There is always a need for a revival movement alongside the institutional church. Like houses, institutions require constant maintenance and repair. Sometimes they simply need to be abandoned, as when they suck so much cost into their repair that there is neither money nor energy for those who live in them to do what the institutions had been set up to do in the first place. A revival movement can exist inside an institution, but it will often live parallel to it, sometimes supporting and sometimes opposing it. And sometimes the reform movement will necessarily dismantle the institution and spring to life in new institutions. We are witnessing this in the west in our day as mainline denominations so undercut orthodoxy and orthopraxy that they are no longer Christian institutions, while orthodox movements continue and reform into new institutions living faithfully under the Word of God.
I have been looking at the notion of a ‘new covenant’ in Scripture in recent blog posts. Here I take a look backwards at why a new covenant was needed at all in Israel. To do so, I will present a section from Daniel I Block’s For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship. As Block points out, a fatal flaw in Israel’s life under the first covenant was its failure, for one reason or another, to live under the Word of God. The institutions of Israel continuously needed reform, and reform was first and foremost a matter of recovering the Word of God. After reviewing the evidence for this simple point in Block, I will then note several reform movements in Israel that reestablished the Word of God in Israel’s life and worship. In conclusion, I will apply this point to the Church as we look for a prescription for our own illnesses.
Israel’s Fatal Flaw: Failure to Live Under God’s Word
Israel’s fatal flaw was not abiding under the Word of God—or, more precisely, the Covenant of God with its commands. They failed to do so for various reasons: pressure from their cultural context to accommodate, tolerate, and even adopt alternative religions and practices; ignorance of God’s Word—a ‘Biblical illiteracy’; or an outright rejection of God’s Law. These issues are all with us today in various forms.
It will be easy enough to point out this problem in the failed mainline denominations of the west, where out-and-out rejection of God’s Word is openly affirmed on a regular basis by archbishops and priests and ministers and theologians. Yet Block begins his 7th chapter, ‘Hearing and Proclaiming the Scriptures in Worship,’ with a challenge for evangelical churches. He says,
The diminished place of the Scriptures in many evangelical churches today is reflected in (1) replacing pulpits that highlight preachers’ roles as spokespersons for God with nondescript or transparent stands, to make them more visible; (2) drastically reducing or eliminating the reading of Scripture in worship; (3) replacing sustained exposition of the Scriptures with short, topical homilies; and (4) substituting hymns steeped in the language and theology of Scripture with jingles that may borrow biblical phrases but are little more than sound bites empty of biblical meaning to many who sing them.
The phenomenon of Biblical illiteracy in orthodox and evangelical circles is almost as major a concern in the west as is the need for Bible translation and education in the oral cultures still lacking the Scriptures in their own languages today. There are other reasons for the loss of Scriptural authority in Evangelical contexts than those listed by Block in the worship service, including the increasingly visual culture of the west that devalues literature in general. The college professor who points out the inconsistency of his fundamentalist students for believing the Bible is God’s Word and not reading it is not right to poke fun at their belief in the inspiration of Scripture, but he has a point about a failure of both Church and culture to promote literacy in general and Biblical literacy in particular.
Israel in Old Testament times was largely an oral culture, not necessarily because people could not read—we do not actually know the level of literacy among average people—but because of the availability of literature. Even in the first century, the location of Biblical scrolls was in the synagogues and Temple, not in the average home for personal reading and devotion. One might find pieces of Scripture tucked away in phylacteries worn by individuals, but much of the learning of Scripture came down to memorization and public readings. Surely the more our once literary culture in the west becomes a visual culture, we shall have to adopt the practices of oral culture once again while still trying to promote literacy and finding ways to use electronic technology to make Scripture available.
