It can be hard to go from a text to a sermon. The line from past to present can be hard work. But at the root, one must hear clearly what was said. Dave Black looks at a text.
Alden was my undergraduate advisor at Walla Walla University (then college), I publish two of his books (Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers and Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?), and he is a friend. Many of my friends have heard him speak in person. Here he is presenting a paper at a conference, so is somewhat less free-wheeling than he is normally, but he’s making some important points.
I tend to harp on hermeneutics. Sometimes that’s precisely what people want me to do. Groups that have me back to speak twice, at least, are generally happy with that topic. But others find it annoying, pedantic, and perhaps intellectually snobbish! “Why can’t we just read our Bibles and get on with it?” they ask. Or “Quit making it so complicated!”
I understand their frustration, but without a great deal of sympathy. Christians have been “just getting on with it” for centuries, and the result is that we’re scattered all over the map in terms of how we understand scripture. I don’t consider having a variety of interpretations to be a problem in itself. To those who yearn for the magisterium, I would say that this simply means choosing one probably wrong option and then sticking with it.
To a certain extent, just getting on and reading the Bible is a workable devotional approach. But even so, such a devotional approach requires a filter. Just try reading Numbers 31 devotionally and you may see the problem. Now there are many approaches to handling Numbers 31, though the most common one seems to be to pretend it’s not there as long as possible. Pretending that less enlightening (or apparently so) passages aren’t there is an approach to interpretation and application.
This approach can even be made explicit. I’m embedding a clip from The West Wing, in which Toby Ziegler discusses the death penalty with his Rabbi. In this discussion the fictional rabbi expresses explicitly an approach many take implicitly. (To those annoying people who like to point out that various quotes/clips/etc come from fiction, I’m aware of it. I find fiction an excellent source for launching thinking.)
Relatively few people (though there are some) would state this quite as explicitly as the rabbi does at the end, “wrong by any modern standard.” But it’s a common hermeneutic in practice.
And as long as you’re prepared to argue modern standards or what seems, to you, to be spiritually enlightening, and to do so with other people who share your view of “enlightening,” that approach will work. It works quite well on the more conservative side as well, just with different definitions applied to what to keep and what not to.
The Bible is susceptible to this sort of thing because it does reflect a long time period and lets us see a variety of experiences in different times and places. It doesn’t codify that much, and where it does, it is often under circumstances that don’t apply. In a post yesterday I used Leviticus 18:22 and 19:34. Those each evoke extremely controversial topics. Here’s another text I used in the same Sunday School class:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, 3 or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— 4 when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, 5 or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt. 6 And you shall bring to the priest, as your guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish from the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. 7 The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the Lord, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby. (Leviticus 6:1-7, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
In this passage the class largely came to the same conclusion about what applied and what didn’t with some variation. Feeling guilt, accepting responsibility, making restitution—these all seemed very applicable. Not so much bringing a ram without blemish.
That doesn’t reflect a bad hermeneutic. In this case, most people were distinguishing lasting principles from temporary requirements. Both Judaism and Christianity have theology that removes the need for animal sacrifices in the present.
The problem comes in when we try to discuss, and more particularly when we try to enforce our view of scripture on someone else. I’m fond of a quote from one of the books I publish, Philosophy for Believers. On page 119 of that book he says:
Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook.
In this case, I’m not simply looking for considerations that are overlooked, though they are, but for the underlying approach that results in a particular view. Quite frequently the way someone understands a scripture is simply locked into the tradition so thoroughly that an individual doesn’t even think about why. A single tradition might function well that way, but when you then discuss the text with someone else, the argument gets immediately heated.
The reason these arguments get heated quickly is both that we often have a great deal of emotion (way too much, I believe) invested in our religious views and spiritual practices, and also that the other person seems obtuse and perhaps bullheaded not to see the obviously correct and plainly clear meaning of the passage presented. But you may have grown up and studied in a tradition that sees that passage completely differently. The difference may be in what applies and doesn’t, but it can also be in just what it means and how it applies. (I discuss this more in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method.)
