whytheology

For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

February 29, Lenten Series- Galatians 1:17-24

Galatians 1:17-24 KJV (NIV link below)

17Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.

18Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.

19But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

20Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.

21Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia;

22And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ:

23But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.

24And they glorified God in me.

NIV Link

In Training

(Sorry, this one is slightly longer than the other reflections.)

Although Paul was called and immediately acted upon his calling, that didn’t necessarily mean he assumed his role as a church planter and itinerant pastor right away. Instead, he went to the dessert of Arabia, and then back to Damascus, the church that he first had contact with after his calling. He reflected and studied for three years before going to meet a single apostle. It is interesting to note that Jesus, at least from what we can gather in the Gospels, spent roughly three years with his disciples. The point, however, is not a specific length of time, but that there was a time of training, and of preparation.

Now, I need to be careful at this point. Far too many Christians excuse themselves from doing any sort of service to the church because they “don’t have the training.” That is almost always a lie. You are likely better trained than you think you are. The point isn’t the delay in time, but the purposed and systematic nature that Paul took with this activity. The point is that Paul didn’t start out as the “super hero” apostle we often picture him to be. It took time and intentionality and purpose. The point is no one is born as a perfect disciple of Christ; we are made into disciples of Christ. The great commission doesn’t instruct Christians to save souls and then leave people. It says we are to “make disciples” and to “teach” in addition to “baptizing them.” So let me be clear on this one thing: being a good disciple of Christ, and faithfully following his call on your life is not a natural ability you are born with, nor is it something you immediately receive upon becoming a Christian. As with any plant (such as a vine or the fruit of the spirit), it must be cultivated. This takes time. Even once Paul began his missionary work, he still needed to grow and mature.

Once Paul finished his semi-solitary period of making this new faith his own he went to see Peter. This is particularly telling. You can’t make yourself a disciple in isolation. Paul sought out a mentor, then began to get involved in the larger community. If you don’t have, or have never had, a mentor in the Christian faith,  I encourage you to seek one out as Paul did with Peter/Cephas. These mentoring relationships may be long term or short term, but they are important. The proverbs tell us that “As iron sharpens iron so one man does another.” Typically, you should approach a Christian who is a bit older than you, seems more mature in the Christian faith, and is of the same gender. Ask them if they wouldn’t mind acting as a mentor for you. Come up with a plan. It may be a good idea to have a book or bible study you would want to go through together. Now, for those Christians who have been engaged in the church for some time, especially those who have some sort of formal training (I’m looking at you ordained ministers), be open and receptive to mentoring someone else younger in the faith. You should seek them out as well. Granted there are seasons of our lives where this is not practical, but don’t neglect the practice. Both parties can learn from the mentoring relationship. This brings us to the next phase of Paul’s spiritual journey.

After his time with Peter, Paul went and joined the greater community of Christ more publicly than had been the case at Damascus. It is important for Christians to understand that we are meant for community. We are part of a heavenly kingdom that exists now on this earth in the Church. It was established by Christ and is the continued presence of his eternal kingdom in the face of this present evil age. It is the body of Christ and the army of the Lord. You are not alone, and this community called the Church is comprised of individuals who are your family.

Finally, chapter one ends with the people praising God for what he has done in Paul. I really like the KJV translation of the text here: “they glorified God in me.” Wow! God is in you and it is your mission to let others glorify God even through your accomplishments.

Please leave your thoughts, comments, responses and questions below (Join the conversation). We can be the embodiment of the Church even online and help each other grow in our relationship. If you don’t know what to say, here are some questions to get started: If you currently have or have had a mentor, would you share what impact he or she had on your life? If you have ever mentored anyone, please share how that impacted you as well. Do you ever feel that you aren’t able to do ministry with the Church? Does knowing that it takes work and time make that easier? What are you doing now to better prepare yourself? Are you currently engaged in service anywhere while you are training?

February 28 Lent series reflection: Galatians 1:13-16

Galatians 1:13-16 (KJV), (NIV link below)

13For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:

14And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.

15But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace,

16To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:

Link to NIV Text

Call and Response

Paul begins, in this section, to recount his calling by God. He knows that God had set him apart for a task from birth. The thing is, God sets all of us apart for something. For most of his life, though, Paul had not been doing this task for which he had been set apart. In fact he had been actively working against it, persecuting the church and trying to destroy it. Unbeknown to him at the time, this activity, which seemed to work against the purpose of God, was preparation. God waited until the right time and then called Paul forth.

God’s calling is an act of revelation. It was an act within history directed toward Paul. Once it occurred, there could be no doubt in his mind. Paul’s response was immediate. He needed to sort this thing out for himself. This was no one else’s calling, no one else’s faith. This had to be his own faith, he needed to work it out for himself. Now he did eventually go to join the church, and most of his development and work was in the broader community, but this was a personal calling. He could not rely on someone else.

Leave your thoughts below and join the conversation, here are some reflection questions to get started:

Have you experienced a calling on your life from God? Have you responded yet? For Paul, his call to salvation and call to ministry were the same, for others they come at different times. However, Paul was already on a different career path than the ministry he later pursued. Have you considered whether God is calling you to pursue a different path than the one you are on? Instead of thinking this past time spent as wasted, do you think God has been preparing you in unexpected ways? Even if you are in an entirely secular position, how do you think you can demonstrate God’s particular calling on your life in it?

