Category Archives: Bible Study

Meanwhile in the Psalms…

For years I scoffed at people who read through the Bible but break up Psalms and Proverbs so they don’t have to slog through. Suck it up! I thought from my lofty idealistic perch.

Well, now that I’m the one slogging through nothing but Psalms day after day, I repent.

It seems obvious now that they weren’t meant to be read together any more than your hymnal. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t read your hymnal cover to cover and get some nifty insights out of it. Or that reading straight through Psalms hasn’t been valuable in its own right.

In reading these one after another patterns start to emerge. Some are like proverbs, detailing the way the world is; some are more focused on what was. Some are cries for justice, others for mercy. Here are a few things I’ve noticed thus far.

Blessing Here and Now?

There are many times the psalmist writes about how the righteous can expect material blessing in this life and the wicked ruin. This makes me nervous because it comes closer than I like to the false teachings of Prosperity heard around the world. It especially stands out after reading Job, where that expectation is the tension that drives the whole book. It’s obvious that’s not always true, people don’t always get what they deserve in this life, but it’s clear that’s the way things should be.

I think the shift from Israel to the Church changes this equation. God often did give Israel prosperity in obedience and pain in disobedience, but that’s not the norm we see in the New Testament. Jesus was perfect, yet He suffered tremendously on the cross. He told His disciples they would suffer too. It’s a recurring theme that those who do right in following Jesus will face trouble for all the same reasons He did, and that our reward is not something we should expect this side of Christ’s return.

Rejoice! Be glad! Rejoice Again!

I can come off as a pretty serious person sometimes, and when I sit down with Scripture I usually come with my game face. Let’s do this! Let’s figure this out! But even I can’t help but laugh at myself when over and over Scripture tells me to rejoice. Here I am so focused on finding deep theological truths that I almost miss the heart of the psalmist! God is worthy of praise, so get to it! What are you waiting for? Rejoice!

These are worship songs, so how foolish would it be to focus on content over command? Sing to Him! Tell of His wonderful deeds! Glorify His name! There’s so much joy bursting from the pages I’m jealous, I want in. And the invitation is right there, over and over again.

Why Worship This God?

In every call to worship there’s a rationale, a prompt, a message to put your heart in the right place. The essence of the Christian worldview emerges as the psalmist repeatedly paints aspects of reality.

  1. God is powerful. He created and sustains all things. Creation testifies of Him and glorifies Him.
  2. God is good. He kept His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He redeemed Israel from Egypt; He sustained them in the wilderness—all the while enduring their wickedness and disbelief.
  3. We are God’s people. Originally written to the Israelites but no less true of the Church as the branch grafted onto the tree, this good, wise, powerful God is our God. He is committed to us. We are His!
  4. God will judge. Not generally the most popular message of the faith, but so very crucial: God will deliver His people again and righteousness will reign forever. The wicked still have time to repent before it’s too late.

Restore Us That We May Worship You

I can’t say this is a huge theme over the course of the book, but it’s one I’ve seen a few times, and it fascinates me. The first part speaks of forgiveness, blessing, and empowering to do good; he’s asking God to change them. The second is the reason, that God would be worshiped. It’s not that we worship so God will act, although I’m sure that’s fine too. It’s not even change us so that we will be good, at least not at the primary level. It’s an interesting combination. What’s clear is that God cares deeply about worship and we should too. If you’re not able to for whatever reason, ask God for help.

That Salvation Would Come to the Nations

As much as the Psalms focus on Israel and what God has done for her, God and the psalmist are passionate about including the rest of the world. With all the cries for relief from oppression and judgment for oppressors, the message to the nations is actually a positive one. Salvation is for everyone. This really touches me because I’m not a Jew and God has obviously done such great things for His chosen people. But He included even me, a European mutt gentile. In fact, God blessed Israel so that salvation would come to all the nations. And in a sense it has! Thanks to the work of Jesus, all are included. Salvation is available to all, the message has been heard in nearly every land. His faithfulness to His people demonstrates to the world that this God is worthy of praise, deserving of trust.

 

Of course, all that barely scratches the surface. Have any other themes in Psalms really grabbed you?

God of Our Fathers

Today I finished reading 2 Chronicles, and I’ve really been impressed by this book. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken it seriously before; after all, it’s just a repeat of 2 Kings, right? Plus it’s tied to 1 Chronicles which is up there with Leviticus as one of the most stereotypically boring books of the Bible.

