March 13, 2014

A Practical Understanding of the Sufficiency of Scripture – Part 1

by Lyndon Unger

Like all people, I have a whole lot of memories.  Some of them are good, some of them are bad, most of them are lost in history, and some I cannot but remember (but won’t mention because they’re often quite incriminating of my own stupidity).  One of the ones that isn’t incriminating of myself (too much) comes from my days in Bible College.

I remember sitting in a class with my professor, studying a subject, and the topic turned to the bible in relation to a specific issue that apparently wasn’t around in Jesus’ day.  I was young, naive, and easily convinced when my professor taught the class that Bible doesn’t mention various subjects at all (i.e. anything that wasn’t around in Jesus day, like cell phones or stem cells or democracy) so we cannot help but go to the people who are the experts in that subject (psychologists, biologists, etc.) for an understanding of it.  At the time, that seemed somewhat reasonable since I knew that the Bible didn’t really talk about things like the internet, right?  I mean, there definitely was no internet in Jesus’ day, so I guess Jesus couldn’t have addressed it, right?

jesus_mac_stainedglass

The class then listed off some issues that Christians have (wrongly) thought the Bible addresses, and the whole class was led in guffawing at the stupidity of the masses.  Being the stinker that I was, I brought up the topic of homosexuality and asked if there were things, like homosexuality, that were addressed directly in scripture with some clarity (because the Bible had to be useful for something, right?).  I asked my professor about that issue and whether or not we could trust the Bible to rightly inform us on that issue.  Much to my confusion, the answer was still a resounding “no”.  Apparently the biblical understanding of homosexuality was highly unsophisticated and in our modern area, with all the knowledge modern man had gleaned from all the hard and soft sciences, we’ve since learned that “sin” is a woefully simplistic label for an amazingly complex psychological phenomenon that is the culmination of innumerable biological, environmental, psychological and sociological forces all wreaking havoc on the mind and body.

I protested somewhat but I quickly stopped talking as I was promptly shut down by the fellow with the PhD who was solely responsible for deciding whether or not I passed the class (and was not amused at my questions).

arrogant-boss

That class was quite an eye opener that started me on a rather long journey through history, philosophy, theology and the text of scripture itself.  Along the journey, I worked through many dozens of issues I unknowingly encountered that day, and one of them is a practical understanding of the sufficiency of scripture.

For the sake of defining our terms, I’ll define the sufficiency of scripture as:

The quality of the Bible in which it contains all necessary revelation to know all that God has desired us to know, do all that God has desired for us to do, and be all that God has desired us to be.

In other words the scripture offers sufficient divine guidance, either in prescription or principle, for the man of God to be equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  No further divine revelation is needed for Christians to know, serve, or be like God to the extent that it is his desire.  (For further explanation of the sufficiency of scripture, I’d recommend the resources here, here and here.)

To use an even simpler example, claims of further revelation may be “icing on the cake”, but God baked us a muffin.

1330528508453

As my professor (and many others) have misunderstood the doctrine, it’s not a claim that they Bible directly mentions every topic in existence.  That’s a common misconception that people often use to mock the scriptures…

…but if you understand the idea properly, how does that work in practice?

I mean, there are a lot of situations and experiences I encounter in my day that are not exactly overtly clear in the text of scripture.  I mean honestly…does the Bible give me, even in vague principle, any help on how to make a proper crème brulee?

la-creme-brulee

Well, the Bible doesn’t talk about crème brulee, sure.  Still, it addresses related issues (like eating, delighting in your work, whether or not Christians can eat yummy things that are unhealthy, etc.) in a comprehensive enough manner than, at least in principle, you can answer any questions related to crème brulee that you may encounter.

Am I kidding?

Nope.

Over the years, I’ve either encountered or been asked a wide variety of questions about issues that are apparently not addressed in the Scripture, but time and again I’ve searched the scriptures and either found direct address to the question itself or direct address to the underlying issues (at least in principle).  In this next little series I have, I’m going to share some responses to some of those questions and in the process, hopefully give some good and practical demonstrations of the sufficiency of scripture.

