Book Review – Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Duane Litfin)

Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) 359 pages plus 27 pages of bibliography)

I have been struggling with how to create an appropriate introduction for my review of this book. This morning I finally settled on what I think is the best way to communicate how I feel about not only the content of the material, but the manner in which it was presented: this is the book I wish I had available to me when I was a young man considering becoming a preacher.

First, for want of a better term, I will address the “style” of the writing. Many authors are absolutely brilliant in their field of study, but seem to be genetically prohibited from getting that brilliance out of their heads and onto paper so that others can share their illumination. Litfin’s book is the polar opposite of that obtuseness. I love reading this book because it was just such a joy to read. Once again, some authors are so in love with their thesis that they do not take the time to explain why their thesis is important to begin with. Litfin begins (part 1), not with explaining what he thinks Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 1-4, but rather by explaining the cultural understanding of rhetoric and the power of persuasion (Greco-Roman rhetoric) that Paul would be familiar with in Corinth. Then, in part 2 he turns to 1 Corinthians 1-4 and demonstrates that Paul was specifically rejecting this view of persuasion. Litfin could have cut the length of the book in half by simply arguing his position from 1 Corinthians 1-4. However, the value of the material would have been reduced by far more than 50 percent. Litfin’s knowledge of, and presentation of, the material in part 1 is, hopefully not to be too effusive, magisterial. When he moves to part 2, the reader (student) is thoroughly conversant with the basic understanding of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Here I must also praise Litfin’s use of primary writings. He quotes ancient writers at length, but not so many and so long as to make the material unreadable. I repeat what I said at the beginning, this book is so well crafted, so well written, that whether you want to be a preacher or not, just reading this book is an education in how to present your arguments.

But, let us move on to the content. Litfin’s thesis boiled down to a simple sentence is this: the apostle Paul was well aware of the prevalent culture of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but he (Paul) made the conscious decision to reject the art of that rhetoric in order to present the gospel message as an obedient herald, a simple proclaimer of the cross. On a simple reading, one might be tempted to say, “ho, hum, next . . .” But this message cuts against the grain of so much of what is taught in preacher training courses that it demands to be heard. I could not help but think as I read and digested this material – “wow, if Litfin’s thesis was widely promoted and accepted, hundreds of instructors in preaching trainings situations would suddenly be unemployed.” The reason for such a response is simple – we are training preachers to do exactly the opposite of what the apostle Paul presented as his guiding theology for both ministry and preaching.

Today preachers are taught the art of communication (we do not use the word rhetoric anymore, but that is what it is). Preachers are taught how to evaluate an audience (age, economic background, educational level, etc) and to decide how to “get under the audience’s skin” (my words) so as to manipulate the audience’s feelings in order to generate the greatest amount of positive response. The preacher may be after conversions or a greater commitment to giving, or to motivate people to become a short-term missionaries. But the process is all basically the same – how do I take my message to this audience and what tools do I use in this setting to achieve my greatest goals? That, in a very crude way, is to use the “art” of rhetoric. It is the basic skeleton of the process I was taught in my speech and preaching classes.

Litfin argues persuasively that Paul takes all of that and throws it out the window. Paul was well aware of that theory and all of the tools of rhetoric. However, Paul’s theology, Paul’s foundational motivation, was not to be an accomplished speaker/preacher/rhetorician. Paul’s goal was to be an obedient herald. Paul simply wanted to preach the message of the cross. The result was up to the Holy Spirit. Paul preached, God converted. Paul’s goal was not to be successful, it was to be obedient. Success, in other words, for Paul was not in the number of conversions, but it was to be measured in how faithful he was in presenting the gospel.

Now, to be sure, Paul was aware of his audience, and to Jews he referred to the law of Moses and to cultured Greeks he referred to secular poets. But this was not to use (or abuse) the art of rhetoric – Paul was simply adapting his presentation of the gospel message to the level of understanding of his audience. He was educating his audience, not manipulating them. There is a significant difference, and one that I believe is lost in much of contemporary preaching classes.

I will leave it to the reader to follow Litfin’s argument. I found it to be both profound, and profoundly significant. The author’s style is not elegant in the sense of flowery language, but it is indeed elegant in the sense of its structure and presentation. I think I am being redundant here, but this book provides an education in not only the content of what is being argued, but in the very essence of how it is being argued.

