Rediscovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Heiser’s Free Book)

Michael Heiser, The Naked Bible, is offering the first draft of his book FREE (329 pages) Subtitle: Rediscovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. I’ve really enjoyed the preface.

…My life has been spectacularly mundane…It‘s kind of like watching It’s a Wonderful Life…looking back I see the ordinary deeds of steadfast friends and passing acquaintances, frivolous remarks that provided unintended clarity…providence.

I’m a big fan of God acting in the mundane. Heiser continues:

…I came to suspect that the key to understanding [difficult] texts—and really the entire biblical revelation—was to approach them the way the ancients would have on their own terms. People who claim to be serious about the Bible often expend a lot of energy talking about how it needs to be interpreted in context—but then turn around and filter it through their own traditions. The context for correctly understanding the Bible is not…(p. 6)

…After reading the Old Testament and other ancient material from the biblical period closely, I discovered a number of items that didn‘t jive with traditional ways of formulating biblical theology. I had to make a choice. Was I willing to side with the Bible when its own content, illumined by a deep knowledge of the ancient world in which God moved people to produce it, deviated from what I had been taught in my modern evangelical context? Again, a special grace compelled me to think that choosing the Bible wasn‘t going to hurt my faith. God was the same God then as he is now. I wasn‘t going to understand the text by making its writers fit into molds created by theologians who lived centuries after its creation and who worked without access to its ancient cultural context. The Bible would be okay, and so would I.(p. 6).

…. I can say with confidence is that you‘ll never look at your Bible the same way again. And while we‘re on that subject, I need to say a few things about what the Bible is and isn‘t…. (p. 7)

Introduction: “The Bible–How Much Do You Really Believe It?”

…we aren‘t as open to the supernatural as we think we are. Many Christians are supernaturalists who think like skeptics. Ask yourself what would be going through your mind if a Christian friend confided in you one day that they believed they had been helped by a guardian angel, or that they audibly heard a disembodied voice warning them of some unforeseeable danger, or that they had seen an image of Jesus in some moment of crisis…

…our modern, rationalistic evangelical sub-culture has trained us to think that our theology precludes these experiences or this kind of contact. [Yes, Heiser recognizes abuse and excess.] (p. 11).

Whether we want to admit it or not, since we live in a modern scientific age, we are prone to think these kinds of experiences are misinterpretations of some other happenstance, or something that is treatable with the right medication. We would think it absolutely unwarranted to insist on scientific evidence for the virgin birth, insisting that faith is required. Why then do many Christians call on academic SWAT teams to explain away other ―weird passages? Aren‘t those important? Does acceptance of the supernatural extend only to the items referenced in creeds and confessions?

Think of this book as my offer to drive you home to the faith (13)

 Download his FREE book and enjoy. You may find it as fascinating as I did just to click (skim) through the entire document for the big picture.

Only two approaches to the biblical text are coherent (Schenck)

Ken Schenck has started writing a paper in which he states that

…in the end, only two approaches to the biblical text are coherent: 1) a historical-contextual approach and 2) reader-centered approaches that locate meaning (or “experience” of the text) in relation to specific readers and communities of readers. The spectrum of hermeneutical models currently in play are all varied combinations of these two broad categories, however they might self-describe.

I’m still chewing on this, but my first reaction is that it resonates with what I’ve been discerning recently as far as categorizing hermeneutical approaches. However, I’m not sure that I would try to argue that any reader-centered approach can claim to be fully “coherent,” unless you want to say that it is trying to making some kind of attempt at internal coherence (perceived coherence?).   Not that anyone will necessarily agree on the results of the historical-contextual approach, but we can probably admit that anything we do after that–any other approach or tradition that we subscribe to–is in reality some form of a “reader-centered” approach.   Any way you look at it, the big questions still remain:

….Are some reader vantage points more appropriate than others? Is there a specifically Christian vantage point from which to read Scripture as a whole? How proximate are the “original” meanings of individual biblical texts to the most appropriate holistic vantage points? To what extent does this paradigm cohere with evangelical fundamentals?…

Read more of Ken Schenck’s Bridging Lessings Ditch.

Bottom line: if you want your theological reading to “represents the current pinnacle of progress,” you’d better subscribe to my approach ;-).

The Western Captivity of African Christianity (Black)

UPDATE: Onesimus Online no longer exists.

Yesterday I introduced Bill Black’s blog, Onesimus Online, but I thought his posts related to The Western Captivity of African Christianity deserved a little more attention (especially for those of you that are skimming titles; I see Eddie beat me to it ;-).

… however well-intentioned our motives, we Western missionaries in general, and Western theological educators in particular, are engaged in nothing less than the colonization of the African church on a massive scale.

When the British sent out their surveyors across the savannahs and forests of Africa to map out their newly claimed territories, their apologists sold it in part as a vast humanitarian project to bring the ‘Three Cs’ of Christianity, Civilization and Commerce, as David Livingstone put it, to the poor benighted negroes of Africa. Of course the unquestioned assumption was…The resulting mess has completely warped African reality at every level and in every direction and will likely never be undone.

We missionary types don’t seem to have learned very much from the past two centuries of experience, because we are insisting on doing the very same things in our own spheres of influence. Oh, but we have the best of motives (for the Lord and the advance of his kingdom!). And who could ever accuse us of racism? We are all about partnership, all about taking into consideration the [fill in the blank with Kenyan, Ethiopian, Nigerian, etc] context, all about project sustainability, all about reducing dependency, all about working ourselves out of a job, raising up African leaders, etc, etc. We are up on the latest trends in globalization, we go to all the international conferences on servant leadership (whatever that means)…

…. my job is to teach Africans what the Evangelical [and thus ‘right’] position is for whatever the Bible addresses. But in doing so, I’m forced to make my African students into proper North American Evangelicals [one could just as easily insert ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Reformed Baptist’ or ‘Pentecostal’ or ‘Methodist’].

…Not only are we forcing Western Evangelical categories on African students as the measure of all that’s true in the world, but we have simply assumed that our model of theological education itself is the baseline for all subsequent thinking on the matter…

…We theological educators in Africa are doing a bang-up job of reproducing North American Evangelicals for Africa, replete with our ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity. But in doing so, I’m not at all certain that we are either being true to New Testament Christianity or engaging effectively with the people of this continent as they really are…

Read the whole post: The Western Captivity of African Christianity

And again, (The Erosion of Inerrancy?)

…the fights (theological and hermeneutical) that have set the boundaries assumed sacrosanct by our best North American Evangelicals (or even British, though there is a huge difference even here) seem increasingly irrelevant over here.

…with the explosion of Christianity in Africa, Latin America and Asia, these presuppositions are increasingly exposed for what they are – presuppositions that unnaturally and unnecessarily limit what is understood as appropriate, to what is understood as appropriate if you have grown up in the West and been trained at one of its leading theological institutions. For that reason, systematic theology, for example, is difficult to teach in my present context as anything more than what certain Evangelicals understood at a particular time given their particular intellectual and religious contexts. To attempt to dress up Kenyan Christians in Evangelical clothes is attempt what the British did by insisting that Kenyans must adopt trousers, shirt and tie in order to appear civilized (never mind that…

…Africans can certainly wear western-style clothes, but we got to this point as a result of a certain amount of cultural imperialism that did violence to already existing cultures and perspectives. Anyway, the idea that the traditional Evangelical doctrine is eroding amongst Evangelicals may be true in the West, or at least a more or less valid observation. Our needs and concerns on this side of the world make such word play seem like yet another Western game. Playing ‘your’ game is a luxury ‘we’ can no longer afford. Anyone interested in playing our game?

