions. These, they distill into assertions or propositions. Such statements may be included in doctrinal statements and systematic theologies, and may also be highly flammable fuel for arguments and divisions within the body of Christ.

Summary of My Views

As I had mentioned, I’m opposed to biblical literalism because I’m both for a more complete understanding of the Bible, and for Christian unity. I am (and we all should be) particularly sensitive to sources of strife and division. Biblical literalists tend to be dividers. However, by no means are they as doctrinally correct as they imagine themselves to be.

Any statement of belief that is not fully true can easily become a source of strife and division. As one example, the statement, “God doesn’t need anyone,” seems to be undeniable. Nonetheless, as we learned from the earlier post, it isn’t fully true.

I do believe in taking the literal words of the Bible literally, and in affirming essential beliefs through doctrines and confessions. Therefore, to make my position explicit: Anyone who begins to minimize the Bible’s literature has gone too far.

We all need to better appreciate the Bible’s literary and poetic elements. They help us understand that God doesn’t only issue decrees and judgments, but fully identifies with humanity, even in such mundane activities as wordplay and storytelling.

God became fully incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ, but He has always manifested Himself through people, especially the writers who labored to give us the literature of the Bible. What better way to find true inspiration than in knowing how God inspired them!

Far from being mundane or expendable, Bible poetry and symbolism is heavenly, powerful, and needful. It is, after all, the language of creation, and of prophecy.

We can’t be good theologians (and we’re all theologians) if we continue to neglect the Bible’s literature. The more I research the phenomenon of biblical literalism, the more convinced I’ve become of this. You can read more of my thoughts about biblical literalism in the free download that you can receive by signing up to my newsletter.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts below, and to share this post with others.

Does God Need Man?

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Without question, people need God. We desperately need Him because He is our Creator, Savior, and the Provider of all good things. That is uncontroversial among Christians, but I’m about to consider the question, “Does God need Man?” I will argue that according to the Bible, our Lord has chosen to rely on believers in some ways.

You’ve likely been taught that God is self-sufficient in every possible way and that, therefore He has no need of Man. While it’s true that God is self-sufficient in the sense of having no needs within the Trinity, He has chosen to rely on people to fulfill His will. An example of this can be found in Matthew 21:2-4. There, we find that Jesus needed an unidentified person to supply a donkey and her colt so that prophecy could be fulfilled. While sending His disciples on this errand, Jesus told them, “If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them.’”

Before Jesus needed the donkey’s owner, He needed Mary and Joseph. Later on, He needed someone to carry the cross for Him.

Even beyond Jesus’ earthly lifetime, God needed believers to act in faith. God led Peter to preach on Pentecost to get the church started, and Paul to spread the gospel among the Gentiles. Bible prophecy had to be fulfilled, and the canon of Scripture completed. Today, God needs His saints to fulfill His plan of the ages by carrying on the ministry of Christ in the world and completing what is lacking in His afflictions (Col. 1:24).

Before continuing, let’s consider some reasons why Christians might reject the idea that God could need any of us:

  • A desire to be “right” and authoritative by taking what appears to be God’s side.
  • An assumption that anyone who speaks of God’s need for people can only be motivated by pride, not by having read the Bible.
  • A reluctance to hold seemingly contradictory truths in tension, together with a preference to brush aside mysteries of the faith when possible.
  • A failure to appreciate that God can accomplish His foreordained, perfect will through human weakness; and that His grace is greater than our sin nature. (In fact, we could have no fellowship with God if we were still “evil”).
  • A desire to be accepted among a clique of fellow believers who emphasize God’s absolute sovereignty.
  • A perception that the idea of God needing us can only be true in a figurative sense, not a literal sense.
  • A subconscious desire to avoid responsibility by supposing that God doesn’t really need us to do anything.

Unfortunately, many Christians think the Bible’s literal language is more important than the figurative language. I feel that, regardless of whether the Bible expresses an idea literally or in figurative language, truth is truth. This inspired a separate post, Why We Need Bible Poetry.

As you can see, I listed responsibility avoidance as another reason why we may be tempted to dismiss some of the Bible’s poetic language. For example, we may not particularly want to see Jesus in the face of a homeless person. Even so…

 

Christ Identifies With the Needy

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Kids in Rishikesh, India (Wikimedia Commons)

I repeat: By His nature as our Lord and Creator, God doesn’t need anyone. Nonetheless, He has chosen to rely on redeemed sinners to fulfill His will and purposes in this world. In other words, God doesn’t have to depend on people, and yet He does. This kind of apparent contradiction is known as a “paradox.”

The Bible gives us many examples of paradox. For instance, even though God is not a man, He chose to become human (Num. 23:19, Jn. 1:14). Also, even though God is the Source of life, He allowed Himself to experience death.

The most prominent illustration of God needing humanity can be seen in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Through this story, Jesus prophesied concerning His future role as King of the nations. Jesus said that after separating the sheep from the goats, the King will say to the sheep:

“Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

Jesus seems to have said that He needs us, and yet this same story depicts Him as the Judge of Mankind. Hence, we must bring a nuanced perspective to this paradox.

Jesus’ roles as both servant and Lord are also apparent in His proclamation, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13).

