I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
I want to return to the image that I have used for so many of my early posts, and the image for which this blog is named. Just for a moment I want to talk about the importance of using six main instruments in the process of flying in instrument weather conditions (abbreviated as IMC).
When flying in weather in which there is no outside reference to the horizon a pilot has to depend upon 6 primary instruments. (Technically there can be several others, but I will limit my comments to the process of keeping the plane where you want it to stay). As the pilot transitions into the landing phase of flight another set of instruments comes into play, making the process even more complicated. In modern aircraft several of these instruments may be projected on one visual screen (a “glass cockpit”) but I was never fortunate enough to fly in one of those.
The six main instruments pilots use in IMC are the airspeed indicator, the artificial horizon (attitude indicator), the altimeter, the rate of climb (or descent) indicator, the turn coordinator (or turn-and-bank indicator), and the heading indicator. These instruments are made of different components (either gyros or some other system) and are powered from different sources (either a vacuum system connected to the pitot-static system or electricity). All six instruments must be kept in a constant “scan” or serious problems can develop. The reason for the different construction and the different power systems is so that if the electric fails, or a gyro breaks, or the pitot-static system ices over the pilot still can keep the plan flying and can actually land safely.
The six primary instruments provide a system of redundancy so that if one instrument or even an entire system should fail, the other instruments not affected can be used for safe flight. Now, to be sure, an instrument failure constitutes an “in flight emergency” and the number one goal is to get the landing gear on the asphalt a soon as possible, but pilots practice flying by what is referred to as “partial panel” all the time, just so they can learn to use various instruments to keep themselves alive. For example, the airspeed indicator, the rate of climb indicator, and the altimeter can all be used to verify whether the plane is in a climb or a descent. The turn coordinator and the heading indicator (as well as the compass) tell the pilot if the wings are level or if the plane is turning. All of this information is displayed on the artificial horizon – so it is frequently used as the “fixated” instrument. But it is also prone to fail – I’ve had several fail on me, but luckily they always went out in visual flight conditions.
The trick is not to “fixate” on one single instrument. If you do, and that instrument fails, you can kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry. Even if that instrument is working properly, if you fixate on it you can still kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry if you are not paying attention to what your other primary flight instruments are telling you.
What in the world does this have to do with theology?
Today, as in every age, many theologians have decided that all they need for their system of theology is a reliance on a single verse of Scripture. I call this, profoundly enough, Single Verse Theology. I am very familiar with single verse theology because I am a part of the church that many have accused of only using Acts 2:38 for our theology of baptism. I do not feel like this is a fair accusation, and I can demonstrate that baptism is taught in virtually every book of the New Testament. However I will grant one argument: we have certainly fixated on Acts 2:38. That is a weakness in our theological history. But we are far, far from being alone in the single verse theology crowd.
- The “saved by grace through faith” crowd uses Ephesians 2:8 as their single verse. No other verse of Scripture needs to be quoted nor studied – Ephesians 2:8 trumps everything.
- Roman Catholics point to Matthew 16:18 as the “single verse” that justifies their teaching of the primacy of Peter.
- 1 Corinthians 11:22 is used to justify those who do not allow food in the church building. Actually, all they need is the first phrase of the verse.
- Hebrews 10:4 is quoted by those who believe that the sins of the pre-Christian faithful were “rolled forward” until the cross, because it is obvious (to them) that no one could be forgiven without the death of Jesus.
- Those who are agitating for women to take over the role of spiritual leadership in the church point exclusively to Galatians 3:28 for their reason of existence.
It does not matter to the proponents of these single verse theology proponents that many other passages of Scripture can be used to counter-balance these verses. I do not deny that any of them are in the text, although I certainly deny that they are always being used by their defenders as the context in which they are found dictates that they should be used. So really what we have here is not simply the reliance upon a single verse for an entire theology, but frequently a misuse of that single verse.
The point is not that these are bad, “satanic” verses that need to be cut out of our Scriptures. The point is that they need to be read in context, and also in light of many other passages of Scripture that show another aspect of the truth of God’s word. For example, I believe completely that Christians are saved by grace through faith. I believe that because Paul teaches us that in Ephesians 2:8. But I also believe that baptism is an essential response of that faith, and that it is in the rite of baptism that we are saved (1 Peter 3:21, and that dreaded Acts 2:38 passage among many others). I believe that Peter had a special place among the 12, but that no single apostle had the “primacy” of all the rest (the book of Acts and Paul’s rebuke of Peter in the book of Galatians teaches us that), and that Matthew 16:18 in no way teaches an unending apostolic succession. You cannot read Hebrews 10:4 in the way it is frequently used if you have read Leviticus 4-6 (10 times in these chapters we are told the priest will make atonement and the guilty party will be forgiven. I don’t make these things up, folks. Read it for yourself). And finally, Galatians 3:28 is a wonderful statement of equality of salvation within the body of Christ, but it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with service in the church or responsibilities of spiritual leadership. Other passages in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Timothy and Titus ARE specifically dealing with the responsibilities of spiritual leadership. These passages cannot be ignored or explained away simply because Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that there are no multiple layers or ranks of blessedness when it comes to our salvation in Christ.
