How does the Bible model Biblical discernment? (Acts 15)

How does the Bible model Biblical discernment? (Acts 15) July 14, 2013

Two weeks ago, Jonathan Martin kicked off his “Both And” sermon series on Biblical interpretation by looking at the story of Acts 15, when the Jerusalem church officially decided that circumcision would not be required of the Gentiles. Jonathan titled his sermon “Spirit, Word, Community” after the three components of spiritual discernment that are in play in this passage. These are similar to the four aspects of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. What is interesting and scandalous about Acts 15 is that the charismatic witness of the Holy Spirit (i.e. experience) has a much greater role to play for the church than scripture itself.

Acts 15 starts off by relating that several people from the Jerusalem church had gone to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were to teach the Gentile Christians there that it was great they had experienced the Holy Spirit, but they needed to follow the Torah and be circumcised in order to be Christian. It’s important to recognize the context. Nothing Jesus said to his disciples clarified that Christians didn’t have to follow the Jewish law, nor did anything in the Old Testament that the early believers used as their Bible. Our teachings today about being saved by faith and not by the law are the aftermath of the controversy in Acts 15. The Jewish Christians who called for the Gentiles to be circumcised were simply being Biblical.

So Paul and Barnabas go down to Jerusalem to have a debate about this. Let’s take a look at the basis of their argument and the argument of their opponents. Acts 15:4-5 says, “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.'”

The law of Moses is the Bible for these early Christians, so it’s a debate between Paul and Barnabas’ testimony of their experience of the Holy Spirit’s work and the Pharisaic Christians who derived their position directly from the Bible. Now to unpack this a little more, let’s think about what that testimony entailed. Paul and Barnabas aren’t simply saying, “We know the Bible says X, but God told us Y. It’s our word against Moses.” They are sharing detailed stories about how people who had horrifically messed up, sinful lives had been powerfully transformed by the Holy Spirit without being circumcised.

Experience is not just saying I have a “sense” in my heart (that I’ve decided is the voice of God) telling me that I don’t have to follow this particular Biblical teaching. Experience is saying something like I realize that Paul told Timothy not to let the women teach, but here is the experiential evidence that God has been at work transforming lives and bringing people to Christ through women who preach, which means I have to interpret Paul’s words to Timothy as being applicable in their context then but not today. It is Biblically mandated to seek the fruit of the Spirit’s work in real life as part of our discernment process (e.g. Luke 6:43-45, Galatians 5:19-23). Paul and Barnabas have seen the fruit of salvation in uncircumcised Gentiles.

So let’s go on and look at what Peter concludes about the Gentile believers in support of Paul and Barnabas’ argument: “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (vv. 8-9). I didn’t quote all of Peter’s speech, but unlike Peter’s Acts 2 sermon, which is loaded with scriptural references to psalms and prophets, Peter doesn’t cite any Biblical passages as the basis for his opinion here. Whatever specific stories Paul and Barnabas shared was compelling enough for Peter to conclude that God had “cleansed [the Gentiles’] hearts by faith.” So again, Paul and Barnabas’ testimony is not just “Here’s what God told us.” It includes real concrete evidence of the Spirit’s work.

James is the only disciple who points to scripture as part of the conversation (vv. 13-21). He quotes Amos 9:11-12:

After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up,so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.

Jonathan Martin’s commentary on this passage in his sermon is worth just reproducing verbatim:

Tell me what that text has to do with circumcision at all… The only thing that text would seem to confirm is that God does in fact love the Gentiles and wants them to have the life that is in Christ Jesus that has been revealed first to these Jewish believers… If all they had was scripture alone… how on the basis of the text itself would you decide that Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised? There is no way that anyone ever using some sort of good historical-critical method could take that text from the Old Testament and say this conclusively proves that Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. So what happened? They took seriously the Spirit and how they saw the Spirit working experientially in the community; they took seriously the text from the Old Testament; and then instead of anybody privately on their own feeling like they could figure it out for themselves, they all come together in community to figure out what God is doing.

James was led by the Holy Spirit to understand that particular passage from Amos as a revelation for what the disciples were contemplating. All of this occurred in the context of deep prayer and a mature intimacy with God. The fact that the passage wasn’t directly related to circumcision is actually evidence that James’ intuitive connection came from beyond himself. He didn’t keyword “circumcision” on to find the proof-texts for and against. He asked God, and God gave him the passage that applied and the not-at-all self-evident insight that God intended to let the Gentiles stay Gentile in their worship of Him instead of being proselytized by Jews into following Torah, which had been the assumption of how God intended to reach Gentiles and would have been an equally plausible interpretation of Amos 9:11-12.

In other words, James read the Bible prayerfully, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians today think that flipping open their Bible to any page is good enough. They read the Bible no differently than they would read a newspaper horoscope. “Well, I’m having this relationship problem, so let me flip open to a random page or try a few keywords on to figure out what I’m supposed to do.” What if God wants to talk to you about something other than your relationship problem? Do you get to decide which questions to ask or do you let God question you when you read the Bible?