Let me give an example. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says a number of things, but I had a debate that dealt with two of them. It started with this one:
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
Now it happens that I believe that this is an intensified command that we should conduct all of our dealings with others truthfully and with integrity, and thus it would negate the need for an oath. I would go so far as to consider “I swear to you” in conversations or business dealings to be at least unnecessary, and probably more so, it reflects the idea that some of my conversation can be a lie. I don’t think it forbids me from taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in court, though I consider “so help me God” to be questionable for the same reason as “I swear to you.” I speak always with God’s help, not being able to take my next breath without it. The words I would utter in court should be no more and can be no less with the help of God than any others.
Now you can disagree with me on my interpretation. That’s part of my point. I’m not even fully explaining my approach, though many will see how I’m reading the passage. I’m certainly, in this case, allowing Jesus some hyperbole. For example, I would identify “anything more than this comes from the evil one” as hyperbole. Am I right? That would be an excellent point for discussion.
Which, in this exchange, my correspondent and I did. I asked him how he interpreted it. He told me that it should be taken in the plain sense. I asked him to define that further. He said it should be taken as it would be understood by any high school student in the U. S. Having dealt with not a few high school students, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but I then brought my counter-example.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
My question here was (and is) just how an American high school student would undersand “tear it out and throw it away” or “cut it off and throw it away.” I see these as hyperbole, emphasizing the need to avoid lust, to get in ahead of the cause of adultery and not just stop before one crosses the threshold.
My correspondent said that this passage should be understood as one’s willingness to stand up for one’s principles even to physical assault or martyrdom. I have great doubts that this is the way the average high school student would read the passage.
Now for me, further discussion of the applicability of the passages would require that we first address our points of interpretation. Is it possible that Jesus used hyperbole? If not, just what does the second passage mean? If he does use it, is the first passage actually using hyperbole or is that just my literary excuse to get out of obeying the command of Jesus?
All of those are great questions to discuss, but to discuss them profitably, we need to ask the questions under the question. In this case my correspondent was willing to do that. Some think I tell this story to denigrate my correspondent. In fact, the discussion was quite profitable and enjoyable. Yes, we disagreed profoundly in the end, but I certainly learned.
There is one further layer worth mentioning and that’s to ask why a particular hermeneutic is chosen. We’re not actually stuck with our hermeneutic. We had to delay my discussion with Dr. Alden Thompson (Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? and Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers), but it will be rescheduled. That’s where we discuss the inspiration of the Bible, and how one understands that will impact what hermeneutic one will use. Back when I was an extremely arrogant undergraduate, Alden is the one who set me to thinking about this more seriously.
Since I wrote recently about biblical culture shock, and have also commented from time to time on our impatience with the process in politics, it was interesting for me to come to Numbers 30 and 31 in my evening reading.
Underlying that is a much more robust view of the sacredness of the vow in the first place. Promises are somewhat weaker in our modern society, so we really have two levels of culture (at least) in this passage to get past. The first is the idea that a rash vow to do something stupid would actually be binding. I think our modern view would be that if it’s rash and stupid, don’t do it, and God will forgive you. If it’s a verbal agreement with someone else, we still might wiggle out. Even if it’s in writing, we’ll probably try. But those “outs” are not permitted by the text.
It’s important to note a category of cultural issue here. We have to adjust to the question in order to understand the answer. No, this isn’t presented in question and answer format, but much of Torah is answering various questions about how a group of people will come to be a society and live together. How do we work things out? There are other passages in scripture where this problem occurs. Take 1 Corinthians 14:40 as an example. I’ve heard this quoted so many times, often to state that we must rigorously follow the order of service contained in the bulletin. But the question Paul is answering here is not “can there be deviations from the church bulletin?” Rather, he’s talking about a large group coming together in which most people feel they have something to express in the gathering. (What about church bulletins? Use your common sense. I’d suggest saving trees by not printing them.)
So once we’ve gotten past that, we have the next issue which is the subjection of the women to men in what is clearly a serious spiritual issue. There is an assumption underlying this passage that the responsible spiritual decision maker in the home is a man, whether the father or the husband. It is on his action that the result is based.