Fixation on a single instrument has killed many pilots. It is dangerous even in good conditions. When systems or instruments fail it is almost always fatal. Single verse theology is dangerous even when the verse is used in context and is correctly defined. When that verse is taken out of context, or when that verse is bent or twisted to fit a theologians cultural understanding, that single verse theology becomes fatal. Remember, Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus during his 40 days of temptation. Simply being able to find a verse in the Bible that supports your opinion does not mean that you have discovered that God has blessed your position.
It is a far safer exercise to find out what God has said throughout his history of salvation that has to bear on a specific subject. Difficult, yes; time consuming, for sure; frustrating (because we are so frequently challenged to amend our position) absolutely! But if you want to keep your wings level and your nose flying straight and you want to land your little aircraft safely on the ground that never shifts, it is the only way to fly.
Keep your scan going. Lose the single verse theology. Fly safely, with every instrument you can possibly use to make sure you are hearing the true, and entire, Word of God, and not the lie of the evil one.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
Let me begin by reviewing UTFTR # 9:
9. In regard to the point above, it is especially important if you are unable to read the original languages to refer to as many translations of the Scriptures as you possibly can. To limit your study to one translation is to limit yourself to one perspective, one set of translation principles. Reading from multiple translations allows for other ideas and concepts to inform your final conclusions.
The “point above” was UTFTR # 8, which in a nutshell stated that unless we do some very serious study, and use the tools of language translation and proper exegesis as they were intended, we get ourselves into all kinds of theological quicksand. We end up with very firmly held and very devout convictions which cannot be substantiated and, when someone who knows better comes along, makes us look really stupid. At that point we can either (a) admit our error and change our viewpoint (this is painful to do and something that most Americans refuse to do) or we (b) entrench ourselves in our firmly held positions and end up looking even more stupid. Imagine the people in Galileo’s day who just absolutely, positively, beyond any shadow of a doubt knew that the sun revolved around the earth because that is what the Bible said it did. I fear today we have the same mindset in the church, although not on the same subject.
But, at the same time, I hear people say, “Wait a minute! You are just another one of those eggheaded academic elitists who throw eight-cylinder words around just to prove you are in the approved theological gang. I don’t know Greek, couldn’t recognize Hebrew if my life depended on it, and actually couldn’t care less if I did or didn’t. How am I supposed to do all this exachesus stuff?”
That is actually a fair comment and legitimate question. Let me try to explain, and I will rely on UTFTR # 9 as a way to get myself out of the corner I have painted myself into.
To begin with, I am not a Greek scholar, and my Hebrew skills are even lower. I love studying these foreign languages, and I recognize their value and so I try to do my best in working with them, but I am far from claiming proficiency. I will always remember a statement my first year Greek teacher said at the end of our painful year together. He said, “Gentlemen, you now know just enough Greek to go out and be dangerous. Please do not use what you do not know to impress people who know even less.” THAT is a great motto for any study, but particularly in regards to theological studies.
So, how is the non-professional, non-Greek or Hebrew reading, non-specialist supposed to be able to make the distinctions that readers of the original languages are able to make? In a way it is very simple, and with our digital reading platforms it is even getting easier.
The answer is to buy, read, and use as many translations of the Bible as you can. But first, be aware that there are basically three main translation principles that are used, and it does no good if you have 10 translations that use the same principle. As you read multiple translations, make sure you have a variety of translations that use these different principles. Here, as briefly as I can, is a summary of those principles:
1. Formal, or “literal” – In this theory the words and grammatical structure in the source language (Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek) are brought over into the receptor language (in our case, English) is as close a 1 = 1 equivalence as possible. Words are uniformly translated the same way, even though they may be used in varying contexts and over a significantly lengthy period of time. Idiomatic expressions are translated verbatim, even though the meaning can, and sometimes does, get “lost in translation.”
