Sunday, October 14, 2007

Integrity, Technology, and God

[The following essay was published in Denver Seminary Magazine (Fall, 2007).]



Keeping Integrity in a Compromised World:
Resisting Two Technological Temptations
By Douglas Groothuis

The renowned preacher Phillip Brooks astutely wrote that “preaching is truth through personality.” More than that, Christian ministry as a whole should be the demonstration of truth through personality. As followers of the Truth Incarnate (John 14:6), we should radiate God’s truth through a godly personality, one full of Christian virtues, such as faith, hope, and love. We should “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We should live out Christian integrity, a personal wholeness of holy purpose, and refuse to use devious or improper methods (2 Corinthians 1:12). But keeping our integrity in a compromised world brings its challenges.

We cannot fill ourselves full of virtue any more than we can justify ourselves before a holy God. This is the work of God in Christ alone, as applied through the Holy Spirit first through the once-for-all justification received by faith alone (Romans 5:9; Ephesians 2:8) and then through the moment by moment dependency on God’s ongoing work for our sanctification unto greater Christ-likeness.[1] Jesus taught that we must abide in him and receive strength through the Holy Spirit in order to bear fruit for Kingdom activities (Acts 1:8; John 14-16). This requires knowledge of what God desires of his bride, the kind of fruit we should produce, and the discernment and courage to face down spiritual counterfeits and embrace only biblical beliefs and methods for ministry. Without this, integrity will elude us.

The contemporary scene offers a host of counterfeits in the ways of ministry and Christian living in general. I will focus on only ways areas in which pastors and other Christian workers may be seduced by the spirit of the age instead of relying on the Spirit of God: relying on Bible factoids instead of possessing a deep knowledge of Scripture, and sermon stealing.

Temptation #1: Computer technologies make access to the Bible fast and simple. We can search for Bible texts, import them into sermon outlines, and generally find what we need through quick searches online or through Bible software. While I am happy to use these technologies, they have a down side that may compromise our integrity as Bible-believing Christians.[2] This is illustrated by a student who took a doctrinal oral examination at a theological seminary. When pressed, he could not tell his professors where important events were found in the Bible, although he had memorized quite a few isolated Scriptures. He lacked a sense of the Bible as an unfolding story in book form. The Bible had become a storehouse of accessible facts. When asked him how he had studied for the examination, he said he had used a computer program to produce texts on various doctrinal themes, such as the character of God, salvation, and others. We advised him to abandon his computer generated lists and to read the Bible as a book, to chart its plot line.[3] We assured him this would give him a more well-integrated sense of the Scriptures. He later passed the examination in good form. This young man was a solid student who earnestly pursued Christian ministry. Nevertheless, he had been deprived of theological integrity through the misuse of technology.

Some also claim they do not need to memorize where key Scriptures are located—the book, chapter, and verse—since a laptop can find this in a flash. But knowing where a text can be found is an integral part of being biblically literate, of having God’s truth at our command. One should have this indispensable knowledge of Holy Scripture in one’s soul, not simply on one’s laptop. Biblical knowledge—what the Bible says, what it means, and where it says it—should become well integrated into our personalities, so that God’s truth may be brought to bear from the inside out in every situation.

Computers and the Internet have made the Bible more available to millions, both at the popular and scholarly level. I appreciate being able to click to the online version of the TNIV to find and download texts to use in my writing and teaching. (I used it to copy passages into this article.) However, we lose our theological integrity when we approach the Bible as a storehouse for isolated facts, instead of a rich collection of various types of literature, spread out over centuries and written by different authors in different situations—all inspired by the same Author (2 Timothy 3:15-16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). An integral knowledge of the Bible requires long-term study and reflection on the books of the Bible in their historical and literary context. This is exactly what Denver Seminary teaches its students to do.

Even though I can access any biblical text electronically, I meditate and memorize Scripture in its context, and challenge my students to do this as well. The living and active word of God (Hebrews 4:12; Isaiah 55:8-9) should be present in our thoughts as we teach, preach, write, and converse with others. We should be walking Bibles—even when we are unplugged. As King David affirmed, “Your word I have hid in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

Temptation #2: Although I lament it, some preachers are sinning against God in their methods of sermon preparation. From what I can gather, this may be fairly widespread. This, too, is encouraged by an irresponsible use of computer technologies; and it robs preachers of their integrity before God and their congregations. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that various web pages are offering word-for-word transcripts of sermons by well-known preachers to those who desire to produce successful sermons. Instead of putting in the study time, prayerfully laboring to forge a godly message through the prism of one’s own character, some claim it’s better to acquire material from sermons that are “road tested.” One pastor said, “If you got something that’s a good product, why go out and beat your head against the wall and try to come up with it yourself?”[4]

There is nothing wrong with learning from others and incorporating their insights into one’s sermons. The Internet provides some solid resources for this, if one knows where to look. Some in the two-thirds world—who have very limited access to study tools that those in the United States take for granted—are helped by getting basic sermon outlines online. Nevertheless, we are commanded by God not to steal (Exodus 20:15). Lifting other people's sermons word-for-word without crediting the source is intellectual theft. It also commits the deadly sin of sloth (or acedia), since the one who takes other people’s sermons is not bothering to study out the material for him or herself.[5] By so doing, pastors lose their integrity and their divine authorization.