Although Litfin’s main purpose is not to write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4 per se, I must add that his treatment of these four chapters is as fine a commentary as I have read on Paul’s introduction to this critical letter. If I had my druthers, I would have two copies of the book, and I would put one on my library shelf dedicated to 1 Corinthians, and one in the section I have dedicated to preaching and homiletics. I will probably keep the book in my preaching section, but the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1-4 is an education in its own right.

No book is absolutely perfect, and I do have to share one caveat for a reader who does not know Greek. Litfin’s use of Greek terms is frequent, and in about 95% of the cases he does provide an English translation. However, when he repeats a Greek word he does not always repeat the translation, and there are a number of times in which he assumes that the reader knows how to read Greek (the terms are never transliterated) and even knows the meaning of the words. In terms of editing, I would have liked IVP Academic to have demanded a little “dumbing down” for those who do not have a background in Greek, but this is a relatively small quibble, and if you do not know Greek the overwhelming majority of the book is still valuable. I would suggest that due to the inclusion of the Greek terminology this book is probably written for a 2nd or 3rd year college student, or seminary student, so buyer beware. On the other hand, the language is decidedly written, and the argumentation is so well defended (repeated appropriately, but never to the point of obnoxious redundancy) so that even if you have to “bleep” over the Greek words, the book would still be of inestimable value.

I end with how I started. I so wish I had this material back when I was starting my school work, back when the crust of the earth was first starting to cool. I’m just glad I have read it now, and over the next few weeks and months I am going to re-evaluate all of my preaching and teaching to see if I am being faithful to Paul’s theology of preaching, or if I am falling prey to the less faithful, but much more highly praised, skill of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Bad Assumptions Lead to Tainted Conclusions!

I came across an article recently, and as I pondered it a number of strikingly bad assumptions became evident. It might be a good idea for you to read the article in its original context before you read this post so that you can make up your own mind regarding the truthfulness or falsity of the author’s conclusions.

Must women really keep silent in the churches?

The first incorrect assumption the author makes is this, “For starters, it would create a hopeless contradiction with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:5, which indicates that women were ‘praying and prophesying’ in the church. Paul doesn’t rebuke their praying and prophesying in church.” Some space later he repeats himself, “Again, Paul is not against women speaking altogether. He acknowledges that they are praying out loud and prophesying out loud in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:5).” The problem with these two statements is that they are simply not true. Nowhere in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is the assembly in view. Paul is not rebuking the women for praying or prophesying in the assembly (true statement) but he is not defending those practices either. He is simply making an argument from general decorum – when men pray or prophesy they are not to have their heads covered, when women pray or prophesy they are supposed to have their heads covered. The when or where is simply not mentioned because it is not a factor in Paul’s argument. (As an aside here, I think Paul does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:29 when he makes reference to those who baptize on behalf of the dead. He does not commend the practice, nor necessarily refute it – he simply mentions it.)

However, beginning in 1 Corinthians 11:17 a significant shift occurs – “But in the following instructions . . .” (emphasis mine). Notice the following emphases on the assembly-

  • “When you come together” – 11:17
  • “When you come together as a church” – 11:18
  • “When you come together” – 11:20
  • “When you come together to eat” – 11:33
  • “If, therefore, the whole church comes together” – 14:23
  • “When you come together” – 14:26

There is a clear literary, and therefore contextual, break between 1 Corinthians 11:16 and 11:17 and following. When Paul finishes his generic argument, and when he moves to specific practices that ought to be done or ought not to be done, he repeatedly uses the definitive, “when you come together” or “when the church comes together.” To overlook or to dismiss this clear rhetorical device is to totally confuse Paul’s arguments, and therefore to destroy them.

The second incorrect assumption the author makes is this, “Paul is commanding the women to keep silent in a certain context – during the judgment of prophecies.” The fact is Paul never connects the judging of prophecies specifically to women speaking. The connection simply is not there. To illustrate his conjecture, he creates a hypothetical situation that is utterly foreign to the context he so pointedly refers to. “But this creates a potential problem. What happens if a husband prophesies, and his wife is a prophet as well? Is the husband supposed to be subject to his wife during the judgment of prophecies?” He answers his own hypothetical, “For that reason, he enjoins women in this context to refrain from the judgment of prophecies.” (emphasis Burk’s)

If it is possible for us to overlook the egregious hypothesizing going on here, let us just stop and consider what he is asking us to believe. In this scenario, a married man, a male prophet, utters a prophetic teaching. His wife, also a prophet (I guess that would make her a prophetess), recognizes that what her husband said is wrong, or at least needs some correction. As far as the audience is concerned, the same Holy Spirit speaks through both of them, but because she is a female she is to refrain from correcting her erroneous husband, even though she is led by the Holy Spirit and is correct in her judgment. This simply staggers the imagination! Not to mention raising the issue of whether a prophet can claim prophetic inspiration if his teaching is erroneous. What is the church to do if there is no other male prophet who can “judge” the first speakers prophecy?