If we drew a line on a whiteboard, we could put this theory on the extreme left side of the board. On the extreme left of the left would be what is called an “interlinear translation.” This is a publication that has a line of Hebrew or Greek, and then directly under it a slavish word-for-word translation of each part of the sentence. No effort is made to make the translation a coherent English sentence. These can be a help to those who are learning a new language, but they make for really ugly public reading texts. Moving to the right of our extreme would be a translation such as the New American Standard Bible. The NASB is frequently and loudly proclaimed as the most “literal” translation available. This obscures the fact that even the NASB takes certain liberties in moving from the source to the receptor language, and you must read the introduction to notice how they do this.
2. On the far right hand side of our continuum would be the “dynamic” translation theory, and to the extreme right of the right would be the paraphrase. The dynamic translation theory recognizes that words change meaning over time, that much of what happens in language cannot be limited to specific words, and that often times you have to translate entire idioms in order to effectively communicate the message. A paraphrase goes one step further, and is usually the product of a single individual who writes what he or she thinks the text communicates, and while it may be based on the original text, it differs not only in word selection but sometimes it differs significantly in terms of interpretation. The New Living Translation is an example of a dynamic translation, and The Message by Eugene Peterson is a paraphrase. Be careful! The Message is marketed as a translation, but that is a very elastic term in regard to Peterson’s work. It is a paraphrase and should be marketed as such.
Just a hint: if a translation does not have a concordance available, it probably is a dynamic translation. Because the same source word is translated by a variety of receptor words (or sometimes even complete phrases), it is impossible to compile an accurate concordance. This is not always true, but it is a great “first hint” that a translation is either a formal or dynamic translation.
3. Somewhere in the middle between our ultra-literal “formal” translations and our ultra “dynamic” translations are a whole host of other translations that take a position closer to, but not absolutely committed to, either one of these extremes. The Revised Standard Version and the English Standard Version lean toward the “formal” translation theory, the Contemporary English Bible is closer to the “dynamic” side of the continuum. Be very careful with the New International Version. The early NIV was an attempt to incorporate some of the concepts of dynamic translational theory, but was (despite its cultured critics) a fairly strong formal translation. The latest publication of the NIV has moved significantly toward the dynamic theory, to the extent that I cannot recommend it with the same confidence that I do the “old” NIV. The NRSV is likewise an update of the “old” RSV, and is an attempt to be gender neutral, but its parentage is clearly in the formal or neo-formal translation theory.
Clearly, an individual will have a personal preference. When I was preaching I used the NIV almost exclusively because it has a very readable format in terms of public reading. Translations that are good for private study often do not come across very well from the pulpit (i.e. the NASB uses archaic grammatical forms, and unless you have an NASB in front of you, it can be difficult to follow). I like the ESV (largely because of it RSV parentage) because it is a little easier to read, but it has strong “formal” roots. Equally, I love reading the NLT in my private, devotional reading, but I would be very hesitant to use the NLT in an in-depth Bible study because it leans heavily toward the “dynamic” translational theory. However, if I was studying with a person who had no knowledge of the Bible and was nervous about KJV “Holy Ghost” language, I would reach for the NLT and tell them the story of God and His Son.
My point in this post is this: if you do not know the original languages, and you cannot afford a library of critical commentaries to explain what is going on, you can achieve much the same results simply by purchasing several different translations of the Bible (or downloading them onto your digital platform). Use an interlinear or the NASB for a strong formal translation. Add the RSV, NRSV or ESV. Add the HCSB or CEB. And, buy the NLT or Peterson’s The Message. Compare verses to verses, paragraphs to paragraphs and chapters to chapters. Pay special attention to the footnotes! You will be able to pick up on translational difficulties, see how the various translation teams make their various choices, and will get a more rounded understanding of the message that God has provided for us.
And the very best part of doing this kind of study is that you do not have to become an eggheaded academic elitist!
(This picture is of “Bear,” one of my best Bible study assistants. Sadly, Bear passed away several years ago, but this post is in his honor.)
This installment to my reflections upon my reflections follows very closely to numbers 4 and 5, so if you have not already consulted my page of 15 Undeniable Truths you might want to do so now, or perhaps read my post explaining numbers 4 and 5.
So, here is Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection #6:
6. However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.
Whoo Boy. If there was ever a philosophical or theological topic that simply screams for caution it would be this one. The problem is (as I see it, of course), that everyone is guilty of violating this truth in some degree or another at some time or another. There are some who are more aware of their predilection to doing this, and they are more willing to confess it when it happens. But there are many others who can only see this fault in others. They blithely go about wallowing in the same sty, but they can only see the mud on the other pig.
Before we progress any further, please remind yourself of Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection # 1.
