Pastor Chuck Smith, a Paradigm: Engaging Bible Teachers Critically, From the Bible

I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist preacher-man. I came to Christ at an early age; I walked with Christ for many years from an early age. After chucksmithgraduation from high school (1992 … oh my!) I became quite luke-warm, and immature (retarded) in my walk with Christ. The LORD got a hold of me in 1995 through some drastic circumstances. I grew up in Southern California (Temecula and Long Beach CA, the latter being the motherland), and so it was somewhat natural for me—given my Evangelical situation, and the ubiquitous presence of Calvary Chapels through their radio station 107.9 KWVE, The Wave of Living Waterfor me to be attracted to their ministry—and so I began attending Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa (Chuck Smith’s church, the founder of Calvary Chapel, and predominate voice during the ‘Jesus People’ movement in the late 60’s early 70’s). As things progressed, I felt led to attend Bible College; Calvary Chapel had a Bible College (when I started it was at Twin Peaks, Arrowhead, CA; but then we moved to their current facility at Murrieta Hot Springs, CA), and so I attended there for a year (before I went to Multnomah in Portland, OR).

I share all of the above history to get to the point I want to make through the remainder of this post. As part of the curriculum at Calvary Chapel Bible College we all had to listen to what we endearingly called “Chuck tapes.” As you walked around campus you could often hear Chuck preaching through the Bible in chipmunk voice (people would speed up their tape players to triple speed to get through the tapes faster). Anyway, this was an integral part of what Calvary Chapel Bible College considered hermeneutics; i.e. the art and science of biblical interpretation. The belief was such that if the bible student (like me) absorbed enough of Chuck Smith’s interpretation of scripture, that he or she would be on solid ground (for the rest of their lives) to interpret scripture, univocally, from Chuck’s interpretive work. So obviously there was an interpretive magesterium at work here; there was such a veneration (still is!) of Chuck Smith among Calvary pastors and the faithful, that whatever Chuck says, preaches, or writes must be anointed by God, and thus sound and true.

Being a Baptist, I didn’t have this same kind of devotion to Chuck; I respected him as a pastor, but I didn’t see him as Moses (as many do in Calvary Chapel leadership, they have for their philosophy of ministry what they call ‘The Moses Model’). In fact, this is one of the reasons I ended up leaving Calvary Chapel Bible College early (it was a two year program, I left after a year); I wanted to go somewhere where the Bible was still seen as God’s special ordained place of encounter with us, and at the same time go somewhere where this, the Bible, was taught more critically (and actually learn the biblical languages, and all of the hermeneutical tools available). This is what led me to Multnomah Bible College, and then terminating at Multnomah Biblical Seminary.

My concern now, after having spent quite a bit of time—again!—devoted to a few dominant voices (John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance); is that I am simply repeating what was happening to me at Calvary Chapel Bible College. That is, that I am beginning to simply defend someone else’s particular (and even idiosyncratic) interpretation of scripture; instead of critically checking what they are offering as interpretation (or not). I am not suggesting that there aren’t a symphony of voices that help contribute to our interpretation of the text of scripture; but this presupposes something, that is, that scripture is the norma normans, the ‘norming norm’ of what really is theological opinion (theologoumena). This presupposes something further; that is that scripture has a clarity to it, that can be critically engaged and understood.

My basic point in this post is this; while there are multitudinous voices available as faithful interpreters of scripture in the history of the Christian church, scripture alone still has the dominant say. There is an interchange that takes place between the text’s original inception, and its ongoing reception in the church (as I have been reading about Gadamer a bit). In other words, scripture’s interpretation involves a dialogical exchange between its interpreters; but scripture’s dialogue is ultimately determined by what the authors (or Author) have intended (which includes its implicit horizon’s of meaning).

All I am trying to say, is that I want to critically engage Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Augustine, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chuck Smith, and whoever else, by the clarity of scripture’s determining voice as it finds its full attestation in the resurrected Jesus. I don’t want to simply parrot one teacher or interpreter over another; I want to engage with certain voices who I find creative and imaginative (in good ways), critically, from the text of scripture. And I want to be a participant in this rich dialogical exchange that we have been called to as we grow in sensitivity to scripture’s voice; which is ultimately God’s voice in Jesus Christ, God’s triune speech act given disclosure through the human media inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit’s creative activity (which is ongoing in an illuminating way).

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11 comments

  1. You bring up an interesting tension here. From one side there is the pull of our relational connections with our teachers and mentors. We “come as little children” and absorb values and perspectives, picking up things as we open ourselves to their influence, more often “caught than taught”. Pulling from the other side is the reality of Truth and the quiet but ever-present influence of the Holy Spirit.

    If I read something on the web that I sense is questionable from an author with whom I don’t have much connection, it is very easy to resist embracing and internalizing their particular perspective. But if someone with whom I am in a long-term relationship teaches something that runs counter to the light I have, it’s a different situation!

