Christianity 201

May 29, 2019

Misreading Paul’s “Keeping of Special Days”

I have a birthday coming up in the next few days. Over the years I have had discussions with people who feel very strongly that we’re not to celebrate birthdays. Much of this is based on a passage in Galatians:

8 Before you Gentiles knew God, you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist. 9 So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world? 10 You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. 11 I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing.
NLT – emphasis added

Two things are evident here:

  • Paul sees the keeping of special days — and it’s the Old Covenant feast days he has partly in view — as going back or reverting to a series of rituals they had been freed from.
  • The Galatians were doing this to try to please God. They were adding to what Christ’s death and resurrection had made no longer necessary. They were wanting the structure of religion with its dos and don’ts.
  • Others of Paul’s converts may have come from pagan religions which each had their own feast days. Old habits die hard. Imagine if you had a family tradition that had been practiced for generations that was suddenly stripped away. These pagan feasts day were incompatible with Christian faith and could not be retained in a Christ-following life.

Happy BirthdayBut clearly, Paul is not speaking of wishing someone a happy birthday. In celebrating my birthday over the years, I trust that my family had these aims:

  • I’m not being venerated. Their purpose isn’t sacred. Their actions are not sacramental. Some people argue that we can’t separate life into the sacred and the secular, but some things we do are merely perfunctory, like getting dressed, brushing our teeth, checking the mail, etc. A birthday serves no spiritual purpose.
  • Recognizing and celebrating the encouragement that someone’s life brings you is scriptural. Over and over we are told to encourage one another, to build one another up. A sincere expression of thanks and appreciation — personal, not what the greeting card writer came up with — should really be an everyday occurrence, not a yearly thing; but we we do need prompting to do this.
  • We are reminded of the passing of time. Our lives are “but a breath;” we are “here today and gone tomorrow.” We live sometimes in the “myth of continuity;” believing that things will always be as they are, but in fact, age will eventually catch up with us, it will happen quickly or when we are not looking. It’s good to be reminded of the fragility of life. That may seem to make a birthday bittersweet, but as you get older, it really is.
  • It’s not wrong to buy people things. We are to be good stewards of the resources that God gave us. Going to a dollar store (or for my UK readers, a poundshop) to buy something that will be broken a week later is not wise stewardship. (Perhaps the earth’s resources should never have been used to manufacture the item in the first place.) But there are things people both need and desire, and having an excuse at least provides a context to nudge someone to acquire something that might be beneficial to their hobbies and interests, but that they might hesitate to purchase for themselves.
  • Children need to identify and celebrate friendships. If you can do a birthday party without excluding anyone, and at the same time not incurring great expense, it’s nice for kids to gather their friends around them. You can also do a party where instead of gifts, people make a contribution to a charity of the child’s choice. (Try Compassion International, Partners International, Christian Blind Mission, etc.)

Some of the same people also do not believe in celebrating Christmas or Easter. While this needs to be the subject of a different discussion, my short answer would be that our family does not celebrate Christmas or Easter, we recognize and stand in awe of incarnation and atonement.

I don’t like birthdays. The thought of another year passing scares me, but only because I realize that there are things I have wanted to accomplish that have not happened, and in fact may not happen. But I don’t want to over-spiritualize this and make it seem that I am being pious or devout by asking my family to skip this year’s birthday observance. We should never let tastes and preferences appear to be deeply spiritual principles.

Including birthdays and anniversaries in the “special days” category Paul is referring to here is to miss the context of the passage, and really amounts to poor Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics).

When your turn rolls around, I do, with all sincerity and with all intention, wish you a Happy Birthday!

January 7, 2019

Scripture and the Road to God

NIV Ex. 21.23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

NIV Lev.24.19 Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.

NIV Mat.5.38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Today’s thoughts are from author Richard Rohr. It was forwarded to us by someone who I believe subscribes to Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation. Because he is a Franciscan, is very ecumenical, and leans heavily into meditative and contemplative practices, he is considered controversial by conservative Evangelical standards. Nonetheless, I’ve made a deliberate choice to share this short devotional with you today which both I, and the person who sent it to us, found helpful.*

Midrash

More than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized or ignored. Beyond fundamentalism or literalism, Jesus practiced a form that the Jewish people called midrash, consistently using questions to keep spiritual meanings open, often reflecting on a text or returning people’s questions with more questions. It is a real shame that we did not imitate Jesus in this approach. It could have saved us from so many centuries of righteousness, religious violence, and even single-issue voting.

