Archive | January, 2010

The Danger of a Polarized Reading Plan: Why Every Study Should Be Devotional

If you’re like me, you’ve been told there are different types of reading plans for the Bible.  There are time when we crack open all the study aids and decipher what’s going on.  Then there is the devotional reading, where you just read and let the passage speak to you.  Therefore, it is common to have a time set aside for just devotional reading and a time set-aside for some serious, academically oriented studying.  I have accepted this polarized approach for years but lately have come to find some problems with it.

This morning was a perfect illustration.  I try to read at least one Psalm in the morning as part of devotional time.  However, I got hung up on a passage this morning in Psalm 39.  I was having trouble deciphering what exactly the author was getting at, especially in vs. 5 and the “handbreath”.  My initial inclination was to not bother with any commentaries because after all, it was devotional reading and in devotional reading you just let the passage speak to you. The problem was that I really needed to understand what it was saying, so I did some research.  One commentator explained the context and the chiastic structure and the meaning of “handbreadth” in Hebrew.  I was relieved.  Not only that, but the greater clarity gave the passage more significance because as it resonated with some deeply personal challenges I have experienced.  It prompted worship. And it also clarified for me why I have a problem with this polarized approach to scripture.

For the Christian, the whole point of studying scripture is to understand the very revelation of God and his ultimate revelation in Christ.  The Bible is God’s self-disclosure as he has exposed himself and his plan for history through the pens of human authors.   God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation to mankind, is the overriding messages that coalesces the diversity of genres and the seemingly disjointed eras into a unified whole.  Therefore, reading the Bible is not just for information purposes but is expressly designed to make an impact on the lives of those have placed faith in the salvation that Christ offers.   Those authors were writing with a particular purpose as they record events, narratives, poems, letters under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all to unveil the overriding message of Christ.   That message speaks volumes but it must be understood in light of how the authors intended it.  I have been dragging my tail on a post about authorial intent hermeneutics and the importance of meaning, which will provide more detail on the subject (hopefully I now have the incentive to get off my duff and finish it!).  But suffice it to say that understanding what we are reading is significant.  Moreover, it is to understand where the Christian fits into that plan and how to apply what is learned so that our lives are transformed by the very words we read.

I think you lose something with the design and application of scripture by creating this dichotomy.  On one hand, reading with the intention of academic study can circumvent the application of scripture and associate studying with anti-spiritual activity.  This type of reading can be considered less spiritual.  On the other hand, reading devotionally can create a false sense of meaning upon scripture because we may not be fully engaged with where the author is coming from.  It also can give the false impression that you are engaged in a spiritual activity simply because you’re not bogged down with investigation or that devotional reading is somehow more spiritual.

An academically oriented investigation of scripture and Biblical theology  need not be devoid of the spiritual significance of God’s revelation.  In fact, I would argue that it intensely spiritual thing to do to gain as much understanding as possible, which builds the foundation for Christ-centered spirituality.  I have discovered that even the most academically oriented study can be transformed into an intense devotional.  I have this especially true with Greek.  The learning process is tough as the mechanics of the language are learned.  But those same mechanics compel the force of the original language to illustrate what God would have us to know.  It does not have to stop at just learning the information but should be followed up with deep reflection about what the information means.  The same is true for studying theology proper or an intense investigation into scriptural analysis and background studies.  More information should lead to more understanding, which should create a greater heart impact, which should lead to more worship.  It is all in how the information is applied not the fact that you have more information.

On the flipside, if we just pick up the Bible and read along for devotional value and not be concerned with authorial intent, we can really miss what the author is trying to get at.  Even worse, we can derive a misunderstanding of what the author is communicating through a self-focused desire to have our heart impacted, without reconciling our understanding with that of the authors’ and especially the context.  I recall a time I used to do this with the Old Testament prophets and wanted God to speak to me personally.  A lot of misunderstanding was developed because of that and to this day it is continually being unraveled.  How rich and rewarding that correction process has been!

