What Does It Mean to Follow ‘The Way’?

New Testament Biblical TheologyIt’s often noted that before they were called Christians, followers of Jesus in the book of Acts were referred to as ‘The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14). Many preachers then go on to make the point that before Christianity was a religion, or a system of thought, it was instead known as a distinctive way of life. It’s not so much that Christians are people who believe certain things, but that they are people who live a certain way. While that can be appealing to many, left on its own, it sets up something of a false dichotomy between living and believing that is entirely foreign to the Scriptures. Right belief and right living are a seamless whole in Biblical spirituality.

Others, taking a slightly different (and better) angle, remind us that Jesus called himself  “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Early Christians were called followers of “the Way”, not simply because of the way they lived, but precisely because of who they followed. The Way is not simply a set of behaviors, but a person. It is only by trusting in and following the one who is the Way that we enter into the life that is truly life and come to know the Father.

As promising as that view is, G.K. Beale proposes another, still more promising read and suggests that we pay attention to clues that Luke presents us with in the Gospel of Luke:

The significance of the citation from Isa. 40:3–5 in Luke 3:3–6 appears at the commencement of Jesus’s public ministry:

And [John] came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words
of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make ready the way of the Lord,
make His paths straight.
Every ravine will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be brought low;
the crooked will become straight,
and the rough roads smooth;
and all flesh will see the salvation of God.”

David Pao has rightly argued that this quotation provides the key interpretative framework within which the remainder of Luke-Acts is to be understood. The Isaiah quotation is the beginning of an extended section in Isaiah that prophesies the coming of a new exodus whereby Israel will be delivered from bondage in Babylon. The various motifs found in the prologue (Isa. 40:1–11) to Isa. 41–55 are developed extensively throughout the following chapters of Isaiah and in Acts. The best expression of this new-exodus paradigm is the “way” terminology (derived primarily from Isa. 40:3) in Acts as a name for the nascent Christian movement, polemically identifying the church as God’s true people in the midst of his rejection of Israel. Notice the repeated reference to the Christian movement as “the Way” in Acts, which most of the time occurs in contexts of persecution or opposition:

Acts 9:2 “And [Paul] asked for letters from him [the high priest] to the synagogues
at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both
men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

Acts 19:9 “But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking
evil of the Way before the people, [Paul] withdrew from them and
took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.”

Acts 19:23 “About that time there occurred no small disturbance concerning
the Way.”

Acts 22:4 “I [Paul] persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting
both men and women into prisons.”

Acts 24:14 “But this I [Paul] admit to you, that according to the Way which
they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything
that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets.”

Acts 24:22 “But Felix, having a more exact knowledge about the Way, put
them off, saying, ‘When Lysias the commander comes down, I will decide
your case.’”

This name for the Christian movement, “the Way,” thus designates that the Christians were the true end-time Israel beginning to fulfill the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile. They were on “the Way” out of exile to returning to God. The name “the Way” indicates that one could begin to participate in this restoration journey by believing in Christ and joining others who already believed and were walking on “the Way,” progressing in their new-exodus journey. Consequently, “the Way” described both those first joining it and those who had belonged to it for some time, so that the name included reference to a manner of ongoing Christian living as part of a restoration journey.

–G.K. Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, pp. 856-858

To be a follower of “the Way”, then, meant understanding yourself to be the beneficiary of God’s great new act of redemption through His Anointed One. Just as God had led Israel out of Egypt into freedom God had promised to lead Israel out of Exile, both physical and spiritual. John prepared the way for YHWH’s coming and the Lord Jesus walked it bringing salvation in his wake.

This approach has the benefit of being thickly rooted in a long-range approach to Scripture, makes sense of the exegetical data in Acts, as well as incorporating some of the better insights of the simpler views listed above. We see clearly here that to be a follower of the Way was a matter of both belief and of practice. It was precisely because they believed God was fulfilling his promise of a New Exodus through the person and work of Jesus that they lived this new journey life-style.

Two thousand years later that New Exodus is still going–people are being brought out of the Exile of sin and death into the new in covenant with God. We are still on walking the “The Way” with Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

Legit Ladies of the Exodus

moses motherI love noticing layers and dimensions to the narratives of Scripture that I haven’t seen before. I was particularly edified the other day when reading an older post by my Mere Fidelity compatriot, Alastair Roberts, on the early chapters of Exodus. Among other things, he takes some time to highlights what a dominant role the godly, courageous women play early on in the story. I thought it was worth quoting at length:

Throughout Exodus 1 we see the fertility and liveliness of the children of Israel and the thwarted efforts of Pharaoh to arrest their growth. First, Pharaoh afflicts the Israelites, setting taskmasters over them, and forcing them to build supply cities. Later on the description of the process of making bricks will recall the building of Babel in Genesis 11. Pharaoh then speaks to the Hebrew midwives, instructing them to kill the sons and spare the daughters. The killing of the sons prevented the children of Israel from defending themselves or challenging the Egyptians, while the daughters would be spared for Egyptian men. Once again we see a threat to the promised seed and to the woman by the serpent/dragon figure. The dragon wants to kill the seed that threatens him and use the woman to produce his own seed.