The third false assumption the author makes is this, “Today, reading aloud God’s revelation from scripture (sic) is the functional equivalent of prophesying God’s revelation in Paul’s day. Biblically speaking, it would be totally in keeping with Paul’s instructions for women to be reading scripture (sic) and praying during the gathered assembly of God’s people. Both of those things can be done in a way that honors the headship principle (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16).” Again, by referring to the text that has nothing to do with the assembly, the author invalidates his assumption. But, more to the point, since when does simply reading a text equate to the prophetic gift that caused that text to come into existence? The assumed conclusion is specious. It has no merit.

If the author makes these false assumptions, what then of his conclusions. He makes two. First, “. . . we go beyond the example of scripture (sic) if we foreclose what Paul clearly allows – women praying and sharing God’s revelation during worship services.” Paul does not “clearly allow” such practices, and there is no defense of such an argument from the text. Second, “. . . it would be a violation of headship for women to teach or to exercise authority in corporate worship. Teaching is explaining and applying an already-given revelation. The judgment of prophecies would have included evaluations which are the functional equivalent of teaching. And that is why Paul does not wish for women to judge prophecies in the gathered assembly.” Okay, here is where it really gets confusing for me. A woman can read the text, but she cannot explicate it? She can assume a leadership role in leading in public Scripture reading or prayer, but she cannot assume a leadership role in preaching a sermon or teaching a class? Here is where the author attempts to split a hair, and in my personal opinion, fails so miserably.

The author does not believe women should exercise a leadership role in the public worship, a position that I also hold. The author believes that the miraculous manifestation of prophecy has ceased, another position that I personally hold. So why complain so vehemently with the manner in which the author arrives at his conclusions? (Well, actually, he only refers to his defense of cessationism)? The answer I believe is critical to understand.

Simply stated, when we use faulty logic, or even worse, faulty exegesis, to defend a position that we hold we do two things. One, we ultimately make it more difficult for others to correctly defend any given position because those who see through their errors attach those errors to our apologetic. Stated another way, the fruit of the poisoned tree taints all other fruit, simply by association. Second, we provide for those who disagree with us a ready and solid attack against the conclusions we draw. Personally, if I disagreed with this particular author, I could have a field day attacking his position. Shoot – he basically does it for me, telling me that it is perfectly okay for a woman to prophesy (read God’s inspired Scripture publicly), but she cannot tell me what the text means because she would be violating Paul’s “headship” principle by “judging a prophecy.”

I am enough of a “fundamentalist” (if you want to call me that) that I believe arriving at the correct interpretation of a text is absolutely critical. But, I also am convinced to the marrow in my bones that the manner in which we arrive at those conclusions, and the manner in which we publicly proclaim those conclusions, are both equally critical. We simply cannot use faulty logic and faulty exegesis and theological practices to defend what we believe to be true.

Let us be faithful to the message, but let us also be humble servants of the task of exegesis and hermeneutics.

What Is Our Authority?

Some additional thoughts on my study on Christ and culture . . .

It occurred to me that the contemporary church has an authority problem. Not that this is original with us in the 21st century, but the problem is revealing itself in a manner that is becoming more critical by the moment. Let me work through a little bit of “our” history.

Two examples demonstrate how the sciences have been used to correct, or to make amends for incorrect and, in one case, blasphemous, misunderstandings of Scripture. The first example is that of recognizing, and then accepting, that a geocentric universe is incorrect, and that the earth revolves around the sun, rotating on its axis as it does so. The second example is that of recognizing, and then overcoming, the disgraceful way in  which the Bible was used to defend and support slavery. In the first example, students of the Bible had to realize that the biblical authors could use language that was not scientifically correct, but that was correct by man’s experience none-the-less. In the second example, students of the Bible had to recognize that just because a word is used (i.e., “slavery”), that did not mean that God blessed or even approved of the practice, and certainly would not condone a practice as distorted as was the American practice of slavery.

