When We’re At Our Worst (My Good Friday Sermon)

This last Friday I had the honor of preaching a brief meditation (13 minutes) on the Good Friday services at Trinity. Below you can listen to the audio (we couldn’t get video), and I’ve also posted the rough transcript below it. I pray it blesses you. 

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72)

Intro - I’ve always been captured and, quite frankly, terrified by this story, ever since I was a kid. Maybe it’s not something that’s ever grabbed you, but growing up in Church, you wonder at the idea of denying Jesus. I mean, how, does that happen? I always figured that after 3 years walking around, seeing Jesus’ goodness, watching him feed thousands, raise the dead, walk on water, hearing his words, seeing his almighty power, and just, being with Jesus, that would be impossible. I just thought it was obvious. It was an incomprehensible enigma.

peter deniesI Don’t Know The Man - Of course, as I grew older, I began to see different layers to the story. For one thing, I started to get the danger of the situation. At this point in time, Jesus has been arrested, right. It’s Passover week and political tensions fills the air. Sensing trouble the Jewish leadership acts to get this rebellious upstart teacher out of the way, lest he disrupt their power or set off the judgment of Rome. So, they pay off the disciple Judas and find Jesus in the Garden, arrest him, and take him away. They set up a couple of Kangaroo Courts organized by the Sanhedrin being held in the courtyard and home of one of its chief members.

Now, at this point, all the disciples have fled. All of them, it seems, except for Peter. Peter follows at a distance, but he follows to see what happens. He goes further than all of the others.  Peter had some courage—courage and strength that none of the rest have. And yet, when push comes to shove Peter denies Christ. 3 times.

You have to see that this isn’t a momentary lapse. When you read the story, you see each time, his denial gets even more vehement. At first the servant girl notices him, and then later, noticing his distinct Galilean accent, they start connect the dots and think, “Well, of course this guy is with Jesus. Jesus is from Galilee. This guy is from Galilee. Why else would a Galilean be hanging out here?”

And so here we see fear at work in Peter’s heart. The fear that the council might rule to round up all of Jesus’ followers, or especially Peter himself, because just a few hours earlier it was he who had raised up a sword to defend Jesus. This fear, then, grips him with great force and so he denies. Actually, at this point he gets so frustrated to distance himself from Jesus that he can’t even say his name. Did you catch that? He calls him “this man”, and he even invokes a curse on himself to prove how serious he is.

And here, right here where I used to be most tempted to think, “How do you say that?” But now, now, I start to ask myself, “How different am I really?”

There’s a song lyric, by a band named My Epic that goes like this:

I always thought that I would have fought had I been alive
I would have stayed to the end, wept at Your feet, and died by Your side
yet again they beat You down and tear You
Limb from limb
but I keep my peace and my distance

Curse

See, I’m not sure I’ve ever denied Jesus publicly when pressed like that, but the older I get, the more I realize how completely and totally I’ve denied him. Because, you know there’s more than one way to deny Jesus, right? You don’t have to say “I don’t know this man” with your words to do it. With every careless unloving action to my wife I say, “I don’t know this man.” Every day I get up and live my day without reference to him I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time cultivate anger, pride, socio-economic disdain, or lust in my heart I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I chase money instead of generosity I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I keep silent about him out of fear of rejection by our culture, or neighbors, for being one of those “Christians” I say “I don’t know this man.”  In a million different ways, my life, and if we’re honest with ourselves, all of our lives have screamed “I don’t know this man!”

He Already Knows - And yet, and yet, that’s still not what grabs me about this text. The verse that grabs me are Jesus’ words. Peter hears the rooster crowing in the morning and he remembers’ Jesus words.

“Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

Jesus predicted this. Like so many of us, Peter was so sure of his own righteousness. Peter had even boasted earlier of his faithfulness and that even if everyone else abandoned him, he wouldn’t. And at that moment Jesus looked him in his eyes told him “Peter, here’s how you’re going to fail down to the last detail.” And at that moment, Peter’s failure hits him with crushing force of grief, shame, and sorrow.

I think many of us know that grief.  Many of us are kept from following Jesus because there is a dark well of shame for past failures thinking “God can never accept me after that. God couldn’t want a person like me.” Or, for those of us who follow Jesus, our inevitable failure, sin, and betrayal can crowd in on us with an accusing weight that torments the soul. When we think of our sin, we feel unworthy and unfit for service to Jesus, or we get weighed down with a pressure to make up for it with frantic good works.

Here’s the thought that doesn’t strike Peter that shocked me one day as I listened to the text: Jesus knew what he was going to do and loved him anyways. Jesus had a perfect knowledge of who Peter was, all of his fears, all of his failures, and how he would betray him at his greatest hour of need, and yet he still called him. Jesus knew Peter at his most sinful, his most rebellious, his most pitiful, and see all of that darkness loved HIM! Not the imaginary Peter that Peter thought Jesus did, but real one that he would even face himself, and he still came for him.

This truth is the beating heart of the Gospel. Paul, in Romans 5 says this:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

At the heart of the good news is a God comes to save us when we’re still sinners, before we do anything right. See, you and I constantly think we need to clean ourselves up before we come to Jesus, or we live in constant fear that this sin, this denial, this season is the one where God’s finally going to throw his hands up in frustration and disgust and say, “I’m done with you.”

On the Cross Paul says we see the ultimate proof God isn’t like that. How? How is Jesus’ death on the Cross proof of God’s great love for us at our worst?

So That We Might Be Known

In the Bible, the heart of life, of goodness, of salvation itself is to know and be known by God—to be in a true, whole, relationship with him. That’s what Jesus says in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This is why the most terrifying words of Jesus was his warning to those who were fooling themselves into thinking they were believers and telling them that at the end, if they didn’t repent, they would come to him and he would say “Depart from me I never knew you.”

With this in mind, we can finally start to understand the crushing reality of Peter words when he curses by God’s name and says, “I don’t know the man”–he was showing us what our sin leads to. See, sin is a rejection of knowing God and all that goes with that. So, God’s righteous judgment, his wrath and the punishment we deserve is to give us what we ask for: a life without God, separated from all goodness, all love, all joy, all truth and beauty. That’s what sin asks for and that’s what sin gets.