Rather than seeking always certain and unchanging answers, the Jewish practice of midrash allows many possibilities, many levels of faith-filled meaning—meaning that is relevant and applicable to you, the reader, and puts you in the subject’s shoes to build empathy, understanding, and relationship. It lets the passage first challenge you before it challenges anyone else. To use the text in a spiritual way—as Jesus did—is to allow it to convert you, to change you, to grow you up as you respond: What does this ask of me? How might this apply to my life, to my family, to my church, to my neighborhood, to my country?

While biblical messages often proceed from historical incidents, the actual message does not depend upon communicating those events with perfect factual accuracy. Spiritual writers are not primarily journalists. Hebrew rabbis and scholars sometime use the approach of midrash to reflect on a story and communicate all of its underlying message. Scripture can be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.

The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish exegesis, hidden meaning gets at the Mystery itself. Midrash allows and encourages each listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism, which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting point.

Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. [1]

This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray before reading a sacred text!

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.


References:
[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 75, 5. Original sentence: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . .: Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), x-xi; and

Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CD, MP3 download.


* This is actually the third time Fr. Richard Rohr’s writings have appeared here; the other two being:

November 7, 2018

Studying the Envelope vs. Reading The Letter

I didn’t set out to give this devotional the title it bears, but at the end of spending about two hours considering a particular aspect of John’s Epistles, it seems an appropriate conclusion. (Perhaps I’m just tired.)

But I know that in my own life, it is easy to get caught up in discussions about — I don’t want to use the word superficial — tangential aspects of a text to the point where we miss the core of what the text is saying. I can think I’m going deeper (which is part of C201’s tag line) when in fact I’m devoting my energy to an aspect of the text that isn’t the primary emphasis. 2 John isn’t in our Bibles so that we can debate the salutation.

Its message is that love means walking in obedience to His commands. (verse 6)

This week I found myself revisiting a passage of scripture that we had studied here a year ago. It is the subject of much discussion among Bible scholars, and I’m only scratching the surface here; perhaps whetting the appetite of those who want to go deeper with this one.

The text section at the beginning is the same as we presented before, but for subscribers, everything that follows is fresh content. Since it represents a complete rewrite of the original article, I thought I’d share it here as well.

1 John:1 The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— 2 because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

7 I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. (NIV click here for the full text)

So who is this woman?

The IVP Bible Commentary offers this:

The congregation to which he is writing is designated metaphorically as the chosen lady and her children; we would say “the church and its members.” Regularly in the Scriptures Israel or the church is designated as a woman or the bride of Yahweh or Christ (Is 54:1, 13; Jer 6:21; 31:21; Lam 4:2-3; Jn 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2; Gal 4:25-26; Eph 5:22; Rev 18—19). Chosen recalls Jesus’ statement in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The church is not a voluntary organization but the fellowship of those called together by Christ. For such a fellowship, family imagery is all the more appropriate, for it suggests the bonds of intimacy and love that bind the family together. Family imagery also underscores that it was not by the children’s initiative that this family came into existence.

Matthew Henry* would disagree:

The apostle here salutes an honourable matron and her children…This lady and her children are further notified by the respect paid them, and that,

1. By the apostle himself: Whom I love in the truth, or in truth, whom I sincerely and heartily love. He who was the beloved disciple had learnt the art or exercise of love; and he especially loved those who loved him, that Lord who loved him.