And yesterday, What is your Game?

…Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely…

…while Western missionary Christianity misses the mark in terms of addressing African realities, the New Testament itself, along with the earliest expressions of Christianity as it spread throughout the Roman world, engages the pre-modern world view with dramatic and life-changing answers.

Eddie Arthur, Wycliffe Bible Translators, has a nice 14 minute video on the topic of missions, culture, contextualization, and African theologies (see also this post for more links).

Eddie Arthur of Wycliffe Bible translators talks about the importance and implications of contextualising the Gospel.

The New Testament is a short book; know its context (Keener)

…the NT is a short book, as far as scholarly disciplines go, and NT scholars ought to know its context better [Hengel]…It is simply naive to take a document written to a particular ancient setting, written in Greek, using figures of speech and cultural allusions that were shared assumptions by the ancient author and the author’s intended audience, and assume that we can read it without taking any of that into account.  I’m not saying that we can’t get many correct ideas from a translation without additional background, but you will also miss a lot.

Craig Keener, interview on Romans with Nijay Gupta. (Read the whole interview here.)

Ken Schenck has some harsh words for Carson, Beale, and Piper for their “innoculation” of the complacent

In Who’s a scholar, Ken Schenck (Dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University) has this to say:

…It seems like whenever a study or trajectory of real significance arises, some “conservative”–meaning someone resistant to change–then commissions a counter-study to address it. Such counter-studies, far from actually disproving the new development, more innoculates the complacent, who can now simply say, “You can see that the new book by D. A. Carson or John Piper shows that this or that is not in fact true but another liberal conspiracy to corrupt the masses.”

….Justification and Variegated Nomism…the “scholarly” excuse for ignoring genuine developments. Of course the volumes themselves are far more “new perspective” than old…

So also N. T. Wright introduces the actual ancient background of the New Testament into his interpretations of Scripture and it begins to make its way down into the masses. Commission a study! So John Piper produces a “scholarly” volume refuting it to innoculate the masses. Sorry. Just because you can write a book doesn’t mean you haven’t been caught with your theological pants down.

Another reactionary “scholarly” innoculation is D. A. Carson and Greg Beale’s Commentary on the Use of the Old Testament in the New. Sorry. The truth doesn’t care. The New Testament simply isn’t majorly concerned with the context and original meaning of Old Testament passages. [Jim West complains about this last sentence, but see Peter Enns’s chapter on the Christotelic interpretation of the Old Testament in the New Testament – Inspiration and Incarnation. ]

There have been a glut of new commentary series it seems this last decade, but most of them promise to fill Amazon with this sort of innoculatory rubbish. Books to allow us not to grow, not to wrestle truly with hard issues.

Oh where is objectivity to be found? Nowhere, of course, but there are better and worse examples of the attempt. It used to be that we simply ignored the experts. Now the anti-intellectuals have infiltrated them, across the spectrum of scholarly disciplines in America.

Read the whole post– Who’s a scholar. I have a lot of respect for John Piper. I appreciate many of his books and sermons, and he has done some wonderful things, and I think that he genuinely has the glory of God at interest. However, I have to agree with Shenk on this point, and I think the harsh truth needs to be told.

In a somewhat related issue (for those of you that aren’t already completely ensconced in the biblical studies blog world) Scot McKnight responds to Dan Wallace’s frustrations about biases against evangelicals in scholarship (more than 500 comments so far.) David Miller has collected some of the links to this issue and says,

… AKMA‘s comment (scroll down to #38) on the Jesus Creed is the most helpful I’ve read yet. There’s plenty of good advice in the comment thread for students interested in graduate schools too.

*For other posts on the same general subject see Biblia Hebraica, kata ta biblia, Exploring Our Matrix.
For my own thoughts on the intersection between faith and scholarship, see here and here.

Brady on reading the Bible deductively

Chris Brady – Targuman: Reading the Bible deductively (Gen 1)

…There are many things that the author(s) of Genesis does not tell us that we would really like to know…What this means for our practice of reading the Bible is that we must maintain a careful tension between reading the text carefully to find the subtle messages that the author is revealing to us and not reading too much into the text, particularly where it is silent on a subject. Thus the reference to the sun and the moon as the “greater” and “lesser” lights is both a powerful theological statement about the nature of these objects (they are mere creations, made by God) and a rejection of contemporary belief that shemesh and yareach were deities. But it does not tell us about any sort of divine battle or … I don’t know what it might be. We can only work with what we have in the text and while we can (and must) make certain conjectures it is imperative that the interpreter be honest about their limitations.

…our text never explicitly tells us anything about our central figure, God. We must deduce from other evidence whatever we might want to know about this figure…God is never introduced in any way. God is simply there, his existence is assumed and essential…What can we determine about God from the fingerprints left behind in creation? Read more

lingamish walks into the lion’s den (of hermeneutics) without his Alexandrian sword

I’m glad my last post encouraged David further to grab the hermeneutical bull by the horns: Exegetical Sketches: Alexander’s Sword. I think he’s been lurking in the bush planning his hunting strategy for some time now. David writes,

What I want to do in this blog series is give an overview of some alternative ways of doing Bible study in a Christian context. . . What [grammatical-historical interpretation] fails to address is the need for intuitive and populist ways to arrive at Scriptural meaning leading to appropriate localized applications. Biblical scholars use a variation of the phrase uttered by the farmer leaning on his fence who tells the city slickers, “You can’t get there from here.” Instead, the experts in essence say, “You can’t get there from here. But I can. So don’t even bother to interpret the Bible since its far too complex for amateurs like you.” This doesn’t mean that academics have no say. On the contrary, the seminaries and scholar are crucial through their indirect influence at the highest levels. But I want to forget about the ivory towers for a moment and focus on the trenches.

Here’s a brief summary of each method:

  1. Alexander’s Sword: Abandoning in-depth exegesis for relativistic readings anchored by tradition and divine guidance.
  2. Bad Boy Bible Study: Reenvision the Old Testament as a collection of bad examples and villains rather than a catalog of models and heroes.
  3. Parabolic interpretation: Shun allegory and look for the punch line.
  4. The Three Stories: Their story. Our story. God’s story.

I liked this quote:

…You can explain it as a sort of spiritual natural selection in which the religious system most adaptable to the environment prevails. While proponents of GHI (and I consider myself in that category) will argue that careful exegesis is the safeguard against improper hermeneutics, we also assume that application will be highly localized and distinctive rather than homogenous. With that in mind we should be concerned rather than consoled if we see believers in another culture or epoch applying the Bible in the same way as us…

Wander over to Alexander’s Sword and add your two cents (or whatever they call them in Mozambique; it’s kwachas in nearby Malawi). I’ve already thrown in mine.