There are many ways to read our personal situation back into the original texts. Males read the Bible as if everyone was a male. Females do the same, only as if everyone was a female. Americans are particularly guilty of reading the Bible as if everyone lived in a democratic Republic. Capitalists read capitalism into every biblical transaction, and Socialists do the same. The poor and oppressed read poverty and oppression into every saga, while the rich and the free only see prosperity and freedom. Calvinists see John Calvin on every page of the Bible, and Arminians are just as convinced that only Jacob Arminius can be found in Sacred Writ. The GLBT alphabet soup mishmash can find all the evidence they need that God fully endorses the GLBT lifestyle, meanwhile the hyper-puritans are not sure that sex can even be found in the Bible at all. Fundamentalist creationists are quite positive they can date the creation of the world all the way down to year, month and day, while evolutionary creationists are equally certain that Moses and Charles Darwin are both equally correct. Hmm. As the trout once said to the salmon, something is fishy here.
Is the Bible that disjunctive? Can God be guilty of both fully endorsing homosexuality while at the same time condemning homosexual sex acts? Is God both a Calvinist and an Arminian? Does God sanctify both capitalism and socialism? Can God be both a Marxist and a little “r” republican?
Sometimes the situation is comical. Sometimes it is serious, but with a little reflection we can catch ourselves and correct the mistake. And sometimes the sin is so grievous that it takes generations to repair the damage, if it is possible at all. I am thinking here primarily of the German Christians in the early 1930′s who so totally identified Jesus as the prototypical Aryan that they used his name to further their program to exterminate the Jews. The very sad truth is that there are many alive today even within the Lord’s church who would agree with these monsters. The way to the heart of Christ is narrow indeed, and there will be few that find it.
As I write this post I am limited by several “accidents” of birth. I am a male, I am of Anglo-Franco descent, I was born in the United States (well, nominally – I was born in Santa Fe N.M. and we are a strange breed) and I have been raised my entire life in a church that has a very high view of Scripture. I am married, and I have the glorious joy of raising one of the most precious little girls that has ever graced this earth. By virtue of my parent’s love and sacrifice I have received a college education, and through a quirk of life’s twists and turns I have also earned all of my certificates and ratings to be a commercial airplane pilot. Every one of these “accidents” or later developments puts me in a category with more or fewer people. And, all of these “accidents” or developments tends to color the way I read and interpret Scripture. I must be aware of these facts and deal with them openly and honestly. In my most humble but undeniably true opinion, for me to do otherwise would be to distort the meaning of the text.
The only way I can do this is, as I stated it in my “15 Truths” is to be extraordinarily careful as we study the text of the Bible. We must force ourselves to read Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter as Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter intended us to read their words. While John Calvin or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Paul Smith might have something important to say about the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, I have to read the words of Moses or the words of Jesus as they were given and received. That means I must work to understand the original languages and the historical situation of each book of the Bible, and of each epoch covered by the biblical writers. Moving forward (and I will have more to say about this in the near future) we must also see how these words have been interpreted by others in different times and in different cultural contexts.
By placing ourselves under the text, and by wrestling with the manner in which others have read and understood the Scriptures we reduce the likelihood of reading our own biases back into the text, and we simultaneously increase the possibility of understanding what the original writer intended. In other words, we allow the text to set the agenda, and we are able to allow the text to critique and correct our agendas.
I do not want to suggest that modern situations do not call for a deeper reading and a critical study of the text. For example: the American slave trade, the system of Apartheid in South Africa, the American Civil Rights Movement, the oppression and murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany – many human rights tragedies have been exposed and corrected by a fresh reading of Scripture. The American Restoration Movement is itself a testament both of the ability of men and women in a particular historical situation to return to a “primitive” understanding of Scripture and of the blind spots that make it difficult for men and women in a particular historical context to completely extricate their biases from their interpretations. The exact same thing can be said of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my particular hero), Billy Graham or Paul Smith.
Humility, careful study, being aware of our own blind spots and emotional tendencies – these are all necessary skills in studying the Bible. Honestly, I just wish I could herd all of these cats (and others) into the same corral.
That’s why the study of theology is so frustrating and so entertaining at the same time!
Some people have suggested that I have a profound grasp of the obvious. For example: rain is wet, ice is cold. I’m not exactly sure if they mean that as a compliment or a criticism, but since I can choose I will say that their comment is most complimentary. I like reducing things to the most fundamental level possible, and if necessary, building up from there. For me, life just works better that way.
