Some time ago I was invited to answer questions from a group of wonderful young people. They were invited to ask me any question they wanted. On about the third question, as they were discussing the background between them, I had my finger in a place in my Bible where I was going to start with my answer. One young man said, pointing at my Bible,”You know, it’s almost frightening the way you have somewhere to turn to in that thing.”
I say that not to boast, but rather to say this. You know what’s really frightening? That this surprised him.
When I try to answer Bible questions, I’m frequently asked just how one can get to know the Bible like I do. What it generally comes down to, however, is that they’d like me to provide them with something along the lines of a 5-minute-a-day plan. Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of Christians who could benefit from five minutes of Bible reading per day. It’s just that five minutes each day won’t get you to the point where you really know your Bible.
Very few of us would spend that little time keeping up with our professional fields, and I note that Bible study is a part of my work. But while claiming that the things in the Bible are of eternal importance, we are often mysteriously uninterested in actually knowing what they are.
Let me start with how I got to know my Bible as well as I do, and let me add that there are plenty of weaknesses in my knowledge of scripture. You see, it’s not my fault. I can’t claim superior spiritual reasons. I grew up with it. It all started with my Dad’s Bible.
My Dad’s Bible, one of many that he used over a lifetime. I’d often see him reading and marking them. He used this one toward the end of his life.
Here are the key points:
- I saw my parents study their Bibles regularly, frequently, and for much more than five minutes at a time. It looked natural to me. Parents, if you want your children to read their Bibles, read yours. It will do you (and them) much more good than all the urging you can provide.
- I studied and memorized the Bible through church programs and in school. I memorized whole chapters. I read so much of the King James Version that I still tend to use a KJV concordance or do my #BibleGateway lookups in the KJV.
- I studied the Bible in college. I went out of my way to do extra reading either of or about the Bible. I took German reading and then did an independent readings course covering Old Testament textual criticism. I studied French and when it was time to write, I wrote about French translations of Hebrew poetry. I did a two quarter hour independent study of just the first chapter of Ezekiel.
- I asked myself what was important. If I claimed that God and my relationship with him was even moderately important in my life, I needed to spend time in touch with God through his Word.
- I continued reading. I even read for language maintenance while I was out of the church following seminary. When I returned, I was able to restart reading at the rate of a chapter a day in Greek.
Boasting? God forbid that I should boast save in the grace of God that led my parents to instill these habit patterns in me and let me take an honest look at myself as I would be without him!
My point is that if you want to know the Bible, there is no quick plan, no shortcuts, no easy osmosis method. You need to spend time with it. Prayerfully examine your priorities. If you are a parent, consider what you want to teach your children. Do you want them to think that Bible study is important? Study it. Let them see your priorities in action. Do you want them to grow up as praying people? Pray! Don’t be afraid to be spiritual and to talk about spiritual things.
No, not the authors of the biblical text, though that’s an interesting topic. I’m talking about disagreeing with a study guide author, in this case a study guide author I chose both to publish and then to use in my Sunday School class.
One class member was surprised—not shocked, annoyed, or disturbed, but just surprised—that I would make those choices.
More on that in a moment. What is it that I disagree on? Well, it is fairly simple and quite broad: authors, date, and the translation of the Hebrew word hebel. Those are the subjects we’ve covered in the first two chapters. I consider Solomonic authorship unlikely. It sounds to me more like someone later writing in a way that will suggest to his readers hearing this later literature in the light of the life and times of King Solomon. Incidentally, while I haven’t studied it that much, this could be a textual relationship, and the methods taught in chapter 2 could be used to discover whether there is, in fact, such a relationship, or if it’s just a relationship of ideas, or none at all. On hebel, I tend to read it more negatively than does the author of the study guide.
This recalls to my mind some of the best times I had in college and graduate school. I would get together with a group of fellow students, sometimes with one of our professors, and we’d hash out issues. The goal wasn’t to find people you agreed with. That was pointless. The goal was to find brilliant people who thought differently than you did. Then you’d argue out the details and you’d all learn new things. The only time disagreement was a problem was when someone couldn’t be reasonably gracious about it. Vigorous disagreement and a spirited defense of one’s ideas was good. We tried not to get personal, and generally succeeded.