Wrong and wrong.

It’s only with 1 and 2 Kings so fresh in my memory that the beauty of 2 Chronicles jumps out at me, and 1 Chronicles sets the stage magnificently. I’ve been chomping at the bit to share this all week!

If I were N. T. Wright, I might have titled this post “Surprised by Chronicles.”

You see, 1 & 2 Kings tells the story of Israel in decline. Solomon’s story doesn’t end so well, the kingdom is divided, and the 10 northern tribes have one wicked king after another. God sends prophets like Elijah and Elisha to try and draw Israel back to Himself, but they won’t listen. And it’s really moving to see even Ahab, one of their worst kings, a recipient of God’s mercy. God’s kindness and patience are on full display. Stories about Judah’s kings poke through every now and then, but often in connection with what is going on in Israel. The book ends with tragedy and deportation. What will come of God’s promises now?

But 1 & 2 Chronicles is a story of hope. That’s not to say it offers a competing history, but it emphasizes different material for a very different purpose. One of the more obvious differences is a greater emphasis on the Temple and worship, which goes hand in hand with an emphasis on Judah where the temple is located.

1 Chronicles—after the really long list of names and brief notes—starts retelling the stories of David. Then it climaxes in chapters 28 & 29 with a scene not pictured anywhere in Kings: David handing off his faith to his son, Solomon. David wanted to build God a temple, but He said Solomon would be the one. So instead, David makes all the preparations he can and publicly charges Solomon to be faithful to God, remembering the covenant God made with him and his children.

In 1 Chronicles 28:9, he says to Solomon:

As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever.” (NASB)

And in 29:18, he prays to God:

O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our fathers, preserve this forever in the intentions of the heart of your people, and direct their heart to You.”

And in 29:20, we see:

All the assembly blessed the LORD, the God of their fathers.”

In other words, David—the king after God’s own heart, the one who united the tribes, defeated their enemies, extended their borders, and who has a special covenant with God—presents to Solomon the challenge to serve the LORD his God, that is the God of his father David. This God is also known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—their fathers.

This provides the theme for all of 2 Chronicles. Will David’s descendants remain faithful to the God of their fathers or forsake Him? 

After Solomon, the kingdom is divided, and we know in advance the verdict cast on the 10 northern tribes of Israel.

They acted treacherously against the God of their fathers, and played the harlot after the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them. So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul, king of Assyria, even the spirit of Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and he carried them away into exile.” (1Ch 5:25, 26a)

But the kings of Judah do a much better job, and even the evil ones have these shining moments you don’t get in 1 & 2 Kings. Foolish Rehoboam listens to the prophet Shemaiah and humbles himself before God, Abijah gives a rousing speech about faithfulness to God and against Jeroboam, and Asa cries out to God for salvation in battle among many other deeds.

With Jehoshaphat the plot thickens, because he unites himself with none other than Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. By giving Ahab’s daughter (does the name Athaliah sound familiar?) to his own son, Jehoshaphat endangers the idea of the God of our fathers. Now there is the true God of their fathers, but there are other fathers who follow false gods. It will get so bad that eventually Athaliah tries to kill all of the descendants of David, and baby Joash barely escapes. It’s Ahab versus David in a fight to the finish.

If only there was space to talk about the interplay between Joash and Zechariah, or the other great kings Uzziah, Hezekiah, and Josiah! Or how Manasseh, who commits more evil than the Canaanites God wiped out before Israel, humbles himself and turns to God. This is what I mean when I say the book is all about hope; even the most wicked kings find forgiveness in the LORD, the God of their fathers.

That phrase repeats in one form or another six times in 1 Chronicles and twenty-eight times in 2 Chronicles. You’re not supposed to miss this! This is the backbone of the book. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of David—He is the God of the kings of Judah, and He is faithful even when they are unfaithful.

Instead of ending with judgment and deportation the way 2 Kings does, 2 Chronicles ends with Cyrus, the king of Persia, decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem be restored. The Temple where God caused His name to dwell, where He condescended to be present among the people of Judah, the Temple David dreamed of and Solomon built, the Temple Nebuchadnezzar burned to the ground—this Temple is going to be rebuilt at God’s direction.

The God of our fathers lives! There is hope for His people.