Now we’re going to start off with something simple and straightforward, and get ever-more-outlandish as we continue…so hang on to your questions about applying hand lotion to a penguin or whatever random insanity just sprang into your mind.

Getting back to some level or reality, what is one of the issues that I’ve encountered that people think isn’t actually addressed in the Bible?

Gambling.

gfg_gambling

I’ve had more than a few conversations in my day (since gambling has been a serious problem in almost every city I’ve ever lived in), and when I was in bible college it became an issue as some students became ensnared in gambling when a casino popped up in the town near my bible college.

When many people I talked to at my bible college studied the Bible looking for guidance on the subject of gambling, they seemed to always only find passages like Joshua 18:3-10, Proverbs 16:33, Jonah 1:7 or any number of the passages where people cast lots (often at the direct command of God).  In other words, when they went to the Bible and looked for guidance, it seemed like God not only didn’t have a problem with it, but rather was recommending it.

That caused more headaches than I care to remember…

Now, in order to keep this post from becoming unwieldy, I’ll simply dismiss all the “casting lots” passages by saying:

a.  The casting of lots was a means of making decisions, not entertainment or replacing industry and labor as a means of acquiring money.

b.  Nobody is playing poker/the lottery as a way of figuring out what God wants them to do when they face difficult choices.

yesno_dies

Still, the Bible directly mentions the casino/lottery style gambling in no uncertain terms.

What’s the passage?

Isaiah 65:8-16.

The passage opens with Is. 65:1-7, which makes this argument:

Is. 61:1-2 – God held out his hands to Israel, but they were a wicked people.

Is. 65:3-5 – A list of Israel’s specific rebellions: idolatry (Is. 65:3), divination and law breaking (Is. 65:4), proclaiming their own holiness above everyone else (Is. 65:5).

Is. 65:6-7 – God promises to repay Israel for their wickedness.

– Then, in Is. 65:8-10, God promises to not utterly destroy Israel, saying that God will not destroy all Israel for the sake of his servants (Is. 65:8), the offspring of Jacob and Judah will possess God’s mountains (Is. 65:9), and the valleys will be a place for the herds of “my people who have sought me” (Is. 65:10).

– Following those promises, there is a contrast in Is. 65:11-12 between two groups of people (“my people who have sought me” and a second group) and there is a contrast in Is. 65: 13-16 between the blessings of the first group and the curses of the second group.

– Who is that second group? Is. 65:11 tells us:

But you who forsake the Lord,
who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny

The second group is given 3 labels:

1.  “You who forsake the Lord” – That’s the most general label for the group. They’re the ones who forsake (read “abandon” or “walk away from”) the Lord.

2.  “Who forget my holy mountain” – That’s a little more specific label for the group.  They’re the ones who forget (Hbr – “shakeach“, an adjective that only appears 1 other place in the scripture; Psalm 9:17..and it’s not a flattering term there either) God’s holy mountain.  God’s “holy mountain” wasn’t Mount Sinai.  It was a figure of speech originally used for the special place in which God dwelt that, by Isaiah’s day, became a shorthand for the plateau upon which Jerusalem sat.  These Israelites who forsook the Lord were forgetting about the most basic, foundational ideas as to what made them who they were; they were Jews who didn’t remember Jerusalem (or the temple, the God who ruled the nation from there, the history and revelation associated with Jerusalem, etc.).  This second group was a group of people doing things that were so absurd that they were laughable.

What kind of Jew forgets Jerusalem?

solomon_temple

3.  “Who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny“.  This is the specific label for the group.  These Israelites, the ones who had walked away from Yahweh and were so disconnected from Judaism that they didn’t remember their own capital city (or deity), were ones who “set a table for Fortune”.

