God has given great men and women to the church. The biblical giants serve as valuable models—despite their imperfections. Were we to elevate Paul, Abraham, or David above Christ, we would be guilty of idolatry. The same would be true if we exalted Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, and others above Christ. We respect these saints, but only insofar as they are faithful to Christ and point beyond themselves to Christ. This was certainly the style of the apostle Paul, who labored tirelessly for the cause of Christ. We love and honor him for that labor. Likewise, we honor the giants of church history. But even the theological “giants” are sub-apostolic, never speaking or writing with an authority equal to an apostle.
At the same time, we recognize that a vast gulf separates Augustine from Jim Jones. People like Augustine and Luther have contributed theological insights of such magnitude that their names are representative of key thoughts. Few in church history are worthy of such recognition. The suffixes “ian,” “ist,” or “ite,” (e.g., “Calvinist”) are valuable to identify truth but have little positive and much negative value when applied to personalities. We know that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin were not crucified for us.
Coram deo: Living before the face of God
Thank God for role models who have influenced your life; then thank Him for the Supreme Model who died for you.
How do we go about finding the meaning of the Bible’s problem passages?
Here are some guidelines:
1. In many cases the reason the problem passages are so difficult for us is that, frankly, they were not written to us. For example, when Paul tells the Thessalonians that they are to recall that he “used to tell [them] these things,” and therefore “you know what is holding him back” (2 Thess 2:5 – 6), we may need to learn to be content with our lack of knowledge. But we take it as a truism: What God wants us to know has been communicated to us.
2. Despite some uncertainty as to some of the precise details, one needs to learn to ask what can be said for certain about a given passage and what is merely possible but not certain. Look, for an example, at the puzzling words in 1 Cor 15:29. What can be said for certain? Some of the Corinthians really were being “baptized for the dead,” whether we like to admit it or not. Moreover, Paul neither condemns nor condones their practice; he simply refers to it. But we do not know and probably never will know the details.
3. Nonetheless, as we have suggested before, even if one cannot have full certainty about some of the details, very often the point of the whole passage is still within one’s grasp. Whatever it was the Corinthians were doing in baptizing for the dead, we do know why Paul referred to this practice of theirs. Their own action was a kind of “proof from experience” that they were not consistent in their rejecting a future bodily resurrection of believers.
4. On such passages as this one you will need to consult a good commentary. It is the handling of just such a problem passage that separates the better commentaries from all the others. The good ones will list and at least briefly discuss the various options that have been suggested as solutions, including the reasons for and against.
Finally, we suggest that even scholars don’t have all the answers. You can more or less count on it: where there are four to fourteen viable options as to what a given passage meant, even the scholars are guessing! Texts like 1 Corinthians 15:29 (on which there are at least forty different guesses) should serve to give us proper humility.