Meditations on Inerrancy (Part 1)

Five Views on Biblical InerrancyLast year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) was focused on inerrancy, a doctrine I’ve always taken for granted. But following a fascinating panel discussion from the contributors to the new Counterpoints Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, I picked up the book and let it sit on my shelf a few months.

In that time I’ve been wrestling with my bibliology (i.e. theology of the Bible) in a disorganized and plodding fashion. How ought I to think about revelation (the doctrine, not the end-times book) and truth and interpretation and authorial intent and . . . the list goes on. With that in mind and with my project to explore the literary dimensions of Scripture, it seemed like a good time to come back to this book and really take it seriously.

So in this post I propose to interact with the introduction (and to some degree the conclusion) to the book, both written by editors Merrick and Garrett (G&M). In the near future I’ll interact with the contributors one by one to examine the perceived merits and deficiencies of their cases.

Apologies in advance; we might be here a while!

The central concerns behind the book seem to be 1) that inerrancy is central to evangelical identity, 2) it’s uniquely important as not just a product of Scripture but a posture toward Scripture, 3) the conversation up until now has been heated and accomplishing little. In the interest of preserving evangelicalism for the future and getting such a key doctrine right, G&M propose a humble and edifying dialog.

There is a biggish constellation of doctrines tied into inerrancy that need to be thought about carefully in the process, but before they go there G&M frame the question using a 30 year old debate between Norm Geisler and Robert Gundry. This debate was formative in ETS, thus evangelicalism, and it seems to amount to this: did the biblical authors intend to be historical?

Of course no one raises this question as long as we all think the Bible is historical; then whether it’s done on purpose or not the result is the same and it is factually accurate (which is one definition of inerrancy [among many]). But when the historical record or critical thinking or anything else challenges the historicity of Scripture, the question of intent crops up.

If the biblical authors didn’t intend to be historical, then we can all mop our brows and breathe a sigh of relief. The Bible can still communicate truth in other forms, and no matter what happens the truth is preserved like in a good story. God can even be involved without tarnishing His reputation.

But if the biblical authors thought they were recording the truth but it turns out they were wrong, then at least that version of inerrancy goes out the window and we are left trying to take our stand somewhere this side of Schleiermachian liberalism.

And I think that’s another helpful way of framing the issue: evangelical scholars are trying to figure out if there’s room for orthodox Christianity somewhere between an anti-intellectual fundamentalism and an anti-supernatural liberalism. Most seem confident that there is, they just can’t quite agree where.

Now G&M lay out a few issues to form the backdrop for the discussion. What can we really say about inerrancy if we don’t have a firm grasp of:

  • Doctrine: is it fact, theory, or something deeper that affects the whole person?
  • Revelation: how does Scripture as special revelation relate to general revelation?
  • Authority: what does it mean for the Bible to be authoritative? Are facts authoritative, too?
  • Sufficiency: what does it mean to say the Bible is sufficient for salvation and obedience?
  • Reason: where does reason fit in discussions of revelation, doctrine, and fact?
  • Salvation: what do the Trinity and the missio Dei have to say about the nature and purpose of revelation?
  • Time: how does progress in revelation change the way we view timeless truth and accuracy?
  • Meaning: does authorial intent matter or is it all about the text itself?
  • Analogy: can human language communicate transcendent truths about God with precision?
  • Truth (you knew it was coming): what is the nature of truth anyway? Is “factual accuracy” ever or always right?

I hope it’s obvious this is grossly oversimplified, but these are the main concerns the editors raise. They don’t offer answers at this point because that’s what the contributors aim to do.

If you’re primarily interested in the book, you can stop reading now because that’s all I’m going to say about its content until part 2. But I’d like to close by speculating about how I would answer these difficult issues right now, before grappling with the arguments in depth.

Doctrine: I’m not keen on attacking knowledge just to give practice the advantage. Doctrines should reflect the truth and thus be factual, and in a way once they are formed they become facts themselves. Any knowledge can have implications for life, but Christian doctrine demands to be internalized and lived. Doctrine that ends with mere knowledge is not unlike what demons know and do.

Revelation: God reveals Himself in many ways, all of which are equally true and authoritative. Special revelation and general revelation will never conflict if properly interpreted.

Authority: All authority is God’s, and all of His words and works are authoritative because they are His. But they must be properly interpreted.