The Hebrew midwives, like the godly women of Genesis, deceive and lie to the tyrant. The women of the Hebrews are contrasted with the Egyptian women, who lack their vigour. The sense is of a divinely given life that is continually outpacing the death-dealing tyrant that is fruitlessly seeking to overtake and arrest it. Having failed with the midwives, Pharaoh then instructs his people to kill every Hebrew baby boy, while saving the daughters alive. The fact that midwives are mentioned should also alert us to the fact thatIsrael is about to undergo a national birth.

It is important that we recognize that this story, as in the case of other great stories of Exodus, focus at their outset on faithful women (Rachel and Leah, Hannah, Mary and Elizabeth). Exodus 1 and 2 are all about women and especially daughters – the Hebrew midwives, the Hebrew mothers, the daughters of the Israelites, Jochebed, the daughter of Levi (2:1), Miriam, the daughter of Jochebed (v.4), Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidens (v.8), and the seven daughters of Midian (2:16). Our attention is typically on the slain sons and on Moses, and we miss the crucial role that the women play in the story.

It is the women who outwit the serpent, Pharaoh, and mastermind the salvation of the Hebrew boys. It is Jochebed and Miriam who bring about Moses’ salvation and the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues him. The place of women in the narrative will be important as we go along. Having registered the importance of this detail, we will remark upon its presence at various points as we proceed.

The women and the seed are in direct conflict with the tyrant because the story of the Exodus grows out of the enmity established between the woman and her seed and the serpent and his seed in Genesis 3:15. Until Moses grows up, the only man really active within Exodus is the greater serpent, the dragon Pharaoh. Exodus 1:15—2:10 is a story of Eve and the dragon.

Yes, when we think of heroes of the faith, there are a lot of mens’ names on that list. But we shouldn’t for an instant forget the story of the Gospel is one that includes both men and women. We have a great many fathers in the faith, but we also have some really, really legit mothers as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

God’s Very Verbal Word in the Words of Jeremiah

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” -Jeremiah 1:9-10

mouth full of fireI’ve written before about the appropriateness of speaking of the Bible as the “Word of God” even though Jesus is referred to as the the Word as well. I was reminded of the discussion as I began Andrew Shead’s new study on the “word” theology of the book of Jeremiah A Mouth Full of Fire. I’m only in second chapter so far, but already Shead’s been making a compelling case that the whole book is structured around the story of the “word of the Lord” that comes to Jeremiah the prophet.

At the beginning of his exploration of the usage of various forms of the word “word”, Shead opens with a helpful comment for those involved in the task of theological exploration and biblical exposition:

..it should be remembered that Jeremiah’s words were ordinary human ones. The notion that human language can be an adequate vehicle for the divine word is a bone of contention among theologians, and yet the remarkable implication of the book’s opening paragraph  is that the inescapable imprecision of human language does not prevent it from conveying the word of God. This impression is only strengthened by the striking imagery of Jeremiah 1:9, towards the end of the prophet’s call narrative: ‘Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth. The Lord said to me, “I have just put my words in your mouth.”‘ Clearly, it was not merely a general message that Jeremiah received. we can safely conclude that the message from God came to Jeremiah in words. To put it in theological terms, this act of revelation is verbal.

-A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, pg. 54

This observation about the passage in Jeremiah (and the theology of the book as a whole) is important for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it acts as a helpful counter-measure to an over-weening skepticism about theological language. Theologians are constantly falling into one of two errors: the first is an over-confidence in the ability of human language to capture the essence of God in human language that fails to forget the finite and fallen character of our speech of God. The other is the sort of agnosticism that comes in and says we can’t know anything at all about God because our human conceptions and speech are so far distant, none of our words can apply to him.

That second option sounds humbling to human speech at first, but it inadvertently makes too little of God the Speaker. Indeed, this passage reminds us that human finiteness and fallenness are not the ultimate reality, or last word, so to speak, when it comes to God’s words. It’s not so much a question of whether small, weak, human words can capture the divine holiness within them. The question is whether God can, in his omnipotence, grace, and condescension, put his own words into human speech. While we would do well to have a more complex account of God’s revelation and speech than a simplistic “divine dictation theory”, Jeremiah’s prophecy stands as a warning for us to hold off from scoffing too loudly at the idea that God could, or would, take the time to “dictate” a message for his people. Certainly we shouldn’t let that lead us to the conclusion that the words of Scripture are inherently the sort of thing that can’t be identified with God’s own word.