On the Cross, we are told that Jesus suffers the judgment of God in our place. We deserve death and he receives it. We deserve spiritual separation from God, but he, as the only perfect one who ever lived, experiences it in our place so that we don’t have to. It is only when you see this that you understand that, while Peter is cursing his name, bringing the curse down on himself, Jesus is preparing to go bear the curse for him on the Cross so that Peter would be able to know the God that he’s denying.

And this is the heart of the Good News: we have a God who sees you at your worst, sees ME at my worst, and yet still loved us, and was willing to come, in some mysterious way, in the person of Jesus to suffer on our behalf, that we might know him. You have to understand, God doesn’t look down with shock. He knows it all. He saw it all with his eternal gaze–every sin, past, present, and future that you and I will ever commit and he went.

That same band has another song where they put it so perfectly:

See, Jesus never fell in love.
With open eyes He walked directly to the cross,
He knew exactly what I cost,
and He still went.

Childbodybride

In fact, he knew exactly who I WAS and he still went.

And this is  why we call this Good Friday. On this day we see the love of God revealed in Jesus’ suffering. We find a God who truly knows us and loved us to the full measure.

The promise is that if you put your trust in Jesus, and what he’s done for you on the Cross, you can know and be in relationship with this God. So the question is, “Do I trust him?” For some of you, you’ve never placed your faith, or accepted Jesus. If that’s you and you’d like to, you can find me or one of the pastors or staff after service and we’d love to talk to you.

If you have, but you’re still wallowing in sin, maybe you’ve been far, maybe you’ve been cold, maybe you’ve been wandering–the invitation is to trust and believe that even that is covered and you can trust him

The invitation is to believe today that we have a God who saw us at our worst and he still came.

Prayer – Father, let us understand the height and truly, the depth, of your love displayed in the Cross. Give us over to trust and faith in your good promise. Let us worship you with whole hearts for so great a sacrifice. Amen

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Due to the shortened time frame, I couldn’t expand on certain subjects. Here are some clarifying articles related to the issue of atonement, judgment, wrath, and love.

1. Tim Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understand the Fearful Symmetry of Judgment
2. 5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile
3. Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

The Ridiculous Entry into Jerusalem

ridiculous entryToday we begin Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry, by celebrating Palm Sunday and his Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Here is the standard account in Matthew:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

 “Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matt. 21:1-9)

To ears trained by a couple thousand years of church history to hear these Hosannas as those of glorious choirs, and the donkey as a dignified steed, we miss the glorious irony of this most ridiculous of all entries. John Calvin highlights how foolish the whole thing would have been:

This would have been a ridiculous display, if it had not been in accordance with the prediction of Zechariah, (9:9.) In order to lay claim to the honors of royalty, he enters Jerusalem, riding an ass. A magnificent display, truly! more especially when the ass was borrowed from some person, and when the want of a saddle and of accouterments compelled the disciples to throw their garments on it, which was mark of mean and disgraceful poverty. He is attended, I admit, by a large retinue; but of what sort of people? Of those who had hastily assembled from the neighboring villages. Sounds of loud and joyful welcome are heard; but from whom? From the very poorest, and from those who belong to the despised multitude. One might think, therefore, that he intentionally exposed himself to the ridicule of all.

And yet, this was necessary because:

…in consequence of the time of his death being at hand, he intended to show, by a solemn performance, what was the nature of his kingdom. So then, as his removal to heaven was at hand, he intended to commence his reign openly on earth….But as he had two things to do at the same time, — as he had to exhibit some proof of his kingdom, and to show that it does not resemble earthly kingdoms, and does not consist of the fading riches of this world, it was altogether necessary for him to take this method. (Harmony of the Gospels, Vol 2, Comment on Matthew 21:1)

This is the way the King came announcing his kingdom: in humility, poverty, absurdity, and weakness. And yet, because of this, we see all the more clearly that it “does not consist in the fading riches of this world.” The gold and the pomp we might have expected would have only obscured the true glory of our King.

So then, as we sing our hosannas today, and lift our palms to the King of glory, let us recall his humble, and, indeed, ridiculous entry into Jerusalem.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile as Judgment

fall of samaria2 Kings 17 recounts the story of the Fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians and her Exile:

But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:4-6 ESV)

At first it looks like a simple case of power politics gone wrong. Hoshea backs the wrong horse in putting his trust in Egypt, calling down the wrath of the more potent political power found in Shalmaneser’s Assyria army. Open and shut case here, right? If we’re dealing with the purely human level of motivation and machination, then yes. But the author of Kings invites us to peer deeper into the providential working of God in the events of Israel’s Exile. Please don’t skim this, but read it carefully:

And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. (2 Kings 17:7-18 ESV)

Reflections on the Exile as Judgment. As I was reading through this story earlier this year, I was struck with the clear progression at work here. In this short narrative passage, we have a constellation of disputed but crucial themes involved in understanding the deeper logic at work in our theology of atonement and sovereignty. I’ll list them in no particular order:

  1. Sin as Idolatry - First of all, sin is presented to us as both relational and legal violation. The LORD gave Israel the Law, the covenant that codifies in its clear commandments the special relationship between the LORD and his chosen people. All of Israel’s sinful actions are committed “against the LORD”. To despise God’s commandments is to despise the God who gives them. This point is deepened when we reflect on the fact that the sin that is singled out here, almost exclusively, is that of idolatry in its various forms. Reflecting both the metaphors of King and husband, Israel’s violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments can only be seen as a betrayal of trust, fealty, and fidelity to her covenant Lord. In the covenant we have a relationship of law and love. Indeed, in their placement as the head of the commands, we are instructed to understand that, first and foremost, all sin has a God-ward dimension that cannot be reduced to its horizontal implications.
  2. Patience – Next, the God of the Old Testament is radically merciful and patient. After clear violation after violation, God sends warning after warning, prophet after prophet, both before and after the period of the kings of Israel, in order to draw his people away from their sin. I’ve told my students this before, but the history of Israel is not the history of God getting mad and destroying things. Instead, it is the history of God having patience with a people that repeatedly, irrationally, and violently reject him, until his hand is forced to act.
  3. Wrath - His warnings go unheeded. In fact, they seem to provoke only greater disobedience and idolatry of such depravity that includes child sacrifice and every sort of abomination that the Canaanites who dwelt in the land before them were driven out for. And so, God is presented to us as one is who is provoked to “anger” and wrath by sin. Three times God’s anger is mentioned here in this passage, twice after a laundry list of Israel’s sins, and once in the judgment formula. I’ve mentioned Volf’s reflections on God’s anger before, but once again we’re faced with the reality that the holiness, goodness, and yes, the love of God means he does not shrug his shoulders with a “meh”, in the face of gross evil, or really, any evil. For Though God’s emotions mustn’t be thought of in a simplistic fashion, we cannot deny the reality that God observes human sin and idolatry with great displeasure and the will to ultimately remove them. With references to God’s wrath/anger reaching spanning between 400-600 times in the Old Testament alone, if we are to take the revelation of God to Israel seriously, we cannot brush this aside.
  4. Judgment - Which brings us to the Exile. The judgment and exile of the Northern kingdom is clearly presented to us in what can only be described as a judicial execution of as the God’s anger at sin. “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” Judgment is the enacting in history of the LORD’s moral evaluation of Israel’s actions in eternity. Given our prior reflections, we can’t help describing it as a penal judgment rendered in reference to the covenant law. This is not just some “Western, legalizing” interpretation of the event, as is so commonly charged, but a reading that flows from carefully attending to the logic of the text, as well as its placement within the broader narrative of God’s dealings with Israel. That said, we see the logic of the Exile as well. If the land is symbolic of, and part of, the covenant blessings Israel enjoys as part of her relationship with the LORD, it only makes sense that her rejection of the LORD would result in exclusion from the land. It is the “fearful symmetry” of judgment we’ve talked about before.
  5. Multiple-Agency – Finally, this judicial execution is presented both as the work of both divine and human agents. Shalmaneser is clearly given responsibility, acting for what were presumably less than holy reasons like imperial dominance and greed. And yet, in the inspired author’s presentation, without denying or explaining away the freely chosen actions involved, the ultimate agent of judgment is the LORD himself. Again, “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God”, and “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” We see, then, both Divine and human agency at work in one and the same event, one wicked, and one wholly righteous in the destruction and Exile of Israel. While no explicit theology of mulitple-agency is cleanly laid out here, something like it is clearly presupposed.

This is the logic of exile: Israel violates God’s covenant at length, ignores God’s mercy, provokes God’s anger, and brings down God’s judgment. I’ve chosen one key passage where it is laid out rather cleanly, but it’s important to note that each of those five points could be buttressed with skads of verses, narratives, prophecies, and long-range themes in Scripture.

The Cross as Exile – So that people don’t misunderstand, breaking down the logic of exile takes on the importance it does for me because, again, it is that logic that informs part of how we understand Jesus’ glorious, representative work for us on the Cross. As the author of Hebrews hints at, Jesus’ execution on the cross was that of the Levitical scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people beyond the camp in a mini-representative-Exile:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (Hebrews 13:12 ESV)

What’s more, in line with the curse of execution, he suffered “outside the gate” as the Law prescribes (Lev. 14; Num. 15; Deut 17) to exhaust the covenant curse of Exile-as-judgment in our place as our great High Priest, make us holy once more, and institute a new covenant with the people–a truer, more inviolable one–in his own blood:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17 ESV)

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:12-18 ESV)

I know that I’ve only just sketched a basic, partial, and patchwork understanding of these New Testament texts, but when you understand the logic at work in the Exile of Israel, you can begin to see how deeper logic of Jesus’ Exile on the Cross as divine judgment on sin isn’t just some “rationalistic, systematic-theological”, or “medieval”, imposition on them, but rather a way of understanding them describing the Cross as the culmination of a number of themes central to the divine drama of God’s faithful relationship to unfaithful Israel. Again, the dark backdrop of sin and judgment is the only one in which the light of sacrifice and grace can be see in all of its glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wilson’s 3 Ways of Distorting the Bible and My 3 Options For Reading It Without Chucking It

andrew wilsonLast month Steve Chalke wrote a piece over at Christianity.com about the way we’ve been misreading Bible. It wasn’t terrible, but I definitely wasn’t a fan. Then he and my buddy Andrew Wilson had those fun debates over at Premier.TV about the Bible. As you may remember I had an opinion on one of those as well. Well, Christianity.com has just posted Andrew’s piece responding to Chalke’s on the nature of the Bible, and whether or not we can call it the Word of God. He knows the difficulties involved with that:

Most of us know what it’s like to read a section of scripture and find ourselves thinking, I wish that bit wasn’t there.

Sometimes that’s because the Bible contains puzzling details (like when people start swapping sandals in the middle of a love story, or holding each other’s thighs when they’re agreeing a deal). Sometimes it’s because we feel embarrassed about the easy confidence with which it talks about impossible things (parting the Red Sea? Really?). Sometimes it’s because we’re genuinely confused by a difficulty, either within the text (how did Judas die, again?) or outside of it (did a flood really cover the entire Earth, and if so, why isn’t there any geological evidence for it?).

And often, it’s because we simply don’t like it. It’s ancient, different, challenging, scary, radical, courageous, provocative. We live in a world where many of the things the Bible says – God made everything, human beings are responsible for the world’s problems, God chose Israel as his special people, sex is only meant for one man and one woman in marriage, Jesus is the only way to God, the wages of sin is death, God is going to judge the earth one day, and so on – are profoundly unpopular. Saying them out loud may get you labelled a bigot or an idiot; saying them on a reality TV show means either you get kicked off or the show gets cancelled.

But what can we do with those sections?

The question is: what do we do when that happens? Do we stand as judge over the Bible, and decide which bits we will accept and which bits we won’t? Or do we sit under the loving authority of God, expressed through the scriptures, and allow him to shape us, correct us and challenge us? Do we let ourselves edit the Bible, or do we let the Bible edit us?

