When it Comes to the Bible, Sometimes It’s Best To Say, “I Don’t Know”

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named 'Luther.' Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named ‘Luther.’ Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

The Bible can be a hard book at times. And that’s so for a number of reasons. In the first place, we’re sinners and so we don’t always like listening to what God has to say through it. Kind of like when your mom would call you to take out the trash from up the hall–you manage not to “hear” the message.

Beyond that, sometimes even when you want to understand it’s just plain difficult. It’s a grown-up book, translated from a different language (two or three, actually), at a remove of thousands of years, across cultures, and shared histories. What’s more, this collection of narratives, poetry, visions, and letters concerns itself with the most sublime and transcendent Subject of all: God and his works.

Of course, that’s not to say we can’t understand it all. That would be rather extreme. No, much of the Bible can be read and understood by most, and there is enough that can be understood by all so that they may know what they need to be saved and live life with God. God has can and does reach us through his Word. That’s the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.

All the same, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not teach that no part of the Bible is difficult, or that it will always be equally obvious to all (2 Pet. 3:16). There will be much that is beyond us. And this is important for believers to admit, at times, for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

But first, I was reminded of this point as I was reading some Luther the other night. At this point, he’s preaching through the John 3 and he comes to the line about being born again of water and the Spirit and the difficulties of interpretation. Luther thinks that Munzer has badly misinterpreted the Scriptures here and he moves to correct him, but before doing so, he makes an important point:

But let these words stand, and do not indulge in subtle arguments, even though they appear foolish and strange to reason. Take them in their simple sense, just as they read, not as some have interpreted them. Munzer, for example, declared that water here symbolizes affliction and temptation. One must not be willful with the Word of God. It is better to say: “I do not understand the words,” than to alter them. It is better to leave my hands off and to commend it to God than to add to or detract from God’s words. Holy Writ must be treated with veneration and profound awe. In their impudence, however, the schismatic spirits do not do this; they are forward, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Peter. They consider the Word of God nothing else than the word of man (2 Peter 2:10). But don’t meddle with God’s Word. If you do not understand it, accord it the honor to say: “I shall wait until I do understand it.”

Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, pg. 283

There is a wisdom in slowing down in your interpretation of Scripture. God’s Word is holy. It is the set apart of his apostles and prophets–heralds of the Holy One–for the divine purpose of drawing his people into fellowship with the Triune God. It is, therefore, as a Kingly proclamation, nothing to be trifled or meddled with. It must “be treated with veneration and profound awe.” In which case, Luther says there will come times when it’s entirely appropriate to say, “I do not understand the words.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think it’s especially important for those of us called to teach the Bible–whether in the classroom or the pulpit–to give heed to Luther’s here.

There is a pressure for the pastor or the teacher to be the one who knows everything all the time. Now, of course, it’s quite reasonable for us to expect the pastor to know some things. Maybe even more things than most in the congregation. (Though, as any pastor knows, there are usually a number of saints who can give you a run for your seminary education sitting in the pews). Still, whether it’s self-imposed or put on them by others, the pressure to “know it all”; to have every verse down, ready to comment on, and every theological equation solved is there.

And so the temptation is to spout off an answer when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. Here are some reasons it’s better to just say “I don’t know,” sometimes.

First, as Luther says, we avoid dishonoring God’s Word that way. When we say God’s Word says something it doesn’t, we’re altering it. We’re changing what God’s written to us and that is no small thing. Now, to be sure, every preacher has done this at some point, even in their earnest desire to preach the Word. And I believe God understands and has mercy on these things. But to do so, not out of earnest conviction, but merely because one hasn’t given enough thought to the issue or simply in order to have something to say and prop up your pride is sinful. When faced with a passage too difficult, better to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Second, by doing so, not only do you honor God’s Word, but you teach your people to honor God’s Word. You teach them humility before God’s Word that they then take with them to their own study. What’s more, by admitting your own lack of knowledge at certain points, you give them permission to “not know” things and yet continue to study nonetheless. I think that was one of the more helpful things I did for my students. They all knew I read and studied like crazy, but I’d still have moments where I’d have to look at them and say, “You know, I have to go look that up more. I’m just not sure.”