2. By all her Christian acquaintance, all the religious who knew her: And not I only, but also all those that have known the truth. virtue and goodness in an elevated sphere shine brightly. Truth demands acknowledgment, and those who see the evidences of pure religion should confess and attest them; it is a good sign and great duty to love and value religion in others. The ground of this love and respect thus paid to this lady and her children was their regard to the truth

So why not just name her? Jamieson-Faussett-Brown’s (JFB)* commentary notes:

Dionysius of Alexandria (in Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, 7.25]) observes that John never names himself in his Epistles “not even in the Second and Third Epistles, although they are short Epistles, but simply calls himself the presbyter, a confutation of those who think John the apostle distinct from John the presbyter…”

So both writer — admittedly John — and recipient are anonymous here. Or is it? JFB continues:

The address of the Second Epistle is more disputed. It opens, “The elder unto the Elect lady” (2Jo 1). And it closes, “The children of thy elect sister greet thee” (2Jo 13). Now, 1Pe 1:1, 2, addresses the elect in Asia, &c., and closes (1Pe 5:13), “The Church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you.” Putting together these facts, with the quotations (above) from Clement of Alexandria, and the fact that the word “Church” comes from a Greek word (kyriake) cognate to the Greek for “lady” (kyria; “belonging to the Lord,” kyrios); Wordsworth’s view is probable. As Peter in Babylon had sent the salutations of the elect Church in the then Parthian (see above on Clement of Alexandria) Babylon to her elect sister in Asia, so John, the metropolitan president of the elect Church in Asia, writes to the elect lady, that is, Church, in Babylon. Neander, Alford, and others, think the Greek “kyria” not to mean “lady,” but to be her proper name; and that she had a “sister, a Christian matron,” then with John.

Clarke’s Commentary* offers not one, but two possible names:

The elect lady – Εκλεκτῃ Κυρια· As Κυρια, kuria, may be the feminine of Κυριος, kurios, lord, therefore it may signify lady; and so several, both ancients and moderns, have understood it. But others have considered it the proper name of a woman, Kyria; and that this is a very ancient opinion is evident from the Peshito Syriac, the oldest version we have, which uses it as a proper name koureea, as does also the Arabic kooreea.

Some have thought that Eclecta was the name of this matron, from the word εκλεκτη, which we translate elect, and which here signifies the same as excellent, eminent, honorable, or the like. Others think that a particular Church is intended, which some suppose to be the Church at Jerusalem, and that the elect sister, 2 John 1:13, means the Church at Ephesus; but these are conjectures which appear to me to have no good ground. I am satisfied that no metaphor is here intended; that the epistle was sent to some eminent Christian matron, not far from Ephesus, who was probably deaconess of the Church, who, it is likely, had a Church at her house, or at whose house the apostles and traveling evangelists frequently preached, and were entertained. This will appear more probable in the course of the notes.

We could go on, but clearly we see numerous possibilities both for the woman and her role in the early church. This article is a good overview written in more modern language.

So why do we sometimes find generic characters in scripture? I often think of Barabbas, the name literally meaning ‘the son of his father.’ Barabbas goes free and Jesus is crucified in his place. The former is an Everyman type of character, standing in for both you and I. We should have been crucified, but Christ dies in our place.

The balance of 2 John is for all of us; all “who love truth” but especially those who lead. We can get caught up in to whom it was written and lose the importance of what it says. Reiterating a part of it and then adding a few more verses is probably an appropriate ending; and for this we’ll switch to The Message translation

4-6 I can’t tell you how happy I am to learn that many members of your congregation are diligent in living out the Truth, exactly as commanded by the Father. But permit me a reminder, friends, and this is not a new commandment but simply a repetition of our original and basic charter: that we love each other. Love means following his commandments, and his unifying commandment is that you conduct your lives in love. This is the first thing you heard, and nothing has changed.

7 There are a lot of smooth-talking charlatans loose in the world who refuse to believe that Jesus Christ was truly human, a flesh-and-blood human being. Give them their true title: Deceiver! Antichrist!

8-9 And be very careful around them so you don’t lose out on what we’ve worked so diligently in together; I want you to get every reward you have coming to you. Anyone who gets so progressive in his thinking that he walks out on the teaching of Christ, walks out on God. But whoever stays with the teaching, stays faithful to both the Father and the Son.

10-11 If anyone shows up who doesn’t hold to this teaching, don’t invite him in and give him the run of the place. That would just give him a platform to perpetuate his evil ways, making you his partner.


* At least two dozen more Public Domain commentaries are available at BibleHub

November 17, 2017

The Chosen Lady: To Whom Was 2 John Written?

