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Review: Simple Faith Bible

Review: Simple Faith Bible

Subtitle: Following Jesus into a Life of Peace, Compassion & Wholeness

I find it hard to fairly review study Bibles. On the one hand, I am a bit hesitant to have so much text combined with the text of scripture, because everything we do to add to the text, even arranging it into chapters and verses, tends to bias our viewpoint. But on the other hand, it is possible to provide people with necessary background and help them get more out of their study.

In this second sense, a study Bible is a bit like having a number of teachers gathered to help you understand the text. Few benefits come without some downsides. As I like to say, while every cloud may have a silver lining, silver linings tend to come with clouds.

So when the opportunity arose to review this Bible, I found the idea fascinating. Former U. S. president Jimmy Carter has been a Sunday School teacher for decades. While I confess that I worked diligently to get him out of office back in 1976 and 1980 as a precinct captain for Ronald Reagan, my appreciation for him as a person has grown remarkably since.

The Bible itself is the NRSV, one that I regard as quite good. The copy I received was hardcover. There is a leather bound edition, which can be found using the cover widget at the left hand side of the page. I don’t believe I need to add anything to my previous comments on the NRSV.

The paper is thin “Bible” paper. The text is of adequate size, though there is a certain amount of crowding required for the amount of text included in the edition. The introduction makes the purpose of this edition clear.

The introductions to the book are time-limited as one might expect in a Sunday School class dedicated to getting to the things the class wants to talk about. They make no effort to cover the book introduced in any detail. They are more a theological note of introduction, leaving any content to follow-up studies.

The devotional content is, well, devotional. While I could quibble theologically with some of it, most of it is just encouragement drawn from scripture, and the Baptist roots of the author are evident, though not thrown in anyone’s face. Titles like “Love That Covers” (1 Kings 2:3,9) or “Encountering God in Creation” (Romans 1:18-32) give the flavor.

The problem I had with this Bible was in classifying it. Is it a study Bible? No, I don’t think so, as it is missing most of the landmarks that would help a student understand the Bible better. Is it a themed devotional Bible? This is much closer, as the devotional content is quite strong. But I still don’t see it fitting the definition.

I recall the Spirit-Filled Life Bible that looked for the work of the Holy Spirit throughout scripture. Well I was concerned that this focus on one subject would prevent readers from hearing the main point of the text, the Bible had a devotional theme that followed through.

Unfortunately, in the Simple Faith Bible, it seems to me that the editors and layout designers of the Bibles have failed to truly wed the devotionals to the text, so that you have loosely collected devotionals bound in one cover with the text of the NRSV Bible. Yes, the content is placed with the scriptures, but there is so much that has no comment, even limited comment, and there is so much that is skipped, that the two never come together.

I would add my personal complaint. There is a view in the study of scripture that says, “Let’s study the stuff that makes us feel good and skip the stuff that annoys one.” I personally have written in defense of some form of “cafeteria Christianity.” We all do some picking and choosing, but try to deny it. Some do it by just reading the stuff we like and skipping over the stuff we don’t. Others explicitly choose, which is more honest, I think. Yet others interpret away the things they would prefer were different.

In fact, a blind selection, or one that is denied can create more divisive debates as people build their Christianity on different scriptures while pretending they are doing otherwise.

In the Simple Faith Bible we have a number of interesting cases. For example, in Romans 1:18-32, where many root debates on homosexuality, we have the “Encountering God in Creation” article, which mentions nothing about sin of any kind. Now this passage is not primarily about homosexuality, though this is not mentioned, but it is also not primarily about encountering God in creation. It is rather saying that humanity is wicked and lacks a good excuse. This leads up to informing us that God has an answer for the humanity God created.

In Numbers 31, as the Israelites slaughter infants, we have a note about God’s attitude to wealth. I once called this an “unpreachable passage” while trying to propose ways from preaching it. We may not like it. In fact, we probably don’t, but if this is a devotional Bible, might someone decide to read it from cover to cover? If so, what about the difficult stuff?