I’m an egalitarian, and so, I suspect, are many of my readers. I don’t want to debate that right now. Whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, consider your reaction to the passage in connection with your existing beliefs about the roles of men and women. I’m reading this passage through with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with the Numbers portion written by Dale A. Brueggeman. Here’s a quote regarding vows in the New Testament:
As in this text, wives were expected to be subject to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1-7), although mutual consent had become a strong consideration (1 Cor 7:4). … (397)
So we’re going to find some variety among Christians today in how they might relate to the relationship between men and women reflected in this passage, as well as to the general idea of a vow.Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. The passage covered is Judges 19-21. There the nation of Israel has sworn a rash vow that they will not give any of their daughters to the Benjaminites as wives. When they find that they have reduced the tribe of Benjamin to a small number of men (no women at all!) they want to find a way out. Now the modern idea would be to get together and repeal the previous vote, but the sacredness of the vow/oath is such that this isn’t an option for them. Instead, they find alternative ways to provide wives. (You’ll have to read the passage.)
I would suggest that, contrary to Alden’s chapter title (as much as I like it), the next chapter in Numbers may be the worst story in the Old Testament. Numbers 31 is pretty dismal. Those who might call Christianity or Judaism violent religions might well cite a passage like this one.
And herein lies the question of interpretation. We find it easy to bypass or ignore a passage like Numbers 31. You’ll find very few Christians who believe that the behavior of the Israelites, even though it is presented as divine command, is something we would apply today. We’ll have various reasons for doing so, and in looking at how we apply this passage, we can discover a great deal about how we interpret scripture.
Think about how you do it. Then compare how you respond to Number 31 with how you responded to Numbers 30. Are the two approaches the same? Or do you have a sort of ad hoc explanation which comes out with a result you “know” is right, but which cannot be applied universally?
I’d suggest that we need to consider our method of biblical interpretation carefully and ask whether the same method works everywhere.
One of my observations in talking to people about their churches and church programs is that they find the first moment when a book or program differs from their situation and take one of two approaches. First, they might discard the entire thing. This is fairly common. That won’t work for us. It doesn’t matter that what we’re doing isn’t working either. Second, they try to follow the program precisely, despite any differences, because if it worked for the expert who wrote the book, it has to work for them.
Neither of these is a strategy that is likely to succeed. Each person, community, church congregation, denomination (or jurisdiction within a denomination) is different. Each one will have different opportunities and perhaps a different call from God. I am passionately convinced that sharing the good news about Jesus with the world is our general calling. Whether that is going to involve a food pantry, classes, involvement in broader community outreach, collecting money for projects across the globe, or any one of a myriad of other possibilities, is wide open.
Especially in protestantism we tend to downplay tradition, but our church tradition has a role. The way you will carry out certain missions is going to depend on the history of the church congregation. We don’t all get her in the same way, and we’re not going to move forward in the same way. Dr. Ruth Fletcher, in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations devotes an entire chapter to choosing, to the necessity of discerning the right path and making and carrying out decisions.
The reason I wanted to emphasize this right now is that quite frequently we think we cannot benefit from something like “apostolic teaching” or “the Word of God” unless we absolutely agree on what it is and how we’re going to deal with it. But just amongst the books that I publish, we have Dr. David Alan Black, a Southern Baptist Greek teacher (and full-time missionary, he’d insist!) and Dr. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor, seminary professor, and a process theologian who are both going back to the same place: Acts of the Apostles. Now I’ll tell you that if you read both of their books, something I urge you to do for reasons beyond the fact that I publish both, you’ll find quite a number of things they disagree on and quite a number of points of different emphasis. But in a church that is often drifting and dying while repeating the same behaviors that led it to its current malaise, that one similarity is enormous. Let’s look back at the early church. Let’s ask what made Christianity what it is. Perhaps there is something there that would help us.
Now one interpreter might be looking for a definitive, apostolic pattern to apply and follow. Another might be looking for a series of commands that one can carry out. Another might be reading the story and asking how are stories might relate. Yet certain things come out of such a study, and certain things result from going to the source.
I’m very protestant in ethos. I’m not at all interested in things like apostolic succession, in the sense of a series of people who had hands laid on them by a person who had hands laid on them leading back to the apostles. But I’m very interested in seeing what those early apostles did. I’m very interested in connecting my story to theirs. There is nothing about that process that is mechanical or that allows me to depend totally on someone else’s work.
Dave makes this point in the interview as he talks about us teaching one another. Why am I comparing what Dave has said with what two other authors have said? Is it so that I can sell more books? Of course I want to sell more books. I’m never going to lie to you and tell you I don’t care about selling books. But that’s not the key reason. I started publishing to do this. I wanted us to teach one another, to do on a broad scale what Dave is talking about in the local church (where I also want to see it done). I want is to help one another learn. I hope we find ourselves challenged.