1 John:1 The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. (NIV click here for the full text)

So who is this woman?

The IVP Bible Commentary offers this:

The congregation to which he is writing is designated metaphorically as the chosen lady and her children; we would say “the church and its members.” Regularly in the Scriptures Israel or the church is designated as a woman or the bride of Yahweh or Christ (Is 54:1, 13; Jer 6:21; 31:21; Lam 4:2-3; Jn 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2; Gal 4:25-26; Eph 5:22; Rev 18—19). Chosen recalls Jesus’ statement in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The church is not a voluntary organization but the fellowship of those called together by Christ. For such a fellowship, family imagery is all the more appropriate, for it suggests the bonds of intimacy and love that bind the family together. Family imagery also underscores that it was not by the children’s initiative that this family came into existence.

Matthew Henry* would disagree:

The apostle here salutes an honourable matron and her children…This lady and her children are further notified by the respect paid them, and that,

1. By the apostle himself: Whom I love in the truth, or in truth, whom I sincerely and heartily love. He who was the beloved disciple had learnt the art or exercise of love; and he especially loved those who loved him, that Lord who loved him.

2. By all her Christian acquaintance, all the religious who knew her: And not I only, but also all those that have known the truth. virtue and goodness in an elevated sphere shine brightly. Truth demands acknowledgment, and those who see the evidences of pure religion should confess and attest them; it is a good sign and great duty to love and value religion in others. The ground of this love and respect thus paid to this lady and her children was their regard to the truth

So why not just name her? Jamieson-Faussett-Brown’s (JFB)* commentary notes:

Dionysius of Alexandria (in Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, 7.25]) observes that John never names himself in his Epistles “not even in the Second and Third Epistles, although they are short Epistles, but simply calls himself the presbyter, a confutation of those who think John the apostle distinct from John the presbyter…”

So both writer — admittedly John — and recipient are anonymous here. Or is it? JFB continues:

The address of the Second Epistle is more disputed. It opens, “The elder unto the Elect lady” (2Jo 1). And it closes, “The children of thy elect sister greet thee” (2Jo 13). Now, 1Pe 1:1, 2, addresses the elect in Asia, &c., and closes (1Pe 5:13), “The Church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you.” Putting together these facts, with the quotations (above) from Clement of Alexandria, and the fact that the word “Church” comes from a Greek word (kyriake) cognate to the Greek for “lady” (kyria; “belonging to the Lord,” kyrios); Wordsworth’s view is probable. As Peter in Babylon had sent the salutations of the elect Church in the then Parthian (see above on Clement of Alexandria) Babylon to her elect sister in Asia, so John, the metropolitan president of the elect Church in Asia, writes to the elect lady, that is, Church, in Babylon. Neander, Alford, and others, think the Greek “kyria” not to mean “lady,” but to be her proper name; and that she had a “sister, a Christian matron,” then with John.

Clarke’s Commentary* offers not one, but two possible names:

The elect lady – Εκλεκτῃ Κυρια· As Κυρια, kuria, may be the feminine of Κυριος, kurios, lord, therefore it may signify lady; and so several, both ancients and moderns, have understood it. But others have considered it the proper name of a woman, Kyria; and that this is a very ancient opinion is evident from the Peshito Syriac, the oldest version we have, which uses it as a proper name koureea, as does also the Arabic kooreea.

Some have thought that Eclecta was the name of this matron, from the word εκλεκτη, which we translate elect, and which here signifies the same as excellent, eminent, honorable, or the like. Others think that a particular Church is intended, which some suppose to be the Church at Jerusalem, and that the elect sister, 2 John 1:13, means the Church at Ephesus; but these are conjectures which appear to me to have no good ground. I am satisfied that no metaphor is here intended; that the epistle was sent to some eminent Christian matron, not far from Ephesus, who was probably deaconess of the Church, who, it is likely, had a Church at her house, or at whose house the apostles and traveling evangelists frequently preached, and were entertained. This will appear more probable in the course of the notes.

We could go on, but clearly we see numerous possibilities both for the woman and her role in the early church. This article — the original substance of this C201 piece — is a good overview written in more modern language.