He helpfully lists three typical distortions one can make when it comes to approaching the Bible.

  1. First, we can make the mistake of “literalism”, essentially ignoring the context and, in general, a sloppy hermeneutic so that, in a misguided attempt to accept it all as true, we accept what it isn’t saying.
  2. Second, we can make the mistake of “liberalism”, which boils down to only accepting those bits we find acceptable according to our own modern reason and sensibilities.
  3. Third, we can make the “mix and match” mistake of selectively appropriating those bits we find lovely and wonderful and chucking out the rest.

That third one is the bit that seems to resemble Chalke’s approach most, which Wilson goes on to elaborate about at length. I’d highly encourage you to read the whole thing because it’s gold.

Also, interestingly enough, I had a post in the queue about 3 options we ought to consider when approach difficult, offensive texts we run across, before concluding it’s wrong and chucking it out.

Well, before we chuck them away in disgust, I would like to suggest at least 3 possible options to consider before you come to the conclusion that the Bible is wrong on a given subject:

  1. The verses you’re reading don’t say what you think they say. Honestly, a good commentary can clear up a lot of heartache by pointing out linguistic confusions and socio-historical factors that show you’re not reading the thing properly. Read carefully. If something disturbs you, don’t just chuck the Bible away in disgust, but wrestle with it and read it charitably, like a letter from a friend that initially reads offensively. Give it the benefit of the doubt and then try to understand it. Whether it’s Sabbath sticks, or the Conquest in Joshua, or maybe even slavery in the New Testament, there are often-times contextual issues at work that need to be considered when you’re reading an ancient text.
  2. The verses say what you think they say, but the problem is not with the Bible, but your own cultural presuppositions. I mean, let’s just be honest and say, this wouldn’t be the first time you were wrong about something, right? Sometimes we don’t stop and consider the finiteness or our intellectual horizons, both at the personal or the cultural level. It should give us pause that the very texts that we appreciate most on the Bible, (equality, forgiveness, grace), are some of the most culturally-offensive in other parts of the world, while the text that give us pause (judgment, wrath), are the ones quickly accepted in other parts of the world. As Keller points out in The Reason for God, if the Bible is the transhistorical truth of God, it makes sense that it would offend and correct some part of every culture throughout history.  You may just have to consider the fact that a dusty old book might get something right that our current culture gets wrong. Humble yourself and be open to your own fallibility.
  3. The verses say what you think it says, but the application is up for grabs. The Bible very clearly condemns adultery and divorce. Nobody’s going to argue that one. There’s still a difference of opinion amongst Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians as to what the state should be doing about that. Should the state make/enforce adultery laws? How hard should divorce be? Should non-Christians be held to the standards of the church? These are all legitimate questions that people who agree about what the Bible says on the moral issue still can discuss. Applying the text is not always a straightforward affair. My buddy Alan Noble has some good reflections on misguided Christian appropriation of the Bible for political rhetoric over at Christ and Pop Culture that are worth considering in relation to this.

To conclude, I know it’s a lot easier to look at the Bible and take the parts you like and scrap the parts you don’t like as it fits your own experience or judgments arrived at independent of the text, or simply “read” it and try to ham-handedly apply it to our lives no matter how awkward (or possibly wrong) we are in doing so. It takes a lot more effort to wrestle with the thing, struggle, read carefully, pray, be uncomfortable, struggle again, and submit to what the Lord says. Still, this is the call. May God give us grace to read carefully and read humbly.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Jesus is the ‘Word of God’ Can We Call the Bible the Word of God?

Even as a lover of books, this might be one of the most terrifying pictures I've ever seen.

Even as a lover of books, this might be one of the most terrifying pictures I’ve ever seen.

“The Bible is not the Word of God, Jesus is. John says he is the Eternal Logos, the true Word spoken from all eternity, and to put such a focus on the Bible as the Word of God is to take it off their point: Jesus. In fact, it’s tantamount to bibliolatry–elevating the Bible to the 4th person of the Trinity.”

Ever heard something like that before? It’s become a truism among many of the Christian internet set, and something like it has been popular in theological circles for some time now.

I must admit, when I first heard the slogan myself, I was thrown off a bit. I mean, John does identify Jesus as the Logos, the Word, of God from all of eternity–the truest and deepest reality Father is eternally speaking. What’s more, it’s true that from time to time you can run across someone in a fundamentalist church who treats the Scriptures as if they were dropped from heaven and yet remain utterly oblivious to its central content. I can begin to see what motivates some to adopt it.

However, after the initial appeal, it appears to me that this is a mistaken move that many (though not all) use as a lead-up to falsely pitting Christ against the Scriptures. In fact, I’ve come to see this as sadly little more than a rhetorical sleight of hand, passing itself off as serious theology.

A Word About Words - The first is concerned with the basic nature of language and the simple text of the Bible. It should be an obvious point that words or phrases can, quite comfortably, have more than one proper use, or an expanded lexical range. For example, the phrase “God’s will” can refer to God’s will of command expressed in his explicit commands, but it can also refer to God’s will of decree by which he governs history. Both meanings are appropriately designated by that phrase, and context will usually clarify any confusion on that point. It ought to be uncontroversial to say the same thing is true of the phrase “the Word of God.”

At the most straightforward level, the phrase “The word of God” just means “a word God has spoken.” We find hundreds of references to God’s speech (“the word of the Lord came to”) littered throughout the canon, whether in the Law, the prophets, or the wisdom literature. Every time God spoke to Moses, he heard “the word of God.” Every time a prophet prophesied and used the phrase “Thus says the Lord”, they were speaking the “word of God.” Over and over, we see the preaching of the Gospel in Acts described as the “word of God.” That Jesus Christ is the eternal Logos of God does not change the fact that it is entirely appropriate to speak of the utterances of Jeremiah or Isaiah as the “word of God.” How much more then for the totality of all that God has “breathed out” by his Spirit?