By “the First and the Last,” we are meant to understand that even though Jesus is the Lord of all; He identifies with the least of all. Jesus even became the least of all by having suffered unjustly through the torture and humiliation of the cross.

The prophet Daniel had no problem with the idea that God needed him to pray in order to bring about the fulfillment of prophecy (Dan. 9:1-3). We’ve assumed that prophecy comes true on its own, but Daniel took this burden upon himself.

The Bible tells us that all Christians belong to one body—the Church. Therefore, we must not imagine that we don’t need one another (1 Cor. 12:15-26). Every husband and wife also need one another because they have become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). By the same token, I can’t imagine Christ declaring that He has no need of the Church, which is both His body and His bride (Eph. 1:22-23, 5:25-27).

To offer a practical example of how God might need you, suppose that tomorrow you lead someone to faith in Christ. God will have foreknown and predestined that event, making it impossible for that person not to become a Christian (Rom. 8:29-30). God will therefore have needed you to do that.

This example is not intended to downplay the importance of other good deeds. Consider again the parable of the sheep and the goats, or of Lazarus and the rich man.

Christians who emphasize the sovereignty of God may respond by insisting that we have nothing to gain from the idea that God needs us. They may say that even without this motivation, they wholly desire to obey the Lord. Hence, they focus only on their need for God, not the reverse.

To counter this possible objection, I will explain…

 

Why We Need to Know We’re Needed

Hand-of-God

First, we can’t always take seriously what people say about their motives (Prov. 20:9). I already explained how literalists can have unbiblical or selfish motives. Moreover, I don’t think it’s self-evident that people don’t need to feel needed. In fact, I think the opposite is true.

In the real world, saintly people have seldom devoted their life to a ministry because of having been educated; having heard a voice from heaven; having read an inspirational quote on Facebook; or perhaps least of all from having read a denomination’s statement of beliefs. Instead, they they saw people with desperate needs and felt compelled to respond.

In my opinion, no movement is likely to transform the world unless the followers understand three things:

  1. People have very real, urgent needs.
  2. We alone can meet those needs.
  3. We find our life purpose in meeting people’s needs.

We know this is God’s world, and that God alone can satisfy human needs. He has chosen to work primarily through Christians because we represent Jesus in the world. I believe most Christians will eventually come to understand these essential truths:

  1. The world needs the Church. The Church is not an independent, nor a united voice in the world today. We are greatly divided, promiscuously affiliated with secular political parties, and overly impressed by the “wisdom” of this world. The world needs the Church to proclaim God’s Word in relevant ways, beginning with the message of salvation.
  2. Every Christian is needed. This brings me back to my main point. If people need you, God also needs you, if only because He identifies with people. Paul explained the primary motive behind Christian ministry in the words, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14).

If a great number of Christians came to understand these truths, surely we would transform the world for Christ. Will you take up this challenge by seeking to become the kind of Christian who understands and pursues your identity and calling in Christ?

This information is intended to motivate you to serve and glorify God, not to become a source of pride. I urge you to see God calling out to you through people whom you can serve through your ministry gifts, whatever they may be.

Should you take this the wrong way, and begin to think God Himself needs you personally, I pray that He will humble you and help you see that you desperately need His mercy and grace. Know that we are dependent on God for our every breath, and for all things.

Incidentally, this post was inspired by a Google Plus discussion about the question of whether God needs us. You can see that discussion, including my initial response, here.

I also felt personally inspired to write on this topic. I’m ashamed of this, but even though I’ve been aware that God had given me gifts such as knowledge and wisdom, I didn’t want to share them with others. Among my worthless excuses, I had told myself that God doesn’t need me, and that He can always use someone else instead. I had also told myself that I had failed God too many times for Him to use me. Despite my excuses and failures, God was faithful to me, and never withdrew His calling.

Please don’t let any excuses hold you back. God is more gracious than you can possibly know. Anyway, the Lord won’t accept any excuses at the Final Judgment. He’ll expect each of us to have done what we know we ought to do.

I’ve made the case that God needs us because people need us, and that we’re at our best when we recognize and respond to needs. We aren’t useless creatures who can do nothing for God. Rather, we all have value because we can serve the living God in meaningful ways.

Conversely, when Christians fatalistically see ourselves as just another competing and struggling religious group, that’s all we’ll be. We won’t do much for a world in need, except for leading some individuals to a “personal” salvation.

Perhaps you are among those who find it hard to accept that God has called Christians to transform the world for His glory. Many deceivers have sought to convince us that the Church will have a diminishing influence in this world. They say Satan will prevail over God’s people to such an extent that he will successfully institute a worldwide reign of death and destruction. I have previously responded to the false teachers in these writings:

Dominion in Genesis Dominion in Genesis, Part 4/8: Three Perspectives on End Times Prophecy
Dominion in Genesis, Part 5/8: Joseph’s Rise to Power
Dominion in Genesis, Part 6/8: The “Missing Link” Between Adam and Jesus
God’s Dominion and Christ’s Kingdom
Part 3 of Return to Genesis
See what others have written at my Bible Prophecy Collection

I welcome any comments, and especially your sharing of this important message!