The limitations of grammatical-historical method for Christians (McCartney vs. Beale)

A friend just pointed out this gem by Dan McCartney, Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? (ETS 2003).

Favorite quotes: “Method, even a strict grammatical-historical method, does not guarantee correct results. What matters more is the questions one is expecting a text to answer, and the assumptions made about the text in question…The idea of a singular, methodologically isolatable and static historical meaning that we humans can precisely define is an illusory modernist pipe-dream. Meaning is always dynamic and personal.”

[Later] Biblical study cannot be impersonal and strictly controlled. I’m afraid we are going to have to relinquish the illusion of impersonal scientific control of biblical study by strict method, for three reasons:

  1. It is unsuited to the nature of the Bible as divine book (noted already).
  2. Knowledge, meaning, and interpretation is tied up with the person who knows and interprets (Polanyi).
  3. Method alone cannot force all rational people into agreeing on what a text says (quite apart from the question of its truthfulness).

Following are some longer excerpts to help you get the flavor of his argument and whet your appetite. The further you go, the more interesting the article gets [all bolding and italics were added by me].

Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? The answer to this question is usually framed in one of two ways. The approach of Longenecker is to acknowledge that the apostles, in accordance with their age, did things quite differently than our grammatical-historical approach would allow, and concludes, “Our commitment as Christians is to the reproduction of the apostolic faith and doctrine, and not necessarily to the specific apostolic exegetical practices.” 1

The other approach is that presented by Greg Beale in his article in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? (hereafter RDWT), 2 who argues that “In fact, of all the many Old Testament citations and allusions found in the New Testament, only a few plausible examples of non-contextual usage have been noted by critics … [and] it is by no means certain that even these examples are non-contextual….”, 3 and concludes that the New Testament did (at least most of the time) follow what is effectively the grammatical-historical meaning, and we should follow their exegetical practice.

I want to suggest a third answer: The New Testament writers were not doing grammatical-historical exegesis nor did they consistently interpret according to original historical contextual meanings, but we should follow their exegetical lead anyway

All would agree, I think, that the New Testament writers do sometimes follow “natural” or contextual meanings, and I think most would also agree that at times they find meanings in the Old Testament which are hard to justify by strict grammatical-historical interpretation. The question before us is whether and to what degree we can legitimately find meanings by means that do not conform to grammatical-historically derivable meanings…

…If we do not adopt the viewpoint of Jesus and the apostles that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key focus of the Old Testament, that Christ is himself the centerpiece of all God’s promises, that Christ is the true Israel, true Son of God, that the meaning of the biblical texts for the present-day people of God has to do with our relation to God in Christ, then how can our interpretation be deemed in any sense Christian?

But Beale also concedes too much to modernism. Beale, and many others dealing with this issue, also feel the pressure of conforming to modern expectations regarding grammatical-historical meaning. In order for an interpretation to be true, it is assumed that it must be, on some level, grammatical-historical in nature. 6 Thus the approach of Beale and other recent interpreters is to make a valiant attempt to exonerate the New Testament writers of any “non-contextual” interpretation. 7 They argue that (a) the New Testament writers found their christological meanings either in direct predictive prophecy, or more commonly by doing “typology,” rather than force-fitting allegories, (b) typology is not the same as allegory, because it builds on historical correspondence, and (c) the unity of God’s purpose in scripture means that typology is a derivative of grammatical-historical interpretation.

Typology is not grammatical-historical. I very much accept the validity of typological interpretation. But

Continue reading

More on the cultural gap in reading Scripture (McGrath)

James McGrath in The Only True God (page 100) (via Mike Whitenton, as part of the debate about expert vs. amateur biblical interpretation. In addition to the links he has, I’ll add this one by Doug Chaplin.)

[The fact that early Christians were completely unlike us in terms of world view and cultural context] is an unsettling result, to be sure, for those accustomed to read these writings as sacred Scripture, and in particular for Protestants who traditionally emphasize that anyone at all can read and interpret that Bible. The truth of the matter, for those readers without knowledge of ancient languages, ancient cultures, and other such subjects, the meaning of the Bible is at times not all clear, while at other times it can seem to clearly mean things that it is unlikely to have meant in its original context.

The possibility of misunderstanding a reader today in a Western cultural setting is at least as great as the chances that the same individual will experience a cultural or linguistic misunderstanding if traveling to a foreign culture. [Emphasis mine.]

By emphasizing these points, I do not wish to discourage interested individuals from reading the Bible in English translation – far from it. it is important, however, for all readers to understand that they are having the Bible interpreted for them by those who have translated it into their native language and are then engaging in interpretation themselves through the act of reading. The books they are reading derive from a very different world, and therefore one should not cease reading but should utilize the multitude of books and other resources that scholars have made available, expressly with the aim of helping readers make sense of these ancient texts. Having done that, one should then go on to express one’s conclusions about what these writings mean with an appropriate humility and tentativeness, aware that what seems obvious to a reader today may not have been what seemed obvious to a first-century reader.

A few additional thoughts:

  • “it is important for all readers to recognize . . .” Bingo! Even just recognizing the gap makes a world of a difference.
  • I wonder how many people have actually been immersed in a completely different language and culture to know how disorienting it can be.
  • This gives me yet another opportunity to state something my African colleagues are always telling me, “There’s often more meaning in the cultural context around the text than within the text itself.” In other words, the text is often pointing to a much bigger reality that can only be understood by being more familiar with the cultural context. It only hints at what really is going on.
  • We’d probably be a lot better off keeping the focus on the big picture (the main overall story) and be humble about your own ability to interpret; most problems seem to arise when interpreters pretend to be authoritative and prescriptive.
  • The cultural gap demonstrates the importance of mother-tongue translations. If translations are already interpretations, for a majority of the world’s population, reading a Bible in English is adding yet another layer of cultural and worldview obscurity.
  • It strikes me that one of the main problems may not be a naive first reading of Scripture, but rather that by the time we get to reading the scriptures for ourselves, we’ve already been loaded with so many interpretive assumptions (usually over-simplified caricatures of something someone else—who struggled with the Bible for a long time—said.)  (Besides, most of the debates are really about “boundary formation” – what makes “us” right (better) and “them” wrong (bad).)
  • the big fear is always heresy. it’s an important fear, a real fear. but some of the worst heresies have come from pretty good biblical exegetes. so beware of heresy, but don’t become so obsessed by its possibility that you snuff out the Living Word. (besides, most heresy hunting is done against people with only slightly different interpretations; they get linked with the big heretics of history for effect. )
  • As maligned as ‘reader-response’ is, the sooner we recognize that this is what we all have already been doing, the better off we might be. Reader-response is especially meaningful when reading books like the Psalms.

on . . . “utilize the multitude of books and other resources that scholars have made available, expressly with the aim of helping readers make sense of these ancient texts.”

