A Fool's Approach
Two men are desperate to learn the answer to the same Bible question. Two men take Scripture and resort to the isolation of a park. Two men focus on particular but different texts. Two men begin a process which will take them far from the religious backgrounds in which they were raised. Yet, two men travel in widely divergent directions. How that happens is epitomized in writing on two yellow legal pads.
In the summer of 1987, Michael J. Shank was a twenty-year-old computer technician living and working in Nashville, Tennessee, when a co-worker, whom he calls "Randall," began to engage him in conversations which would evolve into a series of Bible studies culminating in his baptism seven and a half months later. As he relates the beginning of this process in an autobiography of his conversion, one day
"… Randall said as he sidled alongside[,] 'Do you have to be baptized to be saved?'
"'Of course not,' I said without any pause.
"Then he handed me a small torn piece of notebook paper. It was a corner piece from a yellow legal pad. A Bible verse was scribbled on the scrap: 1 Peter 3:21.
"He said, 'Check this out man. I'll catch up with you later.' Off he went.
"I was scheduled to go to Lawrenceburg['s] ... Crockett Hospital … . Troubleshooting the hospital's system had taken all morning … . It was the lunch hour, and [I drove] … over to the David Crockett State Park to eat in solitude. There was no ambient hospital noise or nurses complaining in the background. … The yellow scrap of paper laid there in the console. 1 Pet. 3:21.
"'What does that say?' It would have to wait. I did not have a Bible in the car. Strange, no one had ever handed me a Bible verse. That was an odd thing to do, wasn't it?
"As I pulled into [my company's parking lot] … Larry was walking out to his car. … Larry had just started carrying a Bible in his briefcase … .
"'Hey, grab your Bible, would you?' I said to Larry as I got out of my car. …
"'You doing that Bible study with Randall?' Larry asked … .
"'No, I got out of that, but he did a hand-off after the meeting this morning, and he gave me this.' I showed him the yellow slip of paper with the verse on it. Larry took a look.
"'I'm curious to know what it says,' I said.
"Larry took his Bible out of his briefcase and opened it … .
"He handed his Bible over, and I read the verse quietly to myself. The verse said,
"The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).
"'Larry, look at this,' I said, handing his Bible back to him while pointing at verse 21 with my index finger. 'Have you ever seen this verse?'
"He read it quietly to himself. 'No, I guess I haven't, but it's faith that saves us, isn't it?'
"'Well, yeah, of course. Baptism is some kind of work. Hey, I'm going to ask my Pastor … .' This verse required a religious expert" (Muscle and a Shovel, pp. 34-37).
Michael finds his pastor's explanation unsatisfying and, after several more months of intense Bible study, follows through on his new conviction by being baptized to be saved.
He describes a method of Bible study he once used as a Baptist: "To be honest, I had never really read that much of the Bible. I was one of those people who would read pieces of the Bible during hard times. If I was in trouble I would ask God for help, but my Bible study habits were poor. My study habits consisted of putting a Bible on the table with the spine down and allowing it to fall open. I believed that wherever the Bible opened was what God wanted me to read. I was beginning to see that this approach was a fool's approach" (pg. 69).
During his studies, Michael saw that, if he were to have any hope of understanding the Bible, he would have to give it more serious treatment than this. He learned that, if he wanted to know the Bible's answer to a question, then he needed to turn to where the Bible addressed that question. As a result, Michael was confronted with some hard truths he had not sought, wished, or expected to see. He discovered the simple truth that he needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of his sins in order to be saved. Then, he was faced with the same choice everyone in his situation faces: either pretend that the Bible says something other than what it plainly does say and reject it, or humbly take it for what it plainly says and obey it. He chose to do the latter.
Ten years earlier and a hundred miles south of Nashville, in the north-central Alabama town of Athens, Edward W. Fudge was experiencing the same crisis. Yet, his was a crisis in reverse. He had long been taught that baptism is essential to salvation and had experienced, practiced, and taught that himself. Despite this, he had been overtaken by doubts as to its essentiality to salvation. "… I had struggled since college days with several thorny doctrinal problems. One concerned salvation and baptism; another involved spiritual gifts. 'Can someone be saved who has not been properly baptized by immersion?' I asked. … My own background had provided answers on both topics, to be sure. … These answers were firm and clear. Perhaps too firm and clear, I thought" (Beyond the Sacred Page, pg. 93).