So why do we sometimes find generic characters in scripture? I often think of Barabbas, the name literally meaning ‘the son of his father.’ Barabbas goes free and Jesus is crucified in his place. The former is an Everyman type of character, standing in for both you and I. We should have been crucified, but Christ dies in our place.

The balance of 2 John is for all of us; all “who love truth” but especially those who lead. We can get caught up in to whom it was written and lose the importance of what it says. Reiterating a part of it and then adding a few more verses is probably an appropriate ending; and for this we’ll switch to The Message translation

4-6 I can’t tell you how happy I am to learn that many members of your congregation are diligent in living out the Truth, exactly as commanded by the Father. But permit me a reminder, friends, and this is not a new commandment but simply a repetition of our original and basic charter: that we love each other. Love means following his commandments, and his unifying commandment is that you conduct your lives in love. This is the first thing you heard, and nothing has changed.

There are a lot of smooth-talking charlatans loose in the world who refuse to believe that Jesus Christ was truly human, a flesh-and-blood human being. Give them their true title: Deceiver! Antichrist!

8-9 And be very careful around them so you don’t lose out on what we’ve worked so diligently in together; I want you to get every reward you have coming to you. Anyone who gets so progressive in his thinking that he walks out on the teaching of Christ, walks out on God. But whoever stays with the teaching, stays faithful to both the Father and the Son.

10-11 If anyone shows up who doesn’t hold to this teaching, don’t invite him in and give him the run of the place. That would just give him a platform to perpetuate his evil ways, making you his partner.

* At least two dozen more commentaries are available at BibleHub

May 21, 2016

Proof-texting to Justify a Position on an Issue

Today we pay a return visit to Benjamin L. Corey who blogs at Patheos. This is really two articles in one. On the surface, it’s dealing with the issue of “just war theory” versus pacifism. On a deeper level, it deals with the complications that arise when we try to use particular Bible texts to justify a particular position. So… even if you’re not drawn to the particular issue — and I deliberately chose a neutral headline — consider this an A+ exercise in Biblical hermeneutics. Click the title below to read at source or leave a comment for Benjamin.

The Serious Problems With Using Ecclesiastes 3 To Justify Christian Support of War & Violence

I’ve heard a lot of reasoning over the years regarding Christian support of things like war, violence, and gun slinging. I’ve seen the Bible bent into a giant pretzel, watched folks do theological gymnastics, and I’ve seen the teachings of Jesus on the matter outright dismissed– over, and over again.

thought I had addressed all of the counter arguments over the years, but a new one is emerging and being used more and more frequently: the use of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 to justify the Christian’s support of war and violence.

Even the casual Bible reader probably knows this passage well, as it became the hit song, Turn, Turn, Turn, by the Byrds, which is still an iconic song of the 60’s. The biblical passage (and the song) goes like this:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

So, here’s how this is starting to be used in Christian discussions about guns, war, and violence: When Christian A puts forth the nonviolent teachings of Jesus, Christian B retorts by posting this passage in reply. The inferred argument is, “Jesus couldn’t have really meant that, because Ecclesiastes says there’s a time to kill and a time for war.”

Let me quickly outline the serious problems with this argument:

First, it ignores Jesus! The act of rebutting Jesus using other passages of Scripture should be a major red flag in the mind of any believer. If Jesus is the living Word of God and the Wisdom of God, then we begin with what Jesus taught us. This is what makes us Christians instead of Biblicists– we follow the teachings of our Lord and Savior. When one rejects the face value teaching and example of Christ in favor of other passages or people in Scripture, it’s a good indication that such a person may like Jesus the Savior but not Jesus the Lord– and unfortunately, this thing is a package deal.

Second, it ignores the poetic nature of the passage. This passage became a hit song because it’s actually quite beautiful and insightful as a piece of literature. The author poetically describes the many seasons of life he has observed, and invites us into his inner thought process as he reflects on these deep questions. The result is certainly beautiful.

Finally, using this passage to trump Jesus falls flat, as it ignores things the author of Ecclesiastics totally got wrong. Because the poem describes the extremes that exist in life, there’s something in the passage that everyone will likely find disagreement with, and stuff that I believe a Christian should flat out reject as being wrong.