What I told my class was that agreeing with me wasn’t even a consideration in choosing what book to publish. If it slipped in, it could just as well be a negative as a positive.
These first two chapters of the Ecclesiastes study guide are brilliant, in my view, because they present views that will be controversial in many quarters, and they do so thoroughly, but in a way that a serious non-specialist can read and understand. You don’t just learn what the author’s opinion is and the names of some people who oppose it. You learn why he made those choices. The introduction to intertextuality is also excellent and gets Bible students to think of things that we often neglect. Just how do two texts/passages relate? Which might have influence the other? That involves sequence and availability. Which was written first? Is it likely that the earlier work was available to the later writer? What characteristics would show that two texts were related?
People from all parts of the theological and spiritual spectrum have an unfortunate tendency to read things they find agreeable. I’m hoping that through both teaching and publishing, I can get them to look at things that are very different. This is not simply to get an idea of the spectrum of ideas. It’s also so that people learn why. In the 21st century it is unrealistic for pastors to assume people won’t get exposed to these other viewpoints. Yet there are still pastors who think they can somehow protect their congregations from discovering this fact.
Bible students all too frequently simply accept what their study Bibles, their pastors, or some Bible teacher says as to authorship, dating, relationships between texts, and interpretation. They don’t understand why those things happen. This guide is attempting to teach people how to examine the nuts and bolts of the process, how to make such determinations for themselves.
I was reminded of the conversation in class during the sermon. My pastor was preaching from Matthew 5, including the portions that discuss divorce, lust, and adultery. I happened to agree with what he drew from the text, but I noticed that it would be nearly impossible for people in the congregation to rebuild his logic. It’s likely a bit much to expect a pastor to get any of that “other stuff” across in a 20-25 minute homily, but I think it is unfortunate that for many congregants, that one discussion will be all that they learn about that passage. They will go home with an interpretation (assuming they remember it), but will be unable to defend it, and would be unable to reproduce it or apply the same principles to another text.
I truly don’t look for authors who agree with me. I look for authors who will educate, because education in turn empowers people to take action.
Here’s an interesting post on the longer ending of Mark and snake handling. (HT: Dave Black Online, Why Four Gospels?)
There’s obviously a serious question about hermeneutics lurking in the discussion, but what I would like to see discussed is just what text of Mark is authoritative. We tend to assume that what we want is the most original text. What did Mark write?
But we count as scripture what was recognized by the church councils as scripture. (I ignore here whatever reasons they may have had for their choice.) The Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Peter are not authoritative, but Mark is. What text of Mark were the church fathers looking at when they made it canonical? Does that matter?
I think it would relate (in a distant way) to the question of whether a gospel retains its authority if one thinks it was authored by someone other than the traditional one. If the church fathers canonized a gospel they believe to have been written by Mark, and then it turns out he didn’t write it, should their decision be reviewed?
I ask these questions because we often try to dodge doctrinal difficulties through textual criticism. I think that is not always (or often) the right approach. It has its value, but creates its own difficulties.
Worth thinking on, I think.
Reading Chris Seitz on the Biblical Crisis in the Homosexuality Debates (by Alastair Roberts) reminded me of three things I already believed:
- It is very dangerous to try to develop hermeneutics while wrapped up in a debate on a particular topic.
- The best test of one’s hermeneutics is to change the subject. Does it still work?
- Debate often tends to obscure the middle ground.
Despite the pretentious title, I mean this to be a short post. I also would like to note that I have not read Chris Seitz; I have only read Alastair Roberts’ comments. But his comments are not particularly wild or annoying, compared to other things I have read.
You need to read Alastair’s entire post, but here’s a key line:
The flirting of many evangelicals with forms of trajectory hermeneutics is just one example of the way in which the creedal understanding of the relationship between the testaments has become compromised.
I’ve written before about trajectories, and clearly I believe that there are trajectories in scripture and that we need to pay attention to them. This is part of my belief that we often develop doctrines of inspiration (and a resulting hermeneutic) that ignore the human portion of the communication. I don’t refer here to the prophet, but rather to those who receive God’s communication. The accuracy of communication cannot be stated without noting how accurately a message is received. But that is another topic which I discuss further in my book on the subject.
What I’m interested in here is the suggestion that the debates about sexual ethics in general, and about homosexuality in particular, have done violence to hermeneutics that had not already been done.
