The rapacious piranha fish of South America may have gotten a bum rap from oft-repeated but dubious stories of how schools of these carnivorous creatures skeletonize a cow in only a few minutes. In a violent boil of flashing teeth and fins, the hapless animal is allegedly consumed so completely that nothing but the bones are left behind. More careful, less sensationalistic research may have exposed these notions as popular myths.
What is not a myth, regrettably, is how the Christian faith and the Bible have been skeletonized. How long did it take for the church to skeletonize the faith? It took more than a few minutes to reduce the faith to a skeleton; it took many decades, but the bones are no less white, no less denuded. The vicious reputation of the literal piranha fish of South America was rehabilitated by careful zoological research. Is there a logical heir to fill the gap left by this now-exonerated fish? The church at large, in light of its orchestrated actions against the sacred things charged to its care, has become a worthy nominee for that dubious honor.
It has been observed that a skeleton retains the shape of the original creature: the bones resist reshaping, bearing witness that something of substance once existed around the bare scaffolding. The shape is recognizable: nobody confuses a human skeleton with a cow’s skeleton. We shall adopt for our purposes the human body as a symbol, a metaphor, for the original faith once delivered to the saints, and examine the ways it has been reduced to a skeleton—a recognizable skeleton, but a skeleton nonetheless.
Sadly, we are so used to seeing skeletons walking about that we don’t perceive how ghoulish our religious condition really is. The modern skeleton is identified as the whole human body, and this identification has become a matter of habit to us.
It is as if God had enrolled His people in His great university, with tuition fully paid. When He returns eight years later to see what we’ve learned so He can determine what degrees to award us, what do we proudly show our Lord? We show Him our really high scores playing Grand Theft Doctrine.
To skeletonize the faith is to cut away pieces of it, on various grounds and pretexts, and leave something less than the whole behind. Various forms of dispensationalism involve an implicit skeletonizing of the Bible. Some dispensationalists draw a line at Acts 2, regarding what went before as irrelevant to the Christian era so-called. Others skeletonize a bit further (albeit a bit more consistently) at Acts 13. Were this process to persist in moving the demarcation line forward, we would have to conclude that an atheist is merely a Revelation 22 dispensationalist: everything from Revelation 22 backward simply isn’t relevant to our age.
Red Letter Christianity presumes, in the name of purity, to direct us to the words printed in red ink found in our Bibles, to the end that we’d obey and follow Jesus and what He alone said, setting aside the rest as relatively inconsequential compared to His words. This creates a skeleton in itself, leaving everything printed in black ink in something of a limbo, while this view’s proponents preen themselves in the boast that they, unlike other Christians, are specifically focusing on and following what Christ said.
The insurmountable problem faced by Red Letter Christianity is that it violates its own program. There are things printed in red ink that this contingent still refuses to hearken to or obey. Jesus commanded the tithing of mint, anise, and cummin (Matt. 23:23) in addition to observing the weightier matters of the law. Our Lord commanded that insofar as the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat (viz. proclaim God’s law from His Word), we are to observe and perform all that they proclaim (Matt. 23:3). Jesus was equally clear that we are to live by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). The red letters point beyond themselves to an abiding obligation in regard to the black letters.
In short, Red Letter Christianity creates an initial skeleton (“follow the words printed in red ink”) and then re-skeletonizes that skeleton, creating a skeleton of a skeleton (“but don’t follow everything printed in red!”). How voracious we are in tearing meat off the Biblical bones!
Similar amputations, for different reasons, have been animated by pietism and other approaches to Scripture, which rip and tear at the Bible’s carcass with results no less enfeebling to Christendom.
Frankenstein Yet Lives
Ultimately, men have realized the fundamental uselessness of a skeletal faith. Once, for example, the law of God is discounted, we rush in to fill God’s omission of instructions for living by teaching our human traditions, the precepts of men, instead. We stitch together dead tissue and staple it to the bones of the Bible in the process, creating a misshapen Frankenstein monster, and label the resulting amalgam “Biblical faith.” We do this because, down deep, we instinctively reprehend skeletons. Better to make a patchwork faith, half Bible/half humanism, half iron/half clay, than to tolerate the silent witness of the skeleton we’ve created of the Scriptures.
But such Frankenstein monsters recognize they’re in competition with the true faith, the normal, fleshed-out man. The monsters heap withering criticism on the normal man, upon true Biblical faith, labeling it as the monster that nobody should follow. That the enemies of God’s law regard following it as “monstrous,” using that exact word and others of like effect, wouldn’t be difficult to document. Monsters can’t abide the normal. Skeletonized Christianity must suppress the actual faith once delivered however it can.
