A Call for Theological Courage3
On April 5, 1986, a terrorist attack was launched on the La Belle discothèque in West Berlin, Germany, an entertainment venue that was popular among United States soldiers. A bomb placed under a table near the disk jockey's booth exploded at 1:45 a.m. killing three people and injuring around 230 people, including 79 American servicemen.
It was soon determined, beyond any doubt, that Libya was responsible for the bombing.
After several days of diplomatic talks with European and Arabian partners, President Ronald Reagan concluded that a retaliatory air strike to be known as Operation El Dorado Canyon should be conducted.
However, the United States was denied fly over rights by France, Spain and Italy as well as the use of continental European air bases. This would require that our fighter jets be flown around France, Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar, adding 1,300 miles each way and requiring multiple aerial re-fuelings.
Thus the United States needed England’s permission to launch their fighters from air bases located in the U.K.
In the cabinet room at the White House, President Reagan called Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the speaker phone. After stating the facts, President Reagan said, “Madam Prime Minister, the United States needs your permission to launch our fighters from the bases in your country. With all due respect, Mrs. Thatcher, we request that permission.”
Margaret Thatcher responded: “I understand, Mr. President. My cabinet is present, and they have all heard your request. It is only appropriate that I inquire of their thoughts.” She began polling her cabinet. “What say you Lord W_____?” No, he thundered in response. “What say you Lord H_____?” No, came the answer. “What say you Mr. B_____?” No.
And so on around the room. Every single response from the cabinet was “No.”
At the conclusion of the polling, and after a brief pause, Mrs. Thatcher said: “Mr. President. Permission granted.”
My purpose in citing this historic incident most certainly is not to raise the question of whether or not women should serve in positions of leadership in the way that Prime Minister Thatcher did. That is a subject for another time and another place. My reason for telling you this story is simply this: Whatever else one may think of Margaret Thatcher and her policies, there can be no question but that she was an extremely courageous woman.
She was unafraid to lead her country against the grain of public opinion and even contrary to the counsel of her cabinet members. For her, courage was simply the extension of her conscience; courage was the outward display of her inner convictions. No amount of opposition could sway her. No public outcry could induce her to compromise on what she believed was right and wrong.
If ever there were a time in the history of the church that called for theological courage, it is now. We live in an age of profound and deeply disturbing theological cowardice.
Times haven’t changed all that much. The Apostle Paul faced much the same situation in his own day. In 2 Corinthians 3:17, Paul spoke of those who were “peddlers of God’s word”. By this he appears to have in mind someone who dilutes the full strength of the gospel, perhaps eliminating (or at least minimizing) its offensive elements, or altering certain theological points, so that the finished "product" will be more appealing to the audience. The aim was obviously to cause as little offense as possible and thus gain as large a following as possible, and especially the money that comes with it.
In 2 Corinthians 4:2 Paul returns to that theme, but with a slightly different emphasis. Here, in describing his personal ministry, he declares that he refuses “to tamper with God’s word,” but instead is committed to “the open statement of the truth.” Whereas in 3:17 the motivation of those who “peddle” the Word of God appears to be monetary gain, in 4:2 the agenda is unclear. Certainly money may still be in view, but other factors ought also to be considered.
My one word of exhortation is the same as that of Paul. I make no claim to being original. I simply say, do not tamper with God’s word, but commit yourselves to the open statement of the truth.
So, why do people “tamper” with the Word of God and why is it so crucial that you distance yourself from this destructive and dishonoring practice?
Some people “tamper” with God’s word in order to obtain power or influence in the church, or perhaps to expand their power base. For others, it is the most effective way to increase their popularity. There are always some who want to avoid controversy and the discomfort it often creates. I’m sure there are more than a few who do so because of personal distaste for the hard truths of Scripture. Still others live in constant fear that embracing certain biblical doctrines will bring contempt and disdain and mockery from those whose respect and acceptance they cherish. There may also be any number of personal agendas that require God’s truth be treated as something of a wax nose to be bent and manipulated and twisted to achieve whatever end is in view.