1. Most of the people I know are lucky to have access to a Bible—much less a multitude of scholarly books.

2. I’d be curious to know what books McGrath has in mind here. One of the main things I do is help M.Div students try to find scholarly books on biblical subjects of interest to them. Some thoughts along those lines:

  • Most scholarly books are so tied up in specific academic debates that they are almost totally useless to helping the common person with the cultural context. In addition to those that are simply poorly written, you normally have to wade through a ton of irrelevant information; even then, you may get to the end and a relevant interpretive suggestion has still not been made.
  • Most academic writing I know still doesn’t understand the most important cultural contexts. I only know a handful of academics that are multi-cultural enough to understand the these dynamics. Even if we sic an anthropologist or sociologist on a culture that is readily available for study today, armed with all the latest research tools, we are still barely scratching the surface of the cultures we already have access to.
  • We (the academically oriented) wind up trying to load way too much on some parallel ancient document or something that was scratched on a pot that was dug out of the ground. For all we know, what survived may actually be anomalous within its original context; it may be the exception rather than the rule. (Writing itself represents a certain class of society.)
  • New knowledge isn’t necessarily better for interpreting scripture. In college, they told me that what I learned in Sunday school wasn’t quite right. In seminary, they taught me that what I learned in college wasn’t quite right. Now that I’m doing my PhD, I recognize that some of the stuff I learned at every level was right on, and some of it was exactly wrong. I would have been better off skipping some hermeneutics or Bible backgrounds classes entirely–and I have been blessed with a pretty good education. (As much as I hate to say this, it is especially true of almost every theology course I took in seminary.) So when some young dynamic, effective pastor asks me if he should go to seminary, I hesitate…Yes and no; there are tradoffs. In my experience, some of the worst exegetes have PhDs in biblical studies; education is no guarantee. (Where do you think a lot of these seminary educated pastors get their hair-brained ideas?  😉
  • To be meaningful, we need both critical scholarship AND belief. Scholarship by unbelievers, while it may be helpful for understanding the cultural context, too often misses the ultimate point. (Why bother?) Scholarship by believers that doesn’t take into consideration the full cultural worldview of its original context is just as disingenuous, makes the cultural gap more rigid, and creates substantially more false interpretations. (I want to say, “Fear not! God is big enough to handle it.”)
  • Understanding the cultural context is more of a lifelong journey than finding answers in books. I grew up with the Bible (enough to ace my seminary’s English Bible exam before ever taking a single class) and have three degrees related to Biblical studies. Granted I’m one of the more dull pencils in the box, but I feel like I’m just now beginning to understanding some of the cultural implications of certain books (and I’m even more confused about others). I also feel like a lot more cultural and linguistic data needed to fully understand some of the finer points is irretrievable because we can no longer empirically test what people of those worlds would have understood by those words.
  • Even people from the exacts same cultural context and worldview (e.g. NT—the original NT audiences), appear to have debated the meaning of their Scriptures (our OT) pretty strongly.
  • As far as amateur vs. expert, there are no guarantees any way you look at it.

So there are a few random thoughts. I’m sure if I was living in a different context, the tone of this post might be significantly different.

I guess all I’m trying to reflect (sparked by McGrath’s point) is that serious biblical scholarship—learning the original languages and the ancient cultural contexts—is valuable, but it is not a panacea. It can create as many problems as it solves. So I am a bit schizophrenic in this regard. On the one hand, I’ve been privileged to devote most of my life to trying to understanding more about the Bible in its original contexts—something I really enjoy. On the other hand, I know that some of the most important insights I gain from the Bible—the meanings probably closest to the original intent—come from my kids when they ask pointed questions or from the uneducated man at the fruit stand. Both of them understand recognize their own limitations in reading the Bible, and both of them have had some kind of personal encounter with the God they see active in the Bible—they know and trust him even if they don’t fully understand everything that is going on.

Which brings me back to the big ideas—the main points, the overall trajectories…the story. Even though these take on different nuances over time (even within the Scripture), I think most of us can agree on and “get” the big picture. If we spent as much time thinking about and applying the big story to our current lives and contexts as we do trying to culturally misunderstand the finer points of doctrine, we’d probably be a lot closer to the original meaning of our Bible texts.

UPDATE: McGrath adds this paragraph at the end of a long post on Jesus the Mystic in the Gospel of John

…That a scholar holds a viewpoint doesn’t make it correct, and that someone without a PhD holds a viewpoint doesn’t make it incorrect. What a rigorous academic approach contributes, even if it is practiced by a well-informed layperson, is an awareness of the relevant evidence beyond the range of ways an English translation of the Bible can be understood, of the history of interpretation of these texts over the centuries in the early church (and beyond), and the brute fact that while some interpretations are simply incompatible with the evidence, a number of different conclusions have been reached by equally intelligent people wrestling to make sense of the same evidence. And so ideally, what anyone, scholar or layperson, should bring to a consideration of such (indeed all!) matters is a combination of relevant information and the humility to recognize that I may be wrong. And what I think most scholars would like to see is not that other interested individuals refrain from commenting on matters in their area of expertise, but that interested parties outside of the academy take the time and effort to inform themselves and think critically about a subject before jumping into the fray.

The more biblical studies I learned, the harder it was to preach it UNTIL . . . (AKMA on hermeneutics)

AKMA: Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs (an article well worth reading.)

. . . Once I settled into my seminary studies, however, I discovered that my fascination with biblical studies engendered a baffling problem: the more I learned in my biblical courses, the less my studies seemed to enhance my ministry and preaching. Like any good academic apprentice, I tried at first to redouble my efforts. That only aggravated the problem; I knew more and more, but the technical apparatus of my learning always seemed to stand between me and the fluent, compelling, preach-able biblical theology for which I thirsted. My increasing technical expertise did not help me inhabit and proclaim the traditions I was studying.

. . . My way forward involved learning to explore the Bible and Christian tradition without participating in the ceaseless power struggle over whose interpretation is authoritatively right and whose is wrong. This means sidestepping — recuperating from — a fixation on the illusory authority of claiming the “correct” interpretation. I offer instead a way of thinking about interpretation that still involves deliberation about better and sounder interpretations, but without pretensions to decisive interpretive authority.

. . . I’ll summarize my postmodern therapy — a way out of the power struggle — in a quick tour of a promising alternative to the familiar landscape of modern critical biblical studies. Such an alternative may necessarily appear unfamiliar, and defy some deeply embedded imperatives of modern academic biblical study.

. . . One distinguishing mark of this alternative approach is the shift from hermeneutics oriented around the written word, to the interpretation of signs (semiotics) that is oriented toward communication and meaning in general, of which the interpretation of words is but one instance.

. . . Everything signifies, and in the economy of signification, words make up only a small, specific ingredient.

. . . The illusion that “meaning” lies within our control tends to blind us to how partially we understand our interpretations, even interpretations of our own words and actions.

We thus have no overarching criterion that separates legitimate interpretive sheep from misconceived goats. We can always assert that this or that interpretation passes muster — but we cannot display an ultimate criterion that gives decisive legitimacy to our favored interpretations. This should come as no great surprise. A truly universal criterion would meet with no dissent, since its status as a transcendent, universal criterion would render dissent incoherent. Critical readers have tried to define a hermeneutical method that results in unassailably legitimate interpretations, but none has attained a consensus that befits a universal or transcendent standard.

