Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#6)

Continuing on . . .

6.  However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.

I am firmly of the mind that anyone can read and understand Scripture . . .   almost. There is one group of people for whom the Bible will always be an enigma, a puzzle that cannot be put together. That group of people is the lazy, the prejudiced, the ones who are blind to their own preconceptions but are laser-focused on everyone else’s mistakes. (Okay, I listed more than one, but consider them a rather volatile group!)

I will have much more to say about the specifics of Bible study (most notably in Truth numbers 8 and 9), but for now let me say that if you think you can just open the Bible, read a passage, and understand it completely you are well on your way to misinterpreting (and almost certainly misapplying) that text. While there are some passages that are crystal clear (“Love your neighbor as yourself” comes to mind), the overwhelming majority of the content of the Bible requires more than just a surface reading of the text.

That may upset you, but please understand, it upsets me even more.

I was convicted of the democratic nature of this truth recently as I was reading a study on the parables. The author pointed out that Jesus told the parables not to be pleasing little anecdotes to print on glossy posters, but as searing indictments against a false spiritual pride. For example, the parable of “The Rich man and Lazarus” was told not so that Christians would be nice to the disabled, but as a blistering attack on those who felt they deserved to be in heaven (or, if not, at least could boss the heavenly beings around) by virtue of their wealth. The rich man was in torment NOT because of anything he had done, but rather in spite of his earthly position. Lazarus (named as a point of honor, as opposed to the “rich man” was was not named, thus dishonored) was carried to Abraham’s bosom NOT because of anything he had done, but simply as a result of his poverty and affliction. This parable struck at the very heart of a theology that praised wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, and viewed poverty and disability as a sign of God’s curse.

Gee, reckon we preach it that way in our comfy cathedrals of consumerism?

Honestly – I had never viewed the parable that way. In my mind it was always a nice, tidy little lecture on moralism – be nice to those below your station in life, or you will end up going to the bad place. Placed in its proper context – and with the “punch line” properly identified – the parable of the rich man and Lazarus becomes a very dangerous text to preach.

I think Jesus meant it to be exactly that!

So, my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #6 is aimed squarely at my own heart – and feet of clay. I must constantly evaluate not only my own thoughts about what I want the text to say, I have to read to weed out the ideas that I want the text not to say.

This is not for the lazy. This is not for those who are far too comfortable in their own little self-righteous clique. Reading the Bible should obviously be a comforting – at times. But, lest we become far too smug in our own self-righteousness, reading the Bible should also be quite painful and demanding.

We ascend by climbing lower. That is how we approach God’s word.

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.

Jeremiah 6:16 and Context (A Cautionary Tale)

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Very few Old Testament passages hold a position of honor among preachers and teachers within the Churches of Christ. That is due largely to the influence of Alexander Campbell and his “Sermon on the Law.” From Campbell’s day forward his heirs have solidly proclaimed the New Testament as the book of the church, and some would even narrow that to Acts – Jude (Revelation being much too dangerous to handle).

Very few, but not none. One passage that ranks in importance just slightly lower than Acts 2:38 and Romans 16:16 is Jeremiah 6:16. This verse is the bulwark that protects many favored traditions, and more distressingly, the failures of many in past generations. Whenever the discussion becomes too edgy or uncomfortable, Jeremiah 6:16 is a safe and constant refuge. I was reminded just recently of what a powerful hold this verse has on many. It should – but not perhaps for the reason that they think it should. I come this day not to bury Jeremiah 6:16, but to honor it for the powerful text that it truly is in its context.

This post could easily end up in the thousands of words long. For simplicity I will try to abbreviate as much as possible. To cut to the chase, in order to understand Jeremiah 6:16 we really need to back up to chapter 2. In a lengthy and sometimes dense argument, the LORD (through Jeremiah) accuses both Israel and Judah of gross idolatry and moral decay. In a plaintive cry that summarizes much of the entire book, the LORD asks,

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:11-13, ESV)

Central to the accusations that the LORD makes against his chosen people are two related actions. One, they repeatedly ally themselves with foreign nations instead of depending on God for protection and deliverance (2:17-18), and two, they participate in the worship of those nations’ idols, figuratively described as sexual fornication/adultery (3:6-10).

In spite of these transgressions, the LORD still holds out forgiveness to the people, if they will but return to him:

Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the LORD. Return, O faithless children, declares the LORD; for I am your master; I will take you, one from every city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. (Jer. 3:12-14 ESV)

Pure and faithful worship, however, must be accompanied by pure and faithful behavior:

If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear ‘As the LORD lives’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory (Jer. 4:1-2, ESV)

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her (Jer. 5:1 ESV)

Particularly galling to the LORD is the behavior of his prophets and priests:

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:13-14 ESV, see also 1:8, 2:26-28, 5:30-31)

That leads us then to the verse in question, Jer. 6:16:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ (ESV)

As should be clear by now, the LORD is not, and Jeremiah is not, urging the Israelites to return to some pristine time of their history. He is pleading with them to return to GOD. The “ancient paths” are the practices that demonstrate their allegiance to GOD – truthfulness, justice, righteousness (in Hebrew understanding – doing right). A major component of this “returning” involves confession of sin. And, not to be forgotten, another critical component is the faithfulness and righteousness of the spiritual leaders of the people.

