Friday, March 8, 2013

The Wonderful World of Wiersbe

From the January 2010 E-Block.
I am pleased to report an error on my part: Chuck Swindoll isn’t doing the best that a Popular Pastor can do; Warren Wiersbe, it turns out, exceeds him by a fair margin. A preliminary to begin. 

Some time ago, my home church (not the one I am at now) was seeking a new pastor. The one they first chose – who ended up not being voted in – had the normal Q and A for us, and I asked him who his favorite Biblical scholar was. Hoping for an answer like "Ben Witherington," I got the disappointing answer, "Warren Wiersbe." Wiersbe, of course, is not a Biblical scholar, and my active distaste for Popular Pastoral writers stems in part from this disappointing answer: The Popular Pastors have assumed wrongful place in the minds of our everyday pastors, many of whom take them to be the most competent expositors available. 

On the one hand, it remains true that Wiersbe is not a Biblical scholar, and was a poor answer to my question. But Wiersbe deserves credit even so, as I find far less objectionable in his writings than I did in either Stanley or Swindoll. Most of the material I surveyed was sound and fair, and did not take exegetical leaps with the Biblical text; Wiersbe did very well challenging readers to live their Christian lives to the fullest intended, and did so in a way that was clear and readable (albeit, a bit dull and repetitive after several books). 

As usual, I was required to select random titles based on what was available to me immediately; for this article, I had the following:
  • The Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Philippians [WP]
  • Be Wise [BW]
  • On Being a Servant of God [OBS]
  • Being a Child of God [BCG]
  • Be Obedient [BO]
  • The Bumps Are What You Climb On [BCO]
Even the titles themselves indicate Wiersbe’s heavy emphasis on discipleship, and we should take away not one iota of credence from him because of this. I am not saying that we do not find the normal miscues of the Popular Pastoral writer, such as reading too much out of texts to formulate a lesson for modern life (a distinct failing of Sunday School material as well), historical errors, and reading of modern values into the text. However, these were so infrequent with Wiersbe that it will be unnecessary to highlight more than a handful. In addition, these few mistakes are balanced by some rather surprising historical insights that we have yet found in other Popular Pastors. BW82-3, for examples, notes the use of arranged marriages in the Biblical world, the sort of observation we rarely find in popular pastoral literature.
That said, when Wiersbe does err, it tends to be a doozy:
  • BW19-20: Wiersbe accurately comments on crucifixion as shameful; but says that the Jews were looking for a suffering messiah, which is incorrect; as Miller recounts, there is no such expectation until after the time of Jesus.
  • BW32: Wiersbe accepts the disastrous understanding of the "rulers of this age" in 1 Cor. 1 as referring to spiritual entities.
  • BW49: Wiersbe says that early Christian leaders were "ordinary men without special education in the accepted schools". This is true of Peter, but what about Matthew, Paul, and Luke?
  • BW157: Wiersbe erroneously ties the word "image" (as in Genesis 1:26) to physical appearance.
  • BO50: Trying to draw a parallel to Christian grace, Wiersbe wrongly states that no conditions were attached to Abraham’s covenant grant of land. As we note here, this is incorrect.
It is also not clear what, if any, sources Wiersbe uses for his study; only one of the above listed books has anything in the way of serious notes, so it is not clear if Wiersbe is (like Swindoll) tying himself into aged commentaries, or is aware of more up to date material. However, I repeat: Such errors as these are so few in number that they do Wiersbe substantially little discredit. They are also counterbalanced my a heavy (but not frequent) emphasis on substance in teaching. BW36, for example, has corrective words for those who just want "heartwarming sermons" and say doctrine is "dull". Wiersbe’s reply is that it is a "thrill" to teach the "deep things of God" like doctrine – and that is the right attitude to have, and one we need to emulate.

The Divine Talking Book
Of course, one of my (cough) pet peeves here has been those who think God speaks to them in an audible voice, or even those who rely on an epistemically unsound appeal to inner promptings. In Wiersbe we find practically none of this. He is quite firm in indicating that the Bible is God’s primary (almost exclusively, it seems) tool of communication with us. BCO86 is exemplary: "If you and I spend time every day in the Word of God, then we can talk to God about our needs and ask Him for His help. When I open my Bible, God talks to me. When I pray, I talk to God."

Yet Wiersbe does not remain free of epistemic difficulties. At OBS37, he disdains those who flip open the Bible randomly for answers, but says that God can "impress" you with passages during the course of "regular Bible reading." He adds, "[G]od wants to communicate with me each day through his Word." But is this really an improvement? Wiersbe has added in the element of regularity and stability, but this in no way makes it any less likely that we are thinking the text is "speaking" to us when it is not. Wiersbe’s test for knowing when this is actually happening remains uncomfortably "burning in the bosom":
  • At OBS72, he says, "You’ll know God is speaking to you because the Holy Spirit will make some Scripture vivid and real to you in a way that simply can’t be ignored." At OBS73 he refers to a "text [that] so gripped me that I couldn’t escape."
  • At BCG194, he says, "Believers who spend time daily in the Word and prayer gradually develop a spiritual radar, a practical wisdom from the Holy Spirit that gives us direction when we need it." That direction may be a Scripture text, circumstances, or sometimes "the Spirit’s witness in our hearts." Mormons also claim to have a "radar" as do other groups. So what are we left with to decide who is right? As we have said elsewhere, the prophet test of Deuteronomy – unfortunately, Wiersbe does not go as far as he needs to in advising the reader how to discern genuine spiritual direction from subjective inner delusion.
Nevertheless, aside from one rather vague allusion at BCG223 (where says the "Lord seemed to say in my heart" to go to a funeral), Wiersbe avoids the epistemic trap of "conversations with God". (He also avoids, for the most part, making God too familiar; except for comments like BW21, saying we must "know God in a personal way," there is no such language in the books we read.)

The Devil Isn’t Doing It
As with Swindoll, while Satan is seen as active in the world, there are not quite the extremes ascribed to him as in Meyer, where Satan tries to ruin family barbeques. I would regard a couple of Wiersbe’s credits to Satan as extreme, particularly where he says Satan uses discouragement and depression as tools. (OBS 17, 31, 65; BCO41) But these are the exceptional cases by far.
Parking Space Theology
We noted the following in our last article on Chuck Swindoll:

ST 277 offers a memorable account of how to have ministry like Meyer's: "...if God calls you, He opens the doors. He apprehends you, prepares you, provides the money, gives you favor, and makes it happen." Indeed? Some years ago, the same advice was given me by a Christian magician named Felix Snipes. Snipes engaged in tactics like "pew packing" to build his audience; and yet he would say that if people did not show up for your ministry services, then this indicated that the Holy Spirit was not in what you were doing. Nonplussed, I asked Snipes how one might discern between the Holy Spirit not being in what one was doing, and the audience simply not being receptive to things they needed to hear and see. Snipes had no answer for me on this, but merely fumbled about vaguely saying that that was something you needed to figure out. Indeed so. Meyer and Snipes arrive at their views via a notion of God as a micromanager; why is it not simpler to say that this is a view of God that is wrongly read into Scripture? 

In this light, I believe authors like Swindoll too frequently resort to pious but misguided rationalizations: "You’re moving in the realm of the flesh." "You’re not waiting on God’s timing." "God is using this failure to test or hone or humble you." "You’re supposed to learn something from this failure." "It’s part of God’s unsearchable plan." And so on. Do these sorts of responses really suffice, as Swindoll supposes, when we are faced with a young person dying too soon with an inoperable brain tumor? [MGW206] Is it really reasonable, satisfactory, and respectful towards God to say (as as MGW64-5) that a promising seminary student who died a few weeks after graduation, may have actually ended up blessing more people because of his premature death than he would have had he lived? Apart from the evidence of being able to view multiple timelines, there is no way such rationalizations can stand the text of examination. 

Wiersbe, too, makes use of the same sort of pious rationalizations, albeit not to the extent of Meyer or even Swindoll. At BCG179, he says, "If I find myself impatient and anxious to rush ahead, I can be sure that what I am doing is not in the will of God." He appeals to the example of Lazarus, for whom Jesus waited two days before raising him. Yet this analogy will hardly hold, because Jesus had access to the omniscience of the Father to tell him to wait. We do not. And how does Wiersbe arrive at the conclusion that we may be "sure" that impatience automatically equates with not doing the will of God? Indeed, "impatience" is frequently a negative way of describing warranted urgency by those seeking to discredit the urgency. Wiersbe simply does not provide enough definition here.

Wiersbe’s one personal example of this we found came from BCG199-200, where he writes of how he accepted a job offer while at seminary. But immediately after this acceptance, he says, "my heart was very uneasy, and I wasn’t able to study." He says he prayed, and the "Spirit rebuked me for running ahead of the Lord." So, he called to renege on his acceptance of the job offer. How does he know the "Spirit" rebuked him? We are told of nothing more than an "uneasy" feeling – which is, again, hardly better than a Mormon’s burning in the bosom.

Our survey of Wiersbe has been short, but there has been little need to say more. We affirm, again, that we find him to be mostly a responsible Bible commentator, and I would unhesitatingly recommend his books with only minor cautions.

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