. . . Our communications function predictably and (on the whole) quite successfully because they rely on our participation in powerful patterns of shared behavior and custom. The more thoroughly one complies with one’s neighbors’ expectations, the more likely one’s communication with these neighbors will play out to mutual satisfaction.

[Note: this is where Relevance Theory can come in.]

. . . Signifying practices constitute subcultures with their own rules of engagement, jargon, expectations, etiquette. We learn how to participate in these distinct practices by inhabiting them, acknowledging the extent to which the subculture’s traditions and axioms prevail over our own bright ideas, and learning to express our ideas in the idiom of the particular signifying practice.

The upshot:

We have to get used to the idea that we have no access to an “objective,” universal criterion for deciding the absolutely right interpretation. [Emphasis mine.] We need to allow an elasticity, a mutual generosity, that neither historicists nor inerrantists can account for. We shouldn’t be looking for “the right answer” but should rather arrive at answers by which we can live and, in the end, by which we can stand before God’s throne of judgment. Each of us has to recognize that there are plenty of people smarter and more pious than you or me who will come to conclusions about scripture that we won’t like. So — thanks be to God — we who interpret scripture in the church have centuries of the saints’ teaching to show us ways of living, embodying, these answers.

I have made these points in public forums and time after time the upshot has been lost. What people hear and fear is relativism, chaos, indeterminacy. . .

. . . Jesus did not bring the gospel by coercion. He laid out the gospel so that people were free to decide. God vindicated him, as God will vindicate all who in faithfulness perpetuate the gospel in their lives.

. . .  There isn’t some esoteric meaning in Jesus’ sayings that takes an academician to explain; the gesture of teaching to give, the gesture of giving, and the gesture of living frugally all communicate something about how we put this world’s resources to use. Thus, the disciplined study of the Bible and of its interpreters over the ages leads some practitioners to deeper, sounder faith, while it leads others to church-less skepticism. It’s not the apparent facts that determine interpreters’ reception of them, but the ways that interpreters fit them together — or can’t. . .

By shifting our interpretive attention slightly away from words’ allegedly intrinsic meanings, and noticing the world’s vast interwoven fabric of expression and apprehension, offering and uptake, we can recognize biblical writings as gestures on the part of generations of storytellers and lawgivers, authors and editors and scribes, toward helping us recognize God’s ways and God’s character. The earliest audiences for these gestures perhaps misconstrued them; subsequent generations misconstrued them; and we too are likely to misconstrue them. We cannot stave off error by intensifying our attention to methods and facts in a futile effort to impose or control correct interpretation. We can, however, work toward minimizing our errors by . . . [click on Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs]

Late draft for an article published in the Yale Divinity School alumni/ae magazine Reflections, Spring 2008, pages 53-57. I reckon this draft differs from the final copy in some respects, but the differences should be slight

The fundamental problem with conservative Reformed theology is . . .

. . .  is that it’s structure of the universe is law-based.  I generally consider my outlook “Reformed” in in terms of seeing redemptive history as good creation by God, corruption by evil, and redemption by God, which ultimately will make the world the way it is supposed to be (see part 4 below). However, I strongly distance myself from just about anything having to do with the various conservative sub-cultures of Reformed theology (especially those who call themselves the Truly Reformed TR). While I know lots of good people in these environments, but systemically it seems to lack the relational presentation of the God of the Bible, and as the president of my school puts it, “Bad systems always swallow good people.” I’ve always wondered why the truly reformed sub-culture systemically tends towards the end of the spectrum away from love and the fruits of the Spirit. Daniel Kirk (Sibboleth) may have provided somewhat of an answer with his great series of posts on the fundamental problem with conservative Reformed theology (BTW: Kirk and I went to the the same seminary; he was  a year ahead of me; I wish I was half as smart as he is). UPDATE: Unfortunately, Kirk took his blog off-line, so all the links are broken. (You can proabably google the blog for the time being and click on the “cached” link).

1.) The Universe (law and the deeper magic); 2.) Ethics; 3.) Atonement; 4.)  What did Jesus Do?: Why the conservative Reformed first loved, then came to despise NT Wright.; 5). Cur Homo (Jesus as man); 6) Why Israel?; 7.) Revealed

In case you aren’t fully convinced that the whole series is worth a sustained read, I’ll try to post enough quotes to really whet your appetite (but they just aren’t as beautiful out of context):

Part 1: The Universe (law and the deeper magic)

. . . The Westminster Standards make this correlation: moral law = covenant of works = Decalogue. . . Westminster Confessional theology is based on the conviction that the Law of God gives ultimate [yes, ultimate] structure to the cosmos.

. . . If you read through Presbyterian books of order, the entire church structure was created with the conviction that the church consists in “courts”. . .. . . When the ultimate structure of the universe is the law, the purpose of the church is then to enforce that law. In other words, the litigious disposition of Presbyterian and Reformed theology is inherent to that community’s understanding of how God’s universe works. . .

. . . Why do folks determine themselves to be in the right if they can crush those who stand in theological opposition?

. . . I don’t believe that Presbyterians can truly overcome their self-devouring dysfunction until they abandon the idea that law is the ultimate force in the universe and the church exists as a court to enact that law on the earth. . .

Part 2: Ethics

“Should the death and resurrection of Jesus transform how we see ourselves acting as faithful followers of God?” The answer I see in the NT is yes, but the legal framework of the conservative Reformed Tradition requires it to say no.

. . . this biblical theology only works by stripping the biblical narratives of the historical particularity which gives them substance—and in so doing leaves Reformed theology without any mechanism for having its ethics influenced by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

On the decontextualization of the texts . . .

[In contrast to this Reformed theology, the NT teaches:] Yes, love your neighbor as yourself. But…We now have a fuller picture of love: Jesus gives us the old command, “love one another,” and yet it is simultaneously a new command: “As I have loved you; greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…”

. . . Christian ethics are cruciform, because the commands of love are tied to a narrative in which God’s great act of love is shown to us in Jesus’ going to death on the cross. . .

. . . the ultimate “is” of the cosmos is not the moral law, but the love of God put on display in the cross of Christ. Thus the ultimate “do” is not “keep the moral law” but rather “embody the cruciform love by which God embraced you to himself.”

. . . We need, a narrative of salvation, and of the cosmos, that writes us into itself by making us truly “Christians”—little Christs, not as District Attorneys and defense attorneys and judges running about declaring the system to which all must conform, but as self-giving lovers of the creation and creatures that God created for our own and God’s own glory.

Part 3: Atonement

One thing that has been a source of continual puzzlement to me over the years is why Reformed Theology has come to put so much weight on theological ideas that are nowhere found in scripture. Two examples:

  1. “imputation the active righteousness of Christ” . . . Jesus keeps the Law, and his record of Law-keeping is reckoned as the believers–and that’s why believers get to be justified. . . Jesus’ merit becomes our merit. . . So what’s the big deal? . . . no NT writer ever says such a thing, nor is it entailed as the deduction of anything else they say. This is a position required by a theological system, but not evidently the system the NT writers were working with (if they had such a thing).
  2. Limited Atonement—infamous “L” in the T-U-L-I-P of five-point Calvinism.