There appears to be no locus of theology where this penchant for stitching dead tissue (humanistic glosses) onto the Bible’s skeleton doesn’t occur: from ethics, to eschatology, to apologetics, the church landscape is dotted with Frankenstein monsters, all of whom have one thing in common: they all regard the real monster as the skeleton clothed with the flesh that God originally placed upon it.
The enmity to Old Testament law in particular, and the impetus to replace that body of legislation, is something of a cruel joke, insofar as ours is an age that is hungry to know “the mind of God.” You want to know the mind of God, to read His EEG brainwave plots? Read the books of Moses: you’ll be staring directly at the Almighty’s EEG printouts, the very transcript of His righteous character in the form of imperatives for us. It gets no more personal than that. The skeleton metaphor, thus, captures the other problem with modern conceits: the flesh is what made the creature a living one. But now zombies are mistaken for living men. The mind of God is the object of perpetual search because modern Christians have hacked it off the bones and discarded it.
Erring on Which Side?
Modern Christians are far more worried that they might observe a law that was repealed than they are of breaking a law still in force. “God forbid that I should obey one more commandment than I have to! Far better to obey too few of His laws than too many!” We rely on God’s grace to cover such under-observance (which constitutes actual sin), but we regard with horror the allegedly legalistic problem of possibly obeying a law no longer in force (hardly a sin at all).
In short, we err on the side of recklessness. We don’t err on the side of caution.
Can it be any surprise that such misshapen thinking marks those who follow the misshapen monsters that lurch around in the world of the church today, each zombie proclaiming its status as the one true way to understand what God intended?
Lessons in Camel Swallowing
Regardless what initials many Christians see stamped onto the spines of their Bibles—KJV, NKJV, NIV, RSV, ESV, etc.—from a functional point of view they all own the exact same Bible in our country: the New American Skeletonized Bible.
Despite agreement on the need to skeletonize the Bible, far too many Christians become agitated about which Bible version we’re to use. But why do we get so agitated about Bible versions if we don’t intend to obey 95 percent of what’s written in them anyway? Why do we insist on having the right translation to disobey? How can the translation be remotely important when we’re busy stitching dead tissue onto the bones to build new zombies of doctrine and practice anyway, having discarded the original flesh as offal?
But, if God’s Words are meant to be obeyed, then the translation becomes important, even critical.
Merely having the “right” translation isn’t enough, no more than the Jews’ having the right “temple” didn’t matter. The disciples pointed out all the stones of the temple to Jesus, and He was less than impressed: it’s all coming down anyway, marked for destruction. Our modern habit of “pointing out the stones” of our institutions, our supposed ministerial successes, our books, our ministries, our achievements, only compounds our guilt. God isn’t impressed.
But to have turned God’s Word into a stone to point out Christ is the height of arrogance. Christians by and large pay mere collective lip service to the denuded skeleton of God’s Word, thinking that sufficient, “pointing out the stones of the buildings” like the disciples did.
God desires obedience, not sacrifice—but obedience to what? A gutted, eviscerated, mummified, papier-maché shell of His Word, or the whole counsel of God? At this stage in church history, we’re so far gone that we think more highly of those disobeying the KJV than those obeying the RSV. God sees it otherwise. Our concern for the translation, and our disregard for obedience, testifies to our love for straining out gnats and swallowing camels.
When you strip the flesh off and begin with a skeleton, you essentially end up with a build-it-yourself faith, one subject to the pastors’ diverse whims to teach as they see fit. But each Christian leader will be held accountable for how he builds on the foundation that was laid. Christian leaders do not have the prerogative to lay new foundations. Skeletonizing the Bible is nothing less than the laying of new foundations to supplant God’s own.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Skeleton?
We testify concerning His Word, that it is not a dead skeleton mounted in a theological museum—a Biblesaurus—but rather that it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. True, too many Christians are dead-set on dulling the blade, primarily because His Word has two edges and can cut the wielder as well as the target.
The skeletons of the church, however, continue to show us how much we have wasted away. To paraphrase another theologian: that the Word of God is nowadays presented to you as a skeleton, I blame on those who take pleasure to see it become and remain a skeleton.
It is crucial to recognize that humanism has no fear whatsoever of the skeletonized Bible, or of the various Frankenstein monsters or zombies parading around our land that are quite harmless to it. But humanism has launched a vicious, scathing attack to discredit the return of the real deal, the fully-fleshed-out Word of God, with both edges of the sword honed so fine it can cut between bone and marrow and soul and spirit. Humanists fear the applying of that Word to every sphere, field, discipline, and human endeavor, knowing that if permitted to continue, men everywhere would be rendered completely, thoroughly, and irrevocably without excuse in any and every area of life and thought.