Thus, he awoke one morning in the summer of 1977 determined not to rest until he had resolved his quandary. When he informed his wife that he needed to find a quiet, isolated place to seek an answer from God, she asked, "'How do you expect to get an answer?'
"'I don't have the slightest idea,' I said. 'Any way God sees fit to reveal it – through the Bible, by sending someone to talk to me, by a word from heaven, or by an inner understanding. That is up to him. But I have to find some answers. Please pray for me as the day progresses.'
"'I'll do that,' she assured, 'and I hope you find whatever you're looking for'" (pg. 94).
Indeed, just as his wife had hoped, Edward found the answer he was looking for. "So, taking my well-worn Bible and a heavy but hopeful heart, I drove 20 miles out of town to an isolated and heavily wooded park, determined not to eat or return home until God provided answers and calmed the intellectual storms that raged inside my head. Pulling off the road into the trees, I parked the car, put my Bible on a concrete picnic table, and walked into the forest. …
"'Father,' I began, '… I beg you to reveal your ways to me on these matters today. … I must know your will about the relation between salvation and baptism – and about spiritual gifts.' … I prayed and prayed, in every way I knew or could imagine … seeking only to know his will. After an hour or two, I returned to the concrete picnic table and picked up the Bible. … I had heard preachers criticize people who sought guidance by letting their Bibles fall open at random then pointing to the page with their eyes closed. A most unreliable method, as a general rule. But this was not an ordinary situation. I was desperate. Anyway, that approach was certainly no stranger than Gideon putting out fleece, or the high priest in the Old Testament reaching into a pouch for Urim and Thummim stones, or disciples in the New Testament making decisions by casting lots. 'Doesn't God control this material universe?' I asked myself. 'Couldn't the sovereign Lord … regulate the force of gravity on one man's copy of the Scriptures if he so willed?'
"'I stood my Bible on its spine, said another prayer and turned it loose. It opened to the Psalms – about midway through. Nothing strange about that. Center of gravity. I began reading.
"I do not know how long I had read before it happened. 'A revelation,' some people call it. An 'encounter with God.' I cannot name the experience that occurred next. I can only describe it, and say that God emblazoned it into my heart and soul from that day to this. As I was reading Psalm 115, my eyes came upon verse three. Suddenly it was as if the words jumped off the page and hit me squarely between the eyes. I did not hear any audible voice, but the confidence that God spoke to me could not have been more certain if I had. The words crashed into my consciousness like a thunderbolt: 'Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases.'
"Immediately I knew that this was God's answer to both my struggles. Who is saved? Whomever God wishes to save! What about spiritual gifts? God does whatever he pleases! He is GOD. We are not. That message became even clearer later. But this was enough for now. 'Thank you, God!' I exclaimed. 'Thank you, thank you, thank you!'" (pp. 95, 96).
The essential problem with Edward's method — its arbitrariness and subjectivity —is also the source of its appeal to people like him. It renders the Scriptures malleable to the formative pressures of their own desires. For him, it became the lens through which he could see the Scriptures any way he wanted to see them — all under the guise of pious submission to God.
The subjectivity of his method can be observed, first, in the method itself. Nowhere does the Bible exemplify, encourage, recommend, or command anyone in pursuit of truth to allow the Bible to fall open randomly in the presumption that God will control this otherwise arbitrary process so that the answer to his question happens to lie somewhere in the open pages.
This is not surprising. Once God has revealed His will on a matter and committed it to writing, then all that is required to learn it is to go to the relevant portion of His law.
The Old Testament case of the man found gathering sticks in the wilderness on the sabbath well illustrates this point (Numbers 15:32-36). The Israelites put him in custody until they asked God what was to be done with him. Perhaps they thought God's word would be something different in its practice than it was in its promulgation.
