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Abstract: We often assume that people share our confidence in the Scriptures and are open to our "proof" oriented methods of witnessing. The reality is quite different. The following essay discusses how Gnosticism entered into the church in the first couple of centuries and still impacts the world we find ourselves in, and suggests ways we might witness to individuals who no longer find authority in the Scriptures.
Living In A "Sola Scriptura" Bubble
Living in a "Sola Scriptura" Bubble!
We Christians live in a “sola scriptura” bubble!
Wiki deﬁnes “sola scriptura” as “the assertion that the Bible as God’s written word is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufﬁcient of itself to be the ﬁnal authority of Christian doctrine”
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scriptura <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scriptura> ).
Now let me explain before you get upset with me.
We would like to believe that proving our beliefs from the Bible will bring witnessing success-of course with some ﬁnessing in reaching out and connecting to the people we are witnessing to, etc.. The truth is, many seekers no longer look for truth in the Bible in their quest for God. In fact, many don’t believe there is such a thing as objective truth. They are seeking God, but because they believe that God is transcendent-is beyond the grasp of the human mind-and ineffable-beyond being described in human language-they look for Him in ways that you and I would not be comfortable with, and are accordingly anything but convinced by our Bible “proof.” It doesn’t mean they won’t listen, but it won’t initially be on the basis of the Scriptures we hold so dear. Unfortunately we often forget this and assume that all, if not most, of the people we witness to will listen to our proofs from the Bible. Hence the "Sola Scriptura" bubble idea.
Paul came up against this very thing when he was witnessing to the people in Athens. He spoke to them of the “unknown” god they were worshipping (Acts 17:23). This “unknown” god was not only the result of their ignorance of the true god, but also the result of the transcendent ineffable underpinnings of their belief system-God couldn’t be understood, and if He were understood, human language would be inadequate to describe Him, which effectively negated anything Paul might have said-I think I hear the hiss of a serpent here.
I wish I could say this "unable to know" problem was confined to people OUTSIDE of Christendom, but it entered the church in the early centuries after Christ, when Gnosticism ﬁrst appeared, took root and remained under various guises, and still continues to challenge us in our day, only in a postmodern, post-Christian way.
Gnosticism, as one person put it, is not based on the factual, intellectual, or rational knowledge that one would ﬁnd in the sciences, rather it is based on an experientially-based pursuit and knowledge of god, and proponents of the religion believed they had a secret knowledge of god, human beings and the universe that other people did not have.
Though the idea came out of what some term classical mysticism, it entered the church, or at least was seriously introduced, in the apologist era when Christians were being persecuted by the pagan Romans, and Christian “apologists” were attempting to bring respectability to the Christian faith and end the persecuting that was going on, by using Greek philosophical concepts that explained Christianity in more pagan-friendly terms. Eventually Christianity became respected, but that respectability came at a price: a more pagan version of Christianity.
Gnostics believed themselves to possess a special, higher spiritual knowledge and wisdom than was possessed and taught by the bishops and other church leaders of the second century. They believed God was wholly transcendent and spiritual and far removed from the fallen, material universe which He did not create (they actually thought the physical universe was created by an evil, demented lesser God). They also believed that matter, including the body, was an inherently limiting prison or evil drag on the good soul or spirit of the human person and that the spirit was essentially divine-a ‘spark of God’ dwelling in the tomb of the body.” Salvation meant achieving a special kind of knowledge not generally known or even available to ordinary Christians, including an awareness of the true heavenly origin of the spirit within, and the idea of an essential divine nature as an offshoot of God’s own being. They looked to Christ as an immaterial, spiritual messenger sent down from the unknown and unknowable God to rescue and bring home the stray sparks of his own being that had been trapped in material bodies. Finally, salvation came through self-knowledge (Roger Olson, Story of Christian Theology). Needless to say these constructs were far removed from those espoused by the church back then, and were accordingly resisted.
The early church, in the person of Irenaeus, mounted a three-fold attack on Gnosticism, by showing that it was absurd and full of contradictions, that it had no basis from Christ and the apostles, and that Gnostic understandings of Scripture were neither plausible nor possible. Over time the church's effort prevailed, though Gnostic ideas remained.
But Gnosticism is returning in our day, but often in a post-Christian manner and context that is exceedingly challenging to overcome, similar to what Paul encountered in Athens.
Remember, Gnosticism is based on many ideas, including God’s transcendence-the idea that God is beyond our understanding and can only be understood on the basis of an internal self-authenticating experience.
Irenaeus overcame Gnosticism by showing the absurdity of the idea, the utter lack of connection with Christ and Scripture, and the lack of plausibility. He even went so far as to mockingly suggest his own Gnostic-like description of the cosmos, based on a being that was called a gourd, which was associated with a melon, and eventually had a cucumber at work as well. He partially succeeded because people still looked to Scripture as the ultimate authority.
Paul failed with the Athenians, and came away convicted that only his personal testimony of the power of Christ and the cross in his own life would work.
I believe Paul’s method is still the preferred way to begin witnessing to many people in our day. We not only live in a postmodern world, we live in what is increasingly also becoming a post-Christian world. But post-Christian IS NOT post-spiritual; in fact people are VERY spiritual in our day-there is a great and growing hunger for a spiritually-fulfilling experience. And, as many are looking to a personally authenticated experience to ﬁnd a higher being, sharing our own experience with God, in loving and authentic ways, will be a witness they can understand, and which they can neither gainsay nor refuse.
Now, returning to the “sola scriptura bubble” idea, we assume that everyone looks to Scripture the way we do. Unfortunately that isn’t true. Yes, there are some, in fact many people, who still do, but there is a growing majority who have written off the authority of the Scriptures.
Is there a place for Scripture? Absolutely. There are still many people who look to Scripture and are willing to dialog on the basis of Scripture. Traditional methods can still work for these people. But these methods won't work for everyone.
However, regardless of how our witnessing begins, in due course ALL witnessing must return to the Scriptures, for it is in the Scriptures that we are personally informed, personally maintained, personally instructed, and personally empowered to live for Jesus, be it witnessing or succeeding in our ongoing relationship with Jesus-it is THE MOST IMPORTANT BOOK IN ALL THE WORLD. Eventually we must bring the Scriptures to the forefront if our witness to postmoderns is to endure.
Let’s be careful, then, in naively assuming that everyone accepts the Scriptures as their basis of authority when we reach out to them. Your testimony of how God has delivered you from depression, your testimony of how He brought you happiness, your testimony of how He has personally intervened in your life, your testimony of how He has answered your prayers, will be the most powerful, irrefutable testimony you can share. Later you can perhaps use some of Irenaeus’ ideas in dismantling the tenets of Gnosticism, but do so gently, remembering they are as suspicious and incredulous of your beliefs as you are of theirs.