For those worried about confusion on this point, this is why sometimes theologians have gone out of their way to distinguish what they mean by the phrase, specifying “the Word of God incarnate”  (ie. Jesus) or “the Word of God written” (ie. the Bible). They know very clearly that one has certain properties that the other doesn’t. For instance, the Son of God doesn’t have the properties of being made up of 66 books by various authors over a period of a thousand years or so. On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t have the property of being eternally-generated by the Father, or being incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended in glory. Straightforward enough.

So when the author of Hebrews speaks about the Son’s unique revelatory function he says “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (1:1-2), it’s important note that he doesn’t follow that up with, “so now that we have this final Word let’s not call those previous communications ‘God’s Word.’” The conclusion simply does not follow.

Which brings me to the next point: the Word’s own view of the words. 

Jesus and the Bible

Christ himself presents us with the Word.

What Did Jesus Say? I’ve written before that it’s rather misleading to pit Jesus against the OT, or the “red letters” against the black letter sections of the Bible, given his own view of it. Once again, consider:

Is it not written in your Law, “I said, you are gods”? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, “You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God”? (John 10:34-36)

Not only is Jesus not squeamish about equating the Old Testament Scripture with the “Word of God”, he re-emphasizes their inviolability and authority by adding that they can’t be “broken.” Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseam. In this he is followed by all of the apostles.

But instead of just repeating myself, J.I. Packer has some wisdom for us on this point:

But who is this Christ, the Judge of Scripture? Not the Christ of the New Testament and of history. That Christ does not judge Scripture; he obeys it and fulfills it. Certainly, He is the final authority of the whole of it. Certainly, He is the final authority for Christians; that is precisely why Christians are bound to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. Christ teaches them to do so.

A Christ who permits His followers to set Him up as the Judge of Scripture, One by whom its authority must be confirmed before it becomes binding and by whose adverse sentence it is in places annulled, is a Christ of human imagination, made in the theologian’s own image, One whose attitude to Scripture is the opposite to that of the Christ of history. If the construction of such a Christ is not a breach of the second commandment, it is hard to see what is.

“Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 61–62 (HT: Matt Smethurst)

In other words, if Jesus identifies the Scriptures as God’s Word, why are we so squeamish about following suit?

The Trinitarian Word – Finally, this approach is confused because in doesn’t see that the Bible is the Trinitarian Word of God. Michael Horton calls our attention to the Trinitarian coordinates of inspiration in The Christian Faith. Reminding us of the structure of all trinitarian actions he writes “In every work of the Godhead, the Father speaks in the Son and by the perfecting agency of the Spirit.” (pg. 156) The Bible is the “Word of God” because in all the Law, the narratives, the Psalm, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles we hear the Father testifying to the Son (John 5:39) by way of the power of the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

We can see something like this understanding in Heinrich Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession. After calling attention to the locus classicus establishing this doctrine (“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching,for reproof,” etc. (II Tim. 3:16–17), Bullinger puts it this way:

SCRIPTURE IS THE WORD OF GOD. Again, the selfsame apostle to the Thessalonians: “When,” says he, “you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God,” etc. (I Thess. 2:13.) For the Lord himself has said in the Gospel, “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of my Father speaking through you”; therefore “he who hears you hears me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Matt. 10:20; Luke 10:16; John 13:20). (Chap. 1)

In a sense, it is only as we acknowledge the Bible as the Word of the Father about the Son that we truly see the Son as the Father’s own True Word. It is through the testimony of the Word of God written that we recognize Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate. What’s more, given the current illumination of the text by the Spirit we ought say with Bullinger that “God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures” about the Son.

At this point I think it becomes clearer that to pit Jesus as the Word of God incarnate against the Bible as the Word of God written is a false choice. It’s not only confused both at the level of language, not the attitude towards the Scripture taught to us by Jesus, but at the deeper level I fear it leads many to denigrate the diverse testimony of God to Christ in Scripture all in the name of elevating him.

So then, is Jesus the Word of God? Yes and Amen. Should we still speak of the Bible as the Word of God? Of course we should–Jesus told us to.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kevin Vanhoozer Corrects N.T. Wright’s 5-Act Hermeneutic

Wright againWhile many other scholars have made similar points, Kevin Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright have probably done more than any other theologians to help me understand the Bible as a drama. As opposed to viewing the text as a static collection of theological bullet-points, they suggest we conceive of it in active, narrative terms, with a plot whose development yields the doctrine which gives life to the Church. So, when one of them offers up a criticism and nuance of the other’s approach the way Vanhoozer does here, I’m definitely interested:

Tom Wright has thrice put forward a model for conceiving biblical authority that trades on the notion of biblical improvisation. He compares the drama of redemption to a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act is missing. The church has the first four acts (creation, fall, Israel, Christ) but must work out the fifth act (church) for herself, all the while remaining in character. It is not enough for the actors “merely to parrot what has already been said”; they must go beyond the sacred page and find—improvise!—the conclusion. Still, the first four acts are the “authority” for the fifth act, hence the idea of “improvising with a script.”

This suggestive model has much to commend it. However, I see the fall not as its own act, but as the conflict in the first act, creation. I prefer to see each of the five acts of the theodrama as set in motion by a divine act. Hence: creation, election of Israel, Christ, Pentecost and the church, consummation. On my dramatic reckoning, the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light. The essential thing is to play the right act. The church is no longer in Act 2, under the law, nor in Act 3, in which case it would have to do the work of Christ. Nor is it already in Act 5, as some in the first-century church at Thessalonica with an over-realized eschatology mistakenly thought. No, the church is in Act 4, an in-between the first and second comings of Christ time, marked by the firstfruits of the end time but not yet at the end.

-Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, (Kindle Locations 2961-2973).

On one level I find this all rather compelling. The more traditional Creation, Fall, and Redemption (or Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation) is still rather serviceable. Wright’s suggestion is helpful, though, in that it distinguishes Israel’s phase thereby ensuring we don’t simply skip over it straight to Jesus–as if we could. It also helps us remember that while Israel is part of the Jesus plan, it is still a distinct phase, not to be confused with Christ’s work or that of the church.

Vanhoozer’s rolling the Fall back into the first act of Creation is also admirable for it’s theocentricity–God-centeredness. When it comes to thinking through the different acts as periods of human action, the Fall needs to be accounted for in our moral and theological reflection, but isn’t really stage on its own, it’s a presupposition for the rest. The narration of salvation-history is governed by God’s gracious action, not human sin.