Now, I am not saying that every reading session needs to treated like a seminary course.  But I do think there is a danger in pitting one type of study against the other, as if one type of reading precludes the other.  If we are seeking to know about God on his terms, it is all spiritual.  In that way, every study session should be devotional.

I may be alone in not wanting to have two different kind of reading programs.  But the thought of God condescending to make Himself known, really encourages me to strive as best as possible to understand what is meant by what is being communicated.  In this we who call Christ savior and king, come to know and understand His heart, which should open ours and bow down in worship.

“Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart.” (Psalm 119:34)

All the Right Beliefs for all the Wrong Reasons

Sometimes it is frustrating to introduce yourself to theological issues. Most people who get deeply involved in theology quickly realize how much they don’t know. Confident seminary students enter their training thinking that they are going to breeze their way through as they have their prejudices confirmed by their soon to be impressed professors. After the first year, their countenance is soured as their confidence turns into an insecure angel (or devil) on their shoulder who says, “Who did you think you were presuming God called you into ministry?” They begin to realize that they came to seminary to find out how much they did not know! Some get discouraged and leave, others harden in their categories becoming unable to learn. But the best adjust their expectations, knowing that an admission of ignorance is a fundamental foundation to learning.

There is an old dictum to knowledge. It goes something like this:

There are four types of people:

1. The one who doesn’t know, and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. He is a fool–shun him.

2. The one who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know. He is a student–help him learn.

3. The one who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows. He is an unenlightened person–enlighten him.

4. The one who knows and knows that he knows. He is a wise man–follow him.

I would like to add a fifth:

5. The one who knows but does not know how he knows. He is naive—deconstruct him.

This fifth category refers to those who have all the right beliefs for all the wrong reasons. This is very common in theological circles. I believe that it is prevalent within Evangelicalism as a basic creedal confession takes the place of doctrinal understanding. I know of many people who confess a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, but they really don’t know why they believe in this doctrine. I know of many people who believe that Christ rose bodily from the grave, but they could not give you even the most basic defense of their confession. Both the bodily resurrection of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity are good and right beliefs, but if someone cannot justify these beliefs, do they really believe them? Continue Reading →

Case Studies in Inerrancy: 1 Sam. 26:5-16

My first case study in inerrancy comes from the story of David when he was on the run from King Saul.

1 Sam. 26:5-16:
5 David then arose and came to the place where Saul had camped. And David saw the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the commander of his army; and Saul was lying in the circle of the camp, and the people were camped around him.
6 Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul in the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.”
7 So David and Abishai came to the people by night, and behold, Saul lay sleeping inside the circle of the camp with his spear stuck in the ground at his head; and Abner and the people were lying around him.
8 Then Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.”
9 But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’S anointed and be without guilt?”
10 David also said, “As the LORD lives, surely the LORD will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish.
11 “The LORD forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the LORD’S anointed; but now please take the spear that is at his head and the jug of water, and let us go.”
12 So David took the spear and the jug of water from beside Saul’s head, and they went away, but no one saw or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a sound sleep from the LORD had fallen on them.
13 Then David crossed over to the other side and stood on top of the mountain at a distance with a large area between them.
14 David called to the people and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Will you not answer, Abner?” Then Abner replied, “Who are you who calls to the king?”
15 So David said to Abner, “Are you not a man? And who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not guarded your lord the king? For one of the people came to destroy the king your lord.
16 “This thing that you have done is not good. As the LORD lives, all of you must surely die, because you did not guard your lord, the LORD’S anointed. And now, see where the king’s spear is and the jug of water that was at his head.”
(NASU)

I wonder if you notice the issue. It is not easy to find, but it is very interesting (at least to me). Here we have David, the heroic and God fearing protagonist, being in error. I will explain the error in just a moment.

