Some of our readers may recognize that this conclusion is valid, but they may nevertheless still be a bit reluctant to accept it, simply out of disappointment. Having been led to think of the Bible as a source of superhuman knowledge on natural-scientific subjects, and having grown accustomed to thinking of it this way, they may now feel that they are “trading down” in accepting a Bible that is really something else. They may even feel embarrassed by the preceding demonstration of how the biblical authors were limited in their knowledge, even though they were nevertheless not limited in their relational capacity and they were therefore still in a perfect position to tell us about, and introduce us to, the God they knew.
Let us speak to these concerns. We have come to understand that the Christian faith is ultimately all about relationships: with God first, and then with our neighbors. Experiencing relationships of the quality that a true biblical faith can lead to actually far surpasses having (or thinking one has) a book that discloses the inner workings of the universe. Power and knowledge, in other words, are not the greatest things in life; the greatest thing is love. In fact, to be led to the point where we recognize that Christianity is an invitation to embrace God’s love, and to share it with others, is actually worth the pain we may experience, if necessary, in discovering that Christianity is not something else.
This, after all, is what the Bible itself says it’s all about. “If I have all
knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). “Jesus replied,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with
all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). “Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
This is also what the most mature teaching recognizes the Christian faith to be about. For example, Jonathan Edwards, the theologian who is considered the “father of American evangelical theology” (and on whom Dr. Smith wrote his doctoral dissertation) did a classic study of the marks of a true Christian. He wrote in his Treatise on the Religious Affections that “holy persons . . . love God, in the first place, for the beauty of his
holiness or moral perfection,” and not primarily for “his natural attributes, of strength, knowledge, etc.” Edwards goes on to observe that getting more power or knowledge gives a good person a greater influence for good, but it gives a bad person a greater influence for harm. So these things should not be pursued as ends in themselves, and they are not offered to us by God as ends in themselves. So the purpose of the Bible is not primarily to impart greater knowledge or power to us, but to lead us to love God and neighbor, and thereby to be transformed.
In his late teens and early twenties, Dr. Smith was exposed to many influences from the charismatic movement. Some of the teachings he heard asserted very strongly that the Christian faith was about exercising power; “name it and claim it” was the motto. At one point he was given the idea that he could actually tell a locked door to open if he commanded it in the name of Jesus. Naturally he tried it. The door stayed locked! It certainly would have been convenient to have that kind of power. But as the Bible itself says, power without love is nothing. And if the pursuit or even the possession of this power kept us from love, it would in no way be worth it.
Similarly, it would be nice if the Bible provided a guide to the inner
workings of the physical universe, so that we’d know just where to look in
our research and investigations, and so that we’d be able to compare our work with the “right answer” to make sure it always turned out right. This would also enable us to “know” that Christianity was true, without having to take it on faith. But that’s not what the Bible does. Rather, it tells the story of how people throughout human history have come into relationship with God, and it invites us to experience that same relationship. We may never realize that this is what it is all about, however, unless we first become disillusioned with the idea that it is all about magical power, or about superhuman knowledge.
In our own pilgrimages, we are grateful for every indication that what now fills our lives is not a “deprogramming” from earlier ideas of power and knowledge, but rather life in relationship, in community, with others who are “on the way.” We need simply caution those who will take this same path that they will need to take it on faith. Greater knowledge and power can be exercised immediately, while relationships of a higher quality must be grown into over time. We can’t make an instantaneous trade, giving up magical knowledge and power for relationships in all of their fullness. In the end, however, if we pursue them, we will realize that these higher-quality relationships are worth far, far more than anything we might have thought we had, based on our earlier ideas about the Bible.
“Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”