I don’t have much to comment beyond that except to ask: what do you all think? Theologians, Bible-types, any thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

Sabbath Sticks, OT Morality, and the Jesus Tea Strainer

There’s a very troublesome text smack dab in the middle of Numbers 15, which I suspect many of us wouldn’t know what to do with if asked about it:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death,as the Lord commanded Moses. (Num. 15:32-36)

well-that-escalated-quicklyOn first reading we’re left thinking, “Well, that escalated quickly.” It’s a bit harsh isn’t? I mean, really, picking up a few sticks on the Sabbath and he’s to be executed? Is that how God works? Is that a moral Bible? Indeed, some skeptical critics point to that story specifically in order to prove that it isn’t.

I was reminded of this as I watched my friend Andrew Wilson debate (or rather, get interrupted by) Steve Chalke about the authority of Scripture and how to read the OT.  During the debate, after a lot of prodding for clarification, Chalke finally came out and said that while he believed that the event happened, Moses or the author was simply confused as to God’s commands, having misheard him or something (I kid you not, that’s what he says, I’m not lying). Given who Jesus is, and the fact that God is unchanging, he simply couldn’t believe that God would wipe a guy out just for picking up some sticks on Sabbath, so the text is simply wrong on that point. And pretty much every other time it says God strikes something down (all throughout the OT and NT).

Now, I can’t be too harsh here. I really do get the hesitation. It’s an odd, initially terrifying story that I’m somewhat tempted to edit myself. That said, as I watched and considered, I thought of a few points (a couple contextual, one broadly theological) that ought to be considered as we approach troubling texts like these in order to do them justice without chopping them up. I’ll tackle them in no particular order:

1. Flagrant defiance – The first has to do with the act itself. Looking at it the stick-collecting in a sort of flat sense, it does seem fairly innocuous. A few sticks–what’s the big deal? But, see, I don’t think it is as simple as just a few sticks. Say for instance you have a child and you see him reach for a cookie, so you say to him, “Don’t lay a finger on those until after dinner–I don’t want you to spoil your supper.” Your child then looks up at you, looks at the cookie, looks back up at you, and then with a smug look, grabs the cookie and stuffs it in his mouth. Now, at that point, what do we have? We don’t have a simple cookie-eating incident do we? Instead we have an act of willful flagrant defiance that merits some more serious attention. Superficially innocuous actions can be laden with deeper meaning.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?

Now, a 5-year old doing some boundary-testing is still pretty mild, but consider the case in question. The Israelites have been saved out of grinding slavery and given a good law by the sovereign God of the Universe. Moses came down from the mountain of smoke, lightning, and fire, and delivered the Ten Commandments, the foundational charter laws of the Covenant, on tablets written by the finger of God himself. The fourth, the command to keep the Sabbath Holy, is actually the lengthiest of the ten. At this point you begin to see that this man, in going out to collect something as stupid as a bunch of sticks, isn’t just bending a little rule–he’s acting in flagrant defiance of the express will of the King of the nation. This is not a mild act, but an aggressive breach against authority demonstrating his total repudiation of the rule of the Lord.

Some might wonder if I’m importing or imposing this interpretation on the text, but I think I’m on solid contextual ground when we consider that this little episode is recorded right after the regulations forbidding sacrifices to atone for intentional sins or “sins with a high hand” in verses 32-33:

“‘But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them.’”

The fact that we don’t see this, I think, is indicative of how little importance we place on the idea of authority culturally, or the idea of defying God’s authority. We simply don’t take that category of sin seriously, because of our modern, Western mindset.

2. National Significance – The second factor to consider is that this is probably not just about this one guy.  I’ll be honest that it’s been a conviction of mine for as far back as I can remember that God doesn’t owe me my next breath–both by dint of authorial rights as well as because of my own sins and wickedness. That said, it’s hard to not see this as a national, and indeed, redemptive-historical issue.

God has purposes for his people. They are to live in relationship with him and serve as a light to the world in their worship and obedience. The laws serve as a hedge around them, protecting them from the pagan influences of their neighbors as well as training them in the proper life with God. These laws aren’t simply for the life of Israel, then, but for God’s cosmic redemptive purposes for Israel among the nations. In that light, the question becomes then: Is God serious about his law? Is he just blowing smoke when he commands these things, or do we need to take him seriously? Are these serious commands or mere suggestions?

I would suggest then, that while he was culpable and deserving in himself, this early case of Sabbath defiance also had ramifications beyond his own case that were at issue as well. The course of the life of the nation was stake such that tragic, but just, action had to be taken to ensure there was clarity and resolved on this point.

3. Appropriate For The Time – Third, I think there is also a level of progressive revelation at work here. Both Wilson and Chalke agreed that compared to most of the laws of the surrounding nations, the law of Israel was comparatively humane and just. In fact, one of the processes we can see in Scripture is the idea that God meets people in history, deals with them in a manner that’s appropriate to them at the time in order to move them along towards the divine ideal. He starts out with their pagan, distorted thinking and then employs laws that are suited to them (but are no longer suited to us) in order to bring them along slowly.

Think of it this way: were I to have children, some of the rules I might give to my 5-year old would be harsh and inappropriate for a 15-year old. For instance, I might tell a five-year old child, “Every time you go outside, you need to come ask permission. If you don’t, you’ll be grounded from play for a week.” Now, to a 15-year old, this would seem draconian–indeed, to apply it to the 15-year-old it would be–but it makes perfect sense for a 5-year old at a time when you’re trying ingrain the lessons of the importance of parental authority, safety, and so forth. A second point follows from this: simply because I change the house rules for my 15-year-old to something different than when he was 5, it doesn’t mean that I’ve overall changed my mind or something. It means that in my consistency of character I have spoken differently in different situations.