In Leviticus 19, verse 32 elicits a note on caring for the elderly, but skips verses 33 and 34 about treating the aliens living among you well. On the other hand, we miss Leviticus 18:22 which is famous again in the homosexuality debates. My hermeneutical challenge to both sides is to create a hermeneutic that applies the texts you want to apply and bypasses the others without using some form of special pleading. Of course, the very challenge I am making calls for special pleading, so no takers so far!

Bottom line on this is that I find quite a number of the notes by Jimmy Carter quite uplifting and helpful in a devotional sense, and appreciate them, but I would probably prefer them in their own devotional volume to be read separately. In a devotional book, you understand that you are dealing with passages that happened to strike the author in a particular way.

As a Bible, this is fine. The devotional that happens to be bound with it is uplifting. The combination … I find troubling.

I received a free copy of this Bible from Zondervan in exchange for an honest review, and blog as a #BibleGatewayPartner.

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

I’ve appreciated the work of Brevard Childs since I first encountered him via his Isaiah volume in the Old Testament Library series.I just finished with the first section in his Exodus volume (see below), and I have to say that I find it even better. Childs takes note of source and redactional issues, but subordinates them to hearing the text as a part of the canon.

Sections view the text in its Old Testament/Hebrew Bible context, its New Testament use, history of exegesis and finally theological reflections.

Admittedly, many pastors would find it difficult to follow all the material, but the time taken to think both broadly and deeply about a passage will produce a reward in understanding and the ability to share one’s reflections with others.

I may review this book when I have read it through, but the start was so rewarding that I wanted to comment immediately.

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

When I talked about structure, I mentioned that I’d write a follow-up after my Wednesday night class. Here’s the rundown, though I plan to keep it brief. I’m indebted to David Alan Black for the basic note about the participles in this passage, and in a scholarly article I would need to cite a number of additional sources. The structure of the passage followed my own take on it in the context of Hebrews and made the argument easier. I include this discussion in my book To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide, which is currently under revision for a second edition. (The main problem with the current edition is that I created it with readings, exercises, and questions, along with several appendices with discussion. I’m putting some discussion in the lessons!)

There are a number of passages I referenced in class, but there are three passages before 6:4-6 that I see as key, and then one after. The reason is that the author of Hebrews signals new topics well ahead of the main discussion and then ties them in to later discussion.

So if you look at Hebrews 2:1, “drifting off course.” This is an early signal of what I think is the key theme of the book, one that is further developed in 6:4-6 especially. At this point, the author has presented Jesus as the true representation of God and is now ready to open up the door to the result. God has spoken in these last days through a Son, which sounds good, even exciting, but what does it mean?

Frequently Hebrews is read as a book with a message of works and perfectionism. In fact, as someone with a Wesleyan background, I’m used to starting there in my thinking. But the more I study the book, the less I think that is the correct reading. The warnings in Hebrews are not about human performance of good actions, but rather of total confidence in the one who has been presented here in chapter 1. Verses 1-4 present the Who, while the rest emphasizes that Jesus is greater than the angels. There will be more emphasis on precisely who Jesus is, but we have this pause in the first few verses of chapter 2 so we can get a preview of the theme.

Through the rest of chapter two and into chapter five, but especially in 4:12-16, we’ll develop the things that make Jesus ideal as our priest, even though we aren’t quite sure what such a priest will accomplish.

In 5:8-9 we get the second key connection, as we are told that Jesus learned obedience through suffering (and a rich passage that is, even though I’m just going to touch on it only briefly. Verse 9 tells us that he was perfected. It is this “perfection” that I think is the key object of Hebrews, the perfection of Jesus, not the perfection of any human being.

I see 5:11-14 as a bit of reverse psychology, challenging the readers/hearers with their dependence on milk just before he goes ahead and introduces some meat anyhow.

The third key passage is Hebrews 6:1, and “going on toward perfection.” It’s my understanding that United Methodist pastors are still asked this question on ordination, and I believe not a few have their fingers crossed when they answer. Figuratively speaking, of course! But though few translations do it, this can be taken as a passive, and thus be translated “carried on toward perfection” rather than “going on toward perfection.” I would go further and argue that the perfection that we are to go on toward is Jesus, and is only to be attained “in Christ” and not by us or as something possessed by us.