Finally, it should help prevent you from discrediting God’s Word in the ears of your hearers. Unfortunately, your bad teaching that flows from your inability to just admit you’re beyond your depths can turn people off from the Bible because of the distortion you inject into it. Speculative, shallow, half-cocked answers to difficult questions don’t make you sound smarter, they only make the Bible sound worse. Being willing to simply admit you don’t know avoids that danger.

Obviously, none of this is an argument for simply shutting up and never preaching anything. As I said, I think there’s plenty that’s clear, and with some study, we are able to truly understand, preach, and teach the Bible. All the same, it’s okay to admit there are times it’s beyond us. It may be that in precisely that way we treat it as we ought: as God’s Holy Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm: “Taste the Goodness of Your Redeemer”

christ-on-the-cross-1587Anselm of Canterbury is credited with having invented with what is called the “satisfaction” theory of atonement in his classic work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In a severely condensed nutshell, humanity sins against its Creator, incurring an infinite debt of sin, having slighted the infinitely worthy Triune God’s honor and marring the beauty and order of his universe. This moral debt is owed to God and yet is unpayable twice over, not only because the debt is infinite, but because humanity has wounded itself and is now no longer even able to render the obedience it still owes, much less the outstanding debt. And yet, humanity is the one who owes the debt and so is the only one who ought to pay it.

God, though, being faithful to his creation and to his purposes for the good of his humanity aims to reconcile humanity to himself. To do so, the Son comes, assumes our human nature alongside his divine nature, lives a perfect life, dies a death he does not owe, and in virtue of his infinite goodness, offers it up as a good exceeding every debt in order to settle the debt of sin. He can do this on our behalf because he is true man. But the offering of this man can cover our debt because it is also the humble offering of the infinite God.

Now, there are a number of objections that have been lodged against it over the years–some of them which I myself share. One which I think has been quite unfair, though, is that Anselm’s logical presentation is of a “rationalist” sort, with one of the implications being that it’s connected to a rather cold sort of faith, narrowly concerned with ledgers and miserliness. That it’s the kind of faith that cuts the nerve of piety and true spiritual vitality.

I think it’s unfair because, first, it ignores the way the form of Anselm’s argument–the dialogue–shapes the presentation. Second, it ignores the deep beauty and grace which shapes his other works, many of which are written in the form of prayers to God, or spoken to the Christian soul.

We were given one such work in my seminar on atonement at Trinity, “A Meditation on Human Redemption” and I thought it worth sharing an excerpt we read in class the other day:

O Christian soul, soul raised up from grievous death, soul redeemed and freed by the blood of God from wretched bondage: arouse your mind, remember your resurrection, contemplate your redemption and liberation. Consider anew where and what the strength of your salvation is, spend time in meditating upon this strength, delight in reflecting upon it. Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind toward this end. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Savior, chew His words as a honey-comb, suck out their flavor, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.

Where, then, and what is the strength and might of your salvation? Assuredly, Christ has resurrected you. That Good Samaritan has healed you, that Good Friend has redeemed and freed you by sacrificing His own soul life. Yes, it was Christ. Therefore, the strength of Christ is the strength of your salvation. Where is the strength of Christ? Surely horns are in His hands; there His strength is hidden. Strength is indeed in His hands because His hands were nailed to the arms of the cross. But what strength can there be in such weakness, what majesty in such humiliation, what worthy of reverence in such contempt? But surely because it is disguised in weakness it is something hidden, because veiled in humiliation it is something concealed, because covered with contempt it is something inaccessible. O hidden might! A man appended to a cross suspends the eternal death impending over the human race; a man fastened to a cross unfastens a world affixed to endless death! O concealed power! A man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with demons; a man stretched out on a cross draws all things unto Himself! O unseen strength! One soul yielded up in the torment [of crucifixion] draws countless souls from the torments of Hell; a man undergoes bodily death and abolishes spiritual death!