Now this gets actually interesting, because in the Hebrew there’s some interesting terminology.  The word “fortune” is actually the Hebrew word “gad”.  Gad (capitol “g”) is a proper name (the seventh tribe of Israel), but “gad” actually means “fortune” or “good fortune”.  In fact, Gad (the person) was named after “fortune”.  Genesis 30:11 is the only other place where the adjective appears and when Leah’s servant bore her a son the bible records Leah saying:

“Good fortune has come!” so she called his name Gad.

The name “gad” is from the word “fortune”, and the idea behind “fortune” is one of distribution; i.e. you have had the blessings meant to be distributed to others actually distributed to you (more than the average person’s lot of blessings).  The Israelites in Isaiah 65 “set a table for Fortune”, meaning that they were setting out food for their idol, and that idol’s name was “Fortune”.

Not only that, but they were ones who “fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny”.  “Destiny” is translated from the Hebrew word “meni”, and that word only appears once in the whole scripture…but the root of “meni” is “manah”, and that has to do with numbers/counting (usually vast numbers).  The Jews would “fill cups of mixed wine” for “Destiny”, meaning that they’d set aside spiced wine as a drink offering to their idol (you don’t actually drink spiced/perfumed wine), and that idol’s name was “Destiny” (or numbers).

So these Israelites who were the antithesis of “my people who have sought me” were those who worshiped the idols of fortune and numbers.  Sound familiar?  They worshiped covetousness and chance; they longed for stuff and thought that numbers and chance were the acceptable means to get that stuff.

Colorful_dreidels2

Sound a bit like gambling?

I thought so too.

So then, what does the rest of the passage say about these folks?

– Instead of eating, they’ll go hungry (Is. 65:13),

– Instead of drinking, they’ll be thirsty (Is. 65:13).

– Instead of rejoicing they’ll be ashamed (Is. 65:13).

– Instead of singing out of joy, they’ll cry out and wail because of pain and broken spirits (Is. 65:14).

– Instead of their names being remembered as a blessing, their names will be remembered as a curse (Is. 65:15).

– They will be totally forgotten (Is. 65:16).

Wow.

That sounds alarmingly familiar.

Do you know anyone who struggles with basic necessities (i.e. paying rent) because they’re always playing the lottery?

Do you know anyone who daydreams about winning the lottery and does nothing about the decrepit state of their lives now because they’re always chasing  that daydream?

Do you know anyone who regrets a gambling habit that they previously thought would be the solution to their problems?

Do you know anyone whose life serves as an example of how not to live because of the waste that a gambling habit has made of their lives?

Me too.

God doesn’t exactly talk about those who worship fortune and numbers very highly.  They have a whole lot of plans, but it’s God’s explicit intent to see that every one of those plans is foiled.  That leads us to a rather startling reason to not gamble or play the lottery:

God actively curses those that do.

Yikes.

That’s a sobering reminder.

The Bible addresses a whole lot more things directly than we think, and this is one passage to remember for the future when the issue comes up again for you.  You’ll never believe what serious and relatively familiar issues I’ve got planned next.  Stay tuned.

P.S. – Let’s keep all the absurd questions down for now.  I imagine that everyone and their dog will want to bring up their 19 hobby horses or endless outlandish theological questions beginning with “so if I had a time machine…”, but it’s not my plan to write a book on anything nor become your personal advisory assistant on any and all matters.

Sorry.

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him somewhere...you didn’t.
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  • Kip’ Chelashaw

    But this still doesn’t rule out gambling for fun? I know a few organisations that have raffles etc and I also know lots people who go to the races for fun and have not irresponsible in their other commitments – they pay rent, have food, support missionaries, etc, etc. The passage from Isaiah does not address them I don’t think

    • pearlbaker

      Maybe because the serpent is the most subtle of all creatures (tempting first in a “harmless” way, then increasing the temptation to a very harmful level.) This “innocuous” brand of gambling might not be so benign for some, who may become ensnared in actually gambling for money, not seeing any harm done to them in the “fun” gambling they are doing. I would want to be mindful of the weaker brother in these situations.

