A Serious Question – Who Influences You?

I just read an advertisement about a book that sounded interesting to me – until I read down to the obligatory “praise” section where the reviews of well-known authors or preachers are prominently displayed. I looked at the names of the first two fawning minions and decided, nope, that book was not for me, regardless of how interesting the content of the book first appeared.

Am I alone in my estimation that if a book is praised by someone with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, then I will probably not like the book? I mean, on one hand that sounds so churlish, so immature. I do not even like the way it sounds, and I’m the one who feels that way.

On the other hand, Jesus taught that the way we know what is in a person’s heart is by examining the fruit of their life. The fruit of an author’s life includes (although is not limited to) his or her books. The fruit of a preacher’s life includes (although is not limited to) what he proclaims as the word of God, and what he publicly approves of.

If an author or preacher rejects the biblical teaching regarding sexuality and marriage, if he or she rejects the biblical teaching regarding salvation or sanctification, if he or she approaches the Scriptures from a point of view 180 degrees opposite of my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture – how can I then take his or her word regarding the value of a book and use that affirmation to go out and buy that book?

I totally get that in the book marketing business, reviewers are chosen in proportion to their share of the book selling market. I genuinely do not want to avoid or reject a quality piece of writing just because the publisher invited some doofus to review the book and give some patronizing applause in order to sell a few hundred more copies.

I do not want to drop any names here (because I could list quite a few), but I do read reviews and promotions carefully, and if the preponderance of the acclaim comes from on particular stream of moral or theological understanding, then I can rest assured that the content of the book will not be something that I want to waste my time on. Likewise, if I read a review or a positive advertisement from someone I trust to be a serious student of the word, even if I disagree with that person on certain points, I am more willing to buy that book.

Anyway, this might just be me, and you may buy your books based on an entirely different set of criteria.

How do you select your books? And, how do you decide if you will purchase a book especially if you are not familiar with the author, and are equally unfamiliar with the quality of the reviewers?

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#14)

If I have not made clear by now, I need to emphasize something – these Undeniable Truths are NOT something that I have mastered. I struggle to live out all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day or week or month. They are not mountain peaks that I have conquered, but rather signposts to (hopefully) keep me on the straight and narrow path.

So, please do not think that I offer #14 as some kind of “do what I say and what I do” kind of moralism. Rather, #14 in given because I believe we all struggle with the intersection of doctrine and discipleship, of orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action).

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.

I have heard it said that right action can lead to right thinking. I disagree – at least on the level of principle. I do not want to suggest that right behavior can never lead us to right thinking, but in my experience what passes for behavior leading to doctrine is simple eisegesis, the practice of coming to a conclusion and then searching for an acceptable proof text. Let me illustrate:

In a textbook that I was given to read for my doctoral studies, the author used an incident in the life of the seminary in which he was working as proof that behavior can lead to a positive change in doctrine. It seems the faculty of this seminary was confronted with a crisis – young women were demanding to receive the same ordination for ministry as young men. Many women had been taking the courses leading to ordination, but could not be ordained because of denominational practices. It was decided to change the policy and procedures and to ordain the females. A fervent search was then made to justify the decision on the basis of biblical precedent, and, lo and behold! The precedent was discovered after thousands of years of mysteriously being hidden in the bowels of a male dominated, patriarchal church. The author was emphatic that, had it not been for the change in practice, the change in the doctrinal position would never have been made. His point was that orthopraxy (at least, in his mind) can effect a change in orthodoxy.

As I said, I am not going to categorically deny that this can occur, but as the above case study suggests, the change in the doctrinal position had much more to do with political correctness and the financial stability of the seminary than in any guiding of the Holy Spirit. This, in my mind, was as blatant a case of eisegesis, of a decision in search of a proof-text, as I have ever seen or read.

No! Right action, right behavior, faithful discipleship comes as a result of right thinking – of proper doctrine. A change in circumstance might drive us to re-read and re-study Scripture – in fact it should. But we must never change our behavior or re-structure our discipleship and then go rummaging through the crevices of Scripture looking for a piton upon which to hang our conclusions.

I believe my Undeniable Truth #14 can be beautifully illustrated by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Early in his youth he was as nationalistic a German as a young boy coming to age during World War I could have been. In his early sermons he clearly taught that wars could be fought and killing could be justified if one’s nation or family was at risk. Years later, as he witnessed the developing violence of the National Socialists (the Nazis), he realized the gospel taught another truth: no wars should ever be fought and no killing can ever be justified. But Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist or conscientious objector and then look for a Scriptural blessing. He was driven into his pacifist convictions through a long and painful study of Scripture, primarily the Sermon on the Mount.

