Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection (#3)

Continuing my series on my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” . . .

Building on truth #2, if the authors of Scripture intended their writings to be understood (for me that is axiomatic), then they also intended their writings to achieve their intended purpose:

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

Here again, the casual and non-observant reader would glance at these sentences and say, “sure, no problem” and then go out and violate the meaning that I intended for them (pardon the irony).

What I am trying to say is that if a writer composed a narrative, he (or she, but most authors/scribes in antiquity were males) intended his narrative to convey the truth of the narrative (historical truth, didactic teaching, command, parable). If he composed a poem, he intended the poem to convey its intended purpose (comfort, frustration, lament, confession, rejoicing). If he composed in the wisdom tradition, he intended his writing to convey some aspect of wisdom. Point is, when we take a piece of poetry and turn it into a piece of history, or even worse yet, a command, we violate the meaning of Scripture. Let that last little phrase sink in. We can love Scripture, quote Scripture, memorize Scripture; but if we misinterpret or misapply Scripture, we are violating the meaning of that Scripture!

To take a well-worn, but never-the-less powerful example, look at Genesis 1-3. Nothing about this text indicates that it is a lesson in history, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, genetics, or anthropology. Yet, I have seen, and heard, Genesis 1-3 used as a text to explain all of these, if not more. That is to violate the meaning of Genesis 1-3! If I can boil the meaning of Genesis 1-3 down to one sentence, it would be this: Genesis 1-3 is a narrative story, set in a poetic structure, that explains (1) who God is, and (2) who man (male and female) is, and (3) what the relationship is between God and man, God and creation, and man and creation. Anything beyond that is pure speculation, and the more specific the speculation the more harmful the results.

However, the same can be said of the historical sections of the Old Testament (they are not written to be examples in ethics courses), the Psalms (written from man to God, not God to man), the wisdom literature  and, in the New Testament, the parables (not cute little stories for VBS) and (my pet peeve) the book of Revelation (not a “road map to history”).

Undeniable truth for theological reflection number 3 teaches us that before we can say “this is what the Scripture says to us” we have to ask the question, “what kind of Scripture is this?” Then, once we have determined the kind of Scripture we are dealing with, then we can begin to work on determining its purpose, and for us, its intended meaning.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, #2

Continuing my explanation of my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” –

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

Um, this should be painfully obvious. I guess for some, pain just does not work. I was tempted to add, “. . . by the original audience” but I decided not to, for the very real reason that if the Scriptures are inspired (and I believe wholeheartedly that they are), then the authors of the Bible intended that their words could be understood years, even hundreds of years, after they were completed.

I find this truth being violated most frequently in terms of the prophetic and apocalyptic writings in the Bible. There seems to be among many theologians an unwritten rule of interpretation: “If you can point to an obvious fulfillment of a prophecy, the prophecy has been fulfilled; if not, then it relates to the second coming of Jesus.” Just a curious question, but don’t you think Isaiah was writing to his fellow countrymen in the “. . . days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”? If so, don’t you think that his hearers, or readers, could understand what he preached and wrote? Now, I have no doubt that Matthew (and other N.T. authors), writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not see a “fuller” and “more complete” fulfillment of many of his prophecies. Matthew’s vision does not erase Isaiah’s original intended purpose, however, and it is especially dangerous to read the Old Testament ONLY through the glasses of a New Testament perspective.

My biggest issue with this “misinterpretation” of Scripture relates to the book of Revelation. The piecemeal manner in which passages are used as proof-texts for virtually every bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible theory of the end-times is just infuriating. It is almost as if people think that John muttered to himself, “I have no idea what all this means, but I’m going to write it down and somebody living in the 21st century will be able to figure it all out.” Hogwash and balderdash, I say. John intended his readers to know EXACTLY what he was writing, or he never would have put pen to paper.

All of this relates specifically to Undeniable Truth #1. If we do not approach Scripture with humility – if we just treat the Bible as some ancient book of folklore and whimsy – then we will completely miss its intended purpose. In other words, we must first come to Scripture with the question, “What did it mean?” before we can ask the question, “What does it mean?” How did Isaiah’s hearers (and readers) hear and read his prophecies? How would a church reading the gospel of Matthew understand his use of Isaiah? And, how would one of the seven churches in Asia have interpreted John’s majestic apocalypse? Only after we come to the Bible with those questions answered can we sit down and say, “Okay, what does this have to say to me today?”