There is nowhere that I want to see this more than in our use of the Bible. How is it that we can begin to see more of this individual Bible study in the church? And let me specify here by “individual” I mean “individual in community.” Let’s avoid two serious errors: 1) That Bible study is individual without any community control or involvement, and 2) That Bible study is a communal affair that can be handled by an expert passing out information. The reason I named a series I publish “participatory” in spite of the number of people who thought that word was too long, is that it is individuals participating in community who have the best possibility to find the message for themselves, their churches, and their communities.
Ruth Fletcher comments on this. Note how she doesn’t propose the same type of study for all types of churches.
Even though this is an age when people care more about what the church does than what it believes, transforming congregations know they must lessen the gap between people’s experience of God and the church’s teaching about God if the church is once again to become a reliable source of wisdom. Beliefs matter. Transforming congregations that are creedal churches help individuals discover a deeper truth in the words they recite; those that are non-creedal churches create safe space where individuals can work out their own guiding beliefs. They create space within their own tradition where people have the freedom to honestly express doubts, to say what they do not believe, to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers, and to wonder about the mysteries of the universe. (Thrive, p. 91)
Bruce Epperly has a similar idea:
The first followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were a church whose spirituality was truly holistic. They prayed and they studied, and discovered study was a form of prayer. We need thinking Christians, who take theological reflection seriously, who ask serious questions, and challenge unhealthy and superficial images of God and human experience. (Transforming Acts, p. 48)
If you think the various visions are distant from one another consider this: What would happen to the church in America if we were to focus on studying the early church looking for insight into how to be a church following Jesus in the world today? I think that a number of wonderful things might happen despite how we decided to approach the question and the hermeneutical principles we took to the effort. Do I want us to debate such hermeneutical principles? Absolutely! The do make a difference. I think one of the greatest things we can do is to consider and discuss that issue seriously. But if we started at that point, we’d already be devoting ourselves, in our own limited ways, to the apostles’ teaching. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
The section on this mark in the video begins about 15:30. I’m not setting the video to the starting point, as I suspect most who are willing to invest time in the video will watch it as a whole once.
In an interview published on The Jesus Creed, though released by IVP, John Walton comments on different hermeneutical presuppositions. He is referring to the endless debates about how and when creation took place, but the ideas might be useful regarding other topics.
Walton: We too easily believe that the world of biblical interpretation is a black and white world—that whatever view we have adopted is right and everyone else is wrong. Such a view is too facile. In many cases we do our best to be faithful interpreters, but the Bible just doesn’t offer enough information to give irreproachable confidence. Even as evangelicals with a common core of theological affirmations, we work with varieties of hermeneutical presuppositions and we weigh the evidence differently. Consequently we develop different preferences based on which view has the preponderance of the evidence supporting it. Though ultimately one position undoubtedly is right and others wrong, we are not always positioned to see that well.
That being the case, it is uncharitable to simply label those who disagree with you as wrong, and even as less than Christian, when they have done their best to engage in faithful interpretation based on orthodox theological presuppositions and a defensible hermeneutic. Theoretically, people will know we are Christians by our love, and I am not sure that we always do a good job of that if we are constantly engaged in denouncing others who are simply trying to be faithful to the text.
There are several things that interest me here. Overall, I wish more people would take this sort of thing to heart. Of course, when we get to “orthdox theological presuppositions and a defensible hermeneutic” we reopen all the questions again. Often the debate is just what presuppositions are truly orthodox and what hermeneutical principles are, in fact, defensible.
This reminds me of another post I read recently, titled Types of Scholarship, and posted by Ken Schenck. There are a number of quite useful comments in the post, but he says that “a good deal of scholarship probably is bunk.” That’s very useful to know, right up until the moment that you have to determine just what is bunk and what isn’t. The problem is that not everyone agrees. I have published things that one person will say is quite horrible while another thinks it’s forward looking and well researched. I’ve encountered these contrasting attitudes much more frequently with other scholarly works I read.
My point here is that much of what is written in any field is going to be discarded eventually, and the process of scholarship–publishing, getting responses, thinking some more, perhaps getting discarded–is probably necessary. If any person or small group of people was permitted to exclude the bunk, then we’d be very likely to filter out the gems, stuff that looks like bunk at first but turns out to be exciting.