Having jumped from signpost to signpost, this leads to 6:4-6. I have noted previously that I don’t take this as a “once out always out” passage, but rather as a warning against rejecting the voice or urging of the Holy Spirit. Paying closer attention to structure and the participle tenses helped back that view up and expand it.

Here’s my translation with structure:

I have summarized the theme of Hebrews as “get on the right train and stay on it until you reach the destination.” The key is that if you have the best, the greatest, or even the only hope of rescue and you don’t take it, rescue escapes you. That’s why I have the temporal sense here. If you are rejecting the final sacrifice of Christ, according to the concepts developed in the preceding five chapters, what option is there? Jesus, the Christ is sacrificed once-for-all, and cannot be sacrificed again. If we continue to fail to accept the finality, we are crucifying him afresh.

But it’s even more simple than that. You can’t accept while you reject.

Does that make it too simple? Actually, I think it makes it a clear statement of precisely the point of Hebrews. You have two choices: This train or no train.

And that leads to the final passage I want to use, Hebrews 10:26-27. Here we have no sacrifice for sin after Jesus. It’s often used in sermons to threaten people with how seriously they should take New Testament commands. But that’s not the point at all. There is no more sacrifice because the sacrifice has been offered. If you don’t accept the sacrifice, there isn’t another one. You can’t redo it or substitute it.

The whole message centers on confidence in the grace that has opened this “new and living way” (10:20), in the perfection of our High Priest, and in the necessity of placing our full confidence in Him.

Let me add that I believe that the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1ff should be seen as those who are cheering us on because they have experienced the weaknesses and the failings that we have and know the grace of God and the final reward. It should not be used as a club as I have heard it preached, in the sense of: “Look at all these holy people who are watching you. Don’t screw up!”

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)

 

Is It Greek Pedagogy, Learning Skills, or Something Else

Is It Greek Pedagogy, Learning Skills, or Something Else

These discussions seem to come up all the time about learning Greek, but the discussion also applies to Hebrew. How one can imagine it’s critically important to learn Greek if one is to preach or teach, but not so much to learn Hebrew, I don’t know. But the degree requirements of various colleges and seminaries reflect just such an attitude.

That said, I want to make some comments about learning and teaching, but more importantly about goals. Thomas Hudgins has written a good deal about this in a recent post, and he posted some material from Dave Black, which provides me a good link for that as well. Both make some excellent comments on pedagogy and what those of us who teach need from the students.

On the use of the word “we,” I want to note that my role as teacher is vastly different from Dave’s or Thomas’s. I tutored Greek as a student in graduate school, helping Master of Divinity students get ready for tests. And that was indeed what it was: Getting them ready for the test. None had patience for letting me help them comprehend the subject better. They wanted to make sure they had memorized enough answers to get by on the test. Since then I have occasionally offered classes in the local church or tutored individuals who were trying to learn. The key element here is that people came to these classes because they had a goal, and they pursued the goal.

And this is why I think we need to look at two other things. I used “learning skills” in the title, but what I really mean is the art and practice of being a student. There’s probably a perfectly good word for it, but short of suggesting you be a good talmid, I can’t bring it to mind. But beyond learning skills there’s motivation, and behind motivation there’s purpose, or perhaps mission.

That leads me back to graduate school and my graduate advisor, Dr. Leona Glidden Running. I was truly blessed to have Dr. Running as a teacher and advisor. I learned enormous amounts from her in classes in Syriac (which I audited), Akkadian, and Middle Egyptian. From the list of languages you can see that I had the motivation for learning languages. Thus I learned from good teachers and some whose pedagogy may have lacked a bit.

It was also Dr. Running who got me into tutoring and sent her students to me for help in both Greek and Hebrew. The problem with tutoring points me to what I think is a problem in ministerial education: Students going through language courses in order to check a box. We’re often fairly good at ditching traditions in Protestantism. Just look at the reformation! But folks, that was 500 years ago. What traditions have you ditched lately?