In the first example, the science of astronomy proved to be authoritative, and in the second example, the science of sociology (perhaps along with physiology, and psychology) were employed along with appropriate Bible study to correct bad Bible interpretation.

I am grateful for the scientific knowledge of Copernicus, Galileo, and many others. I am grateful for the men and women who stood up and demanded that the basic dignity of every human being be recognized, first with the abolition of slavery and then one hundred years later, with the civil rights movement.

Simply stated, there have been times in the two millennia since Christ walked on the earth, that either the hard sciences or the soft (humanities) sciences have been employed to correct faulty exegesis and hermeneutics.

However, a new crisis is facing the Church, and I am afraid that, having been proven wrong on those issues, far too many Christians have surrendered the authority of Scripture for the authority of the sciences. Where the sciences can be of value in some areas, there is one area in which the sciences are utterly incapable of providing any guidance. That area is the area of morality – God’s teaching about holy or sinful behavior.

I hear and read that more and more Christians are looking to science to answer questions of basic biblical morality. Thus, particularly in the area of sexuality, the divinely appointed creation of two sexes and of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is being called into question because of recent supposed scientific discovery. It’s almost like Christians are saying, “Look, we were wrong about the earth thing, and we were wrong about the slavery thing, maybe we need to back off of saying anything for certain about the sexuality thing.”

Well, it’s one thing to be mistaken about the biblical use of experiential language. And it certainly is shameful that Christians abused the biblical text to defend slavery for over two hundred years. But when the inspired authors speak unequivocally and consistently about the basic nature of God and how that nature is manifested in the creation of the sexes, it is the height of hubris to reject that uniform, consistent teaching. There are few, if any, teachings in the Bible that show more consistency than the fact that God created male and female to reflect his creative nature, and that it is only through monogamous, heterosexual marriage that he has approved the utilization of our sexual beings. Forced sexual behavior (rape) and polygamous marriages are described, but in the first case rape is always condemned (with capital punishment for the abuser) and in the second case, polygamous marriages are virtually always portrayed in a negative light, if not outright condemned. In that regard, homosexual behavior is always condemned. There are no examples in the Bible of any male to male or female to female sexual relationships being blessed. The authority of Scripture is diametrically opposed to the perceived authority of science, and it is exactly here that the Christian is going to have to make a choice.

And, as a brief aside, it is exactly here that those who are pushing the authority of the sciences have met their Achilles heel. On the one hand the mantra from the extreme social left is that one is born homosexual and cannot change that orientation. For anyone to suggest that homosexual behavior is therefore a sin is to themselves be guilty of a the sin of intolerance and hatred (homophobia). On the other hand, those same individuals on the extreme social left want to argue that the biological determination of sex as recognized at birth is simply a fluid and inexact marker, and that a person can choose to change that sexual orientation at some later point in his/her life as he/she so recognizes that he/she “feels” like he or she has been born in the wrong body.

Has anyone else caught this hypocritical view of science? On the one hand out DNA is sacrosanct, that we are born one way or the other and cannot even begin to think about changing it; and on the other hand our very DNA that makes us male or female is simply an accident that can be accepted or rejected (and therefore changed) with a simple surgical procedure and a name change, all based on a fleeting human emotion. Like anything else, follow a course as far as it can be reasonably projected and you will see either its folly or its perfection. The social left is caught in an unsustainable contradiction here, and those who are only too willing to sacrifice Scripture for science need to be aware of this inconsistency.

God’s word is utterly consistent: God created mankind – male and female – in his image, and heterosexual monogamous marriage is holy. All sexual behavior outside of that relationship (forcing another against their will, sex acts with one’s same birth sex, sex acts with animals, sex acts outside of the holy bond of marriage) is sinful.

We have reached a point, at least in the United States, where Christians are going to have to take a stand and proclaim whether our authority is God’s inspired word, or whether we are going to turn our spiritual lives over to the authority of the sciences. As for me – I will let the sciences speak where they are qualified to speak – in answering the questions of how things work in our universe and in our world. Where the sciences can inform my understanding of Scripture I will gladly listen to that conversation. I will gladly learn from the “soft” sciences about how the human mind works and how humans work (or don’t work) in societal units.

