Knowing Who We Are & Why We Are Who We Are

“In its regulation of home life and in its status as focus of discourse at the Sabbath assemblies, the law was indeed imprinted deep onto the lives and minds of Diaspora Jews, and it is not surprising to find Seneca complain that, by contrast to the ignorance of the Roman populace, Jews seem to be well informed about the rationale for their pattern of life (apud Augustine, De Civitate Dei 6.11).” – John Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (1996), pg.426

Will the same be said about us, the church here in the West (asking as one who lives in the West, specifically the U.S.)?  That we are well informed about the rationale for our pattern of life?  Is the church in the West biblically literate?  Are we well acquainted not only with the words of our Book but also the history, context, nature, etc. of the Bible?

The Inerrancy Throwdown is Coming!

I’m really looking forward to this book. Inerrancy is one of the ‘hot topics’ of our time and as someone interested in language, specifically the languages of the Bible, I’m very interested in this debate. The book comes out this November and is sure to spark a lot of conversation in the blogosphere. Once I get my hands on it in a few months I hope to share my thoughts and start up a conversation that I am eager to have about inerrancy. Be sure to check it out come November!

Crux Sola

The Book: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy

The Opponents: Mohler, Enns, Bird, Vanhoozer, and Franke

The Month: Nov 2013

The Size: 300 pp.

Here are the “views”

“When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks, The Classical Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy” (Mohler)

“Inerrancy However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does” (Enns)

“Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA” (Bird)

“Well-Versed Inerrancy–Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse” (Vanhoozer)

“Recasting Inerrancy–The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality”

THIS SHOULD BE GOOD!

In all seriousness, this is a very important subject right now, because it deals with how we understand the nature of Scripture itself, and how we learn from Scripture for our formation and mission. What you will notice (aside from the spirit of Mohler’s title) is that this is not a black & white issue. Its very complicated and we need patience…

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‘Literal’ hasn’t always meant ‘Literal’

When discussing biblical hermeneutics, inevitably the ‘literal’ meaning of scripture pops up. The ‘literal’ meaning of scripture in some quarters signifies the holy grail of interpretation and in others all that is wrong with biblical scholarship. Yet, what is the ‘literal’ meaning of scripture?

In my study of classic doctrines of scripture, I find Aquinas’ thoughts on the literal sense of scripture fascinating because he uses ‘literal’ to argue for the opposite of what many mean by it today. Furthermore, he does so with a deep conviction of scripture’s unity and divine authorship.

Aquinas is convinced that since all parts of scripture work together to fulfill God’s designed purpose they are unified, but not univocal.  Aquinas’ concept of unity draws upon his complex understanding of the literal sense of scripture.  At first glance, his understanding of the literal sense seems to fall in line with the Augustinian tradition.  For example, he writes, “Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one – the literal – from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended to allegory” (1.1.10).  Yet, one must be careful to clarify what he means by the term literal sense.  For Aquinas, the literal sense of scripture is related to the intention of the author.  On the one hand, the human author may have intended the words to refer to a historical fact or a material reality.  On the other hand, since God is the ultimate author of scripture it can have several senses or meanings.  He states, “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting…if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses” (1.1.10).  Consequently, the literal sense of scripture, for Aquinas, can entail all four aspects of the medieval four-fold sense of scripture depending on the intended purpose of the author, who is ultimately God. 

In effect, it is precisely because scripture “derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge” (1.1.5) that Aquinas finds it inevitably multi-vocal.  God, whom is beyond human capacity to understand, cannot be defined plainly and as a result, Aquinas anticipates a passage will have a multitude of meanings, even on a literal level.  Thus, his understanding of scripture as unified in purpose does not mean that scripture is singular in meaning or that each word, verse or passage has one true meaning.  Instead, scripture’s unity is found in that it has many meanings and through the power and purposes of God, they do “not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity” (1.1.10).

Doctrine of Scripture and Interpretation

The doctrine of scripture fascinates me. Not as a study of doctrine, but as a study of hermeneutics. In other words, how does what I believe about scripture influence the way I interpret scripture?

First of all, I do not think that we can set aside our ideas about scripture when we sit down to read scripture. The search for an objective reading, a reading that happens separate from our preconceptions, is more illusion than allusive. Furthermore, our preconceptions are not just the confluence of social, economical, and physical factors, they include what we believe about what we are reading:

  • Whether or not you believe scripture is a source of truth (big or little ‘T’) matters;
  • Whether or not you believe scripture holds authority, and if so what kind, matters;
  • Whether or not you believe scripture is inspired, and if so in what way, matters;
  • Whether or not you believe scripture has a divinely inspired purpose, and if so what is it, matters;
  • Whether or not you believer that there is a connection between what the text meant and what it means matters.
  • What is scripture’s relationship to the church, civil authority, culture, relationships, morality, if any?

Secondly, failing to recognize our answers to these and other questions about scripture leads to bad hermeneutics. Bad in the sense they can become muddled or ad hoc, not that they always lead to bad or wrong readings.

Therefore, as I have thought about how I answer these questions, three central concepts have arisen: divinely inspired, uniquely edifying, and truth that transforms.