[Technical aside here. Much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s compliance with, and some would say promotion of, the attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. At this point in my study, and I believe with adequate justification, I do not believe Bonhoeffer would have attempted a biblical justification of Hitler’s assassination. He would have justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to end the war and to save thousands, if not millions, of lives, but I am not sure he would have done so on a purely theological basis. He wrote frequently enough about the guilt that the conspirators were acquiring to convince me that he would have confessed that the assassins (and conspirators) were clearly guilty of murder, but that God’s grace was sufficient to cover their guilt, and the value of saving innocent lives was worth the death of one “tyrannical despiser of humanity.”]

Right doctrine, without faithful discipleship, is meaningless. We can have all the “i”s dotted and all the “t”s crossed and all the jots and tittles in their right places, but if all those teachings do not result in changed lives, what good do they do?

I think we need to spend more time thinking about the eternal consequences of passages such as Isaiah 58:1-1-8, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13 (and 12:7), Matthew 23:23-24, and James 1:27 (among many others).

Let us not be guilty of becoming theologically perfect, and practically useless.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 12 and 13)

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, numbers 12 and 13, probably came from a time when I was really struggling to express how the two biblical concepts of grace and faithful response to that grace relate to each another. This relationship has posed problems for the church from its very earliest days, and I do not consider my feeble attempts at dissecting it to be the last word in the discussion. However, phrasing it the way I have has helped me understand the correlation of the two subjects. Hopefully it will help you . . . and if not maybe it will spur your thinking to create an understanding that is first of all biblical, and applicable as well.

12.  Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13.  The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.

The theological problem, and therefore the practical problem, that arises from this discussion relates to the elevation of either one of these two concepts above the other. For example, most evangelical theologians emphasize grace over faithful response. In fact, some will even go so far as to say that grace eliminates the need for faithful response. The thinking is thus: if God wills you to be saved, and if God’s will cannot be defeated, and if God’s grace is efficacious (and who would argue otherwise?), then you will be saved and nothing you do or do not do will change that verdict. This is Calvinism in the extreme, and is increasingly being promoted by a young and vociferous cadre of Calvinist theologians.

On the other end of the continuum are the radical Arminians, those who believe that Christians have to put a chair on top of a table, and then put a ladder on top of the chair, and then we have to climb to the top rung of the ladder, and then we have to stretch out our hand to God, and then, and only then, will he condescend to reach down and offer his grace. They do not deny grace, but grace is only extended when man has bathed himself in the sweat of climbing Jacob’s ladder.

I opine that both extremes are equally wrong, and pernicious. I believe that while grace is prior to a faithful response, it in no way precludes the necessity of a faithful response.

Without listing numerous passages (I have listed examples of grace preceding covenant, and covenant following grace above), I believe the consistent message of Scripture is that God always bestows his grace on mankind first, but that grace always contains an element of covenant, whether is it explicitly stated or not. The explicit covenants are numerous enough. God blesses first; but God always expects a faithful response.

Where “the rubber meets the road” for many people is the debate over the importance of baptism. I believe I can say with some measure of confidence that the prevailing attitude among evangelical writers and preachers is that individuals are saved when they “believe” or “accept Jesus in their hearts as their personal savior.” Some would ascribe the repetition of the “sinner’s prayer,” but even that is not a universal stipulation. Baptism, then, might be an appropriate response to one’s salvation, but is by no means necessary, and is believed by many to be a “mere” human work that does nothing other than signify the person’s willingness to become a member of a church.

Biblically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth! Baptism is NOT a human work. Baptism is always (and I repeat always) referred to as a passive act in the New Testament. Baptism is a submission to a command, that is true, but it is far more – it is a submission to a person, it is a submission to God’s act of grace demonstrated by Jesus’s death on the cross. We submit to baptism, we do not baptize (or save!) ourselves!

God’s grace is that Jesus died for our sins. God’s covenant with the believer begins with his or her submission to that death in the waters of baptism.

If you do not enter the covenant, how can you be covered by the grace?