But, I cannot, and will not, allow either the hard sciences or the soft sciences to dictate my understanding of morality. When it comes to deciding what God has said about the basic nature of human beings, and how that nature reflects His nature, then I must confidently and adamantly say with Peter, John, and the apostles:

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. . . We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29)

We stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. God speaks, we must either listen and obey, or reject and disobey. We cannot climb higher by rejecting God’s most fundamental truths. We ascend higher by climbing lower.

The Addition of One Word Alone

It’s funny how you can read a passage of Scripture a dozen times, two dozen times, a hundred times, and never see something in that text until you read it with a specific question in mind. I have been working on a series of lessons on Christ, culture, and faith, and as a part of that study have been looking at Romans 1-5 (in particular) and, almost by necessity, incorporating the teaching of James. Although I have read James countless times, for once one little word jumped out at me as if it was stoked on performance enhancing drugs. More on that in a moment.

If you read virtually anything written by a card-carrying, approved member of the evangelical intelligentsia you will read, again and again, that we Christians are saved by “grace alone through faith alone.” It is a mantra repeated ad nauseam. It’s most quoted champion is the reformer Luther. However, you do not have to be a Lutheran to promote that line of thought. We humans cannot do anything to save ourselves, to think so would be to preach “works salvation,” so therefore we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.

The only problem, and it is a whopper, is that no one, not one single New Testament writer, wrote or said such a thing.

Now, there is no question that the apostle Paul said we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), a point that was tragically overlooked for decades by many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But – and I make this point emphatically – the word alone never appears in Paul’s writings in relation to saving faith. Once again, no reader of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, or any other of Paul’s books for that matter, can come to any other conclusion other than the fact we are saved by God’s grace through faith.

Which brings me to the book of James.

Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of the teachings of Paul to James for centuries. The problem boils down to one fairly small section of James’s letter – James 2:14-26. In those brief paragraphs James excoriates the idea that mere acceptance of a doctrine or set of doctrines can constitute “faith.” And, tucked right in the middle of that section of his letter James writes this:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

In one amazing little sentence James totally contradicts the Lutheran/Protestant mantra. We are not saved by faith alone. Not. Read it again – not! If you are waiting for me to untangle the relationship between Paul and James you are going to have to wait a while, and probably attend about 13 weeks of classes. The point I want to make here is that James did write something that contradicts what so many think that Paul wrote – and Paul never wrote what they believe he must have. (If that sentence is confusing to you, you should see how confusing it is to me.)

The statement is so stark that Luther – and I should say a great many modern evangelicals – simply cannot justify (pardon the pun) James with Paul, and since Paul is regarded as being clearly superior – and spiritual – they simply reject James. As in, cut James out of the canon. As in, James is not inspired, so we have to listen to Paul and not James. As in, we are just so much smarter than 1,600 or 1,700 or even 1,800 years of Christian theology, so we can pick and choose which texts we are going to follow and which we are going to excise from the Bible.

This, to me, is simply staggering. Paul never says something and what he does not say becomes a part of “Christian” doctrine so rabidly promoted that to question it amounts to heresy, and James does say something so clear and unambiguous, and it is for all intents and purposes, simply cut out of the New Testament.

I can only think of three reasons why scholars, pastors, and Christian authors promote Luther to the utter and total exclusion of James 2:24. One, they do not know Greek, and so do not have access to verifying whether Paul did or did not use the word alone. Two, they do know Greek, but have simply swallowed the Lutheran doctrine to the point that they have no reason (in their mind) to verify whether Paul used the word alone or not. Those two reasons are sad, and are in reality without excuse (as a good English translation and concordance would reveal the same truth), but it is the third reason that I think is so tragic, and indefensible. The third reason is that they are aware that Paul never uses the word alone in relation to saving faith, but they are so beholden to defend the dogma of Lutheran/Protestant thinking that they willingly repeat the falsehood. In their mind Luther is so correct that Paul must have meant alone, even though he did not use the word, that they say “. . . through faith alone” again and again and again.

All of this just goes to illustrate why we need to be so careful – painstakingly so – in our writing. Speech is one thing; we can be forgiven for a little hyperbole here and a little sermonizing there (so long as what we say or sermonize is not certifiably false!). But when we write, when we put words on paper (or pixels on a blog) we must be so minutely careful that what we say is correct. Or, in the absence of that, that we go back and correct any false statements that we make.