My third undeniable truth for theological reflection might seem, on the surface, to be yet another pronouncement of the blatantly obvious. Let us repeat it here:
3. The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.
In reality, however, I’m not at all convinced that this truth is as obvious as it might appear. For some rather inelegant examples, how many of you have ever heard a lesson or a sermon on Psalm 23 that ended with a call for repentance? Or how many of you have heard a sermon on Ephesians 2, in which Paul clearly states that we are saved by grace through faith, only to have the preacher spend 20 minutes talking about how we are not really saved by grace, but that we need x number of “works” in order to really be saved. I have been that preacher or teacher. I am speaking to myself first here – I am the one who made this list and I am fully qualified to plead guilty to violating these principles. Please do not accuse me of being self-righteous.
So let us return to our third undeniable truth for theological reflection. When an inspired author sat down to record the message God intended for him or her to write, he or she wanted that message to achieve its intended purpose, and nothing more. In the Psalms we read great poetry expressing joy, sorrow, repentance, confusion, pain and delight. We do not get a three point sermon on the steps of salvation, a detailed history of the creation of the world, and certainly not a 10 point outline as to have a better marriage. To force those foreign ideas upon the pages of the Psalms would be to violate the very intent of the writers – dare I suggest that would be the equivalent of speaking falsely of the Holy Spirit.
The same is true of any genre of Scripture. This is at it most basic level one of the principles of honest hermeneutics. We must first identify the genre of literature we are dealing with, and then ask ourselves, “what is this passage intended to communicate?” Especially for a group of people who claim to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” this step cannot be minimized. But, at the same time this is one of the most difficult steps. We have come to expect certain things from a class or a sermon, and so in order to make the text fit that “mold” of sermon or class we bend, twist, and sometimes even break the text. We might end up with a really motivational lecture or class, but it is woefully deficient in terms of being biblical.
The solution to the problem is that we need to jettison our contemporary concept of what makes a “biblical” or “Scriptural” class or sermon. We are just so accustomed to the “three points and a poem” kind of preaching that we have lost sight of the power of the text itself. As just one example, why must every sermon end with a passionate plea for repentance and baptism? If we are preaching from a text that in itself calls for repentance and baptism that is natural and biblical. But what if we are preaching from a text that calls for prayer? Or what if we are preaching from a text that calls for joy? Or what if we are preaching from a text that calls for us to enter into our community and to “wash the feet” of our neighbors? To make every text a pretext for repentance and baptism is to distort the meaning of the text – exactly what we accuse others of doing and exactly what we exempt ourselves from being guilty. It’s time we looked in the mirror before we look down the barrel of our theological cannons.
I am reminded of the story of the country preacher who started his sermon thusly: “Our text this morning is Genesis 1:1-2:3. I have three points this morning – #1, What God Said. #2 What God Did. And #3, a few words about baptism.”
Lest I be misunderstood here – I am not denigrating the teaching of repentance and baptism. No one, especially those who have heard me preach or teach, can get away with suggesting that I minimize the importance of surrendering to the beautiful and deeply significant act of baptism. And when I preach or teach on Matthew 28, Mark 16, Acts 2, 22, 26, Romans 6 or a whole host of other passages I make that emphasis very clear. Or, consider my series of lessons on the meaning and purpose of baptism in which I take the topic of baptism and look at the New Testament teachings systematically. But, that having been said, I just do not see how you can move from Psalm 23 to the baptistery without doing significant damage to one or the other.
Let us live out the motto that we advertise. Let us speak where the Bible speaks, and with the intended purpose of the authors of the Bible. Let us use their words to achieve the purpose that God and the Holy Spirit intended. Let us fall under the text instead of standing over it a position of superiority. And then it can truly be said of us that we are a people of the book.
Many of my “Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection” are positive statements correcting negative beliefs that really disturb me. One statement I hear frequently enough that I know it is not just an aberration is the belief that the Bible is full of obscure rantings and ravings of some long dead group of mystics and weirdos. In other words, you cannot understand most of what is in the Bible, and even the parts you can understand don’t make any sense today.
Hence, my second undeniable truth for theological reflection: 2. The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.
I have two main points in making this statement. One is that the Bible can be understood today, and two, we must be careful not to make the Bible mean anything that we want it to mean.
This truth could be illustrated by many biblical writings, but perhaps nowhere is it more obvious than in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of John, or the book of Revelation. Probably no book of the Bible has generated as many interpretations as has the book of Revelation. Every author honestly believes that he or she has “cracked the code” and knows exactly what the book means. Never mind that with so many conflicting interpretations the overwhelming majority of them will be simply mistaken at best or positively and dangerously wrong at worst. But, publishers have learned that the more far-fetched the better the sales, and so we have some truly bizarre interpretations of what should be some fairly benign readings in the book. Not to mention that every generation has a new candidate for the “beast” who as the mark of “666.” My favorite suggestion here was President Reagan, because each of his three names had six letters: Ronald Wilson Reagan. Whew. How is that for careful exegetical Bible study?