It reminds me of the comment one of my professors in graduate school made about Mitchell Dahood. I was making use of his commentary on the Psalms (Anchor Bible) and commented that I felt that in many cases I just couldn’t buy what Dahood had to say, yet in some cases he would come up with what seemed to me positively brilliant. I wondered if that was the result of my inexperience at the time. The professor said no. He said that Dahood was only right about 20% of the time (no idea where he got that figure!), but when he was right, he was so right that he made up for all the other times.
So if that professor was right, would I consider Dahood’s work on the Psalms extremely valuable (20%) or bunk (80%)? Personally, I’m willing to filter the material to get the creative input.
And since I usually try to mention a book or so that I publish, this post relates closely to the book I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it by Steve Kindle.
Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context is the headline in RELEVANT magazine. Thomas Turner is writing vigorously about the apparently shameful misuse of this passage of scripture. He points out that it’s used on graduation cards and often quoted in words of encouragement to individuals. He summarizes:
Sure, it might make a person feel better, but this verse as we often prescribe it is being taken completely out of context. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It’s time to back up and see what the author of Jeremiah is actually saying.
Really? Totally out of context? Read his article first, and you may see just how much of what we say about the passage is very close to the same thing. Yet I’m coming to a different conclusion on the usage of the text on a graduation card or as a matter of encouragement.
Jeremiah is not talking to each of us personally. Jeremiah is speaking to Israel. Quite true! Further, Jeremiah is talking about our high school graduations, or our difficulties in finding a job or a spouse. Just so. Jeremiah is not talking about those things. But the fact is that scripture does not generally talk to us quite that directly.
I’m a great fan of context. One has to be in order to study scripture. But I’m not a fan of the excessive or indiscriminate application of rules. Almost any rule can be misapplied or stretched. A compact, memorable rule is very much like Jeremiah 29:11—when you use it, you will tend to bypass a great deal of logic and background.
Take, for example, the etymological fallacy. This is a very real and quite pernicious fallacy. I encounter it regularly in reading. Someone lays out the root(s) of a word, and derives a meaning from them. “‘Church’ in Greek is ekklesia,” says the confident but careless preacher, “and that comes from ek, ‘out of’ and klesia which comes from the word for ‘called’, so the church is the ‘called out ones’.”
But there are some uses for etymology. One is for fun, where a speaker might help us remember a point by pointing out etymology. Provided one doesn’t claim that the etymology has the last word about the meaning of the passage, there’s no problem with this. It’s fun. It helps one remember things. In addition, it can help one with spelling. And did I mention that it’s fun?
The second is when studying obscure words which one has available in only a limited number of contexts. It’s easy to announce that a word’s meaning is determined by usage, and that we discover that meaning by observing it in various contexts. But some words might occur only once, or even just a very few times in the literature we have available. What then? Well, etymology can provide pointers. I observed this in studying Ugaritic. My knowledge of Hebrew regularly suggested possibilities for words I encountered in Ugaritic, then context would help narrow down my choices. As a student, of course, I had recourse to the available literature on the topic to check my work.
Ugaritic, in turn, suggested some possible options for understanding rare words in Hebrew. At which point the etymological fallacy would often come into play again. Ugaritic could be helpful, but it could also send the unwary off into flights of fancy.
I take that detour to point out that we can apply rules, even good rules, improperly. Rules themselves require context. That’s true of the use of context as well. I learned before I was in High School (most of which I skipped anyhow) that one should always take texts in context. But there was a fallacy hidden in there too. The type of context I learned about was the literary context, i.e. discovering what the author said before and after, and placing the text into that context.
That’s good. We want to do that. We’ve already pointed out how Jeremiah isn’t talking about us personally. He’s looking at a community. Not only that, he’s looking at a specific community, Israel. He’s looking at that community at a specific time and in specific circumstances. What he says will be fulfilled in specific ways to those people.
And with that last sentence I blast my way right out of literary context and start looking at historical context. (Jeremiah lays out the historical circumstances of his statement in the context. I’m talking about the broader history of the fulfilment of his statement.) Now we realize that there is much more to context than just the literary context. Notice here that we also get away from a “one meaning” fallacy, the idea that a text means only one, limited thing. (And that rule could be badly misapplied as well!)