Apart from the challenge of orality to Biblical literacy, Israel simply failed to live under God’s Word. Consider the texts that Block highlights:
*After Joshua died, the people ‘lost the memory of YHWH’s will and saving action (Judg. 2.6-3.6, esp. 2.10-12)’ (p. 177)
*In Eli’s day, ‘the word of YHWH’ was rare—meaning either infrequent prophecy or a neglect of God’s Torah (Law), or both
*Jehu, from the northern kingdom, permitted worship of golden calves at Bethel and Dan and failed to walk in the ways of God’s Law (2 Kings 10.28-31)
*The people of the northern kingdom refused to return to the covenant and Law of God (2 Kings 17.13-17, 34-41), ultimately faltering as a culture and being abandoned by God to go into Assyrian exile. Hosea says that the priests’ forgot the Torah (4.6) and the people rebelled against it (i.1-14). Amos says that the people had rejected the Torah and refused to obey God’s laws (2.4-5). Also in the 8th century, Isaiah also says that they rejected the Torah and despised the word (prophecies?) of the Holy one of Israel (5.24).
*One hundred years later, speaking of the southern kingdom, ‘Habakkuk complained that the land was full of violence, the Torah ignored, and justice miscarried at every turn; the priests had obviously failed their charge (1.1-4).’ The prophet Azariah tells of a time when Israel was without God, without a priest who could teach the people God’s Word, and without the Law itself (2 Chronicles 15.3). Zephaniah said that the priests in Jerusalem had profaned the sanctuary and done violence to the Torah (3.1-7). Jeremiah stated that the priests were neither concerned about God’s presence nor did they know God (2.8). He says that the people did not listen to YHWH’s words and rejected his Torah (6.19). He also complains that, though having God’s Word, the people did not live according to it (7.1-11, 21-34). Moreover, ‘Lamentations 2.9 mourns a threefold spiritual tragedy associated with the destruction of the temple: instruction in the Torah has vanished, prophetic visions have ceased, and the elders sit in the dust, paralyzed by grief.’
*After Israel’s return from exile, Malachi complains that the priests had turned from teaching God’s Law to giving the people what they wanted to hear (cf. 4.4).
Reform Movements and the Word of God in Israel
Daniel Block also notes several reform movements in Israel that involved a return to God’s Word:
*King Asa responded to the warnings of the prophet, Azariah, by opposing the idolatry of his day. His son, Jehoshaphat, ‘continued the reforms, sending his officials and twelve Levites and priests throughout Judah to teach the Torah of YHWH (2 Chron. 17.7-9).’
*King Hezekiah began his reform at the concurrent pilgrim Festival of Unleavened Bread and the Passover (2 Chronicles 30). The renewal involved purging the land of idolatry and reorganizing the priestly orders and rituals (2 Chronicles 31.2-21)—all in accordance with the teaching of the Torah.
*King Josiah instituted a famous reform in the 620s BC when a cleaning of the Temple uncovered a Torah scroll, most likely of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22-23; 1 Chronicles 34-35).
*After the return from exile, the priest, Ezra, instituted a Torah-based reform by reading from the Torah for seven days at the Festival of Booths (Nehemiah 8.13-18). He
determined to study the Torah of YHWH, apply its teaching to himself, and teach it precisely and comprehensively in Israel (Ezra 7.10). Nehemiah 8 illustrates his public performance by recounting one communal even where this happened. Responding to the people’s hunger for the Torah, from dawn to midday before men, women, and children Ezra read while his colleagues translated it [from Hebrew to Aramaic, which the people now spoke,] and helped the people understand what was being read.
Block also points out that Ezra’s reform included a penitential liturgy. He says,
The chain of events that began on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri 1; Neh. 8.2) climaxed on the twenty-fourth day with a penitential liturgy (Neh. 9.1-10.39) involving intense lamentation (fasting, sackcloth, dirt on their heads, 9.1), separation from all non-Israelites (9.2a), verbal confession of sin (9.2b), hearing the Torah for three hours (9.3a), prostration before YHWH (9.3b), crying out to YHWH by leaders (9.4), an extended blessing of YHWH by eight Levites (9.5-37), renewing the covenant, and recommitting to worshiping YHWH properly (9.38 [10.1]).
Some Considerations for Today
Following are a few reflections based on the importance of God’s Word to any renewal movement.
Recovery of the Authority of God’s Word in Our Day
In our day, we have a wholesale attack on the Word of God in mainline denominations that, in one way or another, dismiss Scripture outright. To be sure, there remain some faithful congregations in those contexts, but the denominations as a whole have launched a full-force attack on the Scriptures in the past several decades. This is often covert. It may come in the form of underplaying the seriousness of sin, or even calling ‘good’ what God calls sin or wickedness. (‘Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!’ (Isaiah 5.20)). It may come in the form of sophisticated arguments of interpretation that remove uncomfortable texts, claiming the context or words or relevance make the text passé for us today. It may be the result of poorly educated ministers or Biblically illiterate laity. And in some cases, the orthodox and evangelical churches are also at risk of failing to abide by God’s Word even while affirming Scripture as his Word.