In a similar way, God implemented laws back then and there, which were appropriate in the process of moral and theological education (“because of the hardness of your heart”) that he wouldn’t apply now–especially in light of the new covenant in Christ and the move from a theocractic national kingdom to a spiritual Kingdom. But that’s not because he would have been unrighteous in applying them then, but because we’ve moved on from that part of the story. To try to go back is to miss the intended movement at work. Nor is he inconsistent when he shifts his demands, or changes the application of underlying principles in the New Covenant.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Returning to The Tea-Strainer – Where does all of this go? Well, for one I hope it sheds some light on Numbers 15. But further than that, I think this serves to highlight what Wilson has called the difference between a Christ-centered lens versus a Christ-centered “tea-strainer” hermeneutic. The one allows you to look at a text in a different light, while the other simply screens out the bits we don’t like. Returning to the debate I referenced above, we see that Chalke looks at this text and says, “Well, looking at Christ in the NT, I know God couldn’t have commanded that and therefore we see that Moses was probably confused.” And therefore, the text is actually wrong. (Again, go watch the video, I’m not exaggerating here).

I had a couple of friends complain about the article when I shared it last week to the effect that, “Well, that doesn’t reflect the Christocentric hermeneutic I’m talking about, or the best versions of it.” Well, if that’s the case, then that’s lovely. I’m ecstatic to hear it. But sadly it does reflect Chalke’s self-designated “Christ-centric” hermeneutic, and it’s even the sort of thing that I’ve seen Brian Zahnd, someone I have serious respect for, write before, to wild applause and cheers in some sectors.

So what do we say instead? I, and I think Wilson as well, would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

So, which hermeneutic are you working with? A lens or a tea-strainer?

Soli Deo Gloria

I work through some related issues in “The Cure that Killed the Patient“, as well as this post on the importance of Context the Conquest of Canaan.

Book Theft, Lenten Reading, and The Final Days of Jesus

Book theft is real.

Book theft is real.

True story: I had a book stolen out of the mail the other day. All I received was an empty package with a sticker on it, notifying me that the last post office to handle it had received it in that condition. Somewhere out there, there is a book thief who is working their way through my review copy of Andreas J. Kostenberger  and Justin Taylor’s new volume, The Final Days of Jesus: The Last Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived. I’m not too mad about that, though. Thankfully, Justin was kind enough to send another. Also, I’m hopeful the perpetrator in question will repent–maybe when he gets to the part about the thief on the cross next to Jesus.

In any case, I’m kind of glad I hit a delay in receiving my copy. It gave me time to reconsider my approach. Initially, I had planned on reading through it quickly and doing a full review, but the closer we move to the Lenten season, it makes sense to take it up as my yearly Lenten reading. For many of us, Lent is observed by giving something up–by sacrificing some food, activity, etc. in order to prayerfully remind ourselves of the course of Jesus’ life, ministry, and sufferings, as well as prepare for the joy of Easter. That can be a good and holy thing. One other way of celebrating Lent is to take up something–additional prayers, Scripture reading, acts of service, and so forth.

final daysIn that spirit, I’ve made it a habit over the last few years to make sure and read through at least one work focusing on Jesus’ life, or atoning work, to prepare myself for Holy Week. After skimming through the intro and the layout of the Kostenberger and Taylor’s work, I’ve decided this will be a perfect choice for my Lenten reading this year. For those of you looking to embrace a similar practice I’d like to encourage you to pick up their work as well.

Why? Well, a few reasons. First, it’s a cleanly laid out book focusing on the last week of Jesus’ ministry and passion, where all of his ministry, both in word and deed, are coming to their revelatory culmination in his death and resurrection. Basically, if you don’t get this week, you don’t get Jesus.

Second, Kostenberger and Taylor have taken every text from the 4 Gospels, arranged them in a harmonious, historically-sensitive manner, and then briefly commented on each of them, bringing out their theological and spiritual significance.

Third, it’s solid work. But that’s unsurprising. Andreas Kostenberger is a noted New Testament research scholar out of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an expert in the Gospels. Justin Taylor is a careful writer, sharp theological mind, and experienced publisher at Crossway. But don’t take my word for it. Here are just a few endorsements from actual scholars and respected pastors:

“This is a book about the most important person who ever lived during the most crucial week of his life. If you want to get to know the person and teachings of Jesus in the context of an engaging story with practical commentary, this book is for you. It is biblical, personal, and transformational.”
Darrin Patrick, Pastor, The Journey, St. Louis, Missouri; author, For the City and Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission

“An enlightening and edifying look at the most important week in history. Both those who want to know more about the history and those who long to behold the wonder will find much to love about this great work. One gets the sense that we should proceed through these pages on our knees.”
J. D. Greear, Lead Pastor, The Summit Church, Durham, North Carolina; author, Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved

“You may be wondering what can be done to make Christ’s last week come alive in ways it hasn’t before. It would help to understand the historical background and cultural script a little better, but you don’t want a big book. It would help, too, if your authors were trustworthy, knowledgeable evangelical scholars who could write clearly for laypeople. Look no further—this is the book for you!”
Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

“Jesus’s last week shook but also saved the world. From Palm Sunday to Easter morning, each day and encounter were critical. This book leads the reader step by step along Jesus’s route from triumphal entry to the cross and finally to glory. Numerous maps and diagrams shed fresh light on each Gospel’s claims. We are reminded not only of what Christ did but also where his way points us now. An excellent beginning-to-intermediate guide!”
Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Holy Week is arguably the most sacred time of year for Christians. Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor provide a simple yet eloquent survey of the final week of Jesus’s life. They take readers on a pilgrimage through the Gospels and invite us to follow Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on to the dark and tragic moments of Golgotha, and through to the glorious and unspeakable joy at the feet of the risen Jesus. In short, this is a wonderful resource for individuals, families, and fellowships to learn more about the Easter story, the greatest story ever told.”
Michael F. Bird, Lecturer in Theology, Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry

“A clearly presented overview of the most important week in world history. Brief, helpful comments illuminate the biblical story and bring home its enduring and life-changing message.”
Douglas J. MooWessner Chair of Biblical Studies, Wheaton College

The Final Days of Jesus helps believers take note of the historical events leading up to Jesus’s death on the cross. Readers are challenged to see the provocation that Jesus’s message and life represented, leading to his arrest and execution. The book demonstrates that historical facts and Christian worship can and should go hand in hand.”
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mary F. Rockefeller Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; author, Paul the Missionary

So then, if you’re looking to take a focused look at the work of Jesus this Lenten season, I’d suggest you head on over to Amazon and pick yourself up a copy. Maybe get a couple and go through it with some friends at church. It promises to be an edifying work.