The very fact that the Israelites had taken the man into custody shows that they knew him to be in violation of the law which forbade work on the sabbath. They only wanted to know what was to be done with him. However, God had already made that clear when He said, "… Whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 31:15).
Yet, perhaps the Israelites wondered if God's sabbath law applied to gathering sticks. If so, God's law had already settled that question: "… On the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day" (Exodus 35:2-3). Thus, He defined gathering sticks as a violation of the sabbath punishable by death by forbidding the kindling of a fire on the sabbath. He had also forbidden food preparation on the sabbath (Exodus 16:22-30). If gathering just two sticks, which was all the wood needed to make a fire to prepare food (cf. I Kings 17:12), was enough work to violate the sabbath law, then this law (Exodus 35:3) effectively forbade gathering wood for any purpose on the sabbath.
Thus, it was really unnecessary for the Israelites to ask God to reconfirm what He had already made clear. Whatever prompted them to ask God what should be done with the violator, it was not ambiguity in His law. There was no daylight between the statement of God's law and its application. If "insanity" is doing something over and over and expecting a different result, surely "foolishness" is consulting the Bible over and over and expecting a different answer.
Indeed, Edward's approach holds serious implications for the study and understanding of the Bible. Is the Bible so vague that understanding its most basic doctrines requires resort to a procedure whose outcome is ostensibly determined by chance? What does it say for God's revelation if, despite over one hundred references to baptism, otherwise intelligent people are not able to determine whether it is essential to salvation? Is something comparable to "the drawing of straws" to be considered a more reliable means of determining God's will on a subject than diligently reading what the Bible has to say about it? Then, one wonders why Paul told Timothy to apply himself diligently to an accurate handling of God's word, which is adequate to equip the man of God for every good work (II Timothy 2:15; 3:15-17).
Second, the arbitrariness and subjectivity of Edward's method expresses itself in his selection of a particular text to be the definitive answer he sought. Allowing his Bible to fall open to Psalms did not eliminate the need for his determinative input. Even he acknowledged that the Bible falling open to Psalms was not strange. Psalms lies about the center of the Bible and, at ninety pages, is the longest book in the Bible. By this method, then, simple physics would seem to dictate that answers to the most vital spiritual questions may generally be found in the Psalms. This demonstrates the self-serving nature of Edward's method and belies his claim that all he wanted to know was God's will in the matter, since it would be unlikely that a Bible would fall open to texts dealing directly with baptism and salvation (e.g. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; I Peter 3:21). It is a pity that Edward chose to stop reading a little short of the great Psalm 119, which lauds the law of the Lord, where he might have learned from its opening lines: "How blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord."
Also, randomly letting the Bible fall open still does not provide an answer, since any Bible will have many verses on its two facing pages. The relevant verse would still have to be identified. Edward seems to have moved beyond the pages at which his Bible initially fell open, for he "began reading" and read long enough to lose track of time.
If his Bible had fallen open at some text dealing directly with the relation between baptism and salvation (e.g., Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; I Peter 3:21), what would he have concluded? Perhaps he would take this as a sign from God that baptism is essential to salvation. Yet, casting that possibility in doubt is the fact that he had long been familiar with such texts and had apparently deemed them insufficient to answer his question. What this says is that he thinks people would do better to entrust their salvation to serendipity than study, since a careful reading of Bible texts cannot yield the assurance that allowing the Bible to fall randomly open can.
Third, the subjectivity of Edward's method is exposed by the fact that he still had to decide how the text he selected was to be applied. It is quite remarkable that he could not find a satisfying answer to his question about the relation between baptism and salvation in texts which deal with this very subject but he could somehow manage to find it in a text (Psalms 115:3) which obviously bears not the remotest connection to it. "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved …" (Mark 16:16) does not answer his question, but "… He does whatever He pleases" jumps off the page. "… Let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins …" (Acts 2:38) does not relieve his quandary, but "… He does whatever He pleases" hits him squarely between the eyes. "Be baptized, and wash away your sins …" (Acts 22:16) tells him nothing about his question, but "… He does whatever He pleases" leaves him as certain as if God had audibly spoken to him. "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27), is an intractable mystery, but "… He does whatever He pleases" crashes into his consciousness like a thunderbolt. "… Baptism now saves you …" (I Peter 3:21) leaves him clueless, but "… He does whatever He pleases" he immediately knows is God's answer to his struggle.