February 27 Lent Devotional Series Galatians 1:10-12

Galatians 1:10-12 KJV (NIV link below)

10For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.

11But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man.

12For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Link to NIV text

The Other-Worldly Gospel

Paul, after mentioning a gospel that has grace as its only content, goes on to explain the origins of that gospel. He wants to be very clear, this is not a gospel that is of human origin, nor is it one designed to win the approval of people. Indeed, if you look at Paul’s life, you’d have to be delusional to think he preached the gospel for human praise. Paul was a rising star in the Jewish world, having studied at the feet of Gamaliel, the premier rabbi of his day. He gave all of that up to preach a gospel of grace and become a servant. For Paul, human praise pales in comparison to the approval of his master, God himself, from whom this Gospel comes.

Paul could not have made up a gospel like this. This gospel defies our human logic. According to the gospel of grace, there are no prerequisites for rescue and no one is so far gone that they can elude the reach of God’s arm. There is hope for every living person. God is mighty to save whomever will come. No exceptions. This is a violation of our logic.

The Gospel declares that no one is too far off from grace during his or her life. Just as no human action can save you, no human action can put you beyond God’s reach. Now that is offensive to our sense of justice, that is beyond human reason, that can only come by the revelation of God. Nobody is off limits. However, while this is offensive to some, it is good news to those in the midst of their sin. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are not too far off. God can (and wants to) save you. This cannot be taught or reasoned to, it can only be received as the other-worldly gospel it is. Salvation is not far off, but is near.

Leave your thoughts below and join the conversation. Here are some reflection questions if you need help getting started:

Does knowing that the gospel is available to anyone irrespective of who they are or what they’ve done make it easier to understand/accept or harder (or maybe both)? What do you think of the “out of this world” character of the gospel? Are your daily actions aimed at impressing others or glorifying God?

Lenten Devotional Series, February 24- Galatians 1:6-9

Galatians 1:6-9 KJV

6I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:

7Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.

8But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.

9As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

Link to NIV text here

Grace

Just let that word wash over you a bit: Grace.

That is the heart of the gospel. Yesterday Paul greeted the Galatians with grace. Today he wonders why they don’t really believe that grace. It’s so hard for us to accept the simplicity of this gospel of grace that we are all too often tempted to add something to it. But the minute we add something to it, it stops being the gospel. Instead it’s just confusing and perverted and misses the point entirely. So central is this that Paul asks God to curse any attempt to add to this gospel. It’s all about Grace. Grace plus anything is no longer grace. It’s undeserved, unearned, and unattainable. No one and no being, of this world or another, can change that fact. That’s the gospel message.

Christ died for you.

Christ was resurrected from the dead.

Christ is coming back for you.

Because you are his. He bought you with his blood, a price ours could not pay. He proposed to marry you, even though we were in the midst of our infidelity; and he will return for his bride. There’s nothing you can do to undo it. That’s grace. And anything else is not the gospel. Don’t lose sight of that grace, because its always with you, purifying and refining you.

What do you think? Leave your comments below and join the conversation. If you need help getting started, here are some reflection questions:

What does grace mean to you? What do think about Paul’s stern condemnation against those who adding an additional requirement to the Gospel? Is there a danger in our churches of losing the grace of the gospel and replacing it with something else?

[Reminder: this is a weekday series. The next post in the series will be on Monday.]

Lent Series Day 1: Galatians 1:1-5

KJV Text (NIV link below)

1Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;)

2And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia:

3Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ,

4Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:

5To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Link to NIV text

It seems like we’ve got an appropriate start to a Lenten study. From the very beginning of Galatians Paul is pointing his readers to the resurrection of Jesus. He wants to be clear: this thing called the church of which he is an apostle is not made by men in any way shape or form. Instead, the same power of God that raised Jesus from the dead established the Church and its apostles. Paul ends his greeting by reminding the Galatians that the grace he wishes upon them has its foundation in the death Jesus Christ. This death was not the decision of Jesus alone, but part of God’s will. Because of this, the crucifixion and resurrection, we praise him. We praise him for establishing his eternal kingdom by the crucifixion and resurrection in the face of this present evil age.

Leave your thoughts below. If you need help getting started, here are some suggested questions:

What does it mean to you to be rescued by God? What do you think of Paul’s comment about the “present evil world/age”? Christ dies according to God’s will, but is later resurrected rescuing us. Has there been a time in your life that you thought was a low point, but ended up being something amazing? If so, how do you think that reflected God’s will? Do you have any hopes for this series?

Dust You are, and to Dust you will Return: Reflection on Ash Wednesday (and announcement for Lent)

Ashes are placed on the forehead as a sign of humility and mortality

A Reflection: Death and Creation

I am a Southern Baptist, as I’ve noted here in this blog, who is part of an Anglican congregation while I’m in London. This brings up the issue of whether or not to celebrate Lent. Baptists, not being very keen on liturgy, have tended to avoid such things as Lent and most holy days (Passion Week and Christmas excepting). Nevertheless, there has been a growing movement among Baptists, particularly of the younger generations, to re-engage with the practice of Lent. For me, this year at least, it was not an issue. I was going to celebrate Lent. Now, I could give a detailed argument about why it’s appropriate for Baptists to do so and encourage those who are reluctant to nevertheless engage in the traditional practice of preparation for Easter, but that argument has been made by numerous others much more convincingly than I could deliver it here.