One way, then, that you can know that the faith and the Scriptures are being skeletonized is this: that the Bible isn’t being applied to absolutely everything. To the extent God’s Word is penned in, muzzled, contained, restricted, narrowed, dismissed, treated as optional, treated as inconsequential, you are confronting a skeleton and not the whole counsel of God. And you will surely find that something other than the original flesh has been riveted onto whatever bones remain of that skeletonized faith.
What is worse? The nineteenth-century liberal scholars who chipped away at chunks of the Bible, or twenty-first-century Christians who have the whole Bible but regard its relevance as skeletonized? Which might please Satan more: to remove pieces of the Biblical text through naturalistic scholarship, or to see people possessing the entire Biblical text and blowing off 95 percent of it as irrelevant?
How hypocritical for us to regard Marcion as a heretic for throwing out wholesale sections of the Bible as he developed his abbreviated canon. How can we condemn Marcion if we’ve thrown out (by branding it as irrelevant) far more of the Bible than Marcion ever dared to discount?
Who does this skeletonizing? The lay people? Or church leaders, seminaries (skeletonaries), who persist in playing taxidermy with the Bible? The laity think that skeletonizing the Bible is the path to liberty, but the Frankenstein monster the faith becomes when human traditions and the precepts of men supplant God’s Word always enslaves His people. The supposed path to freedom from God leads to slavery to man.
In the previous issue of Faith for All of Life I referred to the Psalm One Bait and Switch, whereby Christians are taught that David’s reference to the law of God needs to be re-nuanced as a reference to the word of God. Thus adjusted, the reader is invited to flip forward to the New Testament (the word of God) and to disregard the law of God delivered through Moses, cutting off the reader from the actual source of blessings that David so carefully identified and directed the reader to. This mental game is another clever way that an enormous chunk of Scripture becomes not only skeletonized, but whereby the bones are gruesomely rearranged with the skull attached to the leg bones in a caricature of God’s original revelation to His people.
All parts of theology have been skeletonized. Even postmillennialism itself has been skeletonized, to the extent it adopts the amillennial and premillennial idea of a final apostasy at the end of history. In contrast to this accommodationism, Warfield taught the real deal, and scholars like Boettner and Rushdoony revised their earlier thinking and discarded the skeletonized version of postmillennialism in favor of Warfield’s recovery of the unimaginably glorious totality of God’s victory through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Marginal notes in the Bible have been a major engine for the skeletonizing of the faith. The Scofield Bible in particular, and others of like orientation, provides clear directions for how to slice-and-dice the meat off the bone of God’s Word. One would think that you’re getting something extra when you purchase a Bible with marginal notes. In actual fact, you get something far less than the Bible. In effect, you’ve been robbed.
Can These Bones Yet Live?
God asked Ezekiel, scanning the valley of dry bones, whether they can yet live, whether or not God can put flesh back on the bones. God knows that they can, and God wills that it shall be so, that His counsel shall stand forever, and that all the Frankenstein monsters that theologians have brought to false life will one day be banished.
It is central to Chalcedon’s mission to call upon God’s people to participate in the de-skeletonizing of the Bible, to the recovery of the original, fully-orbed, fully-fleshed-out glory of His revealed Word to man. One pathway to this long-overdue process is for the church to insist on reacquiring God’s Word, and more to the point, to recapture the inexorable world-changing relevance of it.
To that end, Chalcedon continues to publish the writings of Dr. R. J. Rushdoony, who proclaimed nothing less than the original, fully-orbed, fleshed-out, intact Word of God in its fullness. He did this no more powerfully than he did in his expositions of the law of God, first with the three-volume Institutes of Biblical Law, but just as critically, with his commentaries on the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Very shortly, the final volume in the Pentateuch set (Deuteronomy) will be released, completing this seminal series and delivering into the hands of modern Christians the real deal to put to flight all poseurs claiming to represent what Biblical faith entails and embraces.
Through tools like these, Chalcedon seeks to equip Christians to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5). A grasp of the true, original, honest, genuine Word that He delivered to man is the key to banishing the zombies, dispatching the Frankenstein monsters, cutting the nerve cord of Phariseeism, and abolishing the skeletons we’ve so thoughtlessly reduced His Word to.
Those bones will yet live. How then shall you live?
- Martin G. Selbrede
Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.