Denver Seminary has a long and rich tradition of educating its future pastors to craft sermons that are deeply rooted in a proper understanding of Scripture. We have helped shape strong biblical preachers for over fifty years. This process requires the long, hard, and rewarding study of the text, as well as developing faithful and creative applications of biblical truth that fit the congregation to which one is ministering. If preaching is “truth through personality,” the acquisition of truth from the Bible should be taken with the utmost seriousness, since Scripture calls us to integrity and excellence and warns us against shoddy teaching in the name of God (James 3:1-2; Titus 2:7-8). As Paul exhorted his younger co-worker Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15; see also Acts 17:11).

Pastors need sufficient time for sermon preparation. Without this, the temptation to cut corners becomes greater. Many pastors feel intense pressure to perform every Sunday and to compete with better known preachers whose sermons are readily available on line. In light of this, congregations should honor their pastors by giving them sufficient time to immerse themselves in the Scriptures so that they might produce fruitful sermons. Moreover, congregations should pray to that end and not compare their pastor to media superstars. When the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon was asked the secret of his preaching, he humbly replied, “My people pray for me.” Truly, there can be no integrity in any aspect of ministry without prayer, since prayer lays hold of the promises of God for our good, the good of others, and for God’s glory (1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

A ministry of integrity delivers truth through godly personality. It refuses to be compromised by yielding to temptations, technological or otherwise. As the great missionary Hudson Taylor put it, “God’s work in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.”


Endnotes:

[1] On this, see the modern classic by Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Crossway Books, 2001).
[2] I address this in The Soul in Cyberspace (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999); see also Quentin Schultz, Habits of the High Tech Heart (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002).
[3] D.A. Carson masterfully develops the plot line of the Bible in The Gagging of God (Baker Books, 1996), 193-252.
[4] Suzanne Sataline, “That Sermon Your Heard on Sunday May Be from the Web,” Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2006.
[5] On the sin of acedia (the Latin term for sloth) and how to combat it, see William Backus, What Your Counselor Never Told You (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2000), chapter six. This book is a wise treatment of the seven deadly sins.

12 comments:

Abu Daoud said...

Is it not true that, in general, evangelical Christianity has lost its sense of sacramentality? Since this is the case, we should not be surprised that the the Bible, a books which in itself is sacramental and fundamentally related to the Sacraments, has lost its significance as a physical and tangible object?

I think this article can be summarized like this: We must not forget the Bible is a sacramental book.

But that summary is in many ways beyond the vocabulary of today's evangelicalism.

emmzee said...

Sermon "borrowing" is indeed widespread. One of my seminary profs noted that the traffic to his website (which contains a large archive of transcripts of his sermons, www.victorshepherd.on.ca) spikes every Saturday evening, as desperate and/or lazy preachers search for sermons. On one hand he despaired that so many preachers were doing this, either due to being overworked, or just plain lazy. On the other hand, he said, at least he knew they would be speaking doctrinally solid, biblically based material the following morning. :) I hope that preachers who use others' sermons at least give proper credit when speaking to their congregations, but I suspect that often doesn't happen.

Doug Groothuis said...

Abu:

You make an arresting point, one with which I agree and will meditate on. Thank you.

evagrius said...

I think it's better to "steal" from the Fathers of the Church, esp. Origen and John Chrysostom.

I'm reading de Lubac's book on Origen, History and Spirit, The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen, just reprinted this year by Ignatius Press.

A great read which will give me excellent background when I do read the commentaries and homilies of Origen.

I've already read his "First Principles", "Peri Archon" but that's not where the meat of Origen is. It's in his sermons.

Paul D. Adams said...

Dr G says:
"...knowing where a text can be found is an integral part of being biblically literate, of having God’s truth at our command. One should have this indispensable knowledge of Holy Scripture in one’s soul, not simply on one’s laptop."

AMEN!!

Two comments (and I do not say these things to boast but to demonstrate my sheer sadness at the state of the Church)
1. When I entered seminary ('94), a multiple choice Bible quiz comprised of almost 100 questions was required with a passing grade. The test was given to me and when I opened the booklet of questions to begin, I noticed the answers on the first page were faintly circled, having been erased. I thumbed through the remainder of the booklet and saw that every answer had been circled. Before answering the first question, I gave it back to the person who administered the exam, noted the concern of the circled answers, and asked for another booklet. The new exam was gladly re-administered as a tabula rasa and appreciation for noting the tainted exam was mentioned. I passed (with a perfect score). Who would have circled the answers only to have them distributed to the next person?