But in many cases, people tamper with God’s Word because they are cowards!
A brief glance across the broad spectrum of professing Christianity, if only here in America, reveals several expressions of the sort of cowardly “tampering” that Paul might well have in view. Let me cite a few examples.
As most of you are aware, the past couple of years have witnessed an all-out assault on any notion of eternal conscious punishment for those who reject the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hell is merely what you experience now, here on earth. It’s the misery that you create for yourself in this life, but certainly not a place or condition of eternal judgment in the next life.
Why do people embrace this point of view? Is it really because the Word of God is less than explicit about the destiny of those who deny the revelation that God has made of himself in Christ, in Scripture, in creation, and in human conscience? Is it really because the Word of God is more than explicit in its teaching of annihilationism or universalism? No. I don’t want to suggest that everyone who embraces either annihilationism or universalism does so for sinful or selfish reasons. I want to believe that John Stott, who recently entered into the presence of the Lord, honestly believed that the Bible taught the annihilation of the soul following whatever degree of punishment justice required.
But I fear that Stott was the exception, not the rule. I fear that theological cowardice is at the heart of much of the rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell that we see in ever-increasing circles today. People are afraid of the price they might have to pay in terms of career development and popularity and academic respect should they speak in defense of eternal conscious punishment. So what do they do? Rather than following Paul’s example of making an “open statement of the truth,” they “tamper” with God’s Word.
One of the more explicit instances is the increasing trend toward either marginalizing or rejecting altogether the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. On a number of occasions I’ve either read or been told personally that they haven’t rejected penal substitution but wish only to recast it in such a way that its unsavory elements are discarded lest we give unnecessary offence to a society that longs for a more compassionate and less “violent” Christianity. Others argue that they still embrace penal substitution but have simply repositioned it to a subordinate and secondary role in our understanding of atonement. In other words, penal substitution isn’t altogether denied, it is simply dethroned from its formative status as the dominant and controlling model for what Christ accomplished and relegated to “one of many valid metaphors” for the sake of maintaining a more “holistic” view of Christ’s saving work. Once this is done, the notion of penal substitution is, for all practical purposes, never heard from again.
In the final analysis, few if any of these efforts to redefine the doctrine of atonement can escape the charge of having “tampered” with God’s word. The unadulterated, sharp edge of the message of the cross in which Jesus Christ has, in our stead, propitiated the wrath of a holy God is more than they can swallow.
In any case, most are guilty of adapting and accommodating the gospel to a post-modern world out of fear of what penal substitution will mean for their careers and the respect they so deeply long to experience from those in the academy. Thus their “tampering” with God’s Word invariably leads them to “peddle” a so-called “gospel” that is significantly less than, indeed other than, that which we find in the pages of the NT.
Another example of “tampering” with the text is the tendency to disregard certain teachings because of the difficulty they pose for life in the 21st century. I’m thinking particularly of the explosive growth among evangelicals of egalitarianism and the repudiation of any distinctions in role or responsibility between male and female, whether in marriage or ministry.
Again, of course, those who’ve yielded to this temptation would never concur with my use of the word “disregard”. They would consider that an unfair, inflammatory, and pejorative assessment of what they’ve done. What they insist has occurred is that a new hermeneutical paradigm or model for reading Scripture has emerged that enables them to see that certain NT guidelines or principles previously thought to be timeless and binding on the conscience of Christians everywhere were, in fact, culturally accommodated or merely part of a trajectory of truth that liberates us from the explicit boundaries of NT teaching and elevates the church into that “ultimate ethic” toward which the text is, allegedly, pointing.
I’ve found that in many cases (not all, mind you, but many) it wasn’t that complementarianism was found to be biblically deficient or lacking in exegetical consistency. Rather, it made them feel like “fundamentalists” and threatened their acceptance and status within the broader evangelical community. Not wanting to be perceived as obscurantist or theologically naïve or culturally out of step, they relished these new proposals that appeared to undermine the traditional “hierarchical” (their word) understanding of the relationship between male and female in home and church. Wanting to be seen as progressive and in touch with the cutting edge of contemporary scholarship, a complementarian view of men and women was abandoned for an “easier” and “more palatable” perspective.
