The Bible can be compared to an archaeological dig.
Watchman Nee says,
All the truths are in the Bible; there is not one truth that is not in the Bible. Although they are all in the Bible, through man’s foolishness, unfaithfulness, negligence, and disobedience many of the truths were lost and hidden from man. The truths were there, but man did not see them or touch them. Not until the fullness of time did God release certain truths during particular periods of time and cause them to be revealed once more. These freshly revealed truths are not God’s new inventions. Rather, they are man’s new discoveries.
A few observations about archaeology are helpful:
1) Just because an artifact is discovered late does not annul its authenticity. A quick survey of scientific and archaeological discoveries demonstrates this.
2) The more elusive artifacts may be the most prized. The length of time it takes to find an artifact does not diminish its worth. Think of the hunt for Noah’s ark or the ark of the covenant.
3) The fame of the archaeologist does not necessarily correlate with the worth of the artifact. You shouldn’t be surprised then if you haven’t heard of the person who recovers something of antiquity. Sometimes it turns out to be the most unlikely archaeologist. Circumstances can create a hero. This should lead to honor or at least appreciative wonderment not suspicion or hostility.
4) Often a new discovery overturns previously held notions. In the realm of scientific discoveries, Einstein’s theory of relativity radically challenged our understanding of the universe.
Revelation, Reception, Ruin, Recovery
Through this lens, the history of the Scriptures follows a general pattern—revelation, reception, ruin, recovery.
Take the law of Moses for example. The revelation of the law was given at Mt Sinai. The law was received and practiced for hundreds of years. Over time the nation of Israel fell into apostasy and foraook the law of Moses and the proper worship of God. Things became so degraded that they actually LOST the law of Moses. Under Josiah’s reign, when the temple was being repaired, they found the lost book of the law and were recovered to God (2 Kings 22:8).
In principle, the same thing happened with the New Testament. By the end of Paul’s life most of the churches he had raised up forsook him. But through John’s mending ministry there was a recovery.
Although much was unearthed in the Scriptures from the sediment of church history during the Reformation, much still lay buried. If Sardis is identified prophetically as the church in the Reformation, then there is something “incomplete” about it (Rev. 3:2).
One “incomplete” was regarding the practice of the church. Justification by faith, although a precious truth, is a procedural truth. In other words, it was not needed in God’s original purpose in the garden of Eden. It is a procedure that brings us back to the beginning and reopens the way to the tree of life. But Paul tells us that there is much more after justification (Rom 5:10). The book of Romans obviously doesn’t end with chapter 4, and the truth in Romans doesn’t plateau at chapter 4. It continues to build until it culminates in what seems to be an oddly mundane catalog of greetings.
Archaeology has taught us that the plainest fields may overlay the greatest treasures. The Bible itself illustrates that (Matt 13:44). What lies buried in Romans 16 is an artifact that illuminates the practice of the church in the 1st century. And when it is combined with other fragments of biblical revelation, a composite picture emerges.
God has not merely taken care of redemption/justification and left us Christians around to figure out how to “do church.” The practice of the church life is truth equally valid as justification by faith. It is not as important for our personal salvation, but this doesn’t mean it is not important. We were saved for God’s own purpose and God’s purpose is the church (2 Tim 1:9; Eph 3:10-11). In fact, without unearthing the practice of the church, including its ground and building up, God’s eternal purpose can’t be fulfilled.
But this is an elusive artifact, recovered from a late dig, by an obscure archaeologist, and it challenged previously held notions. Does this annul its authenticity? No. Just because it took so long to discover it in the Bible, doesn’t mean it is lesser in value. Scriptural truth doesn’t loose its purity or integrity over time.
God has providentially guided His centuries-long recovery project of excavating the truth, life, and practice buried in the Bible. He has lead exegetical archeologists where to put their shovels at the right time and the right place. All truth is God’s truth and all recovery work is God’s recovery work. To echo Hebrews—God, having recovered of old many truths in many ways through the Reformers, has in the last of these days recovered the church. Proponents of the development of doctrine have called this age the age of the church, in which God will consummate His work through the building up of the church on the ground of oneness. This is the final recovery and this is the point at which we must all arrive (Eph 4:13-16).