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the period in the Christian calendar referred to as Lent. During Lent, for forty days, many Christians determine to fast in some way, shape or fashion. For some this means a type of food fast. For others, they forgo some sort of pleasure or distraction. They may forgo something like chocolate, ice cream, television, a form of social media or something else entirely. Whatever form the fast takes, it is a time meant to help the believer refocus on the impending time of passion week, at the end of Lent, which marks the remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion, and, ultimately, upon the Easter victory. While it is tempting to focus on the death of Christ and treat it somberly, traditionally the focus has been on an anticipation of Easter. Perhaps a (very) brief history of Lent may be in order.

In the early Church (prior to the fall of Rome), almost all new converts to the budding Christian faith were baptized on Easter Sunday. We know from various correspondences that Christians had already adopted worship, prior to work, early in the morning on “the day following Saturn’s day (Saturday),” now known as Sunday. The day was chosen because it was the day of the week when Christ rose from the dead. In this way, every Sunday, on some level, was a remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. Easter Sunday, or more correctly Resurrection Sunday, however, was given a particular significance. This was the Sunday following the Jewish celebration of Passover, and it marked the annual anniversary, in a way, of Jesus’ resurrection. For the early Church it was the resurrection that was the most foundational event for their faith, even moreso than the incarnation (Christmas) or crucifixion (Good Friday). Further, baptism is a picture of the new life that Christians receive now and at Jesus’ return both in solidarity with, and as a result of the resurrection of Jesus. Thus Resurrection Sunday (Easter) and baptism were tied together very intimately in the early Church.

Also in the early Church, new converts went through a detailed catechism (instruction) prior to being baptized. This was to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus as they understood: “to make disciples.” This catechetical period was concluded by the baptismal candidates engaging in a period of intense prayer and fasting. Initially, this was likely done from either Good Friday or the day before (Maundy Thursday) until Easter morning. However, the period of time was gradually extended. Eventually, it was thought that the period should be set at forty days because this was the length of time that Jesus fasted in the desert prior to beginning his adult ministry. However, the period of Lent as we know it lasts 46 days. So what’s going on? Well, it was soon decided that Sundays should not be considered fasting days because they were celebrations of the resurrection. Therefore every Sunday was a break in the forty days of the fast. This leads to an interesting paradox today.

Lent is in large part a solemn season, and it focuses in large part upon the impending anniversary of the death of our Savior. Despite this, it is punctuated by these reminders that death is not the end, that a resurrection soon follows. We are also reminded that by the death of Jesus, and his subsequent resurrection, we ourselves are saved from the finality of death. The actions of Christ, which culminate in the final week of Lent, remove death’s sting and turn Satan from a roaring lion into a de-clawed kitten. Even the week of Jesus’ death itself is sandwiched between the celebrations of the Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday) and the Resurrection. It is this odd juxtaposition of life and death or mourning and rejoicing, that make up the season of Lent. The fasts of the week are punctuated by the feasts of Sunday.

Even the service of Ash Wednesday, one of the more solemn services, has this odd juxtaposition. As ashes are spread upon the foreheads of the faithful, the ultimate symbol humility, mourning and death, the minister/vicar says something: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On the surface this is a clear indication of our need to humble ourselves, to be reminded of our common fate of death, and to approach the impending season with an appropriate measure of solemnity. But that’s not all that’s happening. If those words sound familiar beyond that specific context, they should. As many of you likely know, these are the words of God spoken as part of the curse upon the man. But even in the curse, there is hope. God declares that one day a person will triumph over the serpent for all time. God makes a provision for the man and the woman by providing covering, in the very midst of their sin. The declaration itself is a reminder of God’s act of forming man from dust and breathing into him life itself. As we are reminded to be humble and recall our own mortality, we are simultaneously reminded of our existence as God’s specially and carefully made creation and of the life that comes from him.

“Dust you are and to dust you will return” is a reminder of our reliance upon God for our very being. Before we get too full of ourselves or think that we are somehow a “self-made” person, or that we’ve earned all our possessions by our own abilities or that we don’t owe anyone else anything, we’re reminded, “dust you are and to dust you will return.” The only difference between us and the dirt we shake off our shoes is that God has given us His breath; and even the very dust was created by Him. We are utterly reliant upon God for our very being and continued existence. Rather than something mournful, though, if we view this through the lens of God’s Kingdom, that means something wonderful. We are not abandoned. We are not an accident. We were intentionally made and God is still with us, sustaining us and preserving us. And he is faithful to bring to completion that which he begins. We are dust and to dust we will return, but God created us from dust the first time and can (and will) recreate us out of dust the second time. That’s what the resurrection means, a recreation of our very being. Although death seems to be in focus for much of Lent, death is not the end. The solemnity of the Lenten fast that is punctuated throughout by reminders of the resurrection and has an exclamation on the end: Easter Sunday!

Maybe this changes how we view the Lenten fast. Maybe it’s not merely a sacrifice of something, but a sacrifice for someone. On one level, like all our other actions, this should be viewed as an act of worship to God who has redeemed us. But on a baser level, this can mean a small measure of solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ who have little or nothing. While empathy and solidarity are nice, however, perhaps there is something more that we can do. Less important than what you give up, at least as I see it, is the positive change you can make. Maybe it’s something little, maybe it’s a grander gesture, I can’t make that determination for you. Perhaps, though, this Lenten season you consider what you can give up not for the sake of giving it up, but for the sake of providing new life for someone else. Perhaps we should punctuate our felt losses toward providing the means for another’s celebration. After all, we are all dust in the end and the beginning.

