There are two men that have died this year that are responsible for significantly shaping my heart and mind. Their departure has caused me to reflect on the contributions that they have played in my faith development.
The first is Dallas Willard who passed away last week after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Dallas taught Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is best known as one of the main gurus, if not the main one, of a genre in Christian writing called “Spiritual formation.” His death was personal to me and to millions of others readers. It is shocking that it is so personal to me because I never met him. It is personal to me because his teaching was significantly responsible for making spiritual formation a real part of my faith.
Dr. Willard was a much needed voice in our Christian world over the past few decades for the importance of spiritual disciplines. For Dallas, the disciplines are the means by which God changes lives. He wrote so much about the goal of our faith being transformation into the likeness of Jesus. God does this through his Spirit as we make our mind, body, soul, and relationships available to his transformative means through righteous living and through the habitual practice of the spiritual disciplines.
God used Dallas’ writings to increase a hunger within me for Christlikeness. In fact, the title of this blog, En Camino, (Spanish for “On My Way”) came to pass as the result of the thinking that Dallas instilled within me. I am a work in progress with the goal of Christlikeness. I know that Dallas’ writings spurred me on to practice the disciplines more than I would have without him. These practices made me more aware of myself which was both invigorating and uncomfortable. In his book, Renovation of the Heart, Dallas opened my eyes to the holistic nature of Spiritual formation. God wants to shape all of what we are to be like Christ. God is not just concerned with our spirits but with our bodies, minds, and relationships as well. I highly recommend Dallas Willard’s work, although they are not for the light reader or those that like to cover more than 15 pages in an hour. He makes you stop and think. His books that influenced me are:
- The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988)
- Renovation of the Heart (2002)
- The Divine Conspiracy (1999)- Christianity Today’s best book of the year
- The Great Omission (2006)
The second man to depart this year that is responsible for shaping my mind on a very important topic is Dr. Paul J. Achtemeier. Dr. Achtemeier was a well-respected New Testament scholar and leader in the field of Biblical Interpretation. He was professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary. He served as editor of the commentary series Interpretation and for the journal by the same name.
I only read one book by Dr. Achtemeier but it is a book that I have read through many times over the past 13 years and served as the catalyst in my fascination with the nature and function of Scripture. The book is Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture. This book was crucially important to me in my graduate school days. He helped me see how I should view its nature and how it should function as an authority in the church.
Dr. Paul Achtemeier helped me to see that the Scriptures serve primarily in the role of a witness. The Christian Scriptures witness to the divine working of God in the world, particularly among his people (Israel and the church) and climatically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The inspiration of Scripture should be primarily defined by this witnessing function guided by the Spirit of God. The idea of a witness is that it ultimately points away from itself to something or someone else who is to be the true subject.
How does God speak today? I always believed that God spoke through his Word which was the Bible. This answer is true but incomplete. The Word of God is not the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura) but is of course, as John makes perfectly clear (John 1), Jesus Christ the Son of God. God spoke most poignantly through Jesus’ incarnation, life, and sacrifice (Hebrews 1:1-3). We hear God’s message for us most clearly through the life of Jesus. The Scriptures, more specifically the four Gospels, witness to the Word of God (Jesus). The Gospels allow us to hear what the Word of God (Jesus) expects of us.
God didn’t just speak through Jesus of course but he spoke in the past in direct ways and through many prophets, apostles, and other disciples. He continues today to speak to us through the witness of Scripture and through his Holy Spirit that works among us. In the church, the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit work as a team to communicate to his people words from God for their context. Scripture is always to be read within the context of the local church, “Bible and Community belong together, and to ignore the one is to distort the other.” (104)
Dr. Achtemeier helped me to see clearly that the Bible written by the people of God as a reliable and inspired witness to the redemptive activity of God within his community of people and their response to his work. We are then to see within these inspired documents the possibilities of God working among his people today. The Scriptures also witness to God’s work within his community to create for His glory a people who live for Him for the good of the world. A witness can accurately reveal the truth of God’s redemptive activity in the world while maintaining its full humanity, personality, and contextual nature. It is our task today to use Scripture through the guidance of His Spirit to join God’s story which extends into the present.
Dr. Achtemeier also opened my eyes to the way in which the canon (the process of deciding which books of the Bible are in and which are out) was formed and the implications of this reality for our view of inspiration. It was put together by early, recognized church leaders who sought to find authoritative documents that according to the church accurately witnessed to God’s work in his church and most importantly accurately taught about Jesus Christ. This took much time (at least a couple hundred years) and involved some disagreement. But ultimately, the authority of Scripture was not created by the church but was recognized by it. Seeing the nature of the Bible as a witness makes more sense of the process of the formation of our Bibles.
Finally, Dr. Achtemeir helped me reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit today in hearing God. He helped me to have a place for God’s Spirit today in my faith and life, and that place is right alongside the Scriptures. His work is not confined to Scripture but it works alongside it. If the Holy Spirit’s work is only to be tied to Scripture than his work was finished almost 200 years ago. God works within his community today to inspire his church today as we listen faithfully to the witness of Scripture. Scripture and the Holy Spirit work today as partners in speaking God’s word for individual communities that seek to do His will. The writing of Scripture is finished but God’s Spirit is still working.
Scripture will forever hold a central place in the teaching of the church as a witness to God’s redemptive work in the past and as a normative guide to the church as the Holy Spirit works in us for transformation in Christlikeness and through us as a witness to the world. This view of Scripture as essentially a faithful witness to God’s work in his people does not lessen the authority of Scripture but actually heightens it. It is actually what the writers themselves intended as they wrote it. We need to be unapologetically committed to the authority of the Scriptures. Just to drive home this point, Dr. Achtemeier writes, “The Christian community that abandons the authority of the biblical witness becomes little more than the mouthpiece of whatever current cultural norms catch its fancy.” (148)
The topic of the nature and function of Scripture is an important one and one that must be approached with care and faith. Ultimately, belief in the humanity and divinity of Scripture is an act of faith not dissimilar to our belief in Jesus as both human and divine. Jesus is the Word of God, through which God has spoken the loudest of his love for mankind and how we are to live in response to his love. Through Scripture we hear God and are moved to faith and action. This is why we can call Scripture the Word of God.
I am greatly indebted to these two champions of faith that have helped me and many others be shaped in their hearts and minds to the glory of God.