In a previous post called “Connecting the dots…“, I suggested that Scripture gives us certain points of reference, but does not always draw a complete picture as to how we should live, or perhaps even what we should believe. In order to complete the picture, some have developed theological systems that teach what should be done and what should be believed in the spaces “between the dots”. Before I begin this post, I want to reiterate that I am not talking about the scriptural points of reference themselves. This series of posts assumes that someone exegetes Scripture to determine those points of reference, and that believers should live according to those points of reference. But, what happens between the dots?
Before we can answer the question, “How do we live between the dots?” we must first recognize the dots. Could it be that we are living according to man-made dots instead of scriptural dots? Could it be that we are occasionally living according to man-made points of reference instead of points of reference that we find in Scripture?
God gave the children of Israel a series of dots as well. However, neither the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), nor the Prophets, nor the Writings, spell out an entire law for Israel. Different methods developed in order to teach people how to live between these dots. Perhaps one of the most famous methods was developed by that sect known as Pharisaical Judaism.
The Pharisees were very interested in helping people live and believe properly. They wanted to help people approach God. They also recognized that their Scripture did not spell out exactly how someone was to do this. For example, Scripture taught that one was to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” But, how? What does it mean to “remember the Sabbath”? How does one “keep it holy”? Scripture did not specifically spell this out, so the Pharisees started adding their own dots. With very good intentions, they began to fill in the spaces between Scripture’s points of reference with their own doctrine. Soon, they had a smooth line connecting the various dots of Scripture. Then, they determined that people should keep their dots as well as Scripture’s dots. In fact, the differences between their dots and Scripture’s dots began to blur. Soon, the Pharisees’ own dots begin to contradict and override Scripture’s dots.
Jesus spoke to them about their practices:
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother'; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God) – then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:1-13 ESV)
Notice that Jesus did not condemn the traditions of the Pharisees, except where the tradition contradicted Scripture. He also condemned them because they could not tell the difference between the commands of God and the traditions of men.
Christians began to codify and explain their beliefs early in the history of the church. Thus, we see the rise of creeds, confessions, and systems. Many of these creeds, confessions, and systems attempt to explain the teachings of Scripture. Others continue beyond Scripture in order to fill in the “spaces between the dots”. We must be able to recognize the difference between Scripture’s dots and man-made dots.
Sometimes, these creeds, confessions, and systems are developed by a single person. Sometimes, they are developed by a group of people. Sometimes, people suppose that all believers are subject to these creeds, confessions, and systems. Others suggest that only a certain group of believers are subject to them. Either way, they are a man-made attempt to define something that God did not define. Is that bad or evil or sinful? Only if they are placed at the same level as (or higher than) Scripture.
When we begin to exegete our creeds, confessions, and systems and hold people accountable to live by them instead of by Scripture, we are “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”, and we are “making void the word of God by [our] tradition that [we] have handed down”.
At times, it becomes difficult to recognize the difference between man-made dots and the points of reference that Scripture provides. The only way to recognize the difference is to study Scripture itself, and to attempt to differentiate between Scripture and creeds, confessions, and systems. Honestly, I don’t think anyone can do this passively. It takes an active effort to recognize the difference, because many times these creeds, confessions, and systems have been taught at the same level (and sometimes at a higher level) than Scripture itself. We must be willing to examine everything that we have been taught based on what Scripture says itself – based on the text of Scripture.
Thus, before we can even begin to try to live according to Scripture, we have to differentiate between Scripture and man-made doctrines. This may require removing several “dots” that we hold dear. As long as we remain close to Scripture, then those points of reference will remain firm. But, in other areas, we may find ourselves on “shaky ground”, perhaps finding that our man-made dots have suddenly disappeared. This type of tension and uncertainty is good, because it draws us back to the Scriptures and to the God of the Scriptures.
Then, once we recognize the difference between scriptural points of reference and man-made dots, we can once again ask, “How do we live between the dots?” As I continue this series, I wonder if anyone has had to remove any “man-made dots” in order to find scriptural points of reference? How did this impact your faith or your walk with God?
“Connecting the Dots” Series: