Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Is John 5 Corrupted With Angel Superstition?

As I continue to read the modern-day commentaries, I become increasingly convinced that our contemporary theologians do more to undermine the Word the God than some of Christianity's worst critics.  Christians should consider the warning of the Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah:  "How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us?  Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is in vain.  The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them?" (Jer. 8:8-9).

When doubt is cast on the validity of any portion of Scripture, then the whole Bible is subject to question.  John 17:17 tells us that God's word is truth; it's all truth or it's not--there's no in between.  From the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF), Chapter 1 'Of the Holy Scriptures', paragraph 4:  "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God."

In the same chapter, Christians are told "that [with] the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope," (LBCF, Chapter 1, paragraph 8).

Through the Scriptures Christians have hope.  In 1 Tim. 1:1, Paul tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ is our hope.  Jesus is the Truth, (John 14:6), and He is the Word, (John 1:1).  Therefore, if Jesus is infallible, then the Word of God, or Scripture, must be infallible as well.  It is foundational to Christianity that the Bible is true:  "The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience," (LBCF, Chapter 1, paragraph 1).

Obviously, I'm belaboring the point of the Bible's infallibility for a reason.  This core doctrine came up in reading St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary on John by R.C. Sproul.  In Chapter 12, Dr. Sproul looks at John 5:4 which says:  "For an angel went down at a certain season in the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had."  He then goes on to explain this verse on page 77.  I'm quoting him at length because this excerpt is the prime example of why I continue to push-back against the "science of textual criticism" (bold emphasis is mine):
"This [the angel stirring the water] is the only instance in sacred Scripture where we find any indication that there was a pool in Jerusalem where an angel came periodically, stirred up the water, and gave miraculous healing to the first person who managed to get down into the water.  How are we to understand this strange account?

Let me preface what I'm about to say with some background about the manuscripts of the biblical books.  We don't possess the original manuscripts; they have been lost.  What the church possess are hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of copies that were made in the earliest days.  Through the science of textual criticism, scholars try to reconstruct what was in the original documents.  Thanks to the great number of copies and the precision of textual criticism, we have a high degree of confidence that the biblical manuscripts as we now have them are very close to the originals.  However, occasionally we find manuscripts differing as to what was in the original text, and this is one of those instances--some of the best texts of the Gospel of John do not include verse 4.  Therefore, it's very possible that this statement about an angel stirring up the water and healing the first person who stepped into the pool may have been a textual gloss that reflected more of the superstition of the people than the actual truth of God.

But if the stirring of the water and the healings were not caused by an angel, what was happening?  We know these pools in Jerusalem were occasionally fed by artesian wells.  The wells would start to flow and the pools would be stirred with an influx of water with special characteristics--something like the hot springs people visit even today for therapeutic reasons.  That may have been what was happening at Bethesda, and the people, not knowing the science of artesian wells, simply believed that the stirring of the water was due to the presence of an angel."
First of all, why do we have to understand this account fully in order to accept it?  Could this not be one of the "secret things that belong to unto the Lord our God," (Deut. 29:29)?  Personally, I have no problem believing this account.  The Lord worked miraculous healings all throughout the Old and New Testaments.  It never occurred to me to question the validity of this account until Dr. Sproul decided that verse 4 should not be included in John 5 based on the science of textual criticism.  The Apostle Peter tells us that God's Word abides and endures forever; it cannot be corrupted, (1 Peter 1:23-25).  God is sovereign; if I can't trust Him to preserve His Word, how can I have assurance that He will preserve me until the Day of Judgment?

Instead of believing that the Holy Spirit inspired these words and they are true even though we can't explain the miracle scientifically, Dr. Sproul hypothesizes that the healings were probably caused by artesian wells, but the angel "story" was included because the first century people were scientifically inept and too superstitious to understand the reality of the situation.  This example of scholarly arrogance corrupts the Word of God by subverting its infallibility.  Casting doubt and confusion through pragmatic and reasonable human logic at best keeps Christians "in need of milk, and not of strong meat," (Heb. 5:12), but at worst causes some to "stumble at the word, being disobedient," (1 Peter 2:8).  Clearly, there's no application to disobey in this passage, but where do you draw the line once you start questioning and even dismissing God's Word?

I also find it interesting to note that the Puritan commentators Matthew Poole and Matthew Henry never discount the miracle of the angels stirring the water for healing.  In his commentary on John 5:1-4 Matthew Henry states:  "Now this is all the account we have of this standing miracle; it is uncertain when it began and when it ceased," (Vol. 5, p. 742).  He goes on to discuss some of the conjecture about its beginning and ending, but he does not question the validity of the miracle or its inclusion in Scripture.

Christian scholars will never possess or recreate the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.  But the Bible has not been lost because God has promised that His Word will stand forever, (Isa. 40:8), and it will not pass away, (Matt. 24:35).  The Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, (Heb. 4:12).

Liberal Christian theologians are known for questioning many orthodox views of Jesus--His deity, His virgin birth, His miracles, His resurrection, etc.  Reformed Christian theologians criticize their liberal counterparts for rejecting the orthodox foundations of Christianity.  But the devil is crafty; he has found a way to infiltrate both sides through the so-called science of textual criticism.  This is a call for Christians to "put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil," (Eph. 6:12).  God has preserved His Word throughout the ages in His church through the Textus Receptus or Received Text, which is available for all Christians to read in the King James Bible.

"O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and opposition of science falsely so called: Which some professing have erred concerning the faith.  Grace be with thee.  Amen," (1 Timothy 6:20-21).