Reformation of the Church, as the many examples from Israel’s story demonstrate, rests on a recovery of the Word of God—recovery of its place of authority, of its being heard, of its being taught, and of its being obeyed. Block has suggested several practices already noted that can assist this recovery: actually reading sections of Scripture in the regular worship service, not just one, short passage (or none at all!); preaching that is understood as teaching (expository preaching) rather than rhetorically splendid speeches; deeply Biblical hymns that (I would add) are repeatedly sung over the years so as to be memorized and internalized; and even church architecture that emphasizes the authority of the Word.
Recovery of Teaching God’s Word and of Teachers in the Church
In Block’s exposition of Israel’s failings, not only a failure to read and hear God’s Word but also a failure to appoint trusted teachers to teach it—and to teach it to everyone—is evident. In the west, a most peculiar approach to theological education grew steadily in the modernist period and is still with us today. It needs desperate overhauling. The practice was to treat training for ministry as an academic exercise by which students chose their study, took out federal loans, got their degrees in an academically accredited institution, and then sought employment from churches, colleges, and seminaries. The alternative model—one the Church followed for centuries—was to have the Church identify those called to ministry, the Church train its future ministers in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church, the Church pick up the cost for such training, and the Church place the new ministers in needed areas of mission and ministry. The academic model has suited liberal, Protestant churches well: ministers are not required to be orthodox or even Biblically literate, in some cases. They are more like members of a political party, advancing the views of the party (the denomination) and otherwise free to speak words their congregations wish to hear. One regularly meets theological educators in top, academic institutions that smugly berate the Scriptures and trash the historic faith of the orthodox churches. But evangelical seminaries are also at risk when they place training in the social sciences for certain ministries as equally significant to training in Scripture and theology, hiring professors with little theological training on the basis of their academic expertise in other fields of study. One must wonder why any classroom time is given to ministry fields of study when reflective practice and mentoring would be far better—until one realizes that this is the only way an academic institution, instead of the Church, can really train people in ministry. What seminaries—run by the Churches, not academic accrediting agencies—can offer is an advanced study of Scripture and historical theology, letting the denominations run their programmes of reflective practice in ministry that train people for various types of ministry.
Teaching within the Church needs to be improved—radically improved. With exposure to the Word of God decreasing in churches for various reasons, new approaches to teaching are needed. Regional teachers should be appointed in denominations, and they should hold classes for and in various churches. The early church seems to have practiced this—along with roving prophets and evangelists. Such teachers should not only focus on adults but also children.
Recovery of Scripturally Proficient Overseers, Not Professional Administrators
Persons entrusted with overseeing a denomination should not be professional ‘leaders’ or administrators but theological educators. More capable administrators might be part of their team, but no administrator should be appointed above the person steeped in the Scriptures. Denominations regularly fail in this regard, even when the concept of a ‘bishop’ is explicitly stated as a person who can teach the Scriptures. Instead, what one gets all too often is someone who plays to the audience, does the archbishop’s bidding so as to move up the hierarchical ladder or receive comfortable situations in ministry or retirement, or is so swamped with meetings and administration that he loses his first calling: study and exposition of the Word of God.
Perhaps these examples do not quite represent what the reader finds at issue in his or her situation. Yet we all will find examples of the need to emphasize the place of Scripture in the Church and our lives. Only once this is done is there any possibility for renewal. The Israelites’ story over centuries of time demonstrates this, and God finally spoke of a ‘new covenant’ that would involve placing His Word in their mouths such that they would obey Him (Isaiah 59.21). Jesus, inaugurating this new covenant, sent out his disciples to make disciples throughout the nations by baptizing and teaching all that he had commanded (Matthew 20.18-20). Jesus’ renewal movement for Israel—and evangelism to the nations—was a movement of teaching God’s Word. May we recover this focus in all our doings and so renew the Church in our day.