But it just seems so simple as to be impossible to ignore that if the book had no meaning to the original audience, it has no meaning for us today! This is not to say that it does not have a richer meaning (the “fulfillment” that many New Testament writers discuss, especially Matthew) for us today. But each and every history, prophecy, law code, gospel or letter was written with one specific audience in mind. And that audience could – and I dare say did – understand what was written to them.
When the original readers and hearers of Isaiah 7:14 read or heard that prophecy they did not all gather around in a circle and say, “You know what, in 700 years (give or take a few) this prophecy is going to come true and a little baby is going to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.” No. They knew that Isaiah was speaking to them, and that whether it was written immediately or some time after the fact it was originally given, Isaiah was speaking to their immediate situation and that within a very short time period they would not have to worry about Syria and Israel. In like manner, in his apocalypse John was not talking about the United States and the Old Soviet Union or the new European Union or some President of the United States who simply had a phonetically balanced name.
Did Matthew see a “fulfillment” of the original prophecy? Absolutely, by the power of the Holy Spirit he saw that the words of Isaiah could have a deeper meaning. But that was not the original meaning, and we are foolish if we try to force that interpretation upon the text. Ripped from its contextual moorings, any verse or section of verses becomes the devil’s playground. Never forget that Satan quoted Scripture while tempting Jesus to forsake his calling. Attaching “book, chapter and verse” to some misquoted passage of Scripture does not give it legitimacy. Only when read in context does the passage complete its intended purpose.
So where does that leave us in the 21st century? With a lot of homework to do, that’s where.
The task of Bible study is not to search the Bible to give support to one of our cherished opinions, then turn to our favorite book of poetry to close out the lesson. The task of Bible study is to carefully and intentionally ask some very basic questions of the text, and then, if possible, to see if there is a legitimate parallel between the text and our situation. If there is a legitimate parallel, fine. But if there is not, then we cannot force a foreign meaning upon the text with a crow bar, a shoe horn and an can of axle grease.
I believe the Bible was written to be understood. I believe the original audience clearly understood the writings, and I believe we can too, if we take the time and do our work diligently. That means learning the original languages – Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament. Additional study in Latin and other ancient languages is also critical. We must also become aware of how ancient commentators read and understood the text, whether Jewish or Christian. We must carefully examine the history of the interpretation of a passage. And, last but certainly not least, we must have the courage and the strength to step back from our computers and ask ourselves if we are not imposing a 21st century grid of interpretive processes upon the text that would distort or mask the true meaning of the text. All of this, from the first step of translation to the last step of hermeneutical application absolutely demands the use of humility, as I posted in my first undeniable truth of theological reflection.
Just one more thought before I close. I am perfectly willing to jettison a belief that I hold if it can be proven to me that I am wrong in holding it. But, please, use exegetically sound arguments, not emotionally charged epithets fueled by post-modern opinions based on deconstructionist exegesis.
In short, the writers of the biblical texts intended for them to be understood. They were, and they can be – if we have the humility to do our homework diligently and honestly.
It has been a while since I have looked at my “Fifteen Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection,” so I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to explain, in perhaps a little more clarity, where those truths came from and what they entail.
I got the basic idea for the “Fifteen Truths” from Rush Limbaugh. He famously (or infamously) wrote a book about some number of undeniable truths. It was a long time ago, I don’t remember how many truths he had, and I never read the book so I don’t know what they were about. But I got to thinking, if Rush Limbaugh can do it, maybe I can too. In my first collection I had seven undeniable truths for theological reflection. Then it went to 8, then (I think) 13, now it’s up to 15. I may have to come up with another one or two…or add an addendum or two to an existing truth. So, I want everyone to know that these truths were created somewhat “tongue in cheek,” but I really do believe them to be truths for theological reflection, although the “undeniable” part may be a little over-the-top.
The number one requirement for reading and interpreting the Bible is humility.
1.a The primary expression of this humility in theological reflection is a submission to the Scriptures as they stand written. We do not, as interpreters and theologians, stand over the text, we stand under the text.
The reason I listed this truth first should be obvious: if we do not start with humility we will not get very far in studying theology, and especially the Bible.
Humility in this respect does not mean we approach the Bible or the subject of theology with the idea that we are stupid and cannot understand the Bible or the theological reflections of others. Humility in this respect means we must temper our thoughts and reflections and understand that we are the creation, and that while we have mastered many aspects of theological reflection (such as the biblical languages, or the topic of systematic theology) we will never be able to master the Bible itself, and certainly not the ultimate author of the Scriptures, God.