2. During multiple systematic theology classes I would regularly quote Scripture when offering input. During a break one day, a student turned to me and said something like "You have an amazing grasp of Scripture! I'm so impressed by how much you know about what the Bible says." While I was a bit encouraged to hear this, I was more amazed and impressed at the comment. I thought to myself, "Doesn't everyone who goes to seminary know at least as much as I do about what the Bible says?!".

Jeremiah 15:16
When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart's delight, for I bear your name, LORD God Almighty.

"Oh God. Put your words into our souls that we may feast on your heart!!"

Jer said...

Unoriginal, glib, and anecdotal. I thik this site should come down, as you are really only preaching to the converted. Further, the tone is generally negative; and to my finely-tuned nose tends to hint at legalism....I'm out!

NWProdigal said...

I may be converted, but I appreciate the sage advice concerning moderation in using omputer aids for Bible studies.
I have found myself learning much about certain specialized areas, but with such a scattergun approach that I must take this advice to heart.

I have only been a Christian for 11 months and I have had many people, whom I'd assumed were mature in the faith, tell me the same thing that Paul Adams heard concerning his grasp of scripture.
I have been disappointed at the illiteracy of many Christians and encouraged by a very few. I don't say this to brag. It's just the sad truth, apparently.

I have a tactile and emotional attachment to my Bibles and much prefer to read God's Word that way versus using a Bible program. I'm afraid I've fallen victim to technology and agree with this idea that technology is cheating us out of a wholesome understanding of what the Bible really is in all it's glorious uniqueness. Unfortunately, and while I am no "KJV Only" person, I feel the plethora of translations has also made it more difficult to imprint the Word in our minds and hearts. NIV at church, ESV in my pocket, NASB for devotions, etc, etc. Amazingly, I find most of my scripture quoting pops out in the KJV even though it's been 25 years since I last read that version solely as a young church-goer.

Thanks for the exhortation, Dr. Groothius!

Sarah Scott said...

Jer,

While your intentionally provocative comments do not even begin to merit a response, you are apparently unaware that this is a BLOG. As such, if you do not like it, there are multitudes of other options on the blogosphere. Though I challenge you to find one as astute and discerning (among other things) as this one...

righteousness first said...

Jer:

As Sarah said, your comment doesn't even begin to merit a response, but I too will respond anyway.

1. This is a blog, not an academic journal. That is why the points are often not thought out--it's a collective place to lobby ideas. Groothuis does not write this type of stuff in actual publications, these are just "trial runs." Judge him on that basis.

2. His article never claimed to say anything new. He's just consolidating ideas to a new audience. All of us are aware that the ideas presented in his rough draft have already been said a million times (just as everything else pretty much has). Just because it's unoriginal, doens't mean it isn't important.

3. As for anecdotal, I think it's good for Groothuis to infuse some folksy personality into his writing. Sure, at times he comes across as very harsh and unrelenting, but you should give him credit in this respect.

4. Yes, this blog is for fundamentalists. And that's fine. We aren't trying to convert, we aren't trying engage "intellectuals" we are merely using this website for conservatives.

5. As for the tone being negative, I'm ambivalent about this. Yes, his tone is almost always angry and frustrated, but that is okay. Groothuis takes a lot of flak from academics and people in the AAR--often his ministry is discredited; furthermore, he has a passion to not see Christians ensnared in what he perceives to be a pernicious culture. So his anger (I would say passion, though) stems from his frustration with academic credibility and the emptiness of some cultural morays. I'd hasten to add that Jesus was also very angry at times for the same reason: the intellectuals didn't invite Jesus into their coterie and he saw the problems of this world--and they crucified him. Don't crucify Groothuis, just recognize that his negative tone is completely justified.

Lainie Petersen said...

I very much appreciated this post/article. I've been looking for some good Bible software (suggestions most welcome), but Dr. Groothuis has articulated well the difference between digital information and "the book". There is a significant difference in the way that we read and process information on a screen vs words printed on paper. As people of "The Book", it is crucial that we be aware of, and understand, this distinction.

Paul D. Adams said...

Jer:
I fail to see how promoting integrity in ministry/work/writing/et al. (the overall theme of this thread, by the way) is "glib" or "anecdotal" and warrants the thought that "this site should come down."

Why not engage the dialog, encourage discourse, and help advance the discussion forward?

nwprodigal:
Welcome to the kingdom! You've everything to be thankful for in being among the "converted." May the truth of God's Word have its way in you.

Doug Groothuis said...

Righteousness continues to baffle me.

1. This article is not "a trial run." It is from The Denver Seminary journal, as it says. It is not an academic article per se, but does have footnotes!

I am not a Fundamentalist, nor are most of my readers, I suppose. My gender egalitarian will scare most of them off.

Where does AAR (American Academif of Religion) discredit me? Do you mean the writing of Douglas Cowan against me in his book, "Bearing False Witness?" That didn't discredit me, but misrepresented my views on the New Age movement. Moreover, if he belongs to AAR, he is only one member. He doesn't speak for the group.