If the meaning of a passage of Scripture we derive is completely foreign to the meaning that it’s original audience would have derived, then I would suggest that our interpretation is completely wrong. Jeremiah was not prophesying that God has mapped out every single detail of our human existence (Jer. 29:11). Jesus was not prophesying about the rise of Muslim terrorism in Mark 13. And the anti-Christ has absolutely nothing to do with Adolph Hitler or Ronald Reagan. (1 John clearly states who the anti-Christ is, to the chagrin of many Christians).

As the old sergeant on Hill Street Blues used to advise his officers at roll-call, “Let’s be careful out there.” Let us be extremely careful with the words of Scripture, because they are God’s words, not ours. Let us ascend higher, by first descending lower, that we might know as fully as possible what God intended for us to know.

Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection – #1

Some may be wondering about my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.” This list is just kind of a “tongue in cheek” but also rather serious reflection on what it means to attempt theological reflection. To better explain myself, I thought I would run through my list. My very first list only had seven truths, and no sub-points, so my list has kind of grown over the years.

My first point:

The number one requirement for reading and interpreting the Bible is humility.
1.a. The primary expression of this humility in theological reflection is a submission to the Scriptures as they stand written. We do not, as interpreters and theologians, stand over the text, we stand under the text.

I think to a certain extent this requirement is self-explanatory, yet I also find it to be one of the least practiced of my requirements, at least among practicing ministers. If you wonder why, I think I have a fairly good reason: it is difficult to maintain, or even begin with, a sense of humility if  at the same time you believe yourself to be “called” to be a minister/preacher.

Just stop and think about it. Either over a long period of time, or just in waking up one morning, you believe that God has called you to be a preacher/minister/teacher/elder. Whoa! That is pretty heavy, and heady, stuff. The creator and redeemer of the world has specifically put his finger on you, all of perhaps 200 pounds of spit and vinegar, and said, “Be my representative to speak my words and lead my church.”

And we are supposed to accept that call and just meekly fade into the woodwork?

In other words, the very nature of our ministry militates against a deep sense of humility. And, when you add to this sense of call all of the praise and glory and back-slapping and offers to join the country club and it gets pretty difficult to repeat the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

Yet, that is exactly what is demanded of us!

Every minister needs to wake up in the morning with the question, “Why me?” on our lips. We need to close our eyes at night with the related question, “What have I done to deserve this call?” Answer – nothing. If we did receive that “call” (and that question can be debated), the only thing we can say is that we are extremely blessed, and that blessing places upon us a great responsibility and no right of prestige.

My point in listing this as my first “undeniable” truth of theological reflection is to impress on anyone who attempts theological reflection (and we should all be theologians!) that the ministry of preaching, teaching, and even living the Christian life is a demanding one. We do not accept the mantle of reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible lightly. As I tried to state succinctly, we stand under the text, not over it.

The number one prerequisite for becoming a preacher, a teacher, an elder, or simply a thoughtful Christian is not to have an opinion in search of a proof-text. The number one prerequisite is exactly what Isaiah felt, and said, when he did receive his special call, “Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV)

Anything less is simply pure arrogance.

A Genuine, Heartfelt Question

My daily Bible reading this morning resulted in a genuine, heartfelt question. I pose the question because I honestly do not know the answer (although I may have some ideas). I am also not trying to cause a ruckus.

Before I pose the question, I have to provide the standard disclaimer: I know that regardless of how generally true a statement is, there is always an exception. And, invariably, it is a representative of the exception that screams the loudest – “your assumption is invalid because I do not agree with it.” Okay – I am asking the question as a general truth, not an absolute truth, so just as with just about everything else, your mileage may vary.

So, my question is this: Why is it that most socially active churches tend to be theologically liberal congregations, whereas most theologically conservative congregations tend to be the least interested, and therefore virtually inactive, on social issues?