It’s been a while since I’ve read something that thick with spiritual vitality. The doctrinal content is rich, but this is not the language of detached doctrinal discussion, but that of prayer, praise, and adoration.

What’s funny, though, is that he continues from there in a similar mode of prayerful reasoning, to work through much of the same logic of salvation as he outlines in Cur Deus Homo. For example:

For the life of that man Jesus is more precious than everything that is not God, and it surpasses every debt owed by sinners as satisfaction. For if putting Him to death [is a sin which] surpasses the multitude and magnitude of all conceivable sins which are not against the person of God, clearly His life is a good greater than the evil of all those sins which are not against the person of God. To honor the Father, that man Jesus – who was not obliged to die, because not a sinner freely gave something of His own when He permitted His life to be taken from Him for the sake of justice. He permitted this in order to show to all others by example that they ought not to forsake the justice of God even because of death, which inevitably they are obliged to undergo at some time or other; for He who was not obliged to undergo death and who, having kept justice, could have avoided death, freely and for the sake of justice endured death, which was inflicted upon Him. Thus, in that man human nature freely and out of no obligation gave to God something its own, so that it might redeem itself in others in whom it did not have what it, as a result of indebtedness, was required to pay.

This same “logic” of satisfaction is what leads Anselm to comfort the believer with the beauty of their redemption given in Christ. No dry, detached piety here, but rich, spiritual truth.

I’ve nothing more to say except to close with one more excerpt which I hope encourages and comforts you today:

Behold, O Christian soul, this is the strength of your salvation, this is what has made possible your freedom, this is the cost of your redemption. You were in bondage, but through the cross you have been redeemed. You were a servant, but through the cross you have been set free. You are an exile who in this manner has been led back home, someone lost who has been found, someone dead who has been revived. O man, let your heart feed upon these thoughts. Let it chew continually upon them, let it suck upon them and swallow them whenever your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. In this life make these thoughts your daily bread, your nourishment, your provision. For through these thoughts and only through them will you remain in Christ and Christ in you; and only through them will your joy be full in the life to come.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Does Systematic Theology Add to Biblical Theology?

booksI’ve been on a bit of a Henri Blocher kick since his visit to Trinity this last week and I have to say it’s been paying off. For instance, I looked up an article of his, “The Justification of the Ungodly” in the second Paul volume, Justification and Variegated Nomism to thumb through this weekend. While most of it is caught up with the nature of justice and justification in relation to the New Perspective, Blocher opened up with some important insights on the nature of systematic theology as different from other disciplines.

Important, at least, to me. When people ask me what I’m studying and I say, “Systematic theology”, I can’t tell you how many times I get the question, “Okay, so what makes it ‘systematic’ theology?” Then when you try and explain that it’s systematic versus “biblical”–but not unbiblical!–you just get this funny stare until you sputter something about a logical ordering of topics and hope the subject changes. If you’ll pardon the comparison, I’m reminded of that famous line of Justice Potter Stewart on trying to define what counts as pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...”

(I leave it to others to decide whether there are any more comparisons between the two phenomena to be made.)

All the same, there have been a number of different approaches to distinguishing the two sub-disciplines of biblical and systematic theology–a couple of which I will probably return to in the future–but I think Blocher’s little section gets at some key insights worth laying out.

Blocher begins to get at the issue with this initial paragraph:

On the one hand, systematic theologians draw from Scripture the substance and light of their thinking. They are not seeking for another source or standard. In Berkouwer’s words: “Beyond the word of Scripture we dare not go, in speech or in theological reflection; for it is in this word that God’s love in Jesus Christ is revealed. There is nothing beyond that.” This dependence entails for them a major interest in the work of biblical scholars, through whom they receive knowledge of scriptural contents. On the other hand, they also make their own contribution to the joint enterprise of Bible study: as Heinrich Ott emphasized, Dogmatics should be included in the “hermeneutical circle.”