What I encountered were students who were studying Greek because it was required for the degree, some of whom had been told by ministerial advisers, mentors, and church leaders that the only reason they should learn Greek was to get their degree, and most of whom would serve churches that didn’t care what biblical languages they might have learned. Is it any wonder that they just wanted me to help them through the test? I can’t count the number of times I was called within hours of the test, or late on a Friday afternoon or even working into Saturday with desperate pleas for that help. At this time I was a Seventh-day Adventist and I took my Sabbath seriously. (I’ve recently commented that it’s one thing from my SDA background that I really miss.) But these ministerial students who were supposed to be preparing to shepherd people in that tradition, were quite ready to ditch their Sabbath rest to get past the test.

I know from reading what others have said that while the details may differ, the attitude is quite similar. Some seminaries have given up on the languages as a requirement. Often those seminaries are ones that have reduced the entire biblical studies requirement to a minimum. So study of biblical languages goes the way of Bible study, and it all happens without that much planning.

So speaking as someone who thinks biblical knowledge is critical, let me suggest that we need to reexamine this entire process. What is a Master of Divinity degree for? What are our goals? Within that, what are the goals for knowledge of the Bible? Of biblical languages? Once we know what we need—and want—then we need to ask how we get it. Forcing students to take one or two (or whatever number) of semesters of Greek and/or Hebrew doesn’t accomplish anyone’s ultimate goal, at least anyone I know of. Nobody actually hopes that the student will pay tuition, check off a box, and leave with no knowledge that he or she will use (except possibly the university finance department).

I don’t know about other biblical languages classes, but my teachers taught with the goal of having us learn to read the language. They knew they were only going to accomplish that in a few cases, but they still worked toward that goal. If the assumption of everyone else is that the student will not, in fact, learn the language, then we need to do something about that. That isn’t something that a Greek teacher can fix. He or she can try to motivate more students, to provide as much useful information as possible, but that all constitutes making the best of a bad situation.

Amongst the possibilities that should be considered are requirements for additional classes in history, cultures, people (sociology/psychology), linguistics, or other topics that helps a person understand a written text. Perhaps, in addition, one might include classes specifically in taking complex ideas and expressing them clearly and simply (to whatever extent possible). Then we can aim the biblical languages classes at people who do actually want to learn to use the material.

I have to put in my ritual dig at the whole educational system. I think that in the 21st century world the degree system is getting more and more out of date. Something more like the badges system that the Mozilla Foundation is sponsoring may be at least an early pointer toward a replacement. But that moves beyond this post …

In summary, in languages as in anything else, we need to keep our focus on the mission. That starts with knowing what the mission is.

And we don’t.

Perspectives on Paul: The Formation of Paul’s Gospel

Perspectives on Paul: The Formation of Paul’s Gospel

Apocalyptic background - flash and lightning in dramatic dark sky

I’m resuming/continuing my study this evening, looking at Lesson Two from Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Dr. Bruce Epperly. I’ll be sticking closely with the lesson itself tonight, discussing how Paul was chosen and learned. I will doubtless discuss a number of these topics from related materials in other epistles.

Here’s the viewer:

Dating Biblical Books

Dating Biblical Books

I will be dealing frequently with issues of date and authorship while discussing Paul. The reason for this is that there is a considerable variation in what books scholars believe that Paul wrote, so while giving perspectives, I need to deal with the differences in the books attributed to Paul and what picture emerges of the apostle.

As some background, let me embed two videos I’ve done on dating and authorship. One major problem with this discussion is that for most laypeople the discussion is quite opaque. They don’t really understand how scholars determine date and authorship, so they’re stuck with either a consensus, or with what is presented in their study materials.

The first video is on dating the book of Daniel. In this, I’m not trying to give you the answer, but rather to give you a look at the various considerations:

The video above is from my own YouTube channel. The next one is from the Energion Publications YouTube channel. It’s a dialogue with Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. on this topic. Elgin takes a somewhat more conservative approach than I do, but his approach is also conversation friendly, i.e., you are asked to look at and evaluate evidence.