For example, when I first went to Bible college 20+ years ago, I tried to make the argument that we should be allowed to dance because the Bible says, “there’s a time to dance.” Of course, they rejected this argument and reminded me that even Satan knows Scripture and how to twist it. (But strangely when they got to the lines about hating, killing, and war, the passage all of a sudden became the “final authority for faith and Christian living.”)

But let’s look at a few more serious examples:

Do you really think there’s a time to hate? If Jesus commanded us to love God, love our neighbors, and love our enemies, I can’t think of anyone we’re allowed to hate. Thus, this passage cannot be read as a prescriptive command from God as to how to live, because according to Jesus, there’s not a time to hate.

Or, if one reads beyond the more famous lines of this passage, we find a few other things I hope we’d reject. In verse 12 he says that there’s, “nothing better than for people to be happy” and as a Christian I would categorically deny that our existence here on this earth has the highest goal of our own happiness. Surely, Jesus promised not happiness– but that the consequences of following him would great, including poverty, jail, and death.

In addition, the author states in verses 19-21 that humans have “no advantage” over animals and that he doesn’t know if the human spirit “rises upwards” or if the animal spirit “goes down to the earth.” I would hope that as Christians we’d reject such shoulder shrugging as to wether or not our fate after death is any better or different than an animal.

Finally, in that same set of verses, the author says that “everything is meaningless.” But do we really believe that life is meaningless? That it has no point? I certainly don’t see how “everything is meaningless” can fit within a Christian narrative– the opposite would be far more likely to be true.

Thus, to use Ecclesiastes 3 to justify the Christian supporting war and violence is one of the weakest arguments one could make. It completely ignores what Jesus said about things. It also completely ignores the context of the passage– someone poetically thinking about loud in the 3rd Century BCE as to whether or not life has meaning, and who wonders if we will share the same fate as animals. Finally, it ignores things the author simply got wrong about life– it’s not meaningless, and surely for the Christian, the highest goal of life isn’t the pursuit of personal happiness.

Can we please stop using this passage as an American Christian go-to passage to justify our support of war and violence? Because the passage doesn’t actually work that way.

 

May 1, 2012

What Theologians Talk About: Grafted In

So when theologians and seminary academics get together, I somehow doubt they turn on the television to watch 30 Rock or The Voice.  And definitely not The Simpsons. Chances are it’s more like the item we chose to post here today.  Actually, this one is too long to post in full, even with a page break, so you must link; but even if you only get halfway through, it’s important to know that:

  1. There is still not consensus about the interpretation of every single Bible passage, even among Evangelicals,  however…
  2. We can learn a lot in the discovery process of looking at the Biblical evidence that supports different positions, and hearing the heart behind each commentary.
  3. We presently see through a glass darkly; we’re not all theologians…

For example, consider this passage in Romans:

NIV 11:17 If some of the branches have been broken off,  and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others  and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 

and this, earlier in Romans:

NIV9:6 It is not as though God’s word  had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.( Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children,  but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

Questions arise

  • Are we grafted in to the promises given to Abraham and Old Testament Israel or are we grafted in to the church?
  • Is Israel the ethnic, national Israel or does it refer to a spiritual Israel?
  • Is there a relationship between the olive tree in Romans and John’s vine and branches narrative?
  • Biblically speaking, is every Jew an Israelite?
  • If Israel is in unbelief, how can we be grafted in to that?

Hey, I didn’t say this was easy.

Calvin L. Smith of King’s Evangelical Divinity School in the UK attempts to answer this. He posted his answers on February 12th.  He begins:

In Romans 11:17-24 the Apostle Paul likens Gentile believers to a wild olive shoot grafted into a cultivated olive tree.  The obvious question is, what is it that Gentiles are grafted into? Less obvious, it would appear from the widely differing interpretations, is the answer. Consequently there is considerable division among Christians over the relationship between the Church and Israel. This post explores this issue. It is rather lengthy (I do, eventually, get to an answer), but that’s because I’m often asked about this so it makes sense to post something with a little detail I can people them to…

Continue reading here…  Even if you only scan this or only dig deep into three or four paragraphs, there is value to this, because God’s word is living and active… and sometimes challenging.