That concept led me to adding the corollary, the “1.a” part. This is one area that I personally find to be my largest aggravation in regard to theological studies. So many preachers, teachers, theologians, and simple church members believe that since we are living now, and since we have so many more tools to understand various aspects of ancient history, that we can simply eliminate parts of Scripture we don’t like, or we can re-write the text to say what we want it to say in order to give support to our contemporary culture. As I stated in as few words as I could, we do not stand over the text, we stand under it. We cannot re-write it. We cannot excise unpopular sections. We must let the text form us, we do not have the option of forming the text.
I am simply not impressed, nor am I anywhere close to being convinced, by arguments that begin with the supposition that because we live in the early 21st century we are just so much more enlightened and so much more spiritual than the original authors of Scripture. This process was made popular by the feminist movement, and has now been taken over virtually unchanged by those promoting wholesale acceptance of homosexual behavior. The argument flows like this: the apostle Paul was a male chauvinist (homophobe) and so was the prevailing culture, so everything (or almost everything, there may be a sentence or two that we find fits our agenda) that he wrote is suspect. We carefully dissect his writings, and anything that conflicts with our viewpoint is rejected, but if we do manage to find something that we can find useful, that proves that Paul was capable of writing God’s will in regard to that subject. So, the feminists reject Paul’s clear teachings on male spiritual leadership as being chauvinistic, but latch on to Gal. 3:28 with the zeal of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver.
Underlying this entire argument is the premise that we are now smarter than any generation that has preceded us, and also more spiritual, and so we must in effect re-write the Bible. The old one, the one our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents used is faulty, it’s broken, it cannot be trusted. God never meant all those passages that teach men to be the spiritual leader in the home and in the congregation, and he certainly never intended all those homophobic passages that indicate sex should be limited to heterosexual couples, and then only in the bonds of a committed marriage. How utterly stupid and spiritual bereft our ancestors were!
The theologians who hold to this post-modern deconstruction of the text are guilty of standing over the text. They want to be the masters of the text. They want the text to say what they want it to say, and no other interpretation can even be considered – especially not the interpretation that shaped Christianity for two millennia.
I do not want to suggest that the early church fathers had everything correct, or that the reformers got everything straightened out. I agree with the beautiful phrase that “God has yet more light to shine from his Word.” That having been said, I certainly have more reason to trust the early church fathers than I do some 21st century theologian, and the very principle of “standing under the text” forces me to evaluate my own conclusions with the same intensity that I evaluate the conclusions of others.
To be honest interpreters of the text we must accept and interpret the text as it stands written. There are many things in the text that I do not understand, and others that force me to make a decision – do I follow the text or my own wisdom? God has given me the ability and the freedom to study a great many subjects that can enlighten and deepen my understanding of the Bible. I can either make use of those tools or I can reject them. I am free to accept or to reject the conclusions of other theologians who study the same subjects. One thing that I am not allowed to do:
I am not allowed to write my own opinion and call it Scripture.
[Continuing my discussion of creating a positive method of evangelism]
If you have been following this series of posts you know that I am arguing against mass-produced, “one size fits all” methods of evangelism and I am suggesting that we get back to using the four gospels as recorded in our New Testaments as the only text for conducting evangelistic Bible studies. However, even if you agree with me on that point another couple of issues must be dealt with. One is that there are four gospel accounts, and the other is that there are almost an endless supply of translations to use. So, if we are going to limit ourself to using the text of one gospel, which gospel, and from which translation?
In terms of looking at which gospel to use, I have already briefly touched on that subject in my post on being sensitive to our students. But the question deserves a little more attention. At the risk of being way too simplistic, let’s look at the gospels and see if we can determine which gospel would be the best for any given situation.
Matthew certainly has a lot of positive features, and I genuinely love studying this gospel. It is elegantly written and organized. But Matthew has some features that do not play well in our 21st century. The style in which it is written, while elegant, is also heavily Jewish. I mean that in its most positive sense, but we just do not think as Hebrews today. The more we do think as Hebrews, the more beautiful Matthew becomes. If we are going to study with someone who is well versed in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, they may prefer to use Matthew, and for them I would say that Matthew is the gospel of choice. It provides a full, richly textured view of the life of Jesus. However, for someone who knows nothing of the Bible, especially if they no nothing of the Old Testament, Matthew is probably the last gospel I would choose to study. You would have to spend most of your time explaining Matthew, and our goal is to study Jesus.