I fear that too many times when I hear Jeremiah 6:16 being quoted, what is intended is a “return” to a “golden age” of the church, invariably the period when the Churches of Christ were growing at an exponential rate during the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. The “ancient paths” are not the rigorous moral and ethical demands of Sinai, but an almost mythical time in which every man “dwelt under the shade of his own vine.” We all want to sing with Archie Bunker, “Those were the days.”

The truth is – just as with Israel and Judah – there never has been this period of utopian perfection! Every text that we have in the New Testament is there as a testimony that someone, somewhere was NOT believing what Jesus taught, or was NOT doing what Jesus commanded. We simply do not have a picture of a perfect church for one simple reason – the church has never existed in perfection. The “ancient paths” do not refer to a time of pristine church practice – either in the first century or the 19th or the 20th. The ancient paths refer to God’s entire law and gospel – both religious (worship) and moral (ethics/behavior).

I most firmly believe that Jeremiah 6:16 needs to be preached from our pulpits and taught in our classes. But – it needs to be preached and taught in context! Applications that are drawn from that text need to be consistent with Jeremiah’s own purpose – as appropriately directed to the church in the 21st century.

Let’s preach it, brothers, – but let’s preach it straight!

When Translators Let Us Down

As a result of a recent request, I have been researching the nature of the church. As a beginning point I have been studying the use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. That Greek word is the word virtually always translated “church” in our English translations. How we arrived from ekklesia to church is fascinating, but too complicated to really unpack here. Suffice it to say that our English word “church” derives more from the Greek kuriakon than the Greek word ekklesia. This, then, has some fascinating and ultimately negative repercussions.

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To begin with, the word ekklesia is best translated “assembly” “gathering” “meeting” or perhaps “congregation” although the last word continues to have a religious connotation that was not inherent in the Greek. You can see how ekklesia has a secular, and even legal, meaning through passages such as Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 39, and 41. Here translators do not want to confuse the reader with any “loaded” terminology, so that actually translate ekklesia to be either “congregation” (as in 7:38) or “assembly” in the passages in chapter 19, which is more like a mob or a riot.

The problem is, that in using the word “church” in every other instance in the New Testament, unintended interpretations creep in and the more simple meaning of many passages is obscured. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say we have a member of the Church of Christ, a Roman Catholic, and a totally dispassionate non-believer in the same room. We ask a simple question – “What do you mean when you say the word ‘church'”? I am going to guess (as I am not Roman Catholic), that the Catholic is going to think of the church universal, with all the imperial accoutrements – the Pope as the vicar of Christ, and the attendant Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests, and the formal liturgy of the Mass. On the other hand, my response would be to imagine each individual congregation of which I have been a part – Galisteo and Cordova in Santa Fe, Montgomery Blvd. in Albuquerque, Barrow Rd. in Little Rock, etc. That is, I think of individual congregations, and more than likely I picture specific buildings. For the Roman Catholic this would be what he or she pictures when he or she hears the word parish. The non-believer will probably have any one of a dozen different images depending on his or her experience with the church – maybe a Christmas or Easter pageant, a wedding or a funeral, a Bible-thumping preacher that condemned everyone to hell, or an ornate but basically useless building.

However, change the word to “assembly” and those differences are most likely to disappear. Assemblies can only refer to one thing – groups of people. To say, “the assembly of Christ” or “the assembly of God” (note lower case “a”) means a group of people connected in some form or fashion to Christ or to God. “Assembly” does leave room for some theological fine-tuning, but it does get away from buildings and hierarchical leadership structures and open caskets and Easter egg hunts.

I firmly believe that is why, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the word ekklesia was chosen by the New Testament authors to describe the people of God. It was already in use through the Greek translation of the Old Testament, (therefore it did have a link with the first covenant people) and it could be differentiated from its closest synonym, synagogue. Synagogue had already acquired a formal, and rigid, meaning in the first century A.D. Ekklesia was essentially a secular term, and therefore the early Christians could use it to communicate what it meant to be the people of God without having to “un-teach” the heavily laden Jewish connotations of the word synagogue.

If we would simply translate the word as “assembly” a host of problems disappear (although perhaps not all, and perhaps others would creep in). Try it. When you see the word “church” read “assembly.” Is the meaning enhanced for you? Are some passages now more clear in meaning? Are some possible misunderstandings removed?

It is for me – but, then, I am kind of weird.

Blessings on your Bible study.