By Robert F. Turner
Have you had the experience of discussing a Bible subject with someone for several hours, both of you making argument after argument, until it dawns on you that this person does not believe the Bible is really the final word in such matters. The “bottom line” may even go deeper than that: he may not really believe in the God of the Bible. You finally realize that should you convince your respondent that the Bible teaches thus and so, his response would be a laconic “So what!” Frustrating, isn’t it! Frequently public debates are half over before it becomes apparent that the two disputants have differing concepts of a key word. Until this is settled, there is no way one man’s arguments can make sense to the other, or to hearers likewise divided by this basic difference. I am persuaded we give too little attention to basic concepts which are the foundations for various errors. We “beat the air” with the details of a matter on which there is a far more important division in principle.
Our teaching programs, including sermon topics, may also fail their purpose, if we ignore “the bottom -line.” When we concentrate upon the outer circle of an issue, but do not get to the core, our hearers may accept our peripheral conclusions yet have little genuine knowledge of the fundamental truth. They may learn certain “dos and don’ts” without recognizing the basic principles of God’s law upon which the particulars are built, and which give the whole its perfect unity. When Jesus was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” He went to the “bottom line” of the man’s problem. He cited a principle which embraced all of man’s relation to God. He then added a second principle “like the first” which showed man’s relation to his fellow men, and said that all the law and prophets hang here. McGarvey comments, “The lawyer went away with the idea not that one specific commandment of God is more important than another, but that the great thing is to have a heart for doing all that God commands.”
In this and several following articles it shall be our purpose to examine some fundamental questions, and two or more differing concepts of the principle involved in each. Our aim will be to promote a better understanding of principles of truth; and point out the basic fallacy in erroneous principles upon which many false doctrines have been built. And what better place to begin than to ask, How does one come to know the things of God?
The modernist denies an antecedent God. Karl Barth writes: “. . we are not thinking of some being existing in selfcontained form prior to his revelation to man. God is identical with his revelation.” Add to this the modernist concept of the Bible as simply the recording of religious experience, and God’s truth is no greater than man who conceived it. By “transcendental meditation” — contemplating nature, art, music, or even drug induced hallucinations — one is supposed to “know the things of God.” Religion becomes nothing more than a social and intellectual development of man. Ignoring this concept will not make it go away. We should know enough of the humanist way of thinking that we will recognize it in religious discussion, and either correct the basic fault, or move on to a more receptive audience. We . . . “must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Then there are those who accept the Bible as inspired of God, but who put its interpretation in; to the hands of “the church.” Catholicism and Mormons occupy this position (differing in modus operandi if not in principle); and several cults claim to have the exclusive “Key” to the Scriptures. Before entering into a serious discussion with people of this persuasion one should make an effort to read their claims and “proofs,” for successful teaching will depend on getting to the “root” of the error. Did it ever occur to any of my readers to go to a Catholic priest, not to argue, but to ask him to “plain their concept of authority and Bible interpretation? Try it sometime. Also, it should be mentioned that many Protestants hold to a principle that is closely akin to the above. The “church universal,” made up of all denominations, is supposed to have a great central body of truth common to all, that is right and cannot be wrong. Even some of our brethren have said the “great middle section” of the church cannot err.
Bernard Ramm, in his Pattern of Authority (p. 28-29), discusses another basic concept which he calls “The Protestant Principle.” He calls the inspired Scriptures an “external principle,” but says it must be accompanied by an “internal principle,” the “secret witness of the Holy Spirit.” He thinks this illuminatory work of the Spirit counteracts “the darkening noetic effects of sin.” Citing theologian after theologian, he establishes the prevailing concept that there can be no “saving understanding” of the “Scriptures except by inward illumination of the Spirit, operating in conjunction with but separate and apart from the word. This is the concept back of the Evangelical explanation of I Corinthians 2:14, for they view the “natural man” as one who has not had “illuminating grace.”
When we are trying to convince a neighbor that a study of the Scriptures can bring understanding of God’s ways, produce faith, and lead him to salvation, we should watch for these “bottom line” needs. Without realizing it, he may have one of the above concepts in his religious background, and this must be corrected before we will get far in our teaching. He may not really believe in an Eternal God who has spoken; or he may believe that only some “authoritative interpreter” (church. or pastor) has the real meaning; or he may expect some “inner feeling” (better felt than told) to guide him, so that he accepts the Scriptures that accord with that feeling, and rejects the others. I am persuaded we assume far too much about the non-member today. We set out to “prove” baptism, the church, or some like matter, by reading Scriptures to people who are not ready for that step. Getting them ready is a far greater job than teaching them, once ready; and we are avoiding the real work.
We need to do more preaching to non-members on basic concepts of why we believe in God, free moral agency, logical consequences of divine revelation. If God has spoken (a postulation I accept), He must have used human channels of communication to reach man (1 Cor. 14:9). To remain “no respecter of persons,” He must have made His message understandable (Eph. 3:3-5). The Holy Spirit guided chosen messengers, the “we” who speak and write, not the hearer or reader (1 Cor. 2:13-14). Faith is man’s response to the testimony; it comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10: 14-17). When we have convinced our neighbor that there is an Eternal God, Creator and Judge of all; and that His treatment of the message of God is in reality his treatment of God (1 Thess. 2:13); and that by this message he will be judged in the last day (Jn. 12:48); it will be a fairly simple matter to show him what he must do to be saved. We will have taught the bottom line.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 13, pp. 391-392
July 3, 1986