Maybe it’s also time we make a more permanent commitment. God’s act of created humanity, while it seems to end with every human life returning to dust, nevertheless resulted in a continuous created activity. The human race keeps growing and developing and innovating. The death of Jesus, though a single event within history, had “ripple effects throughout history” as C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity. The resurrection, which we celebrate after Lent, was not a temporary resuscitation, but had a lasting and permanent impact. And the new creation we already are in Christ has a sustained impact, even after our return to dust. So perhaps we consider small commitment, however large or small, that we begin during Lent, and then see if we can’t continue to daily remake that commitment. Yes, there might be small hiccups along the way, but faithfulness, the type of commitment that can change the world, is about the long term, that which matters in the eternal Kingdom of God, not the immediate. So what about you? What change will you make?

Lent Announcement

Well, I’ve decided that one of the things I am going to do this Lent season is post a weekday Lent mini-devotional. So, beginning tomorrow, Thursday, I will begin to post short reflections on the book of Galatians. The schedule I will follow is below and I will be making a page on this blog that gives that schedule with links to the relevant reflection posts once they are up. I will likely continue to post other things, but the main focus during Lent will be these short reflections. I have chosen to do Galatians so that I focus on just a few verses and keep the posts relatively short. If you come back to this blog (or follow it via e-mail) everyday I’ll have a post that includes the KJV text (since it’s public domain), a link to the NIV text, and a short reflection. I’m inviting you to join the conversation. Just say how it impacts you, or what you’re confused about, or what you think it means. The bible is often read best in community. Again, these will be much shorter than my other posts, and ideally should be readable in under ten minutes. See the schedule below:

Galatians Lent Readings

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
Thursday 1:1-5 2:1-5 3:1-6 4:1-7 5:1-6 6:1-6
Friday 1:6-9 2:6-10 3:7-14 4:8-16 5:7-12 6:7-10
Monday 1:10-12 2:11-14 3:15-20 4:17-20 5:13-15 6:11-14
Tuesday 1:13-16 2:15-18 3:21-25 4:21-23 5:16-18 6:15-18
Wednesday 1:17-24 2:19-21 3:26-29 4:24-31 5:19-26 Summary

How do we translate the bible to today’s society?

Ok It’s question-answer time, where I try my best to give a good informed answer to a question or suggestion that has been put to me for this blog.

“I would like to read more about how to express the Bible in our current society and without too much Biblical jargon…”

The question above is one that many people struggle with who live in societies that are, to one degree or another, more secularized. This is not the same problem one has in certain areas of South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, in Kenya if you ask the majority of people about what the bible says, whether they are Christian or not, they will likely be able to tell you or, if not, at least understand where they can get more information. The issue that most of these type of societies face is avoiding syncretism, which is the blending of Christianity with other, usually animistic or pantheistic, faiths and in avoiding a gross misunderstanding of the Gospel that puts it in terms almost entirely of health and wealth, to the exclusion of a spiritual salvation and the Kingdom of God.

With respect to secular cultures, which again would include the majority of “industrialized” nations, the problem is entirely different. There is both a strong ignorance of information or misinformation about the bible, and a set of deeply held and prejudicial assumptions, most of which are left unstated. While addressing this issue could, and at some theological schools does, cover an entire course or series of courses, and while there are a plethora of books about the subject (some of which I will reference below), I will try to give a good overview that is, hopefully, helpful without being too technical.

My first statement, unfortunately, is going to sound incredibly unhelpful, but let me explain it. If you are looking for some fool proof method and action that you can perform, some gimmick or something of that sort, that will work as either a catch all witnessing technique, or wonderful conversation starter, you won’t find it, such a thing doesn’t exist. Our culture is increasingly concerned with authenticity, and for the most part that is a very good thing. Any effort to use a gimmick or trick or foolproof icebreaker will come across as though you are trying to sell something, and that’s not what the Gospel is about. Nevertheless, this is actually a good thing for most of us. This means there’s no training that you are somehow missing, no inherent mistake that you are making, the simple fact is, in all likelihood, if you are trying to do something, you are not doing anything wrong. Ultimately, if you are wanting to talk with strangers or friends about the bible, it’s entirely up to you how you approach it. That being said, there might some principles to keep in mind that will help you, if not with results, at least with confidence, encouragement, and a sense of purpose and focus when you do go about trying to communicate the Bible to the culture around you. Following that, I might be able to give a few practical tips, but as I said, there is no one way to do this and what is successful with one person will fail with another and vice versa.

Some General Principles

A good place to start is with the very idea of translation and interpretation. In college my Greek professor, Dr Mac Roark (now retired), told us his philosophy of translation: “The Bible has two functions today. It is a window to the ancient world and a witness to the contemporary world.” This is a very helpful way for understanding not only translation in the sense of producing a new English version of the bible, but how we interpret and talk about the bible. When we read the bible we have to keep in mind that, at least in the most immediate context it was not written to you, a person living in the twentieth century who speaks neither Ancient Hebrew nor Hellenistic Greek. Now, let me clarify by saying that the bible was nevertheless written for you and, in a broader (non-immediate) sense it was written to you. But initially this was written to a particular audience and in a particular cultural idiom.