. . . this leaves the Gospels almost completely out of the equation. They are scoured for the 5 or 6 references to “faith” connected with “salvation” that we can use to substantiate justification by faith, and then we turn the rest into proofs that Jesus really is God.

[But in the Gospels,] Jesus heals sick people: he’s not only on mission to remit sin, but the death and decay that according to the biblical narrative were unleashed when humanity ceded its vocation to rule the world on God’s behalf. . .

[Christmas hymn:] “No more let sins and sorrows grow or thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.” That cosmic picture of restoration is what Jesus brings–not only atoning for guilt, but setting humans at one with God, each other, the powers, and creation. . .

Part 4: Why the conservative Reformed first loved, then came to despise NT Wright: (What did Jesus Do?).

. . . two crucial differences:

(1) Wright sees in the OT’s assessment of the “problem” not only sin but also injustice, persecution, groaning creation, etc. In other words, the restoration of the cosmos is going to have to deal with the powers that war against God’s good purposes–powers that are greater than the sum of the rebellion lodged in persons’ hearts.

(2) For Wright the covenants made by YHWH to deal with the problem are covenants established with people in time. This points to the most significant underlying difference in perspective: For scripture and for Wright what matter are

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On putting the word “biblical” in front of our arguments – e.g. ‘biblical’ womanhood or economics

. . . I tend to bristle whenever I attend a conference in which lectures are entitled "The Biblical View of Courtship" or "A Biblical Approach to the Environment." Sticking the word "biblical" in front of a noun like "manhood" or "womanhood" or "economics" or "stewardship" or "politics" adds an element of gravitas to one’s argument, but it diminishes the variety and complexity of the very words of Scripture one seeks to elevate. It implies that the Bible’s cacophony of voices can be reduced to single tone, its rich stories and characters summarized in a single line, its paradox and contradiction ignored or brushed aside. It suggests that just one interpretation exists…or that the speaker’s interpretation is the only one that counts.

We often use the Bible as an adjective without even thinking about it. For years, I bragged about having a "biblical worldview," without regard to the massive assumptions such a statement makes about the Bible’s cultural context as well as my own . . .

. . . "Am I using the Bible to end a conversation or to begin one?" or better yet, "Am I really trying to align myself with the Bible or am I trying to align the Bible with me?" . . .

-Read Rachel Evans (on Jesus Creed) for more

John Goldingay puts it this way:

The use of scriptural terminology does not guarantee that one’s thinking is in accordance with scripture, as the Arians famously showed. Conversely, doctrinial thinking does not have to confine itself ot scriptural terms in order to be scriptural—other wise there would be no orthodox doctrine of the “Trinity.” (Models for Scripture, 1994, p. 4.)

High context societies and asking the right questions; biblical hermeneutics and cross-cultural communication in Kenya.

Most American and European interpreters come at the biblical texts with a low-context set of assumptions and ways of thinking. Unfortunately for us, the Bible was written in high-context societies.

High context societies produce sketchy and impressionistic texts, leaving much to the reader’s or hearer’s imagination. Since people believe few things have to be spelled out, few things are. This is because people have been socialized into shared ways of perceiving and acting. Hence, much can be assumed. . .

– Bruce J. Malina, "Reading Theory Perspective: Reading Luke-Acts." Pages 3-23 in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Edited by Jerome H. Neyrey. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1991: page 20 citing Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976) and The Dance of Life; The Other Dimensions of Time (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1983).

Some implications:

  • Many of us (Westerners) tend to falsely read the Bible as a low context document. We look mostly for explicit prescriptions; we want the Bible to tell us point blank what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. (Chapter and verse please! Preferably from one of Paul’s de-contextualized letters.)
  • A great deal of the Bible is story—narrative. In a high context culture, you don’t need much more than that; you would get it (or at least know what you need to be wrestling with.)
  • Some of the nuances of biblical stories and speeches are likely lost to us forever—at least pre-resurrection. Sad to say, we simply don’t have access to all the important contextual clues. The few contextual clues we do have (and keep hashing over and over) might actually be minor or directly misleading; the  crucial piece of info (the one piece of data that turns the whole meaning the opposite direction) might be missing entirely.

Too pessimistic you say? Maybe knowing this can help us try to be a little more humble (less dogmatic) about our interpretations of the Bible. Maybe understanding the cultural dynamics of being low-context readers of a high-context document can encourage us to focus more on the big story—the metanarrative—rather than possibly misunderstood cultural details.

Some local examples (BTW: This is why I love doing biblical studies in the African context.)

One Wednesday a few months ago, my wife Christi and I were in town for meetings, and we realized we were not going to be home in time for lunch. Wednesday is market day, so Nina (our wonderful house helper) takes the first half of the morning off and then goes shopping for us at the market; she usually doesn’t get to our apartment till around lunch time. The crucial piece of contextual data here is that our kids 8, 5, and 3 (and Nina’s 10-year old son) walk home for lunch—their school is only about 100 meters away from our apartment.

So Christi calls Nina up, and after the perfunctory greetings, the phone conversation goes like this:

Christi: We’ve just found out that we won’t be home till mid-afternoon.

Njeri: Sawa sawa.  (Kiswahili equivalent for something like “OK.”)

That’s it! In our high context society, nothing else needed to be said. We knew that Nina would put the contextual clues together, shorten her market trip, and get lunch ready for the kids. [This is also a great example of the principles of the Relevance Theory of Communication at work (as opposed to linguistic code theories), but I’ll leave that topic for another date.] Actually, if Christi had been any more explicit saying for example, “I need you to get to our apt. a little earlier than usual to make sure lunch is ready for the kids”, I’m sure Nina would have felt slightly patronized. (No one really likes to be told what to do when they can figure it out.)

America is a low-context culture. In comparison, almost everything is explicitly spelled out, and we have lots of fine print. In high-context cultural settings, we Americans can seem pretty daft. Say what? Why are you beating around the bush? Why don’t you just tell me more directly what you are thinking? Why does everyone seem to already know what is going on?

He’s another example:

Last week,

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Interpretive assumptions – ancient and evangelical (Bailey)

Scott Bailey:

. . . In his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now James Kugel offers four assumptions of ancient interpreters:

  1. They assumed the Bible was fundamentally a cryptic text
  2. They assumed the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day
  3. They assumed the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes
  4. They believed the entire Bible was essentially a divinely given text

. . . . these assumptions have come down from antiquity to many modern Christians except for one: assuming that the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text. Instead, for modern Christians the belief that the Bible is simple dominates, so a “plain” reading of Scripture is favored in a lot of circles. Therefore, I would posit that the four interpretive assumptions of many modern evangelical Christians look something like this:

  1. They assume the Bible is fundamentally a simple text easy to understand by the Holy Spirit
  2. They assume the Bible is a book of lessons directed to them
  3. They assume the Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes
  4. They believe the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text in its canonical form

Wait! This letter was not written to me (Ken Schenk on reading the Bible in it’s original context!!)