HT: Living Journey


February 12, 2011

Devotional Interpretation

I often get asked about the two dominant study Bibles on the market, The NIV Study Bible (also reprinted in NASB, KJV and TNIV) and The NLT Life Application Bible (also reprinted in NIV, NKJV and NASB).  It’s an over-simplification on my part, but I usually fall back on this line:

“The NIV Study takes us in to Bible times and shows us some of the background of the text in its context; whereas the Life Application notes brings the Bible into our time and explains the revelance of the text to our lives today.”

Of course, the individual study notes in both number in the thousands, and shouldn’t be reduced to this generalization, but it works to some degree.  Another generation would be to say the Life Application notes are more devotional in nature.

Back in June 2010, Darrell Buchanan wrote a blog piece he called Devotional Interpretation; two words I had never mentally combined before…

I recently came across John Goldingay’s explanation of “Devotional Interpretation” in a section of his larger entry on “Hermeneutics” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (InterVarsity Press: 2003).

Specifically focusing on the Pentateuch, Goldingay says devotional interpretation is interested in the significance of a text “for people’s personal lives, especially their personal relationship with God” (390). This is a big reason why so many with good intentions to read through the Bible make it through Genesis and Exodus but usually give up when they reach the middle of Leviticus!

What a devotional reading forgets is that the focus of much (most?) of the Bible is on the community – Israel in the OT and the church in the NT.  Or, as Goldingay puts it: “[T]he Pentateuch instinctively thinks corporately, as modern readers do not. It thus has the potential to rescue devotional reading from some of its individualism” (391).

The Christian Faith Institute blog seems to take a very un-charitable view of devotional interpretation at first glance, though I suspect their concern is when it waters down preaching, which requires study at greater depth.

…A common practice is to interpret scripture “devotionally” or “privately”. By “devotional interpretation” we mean reading the scripture assuming what it means to us personally, without taking the trouble to see if that is the intended meaning of the passage. Devotional study is a positive practice, but the casual use of it is what we are referring to here. Devotion to God must be based on what God actually says…

…The first step in applying the scripture is to understand what it meant to the generation when it was written. Scripture does not mean what we think it means, because we feel that God has spoken to us from it in a particular way. The scripture means what it meant to the generation it was addressed to.

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet 1:20-21).

“Private interpretation” means we interpret the Bible personally, without first finding out what it means contextually (in its own context). The meaning of prophetic scripture is not arbitrary, according to our view, but it is according to what the Holy Sprit originally said…

F. E. Stoffler (as cited by E. J. Swensson) provides some historical background:

Later [Pietism] was opposed to the Enlightenment attempt to reduce Christian commitment to the acceptance of a few propositions held to be rationally demonstrable…Pietists strove to restore to Protestantism a theology based on a commonsense, untortured, more-or-less literal, and basically devotional interpretation of the Bible.

I’ve stated here already that the Jewish mindset was that the scriptures were like a diamond; and just as a diamond refracts the light differently when held at different angles to both the light source and the human eye; so also are the various ways that the scripture can be interpreted.   Therefore, I believe that the ‘face value’ of a text may be valid for some, while the historical context interpretation may serve others better.  But I do not risk suggesting that the one is better than the other.

November 12, 2010

The Ten Commandments of Biblical Interpretation

This is from Skye Jethani’s blog.   There is some really helpful detailed annotation after each one that I’m not going to reproduce here, so you’ll have to click through.   Just reading what’s below is cheating, okay?

I. You  shall not make for yourself an idol out of Scripture.

II. You shall honor the Scriptures as sufficient.

III. You shall remember the metanarrative and keep it wholly.

IV. You shall honor the Church as the recipient and the guardian of the Scriptures.

V. You shall not neglect the context.

VI. You shall not ask questions the text does not want to answer.

VII. You shall embrace both the form and content of Scripture as inspired by God.

VIII. You shall study Scripture for wisdom and not merely knowledge, and never for pride.

IX. You shall exegete your culture and not merely the Scriptures.

X. You shall remember that the simplest interpretation is usually, but not always, correct.