As with any act of communication there is a distance that must be traversed between the speaker or writer and the hearer or the audience. I’m going to avoid getting into the more technical material about how we communicate and the problems that poses and how they are compounded when we shift cultures, but, at the very least, everyone agrees that the culture of the bible was radically different than our own. We have things, like cars and skyscrapers and microwave dinners, that are fairly recent. We have a different culture, different language, different climate, and different understanding of worship than they did in the various times of the bible. Even the different cultures of the bible had different understandings of many of these things. The type of worship done by Israel during Moses time was not the same as that during the time of the Apostles Peter and Paul. There’s a gap of distance we have to cross. Maybe a picture will help.

One way we might understand the initial communication of the message of the bible is given below:

In the drawing above, we have a speaker giving a message (represented by the arrow) to an audience. He communicates this through a particular cultural idiom. In this case it’s been represented by the word “kairos.” This particular word we might be tempted to translate as simply “time.” While that is correct, it misses some of the nuance. In Greek, another word for time is “chronos.” During the Hellenistic period we might understand chronos to mean a more standard, regular time, one that we can measure in seconds, minutes, hours, days and so on. Kairos seems to be more of an “event-oriented” time, or understood as “opportune time.” Thus it would focus on well known historic events and is less concerned with things like duration. Now, in the context of the first Century church, this carries an additional nuance. Namely, it would immediately bring to mind events related to the Messiah, such as his birth, ministry, crucifixion or resurrection, or else his eventual return.

All of these layers are part of the idiom in which this one little Greek word is used in the New Testament. So what does that mean for our interpretation today then? The job of anyone reading the text today (as with reading any ancient text) is to translate that cultural idiom into a cultural idiom or expression that we understand today. So how do we go about doing this?

Thankfully, we live in a time when a lot of the work has been done for us. There are a wide variety of translations available for use that try to do most of the transition for us. Where needed, they have left the appropriate cultural clues that we might be able to translate this to modern day. What we have to do is do something called “hermeneutics.”

Hermeneutics is the “art and science of interpretation.” It’s essentially the process that gets us to where we want to go, making this text make sense to us. It’s called an art and a science because while there are some practical guidelines, a lot of it just takes practice and slow work. I’ll go more in depth on some practical ways everyday people can engage in hermeneutics in the next section. For now, let’s look at the goal hermeneutics in the bible.

The primary goal of biblical hermeneutics/biblical interpretation is to bring the message of the bible to the society, time and culture, in which the interpreter lives. Remember above when I talked about the two goals of the bible as a window and a witness. Hermeneutics, at least in the sense we’re concerned with, is more focused on the witness aspect. Let’s look back at the picture above:

Hermeneutics in action

I’ve added a line here. We might call that line interpretation or hermeneutics. We are translating not the specific wording or cultural idiom as it was heard by the original audience. They didn’t need much help interpreting because they shared enough of the culture with the speaker. Today we share almost nothing in common with these ancient speakers/writers so we need to focus on the message, what the speaker meant by his statement. We encounter this a lot. For instance, Bible translations are an early step in the process of interpreting the meaning of the bible for today, especially ones that easier to read like the NIV or NLT. Interpetation also happens when speakers give a sermon in churches (or at least it should) and in our bible studies. In fact, you’ve done it to some extent alone by yourself if you’ve read the bible on your own. You’ve probably asked yourself what a passage meant and tried to figure out how it applies to your life. Perhaps some examples from other cultures will help.

I’m going to share two stories; the first I’ve been unable to verify, but illustrates my point really well. The second is certainly historically accurate. The first one speaks of a group of missionaries who were tasked with providing a translation of the bible to one of these people groups completely cut off from others. They got to Jesus’ statement that “I am the bread of life” and had a problem. The people had no real concept of bread. They ate grains on occasion, but more out of necessity than as any staple of their diet. Their primary staple? Bananas. So the translators decided to translate the passage (and similar ones) as “I am the banana of life.” Now again, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but if it is, the translators understood the difference between the idiom and the message and worked wonderfully. Now something is possibly lost in such an exercise, but something is always lost in interpretation/translation. What is gained is usually very useful and worth the slight loss.

The second example comes from missionary Don Richardson and the book recounting his experience in Western New Guinea entitled The Peace Child. When Richardson and his family went to live among a tribal group that had been cut off from civilization they encountered a problem. Not only did the language prove exceedingly difficult to learn, but after learning it and telling the tribe the Gospel story, he found that Judas, not Jesus, was seen as the hero. It turned out that trickery and deceit against one’s enemies was considered an incredibly good trait in this culture, and the result was a constant battle. After a long time of working with the people, his wife providing medical care, the Richardsons had all but decided to leave, in large for the safety of their small child. Not wanting to lose them, in large part because of their friendship and assistance (including medical care), the two tribes who had been battling each other embarked on a compromise. Members of both tribes, and in particular the chiefs, gave their children to their sworn enemies. This was a sign that they could both be trusted and that they would not attack each other. So long as the child lived there would be a guarantee of peace. Don Richardson saw this as an excellent way to speak about the incarnation and that God had provided his own Son as a peace child who, after the resurrection, would never die ensuring peace. It’s a wonderful story, and while I don’t agree with everything Richardson has done since then, it beautifully illustrates a concept known as contextualization. This is what we are trying to do in today’s secularized society. Again, in the next section I’ll talk a bit more about ways we can contextualize the bible/gospel.

