Sitting in a coffee bar in Central Asia on Friday we were conversing with a group of preachers about the Bible. “Some people study the text and it is all human level for them,” somebody observed. “But others prepare a sermon and they preach about God.” Why the difference?
While there may be many reasons for this, including learned behaviour from the example of others in the pulpit, or never being taught that Scripture is theocentric (God-centred rather than human-centred), I suspect there is another element that comes into play here.
Many people have the notion that we know about God, more or less. There are a few things the Bible tells us that we “need” to know, like the salvation part relating to the incarnation and the atonement, of course. But it is assumed we know about the Godness of God – the sense that there is a certain set of truths that we all know about the Supreme Being (He knows everything, is everywhere, is all-powerful, is outside of time, sits on a throne, will judge, etc.)
Consequently, since this deity is already known about, the Bible then becomes merely a handbook for human life. It tells us what we need to do, how we should live. It is the owner’s manual. And, as we talked about in our conversation, it is preached as such.
The problem is that all this assumed knowledge takes away the passion to pursue the God who is revealing, first and foremost, Himself. Just to make things worse, part of the package of assumed knowledge is that God himself, in His “very being” is really unknowable.
You may be reading this and thinking, there is a proper term for each of these doctrines. I know. But the point is that people don’t start with a blank slate and then learn theology when they are introduced to technical terminology. The package of “knowledge” about the “Unknowable One” is all too easily picked up in Christian circles.
There is both irony and sadness in this. The irony is that the set of facts which include the fact that in His infinite nature there is always more to know, seems to lead people to not pursue knowing Him at all. I am not denying God’s transcendence or that He is infinitely beyond our ability to grasp. But the reality is that He has made Himself known through the Son and the Spirit. We read His Word to know Him.
It is when we recognize that God can, in some way, be known, that we pursue Him by reading the Bible with a genuine hunger. This is an appetite that is both satisfied by knowing Him and yet infinitely hungry for more. We will never know God fully, but we can delight in this responsive pursuit for both this life and eternity!
The sadness, of course, is where we started. That people end up reading the Bible as merely a handbook to good living, instead of chasing, pursuing, seeking, responding to, worshiping and loving God. Somehow the package of knowledge tends to be lacking in the relational nature of God as trinity, even though the concept is defined as orthodox (and quickly pushed aside as mystery – i.e. even more deeply unknowable). Somehow the package of knowledge tends to be lacking in the love of God, even though the Bible tells us that God is love (it is seen in Christ’s death on the cross, so this is not an absolute lack, of course).
Let us open the Bible to read it, and to preach it, with a passion to pursue the heart of God revealed there. It is the God revealed in the Bible that will lift our hearts, transform our lives and stir our response. Somehow the owner’s manual notion always seems to fall short. The self-revelation of God in the Bible never does.