The sola scriptura principle of the Reformation has bewitched Christians into thinking that getting answers from a book is the full extent of what we need to do to listen to God. Reading the Bible as a horoscope is not listening to God. It’s like when I’m having a conversation with my very literal son Matthew who never forgets anything and he tells me, “But you said last week…” So I tell him, “Well this is what I’m saying now.” If you’re flippantly keywording your way through Biblical proof-texts according to your own logical process, then you’re not listening for what God is saying now. You may actually be using His own words from a different context as leverage against what He is currently telling you to do, the same way my son does to me all the time.

Here’s the other thing I want to say about James’ interpretation of scripture. He could not have made the leap that he did unless he presumed that God’s teachings are pragmatic, which is to say that all that God told the Jewish people to do in the Torah was for the purpose of the same sanctification that the Gentiles were apparently experiencing without doing it, and not because God gained some obscure pleasure or honor through making His people obey His rules strictly for the sake of duty.

The theological presumptions of many evangelical Christians today would preclude their coming to the same conclusions as James did, because they don’t have a pragmatic understanding of God’s teachings. They would say that’s great that these Gentiles have been liberated from all those sins, but how does that justify disobeying how God told us to honor Him in Leviticus? I would hypothesize that this is yet another way in which Anselm ruined everything by making the problem of Christianity God’s offended honor rather than our slavery to sin.

James doesn’t say that the Gentiles don’t need to do anything. Rather he tries to distill the Torah pragmatically into four things for the Gentiles to avoid: meat offered to idols, sexual immorality, animals that have been strangled, and blood (v. 20). It would seem that based upon the context of their discernment process, James presumes these four things to inhibit the work of the Spirit probably due to a mix of their association with pagan religious practices and the inherent moral corrosion of sexual immorality. It may be also true that James is articulating a “compromise” position, so that the Pharisaic Christians wouldn’t schism (though Matthew’s gospel would later come along and push them all the way out out the door through his virulent polemics against them).

Of course, Paul, being a pragmatist maverick himself, will later contradict James’ ruling on sacrificial meat in Romans 14:14 where he says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” But Paul’s pragmatism and sensitivity also leads him to tell the Romans not to be a stumbling block for people who do believe like James that sacrificial meat will harm their faith.

Bottom line is that the people in the Bible whose words we deem sacred and authoritative used the Bible they had very differently than we do in the age of sola scriptura. If we cannot follow their model of discernment simply because they’re inside the canon and we’re outside of it, then what we’re saying is that we don’t trust the Holy Spirit to guide us today like the disciples were guided in the beginning, and is that not the very same trust that is supposed to be our justification and salvation?

As Jonathan says, “”If you experience the God who breathed these texts in your own life, then you’re in community with Paul and Silas and James… You’re part of the same story. We’re part of the Jerusalem council.” Again, “experience” is not a soft word for things like the goose bumps you get each time the skinny-jeaned praise leader guy does something amazing with his voice. Experience is the empirical evidence that God has been at work and left clear and visible fruit.

So for those Wesleyans who have been attacking the Wesleyan quadrilateral and saying that Wesley didn’t really believe that “experience” should factor into our spiritual discernment process as a community, why don’t we just rename it the Jerusalem Council quadrilateral instead? For that matter, I actually prefer Jonathan’s categories — Spirit, Word, Community — to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral categories of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience.

Saying “Spirit” rather than “Experience” recognizes the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty in the revelation process. Our experience of the Spirit’s witness is of course susceptible to lots of misinterpretation. How do we know what’s God’s spirit and not just our flesh talking? We need evidence of the Spirit’s fruit, such as Galatians 5:22-23, not just a strong sense of inner certainty. And yes, I recognize that people can have joy, peace, and self-control, but still be wrong. So the real answer to the question how do we know is we don’t; we watch and pray and trust. If you need to know for sure, you lack faith.

Saying “Word” instead of “Scripture” is also helpful, because it recognizes that the Word is a living person Jesus Christ who speaks today through scripture, not just a flat book of answers. Unless we read scripture Christologically in active conversation with Christ, then we might as well be reading a horoscope.

Saying “Community” instead of “Tradition” recognizes that we not only need to discern in community with the dead white guys (who are indeed an important part of our community) but also ecumenically today with Christians from other cultures and socioeconomic locations. I’m not sure that Augustine’s ideas always get to trump the perspective of a young working class woman from Managua today whose reality has forged new connections between the story of Jesus’ people and the world she sees around her.

Finally, demoting “Reason” to reduce the quadrilateral to a triangle might help us “to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) in how we read the Bible. Abstract, deductive reason isn’t really a prominent part of the disciples’ discernment process. Maybe if we demoted reason in our thinking about spiritual discernment, then people would read the Bible prayerfully as a live conversation instead of trying to construct extra-Biblical explanatory systems based on synthesizing things which were not necessarily meant to be synthesized, but spoken by God in the times ordained by God to those who are not just flipping through a book but talking to a Spirit in community with other believers while doing it.

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