And this context can lead us to a canonical context. How do the words of Jeremiah tie in with scripture as a whole? (I will pass over the issue of whose scripture. I write as a Christian, reading as a Christian.) The exile, regarding which Jeremiah writes, becomes a historical watershed for Israel, and comes to define, along with the exodus, must of the Christian understanding of redemption. There’s a reason so many prophecies of 2nd Isaiah (40-55) are later applied to Jesus, even though in context, they have more immediate applicability. The entire event—exile and restoration—takes on new meaning in this theological context.
We might argue that this is improper usage. If Jeremiah didn’t mean it or Isaiah didn’t mean it (an assumption on our part), then how can we use it in that way? First, if we don’t accept a theological context, we’re pretty much out of business as a community with a shared theology, i.e. a shared understanding of God. Second, we do this kind of reshaping of events and stories all the time with other literature. While I believe what the author intended needs to be an anchor, a guide, even a limitation, preventing flights of fancy with the text, words do take on a power of their own in a community. (I would suggest the example of how Melchizedek is used in Hebrews, but this post would grow to long if I discussed that further.)
I’m not, however, suggested that we can just grab the text and do what we want with it because there are such things as canonical and even theological contexts. As with literary context, we have to look at what these contexts actually are and make sure that we haven’t just yelled “context” and declared victory, whichever side we’re on.
How does the theological context apply?
Well, first, we have the issue of individual versus community application. The church in America tends to be very individualistic. It’s fashionable in certain circles, to lay heavy emphasis on the community in order to counter that trend. I’m in those circles. I think we need to revive the idea of community in the church. It’s not about me, it’s about the body of Christ as a whole.
But there’s a tension in scripture and in theology on this very point. The church is a community, but the community is made up of individuals. So you have things that apply to individuals somehow. As I study Hebrews with my Sunday School class right now it’s interesting to see the tension between remembering the leaders (13:7), and everyone having boldness going before God, between the examples of faith, all individuals (11), and the great cloud of witnesses (12:1ff).
When someone today says to remember the leaders of my church, I can point out that I can move down the street and find other leaders. That’s actually a sad thing, that disunity in the church, yet it’s true, and unless you’re prepared to argue that every church’s leaders are truly following God, then there is room for me, as an individual to make a choice. In fact, I must make a choice.
So there is a tension here as well. It’s good to realize that Jeremiah 29:11 was first spoken to a specific community and that there was a specific fulfilment of this text to that community. That is important. As Thomas Turner points out, it’s a promise of the kingdom of God as well, and that’s important too.
But for the individual looking at a major life choice, the most important thing to get out of this verse may well be that God has a plan for him or her at that moment. The choice of the right college, the right job, or the right spouse may be the most important kingdom thing right then for that individual who is a member of the community of believers.
And in that very community that we want to celebrate, for which God has great plans, this text has come to mean more than just the good of the big group in the by and by. It has come to mean that, as “Abraham’s seed” I can now hear God speaking to me (Galatians 3:29), and that this individual application may be precisely what I need to hear.
We often act as though God has to pay more attention to the big things (like the triumph of the Kingdom at the end) than to the little things (where will I go to college?). But God doesn’t have limited attention so that he needs to prioritize. He can give full attention to both issues, along with billions more.
Just like those boiled down, compact rules of hermeneutics, the community has boiled down Jeremiah 29:11 and presented it as a compact promise. It’s a usage I find entirely appropriate.
As I’ve been reading this passage repeatedly this week, I have been repeatedly struck by the radical nature of what Paul is saying here. I’m surprised we don’t spend more time on it, because it seems to me to clarify many things that are left unclear in Galatians and Romans.
Of course, considering the discussion of authorship, if one thinks Paul did not write the letter, one would hardly go there for a clear statement of Paul’s view. I think a similar corrective would be provided if one added the undoubtedly genuine 1 & 2 Corinthians to the mix when one wants to determine Paul’s theology.
In the meantime, however, Ephesians 2 remains radical. There are two ways in which this impressed me.
1) Contrary to what many modern readers imagine, the gospel message of grace received through faith does not treat works negatively, provided they are in their proper place. If I walk a couple of miles a day with a view to reaching Australia, I will likely be disappointed. There’s an ocean between here and there, and I keep winding up at my starting point. If I do the same thing for exercise, however, it’s a good thing.