It seems never to have occurred to him that this text from the Psalms merely restates his question and offers nothing new. Indeed, "He does whatever He pleases," but does it please God to save those who are not baptized to be saved?
Edward's subjective use of this text is further confirmed by what he did next. "With that, I turned to the New Testament Gospel of John, because it says that it is written for the express purpose of creating faith and bringing salvation" (pg. 96). He then gives several texts from John (3:15,18; 10:29; 6:39). It is notable that he chose not to see, "… Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5), as relevant.
Edward identifies two troubling questions: "One concerned salvation and baptism; another involved spiritual gifts. 'Can someone be saved who has not been properly baptized by immersion?' I asked. 'And what about spiritual gifts today … such as tongues, prophecy and healing? Does God still give these gifts, or were they only for an ancient era?'" (pg. 93).
The answers he had received to these questions were increasingly unsatisfying to him: "My own background had provided answers on both topics, to be sure. Dogmatic answers that left no possible room for doubt or even further discussion. No one is saved without being immersed in water, we said, and salvation comes not a moment before. Spiritual gifts of the 'miraculous' variety … merely 'filled in' until the New Testament was written, and then they ceased. That was what we said. Period. These answers were firm and clear. Perhaps too firm and clear, I thought. Indeed, the more I studied … the less my long-held answers seemed to satisfy. Rather than subsiding, the inner struggle intensified … . 'Father … I must know your will about the relation between salvation and baptism – and about spiritual gifts'" (pp. 93-95).
He is also identifies the statement he comes across in the Psalm 115:3b as the definitive answer to both of his questions. "The words crashed into my consciousness like a thunderbolt: 'Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases.' Immediately I knew that this was God's answer to both my struggles. Who is saved? Whomever God wishes to save! What about spiritual gifts? God does whatever he pleases!" (pg. 96).
What is much less clear at this point is exactly how this text (Psalms 115:3b) answers Edward's two questions, since it has no explicit reference to either subject. One might well meet his confident assertion with his own questions rephrased, "Does it please God to save those who have not been baptized (to be saved), and does it please God to bestow miraculous gifts today?"
Yet, he later explains how he thinks the Psalms text yields an answer to the second one: "… I felt that the Lord wanted me to destroy all remaining copies of a little book I had written years before which denied that God still bestows the spiritual gifts of tongues. Even though many of the booklet's cautions were appropriate, its dogmatic conclusion contradicted God's word to me a few years earlier through the Scripture which said: 'Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases.' Acting on my inner conviction, I tossed the remaining 2,200 copies in the dumpster" (pg. 139).
A connection between these two otherwise disparate questions provides insight into how Edward reconciles his personal desire that God's written word say something other than what it actually says. It is apparent that this text (Psalms 115:3b) does not answer Edward's questions at all. Rather, its sole purpose is to provide the projection of his own desires onto Scripture with the imprimatur of respectability. Then, if it comes down to a clash between what one believes to be his personal revelation from God and what Scripture clearly declares, it is the former which will be given precedent, and Scripture will, perhaps quite literally, be committed to the trash bin.
Yet, even here, Edward is arbitrary. He does not accord others' revelations which contradict Scripture the same respect. In the same year that Edward received his revelation, an old college acquaintance passed through his hometown. "On several occasions, I soon learned, Ted had informed beautiful young women that God wanted them to marry him, strongly suggesting that he could commence carnal relations in the meantime. That was a horse of a different color, since the Bible left no room for doubt on that subject. Such 'divine revelation' was simply wrong. … We can be sure that no authentic communication from God to humans – in any age – ever contradicts the Bible. If any message claiming divine origin disagrees with Scripture it is patently false and we must reject it at once!" (pp. 77, 78).