Elgin is the author of Evidence for the Bible, among other books, and I’m author of When People Speak for God and Learning and Living Scripture, among other books.

Though it is in serious need of revision to add some disciplines/tools in biblical criticism, the pamphlet What Is Biblical Criticism? can be helpful.


 

 

 

Introduction to Perspectives on Paul

Introduction to Perspectives on Paul

Apocalyptic background - flash and lightning in dramatic dark sky
Paul was impacted by his mystical experiences and the intervention of God by a vision of light. (Source: Adobe Stock [licensed]).
Tonight I begin my new series of Thursday night studies on the apostle Paul. My approach will be a bit different than usual. I’m more interested in developing the background, particularly in Israelite religion and Judaism and looking at the way Paul draws from his theological sources.

I’ll also introduce my approach to the subject. I’ll be working first with material from Energion Publications authors. I publish these materials and I’m acquainted with them. More importantly, I wouldn’t have published them if I didn’t consider them valuable.

You can find all of the materials in our The Apostle Paul category on Energion Direct. Most of these books are available in both print and ebook formats.

9781631991691I’m going to use Galatians as my basic guide. That wasn’t my first choice. I’ve often felt that Pauline scholars spend excessive time in Romans and Galatians and neglect books like 1 Corinthians or Philippians in developing their view of Paul’s theology. But I have come to believe instead that what I saw as deficiencies in building a picture of Paul from these letters is more a result of misreading Paul than of choosing the wrong letters. Of course, I will still maintain that in order to understand Paul and his theology, one needs to consult everything he wrote, but I doubt anyone actually disagrees with me on that point. It’s rather a matter of emphasis.

In studying Galatians, I’m going to start from a foundation of reading the book with Bruce Epperly’s study guide in the Participatory Study Series, titled creatively Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide. (The title is not Bruce’s fault. It’s standard for the series, and therefore my fault.) Besides the fact that I publish the book, my reason for choosing this is that it is written by a progressive theologian, also a process theologian, who is nonetheless very favorable to Paul’s writings. I would like to create a conversation here between evangelical and progressive approaches to interpretation and also to take a look at the way our existing theology impacts our reading.

As part of the resources for this study, I’m going to be interviewing scholars from our Energion Publications author list with a variety of perspectives. Because I’m using Bruce Epperly’s study guide, I’m starting by interviewing him. I completed it this morning, and I’m excited by the results and what he had to say. Bruce is always entertaining. He’s the first of several. I hope you will listen to (or watch) all of them. Here’s the video:

Meditations on the Letters of PaulIt’s not necessarily a bad thing for our theology to impact our reading. In  fact, I think it would be quite shocking if it didn’t. I am only reading the Bible because I grew up in a Christian home and have a theology that suggests that this book is useful. My existing theology is also going to have an impact on the way I place the content of the book. In turn, Paul is himself impacted by his own background and theology. This doesn’t suggest that interaction with the book doesn’t have the potential to change or even totally revolutionize our existing thinking. Paul  encountered God in a new and different way on the road to Damascus and his theology was revolutionized. Yet one can still see his background in his destination.

It’s easy to separate Paul from his own background. In fact, it’s easier to do so than not. So I’m going to emphasize the background. Now I’m not in search of some undiscovered country where I hear Paul 100% as he was. My theology will be in tension with his as I learn, and I hope yours will be there as well.

It’s my hope to provide additional video notes and some blog posts each week. Just as we have with the Energion Publications Tuesday Night Hangouts I’ve changed these to a half hour each. I also hope that you will pick up a copy of Bruce Epperly’s book and do a study of Galatians at the same time as I do.

I will be consulting the other books listed, and also providing a resource page with a list of available books. But another  book will be with me for the entire study is Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on the Letters of Paul. Herold brings some impressive scholarship to his reading of Paul, and I will be making full use of his material. As a suggestion, pick up copies of both of these books and follow along. And yes, I will be interviewing Herold as part of my series asking “Who was Paul?”