There appears to be a tremendous chasm between those who view social activism as the major, if not the exclusive, part of the gospel, and those who view spiritual (read personal, “soul”) salvation as the entirety of the gospel. I suppose it should be fairly obvious, but I believe this is an unfortunate, and indefensible division.

You cannot read the prophets (and especially the minor prophets) and overlook the emphasis they place on social issues (hunger, legal justice, care for the poor, etc.). Mary’s song in Luke 1 fairly screams out social justice. Jesus’s entire life revolved around attending to people’s social needs. James makes the point crystal clear in his biting ironic questions in chapter 2:11-6 of his letter. The point is so obvious I just do not understand how congregation who claim to follow the Bible the most strictly cannot see it – you cannot preach the gospel and deny, overlook, or minimize the social ills that plague our culture.

Conversely – what possible good does it do to crusade for social justice and overlook the one, basic, fundamental social disease that is the cause of all others – namely, the sin that resides so deeply within the hearts of all people? To put a bandage on a gangrenous leg might appear to be compassionate, but if the dead skin be not removed, the death of the patient is certain. Did not Jesus proclaim that his body and blood were shed for the forgiveness of sins? (Matthew 26:28) To feed a family and yet overlook their spiritual needs appears to me to be the worst kind of condescension. Is their eternal destiny not more valuable than a loaf of bread?

In other words, there cannot be a dualistic approach to eliminating those things that afflict the human race. Sin must be confronted – both individually and systemically. Just as certain, social ills such as poverty, injustice, health care, education, employment, and all related issues must be addressed. The Lord’s church cannot focus on one while pretending the other does not exist, or worse, mocking one or the other as unworthy of the gospel of Jesus.

So, my question remains – why do we (and I must admit guilt here too) – try so hard to make this an either/or situation?

Why I Never Preach About the “Hallmark” Holidays (edited)

Last week I posted some thoughts about why I never preach about the “Hallmark” holidays (Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Grandparents Day, Groundhog Day, Hound Dog Day – okay, I made the last one up). That post was largely in response to yet another of the endless litany of articles and posts written in adulation of those made-for-commercial-profit days. As such, I think I got a little carried away with my vehemence against those promotions. But, my dander is still up a little, so I thought I would have another go at the topic, this time with a little more reason and a little less harangue.

Here are the main reasons I never preach about those holidays:

  1.  They have no biblical warrant. Can you honestly tell me that a Mothers Day or a Fathers Day fulfills the fifth commandment? With a straight face? Mercy – what will all those countless generations do who did not have a Mothers Day to help them escape the fiery pits of hell? The idea of the initial Mother’s Day  may have been to honor one’s mother, but that boat sailed a long time ago! Today the existence of Mothers and Fathers Days is just another commercial juggernaut. While I am 100% in favor of honoring one’s parents, I am genuinely troubled by the thought that buying a card or sending some roses actually fulfills the fifth commandment.
  2. While the above reason carries a lot of weight with me, the real reason I will no longer preach on the “Hallmark” holidays is because those days are simply unbearable to be in worship for so many people. There is no joy to sit and be subjected to a sermon on the “joys” of parenthood if you are infertile, or if you have experienced miscarriages or still-births. There is no joy to sit and be subjected to a sermon on the “joys” of raising godly children if your children have rejected you and your faith. There is no joy to sit and be subjected to a sermon on the “joys” of honoring your parent if your parent sexually or physically abused you or abandoned you either physically or emotionally. Preachers who sell out to the demands of 5th Avenue rarely stop to consider how destructive their sappy, emotion-laden homilies can be. And, when this point is combined with point #1, why do it? Why risk so much pain when the pay-out is so infinitesimally small?

I believe in fulfilling the fifth commandment. I believe we are to honor our parents. I applaud those children who love and honor and cherish their mothers and fathers each and every day of the year. I am not opposed to the idea of preaching on Godly families and the responsibilities of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. I can and will do so. I just will not do so on the second Sunday of May or the third Sunday of June.

Study IS Ministry

I wrote a much longer version of this topic over the weekend, and just decided the post was too long and complicated. So, here is the abridged version. Still might be too long . . . but, oh well.