Let me give you some background to my hermeneutics (method of interpretation): Generally, I follow a rule in narrative portions of Scripture. I allow for error in the “bad guys” but don’t expect it from the “good guys.” In other words, when the Bible has put someone in a positive or authoritative light (such as Peter in Acts 2), most of the time what they say can be trusted. For example, when Daniel (who is a very flat yet godly character) speaks, there is not any reason to think that what he says contains error. Therefore, we can build doctrine from it. With “bad guys,” such as Satan, Nebuchadnezzar, and Job’s friends, it is hard to know whether to believe what they are saying.

Now, back to our current passage. David here is at the height of his heroic ventures. It is not possible for him to be in a more Godly light. He is the one who trusts the Lord. He is the one who will not usurp authority from “God’s anointed.” He, as we follow the narrative, is the one who acts on behalf of God. So there is no question as to his status at this point in the narrative. However, David makes a false accusation against Abner and calls for his execution based on this false accusation. Abner had fallen asleep and failed to protect King Saul when David took the spear from where he slept. David goes a distance away and brings an indictment against Abner for not protecting the King implying that it was his negligence. But the text tells us that it was not Abner’s fault. Verse 12 says that the Lord was responsible for Abner’s inability to protect the King: “So David took the spear and the jug of water from beside Saul’s head, and they went away, but no one saw or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a sound sleep from the LORD had fallen on them” (Emphasis mine). David, in verse 16, says wrongly to Abner: “This thing that you have done is not good. As the LORD lives, all of you must surely die, because you did not guard your lord, the LORD’S anointed.” Continue Reading →

Case Studies in Inerrancy: A New P&P Series

I believe in a doctrine called inerrancy. More particularly, I call it “reasoned inerrancy” to distinguish it from other more “technically precise” models. In short: I believe that the Bible, when interpreted correctly, is true in everything that it intends to teaches. Those are some important qualifiers: “in everything it intends to teach” and “when interpreted rightly.” This assumes that some of the that which the Bible records is not necessarily its teaching. It also assumes that the truth is only found when the Bible is understood the way it was meant to be understood and that it can be understood wrongly. A wrong interpretation is not inerrant.

One of the first questions that I asked at seminary was how do we know when a passage in the Bible is supposed to be believed? In other words, the Bible records falsehoods, lies, and wrong actions. When David committed adultery, this was a record of a wrong action. When Peter said he did not know who Christ was, this was a lie. Then there is Samson, Jonah, and Lot. And don’t even get me started on Solomon. All of whom are presented in a shady light in the narrative yet are, generally speaking, heroes of Scripture and of our faith. How are we to know what examples to follow? With Job and his “friends”: when are we supposed to trust what they say and when do we assume that they got it wrong. Who creates the rules? I have seen a number of teachers quote Job’s friends when teaching theology. Wait…I thought they were bad. So they are bad and can be trusted at times? As well, Job himself seems to say some good things that we like to quote and other things that we write off to his distress. Oh the the difficulties in interpretation. Sometimes it is hard to know what the Scripture is actually teaching.

That is why I am starting this new series called “Case Studies in Inerrancy.” I am going to attempt to open up the discussion a bit concerning the doctrine of inerrancy to demonstrate that things get a little messy sometimes. Most importantly, I want to illustrate how the doctrine of inerrancy does not assume one particular hermeneutic (method of interpretation). In other words, often when people approach the Scripture with an assumption of inerrancy it causes them to nuance their hermeneutic. This then produces a sort of “hermeneutic of inerrancy” where the preservation of inerrancy becomes the goal rather than the correct interpretation of Scripture. Continue Reading →

Why I Believe the Canon is Fallible . . . And am Fine with It!

I am looking on page 23 of my Bible and it has the list of books. The books all together number 66—39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. This is often referred to as the “canon” of Scripture. “Canon” (Gk. kanon) means “rule” or “measuring rod.” The canon of Scripture is the collection or a “rule” of books that Christians believe belong in the Bible. There are some variations among Christian traditions concerning the number of books. The Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches all use different canons (as well, some eastern churches will vary still). The Catholic and Orthodox include a group of books in their Bibles referred to as the Deuterocanonical books (“second canon”) or, as Protestants would call it, the “Apocrypha” (although the Orthodox church is not quite as settled upon the status of the Apocrypha).