Protestant, Evangelical, and especially Reformed systematic theologians are–or ought to be–firmly committed to the normative status of the text of Scripture for doing theology. Sola Scriptura is not something we simply confess, but something we practice. Scripture alone is the final authority, and so faithful theologians will want to be attentive to what biblical studies has to say. We are concerned with and must draw the roots of our theologizing from solid exegesis.

But is theology anything more than exegesis? Blocher asks, “How distinctive is the contribution of systematic theology?” What do systematicians do beyond repeating the biblical scholars? Blocher’s brief answer begins, first, by dispelling the notion that or some sort of faith-interest or presupposition is what separates the two:

Theological interests motivate exegetes and historical critics as well; they cannot dispense with theological criteria to guide their search nor with a “fiduciary framework” (Polanyi’s phrase) to give meaning to their findings; they do think these findings “together.”

It’s not, then, that systematics’ only contribution is a theological bias–no matter what some biblical scholars might claim. No, what systematics does is deepen the reading.

Systematic (or dogmatic) theology only pushes a little further the effort at synthesis, representing the “whole” as opposed to the “parts” in the older construal of the hermeneutical circle; critical integration becomes its specific object; it establishes itself at a few more removes from textual ground level, in a more reflective mood. It does so in deliberate interaction with the history of Christian thought (and, in various degrees, with “human” thought, past and present). Systematic theology thus faces more openly or squarely the challenge of personal commitment: “What do you say. . . ?” (cf. Matt 16:15). It delineates and expounds for the use of the church the credendum: the focus is no longer on what Paul thought and believed – but nostra res agitur. The systematic concern for appropriation makes one vulnerable, exposing the person in the weakness of his or her faith. It corresponds to the other construal of the hermeneutical circle, the involvement of subject with object.

A few things are worth noting here.

First, Blocher is already assuming that biblical studies/theology is a “synthetic” task. Biblical scholars are trying to forward readings of biblical texts that bring together the various parts into a coherent, synthetic whole. Systematic theology shares that concern but pushes a bit further down the road. Or, to change the metaphor, a bit further back from the pages of Scripture, in order to take in the broader sweep.

Second, systematic theology typically does this in conversation with other historical-theological readings of Scripture. Biblical studies, as a discipline, is typically concerned with recent scholarship, Ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman backgrounds, and so forth, but not so much with Patristic, Medieval, or Reformation readings of those same texts. Though, that does seem to be changing in some circles. All the same, systematic theology typically takes the history of exegesis as a more obvious conversation partner, since systematics–or dogmatics, to introduce another term–is a churchly activity.

Which brings me to the third point Blocher makes–the subjectivity of systematics. Here, it seems that Blocher sees systematics more openly owning the subjective, confessional dimension to theology. As he says, it’s not so much a matter of only putting together “what Paul believed then”, as drawing conclusions about “what Paul believed then”, for “what we as the church believe now.” Theoretically, biblical studies can be done with some separation from personal confession. Obviously, it can’t be done entirely so. Believing Paul to be an inspired, authoritative writer does shape the way you come to the text. Believing in the possibility or reality of miracles will change how you construct the intention and theology of the Gospel writers. Still, it’s possible to have a brilliant Pauline scholar who can describe the apostle’s thought then, without actually subscribing to it. The systematic theologian cannot do that. The theologian puts forward claims as truths to be owned by the individual, the community they are a part of, and, ultimately, the world.

There is likely more to be said about the relationship and distinction between biblical and systematic theology, but this seems like an excellent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What to do with Refugees?