I have no doubt that Luther’s intentions were utterly innocent. He was writing (and preaching) to confront ecclesiastical dogma that held people in complete terror. Hell awaited the slightest sin, and works of penance were beyond the ability of the average Christian; therefore the payment of indulgences became a source of comfort for the ignorant and a formidable source of income for the church. Luther was absolutely correct to bring “salvation by grace through faith” back into the Christian teaching. Where he erred was in adding one little word – alone.

May we be so careful, so diligent, to preach the New Testament fearlessly and honestly. But, let us be so careful, so diligent that we never add anything to the teaching of the inspired authors!

 

Jesus and the Disciples’ Feet

Because I am huge on context, let me set the stage for this post. I am teaching a series of lessons on “How We Study the Bible” on Sunday mornings. Last week the lesson was on the necessity for us to determine, as far as we humanly can, the meaning of the text in its original setting. If we do not look to see what the text meant to the original audience, then the chances of us ever learning what the text should mean for us are slim and none. This coming Sunday the lesson then proceeds for us to learn, once again as much as we humanly can, the differences between that original audience and our situation today.

My “test” passage is John 13:1-15, the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet. Many questions arise from this text, and chief among them, at least for me, is “Why is this event, so critical in many respects, totally ignored by the other gospel writers?” To phrase it the other way, why is it that only John records this event? Which then opens a very interesting study . . .

One would have to be blind and deaf not to notice the radical differences between John  and Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But let’s just take one slice of the larger picture and see if it does not help us with the issue of chapter 13. The slice I am referring to is that of the miracles recorded in the gospel of John. By my count there are seven – not counting, of course, the resurrection of Jesus himself. These are: the changing of the water into wine (or Welches grape juice, depending on your theological leanings), the healing of the official’s son, the healing of the paralytic, the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Of these seven, only two are recorded by the other gospel writers (unless you count the healing of the official’s son, which is a possibility).

It is interesting to note that the two that John “duplicates” are also the two that receive the least amount of his attention. It is almost as if John is saying, “Everyone already knows about these stories, they have been discussed in other gospels accounts, so I am going to mention them but not spend a lot of time on them.” In contrast, the healing of the paralytic in chapter 5 and the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 receive careful and in-depth treatment.

John is communicating messages, even simply in the amount of space he allots to the stories he wants to highlight.

So, back to my point. If we could summarize, what is the common denominator in all of these seven miracle stories? What is their point? Only one appears to stress the supernatural power of Jesus as such – the story of him walking on the water. This is one of the stories John “duplicates” from the other accounts, and receives very little attention, comparatively speaking. I would suggest, however, that when viewed alongside the other miracle accounts, John is including this event not to stress Jesus’s super-human power, but to underline one of his major themes.

Note that every miracle account in the gospel of John emphasizes Jesus’s awareness of, and removal of, a person (or persons) physical or emotional need. Stated another way, Jesus serves the ones he miraculously heals, feeds, or brings back from the dead. His miracles are examples of his service to those who are hurting. Jesus relieves the pain of the groom and his family by providing the appropriate wedding beverage. He serves the official by restoring his son. He serves the paralytic and the blind man by healing them. He serves the people by feeding them. He relieves the emotional crisis of the disciples in the boat by walking out to them, and immediately getting them to their destination. He serves Mary, Martha, and of course Lazarus, by bringing Lazarus from the grave.

Catching on to a common theme here? Good.

The account in chapter 13 is not a one-off, stray account of a weird event in the final hours of Jesus’s life. The washing of the disciples’ feet is really the culmination of Jesus’s teaching to the disciples – and the exclamation point of John’s account of Jesus’s ministry (prior to the crucifixion, of course). Jesus came to serve, to wash the feet of not only his disciples, but of everyone he came into contact with.

I have heard it said that we have to physically wash one another’s feet in order to obey Jesus’s words in John 13:14. Never mind that a person’s foot in Jesus’s day was covered in all kinds of dirt and grime from walking up and down dusty streets strewn with all kinds of unsavory material. Never mind that our feet today are probably the second most hygienically protected parts of our anatomy. Never mind that most of us shower, if not daily, then at least several times a week, and that we protect our feet with comfortable socks and sturdy shoes (ladies sandals excepted). Never mind that we totally ignore other passages where Jesus is just as emphatic with commands we blithely overlook – has anyone chopped off their right hand or gouged out their right eye recently (Matthew 5:27-30)?

