Yesterday on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts interviewed Joshua Dubois, a young Pentecostal preacher and former White House Director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Dubois has just published The President’s Devotional, a collection of daily devotional emails he sent to the president when he worked at the White House (a job he started when he was only twenty-six).
Roberts noticed that only one devotional in the book was selected for a specific occasion. On the day that President Obama delivered the State of the Union Message, Dubois emailed him Isaiah 55:11, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Roberts asked, “Were you worried that he wouldn’t be understood?” Dubois answered, “Well, there’s so much noise in our culture today. There’s so many different sources of distraction, and folks who either intentionally or unintentionally desire to muddle the true meaning of what we say.”
Neither Roberts nor Dubois seemed to realize that Isaiah 55:11 is not about President Obama or any human speaker. It is God’s Word that will not return empty, not the speech of any mere human. I winced at the arrogance of claiming God’s authority for oneself and the nonchalant twisting of a text to support it. That sort of thing is happening a lot lately (see “biblical” arguments for homosexual practice), and it’s right to tell such abusers that their careless handling of God’s Word is evidence that this sacred text does not belong to them.
Tertullian used this tactic in The Prescription of Heretics. He noted that Christians and heretics often argue about what the Bible means, but the heretics’ interpretation should be dismissed out of hand because there is a praescriptio (a term from Roman law) that prevents them from using the Bible. They are not allowed to appeal to Scripture to make their case because the Scriptures do not belong to them. The Bible belongs only to those who possess and practice the apostolic rule of faith (i.e., the early church’s baptismal creeds, now enshrined in the Apostles Creed).
Tertullian wrote, “Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, ‘Who are you? When and whence do you come? As you are none of mine, what are you doing on my property? Indeed, Marcion, by what right do you hew my wood? By whose permission, Valentinus, are you diverting my streams? By what power, Apelles, are you removing my landmarks? This is my property. Why are you, the rest, sowing and pasturing here at your pleasure? This is my property. I have long possessed it; I possessed it before you. I hold sure title-deeds from the original owners themselves, to whom the estate belonged. I am the heir of the apostles’” (chapter 37).
Following Tertullian’s strategy, when we encounter Biblephobic campaigns like “Not All Like That,” we should ask the person if they believe the Bible is the true and authoritative Word of God. Do they believe that its miracle stories actually happened (e.g., did Jesus’ dead body come back to life and exit his tomb?) and do they gladly submit to the passages they don’t like?
If they respond, as editor Jon Meacham wrote in Newsweek (remember it?), that the “conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism” and “to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition” (December 15, 2008, p. 4), then we should say they are interpreting a book that does not belong to them. They may disagree with what the Bible says, but they don’t get to explain it away. They must respect our tradition, just as they would respect the tradition of Native Americans, Mormons, or any social group.
It’s true that they’re “Not all like that.”And the ones who aren’t don’t get to say what the Bible means, because they neither submit to God’s Word nor make a good faith effort to interpret it correctly. The Word of God belongs to the people of God.