Soli Deo Gloria

10 Principles for Reading OT Narratives

old testamentIt’s safe to say that “narratives” is the most predominant type of literature in the Bible. Leaving aside the New Testament, over 40 % of Old Testament are narratives.  Given that, especially in light of the New Year when a bunch of us will finally be tackling the OT again, it’s kind of important to know what you’re doing when approaching these texts, especially when reading for theological and moral content. For instance, what do we do with the story of Abram giving Sara to the king of Egypt out of fear and gaining great wealth (Gen. 12)? Is this acceptable behavior for us? I mean, he is a patriarch? Or what about the story of Gideon and the fleece (Jdg. 6)? Should we set up little tests for God in order to figure out his will for our lives?

With these sorts of problems in mind Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give 10 important principles to keep in mind when reading Old Testament narratives for moral and theological content:

  1. An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
  2. An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
  3. Narratives record what happened— not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral application.
  4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us.
  5. Frequently, it is just the opposite. Most of the characters in Old Testament narratives are far from perfect— as are their actions as well.
  6. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
  7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (cf. John 21: 25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
  8. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions. They have particular, specific, limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere in other ways.
  9. Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.

Fee, Gordon D.; Stuart, Douglas (2009-10-14). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Kindle Locations 1866-1879). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

This is not a full-blown hermeneutic for reading Old Testament texts, but these are sound principles that can help clear up some of the worst pitfalls an untrained-reader might fall into.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Has Chicago to Do With Nicaea? Or, “Inerrancy Isn’t In the Bible”

inerrancy viewsOne of the frequent complaints against the doctrine of inerrancy is that, not only is a theological novelty taught nowhere until the 19th century, more than that, “it’s not in the Bible.” Nowhere is there a verse that says the “Bible is completely true in all that it affirms in history, theology, etc. in the original autographs” and so forth. So how then, if we’re Sola Scriptura Protestants, can we go about insisting on it, or other variations like “infallibility” (which, is actually the more comprehensive term), as a sort of de fide doctrine?

As you may know, I’ve been reading the Counterpoints Five Views on Inerrancy book that just came out. You may also know that I unashamedly love Kevin Vanhoozer’s work in this area–and, actually, any area to which he speaks. There’s no surprise, then, that I found his comments on the issue particularly helpful.

In his main essay, he has a number of sections dealing with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. In one, he deals with the charge that the CSBI unnecessarily elevates the doctrine as well as redeploys a distinction used in his Drama of Doctrine, between a judgment of Scripture and it’s conceptual expression, to clarify how a doctrinal can be biblical without being mentioned explicitly in Scripture:

Article 16  [of CSBI] states “that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.” It also denies that inerrancy is “a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.” To refute the claim that the doctrine of inerrancy was “invented” by nineteenth-century Princeton is also to rebut the objection that inerrancy, along with the Chicago statement, is a provincial and parochial concern. Can it be done? A full-orbed demonstration of inerrancy’s historical pedigree is beyond the scope of the present essay. Others have been there, done that. I propose instead to compare and contrast the Chicago statement to the creedal statement on the Trinity of the Council of Nicaea. To be sure, the framers of the Chicago statement explicitly say in the preface that they do not propose to give the statement “creedal weight,” but this is not the salient feature of my comparison. I propose to focus instead on a certain parallel between inerrancy and homoousios.

Chicago is not Nicaea: the gospel itself is not directly at stake in inerrancy, nor is it clear whether there was in Chicago a counterpart to Athanasius. I am nevertheless struck by four similarities: (1) the notions of homoousios and inerrancy both arose at a time when the truths they express— in the one case, the full deity of the Son, in the other, the divine truth of the Scriptures— were being challenged; (2) both homoousios and inerrancy are technical terms that have proven to be stumbling blocks to many; (3) neither term is biblical, in the sense of occurring in Scripture; yet (4) both terms reflect underlying biblical convictions or judgments.

My thesis, in brief, is this: while the term inerrant or the concept of inerrancy may be new, the underlying judgment is not. I owe the concept/ judgment distinction to David Yeago, who in a seminal article developed it in connection to Nicaea. Yeago thinks that Paul’s language in Philippians 2: 6, about the Son’s isos theos (“ equality with God”), is saying the same thing as Nicaea’s very different concept homoousios (“ of the same substance”). It is essential “to distinguish between judgments and the conceptual terms in which those judgments are rendered” so that “the same judgment can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms.”  Similarly, I submit that inerrancy is saying (nearly) the same thing as John’s language in Revelation 21: 5 about the Word of God being pistoi kai alethinoi (“ trustworthy and true”).

The doctrine of inerrancy expresses a nonidentical equivalence to what Scripture teaches about itself. The problem with concepts, however, is that they gradually acquire a medley of associations, each of which affects the core meaning. Although it expresses a biblical judgment, the concept of inerrancy also shows signs of its cultural and historical locatedness. The challenge, then, is to affirm the underlying judgment together with the concept of inerrancy, provided that we can free the latter from unhelpful cultural accretions in order to free it for ministering the whole counsel of God.

–Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), pp. 212-213

In other words, inerrancy expresses a Biblical truth in different terms, in a similar way that the word  homoousios, or even ‘trinity’ does.

Of course, Vanhoozer goes on to actually make the case from Scripture that his rendition of inerrancy, an “Augustinian, Well-Versed Inerrancy”, actually is consistent with what we find there. Still, the concept/judgment distinction helps us see that the issue of whether or not a doctrine is “biblical” isn’t a simple matter of looking it up in a concordance, or finding an adequate proof-text.

Soli Deo Gloria

(Also, for what it’s worth, Vanhoozer points out that not even Chicago gives inerrancy creedal weight the way some proponents would. It’s not de fide for everybody.)