A final word should be said about this process of contextualization or interpretation, and here is both a word of warning and an encouragement. Contextualization can be taken too far. Often times we, myself included, are more concerned with not offending anyone with the gospel. We don’t want to cause trouble or make someone uncomfortable. Let me put that to rest a little bit. The Gospel is offensive. It just is and there’s no way around that. The bible speaks about a world, and a Kingdom that is not of this world. Because of that, on some level it will never be completely contextualized. It sounds foreign to us because it is foreign to us. In 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions that the “word of the cross,” his term for the gospel, is “foolishness.” This brings us to another final principle.

No effort at contextualization should ever come before the central message of the gospel which is, essentially, that God became a human person, died a cursed death, and was raised from the dead in order to save us from our own selfishness and sinfulness. I’d like to mention two separate studies that approach this principle from two separate angles. The first is work by Gerd Theissen called The Bible and Contemporary Culture. While I don’t agree with everything Theissen says, he makes some very good points. Two in particular stand out. First, he notes that in a secular culture, particularly one heavily influenced by the Enlightenment as North America and Europe has been, cannot be “talked into” faith. The message of the bible will always, in some sense stand outside and separate from the culture. In many ways it stands against culture, subverting it. This is why Christians were against slavery, were in favor of women’s rights (like voting) and even today work in places no one else will go. Because Christians understand that “There is neither  Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). Christians affirm the universal value and personhood of all human beings.

Marva J. Dawn approaches it from a slightly different angle. In her book Reaching out without Dumbing it Down she discusses the idea of “seeker friendly” worship services. She is primarily concerned with music and in the book she is referring primarily to music that mimics that of contemporary culture. She notes a few problems. Practically, it ends up often being a decade or two behind. Further, many outside the church feel it is shallow. Now, she admits there are some (very good) exceptions, but notes that in her discussion with (mostly) young adults, they felt that such a service was condescending and insulting to their intelligence. However, she’s not advocating for a return to strict liturgy or using only the old hymns, because she notices that congregations where this is typical are often dead and pay little attention to the outside world at all. Instead she points out that those outside the Church, who might be seeking, are already aware that Christianity is different; it is a mistake to hide this difference and doing so is detrimental. The general principle to take away is that Christianityis fundamentally different, and though we may contextualize a little bit, we can’t, nor should we, escape that fact. Nevertheless there are some practical helps in this.

Practical Tips

1) Be authentic. Don’t hide who you are or what you believe. That’s a huge mistake. In an effort to make things more palatable in your conversation there’s  a danger to disguise or downplay what you think; don’t do it, just be authentic. Authenticity is one of the most valued character traits in our society.

2) Ultimately, if you try to talk to someone about the bible or God, you’re not making a mistake. This is an important piece of advice. You’re act of obedience to the Great Commission (to go and make disciples) with some people ends as soon as you start to talk with them. If they decide to end the conversation or dismiss it, that’s their problem not yours (even if you really want them to accept it). It’s when they want to hear more that we have to try harder, to make them disciples. Whether or not they want to continue the conversation is beyond your control and no matter how persuasive or eloquent you are, you won’t talk them into it. Penn Jillette, the celebrity magician, is an outspoken atheist and often ridicules other faiths. However, when he recalls an incident when someone tried to witness to him and handed him a New Testament, he mentions the respect he had for the man who did so. In the video (which you can see here), one can see a man who seemed visibly moved by the action. While he confesses he’s not going to change his opinion based on one man, he repeatedly refers to the individual as “a good man.” Enough actions like that and who knows? The guy was authentic and obedient. Those are the two most important factors anyone has.

3) Most people already know it or understand it quickly. This is an important point brought up by Theissen’s book (mentioned above) and my experience has shown to be the case. While there may be some ignorance about some of the finer points, which you could easily clarify, most people know the general scheme. The bible has become part of Western Culture. However, even if someone has a completely misinformed view of the gospel, you can tell them what it means to you. The Holy Spirit aids the Christian in interpretation, yes, but there is a principle called “The Perspicuity of the Gospel.” What that means is that everything that is required for salvation is readily understood. It’s clear and able to be perceived. If you tell someone what Jesus has meant to you, they should be able to understand it, even if they don’t accept it.

4) Just because they reject what you say then, doesn’t mean they always will. You may be a link in the chain that doesn’t know it yet. As the Apostle Paul said, “Some plant, some water, and still others harvest, but it is God who causes the growth.” Everything doesn’t depend on you. In fact, none of it really does. That can be incredibly freeing. Keep praying even when it seems like someone has utterly rejected the message.

5) Don’t Get into a debate. These are rarely productive. It’s not that you can’t “win,” it’s that even if you win you may lose. There’s also the problem that someone who wants to debate often times has a set of presuppositions of which she or he may not even be aware. In that case a debate will likely be frustrating. Much more effective is being a friend. This isn’t to say you can’t have a friendly disagreement and discussion about it, but once things get heated, or someone starts talking about really minor or peripheral things, the discussion has likely stopped being productive.

6) Be a friend. If there’s a great new restaurant in town, whose opinion are you more likely to trust: a random person you’ve never met or barely know, or a close friend? It’s also important to know that I’m not saying talk about the bible just to your friends, but actively be a friend. When Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor”? He told a parable (the good Samaritan). The point was that the first question had the wrong emphasis. Jesus concluded by asking “Who was a neighbor”? It’s not who is my neighbor, but who can I act as a neighbor toward. In the same way it’s not just who your friends currently are, but how you can act as a friend to someone else.