Mere FidelityWith the refugee crisis in full swing in Europe and the Middle East, Christians are questioning just what our role is in this situation. There’s the immediate, knee-jerk response of sending aid, and the desire to welcome the poor and hungry. But there are also long-term questions that many have begun to raise about the wisdom of just how we ought to be helping them. Matt, Alastair, Andrew, and I take up these questions and more in this episode of Mere Fidelity. I hope this offer’s some wisdom and guidance in a bewildering and overwhelming situation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trophimus I Left Sick (Blocher On Why More Aren’t Healed)

Paul healing DujardinI’ve had occasion to write about the problem of healing, or lack thereof, before on this blog. There are a number of challenges for modern Christians when they read reports of miraculous healing in the Scriptures. First, trained as we are to think in largely physicalist parameters, conceiving the universe as something of a closed continuum, there is our initial skepticism that the miraculous is even possible. Of course, there are formidable arguments against this view, and we appear to be less hostile to the miraculous than we have been in generations past.

And so for many of us, the problem is far different. We admit that if there is an omnipotent God, it’s easily possible for him to heal. The question for us is “why doesn’t he do so as he used to?” We read the New Testament and find a wealth of reports of physical healing on an extraordinary level. The blind gain sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and even the dead are raised. And this is not only Jesus in his ministry pulling off fantastic feats like this, but in that of the apostles.

Indeed, so much healing was going on it verges on the ridiculous:

And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)

Paul could blow his nose, drop his handkerchief, and God would use that rag to heal people of diseases and cast out demons. If that’s the case, then why not more? Why does it seem relegated to then and there and not here and now? We’re just as sick as they were in the 1st Century. We know people who would come to believe if they saw someone healed, so why don’t we see more? Is it, as so many faith-healers and their like teach, simply a matter of our weaker faith? Do we remain ill because of our faithlessness?

This last week I had the honor of sitting in a small Q&A discussion with theologian Henri Blocher as he’s in town giving the Kantzer lectures in Revealed Theology at TEDS. His topic his been related to the problem and possibility of evil, so naturally some of our questions turned there. One fellow student asked him just that question. He responded with three general lines of thought, which I’m going to relay in an artificial order and much more poorly than he originally articulated it.

First, he pointed out that we’re often victims of optical distortion when it comes to our reading of the New Testament evidence. While it’s true that there are many instances healing in the early the Church, we often ignore the evidence that points us in the other direction. For instance, while it’s true that Paul had a powerful ministry of healing, we also read him write in his final greetings in his second letter to Timothy that he had “left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus” (4:20). Now, if healing was as automatic and plentiful as all that, it seems that Paul–handkerchief healing master–wouldn’t have left his co-worker for the gospel sick, now would he?

Second, Blocher pointed out that, while not restricted to this situation, miraculous signs and wonders seemed to accompany the inbreaking of the gospel into a new mission ground as a sign of its truth. Then, upon the establishment of the Church in that area–miracles may not die out entirely–but Christians themselves, in their holy living, are to be the chief signs of the gospel. Depending on how charismatic you are, you’ll find that one more or less convincing.

Finally, humble and cautious as he tends to be in any area of theologizing that isn’t closely grounded in the text, Blocher reminded us that we are ultimately dealing with the wisdom of our free God. Our God is personal and supremely so–Father, Son, and Spirit–and so he responds to our prayers with the discretion and care of one who can say yes and–at times-no, according to his own good plans. Any theology that expects God to act on command has forgotten that it is dealing, not with a dispensing machine, but with our saving Lord.

We must, for these reasons, be careful about speculating about the faithfulness of our brothers and sisters who pray for healing and yet do not receive it. Nor should we be quick to doubt the infinite goodness, power, and love of our God who has healed us of our most grievous ills–sin and death–by suffering these ills himself, on our behalf, in the man Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Uniting Body and Soul, Truth and Righteousness, with Ireneaus

apostolic preachingI recently had the pleasure of revisiting St. Ireneaus’ brilliant little work The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching for a course. It’s this magnificent little summary by Ireneaus of, well, the apostolic preaching through the Scriptures. It’s an account of redemptive-history, the work of God in salvation through Christ and the Spirit, to redeem his cosmos. Sort of like a less-polemical, little brother to his massive work Against Heresies. It’s really one of the classics of the patristic period and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In any case, I was struck by a passage in the introduction, where Ireneaus is commending the importance of having a unified approach towards truth and life. He roots it in the nature humanity as a compound of body and soul. Humans are necessarily composed of both; we are not just souls with bodies nor bodies with souls, but soul-and-body-wholes. As such, sin and impurity can come by way of both routes. We can defile ourselves in spirit as well as in the flesh.