Another example of what I consider “tampering” with God’s word would be the growth of what George Barna has called, in the title to his popular book, the Revolution among professing evangelicals who now find active participation in local church life unappealing and, worse still, unnecessary.
Barna’s thesis is that one can be a Christ-loving, Bible-believing, soul-winning, God-exalting Christian without any formal involvement in or connection with a local “church”. This lack of involvement is not because of circumstances beyond your control, says Barna. It’s not that some people, because of geographic isolation or persecution or other factors, cannot find or plant or become involved in a local church. The Revolution is a movement of people who easily could but refuse to do so, believing that for them, at any rate, true spirituality and authentic obedience to God and a genuine, thriving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is possible only by forsaking membership in, support of, and allegiance to a local congregation of believers.
Then, of course, there are those who don’t like being branded as narrow-minded and arrogant exclusivists when it comes to the issue of salvation. These folk tell us that the redemptive work of Christ may well be necessary as the foundation for any possibility of eternal life, but conscious faith in him alone is being discarded in favor of an inclusivism that now recognizes saving power in all (or most) non-Christian religions.
Much could also be said of those who’ve tampered with God’s word to justify in their own minds an embrace of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle and same sex marriage as a “right” that should be recognized in our society.
Perhaps the most egregious and destructive example of “tampering” with the text doesn’t involve any one doctrinal issue but reflects a diminishing loss of confidence in the functional authority of Scripture and a failure to believe and act upon the life-changing power of God’s word.
I’m persuaded that this is why we see so little expository preaching in our pulpits today. Although they would be extremely reticent to admit it publicly, countless pastors simply no longer believe that the biblical text, accurately explained and passionately applied, has the power to build the church. Operating with a secular standard of what constitutes “success” and under pressure to facilitate church growth (in every sense of the term), they have resorted to gimmicks, props, marketing techniques, and entertainment to the obvious detriment, and all too frequent abandonment, of exposition.
This inevitably leads to a loss of the functional authority of Scripture in church life. Whereas most would be quick to affirm the inspiration of the Bible in their statements of faith, few actually bend their beliefs to conform with Scripture or subordinate their personal preferences to the principles of the text. Affirmation of biblical authority is all too often only affirmation, with little effort made to actually yield or submit to the dictates of what God has revealed.
I came across an illustration of this a few years ago in a national survey conducted by Christianity Today and Zondervan Publishers. The one example that stood out was the case of a man named James Smith who identified himself as a Christian but said that he does not necessarily believe that his God is any different from the one his Muslim friend worships. “I don’t think that God would be a God who would shut others out of heaven because they don’t use the word ‘Christian’ to describe themselves,” said Smith. (Leadership, Fall 2007, 19-20).
After reading his statement, I remember myself thinking, with all due respect, and allowing that I may have misinterpreted his comments, it doesn’t matter what Smith (or Storms) thinks. Christians are not free to retain what they want to be true and spurn the clear teaching of Scripture. If Scripture is inspired, it is authoritative. And if it is authoritative, we must bow to its principles and truths even when they are uncomfortable, unpopular, or put a strain between us and friends who may believe otherwise. We dare not tamper with God’s word. Ever.
But whatever your calling or place in life, you will be confronted on a consistent basis with the temptation to tamper with God’s Word. The perks offered to those who peddle the gospel will be substantial. The difficulties that can be avoided by tampering with God’s Word are huge.
But the joy and deep delight that come from the open statement of the truth of God’s Word far exceed any pleasures that the sin of cowardice might bring you. My prayer for you, my plea to you, is that you would say with Paul: “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). May God grant you theological courage in an age of cowardice. May he fill your hearts and voices with “the open statement of the truth.”