7) Speak like you normally do. Too many times when we talk about the bible, we are tempted to use “bible” talk. This can sometimes be hard. How do we talk about sin? Or Redemption? These are complex concepts and we find it hard to translate to our language. Eugene Peterson has attempted to that a little bit with his The Message paraphrase. The same can be said of the earlier The Living Bible. While these are not necessarily appropriate for deep study of the bible, they can be useful on a daily basis. Another thing to do is try to think about what the Gospel means to you where you are, without automatically putting it in “church words.” Does your understanding of sin end up being a feeling of alienation or isolation? Do you understand salvation or redemption as “hope” and “joy”? If so, say that. Use the most basic way you know how to express it.  A simple question to ask is what difference has Jesus made in your life? A church word for this is “testimony” but what we should say is this is your experience of what Jesus has done for you. Be practical and tangible. Find the hook that you can put your hat on, so to speak. When you first encountered Jesus in a radical way, what did that mean? Joy? Hope? A sense of purpose? A future? Relief? Help? Support? I can’t answer it for you, and this isn’t an exhaustive list, but think about what it means to you on the most basic level.

8) If you want to learn more about interpreting the bible there’s help. One of the books I recommend more than any other (besides the bible of course) is How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. It is not particularly “spiritual” or “inspiring”, but it is an excellent resource that I think should almost be required reading. It is an easy to understand crash course in interpreting the bible. Even if you don’t think you can invest the time to work through a book, you are usually better equipped to read and interpret than you think you are. One of the best things you can do is read the bible slowly and carefully stopping to rephrase sections every now and then. This makes sure you are not glazing over anything. Besides, as a Christian you have the Holy Spirit to help you.

9) Pray and ask others to do so. Ultimately we don’t talk to others about the bible on our own strength. Keeping in mind that God is the one who gives the growth, we need to pray for such a thing. As Jesus said “Whoever asks, receives.”

10) Practice makes perfect. If you’re worried about speaking about the bible in this culture, the only way to get better is to do it. It likely means you will have missteps, but that’s part of the learning process. And keep in mind, your missteps do not dictate the success of these type of conversations, your obedience does.

So what do you think? Have I answered the question clearly? Is there something I need to restate, elaborate on, or clarify? Is there something you think I got wrong? Or is there something else you’d like to see addressed in this post? Let me know in the comments.

God’s Valentine’s Day Letter (is not what you think)

As I sit on this bus/train on my way to cook a special dinner with/for my wife, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the love from which ours comes. It’s become customary to send cards and letters to loved ones on February 14, and while my cynical nature might look to the commercialism of it all, part of me knows that for many, if not most people, their actions are motivated by a genuinely felt love. If, as a Christian, I think that the love of God is greater than any other the world has ever seen, does that mean God has celebrated Valentine’s day? Well, while that’s a silly question on the surface, after all these are fairly recent, human creations, it is nevertheless true that God celebrates Easter and Christmas. Again,while the parallel is inexact, maybe we should ask instead, has God sent us a love note, a valentine of sort? If so, what might it be?

The go to answer for this might be the entire bible, but that’s a bit broad. We might say his lover letter is the birth of Jesus, the Word incarnate as it were. Further we might instead point to the crucifixion or the resurrection or Pentecost. All of these are good candidates, but I’d like to suggest it’s something else entirely.

In the bible class I teach here, we just finished a discussion of Torah, the law, the first five books of the bible. In it we concluded with Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is mostly comprised of a single speech (or possibly a small handful put together). In it the whole law is essentially summed up. Our class focused on chapters 6 and 30. Both emphasize the exclusivity and faithfulness of our relationship with God.

The verse most people remember from chapter 6 is the “shema”. “Hear o Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.” This is followed by what Jesus called the “first” command, to love God entirely, with your whole being. However the end of that section I quoted might be translated differently. It seems the emphasis on the unity of God might have been a Jewish reaction against both polytheism and, much later, the Christian Trinity (of course the later does not contradict the unity of God). It might just as well, or perhaps better, be translated “the LORD is your God, the LORD alone.” Now that changes something. It’s no longer telling us something about God’s nature primarily. Instead the focus shifts to a relationship. Only the LORD, YHWH (Yahweh, the name of God) is the God of Israel. They’re exclusive. It’s a sign of commitment to each other to be in this covenant brought about by the law. In short the law, as God meant it to be, is not a series of obligations with condemnation as a negative effect to ignoring it, the law is God’s love letter to a people with whom He is in a committed relationship.

Lest you think I’m talking out of who knows where, let’s look at chapter 30. There we hear meantion that the law is “not far off” but that it is near us. In order to understand this a bit better, let’s look at the ten commandments.

We know that the ten commandments were written down on two tablets. While I used to think that this meant the commands were broken up into distinct sections, what the Reformers called the “two tables” I no longer think that the case. Old Testament scholar, and all around swell guy, Kenneth Matthews has conviced me that the form of the ten commandments follows something called a Babylonian Suzerin Treaty. If that’s right, then each tablet featured the entirety of the ten commandments. Why does that matter? Well, again relying on Dr Matthews, each party to the treaty would retain a copy of it to display. It contained details of the obligations of the stronger and weaker party (like a set of laws, some of which have a promise “that it may go well with you”). By bringing them together, what is God saying? Is it possible that God was telling Israel that “in the law” is where God and humanity can meet?