Sufficiency: Never spent much time on this doctrine, but it emphasizes that everything that is necessary for salvation and obedience may be found in the Bible. But this doesn’t mean it’s exhaustive or that we don’t sometimes need outside help to understand it.

Reason: Reason isn’t perfect or objective, but it is the means by which we operate. It’s involved when we read, when we write, when we articulate or receive doctrine, when we navigate the world, when we relate to others. It’s inseparable from discussions of doctrine, fact, and revelation. (I’m tempted to say it can be a source of revelation too, but that might overly complicate the discussion at this point.)

Salvation: Revelation is to be understood in the context of the triune God reaching out to man to bring salvation, but I want to be clear that salvation is not merely justification. Salvation is also about sanctification and about the restoration of all things, which means revelation concerns those things, too.

Time: I’m not sure what to say about progressive revelation. God doesn’t reveal everything at the beginning, and He does change the way things are done over time, but neither of those facts threaten my view of God’s truthfulness in and of themselves. God can be as obscure and imprecise as He wants to be and I don’t think that puts Him in any danger.

Meaning: Still wrestling with this one. I don’t believe a text can mean whatever you want, and I like the idea of interpretive communities. I understand you can’t always get at the human author’s intent, but I refuse to believe the divine author’s intent is irrelevant. But whatever we say, I believe the text (the very words!) is inspired, not the meaning.

Analogy: God has condescended to reveal Himself in human language, but human words refer to human things and God is transcendent. So we say that the words are true analogically; they correspond to reality, but not as we know it. God is not a Father in precisely the same way that my dad is a father, but the word still fits both of them. To be honest, I haven’t thought much about the implications of analogy outside of language about God.

Truth: I once heard that the truthfulness of a thing is measured in different ways according to the thing being measured. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like it. If nothing else, I believe propositions (i.e., statements, assertions) should be married to the correspondence theory of truth. But I suspect that only gets us so far in this discussion.

The Bible as Literature

I’ve been reading through the Bible cover-to-cover for what is in some ways the first time in my life. I read all the books of the Bible for seminary (even translated a few) and growing up we read through the whole Bible every morning, randomly jumping around from book to book. But I can’t recall ever starting in Genesis 1:1 and persevering through all 66 books in conventional order.

It’s been absolutely FANTASTIC.

I’ve been journaling through the whole process, but rarely blogging. And it’s killing me! Because this stuff is too good not to share. So my hope in coming weeks and months is to be more vocal and hopefully spark some dialog along the way.

The thing that makes this reading so unique is it’s the first time I’ve really read the Bible as literature. I remember as a student hearing that CMU had a class by that name, and shuddering at how liberal and godless it must have been. The Bible is so much more than that, I thought. Sure the Bible is literature, but so what?

Seminary quickly taught me the answer.

I don’t believe the Bible is mere literature, I believe it’s true. But whatever you think of its divine origins, you have to agree that it’s nothing less than great literature. And recognizing that it is great literature opens up so much more of the Bible’s meaning.

You don’t have to major in English to experience the joy of this dimension of study. But I did. And what a huge blessing! I’m seeing connections I never saw before, like what I wrote last year about the Mountain of God. Or then there are recurring themes like the way “the LORD, God of our fathers” provides backbone to 2 Chronicles (post forthcoming). You see similarities between characters and situations and responses. You see irony and dramatic turns and lots of foreshadowing. You see things you might never otherwise expect.

I think the main reason I couldn’t see the Bible this way before is because I’ve always approached Scripture one of two ways. Either 1) I’m looking for practical moral instruction for today and trying to merge my world with the world of the chapter or verse, or 2) I’m looking for doctrinal premises on which to build my theology.

Now let me be clear: both are excellent things to do with Scripture. I believe there is truth for all times, and it takes wisdom to know how to apply things of the past to the present, whether ethically or ontologically. But before you can extract and apply you have to understand the text as it is first.

I came to see this clearly after studying Augustine and familiarizing myself with the medieval ways of reading, but as I sit here now I realize that lots of my professors were trying to beat this into my head but I didn’t have ears to hear.

You see, Augustine writes in his De doctrina christiana that before we can move to the spiritual sense of the text (which if remember correctly includes [or will come to include] the two approaches I mentioned above) we must correctly understand the literal sense of the text. For example, you can’t identify Abraham offering up Isaac on Mt. Moriah with the Father offering up Jesus at Golgotha until you understand each of them in their own right. Only once you grasp both situations can you draw the connections.