This sounds good. However, Edward's inconsistency in accepting or rejecting claims of revelation shines forth in transparent radiance when he applies the same standard to his own "revelation." Then, if the two contradict one another, it is the Bible which must give way.
Edward might defend himself by observing that his "revelation" was a Scripture. If so, this is a distinction without a difference. It is Edward's personal interpretation and application of this text, and not the text itself, which he regards as God's personal revelation to him and which contradicts Scripture. It is surely an arbitrary, self-interested assessment to say "flee fornication" (I Corinthians 6:18) is plainer than "baptism now saves" (I Peter 3:21). Surely "tongues … will cease" (I Corinthians 13:8) is no less doubtful than "abstain from … fornication" (Acts 15:20,29).
Ted wanted to eliminate marriage as requisite to sexual relations; Ed wanted to eliminate baptism as requisite to spiritual relations. They both got the revelations they wanted. They fit each other almost to a "t," and it is really no more difficult to understand than that.
Edward does not say exactly how he thinks the Psalms text answers his question about baptism and salvation. In fact, a superficial reading might allow one to think that he applies it so as to conclude that baptism is essential to salvation. After relating that he read Acts, Edward says, "If one asks the basis on which we receive salvation, the Gospel of John answers clearly. It is by trusting in Christ -- nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else. But if one says he or she does trust Christ and asks what to do next, the Book of Acts answers with equal clarity. Be baptized immediately in Jesus' name, publicly declaring by this act of obedience the faith that is deep inside the heart. Faith and baptism are not competitors, I realized, but they are inextricably intertwined. We are saved by grace through faith. And baptism is the way Jesus asks the new believer to express his or her faith" (pp. 97, 98).
It is only by reading this statement against the backdrop of the whole book and the Evangelical treatment of baptism that the reader realizes that Edward's statement is really just a long "yes" to his question: "'Can someone be saved who has not been properly baptized by immersion?'" (pg. 93). Few Evangelicals deny that "baptism" is important, but perhaps just as few would assert it is essential. While Evangelicals staunchly hold to the germinal Protestant tenet of salvation by faith alone, they also realize that the New Testament says too much about baptism to ignore it. Thus, they formulate statements which acknowledge the importance of baptism but stop somewhere short of making it essential. This allows them to argue that they have honored New Testament teaching on baptism without forfeiting their teaching of salvation by faith alone. This might be tersely summarized as, "Baptism is necessary but not to salvation."
Edward does the same. Salvation is received on the basis of nothing more than trusting (believing) in Christ. The next step is to "be baptized immediately." It is noteworthy that he says that Jesus asks the new believer to be baptized. This is not the language of Peter, who commanded Cornelius to be baptized (Acts 10:48), but it is the classic Evangelical formula for the reconciliation of baptism with salvation by faith alone (though his "immediately" might be more than Evangelicals would give baptism). Thus, it is not surprising that Edward identifies himself with Evangelicals and claims that one's personal revelations supersede Scripture: "As a general rule, we evangelicals do not easily follow false prophets. Instead, our Achille's heel seems to be a tendency to forget that God always transcends his own written word" (pg. 79).
If this appears to some to be an unfair interpretation, it is due to the natural ambiguity of Evangelicalism on this point. Evangelical statements about baptism and salvation will always have an equivocal quality. This is because it is impossible to assert baptism's importance while denying its necessity, since New Testament baptism's very importance lies in its necessity.
There are many New Testament statements telling readers why they should be baptized, but Edward quotes none of them. Instead, he opts for a fairly standard Evangelical formulation nowhere found in the New Testament that "baptism is the way Jesus asks the new believer to express his faith."
At this point, some quotations which reflect Edward's attitude toward denominationalists are in order. These serve two purposes. First, they put his application of the Psalms text to baptism in a context which leaves no doubt that he denies baptism's essentiality to salvation. Second, they provide critical insight into the motives which have driven Edward's abandonment of a teaching he once believed to be "firm and clear," as well as his resort to a methodology which determined its rejection. This insight may be gleaned from the admiration he expresses for members of various denominations and the unsettling feeling he experienced in observing their apparently deep spirituality while acknowledging their denial of baptism (for salvation).