I’ll give the last word to Vanhoozer again:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, pg. xvi

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

An Outline of Acts with the Lord Jesus at the Center

acts of JesusThe book of Acts has been known as “The Acts of the Apostles” for most of church history because of it’s focus on, well, the acts of the apostles. For the most part it’s Peter preaching here, Philip baptizing there, and Paul getting in fights everywhere. Scholars have alternatively suggested that it ought to be thought of as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” given the prominent role played by the Spirit in empowering the Church throughout the narrative. Recently, though, Alan J. Thompson has suggested what I think to be a more appropriate way of understanding the book: “The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus.”

In this new study of the theology of Acts, Thompson demonstrates that Luke’s sequel volume really ought to be seen as a depicting the continuing  Kingdom-ministry of the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus through the Church by the Spirit.  Now, while it would be fascinating to go into the case, I think it might be more interesting to see how Thompson thinks this should shape our view of the outline of Acts.

Thompson notes that there are a couple of different typical approaches to the outline of Acts. One is the focus on Paul’s missionary journeys, which, while somewhat intuitive, ends up focusing more on Paul than on Jesus. And the other is to key in on certain programmatic statements as marking movement in the story, which is a bit truer to the literary style, but it still has some organization disadvantages when viewed as a whole. Instead, Thompson presents us with an alternative structure with the “reign of the Lord Jesus” at the center:

Acts 1:1 – 2:47  The reign of Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit

Acts 3:1 – 8:3   The reign of Christ the Lord over rising opposition

Internal and external

Acts 8:4 – 9:31 The reign of Christ the Lord over outcasts and enemies

Samaria

Ethiopian Eunuch

Paul

Acts 9:32 – 12:25 The reign of Christ over all the nations

Peter preaches Christ in Lydda, Joppa, to Cornelius and household

The Jewish Gentile Church in Antioch is established

Peter is rescued from ‘King’ Herod Agrippa I and his prison

Acts 13:1 – 16:5 The reign of Christ the Lord proclaimed to the nations: part 1

Commission in Antioch (13:1-3)

Ministry in Cyprus, Pisidia, Lycaonia (13:4-14:20)

Nurturing the churches (14:21-28)

Evaluation in Jerusalem (15:1-16:5)

Acts 16:6 – 21:36 The reign of Christ the Lord proclaimed to the nations: part 2

Commission in Troas (16:6-10)

Ministry in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus (16:11-19:41)

Nurturing the churches (20:1-21:14)

Evaluation in Jerusalem (21:15-36)

Acts 21:-37 – 28:31 The reign of Christ the Lord vindicated before the rulers

Trial before the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 21-22)

Trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Acts 23)

Trial before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24)

Trial before Festus and Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea (Acts 26)

Final meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome (Acts 28)

The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, pp. 69-70

So then, maybe take up the book of Acts this week and read it with new eyes, focused not so much on Paul or Peter, but the way the Risen Lord advances his Kingdom through the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

N.T. Wright, Empire, and the Advent Hope of Eschatology

paul and the faithfulness of God “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” -Acts 17:30-31

While it’s become something of a truism in the last few years to note that much New Testament christology has an anti-imperial tone to it (as Wright puts it, the basic confession of the faith “Jesus is Lord”, means “Caesar is not”), what often goes unmentioned by many is the threat to Empire posed by its eschatology. N.T. Wright explains how this works:

…in particular, the developing discourse of imperial cult in Asia constantly stressed the fact that the Roman empire, once launched, was going to continue, and to bring its great blessings to the world, for ever. ‘The discourse of imperial cults was committed to preventing the imagination from imagining the end of the world.’ No, declared Paul: God has fixed a day on which he will have the world brought to justice.

That was, of course, an essentially Jewish view. The Jewish objections to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of he standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God.) It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 342-343

Rome might claim finality and ultimacy for its ‘peace’ and ‘justice’, but there is a greater judgment coming. Part of the political hope of early Christian eschatology is that no empire, or authority that sets itself up against the Lordship of Christ can last. There is one Lord who will judge and reign in righteousness, who will bring about the true Golden Age, and he doesn’t brook rivals forever.

As we celebrate the first week of Advent it’s important to remember this is not just hope for 1st Century Christians. Modern Tyrants still recognize a threat when they see one. When I was in college I took a class on Christianity and China and learned about some of the differences between the house churches and the government-approved Three-Self churches. One of the most surprising was their teaching on the end-times. In his work Jesus in Beijing David Aikman says while most are basically orthodox theologically, it is “unlikely a worshiper in a Three Self Church will ever hear a sermon the Second Coming of Christ.” Like all other Empires, the communist regime sees the coming consummation of Jesus’ reign as a threat to claims of its own.