We do not put a chair on the table, and a ladder on the chair, and reach up helplessly hoping God will somehow take notice of us. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, if you are curious), but the same author stressed that the only way we can come into contact with that grace is by participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1-11, if you are curious).

Let us put aside Calvin and Arminius and focus on the Bible. So much rancor and division could be ended if we could all agree to ascend – by bowing lower.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#9)

A little more wordy that the others, but just as undeniable as ever . . .

9. In regard to the point above, [truth #8, see previous post] it is especially important if you are unable to read the original languages to refer to as many translations of the Scriptures as you possibly can. To limit your study to one translation is to limit yourself to one perspective, one set of translation principles. Reading from multiple translations allows for other ideas and concepts to inform your final conclusions.

To make sense of this truth, a little explanation might be in order. Many people wonder, “Why are there so many translations of the Bible. Isn’t one good enough. And with all the choices, how do I know which one is ‘best’?” To answer the first question, the English language is a “live” language, not a “dead” language. Meanings of words constantly change. New words creep into our vocabulary. Old words disappear. Even the rules of grammar change, and certainly styles of writing change (more on that in a moment!) So, publishers and translators are always busy making sure that God’s word is available in a translation that they believe is both faithful to the original languages, and is also readable by a majority of English speaking customers. MAJOR POINT HERE – READ THE INTRODUCTION TO THE TRANSLATION! It is in the introduction, or forward to the reader, that the translators will identify their guiding translation principle. You will also find critical information about footnotes, and other translation issues. If your particular edition does not have an introduction or forward, get on-line and research the translation. Virtually every translation has such an explanation, although you may have to dig a little to find it.

[Technical aside here: why is reading the introduction important? I give you an example from the New American Standard Bible. If you open to just about any page, you will see a number of words printed in italic type. Today, the standard practice to emphasize a word is to print it in italics. However, the original printers of the NASB used italic type to reveal to the reader that the word in italics was NOT in the original manuscripts, but was provided by the translators in order to give the text its intended meaning. Therefore, what we now would view as a special emphasis on a given word, is actually a word that does not exist in the original! If a student does not understand this, all sorts of awful conclusions can be drawn from a passage of Scripture. Let the reader beware!]

Regarding what is “best” for a particular reader, two concepts must be understood. On one end of a continuum there is a concept of translation known as “formal” or “literal” or “word-for-word.” The best example of this theory (at least in my experience) is the old American Standard Version, although the New American Standard Bible comes in a close second. On the furthest end of the continuum away from the “formal” concept is the “dynamic” or “thought-for-thought” practice. The best example in my experience here is Eugene Peterson’s work, The Message. I actually consider Peterson’s work to be a paraphrase, which is actually more commentary than translation, but Peterson defenders harrumph at my alleged denigration of his work. Very close to Peterson’s paraphrase is the New Living Translation, which is a committee translation, but is still very much a dynamic translation.

Which is “best”? It all depends upon the purpose for which you are reading the Bible. Are you trying to do a word study? Then you need as close to a formal translation as you can get and still understand the words. Are you a new Christian, or are you trying to reach out to non-believers, who have no background in “churchy” language? Then you want to use a translation that is more readable, and that inevitably points you to a more dynamic translation.

Here is the point as it relates to Undeniable Truth #9 – if you cannot read the Bible in the languages in which it was originally written (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), then you are forced to use a translation. Each translation has its strengths, and each translation has its weaknesses! This cannot be denied. No translation is perfect, for the very reason that you cannot make a perfect translation from one language into another – especially when the source languages are as idiomatic (using phrases to communicate thoughts) and as non-technical as were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Regarding that last point – you can translate a technical manual relatively perfectly (depending on the source and receptor languages). However, translating a song or a poem becomes exponentially more difficult, depending on the level of poetic artistry and the range of vocabulary used.

How does this Undeniable Truth affect theological reflection? If you must use a translation, you need to use as many different translations as possible, in order to arrive at a range of possible meanings, and to discover how different translation committees approached different texts. Note: using three “formal” translations really does not help very much, nor does using three “dynamic” translations. In order to compare translations of a text, you really need a formal translation (ASV, NASB), a more “middle of the road” type of translation, and a good “dynamic” translation (I do like the NLT here, although I will consult the Common English Bible). Where it gets tricky is is in the “middle.” Most newer translations all claim to be somewhere between a strict formal or a strict dynamic translation (i.e., the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian Standard Version). Chances are they will lean one way or another. I personally like the ESV (because it is virtually a recasting of the older Revised Standard Version, the one in which I did all my undergraduate study.) I also like the HCSB (which, if I am not mistaken, is now marketed under the Christian Standard Bible moniker).