The question How do you know what books belong in the Bible? is a significant one indeed. The Catholics and Orthodox will normally refer to the establishment of these books as part of the canon by fourth century councils. Catholics would further refer to the teachings of the council of Trent (1545-1563) which dogmatically and infallibly declared the current Catholic canon (including the Apocrypha) as being authoritative.

I believe that the 66 books of the Protestant canon belong in the Bible, no more no less. I believe that all 66 books are inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Yet the list on page 23 of my Bible is not part of the canon. In other words, the list itself is not part of the inspired word of God. I am using the English Standard Version, but it is the same in any version of any language. The NET Bible does not have an inspired list, even in the footnotes! There is no early Greek or Hebrew manuscript that solves the problem either. Therefore I have a potential difficulty. Since do not believe in an infallible human authority that can determine what books belong in the Bible, how can I be certain what books belong in the Bible?

It was R.C. Sproul who first made the claim that Protestants have a fallible canon of infallible books. A fallible canon of infallible books? What good is that? Catholics often jest about the seemingly ironic situation in which advocates of sola Scriptura find themselves. The doctrine of sola Scripture was one of the two primary battle cries of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Essentially it means that the Scripture is the ultimate and only infallible authority for the body of Christ in matters of Christian faith and practice. Professing this doctrine does not mean that there are no other authorities, but that there are no other ultimate and infallible authorities. Catholics on the other hand will claim that they, due to their belief in a living infallible authority, have an infallible collection of infallible books.

Not only this, but what about interpretation? Not only do Protestants not believe in an infallible authority to dogmatize which books belong in the Bible, but they don’t believe in an infallible authority to interpret the Bible. Therefore, we can take this to the next level. Protestants have a fallible interpretation of an fallible canon of infallible books. Ouch! Sounds like it is time to convert to Catholicism, eh?

Not so fast. In the end, this is an issue of epistemology. Epistemology deals with the question “How do you know?” How do we know the canon is correct? How do we know we have the right interpretation? Assumed within these questions is the idea of certainty. How do you know with certainty? Not only this, but how do you know with absolute certainty?

The question that I would ask is this: Do we need absolute infallible certainty about something to 1) be justified in our belief about that something, 2) to be held responsible for a belief in that something. I would answer “no” for two primary reasons:

1. This supposed need for absolute certainty is primarily the product of the enlightenment and a Cartesian epistemology. To say that we have to be infallibly certain about something before it can be believed and acted upon is setting the standard so high that only God Himself could attain to it. Outside of mathematics and analytical statements (e.g. a triangle had three sides), there is no absolute certainty, only relative certainty. This does not, however, give anyone an excuse or alleviate responsibility for belief in something. Continue Reading →

On Being a Theologian of the Cross

Wecome our guest blogger Timothy Dalrymple who heads up the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.com.

The Reformation is often said to have begun when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg on the 31st of October, 1517.  Yet, as their title suggests, the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was actually quite narrowly focused on the matter of indulgences.  Luther was furious when his parishioners claimed no need to repent for their sins because they had purchased indulgences from a Roman Church eager to finance renovations to Saint Peter’s Basilica.  If God’s forgiveness was up for sale, if a right relationship with God could be purchased, then there was no need for compunction and repentance, no need to confront the eternal debt we could never repay, and thus no occasion for a right reception of the extraordinary grace of God that eliminates our debt nonetheless.  If a copper coin buys absolution, then sin is a matter of small account and salvation is a minor accounting adjustment. 