One of the best ways to observe Advent this week is to pray for the persecuted church around the world. Lift up our brothers and sisters living in totalitarian or hostile religious environments that they might be protected and liberated. Pray that as they meditate on the First Coming of Jesus looking towards Christmas, they might be strengthened by the Spirit in the sure hope they have in his Second Coming. Pray that even the midst of their struggles they might be able to sing with Psalmist:

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

he will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord, for he comes,

for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:10-13, ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria

Lewis Couldn’t Write About Aliens AND Centaurs — (Or, N.T. Wright on Pauline Authorship)

paul and the faithfulness of GodWhen I got to seminary, I found out a lot of people think Paul didn’t all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Actually, it’s not just that some people don’t, but rather it’s the dominant position in non-conservative academia, and even many conservative scholars adopt it. The idea is that letters like Ephesians, Colossians, the Timothys, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians are later compositions, pseudepigraphal, either by an imposter, or a devoted disciple that claim Paul’s name and authority. Depending on how conservative you are, you might say that the earliest recipients would have, of course, known this, and so there really wasn’t fraud being committed, but rather this would have been seen as an acceptable instance of a very common practice. Or, you might just call it lying.

While I can’t get into all of the details, one of the main arguments against their authenticity is the alleged difference in style and vocabulary. When you compare and contrast the undisputed letters to the others, you apparently find different vocabularies employed, special terminology missing or in use, sentence construction and so forth.

Now, I have to admit, when it comes to the Pauline epistles, I’ve never found this sort of argumentation all that convincing. Actually, I said as much in a footnote in one of my papers in seminary:

I’ve never been very impressed with arguments like that. “Paul couldn’t have said this, because he never says this kind of thing, as far as we know.” But what if he just said it in the passage? Then it would be the kind of thing he would say. I find this to be especially problematic given the contextual nature of these letters. It strikes me as kind of like saying, C.S. Lewis couldn’t have written The Space Trilogy because he never talked about aliens in The Chronicles of Narnia and the former is written for adults and clearly the latter is for children. Or it’s like saying “Oh, Bob could never have talked about that with his girlfriend Gina. I know that because I know what he talks about with his mother.” Barring a demonstration of contradiction or of unacceptably different conceptual backgrounds, these arguments often-times are simply an elevated exercise in question-begging that don’t take seriously issue of the way contextual concerns dominate the theology of Paul’s letters and the topics he chooses to address.

Now, you could easily chalk that up to a young, conservative student’s incredulity towards disturbing scholarship. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that N.T. Wright agrees with me!

Wright dives into the issue of authorship in his first volume of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yes, I started it and a couple hundred pages in it’s great) in order defend his use of Ephesians and Colossians as source material instead of simply sticking to the undisputed seven letters. While he has a fascinating section dealing with the theological motives in play for doubting the letters I’d love to get into (in the early days, the problem was that the general epistles sounded too “Catholic” for modern liberal Protestants to stomach, nowadays it’s more from postmodern egalitarians who don’t like what Paul has to say in the household codes),  it’s his short (for Wright) little section on the style issue that I found worth highlighting:

Arguments from style are clearly important in principle. But they are hard to make in practice. We have such a tiny sample of Paul’s writing, hardly an adequate database for definite conclusions about authorship. Those who have done computer analyses of Paul’s style come up with more ‘conservative’ results than we might have expected. In fact, if it’s stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ, and Paul’s ministry. The organization of the material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters that there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason cast doubt on 2 Corinthians. As John A.T. Robinson pointed out from personal experience a generation ago, a busy church leader may well write in very different styles for different occasions and audiences. The same person can be working simultaneously on a large academic project with careful, ponderous sentences and a short, snappy talk for Sunday school. It has not be unknown for senior biblical scholars to write children’s fiction [in fn.135 ...Among NT scholars who have written children's fiction we might mention C.H. Dodd and R.J. Bauckham]. More directly to the point, it has recently been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate ‘Asiatic’ style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in Western Turkey. I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul’s own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker could achieve such a measure of similarity. Other historical examples of that genre do not encourage us to suppose they would have been so successful.

–Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 1, pg. 60

So then, style matters, but it isn’t everything. If a NT scholar can write children’s lit, and someone as limited in range as me can write about epistemology and dating tips, then we ought to be wary about these sorts of judgments, when you’re dealing with a versatile thinker like Paul who’s doing ministry on multiple fronts across a series of decades.

And that’s just one of the dozens of nuggets worth sharing out of Wright’s PFG.

Soli Deo Gloria