We will all have our favorite translation. One of my very good friends swears that the ASV is the one that God gave to Moses (just kidding, but he does love the ASV!) Like I said, I prefer the RSV, and now use the ESV almost exclusively from the pulpit. I used to use the NIV, but with the latest “update,” the NIV has become so politically correct that I can no longer recommend its usage. In terms of public reading, translations such as the NLT flow much more smoothly (they use shorter sentences, more explicit nouns, fewer pronouns), but they lose a measure of technical precision that sometimes has to be corrected by sermon or class.

Bottom line: read your favorite translation in your private devotions, and for your personal enrichment. However, for careful study that is both broad and deep, invest in a number of translations and use all of them to arrive at the best interpretation of the text that you possibly can.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#8)

We all want to be right. I mean, who wants to be known as always being wrong? This explains why we resort to quoting statistics so often. If one thousand, or ten thousand, or better yet one hundred thousand people agree with me, then chances are I am right, right? Ditto for “celebrity” endorsements. Obviously if some TV or sports star says the same thing that I do, well, that pretty much closes the case!

It seems like we will stop at no extreme to prove that we are right. Hence “Undeniable Truth #8” should cut pretty deep for a significant number of us:

8.  If you have to rely on just one single verse of Scripture, or some obscure variant reading of the original text, or an obscure definition of grammar or of a word or phrase in the original language, then your conclusion regarding that passage of Scripture is in serious trouble.

The examples I could use here to prove this truth are legion. I guess the easiest “low hanging fruit” would be the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) translation of John 1:1. Rejecting the conclusions of every Greek scholar outside of their own tradition, they persist in suggesting that “the word was a god” instead of “the word was God.” (Funny, but subsequent passages in the gospel of John that teach the deity of Jesus are not similarly excised. That just goes to prove the narrowness of their approach.)

However, the JWs are not the only guilty culprit here. Entire forests have been felled in the attempt to prove that the liquid that Jesus created from the water in John 2 was not really wine, but just grape juice. (Sorry, folks, the word is “wine.” And the context – remember the importance of context – proves that what Jesus created was the finest wine, not the ordinary or lower quality “cheap stuff.”) Neither time nor space allow me to discuss the myriad of ways in which the “day” of Genesis 1 has to be a 24 hour period (otherwise the evolutionists win, right?) or that the flood of Genesis 6-8 has to be global because the word “earth” is used.

I cannot get into the technicalities of anarthrous nouns, or the metaphorical use of periods of time, or the general use of hyperbole in the Bible. The point I am trying to make is this: if you are trying to make (or prove) a point regarding Scripture, and you have to rely on an extremely narrow definition of a word, or an obscure use of grammar, or if you have to rely on some obscure variant of the text itself, you are more than likely wrong in both your interpretation and application of the text.

This truth strikes at the heart of what I refer to as “single verse theology” or better yet, “bumper sticker theology.” I would not stake my life on any statement found in Scripture if it appeared in only one verse, or if I had to rely on specialized knowledge in order to make any sense of that statement. (By the way – this is especially relevant to the study of the book of Job, and also the book of Revelation, both of which are fertile grounds for heretical doctrines.)

Stated rather baldly, what God wanted us to know with certainty, and what our eternal destiny depends upon our believing, is taught clearly and repeatedly throughout Scripture! If a doctrine is foundational, it is also taught clearly, and in varying contexts that illustrate its importance and its clarity.

Faith in the creator God, the deity of Jesus the Christ, salvation by grace through faith, the importance of obedient faith (including, but not limited to baptism), the importance of a pursuing a sanctified life – these are non-negotiable concepts, and as such, are taught in numerous ways in numerous places in the Bible.

I do not for one moment intend to denigrate the thoughtful research and study of difficult or debated issues in biblical interpretation. That is, after all, why God gave us the minds that we have to read and understand his Word. The study of anarthrous nouns and biblical metaphors and the lexical meanings of Hebrew and Greek words is vital to our complete understanding of the Bible. But Jesus said it best when he said there are weightier matters of the law, and there are less important matters in the law. Practicing love and mercy outweigh counting leaves of mint.

Let’s get the basics right before we pull out our calculators.

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.