Works done to earn God’s favor are destined to fail. Since all that we do is by definition a result of God’s gift to us (of life, before salvation), we can’t actually create something that God needs in order to make God owe us something. But to fail to attempt good works, however imperfectly we may accomplish our mission, after we have received God’s grace, is not only ungrateful, it is a rejection of the gift. The gift of grace makes good works possible.
For by grace you are saved through faith. Yet this is not from you. It is God’s gift. It’s not from works, so nobody can boast. For his creation is what you are, created in Christ Jesus for good works, so you can walk in them (2:8-10).
I also note that the exclusion of boasting as a reason why works are not the source of our salvation also excludes an intellectual sense of achievement in grasping and accepting the gospel. We are also not saved through intellectually comprehending the theology of salvation. We are not better than the person who cannot comprehend the theology.
2) This radical gospel could not have been produced using a modern hermeneutic. It must add to, and in some cases transform, what came before. I do not mean to suggest that Judaism was a graceless religion. I think it was filled with grace. I think the transformation is rooted in the Torah and developed in its early stages by the prophets.
But that entire process required just that—a process. God’s message came at various times and at various places before God finally spoke to us through God’s Son (Hebrews 1:1-3). Is there a more profound way for God to speak than through the incarnation? I don’t think so. But there is the possibility that we will more and more deeply understand the implications of God’s message.
In the face of this radical gospel, our hermeneutic of God’s entire revelation is often not radical enough to let us hear God calling us ever deeper.
I apply this idea to my previous note on egalitarian and complementarian texts. Rather than seeking a filter for those commands that are eternal and those that are temporal (and I suggest that all commands are both eternal and temporal; always given for a time and place, always deriving their force from an eternal principle), we need to be asking how God’s revelation should continue transform our natures and attitudes, both individually and as Christ’s body.
I think this is the failure both of many of us (definitely including myself) and of much of the 21st century American church.
Adrian Warnock has produced a list of texts that speak to the complementarian/egalitarian debate. Having looked over the list I don’t think it’s all that bad. In fact, it includes a number of key texts and stories that I would have included in any such list—had I been inclined to create one.
The problem is that I don’t think this, or any issue, can be resolved by doing exegesis on a list of texts, much as I’d prefer that sort of a simple (simplistic) approach. The Bible just doesn’t seem to work that way. What generally results is a process of building one’s theology on one portion of the list and explaining the rest away. We have women speaking and not speaking. We have women leading and not leading.
What’s needed is to form a theology based on scripture (and a hermeneutic capable of arriving at such a theology), and then ask what that theology says about the place of women (and men) in the church here and now. Getting to the root of things can resolve issues of time, place and context.
There was no list of texts that made the church change its approach to gentiles in Acts 15. Oh, there were texts. But what really changed the day was God acting through the church. The scriptural fundamentalists of the day would have taken a list of texts, and said “no.”
Come to think of it, that’s precisely what they did.
Morgan Guyton has a very strong (and, in my view, entirely justified) reaction to the abuse of the term “biblical.”
… In how many other “Bible” churches out there has “Biblical” become a code-word for an ideological platform that serves a purpose completely foreign to God’s mission but cherry-picks verses out of the Biblical text to justify itself?
Good question! (Of course, his question follows an example.)
Nonetheless I want to sound another warning: Let’s watch out about the abuse of the word “unbiblical” as well.
Declaring something unbiblical also requires a view on what the Bible does and does not require, but instead of declaring a particular view in bounds, it declares it out of bounds. It can be abused in the same way. The word “biblical” is a positive adjective which tends to lead people to accept a statement, even if it has no biblical warrant. “Unbiblical” is a negative adjective (in most churches) which tends to make people reject an idea, even without biblical warrant.
So am I saying one can never use the adjective “biblical?” No. What I am suggesting is that many of us use it, and its opposite, too much. We use it as a sort of shorthand for “you ought to believe this” (or not), rather than as a statement backed by the appropriate study and research.
Instead, I suggest that we skip the adjective and do the work. If you provide a sound backing from the Bible, appropriately interpreted, for what you say, others can apply the adjective “biblical” to it. If not, well, not so much!