So, what is it about John  13:14 that makes people want to follow the command verbatim whilst eschewing other equally clear commands? Just an opinion here, but I think it is because washing someone’s already clean and hygienic foot is just soooooooo emotional and sooooooooo spiritual. And, again just a personal opinion, we are utterly and totally misapplying the passage when we do so.

John’s point is not that the follower’s of Christ need to wash an already clean and well protected foot. John’s point – I guess I should say Jesus’s point – is that we should serve other people, even up to and including performing the most embarrassing and personally disgusting acts of kindness for other people.

How many people who would gladly wash someone’s already clean foot would also clean an invalid’s filthy bathroom? How many people who would make a big show of washing clean feet would also clean the house of the crazy cat lady whose charges have urinated and defecated over every square inch of that house? How many people who want their foot washing to be recorded for posterity would want their picture taken while they wretch over the sight and smell of a homeless person passed out in their alcohol induced vomit?

We see pictures of someone, maybe even an important someone, washing the feet of another person and we think, “how noble.” Maybe it is. Maybe the person is diabetic and has not washed their feet in weeks and maybe it is an act of true service and kindness. But my guess is that in the overwhelming majority of cases the foot is already so clean as to be sterilized and the event is staged to demonstrate how much we are like Jesus.

And because we do not stop to think about how different our world is from the world of Jesus and his original apostles we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point of the story.

The point of this post is not that we should never wash the feet of someone who desperately needs that service and who cannot do it for themselves.

But, please, unless you are going to chop of your right hand and gouge out your right eye, don’t use John 13:14 as some proof text to justify your act of “service.”

We only serve when we climb lower.

Book Review – The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (David A. Dorsey)

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis – Malachi, David A. Dorsey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999) 328 pages.

I find out about books in a variety of ways – I belong to a book club, I read blogs, I follow Twitter accounts of fellow ministers who drop hints occasionally. I discovered the above book (now getting a little long of tooth) in the process of researching a lesson on Jonah. I came across an old outline from a good friend, and he referenced this book (snarky aside – imagine that, a minister who actually gives credit for someone else’s work!!) The insight my friend gave me made me purchase this book. I am so grateful!

First, let me note that the book is both accurately and inaccurately titled. It clearly is a study in the literary structure of each of the books of the Old Testament, but it is not a study of the literary structure of the Old Testament in its entirety. And, the subtitle should note that it is primarily a commentary on the literary structures found in the books of Genesis-Malachi. The author does include sections on the meaning that is conveyed by these structures, but the book is not a verse-by-verse study, as is commonly understood by the word “commentary.” Very small quibble, to be sure, but the title could potentially be misleading.

We twenty-first century, western, technological and linear thinking Americans tend to read Scripture in twenty-first century, western, technological and linear ways of thinking. We want our stories to begin, continue, and end in a very definite format – as in a straight line. Thus, our minds tend to latch onto narrative sections of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, the books of Samuel – Chronicles, the gospels, Acts) and we tend to struggle with or dismiss non-narrative sections (the law codes, the poetic sections, we do a very, very poor job with the prophets!) What this book does is to illuminate how the ancient authors may (and I emphasize that word) have structured their writings to appeal to their audiences (non-western, non-technological, non-linear, and definitely not 21st century!).

The first five chapters of the book are worth the purchase price alone – Dorsey explains his thesis and further explains the value of literary structural analysis. For someone who really struggles with understanding the Old Testament, those chapters are a great eye-opener – there actually IS a method to the overall structure of each book, and of the Old Testament in general.

The remainder of the book (a total of 39 chapters) is devoted to an examination of the various books of the Old Testament, through chapter 38, and then a concluding chapter. A concept that might be of interest to some is that Dorsey does not believe the traditional division of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then followed by Joshua and Judges to be structurally correct. He sees the “Book of the Law” continuing through Joshua 24. His defense of this suggestion is interesting, to say the least, and definitely has merit.

I read the book cover-to-cover without stopping to examine each chapter carefully against the text. This process has its advantages, but also comes with some drawbacks. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how certain structures are repeated throughout the Old Testament. On the other hand, the book does tend to get ponderously repetitive, and I found myself skimming some sections because it seemed that the author was just repeating himself too much.