The Ninety-Five Theses are important less for what they said regarding indulgences than for the process they set in motion.  The Augustinian order (to which Luther belonged) was generally supportive of Luther’s position, and Johannes Staupitz invited Luther to explain himself to a meeting of the order in Heidelberg on April 26th, 1518.  If Luther had not used this opportunity to articulate a more expansive vision of the cosmic drama of grace and forgiveness, and had not set forth a theological method that turned scholastic theology on its head, then he would have been the leader of a minor corrective movement within the Catholic Church and not of the “Great Reformation” as we know it now.  It was in the Heidelberg Disputation that Luther began to explain a way of being in relationship with God, and a way of coming to the knowledge of God, that was fundamentally at odds with the prevailing tendencies in the Roman Catholic Church of his time.  It was in consequence of the disputation at Heidelberg that Martin Bucer (who attended the disputation and would come to be another leader of the Reformation) drew near to Luther’s side, and Johannes Eck challenged Luther to the famous Leipzig debate.

The Heidelberg Disputation is one of the most brilliant and consequential pieces of theological reflection in the history of the Christian faith.  As with the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther enunciated a set of “theses” he was prepared to defend at a medieval-style disputation.  Together they construct a revolutionary argument that I will examine in the later installments of this series.  They convey a “theology of the cross,” a theologia crucis, a way of relating to God first and primarily “through suffering and the cross.”  Lamentably, this is often forgotten: while the Reformers proclaimed sola scriptura and sola gratia, they also proclaimed the imitatio passionis Christi, that all Christians are called to share in the sufferings of Christ and to know Christ and know God through the suffering of the cross—his cross, and ours.  Continue Reading →

When I Don’t Trust God

Issues of certainty, assurance, and conviction are hot theological topics today. Indeed, they seem to be polarizing the church into two extremes. On the one hand, from a theological standpoint, some people believe that in all our convictions we should have absolute certainty or we don’t really believe them. Others believe that certainty is a past-time archaic dream that has no place in reality.

On an experiential basis, things become even more confusing. How are we to trust God in our troubles? Should we have confidence that since we are His children that He will deliver us? If we don’t, does this mean that we really don’t trust God like we should? If we lack certainty, does this mean we are faithless?

Most all of us know and are inspired by the story of David and Goliath. David, a young man, green in battle, fights a giant who is a celebrated warrior. David brings his case before this warrior standing only on the foundation of his faith. He believed, indeed was absolutely certain, that God would deliver Him from the hand of the giant, thereby vindicating his God and Israel from the scorn of the Philistines. So assured was he that he would win the battle, he did not rely upon helmet or shield to aid him. He took his sling, gathered five stones, and defeated the undefeatable giant.

I often ask myself what gave David such confidence that he would win? Where did such certainty come from? Is this the kind of certainty that I should have in my “Goliath” situations? What if David had not won? I remember the old Richard Gere movie where David misses with the first few stones thereby creating tension. But the text does not mention any misses if it were true. Maybe he took five stones just in case one of them were to miss. Does this show uncertainty? I don’t think so. David told the skeptical Saul as he questioned his certainty, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37). But how did David know this? Well, in the end, David did defeat the giant and thereby vindicated not only Israel and His God, but his faith as well. Continue Reading →

Birth Control and the Christian

I remember back in seminary, there was a small yet militant movement of students who were evangelists of the anti-birth control movement. They were not against it because the believed it was an attempt to control God’s plan, but because they believed that all birth control, save “fertility awareness” and condoms, caused abortions.

This put a great deal of fear into me and my wife as we certainly did not want to be responsible for unknowingly aborting one of our children. For the next six months I researched this. Randy Alcorn was the primary apologist against “the pill,” Depo-Provera, and most all other types of hormonal methods of birth control as he believed that they often caused abortions of fertilized eggs. 

However, I was surprised that this was the first time I was hearing about this. I wondered how this information could be so secret, even among the most conservative of the Christian family ministries and anti-abortion advocates. This gave me a great deal of skepticism.

Others are against birth control because they believe, like Catholics, that it is nothing more than neglecting the sovereign will of God in favor of your own will. This group believes that if it is God’s will then we should not attempt to stand in the way. Therefore, this group does not advocate any sort of birth control at all.

Concerning whether the pill causes abortions:

Pro: Randy Alcorn

Con: Rich Poupard part 1; part 2; part 3

Anyway, enough of an introduction. Birth control and the Christian—thoughts? Do you use birth control? Why or why not?