  1. Divinely Inspired – The divine inspiration of scripture can be a hot button issue for some today, but historically that is not really the case. The divine inspiration of scripture was the common, if not universal, conviction of the Christian Church’s forefathers.[1] Furthermore, figures from throughout the church’s history, such as Origen, Augustin, and Aquinas, considered this matter of such importance they evaluated this particular subject extensively in their respective works on scripture.[2] Thus, while I do not adopt a particular theory of inspiration (at least not with any degree of certainty) I firmly stand with Christian tradition in affirming that scripture is inspired by the Spirit of God.
  2. Uniquely Edifying – God designed scripture with a specific purpose, namely to reveal the wisdom necessary for salvation. At a fundamental level, this means God reveals Himself in scripture to lead humanity toward union with its author. In this way, scripture is not primarily a spiritual memoir that we read to find mystical utterances hoping to gain inner peace, nor is it primarily a textbook that we read hoping to gain elusive knowledge.  Rather, it is God’s self-revelation we digest, even participate in, so that it can nourish our souls and form us into the community it would have us to be.
  3. Truth that Transforms – Scripture contains Truth (I believe in “T” Truth), but truth does not concern only the mind. Rather, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom 12:7). Accordingly, Augustine thought scripture taught us not only what to believe, but what to hope for and what to love. In fact, he wrote, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand at all.”[3] Additionally, Richard Hays writes, “No reading of Scripture can be legitimate if it fails to shape the readers into a community that embodies the love of God as shown forth in Christ.” [4]  Churches, therefore, need to be communities faithfully embodying the text for our world. Our places of worship, through our study and interpretation of scripture, must mold us into living witnesses to the transformative power of scripture.

For you, what are the central concepts for understanding the nature of scripture? And how does your understanding of scripture influence the way you interpret scripture?

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 60-64.

[2] Origen, First Principles; Augustine, On Christian Doctrine; and Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica.

[3] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.40.

[4] Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 191.

 

‘In Christ” – Outline for Summer Bible Study

Ever had one of those moments when you see something old like it is new; something familiar like it is the first time. As I was opening up the blog to type this post, I accidentally went to the homepage instead of to the log-in page. When I did, I read the by-line for this blog for the ‘first time.’ Sure I see the blog regularly and know that I must read the by-line most of the time, but just now when I read it I realized something – this study of ‘in Christ’ has been brewing in me for a long time. The by-line for this blog was a sub-conscious, as far as I can tell, joining of two phrases that each represent a different part of my life. Let me explain:

First, ‘in Christ’ was a regular part of my childhood church going. It was not necessarily from an academic perspective, although I must admit I don’t remember much more than what I am about to share. My pastor growing up had a favorite line that he repeated often. When I say often, I mean it was enough that even clueless teens, like my friends and I, knew it by heart. In fact, we would guess (“bet” for the non-baptists) every week how many times he might say it and at what point during the sermon he would first say it. The game became so serious we would take the time each week to look in the bulletin for the text he would be preaching from and then before the service read the text searching for the key words or something similar to help as we made our guesses. The phrase we were searching for – ‘in Christ’ because Brother Joe would inevitably say you know the most important word in the Bible is the little two letter word ‘in’ when it comes before ‘Christ.’ I don’t remember all the different ways he applied this slogan, but I now realize from about 7th grade through my graduation from high school I read the Bible paying special attention to this phrase. Even if it wasn’t with the best of intentions.

The second half of the by-line is ‘everything is undone.’ At Duke Divinity School, Douglas Campbell was an integral part of my academic development. One of the things he beat into my head was undoing or getting things undone. It was his way of reminding me that things had to be taken apart before they could be put together – usually he was critiquing one of my arguments, but that is for another day. But even more than that, it was his influence that led me to understand the apocalyptic nature of Paul. That in Christ all the wrong is being undone and through Christ God is acting to set the world right. That God’s apocalyptic act in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection changed everything. The old defeated. The new inaugurated. The present altered. Nothing will ever be the same again, or in other words ‘In Christ Everything is Undone.’

As I have studied this phrase the last couple of weeks, I have realized how much I believe this statement – ‘In Christ Everything is Undone.’ And not just that I believe it because in the big picture what does that really matter, but Paul believed it. His use of ‘In Christ,’ along with other key phrases such as, through Christ, into Christ, and with Christ, is about everything changing. In Christ the world is being undone not so it can be destroyed but so it can reconciled to God.

This summer I have the privilege of marrying my summer research project with the Bible study I teach at Houston’s First Baptist Church. And for the next seven weeks we are going to study how ‘In Christ Everything is Undone.’ The first class is tonight at 6:30 and this is the outline of the study.

To Live is Christ

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. -2 Cor 5:17

1. God’s Activity (2 Cor 5:19)

    • Death and Life – 2 Tim 1:8-10
    • Unity – 1 Cor 8:6

2. Christ as the Cause, Means (1 Cor 1:30)

    • Death and Life – Rom 3:21-26
    • Unity – Eph 2:11-22

3. Being Joined with Christ (Gal 3:27)

    • Death and Life – Rom 6:1-11
    • Unity – 1 Cor 10:16-17

4. Conclusion

    • To Live is Christ – Phi 2:19-30