As a result of a questionnaire I completed recently I had somewhat of an epiphany – a light bulb over my head kind of moment. Although I was aware of the truth of this thought for some time, I don’t think I had ever really put it into words, or as few words, as I was able to do. To cut to the chase, here is my epiphany:

Study is ministry.

I have found that many congregations have a dualistic view of the role of a minister. Either he is a vitally involved, active minister, tending to every aspect of congregational life, or he barricades himself in his office, only poking his head out of his shell long enough to teach a class or preach a sermon. Either a minister or a bookworm. Either a do-er or a be-er. Either an extrovert or an introvert.

Such a dualistic view is not only wrong – it is actually dangerous – dangerous for the church that thinks it, and dangerous for the minister who is forced into accepting one extreme or the other. Congregations must learn that study (serious, quiet, involved, and undisturbed study) is critical to any healthy ministry. In fact, study is in itself, a minister’s ministry.

I offer three arguments, although others could be suggested as well:

  1.  Quality classes and sermons do not just happen. A man with 25-30 years of study and experience may be able to open his Bible and preach a full sermon extemporaneously. I would suggest that most who try, however, end up offering a collection of opinions, worn out cliches, and more than a few sentimental remembrances. Just as you can go to any McDonalds or Burger King and eat a meal in 10 or 15 minutes, you can pull an outline from a file or glance at a book and whip up something to occupy 35-40 minutes of dead time. But a quality, challenging, and most important, biblically sound class or sermon takes time – lots of time. The time a minister spends in study is critical, solid ministry. It is ministry in the word.
  2. Bad theology will eventually destroy a congregation. How do strong, seemingly invincible congregations come to wither away and die? Many reasons can be given, but high on the list has to be anemic preaching. Anemic preaching is the result of anemic study. Either a preacher thinks it is beneath his dignity to have to study for a sermon, or the congregation he serves thinks it is more important for him to be seen at every civic and social event of the community. There are only so many hours of useful work in a day. Every hour spent glad-handing and being “visible” to the community is an hour that cannot be recovered in the study. I am not arguing that having a visible presence in the community is not important – it clearly is! What I am arguing, however, is that there has to be a priority assigned to either being a minister of the Word or a public relations specialist. Being popular in the community does not translate into being faithful to God’s word. Know this for sure – when a crisis hits, a family will much prefer a minister who has solid, concrete words of comfort as opposed to a “busy” but otherwise empty-headed populist.
  3. Theology really does matter. Why gather together to listen to a speech that really has no meaning? Why spend the time in assembly if that assembly has no purpose? The very reason that a minister is hired should point to the priority of his time and effort. And, yet, strangely it does not! We do not gather on Sunday mornings to hear a report on the monthly Kiwanis club meeting, or to learn what is happening with the Rotary club. We do not assemble to listen to a re-play of the last football game, or to hear a critique of the community dinner theatre.  We gather to worship, and a major component of that worship is to be taught, to be strengthened, to be edified, and occasionally to be disciplined by the reading and explication of Scripture. The time that a minister devotes to his study is healthy ministry for the congregation. It is his ministry to the congregation. And, most important, it is his ministry to his God who has blessed him and equipped him for the role he must fulfill.

Please do not read this post to be a defense of a minister who never visits, who cannot be bothered to call on the members of the congregation as needed, who feels it is beneath is exalted station to get out and pull weeds or mow the lawn of a needy member. I am not excusing laziness or an irrational withdrawal from the community or the activities of the congregation. The office-turtle is no more sound and healthy than is the community gad-about. The point of this post is simple: the study that is demanded of a minister IS his ministry, and if he fails in that over-arching ministry it simply does not matter how personable or popular he becomes.

Success is not demanded of any member of the church, but faithfulness most certainly is. And if that is true of each member, it is exponentially more important for the minister.

Blessed is the minister whose congregation honors and protects his study!

Evangelism – to What?