Mark is perhaps my “go to” gospel for a number of reasons. One, it is the shortest of the gospels, and that plays into our attention deficit disordered world. In connection with its brevity, it moves very quickly. Very few stories get more attention in Mark than they do in either Matthew or Luke. Three, Mark gives us a picture of Jesus that is hardly sanitized. He tells the story “live and in living color” and if Jesus needs to spit to make mud to put on someone’s eyes, then that is exactly what he does. This lets a modern reader know that Jesus was fully human. The negative regarding Mark is also this brevity. Matthew and Luke flesh out some stories and include more teachings than does Mark.
Luke is also a much longer gospel, which presents problems of its own. If you want to cover the life of Jesus in the shortest period of time possible (NOT always a good thing) then studying a gospel of this length is counter-productive. However, Luke has some genuine positives. Luke gives the clearest impression of its historicity. Luke is writing so Theophilus can verify the stories he has been taught. This is important for many modern readers. Luke also takes a special interest in the down-trodden folks of the world – the poor, the sick, and females. It is for this reason that many people love Luke. They can see themselves in the characters that Luke has Jesus interact with. Luke is also structured in a fascinating way, easily as elegant as Matthew but in a different fashion. I have discovered that learning how a gospel is organized is as fruitful as reading the text itself, and it opens the text to greater understanding.
Finally, John is “a whole different kettle of fish.” John is, as I said earlier, written more for the right-brained people of the world. It is deceptively simple. The original Greek in which John is written is very straight-forward (which is why John is very often the first text that is read in 2nd year Greek courses). But the theology of John is anything other than simple or straight-forward. It is rich, complex, and profound. John uses the technique of conversation with special effectiveness in the earlier chapters, then transitions to longer “soliloquies” in the later chapters. I would recommend the gospel of John for the person who is really struggling with the divinity of Jesus, a person for whom “just the facts, ma’am” leaves them high and dry, and for whom the world as we see it today just does not seem to make any sense. I would also suggest, as an aside, that the use of the gospel of John also presents the greatest challenge to the teacher, so more work is demanded if the material is to be handled appropriately.
When we turn to the issue of translations the issue gets more complicated, simply because there are far more translations than there are gospels. Instead of looking at each translation separately, I will summarize the two main translational theories and give a few pros and cons regarding each.
The formal translation theory focuses on a word-for-word equivalence. It is often called the literal translation theory, and for many people is the only way in which the Bible should be translated. This theory does have its advantages. It is the best translation to use for word studies, as words in the original languages tend to be translated with the greatest degree of consistency. Second, you can see literary techniques in the original languages somewhat more clearly with a formal translation. But, there are some real drawbacks to this theory as well. One is that the translation becomes stilted – we just don’t talk like Hebrews or Greeks anymore. Another is that languages, and literary techniques change, and sometimes a “literal” translation becomes meaningless. Just what exactly does “gird up your loins” mean anyway? I know, but I wonder how many twenty-somethings out there who have never read the Bible would even have the foggiest clue. Some formal equivalence translations: the NASB, the ESV, the RSV and the KJV, although it is not as formal as many people would think. I even got fooled on that one, until I read the preface! I would even put the old NIV in this category.
The dynamic translation theory focuses more on a phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, or even paragraph by paragraph equivalence. It does not seek to translate each word slavishly, it is looking for the content of the verse or paragraph and then asks the question, “how can we say the same thing in the language most used today?” As such dynamic translations tend to be more colloquial, and in turn have a shorter “shelf life” than their formal translation cousins. There are many good dynamic translations available. One must be careful, however. The more dynamic the translation attempts to become, the further it gets from a translation and the more it becomes a paraphrase. The difference is critical to maintain. Just one example: Eugene Peterson’s The Message is often refered to as a translation. It is most certainly NOT a translation. It is a paraphrase – sometimes approaching a formal equivalence, but often straying far from even a dynamic equivalence. You very often see more of Eugene Peterson than you do of Moses, Isaiah, Luke or Paul. Some dynamic equivalence translations: the NLT, the CEB, and perhaps the new NIV, although I have not carefully investigated it.
My suggestion is that you allow your student to choose which Bible he or she would like to read. If they are utterly clueless then I would recommend a dynamic translation to begin with, although I would have a formal equivalence translation on the table ready for a quick comparison when appropriate. Conversely, if someone wants to study from the KJV or the NASB, I would have a copy of the NLT or the CEB handy, just to give an updated and “reader friendly” take on a difficult passage. The most critical aspect is to find a translation that the student can understand, and one that the student will read, and read effectively. The best translation available is useless if the student will not, or cannot read and understand it.