    In fact, I am in the middle of just such a situation with a young pastor who preached last Sunday, drawing his sermon points extensively from a well-known teacher. The interpretation that he presented during the Sunday sermon is prompting me to decide (prayerfully!) how to respond.

    One thing I know from experience – the Holy Spirit is responsive to our prayers for wisdom and insight. Even if it is the wisdom regarding which battles to fight!

    Thanks for your continued food for thought!

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  2. Bobby:

    Excellent post, Bobby!

    I had a similar theological journey, but I was at a fundamental Baptist college where yelling about short skirts, rock music, and soul-winning passed for preaching. two and a half years was two years too much but I met my wife there and she’s much better than I deserve so I can’t complain, too much. Plus, I learned a lot about how not to preach and do ministry.

    What saved me from all that was that I had the advantage of growing up under a pastor who, while he had firm convictions, preached sequentially through the Bible, asking questions of the text, and pointing to the text for the answers. When someone asked him a question he would respond with, “Did you search the Scriptures? Go look at these passages and then come back and we’ll talk.” This really instilled in me a sense of measuring everything by God’s Word. Not a week goes by that I don’t thank God for his ministry and how it impacted me.

    And, in light of what you wrote, isn’t it funny that in pointing me away from him and toward Christ and the Word, I grew to love him and appreciate him that much more?

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  3. Good stuff Bobby. Still remember those Junior High Bible Classes at Linfield. I believe we went through some type of salvation plan for beginners one semester, the book of John another, Proverbs another, and I can’t remember what the other semester was. Those were some fun times and great classes. You were a studious student even back then and I continue to appreciate your input and wisdom today!!! Coach Swags

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  4. Hi Coach Swagerty,

    I remember those classes too; they were good!

    Well you were and are (I imagine still are 😉 ) a studious teacher, and always appreciated your wisdom and passion for us, your students. Blessings, I hope your employment issues have gotten better (praying).

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  5. Jon,

    Amen!

    Michael,

    Thank you! The best teachers, the kind I would aspire to as well (as I’m sure we all would), are those who Holy Spirit breathed; we operate as witnesses and testimonies of God’s grace in Christ; pointing people to Christ, and away from ourselves. ‘He must increase, I must decrease’.

    David,

    I’ll praying for you situation! I agree, the Holy Spirit will give us wisdom and insight we just need to ask and be open to him.

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  6. Bobby, as with Michael above, I had a similar thing, but without the formal theological training/teaching. First, I was converted to Christianity through the radio ministry of Harold Camping, back during his very first failed end of the world prediction in ’94. Successive “teachers” included Henry Mahan, Al Martin (I didn’t embrace his teachings), Michael Horton, John MacArthur, then a loose group of neo-reformed “celebrity” type pastors that included MacArthur, Sproul, Piper, etc., then Rushdoony. Each of these phases ended when I took the advice of each of these men and checked what they said against scripture.

    Each teacher (even the really bad ones) had enough stuff that was good that I could glean from them. So, you could say I have learned to be a theological gleaner. My latest paradigm shift has been in the area of ecclesiology, so I have to be careful not to adopt the rigid ideas of the trumpet blowers of that type of belief.

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  7. No, Bobby, I’m not a Roman Catholic. 😉

    I have a neo-reformed background and my family is currently attending a Pentecostal church. I don’t embrace Pentecostalism necessarily, we “just happened” to get connected with a group that was doing a church startup. Trying to find a church in our area was not a happy endeavor for us, so we just dropped in on the startup and have been there ever since – about a year and 9 months now. We felt that a startup was in order since we were in a startup in every other area of our lives, given my job termination and losing our house in the economic crisis, then finding a job at a startup company building their first plant and in a startup phase. Make sense?

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  8. I really tried to comment on the drinking post you just posted, but I couldn’t find it. We use to go to be with unbelievers for the Superbowl but by the time we got their after evening service, we were very late. There wasn’t much drinking there, and we really connected with them for a few years. This year we just had two Christians at our home — no drinking. I don’t drink, but I believe it is part of the Christian’s liberty to do so. Coming from a pentecostal background, it was a big leap to STOP believing that those who drank were not really Christians at all.

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  9. Hi Brian,

    Great to hear from you! That post was creating more heat and less light, so I deleted it. My point was being missed, which I kept stating over and over again. My point really wasn’t a general one about Christians drinking alcohol or not; my point was particular in the sense that I was thinking about Christians getting drunk (or a little drunk–buzzed) and somehow trying to rationalize that kind of behavior from a Christian ethic. People jumped to the conclusion that I was bashing Christians in general for drinking; I wasn’t.

    But at the end, it’s just not worth it for me to argue with folk about this; I don’t care what people do, it’s their life, and I am not God.

    Great to hear from you, though, Brian; look forward to hearing from you more!

    Steve,

    Wow, interesting; a pentecostal church? What kind?

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