Ken Schenk: A Missional Hermeneutic is worth taking the time to read: [Hopefully are enough excerpts here to get you to read his entire post. All emphasis was added by me.]

. . . The person who starts down the path of reading the books of the Bible on their own terms soon runs into some interesting issues he or she may not have anticipated. For example, most of us who are Christians read and value the Bible because we believe it to be God’s word, God’s word to us today. We thus eagerly read the Bible to hear God’s living voice, giving us the answers to our life’s questions. Perhaps we take a course in Bible study.

Ironically, this drive of ours to listen to the Bible and to hear what it has to say may lead us directly into a conundrum. We are reading, say, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We notice that this chap named Paul is writing it. Perhaps we think for a moment. Now who was this Paul and when did he live? The answer to the question is not particularly controversial. He lived some two thousand years ago. So God is speaking to me through the words of a man who has been dead for some time now.

But wait. This letter does not say it was written to me. Indeed, it quite plainly says it was written to a group of people who lived in a place called Corinth. And I have assumed it is a letter. This would seem a fairly good suggestion, since this Paul chap seems to be responding to a letter himself (1 Cor. 7:1). Again, where was this Corinth place? The answer to the question is not particularly controversial. It was a fairly large ancient city in Greece, situated in the Mediterranean Sea.

The more I pursue the original location of this letter in time and space, the more distance I may feel between myself and this ancient letter.  I will discover that the meaning of actions in one culture may very easily differ from the meaning of actions in another. When Paul wrote the Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, and so forth with behavioral instructions, the meaning of those actions surely had much to do with those contexts such that even if I were to mimic the actions, I would not be doing the same thing.

An amusing example is the old Levitical instruction not to boil the kid in the milk of the mother goat (Exod. 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Even to this day in Israel, you cannot eat milk and meat in the same meal or serve it under the same roof because of the longstanding Jewish application of this verse. The reason for the original prohibition is not entirely clear, although it has often been suggested that it had something to do with the religion of the Canaanites who surrounded Israel. What it likely was not about, is some arbitrary and inexplicable desire on God’s part to keep a person from drinking milk with eggs at breakfast.

Whenever we have this sort of puzzled reaction to the Bible, we are very likely reading stories or instruction whose most direct meaning is largely locked away in its ancient context. What? A woman should have authority on her head because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:10)? What does that mean? What? Jacob put speckled rods in front of sheep having sex so they would have spotted offspring (Gen. 30:37-43)? What does that mean? What? Women will be saved from the transgression of Eve through childbearing if they live in continued faith, love, and holiness (1 Tim. 2:15)? What does that mean?

Most Christian readers never pursue the contextual reading of the Bible far enough to have a crisis. [Emphasis added.] . . .

I would add that most Western Christians have not been immersed enough into another cultures to “get” the importance and implications of different cultural contexts.

. . . One of the things that distinguishes one Protestant group from another is the specific "glue" used to connect the story pieces to each other.
But for some, the deeper exploration of reading the books of the Bible on their own terms begins to pull against this unified story. Indeed, it is one reason seminarians sometimes find the Bible begin to lose some of its living quality for them, which ironically was one of the reasons they went to seminary in the first place. . .

. . . Learning to read the books of the Bible in context is not something to try to avoid, although this has been the initial reaction of many–either to fight context or flee it. Twentieth century fundamentalism and, to a lesser extent, evangelicalism, tried to make the most likely original meanings of the books of the Bible go away when they seemed to come into conflict with reading the Bible as Christian Scripture. . .

. . . But the "liberal" conclusion was wrong as well. The liberal lost faith in the possibility that the Bible might present a unified story and that this story might be the Christian story. This person may at times have understood better what it means to read the individual books of the Bible in context, indeed, may in some cases have been more "honest" with the evidence in his or her interpretations. But the unfortunate consequence was that the meaning of the Bible’s books ended up locked up forever in the ancient near east or in the Mediterranean world. The meaning of each biblical text became so particular, so foreign to our world, that it became irrelevant, certainly not God’s living word for us today.

The way forward, however, was neither to deny the insights of reading in context (as the fundamentalists) nor to consider the unity of Scripture no longer viable (the liberals). The way forward . . .

. . . is to read Schenk’s entire post. 😉

Interpreting the bible can be hard; dealing with difficulties (Tilling)

Reading is not a simple act of recognizing codes and cues inked onto parchment or engraved in stone.  Apprehension of human communication through written texts, especially across time and across cultural boundaries, can be so complex as to defy description.

–Carolyn J. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Indiana University Press, 2009) 10. (Thanks: Awilum)

For those of you that haven’t already seen it, or read it carefully, Chris Tilling has a brilliant post on dealing with tension in the Bible. He writes:

. . . One popular strategy for dealing with biblical tensions is to slot them away in the ‘mystery’ box, hoping they won’t come out to haunt you at night. While there is some half-grown wisdom here, you’ll end up cramming quite a lot of the bible into that box before long…

Another strategy is to claim that the bible is a secure stash of stable proposition. ‘Jesus is Lord’, for example. Safe and secure; truth to stand on. This approach is often coupled with the assertion that all tensions in the bible are ultimately reconcilable; that none really exists when you study them properly. Certainly this is often true and many supposed ‘contradictions’ do indeed vanish on closer inspection. But . . .

So another approach is to pretend the bible is unconcerned with revealing truth in propositions, that it merely witnesses to God’s saving actions or true religious experience and is not itself a channel of God’s revelation. Scripture is just human, nothing special about it except that to which it points. But why bother reading and preaching from the bible if that is the case? Does it really encourage us to handle it with care, as text itself fully inspired by God?

Here are some things to bear in mind, . . . [at this point I’d better send you to his post because I’m tempted to quote the whole whole thing. . . how truth is eschatological and  relational, . . . what  Hays, Barth, and Enns, say, . . . how we are messed up, etc. ]

. . . With these points in mind we can turn to tensions in the bible.

  • If we struggle with tensions in the bible, we may need to examine our expectations in light of the eschatological nature of truth. We may need to reframe our concerns according to the relational nature of truth. Put this way, we can perhaps avoid the scissors approach to the bible, one which early church heretic Marcion attempted, as he sought to exorcise all Jewish elements from the bible (talk about a doomed project!)
  • If truth is a complex beast, one not easily pinned down, we may need to move beyond a simple treatment and comparison of ‘biblical propositions’ to an appreciation of the living complexity of truth.
  • Perhaps our struggles with biblical tensions can help us to reformulate our thinking about the nature of the bible, one that takes more seriously our commitment to the practice of bible reading.
  • The longing for the bible to make sense, for tensions to be explained away, is entirely legitimate, perhaps reflecting something of our longing for the coming of the Lord when we will ‘know fully’. Yet we must guard against an over-realised eschatology, one which thinks the things that will happen at Christ’s return have already happened. Acceptance of an over-realised eschatology will tend to end in discouragement, and Paul had therefore to combat it occasionally (2 Thessalonians).
  • Thinking of the inspiration of scripture in light of the secretaries letter may help us to embrace a fully human and occasionally contradicting text while at the same time fully embracing the text as written under the authority of God.

