Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Scrubbing New Jerusalem's Toilets: Camping Out

This is the first Forge post since the world ended – not – so it’s an opportune time to revive this series and reflect in a category that includes not just Harold Camping, but also a range of teachers from Joseph Smith to Joyce Meyer.

The fruit of these future bathroom cleaners isn’t always as obvious as it is with Camping. This past weekend a local radio station mocked Camping’s forecast with a “Last Request Weekend” in which listeners were encouraged to call in their final requests for songs. As is often the case, I find myself on the one hand satisfied that the likes of Camping are being mocked by the world at large; yet I’m also disturbed because I know that the world at large doesn’t have the knowledge to discern between Camping and (say) N. T. Wright, and will assume many or most Christians were expecting the end of the world last Saturday too. The sensational always gets more press than the sensible, after all. Indeed, one YT troll posted a comment Monday asking if I felt stupid because the Rapture had not occurred.)

Equally tragic, news reports noted a man who had spent his life’s savings – some $140,000 – to promote Camping’s message. He ended up confused and waiting in Times Square, made a spectacle of by the media. Since Camping didn’t make so much as a marginally competent effort at handling Scripture, these and other expenditures for promoting his nonsense (billboards, bumper stickers, etc) are doubly tragic; the needs that went unfulfilled will drag the church further into disrepute.
I’m not here just to condemn Camping, though, since he’s just a symptom of a broader problem. Camping is typical of a breed of self-appointed teacher today whose training to be a teacher amounts to, “I opened my Bible and God revealed to me that…” Or, “I opened my Bible and figured out that…” It’s a symptom, really, of what I have termed in an early E-Block article the doctrine of radical perspicuity. In that article, I quoted a KJV Onlyist website which said:

The question is asked, "Do you really understand the Bible? How can you be sure that what you think the Scriptures say is in fact what they do say?" These questions are directed not at the learned in the Scriptures, at ministers, professors of theology, and the educated, but at the common people of God, who place their simple trust and faith in the Scriptures as the Word of God. Such questions not only raise doubts in the minds of God's faithful people, which is in itself wrong, since the Bible stresses that the life of the Christian is not one of doubt, but of faith. But even worse, these questions are meant to lead the people of God to the conclusions that after all the Scriptures are not understandable, contrary to what the church has always taught and thought. What is required to understand them is a great deal of education and learning, as well as intimate knowledge of the methods of interpretation and the historical and cultural conditions under which men wrote the Scriptures. The result of this is the conclusion that only the clergy, the favored few, are able to understand the Word and interpret it, while the laity, the ignorant masses of common folk, are really in the dark. Thus the door is opened to all sorts of corruption, heresy, and error, which is rampant also today.

In contrast to this, we wish to emphasize the Bible as we have it, and that means the King James Version, is perspicuous. Even a little child can read and understand the Word of God, as anyone with children knows.

But you don’t have to be a KJV Onlyist to hold to a view like this. It’s implicit each time a Harold Camping, or a David Koresh, or even a Joyce Meyer or a Charles Stanley, produces teaching after teaching in which all they do is quote the Bible and say what they think it means. At times such people can also add (as Camping did, with his experience in engineering) expertise in some other field to the mix, and the result is, as I am fond of saying, much like mixing chocolate cake with Polish sausage: It’s barely edible and pretty much just a mess.

Now of course, some parts of the Bible are indeed simple enough that that is all we need to do – if all we need is basic knowledge about what it means. But even the simplest passages can have deeper and richer backgrounds that a straightforward reading can miss – and that can lead to a deeply erroneous conclusion. (In fact, wait a week…I’ll have a TektonTV vid that provides a very good example of just that happening.)

I won’t reproduce the whole E-Block article on perspicuity here, but a few major points deserve notice. First, the historic idea of the perspicuity of Scripture was made against claims that the meaning of the text was inaccessible to readers by any other means than revelational authority – claims made by groups like the Gnostics who claimed they had some “secret” way to interpret Scripture. It was not intended to be used against serious study and exegesis, nor could it be: The means whereby scholars and students seek to better understand the Bible are not restricted to those are granted revelation. Anyone may go to a library, or go to Waldenbooks, and find the same resources I or anyone else has.

Second: Scripturally, there is no support for a doctrine of radical perspicuity. I found proponents using a smattering of texts in support, and their strongest (ha ha!) was Psalm 119:105: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." Of course, Ps. 119:105 certainly cannot be appealing to a canonical collection of Scriptures which, at the time of the Psalms, would be as yet mostly unwritten! Contextually, reference to the commandments in v. 104 indicate that the "word" in question is the Deuteronomic law. Beyond this, we cannot make any assumptions (since this Psalm has no authorial credit) about the level of discipleship and knowledge of Psalm 119's author. Light comes with understanding, and we do not know where this author's level of understanding rested.
In contrast, other texts are quite clear that growth in knowledge and understanding is expected of the disciples of Christ. The very word "disciple" implies a follower who will grow in knowledge and performance. Other texts clearly indicate stratification in understanding and knowledge (Eph. 4:11-12, Heb. 5:11-12; 2 Peter 3:15-16).

The point for today being: Self-studied “experts” like Camping are a bane to the church today; they don’t even need to be teaching cultic doctrines to be a danger. They destroy the honor of the church and cause the name of Jesus to be insulted, besmirched, and mocked in the public square. If Camping’s followers had any sense, they’d publicly disown and denounce him, and the church at large should now (heck, they should have done it before, if they didn’t!) publicly ridicule his teachings and disfellowship him until such time as he publicly apologizes and forfeits all activities as a Bible expositor. (I was pleased to see that at least one lead official among Southern Baptists had made such a call for an apology.) And frankly, if I had my druthers, when it came to gross incompetents like Camping, I’d make it so that their ministry property and funds were seized by the church at large and redistributed to more worthy causes, while Camping himself would be relegated to a job as a janitor.

I’m being facetious, of course. We all recall he did this in 1994 once before…and nothing of the sort happened. It’s too bad we didn’t learn the lesson before he did his encore.

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