This is so basic to language I think it often escapes our notice. You can’t say “tight as a drum” unless you know what a drum is and what it means for it to be tight. The metaphorical (simile-ical?) is rooted in the plain.

Often my professors would say things like, “Josh you need to bracket your theology and just read the text.” What I heard based on other questions I was wrestling with was, “Josh, read objectively, without the bias of faith.” (Perhaps sometimes that was closer to what some meant.) But I now think at least some of them were trying to say, “Josh, get a firm grasp of the text in its own right before you begin prodding it with spiritual questions.”

Now whatever he may have advocated, Augustine was not shy about interpreting the Bible spiritually, often in ways we’d be really uncomfortable with today. And I’m not saying we stop at a literalistic understanding of Scripture either. But I do think if we want to interpret correctly, we need to understand the plain meaning first, and that means embracing the literary majesty of Scripture.

At this point it would be awesome if I had tools to give you if you wanted to dive in. I don’t have many. But the book we used in seminary was Ryken’s How to Read the Bible as Literature. It seemed pretty redundant for someone who already had a degree in literature, but I suspect that means it’s exactly what you’re looking for if you majored in something less holy but infinitely more employable like chemistry or marketing. (Wink, wink.)

Also, I’ve just been made aware of some new reader’s editions of the Bible that try to make it easier to read the Bible as literature, for example the new ESV Reader’s Bible (which I haven’t explored yet, myself). Maybe worth a look.

One final note: a great many scholars, including a growing number of people who identify themselves as evangelicals, understand the literary nature of Scripture in a way that undermines the historicity of its accounts. I am not one of them. Just as it is more than literature but not less, so also is the Bible more than history—but not less.

Horeb: The Mountain of God

I’ve been a Christian all my life, but sometimes things that should have been obvious before hit me for the first time. Today as I was reading in Exodus, the words jumped off the page that Moses wandered over to Horeb—THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD.

This isn’t the first mountain mentioned in the Bible, but I can’t imagine any higher honor you could bestow on one. Moriah and Ararat were kind of a big deal, but this—THIS is the mountain of God.

So I did a little searching to see where else this mountain comes up. The context I was reading was the appearance of the burning bush, which is already exciting. Right off the bat I realized this is what I always thought was Mt. Sinai. (I guess it must have really been the mount at Sinai all along. Oops.) So this is where Moses receives the 10 commandments and the covenant, where he sees a glimpse of God’s glory, where God speaks to the people of Israel and they are terrified and beg not to deal directly with Him. It was at the foot of this mountain where the golden calf was built. The covenant and its breaking happened in the same place at the same time at the mountain of God.

Wow.

But it gets better.

This is also the mountain Elijah flees to in 1 Kings 19:8, where Elijah also speaks with God. So Moses and Elijah both spoke with God at Horeb—no one else is specifically mentioned in the Bible as having done so. Is it any coincidence that Moses and Elijah will speak with God again—together—at the mount of Transfiguration?

Crazy!

But that’s not all.

Horeb is also where Moses struck the rock and water flowed out (Exodus 17:6). How did I not see this? The rock Moses struck was on the mountain of God! Water flowed out from the rock on the mountain of God! Water would flow from another rock somewhere else, and Moses wasn’t supposed to strike that rock; there was something unique about striking this one. This rock—and I won’t get into the relationship between the mountain and the rock because you get the picture—was on the mountain of God. God’s presence was there, Immanuel—God with us. Moses has become synonymous with the Law, and Moses strikes this rock. Water flows out for the life of the people of God.

Where else have I heard a rock stricken, out of which flowed water for life? Jesus—the stone the builders rejected—stricken for our sake, punished under the law even though He was innocent. Jesus, the One who promised living water that we may drink and never die (John 4). By His wounds we are healed.

But this water isn’t just associated with life but with the Holy Spirit, the counselor who would come after Jesus departed (John 16:7). He is sometimes symbolized by water. The Holy Spirit would not be “poured out” upon us unless and until the rock had been stricken.

God could have provided water for His people any way He wanted, but He chose this specific image because of what it would come to mean later. And so just as the covenant was made and broken on one mountain, so it would be kept and restored on another mountain—Golgotha.

Boom.