A prayer

With all such questions that cause us problems and disquiet our faith, the best place to go is to God in prayer, to unload our concerns, pray for wisdom, protection and deepening of our faith. Our struggles can be an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. Here is a prayer you may like to pray with me:

“Father, there is so much that we do not understand, so much that confuses us in the Bible. We surely only know in part. So we pray for wisdom, for a closer walk with you, for deeper maturity in our faith, that we would be passionate lovers of truth. Protect, strengthen and develop our faith, that it may bear fruit in our lives, that we truly play our part in the evangelisation of the nations and the transformation of society, remembering always that it is you who carries us; you are our foundation, not we ourselves, not our understanding of biblical tensions nor the strength of our often failing faith. We give you glory for hearing our prayer for the sake of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen”


Chris Tilling: Negotiating Tensions in the Bible (has a brief list of helpful resources too.)

Why you don’t really read the Bible literally; the cosmic dome and contextualization

This picture of the cosmic dome is the quickest, most graphic way I know of challenging some common assumptions about the Bible and how God reveals himself. It might be a good place to begin a hermeneutics course.

Is this the view of the world that you hold? Do you believe that there is a roof on the sky with “floodgates” holding back the upper waters? This is the assumed view of the Genesis and most of the Old Testament. (Read Genesis 1 again with this picture in view; or Gen. 7:11.) Either you need to hold this view of the world (cosmology), or you need to rethink some of your assumptions about the Bible and the way (how) God has spoken through it and inspired it.

This isn’t a problem for God; after all, He inspired this version of the creation story, and He certainly knows what the real universe looks like. It is not a mistake or an error; it’s our problem – a problem of priority and criteria. We obviously bring some other presuppositions to the discussion. In the Bible, God communicated in a way generally understood within the worldview of the people of that time. (Translators from radically different cultural contexts understand this process.)

The Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God, but don’t pretend that this means you are taking it at “face-value” – in some simplistic “literal” way; it’s a little more complicated than that. God and the Bible are bigger than that, and God has always communicated in ways that resonate with different contexts and cultures – right from Genesis 1. He is a contextualizing God.

The next time you want to say, “I prefer a more literal reading of Genesis 1”, think about the cosmic dome. Happy thinking. 😉

Original source (in case you can’t read the subtitle: Alan P. Dickin, On a Farawy Day . . .: A New View of Genesis in Ancient Mesopotamia (Colubus, GA: Brentwood Christian, 2002), p. 122. Reprinted in Peter Enns, Inspiration & Incarnation (a very worthy read.)

Post-Fundamentalist Stress Disorder and evangelical hermeneutics – OT/NT (Schenk)

Ken Schenk, Indiana Wesleyan University, writes.

. . . Post-Fundamentalist Stress Disorder PFSD occurs when, after fighting to the death in the fundamentalist infantry, you find out that you’re not actually fighting for God but for a peculiar twentieth century cultural phenomenon. Like Paul, you realize you were a “zealot without knowledge.” You feel betrayed. You feel stupid. You feel angry. . .

The way that the New Testament interprets the OT provides one of the greatest bits of “naughty data,” if not the greatest, in the Copernican Revolution that is currently underfoot in evangelical hermeneutics. Evangelical hermeneutics, as an extension of Protestant hermeneutics, has insisted that the Bible alone is the authority over the Christian. As hermeneutical developments proceeded to understand original meaning more clearly, it became the “original meaning alone” is authoritative over a Christian.

But what if we were to find that, as it turns out, the New Testament itself does not interpret the OT in terms of its original meaning. Does this fact not deconstruct the entire hermeneutic? Does it not imply a controlling factor in interpretation beyond the text itself?

The Ptolemaic scientists of evangelicalism have not missed the potential threat to “normal science,” to their paradigm. They have launched a coping strategy, called Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old. The goal is to find as many connections as possible between the New Testament use of the Old Testament and anything that might smack of attention to original context. . .


Read Schenk’s whole post: Monday Enns – New Testament Interpretation of the Old

THE key to interpreting the Old Testament (Enns)

Peter Enns, “Hey, Get Away from My Bible!“ Christian Appropriation of a Jewish Bible:

. . . What drove the first Christians to do what they did with the OT was their experience of the crucified and risen Son of God.

The first Christians handled their Bible in a way that helped them make sense of this astounding series of events surrounding the first Easter. This is important to understand. The foundation for what they did with the OT was what happened in Palestine in the opening decades of (what we call) the 1st century. In view of the climactic and incontestable event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians were now pouring over their own Bible to understand how this new event could be understood in light of Israel’s ancient text, and, conversely, how Israel’s ancient text is now to be understood in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The question of biblical interpretation revolved around the resurrection of Christ. The complex, intricate, sometimes gripping, sometimes puzzling way in which the NT writers handled their Bible is anchored in the fundamental Christian conviction that Jesus is the gracious, amazing conclusion to Israel’s story.

It is very important to remember here that the first Christians were not blond haired Europeans, . . .

. . .  By the time we get to Jesus and the NT writers, Jews had already had a pretty long history of asking themselves, “In view of these dramatically changing circumstances, how do we connect to our own ancient texts?” To put the matter more pointedly, “How are we now the people of God, in view of all that has happened? Indeed, are we still the people of God? What does that even mean?”

It was the pressure of aligning Israel’s ancient past with present changing circumstances that lead Second Temple Jews to do some pretty innovative “appropriation” of their own Bible, . . .

The first Christians were also Jews and they were engaged in another attempt at Jewish appropriation—although of a VERY different sort—since now one’s true identity as the people of God is centered not on what had been Israel’s defining markers, such as Torah, land, temple, and king, but in Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to bring all of these things, and more, to their proper focal point. . .

. . . “We handle the Bible the way we do because Jesus is raised from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection does not depend on how the first Christians handled the Bible. They handled the Bible the way they did because of Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible is to be trusted because Jesus is raised from the dead.”

. . . This ancient choice is still operative today. Is Jesus raised from the dead or isn’t he? And if so, so what? These are the questions that the NT writers went to great lengths to discuss in the NT letters, especially Paul’s letters. How one answers that question will affect how one looks at any other. . . .

. . . But, the rule of the resurrected Messiah creates all sorts of cognitive dissonance for modern people—as it did for ancient people—the interpretive question being only one of them.

This leads to a final, and perhaps even more counterintuitive, observation. The ultimate demonstration of the persuasiveness of the Christ-centered climax to Israel’s story may be much more than a matter of how Christians interpret their Bible. It may be in how those who claim to follow the risen Christ embody his resurrection in what they say, think, and do—but that is a whole other area of discussion.

Ok, I’ve already quoted way too much; read Enns’s whole post here. It’s worth chewing on for while.

Take a quick 7 question quiz to find out your views on how the NT interprets the OT

Zondervan’s Koinonia blog has a 7 question quiz “that looks at your view of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.” It’s only 7 questions long, so TAKE THE QUIZ and see where you line up!

To anyone who knows me or my pedigree, my results will be no surprise; I was pretty solidly in one camp.

This fall Zondervan is publishing the book Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Darrell L. Bock, and Peter Enns are  contributors to the book.