Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 4 and 5)

The fourth and fifth Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection fit together so tightly that I decided to handle them together. Also, number 4 is really self-explanatory. Number 5 deserves a few words, though.

4.  The Bible is a record of the relationship God formed with man, his creation. It is also a record of man’s failure to live within this relationship.

5.  Theology is man’s attempt to understand this relationship between God and man. The beginning of theological reflection is the careful study of the Bible.

I do not know what else to say about number 4. The Bible is truly a story – a story about God and man. The story begins and ends with God, but from beginning to ending the content of the story revolves around God’s relationship with his finest creation – the only creation that was made “in our image.”

I think it is number 5 that people will misinterpret, or misunderstand. I believe that the average “sit in the middle of the pew” Christian simply does not understand the meaning and purpose of theology. I do not blame them – because for the most part theologians have done a rather pitiful job of explaining theology.

For the curious, I have read two books that do a wonderful job explaining the practice of theology, and of explaining how everyone who claims to live a Christian life is in some sense a theologian. The first is Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson. The second is Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson. If you only want one, I would recommend the first, first. However, both are wonderful books and do a much better job of explaining this than I do.

Stated as simply as I can: everyone who reads and attempts to live out the words of Scripture is a theologian! Theology is not the private domain of some old graybeard cloistered in some ivy covered tower. If you read the Bible, and if you attempt to live the Christian life, you are a theologian, plain and simple. The only question that remains is this: are you going to be a good theologian, or a bad one?

Subsequent explanations of the following “Undeniable Truths” will unpack just exactly what I mean when I use the words “good theology,” but suffice it to say here that the key is found in the last phrase, “the careful study of the Bible.”

Good theology is the result of careful, diligent, intentional study of the Bible. Bad theology is the result of shoddy, reckless, or inattentive reading of Scripture. Good theology is never an accident, while good theologians are sometimes guilty of producing bad theology, for the simple reason that even good theologians occasionally get careless. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to approach the story of the Bible as carefully and intentionally as we possibly can, each and every time we pick it up to read it.

As always, please refer to Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 1, and repeat often.

We can only ascend by climbing lower.

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!