Helping Students See the Living Authority of Scripture
Helping Students See the Living Authority of Scripture
Apologetics in a student ministry context tends to locate itself between two ineffective ends of a spectrum. The first approach emphasizes a relational model, which rarely speaks authoritatively and hardly claims any truth. This tends to produce meandering circumstantial conversations in hopes that our students will become immediately self-aware of their need for a savior and the goodness of substitutionary atonement.
The other approach is a three-step deductive syllogism full of cryptic defeater arguments, and blithely rejects the notion that students are steeped in postmodern reality. In the case of inspired holy scripture, neither approach bears fruit in isolation unto itself. The joy of defending inspiration is that it must assume both sides of the coin, and finds its rootedness in (1) our current cultural understanding of authorship, and (2) the exceeding goodness of the Holy Spirit.
This is our current cultural understanding of authorship.
Step 8 in How to deconstruct a text: Push back against the authority of the author. Resist the temptation to look to the author of a text as the singular expert on the meaning of a given text. Tell yourself that your own readings, ideas, translations, and even your misreadings are just as meaningful as the author’s interpretation of her own work. The act of reading is creative, not passive: you should not defer to any single authoritative explanation for a text’s meaning.”
The notion that any text can be fully deconstructed has journeyed all the way from the academies of French philosophical scholars into the rickety desks of American middle schoolers. In the absence of an authors’ presence to establish what they actually meant in their writing, every text can be parsed by context, impartially shredded, and meant to fit our much more enlightened (wink) time. From our current cultural pedestals, Puritans wrote from a legalistic sexually repressed patriarchy, and thus merit our outright dismissal. And even Plato can be pushed aside with full knowledge that his mind was limited by the educational stylings of his day (and so any full-bodied and transcendent truth from his writings must be impossible to locate due to cultural and chronological distance).
Perhaps you feel that your students don’t understand these tendencies. I would encourage you to ask them what they think of a text like Huckleberry Finn or Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Prepare yourself for an onslaught of their newfound powers to deconstruct.
So how can we view a culturally and linguistically bound artifact called Scripture and dare to lay claim to its transcendence, inspiration, and holiness? How do we rebut claims of detachment from the original intent of the Scriptures? I would propose three arguments that, while not bulletproof, have proven helpful conversationally.
1. Timeless, transcendent, written truths are possible if your author is both timeless and transcendent.
Social norms, language barriers, and fluid meaning seem impossible to overcome when we consider a text written thousands of years ago in multiple languages in various genres by different people in different cultures undergoing unique experiences with imaginative idioms and the occasional double meaning.
How can a first century Jew write something that will mean the same thing to a 21st century middle schooler in Iowa? How can we agree about differences in interpretation of words like “Sinai” and “baptism” when a room full of geniuses have different interpretations of words like “chair” and “mother?”
One approach is by understanding that the inspiration of authors within a given culture was still accomplished by a Spirit both omnipresent and transcendent. Are language gaps and societal habits a potential limitation? To be sure. But when your author is both eternal and immediate, indwelling and communicative, the timelessness and truthfulness of Scripture are co-possibilities. This doesn’t mean that we distance ourselves from good contextual and historical interpretation, but that failure to interpret fully (or through a glass darkly) doesn’t necessitate a judgment that Scripture itself has failed.
2. Authority and authorial intent are much easier to demonstrate if your author is still alive, immanent, and speaking understandably.
I’m not a huge Woody Allen fan, but one of my greatest wish fulfillments is played out in a scene from Annie Hall. While in line for a movie, a smarmy intellectual type stands behind Allen and waxes eloquently on the works of Marshall McLuhan. Allen, speaking to the screen (to the viewer), wishes to prove the faux-intellectual a fraud. The fool disagrees, only for Allen to pull Marshall McLuhan himself from off-screen, as McLuhan chides to the charlatan, “You know nothing of my work.”
Allen’s moment of brilliance presents a fantastic view of our ministry in light of the real presence of the Holy Spirit. When it comes to questions of context, content, and meaning, an author like Emily Dickinson cannot immanently from her grave actually appear to defend her work and to correct error. Yet a transcendent, active, transcultural and omnipresent Holy Spirit, full of grace and truth, capable of separating soul and spirit, joint and marrow, can. If the author is alive and present, then debates over intent can and will be resolved.
3. Wrestling is considerably harder against something living.
Sounds a bit morbid, doesn’t it? Bear with me. Students can easily combat meaning in a text like Romeo and Juliet, argue from experience, and in a nice, detached way, rip Shakespeare to shreds. Yet the difference between brutalizing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and deconstructing Holy Scripture are (1) William Shakespeare is neither living nor sharp, and (2) Romeo and Juliet is neither living nor active. Consider the difference in a student who gleefully picks apart Old Testament ceremonial law, yet cannot avoid the gnawing, gnashing, hollow cries of the soul when it encounters the possibility of forgiven sin, the promise of an eternal home, or the reality of a family who loves unconditionally. Compare the cries of patriarchalism and brutalism in Judges to the emptiness and fear of students’ own attempts to do what is right in their own eyes, and the desperate cycles of life without a King.
How do we move on from here?
Answering a middle school student with discussions about deconstruction and authorial intent clearly aren’t the best approaches, but bridges between the philosophical and the practical are possible. Consider these few helpful reminders going forward.
1. Keep discussing
Perhaps the worst thing we can do is to pretend students will never comprehend or trust Scripture as a Holy, inspired, living document. The complexity of the apologetic of inspiration doesn’t permit us to just “wait until they’re older” to talk through it. It’s worth the time to try to create bridges of explanation. Timeless truth is meant to be carried in jars of clay. If nothing else, keep the conversations consistent even when the breakthroughs are few and far between.
2. Don’t be anxious about the timing of the Holy Spirit
If we could boil down inspiration to an airtight syllogism, articles like this would be entirely
unnecessary, or at least a lot shorter. While ministering to an age group which develops at different paces, the joy of inspired Scripture may not ‘click’ until age 30, or it may make complete sense at age 13. It is not our place to force the hand of the Spirit, nor to thump truth so thoroughly into the skull that we’ve merely modified behavior on the level of assent and regurgitation. Ours is a slow discipline, a measured series of conversations, counter-arguments, and appropriate rest and trust in the meantime.
If you’re playing Madden with a student who is still on the fence about inspiration, don’t fear that you’ve given up. You’re simply practicing a confident trust in the timing of the Spirit to give grace according to His own measure and discernment.
3. Don’t be afraid to let Scripture defend itself
Our prayer as a royal priesthood must echo the prayer of our great high priest, that God might “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV). Should we teach the inspiration of a beautiful piece of Scripture, and fail to read it with confidence and joy, we’ve merely god-stamped a dusty foreign book. Read the words of Christ, of Moses, of the Apostles and historians. If the text we preach is not only a good story, but the inspired Word of God to His people, then sometimes our best apologetic is to tell the old, old story with assurance, and then get out of the way. Brothers and sisters, we are not needed to defend Scripture. But thanks be to God, through the mercy of Christ and the power of the Spirit, we are invited to do just that.