I have been struggling for some time to find a way to express some impressions I have regarding the status of the church of Christ and its role in American society today. What I see happening in the United States today in terms of the disintegration of morals has been equaled only by the period of 1860-1900 and the years 1914-1945. What differentiates those epochs from today is the crushing circumstance of three wars (the “Civil” war, and World Wars I and II). The rapid and, I would argue, unparalleled evaporation of Christian ethics today is unique in that we are not being faced with a military enemy (foreign or domestic); we are being destroyed by our innate human capacity for self-destruction. As Pogo so famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Enough of the political and economic lecture – what of the church? Is the church not focused on the kingdom of God, of setting things right, on the most basic Christian duty of evangelism? I think in some convoluted kind of way the answer is yes, and therein lies the problem. I simply do not have any confidence that the church knows what it is evangelizing for.

Over the past few months I have been been trying to come to grips with the concept of evangelism. I am not by nature an evangelist. I am hoping that by nurture I could possibly be made one. But I have been utterly unable to discover a source that addresses the twenty-first century situation on the one hand and the message of the New Testament on the other. In other words, what I find is either a complete sell-out to contemporary culture on the one hand, or a hackneyed, right-wing, reactionary, escapist Pharisaism on the other. As I see the New Testament, neither is healthy, sound, or Biblical – however you want to describe it. If followed to their logical conclusions, both will kill the church.

If I can summarize my understanding of evangelism it would be this: the word itself means “sharing the good news.” If you see the gospel as “good news,” that means by definition that the gospel is confronting, or overcoming, “bad news.” The bad news is that, even though God created the world good, through man’s rebellion it (and mankind) has become evil. Thus the gospel is the good news that overcomes the evil. The key word that both the left (cultural accommodationists) and the right (reactionaries) want to avoid is the word sin. The cultural accommodationists want to deny the word outright, and the reactionaries see it everywhere but in themselves.

To understand evangelism aright, we must all, every single one of us, admit to ourselves and confess to others that we are utterly incapable of good in-and-of ourselves. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11) “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:22-23). This is the admission that neither the far left nor the far right can make. The left dismisses it as absurd, the right cannot take it upon themselves. Therefore neither the church of cultural accommodation nor the church of the self-righteous can properly evangelize. 

It is at this point that I turn, once again, to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I know, I know. Some of you probably have to grit your teeth when I mention Bonhoeffer. I cannot help it though – I am drawn like a magnet to the clarity of his vision and the honesty of his writings. Born in 1906 he was old enough to be aware of the events of WWI (one of his older brothers was killed in action) and he died just weeks before WWII ended. Therefore, few men have had a more “up front and center” position from which to observe, and critique, the world and the church’s reaction to it.

One aspect of Bonhoeffer’s response was that he relentlessly attempted to get the church to confront the sin of both the eroding German culture, and the complete refusal of the church to oppose the Nazis. Modern readers love to quote Bonhoeffer as he stood up to Hitler (yea, Dietrich!). But how many sermons have you heard, or how many memes have you seen on Facebook, that repeat Bonhoeffer’s blistering attacks on a naive, complacent, and even complicit German church (boo, Dietrich!). Too many people want to turn Bonhoeffer into some 19th century American evangelical. To be sure, Bonhoeffer would not be welcome in many American church buildings today. He knew well the meaning of the word, SIN.

I just wonder today, as I ponder what it means to be an evangelist in the year 2017, if the church is not killing itself by trying to do something it totally misunderstands? My main question is this, “What does it matter if people are being baptized into a church that no longer believes in its core message?” What good is evangelism if there is no sin, if there is no “bad news” to destroy? And what good is a church that cannot admit to, that cannot confess, its own sin? If we say there is no sin, or if we say that we are not sinners, do we not make God out to be a liar? (1 John 1:10)

It seems that everyone today is mourning the decline of the church in America (and, indeed, in most of the industrial “West”). This, I believe, is good. We cannot change something that we do not recognize is wrong. But we cannot change something by mindlessly repeating the mistakes that got us here. We must go back to the core message of the New Testament – of the Bible even. We are, every one of us, miserable offenders. Only if we begin here can we move toward evangelism.

“Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy wais like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter life a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy Holy Name. Amen.” (A general Confession to be said by the whole congregation, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1662, emphasis mine, PAS)