So I change the subject. What hermeneutic produces the liturgy and organizational structure of the Episcopal Church USA or the Anglican communion as a whole? How do we get from the New Testament to the cathedral, from the home meeting where everyone participated to church architecture with a raised platform and a privileged few leaders? Might I even go so far as to ask what trajectory permitted these changes?
I note that one departure from scripture, in sexual ethics, is regarded as sufficient to prevent certain levels of fellowship between the United Methodist Church, of which I am a member, and the Episcopal Church or the United Church of Christ. The other, in ecclesiology seems less important to those in positions of authority.
But of course that question is grossly unfair, because I could ask the same thing about the organizational structures and liturgy of the United Methodist Church. Well, as long as everyone is sinning in the same way …
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a theology professor about a colleague who was teaching religion somewhere in the Bible belt. This colleague noted that there was a great deal of tension about his moderately liberal academic views regarding scripture as he taught. He was teaching a general course in basic Christianity, however, and eventually they came to sexual ethics. Suddenly the students reversed positions. The professor took the idea of sexual purity seriously, with sexual relations only permissible within marriage. Suddenly the conservative students thought their “liberal” professor was way too conservative.
Which reminds me of another thing I’ve observed about the human side of doctrine. There are clean sins and dirty sins. Clean sins are the ones I commit. Dirty sins are the ones you commit.
I wouldn’t want to speak for God, but I’m suspecting God’s view might be different.
I thought I’d write just a few reflections on our class today.
- In general the class was less interested in authorship than either I or the author of the study guide were. We had folks using the Wesley study Bible and the CEB Study Bible, both of which brush past the authorship issue. While I find Solomonic authorship unlikely, Russell Meek makes a very clear set of arguments in favor of his view that Solomon is the author.
- How important is authorship in general for interpretation? I think that as we continue, I will be thinking and observing just how much our views of authorship impact the way we read the book.
- In general, the class wonders why Ecclesiastes is included in the canon. This is a standard question I’ve heard many times. I even admit to haven’t questioned this myself.
- This is going to be fun!
How does the book of Ecclesiastes impact your view of inspiration? I’ll be asking folks to think about this in my Sunday School class at First UMC of Pensacola as we study Ecclesiastes. What do you think?
While I was off teaching Revelation elsewhere, my Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola studied from Harvey Brown’s new book Forgiveness: Finding Freedom from Your Past. Harvey’s book is just 40 pages (it’s in our Topical Line Drives series, and that’s the limit), and we discovered just how many questions can be raised in 40 pages!
Today we’re starting a study of Ecclesiastes, using the participatory study guide just published in November. This guide is written by Russell Meek of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and though I may be biased as editor and publisher, I think it’s one of the best studies you could do on the book of Ecclesiastes. Still, I’m going to have to tell the class that I disagree with a number of the conclusions in the book.
But that, you see, is the great thing. Russ presents those conclusions so well, that I’ll have a run for my money making a case against things that he says, even with him absent. And in that discussion, I hope, the members of our small Sunday School class we’ll learn how these things are done.
We’ll be talking about date and authorship today. This is an area of biblical studies that I think lay people in the church need to understand better. They take dates given in their study Bibles and assume they are either absolute, or at least they are a scholarly consensus. But how is it that serious biblical scholars make determinations about these things. Russ’s lengthy and very readable discussion of authorship is an excellent place to start.
As I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes in preparation for this class, I’ve been struck by the interesting question of what the inclusion of such a book in scripture means about inspiration. No, I don’t mean about inerrancy, but rather about the way in which God chooses to communicate with us. I think we are often misguided in our discussions of inspiration because we are asking the wrong questions. Then we adjust our views of inspiration according to how effective scripture is at answering our questions. But what if God never intended to answer those questions through scripture in the first place? We might be doing something like querying our physics text to learn how to deal with our emotions.
So I will also ask the class to think about just what questions might be answered by the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the canon as well as by the text of the book.
… according to me, of course!
I’m sitting here doing page layout on My Life Story by Becky Lynn Black. As I was doing that, I read small portions. I don’t read much while I’m doing page layout. What the text says is less important than how it will look, so my brain is in a different mode. I was both appreciating portions of the book that I did read, and asking myself a question: If you didn’t know Dave Black, and just received this manuscript cold, would you have published it? I’ll answer that later.