Here’s the viewer for tonight’s presentation:

Note that if you want to participate in live chat you will need to go to my YouTube channel and watch there. I will be watching the live chat for questions and comments. Note that I have put the books involved on sale on Energion Direct. You will be able to see them on the home page.

 

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Front)A little over a week ago I reviewed the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible using the Olive Tree electronic edition. On Tuesday I received my hardcover copy from the publisher. (Note: I received this copy free of charge in exchange for an honest review. No other strings were attached!) This is not an extraordinarily new experience in Bible editions, but it is a good one.

The Bible is 6″ x 9″, so fits nicely on all my disorderly stacks of books. It’s about 2 1/4″ thick, which makes it substantial, but not the largest Bible I use. The picture at the top shows it in my (not necessarily its) natural environment. That’s my actual desk, and so you can see it in comparison to the other study Bibles I have around it. You can click on the image to see it in high resolution. These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about theimg_20160908_141131 physical size of a study Bible.

These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about the physical size of a study Bible. That said, I can say that I prefer working with the electronic edition of this Bible, even though I am not well-acquainted with Olive Tree software. There is a great deal of information to present, and the size of an edition is always a compromise.

NIV CBSB with 12 point fontIn this case, the text is small (as is common with study Bibles). The image just below shows it by comparison with my own Revelation: A Participatory Study Guide, which is printed in a 12 point font. The notes appear slightly smaller, though I’m not good enough to say for certain, and the impression may be created by a different (sans-serif) font for the notes. This note on text size is not intended as criticism, but it is one of the major reasons I prefer to use an electronic edition in which I can set font size. This is a problem for just about every study Bible out there. There is so much information to be included that something has to give. Having done page layout on a large number of books myself, I understand this completely.

The biblical text is printed in two columns with reference notes in the center. This is a classical style of presentation, but not one of my favorites. Again, I should emphasize that nobody can avoid all criticisms for the layout of a text. Doubtless others would complain about a single column with notes on the outer margins, for example. The double-column format is so standard that I have only a couple of Bibles that don’t follow it. An excellent example is The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh Translation), which uses a single column for the text with notes consistently in a narrower column to the right. I find their edition quite friendly.

There are a variety of excurses and notes included directly in the text section, besides the standard notes which are in two columns at the bottom of the page. The notes supplement and follow-up on the introduction, generally providing information that is applicable on a wider basis, i.e. not to just the text in question. For example, just before the text of Isaiah we have an introduction to “The Oracles of the Prophets,” followed by a short introduction to the book of Isaiah itself. But about three pages in we have a nearly three-page section titled “The Historical Background of Isaiah,” which provides a great deal of helpfNIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Hebrews)ul information that will also relate to others of the prophets.

But just after these sections, on p. 1122, is an inset titled “Dating Methods.” No, this is not for those of you interested in origins and how rocks and fossils might be dated. Rather, it presents the basics of how one tries to place a particular oracle at a particular date. This is a tightly packed, extremely useful essay. Everyone should read it, no matter what portion of the Bible you’re studying. That’s why I chose Isaiah for this brief tour!

I mentioned that I will comment on some more specifics regarding the book of Hebrews. I will do so, but this past week has been intense, and I didn’t yet get to it. Nonetheless, the picture to the left at this point is the introduction to the book of Hebrews. I will go through that introduction in more detail in a post I hope to publish by Saturday.

Having the physical copy of this Bible in my hands makes me completely comfortable in recommending it. It’s easier to scan the portions I’m not emphasizing. For example, in using an electronic version I rarely “leaf through” the book, and thus might have missed the excellent introductory material for Isaiah. My main concern with study Bibles is that people tend to take the word of the note writer as to the meaning of the text. It’s certainly appropriate and valuable to get the opinions of others, but when one doesn’t find out why the writer believes a certain thing, one is left with either accepting it on authority—surely the author of such a fine volume would have his facts straight!—or having to dig elsewhere for that background information. That’s the value of this type of explanation.

For a few more notes on study Bibles in English, see my aer.io store collection.