Mining the Word of God
by David Faulkner
In my forthcoming book, The Gospel According to Job, I describe my trip to the bottom of the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota. A group of pastors and schoolteachers from the area were taken on the tour so we could see the working conditions many of our people lived with daily. We began at 6,000 feet above sea level, but ended up 2,100 feet below sea level on the very lowest level of the mine. The air temperature down there is 105 degrees and the water that comes out of the walls is thirty degrees hotter than that. It is a strange, dusty, muddy, brown world where almost the only light comes from the miners’ hard hats.
I told the story in my bok because Job discourses on the subject of mining at some length in chapter 28. Mining was, of course, far less sophisticated and technical in Job’s day. He speaks of dangling on a rope over a pit. We didn’t dangle, we descended in a “man cage” at a speed of a mile a minute. Job’s speech about mining ended with the conclusion that there was no mine where wisdom could be gained. That was true in Job’s day. It is not true in ours. Today we can gain wisdom by “mining” the Bible for all the wisdom and truth it contains.
Last month I wrote about the necessity of theology. Without it we can’t make sense of a single statement about the Christian faith, even so simple a statement as, “Jesus saves.” This month I want to introduce you to three kinds of theology. The first is called “Biblical Theology.” I have, in my library, a very useful book by Middle Eastern scholar Ken Bailey. It’s called Poet and Peasant, and, Through Peasant Eyes, and was originally published as two separate books. In it Bailey examines the great parables of Luke’s “travel narrative,” stories Jesus told while traveling to Jerusalem for the last time. These include such familiar parables as, “The Good Samaritan,” “The Wedding Banquet,” “The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Boys” (Luke 15), “The Rich Man and Lazarus” and “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”
Bailey explains each parable in great detail. His knowledge grows out of a lifetime spent in the Middle East. But at the end of each discussion he describes what he calls the “theological cluster” of the parable. In this section he deicribes what the parable teaches us about God, His relationship to us, His plans for us, and so forth. He says, for example, that the Parable of the Lost Boys (The Prodigal Son and Older Brother) is meant to tell us what God is like. Read it and see if it doesn’t tell you a lot of what God, in the person of the father in the story, is like.
This is what we call “Biblical Theology.” It looks at every text in Scripture and asks such questions as, “What does this teach us about God, ourselves, faith, grace, forgiveness—all the great doctrines of the faith?” Biblical Theology gives us the raw data of theology. It tries to let each text speak for itself, and to interpret each solely on all the other things we know about that text’s subject from other Scriptures. We can imagine it as producing the raw material, the ore (to go back to our mining analogy) on which all our understanding of God’s word is built.
One of the problems with studying Scripture fully is that there is so much of it. Most Bible translations run from 1500 to 2000 pages, and that in rather small print. We could spend several lifetimes trying to understand all the theology that is contained in those words. So people have taken what the Biblical Theologians have learned and tried to make sense of it, to put it into a cohesive working system. We call this “Systematic Theology.” It is one step removed from the direct study of Scripture. But it is helpful because it gives us organizing principles and definitions we can use when we look at the Bible’s teachings. In seminary I used a systematic theology prepared by Louis Berkhof. Berkhof was a man committed to teaching what Scripture taught, but also to organizing it in ways that would help us all get our minds around the general thrust of the Bible’s teachings on all the important matters of the faith.
There is a third kind of “theology”—if you want to call it that. It is “Speculative Theology.” This is the kind of theology practiced in the liberal church. Because those in the left wing of Christianity do not see the Bible as an authoritative guide in all matters of faith and life, they prefer to see it as the writings of a group of people who were only speculating on what God might be like and what His truth might be. Essentially these people see their own experience as similar to that of the Prophets, Apostles, and even, in extreme cases, of Jesus Christ. Hence the “Jesus Project,” a forum of liberal scholars who try, through a process of study and voting, to tell us which words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were actually spoken by Jesus. For most of those folks, if what Jesus said conflicts with their own ideas about what God must be like, then Jesus can’t have said it. There are probably some questions the Bible doesn’t answer, and it is all right to speculate about them. But where the Word of God speaks, we should listen and believe.
You may recall that last month I fussed about a song by Jason Gray. In it he exalts love over believing in something and “losing your heart,” over allegiance. As in much else, the late Rich Mullins had the right of the argument. He sang, “There’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment and a music higher than the songs that I can sing. The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the Giver of All Good Things.” As believers we must not only give God our loyalty and allegiance, we must also give it to His word and His truth. Theology, when used correctly, is an essential tool to help us in that effort. We need it. We should never belittle it or despise those who teach us biblical truth because right theology, however it is organized, is just that, biblical truth. At Homestake tons of ore had to be milled to produce an ounce of gold. The yield of Scripture is better, but the milling, the sifting, the sorting, the systematizing, is just as important for the production of pure, understandable truth.