      Also, let our own conscience before the Lord be our gauge, but is it ever profitable or good stewardship to throw any amount of money away in a game of risk? Actually, it is not the losses that harm us, it is the worldly “wins” that tempt one on to more and more sin.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Yup. It doesn’t. I’ll possibly return to that in a future post, if I remember.

  • Doug

    Really enjoyed the article…I did. Although I must say my favorite part was the hand lotion on the penguin. Now when I think of gambling, I will think of moisturized arctic birds. 🙂 Seriously though, good work and study!

    • Erik B.

      Ditto. Whoever first pondered that conundrum is a scholar and a gentleman.

    • Ray Adams

      Although I must say my favorite part was the hand lotion on the penguin.

      Really? Somehow I missed that.

    • Lyndon Unger

      The application of hand lotion to a penguin is a real “theological” question that came up in my past. I’ll explain where that comes from in a future post of this series and use it as an silly example about a very serious point.

  • Erik B.

    Let me toss one at you: is eating unhealthy, namely fast food (so-called hunan-grade swine slop), a sin? What about eating at Five Guys (best burgers anywhere) every four months or so? What about the “Christian” dietician’s proof text for healthy living that, “Your body is a temple,” that is so frequently referenced, but out of context with I Cor. 6? The other side of the aisle… What about eating anything sold on the meat market without raising question of conscience, (once again, out of immediate context of I Cor. 10)? Is that a license for unadulterated calories?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Erik, you’re skipping ahead of me. I’ll eventually get there and toss out a working framework for dealing with any number of hypothetical questions.

      Be patient and I’ll get there.

  • This is a difficult one for me, as I’m not sure I completely agree. I know of a guy who routinely goes to Vegas for trips, who goes with a boatload of knowledge about how the video poker machines work, having studied them and knowing how to basically game the system to either break even or come out ahead, and in the deal get tons of free perks, meals, drinks, etc. He does well with this system and isn’t a penniless addict shaking in a corner, but rather a sharp guy who knows how to work this system. Is he wrong in doing this?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Johnny, there’s basically innumerable “what about my friend who…” questions. I’ll eventually write something that gives a bit of a working framework for all those hypothetical (or real but uncertain) scenarios.

      Stay tuned and hang in there.

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  • Cheryl

    Thanks Lyndon!
    We can easily become practical atheists in a scary number of ways…usually to defend something we want to do. Knowing that Scripture is sufficient for our life and practice is comforting, freeing, and must be defended.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Fully agreed. When it comes to the sufficiency of scripture, people need to remember that God has given us rule for that in our lives that needs rule, and given us a whole lot of room for matters of personal preference and conscience.

      We often fall into one of two extremes: being ignorant of the rule or mistaking issues of conscience for issues of rule.

      We need to avoid sin on both fronts, and that’s a difficult balance.

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  • jameshshewmaker

    If the Bible contains *all* that God desires for us to know and if it contains *all* that God desires us to do and if it contains “all* that God desires us to be, where does that leave things like celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus?

    There is no record in either the biblical text nor in secular history of the first century Christians having an annual feast day or holiday to celebrate Christ’s birth.

    • Lyndon Unger

      If you think you’re going to lure me into a trap regarding your hobby horse about Christmas, you’re wrong. I’ve had this conversation enough to know it’s never just one or two posts, and I’ll eventually get to writing a little bit of a framework for addressing everything that the Bible doesn’t.

      Be patient and stay tuned.

  • Dennis HC

    Excellent post! And on the general topic of gambling, here is an amazing series by Phil Johnson. It’s long and you need to read through the whole thing in order to fully appreciate the strength of his compelling argument, but it should greatly benefit those people interested in the subject, especially those who believe there is no biblical case against gambling.

  • Ty Gardner

    How do these principles apply to something like the stock market?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Again, you’re jumping ahead of me. I’m not writing an exhaustive treatment here nor giving all the extended principles for every possible related problem/issue. Stay tuned and we’ll give you something that is hopefully helpful in a few weeks.

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