This leads him to this brilliant little bit:

For godliness is obscured and dulled by the soiling and the staining of the flesh, and is broken and polluted and no more entire, if falsehood enter into the soul: but it will keep itself in its beauty and its measure, when truth is constant in the soul and purity in the flesh. For what profit is it to know the truth in words, and to pollute the flesh and perform the works of evil? Or what profit can purity of the flesh bring, if truth be not in the soul? For these rejoice with one another, and are united and allied to bring man face to face with God.

Irenaeus highlights two dangers we face in our walk with God. We can err in pursuing truth at the expense of righteous living or in pursuing righteous living at the expense of truth. The two cannot be separated.

The first seems particularly threatening to me as I begin my program at Trinity, diving headfirst into academic texts, lectures, and the bowels of the library. It’s easy to become impressed with a knowledge of the ins and outs of the history of theology, or be tickled by the latest, new idea about God, and become confused into thinking that’s actually a growth in holiness. But the reality is that you can add more books to your shelves and not an ounce more of moral character or depth in your actual communion with God.

And this is part of how you get that seemingly inexplicable moral failure that haunts so many pastors down the road. Some build up academic theological knowledge or practical ministry know-how in seminary while bracketing it off from a growth in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, gathering with the people of God, submitting yourself to the ministry of the preached Word, and so forth. That leads to a top-heavy, shiny theological structure without the foundational character that can support it. This is why Barth warned that prayer is the main attitude with which to undertake the study of theology.

The flipside of this is the sort of pursuit of righteousness that tends to downplay questions of doctrine and truth in favor of “just living like Jesus”, or “doing good.” Of course we want to live like Jesus and do good, but there is a way of pursuing it that cuts it free from their deepest logic and motive power—the reality of the gospel. Paul talks about this when he condemns those who have the “form of godliness while denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).

Of course, this easily falls into soul-sucking moralism. One form devolves into a Pharisaic self-righteousness because this righteousness is cut off from the gospel of grace. Or maybe it turns into a hopelessness that eventually robs us of our moral energy because “doing good” has been cut off from the hope we have in Christ that all things will be put to rights. The extreme at the end of this road is not the failed pastor, but the social worker who retains Jesus as—at most—a cipher for their own best moral aspirations.

Here’s the irony: Both approaches turn Jesus into something less than a Lord. In the first, he’s treated as an object to be studied. In the second, he’s a model to be followed. But neither treats him as a person to known, or loved, or obeyed.

This is why only when the two are united—the pursuit of truth as well as the pursuit of holiness—are we led to the face of God. Only as we acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship over soul and body, truth and practice, do we encounter him as whole persons, given over in worship.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What is Christ-Centered Hermeneutics?

Mere FidelitySo, we’ve all see that phrase “Christ-centered” pop up on the blogosphere before. “Christ-centered preaching”, “Christ-centered theology”, “Christ-centered dog washing”–but what does that even mean? Especially when it comes to interpretation, what does it mean to have a truly Christ-centered hermeneutics? Does that just mean doing typology all day long? And is there a right way or a wrong way to do typology? Do we stick to only the types authorized explicitly by the apostles, or can we expand? And if we expand, how do we stop before we fall into typological excess? And what about Tim Keller?

Alastair, Andrew, and I go into all this in this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity. It was a fun one. I hope you enjoy and pass it along.

By the way, if you’d like to review and rate us over at iTunes (if and only if you like us), please feel free to do that here.

Soli Deo Gloria