"My own church background did not encourage me to consider the faculty or students at either seminary as fully Christian, since they baptized their children while still babies and did so by sprinkling. It was strangely jarring to my mind, therefore, to hear Covenant professors … open class each day with … seasoned prayer that resonated with spiritual depth acquired over years of intimate conversation with the Almighty. I might have expected to hear such prayers from biblical patriarchs or prophets, but not (in my ignorant smallmindedness) from Presbyterians. … These people at Covenant were serious about God. I decided that I was in no position to judge their relationship with him, regardless of when or how they were baptized. … Graduate studies and other scholarly pursuits made me rethink some earlier assumptions … . I came to see how believers who are both honest and well-informed can reach different conclusions about matters on which they differ" (pp. 73-75).
"Indeed, the more I studied the Bible and church history, and the more believers I encountered and came to know outside our own religious fellowship, the less my long-held answers seemed to satisfy. Rather than subsiding, the inner struggle intensified with the passing of time, stimulated both by careful Bible study and by wider acquaintances with Christians of backgrounds other than my own" (pg. 94).
Edward relates that, in 1982, he was asked to be the founding editor of "an interdenominational Christian newspaper," its "board of directors consisting of six dedicated Christian laymen representing a wide denominational spectrum." He identifies them as three Baptists, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, and "an elder in a Bible church" (pg. 165).
"Then I took a yellow legal pad from my desk and began writing the names of attorneys and judges I knew in Houston who were dedicated believers … . Within a few minutes I had filled three pages with names. … Bob Simmons' name was near the bottom of my list … . A teacher in a non-denominational Bible Study Fellowship, and Sunday School teacher and deacon at his Baptist church, Bob is one of the most fervent disciples of Christ I have known" (pg. 173).
When Edward walked into that park on that summer day in 1977 and allowed his Bible to fall open, it was not an answer he sought, but a cover. The outcome was predetermined. Years earlier, he said, "I decided that I was in no position to judge their relationship with him, regardless of when or how they were baptized" (pg. 74). It was not the question which troubled him; it was the (Bible's) answer. His real problem was not whether baptism saves but how he could save his opinion of those he admired. His question was not whether baptism saves, but how he could deny that it does with a semblance of piety. It was not that he did not know the answer; it was that he did not like the answer. He failed to distinguish between the two.
Comparing the Two
What was the difference between Michael Shank and Edward Fudge? The answer to that question lies in a slight modification to an old proverb: "Be careful what you look for; you might find it." People tend to "find" whatever answers they are looking for, especially when the answer they are looking for is the one they want to find.
Michael Shank and Edward Fudge were looking for two different answers. One wanted the truth; the other wanted out of the truth. Michael Shank wanted to know how he could be justified. To that end, he turned to the Bible as with "muscle and a shovel." Edward Fudge wanted to know how he could justify his friends. To that end, he turned to the Bible and let it fall open randomly. One used the Bible as a tool — the other as a toy.
Two roads diverged on yellow legal pads. One held a Scriptural reference, the other a personal reference — "and that has made all the difference."
"There is almost nothing which hurts Christian parents more than to see a child fall from the faith. … Of our five sons …, three have fallen away. They all were sincere Christians, and all preached the gospel for a while. But they were infected by denominational thinking particularly by the grace-fellowship heresy which was popularized by Edward Fudge. … So when I found that our eldest son was teaching error on divorce, I was not aware that this belief was only a part of a much bigger system. I made a special trip to America to help [him] …, and I was still unaware that it was really the grace-fellowship doctrine which was the problem. Though [he] made a confession that he was wrong to believe the grace-fellowship doctrine, he has since gone into other denominational error. … I did my best, and so did others, but [two other sons] continued on that path right into full-fledged denominationalism." (From an email received from Paul Williams on Sept. 29, 2015; used by permission)