Back to Deuteronomy 30. If God meets Israel in the law, then by saying it is “near” is God saying he is near to us? The case for the law as “love letter” is made stronger when we hear God speak of not an act of physical circumcision, but a circumcision of the heart. These aren’t commands in the traditional sense, but acts of love back toward a God who first loved them. This is confirmed at the end of the chapter when we read thaty, rather than a perfect righteousness, faithfulness to the covenant (i.e. a “heart condition” of commitment) “that will be our righeousness.” This is grace this is love.

If the law is God’s love letter, then the incarnation and crucifixion is God’s marriage proposal. The relationship has fundamentally changed and as such we are no longer under the law, but like any good lover, sometimes we go back and reread those old love letters, especially when we can’t see our lover, God himself. Further, if the crucifixion is the poposal, the the resurrection and Christ’s return is the wedding. We’ve caught a glimpse of a wedding that’s happened, but not quite yet. And that is a wonderful thing.

So what do you think? How else could the law be God’s love letter to us? Please comment and feel free to suggest future topics for this blog.

Technical bits: On Transformation Theology

This is a technical follow up post. In this post I discuss my understanding of transformation theology, with which I consider myself in dialogue, and why I nevertheless reject it.

Transformation Theology is the new theological project at King’s College London. Although it is close in name, it should not be confused with the American project, more closely associated with the Emerging Church, known as “Transformative Theology”. Transformation theology is an attempt to bring theology to where people are. It is an effort to be an engaged or embodied theology. It begins with an important question to ask, as done by Prof. Oliver Davies of King’s College: Where is Christ? The way this is asked ends up being both promising and, ultimately, why I reject the project.

This is certainly an appropriate question to ask. The standard reformed answer is “Seated at the right hand of the Father.” The standard evangelical baptist answer is “within my heart.” The broader answer, given primarily by those in the Roman Catholic tradition is “within the Church” or even “within the Sacrament.” Oliver Davies notes that in one sense at least some of these are correct, but in another sense these are not the real Christ, but the mediated form of Christ. Where is Christ, asks Davies, in our time and space? Davies also wants to clearly distinguish this from the “who” question of Christ which, as can be seen in both Bonhoeffer and Barth, ends up subsuming the “where” question. While this certainly is important, and greatly impacts how we understand the incarnation, Davies presents some fundamental problems for me with this question. At heart, as Davies notes, this is a question related to the Ascension.

This is where the problems begin, at least if I’m understanding Davies right. He says that the cosmology of the first century Church is not ours. While that may be true, I would argue that it is nevertheless analogous in some very important ways. Leaving that aside, this leads to another problem. Davies argues that because of this different cosmology, when we ask the “where” question we cannot be talking about the resurrected Christ because that Christ belongs to the past. I want to be clear, Davies does not seem to want to deny the resurrection (which an uncritical reading might suggest), but is merely stating that this historical Christ was another mediated form of Christ. However, I don’t like this response. In trying to separate the “where” question from the “who” question, Davies has assumed the answer to the “who” question, and I disagree with his answer.

If we deny that the historical person who was killed and raised as Jesus is real Christ then we have a danger of lapsing into a form of Adoptionism (an early church heresy). I have no doubt that Davies thinks that Jesus is the real Christ, but he nevertheless refers to this as a mediated form. I want to say that this is an unmediated form. God was not hidden in Jesus. As Jesus says “If anyone has seen me, he has seen the father.” The incarnation fundamentally changed who God is. Now there is a human who is a person of the one substance of the Trinity. What is further, Paul’s arguments at the end of 1 Corinthians make it clear that this was a bodily raised Jesus still. We cannot escape the problem by appealing to Platonism. The historical human being Jesus is now the Christ. Granted, after the resurrection, his physicality had certain differences from ours, to the effect that he could pass through walls, but he still ate and could be touched, though he urged some not to do so. This is, I think, part of what it means to talk about the “Scandal of Particularity.” Christ became incarnate as a particular historical individual. He did not become the “everyman” or the “ideal man,” but a specific human person who lived within history. He entered our space time. And this Jesus, who was raised from the dead, is still human. That is why the reformed tradition states, I think correctly, that Christ is “at the right hand of the Father.” This is also why, although I think Davies asks an excellent question, there are some fundamental flaws with the approach and I will be an observer from the outside.

To go back to the initial post, click here.

This is the last of the more technical posts. The next post should be more user friendly.

Technical Bits: What do I mean by “Reformed”?

This is a follow up post. Here I talk about my unique use of the word “reformed”.

Although in today’s terms the use of the word “reformed” almost always indicates someone who is strongly in line with Dortian Calvinism, that’s not what I mean when I say that my orientation is in some measure reformed. Instead, I am using the term in its most basic sense.

By this I mean that my theology is heavily influenced by the theological writings and work that came out as a direct result of the period of time. While this includes those thinkers whom I mentioned in the initial blogpost, it also includes those who responded to the reformation. It is broad enough to include both John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. It runs from John Edwards to John Wesley. It should be noted that the biggest conflict, between Dortian Calvinists and Arminians is an “in-house” debate. It would be a mistake for Protestant to ignore Catholic, for Presbyterian to ignore Methodist or anything in between. To say I am reformed does not mean I necessarily ascribe to any particular set of beliefs, but it is a recognition that these people have something important to say; something that I need to hear.

To go back to the initial post, click here.

Post Navigation