In glancing at a page in layout, I saw this:
… what I found in these Bible majors were men who were as spiritually shallow,
vain, and frivolous as the rest of civilization!
She’s talking about the men at a Bible college, a place she hoped to find a husband. (We’re too early in the layout for me to tell you what page that quote will be on.)
Over the course of the day, I’ve worked on publicity for a philosophy text, I’ve worked on the cover for a book on preparing sermons, and I’ve followed up on items on several other titles under preparation. If my schedule holds, later today I’ll be reading a manuscript on process theology, and laying out a study guide to a book about the Lord’s prayer. The authors of this material vary a great deal in their theological perspectives. Some would consider these differences to be among the essentials of the faith. What is it that attracts me to these manuscripts? I work for myself. (Well, I think God might well challenge me on that, but though I try, I don’t want to claim divine inspiration for my actions.) I don’t have to publish anything I don’t want to.
Here’s the answer:
- They mean it
- They’re not willing to stay in the shallow end of the spiritual pool
Oh, I put that one twice.
I think that if we are truly committed to Jesus Christ and passionate about following him and serving him, he will find a way to teach us.
What will never work is apathy.
That’s the biggest divide. Those who really care and those who don’t.
I want to publish the people who really care. I want to find the readers who really care. I want to help them care more. I want to help myself to care more and be more effective. It’s never enough!
To answer the question I asked myself, I have no doubt that the answer is yes. I think this is a manuscript that too many editors would look at and say, “Who was Becky Lynn Black?” In the pages of the manuscript I would have found the answer, had I not already known. You can find it too.
Of course, as a publisher, I want you to buy the book. Take that as given. But what I really hope you’ll do is share your testimony. Tell people what God has done in your life. Place that task above all the theological debates. I don’t mean that you need to compromise your principles. People who are truly committed don’t do that. But make your primary story be about Jesus Christ in your life. I think you’ll find that story does more than anything else.
This past Sunday I completed teaching a four week series on Revelation for one of the Sunday School classes at Chumuckla Community Church. It’s always interesting to try to teach a short series on the book of Revelation. There is so much there, and so much background information is needed. It’s difficult to be effective.
This series turned out well. My goal was to suggest some ways to read Revelation more profitably. We discussed the nature of the book and looked at some specific passages as examples. I hope that the material I was able to share will help folks dig deeper into other books of the Bible as well.
Here are some points that impressed themselves on me during this series.
- I’m more convinced than ever that we need to read Revelation more for theology and spiritual growth and less for trying to lay out timelines for the end of the world. I find good theology and good principles in many of these passages even if we continue to disagree on the specific referents.
- I have a great deal of sympathy for the preterist position, even though that is not precisely what I believe. Symbols generally do find credible referents in the immediate time and place. The problem with the preterist position, in my view, is that it is easy to leave all the book’s other lessons in the past as well. Revelation spoke to its own time, but it also speaks to the future.
- Revelation is possibly the most violent book in the New Testament. But it’s not about the violence. It’s about God’s faithfulness.
- Revelation is an unfolding of the gospel. It begins with Jesus with his church/people, and it ends with Jesus with his people. The rest assures God’s people that God is paying attention and is with them even when he doesn’t appear to be.
- In teaching Revelation we need to emphasize the persecuted church more. When you get to the fifth seal, for example, and the souls under the altar are asking “How long oh Lord?” it helps if we understand what persecution was and is like. I have always discussed persecution as an historical phenomenon. This time I spent more time discussing the present and what some of these passage might mean viewed from the perspective of people suffering persecution right now. Like Hebrews, Revelation speaks to people suffering or soon-to-suffer great hardship. We American Christians, in our ease, are likely to have a hard time hearing the message.
- The most important thing a Bible teacher can so, I believe, is teach people how to study for themselves. It’s not about getting across all of my beliefs or particular interpretations. What people need is to find a way to experience God for themselves—to hear God’s voice—through the pages of scripture.
In addition, I was impressed by how badly I need to revise and improve my study guide. I’m still very happy with the basic approach, but there is so much more that could be said. I’m going to redo the layout, expand my notes and move them to the beginning of each lesson, and spend more time in the study guide talking about the lessons one can learn in this important book about reading scripture and allowing it to change our lives.