However, and I must stress this emphatically (not to be redundant), I am a much more careful reader of the Old Testament texts now after having read this book. Books, or sections of books, that made no sense to me at all now have come to life. Whether Dorsey is 100% correct in his analysis or not, I now see with my spectacles just a little cleaner. For what it is worth, I think Dorsey is spot-on correct in some of his work (the aforementioned analysis of Jonah just makes the book leap out of the binding!). Some of his work is highly speculative – and to Dorsey’s unending credit – he actually points out when he feels his analysis is speculative! When I read an author say, “this is what I think, but I could be wrong, and more study needs to be done here” his credibility level goes through the roof with me.

As I mentioned, Dorsey’s fascination with some structures can become monotonous – get ready for a lot of sevens! At a number of places in the book I found myself wondering if the biblical authors could have possible been aware of the intricate structures that Dorsey identifies – and then Dorsey himself asked that question in the conclusion (another tip of the ol’ Fedora to the author). As a neophyte in this field, I am just not educated enough to decide how correct Dorsey is in all of his conclusions, but this I will say with no hesitation whatsoever – I am deeply indebted to his study, and I feel that I am a better reader of the Old Testament for having read through this book.

Ultimately, this is a book that must be studied in conjunction with the biblical text (something I did not originally do), and, as with every commentary ever written, the reader must hold the author’s conclusions in suspension pending further study and personal research.

Bottom line – two thumbs up and five gold stars!

No Strength to Answer

This past Sunday we were examining the first few verses in Luke 14. I try to follow along in my Greek text, not that I am a Greek expert, but I am trying to recover what I lost, or gain what I never had. Anyway, we were reading along and I came across a word in v. 6 that I thought I recognized, and lo and behold – I was right!

Luke 14:6 is one of those innocuous verses that on first reading just gets filed away under “interesting, but let’s move on.” But there really is a fascinating phrase here that Luke chose to use. This verse is one of those verses that cannot have a direct “one-to-one” translation – and no translation that I looked up even attempts such a thing. The basic meaning is found in every translation I researched – the Pharisees and those at the meal could not respond to Jesus’s questions (note the context).

What I found to be noteworthy, however, is that the word Luke chose to convey this inability is also the word that has the meaning of strength, or power. The meaning of “ability” is also present in the word, so it is not like our English editions have mistranslated the word. But it is this nuance of strength, or power, that got me to wondering if Luke did not have more in mind than just saying the Pharisees were flummoxed, stymied, mentally stuck.

A purely colloquial way of translating the sentence would be that the Pharisees were mentally gassed, they were brain fried, they had brain cramps, their brain muscles no longer worked. Jesus asked them a question that just short circuited their synapses. It was not just that they could not come up with the right words to answer Jesus – they didn’t have anything left in the tank to even come up with any words.

All of this got me to thinking – I just wonder how we would be able to answer any of Jesus’s questions. We who are so smart, who have learned to take God’s word and “contextualize” it so that it no longer offends anyone. We who have realized that with the concept of “progressive revelation” all we have to do is to decide what we want the Scriptures to say, and then teach that God really wanted his word to agree with us. We, who with the passage of time, have come to realize that God could not have possibly meant all those mean, nasty, ugly things that the Old Testament says could actually have any meaning for good, polite Christians like us.

Jesus took one command, one seemingly tiny little fragment of the Old Law, and just obliterated the Pharisee’s defenses. The keeping of the Sabbath might not have been the only linchpin in the Pharisee’s theology, but it was certainly a key component. Jesus proved, with one itty, bitty little question, how fragile that theology was.

The scary thing is, the Pharisees had far, far more evidence on which to build their theology of Sabbath keeping than we have for most, if not all, of our cherished traditions. (Through Ezekiel, the LORD excoriated the Jews for their violations of the Sabbath day. The Pharisees were, at least on one level, simply trying to obey the teachings of Ezekiel, and to a lesser degree, Jeremiah.)

All of which simply goes to support the major thesis of this blog. We had better be careful – extraordinarily careful – that what we say and teach comes from the mind and heart of God. We must always make sure that we are standing under Scripture, and not above it. We do not explain to God what his writings teach, we correct our beliefs, attitudes and actions according to his words. If need be, we let Jesus’s questions blow up our theology – and short circuit our synapses.

We ascend by climbing lower.