Theology and Reading Scripture

Theology affects my Bible reading. When I remember God loves me, I can take even words of correction as loving. When I forget God’s love, I find it hard to accept God’s correction.

In other words, if I believe God loves me, I can accept God’s word as loving, even when it seems unpleasant. If I believe God is out to get me, even words of love can be twisted into something like a personal attack.

My theology (do I view God as loving or adversarial?) makes a big difference in being able to hear God.

Cut it Straight

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 NASB

Paul’s words to Timothy challenge us to be careful students of scripture. “Be diligent” (meticulous, thorough, attentive) as opposed to being sloppy. Be a “workman” (labor, toil) as opposed to being lazy. But have you ever noticed that the language of worship is used to describe study? To understand diligent study as a way to “present yourself” to God is both inspiring and convicting.

Careful study is an act of worship.

“Tadpole Christians,” as John Stott calls them, are all head. “Their heads are bulging with sound theology, but that is all there is to them.” On the other hand, “pinhead Christians” have a “small head” but can make you jump with the slightest stick. To some Christianity is merely an intellectual pursuit while to others it is defined  exclusively by emotions. Did we forget the greatest command is to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind?” Heart and mind. Intellect and emotions.

Some bound in tradition have no idea why they hold their beliefs. Their opinions are strong but they can’t tell you how they reached their convictions or what passages are crucial to the discussion. “It just doesn’t feel right” and “it makes me uncomfortable” has taken the place of diligent study to determine convictions.

Some bound by emotion have no idea why they hold their beliefs. Their opinions are strong but they can’t tell you how they reached their convictions or what passages are crucial to the discussion. “It feels right” and “it makes me comfortable” has taken the place of diligent study to determine convictions.

Some have studied scripture enough to see an emotional response was important to God’s people. Without emotion religion is dry, lifeless and void of joy. Some have learned through emotional experiences the mind is involved in seeking God. Without engagement of the mind religion is empty and often results in God being recreated in the image of the feeler.

Knowing there are matters of opinion is no excuse for sloppy handling of scripture. Even when a matter isn’t “of faith” we still need study to know why we hold the opinion we do. When discussing disputable matters, Paul urged the Romans to be “fully convinced” in their own minds (Romans 14:5).

Jesus wants our hearts and minds. Every loose thought and emotion should be fit into the structure of life shaped by Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5 MSG). Our minds need to be transformed (Romans 12:1-2). We need to think on the things God tells us (Philippians 4:8). When raised with Christ we set our hearts and minds on things above (Colossians 3:2). Our minds need to be Spirit-controlled (Romans 8:5-6).

So be diligent. Accurately handle scripture; in others words, “cut it straight.” In so doing you present yourself to God in worship.

Diligent study is an offering of worship to God.

Steinbeck, Worms, and Preaching

Today I am sharing a quotation from Chris Erdman’s Countdown to Sunday A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare To Preach in which he quotes John Steinbeck to illustrate how preachers should handle the text. Enjoy!

“If you want to know how to handle this text, I’ll steer you toward the novelist John Steinbeck over the mass of contempoary preachers. Stenibeck knows how to handle the kind of stories, rants, poems, prayers, commands, and whatever else makes up the pages of the Bible. Steinbeck knows nature and the human condition into which you and I are sent to preach the gospel. Here’s Steinbeck with a pretty accurate description of the preacher’s art —

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream….How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise–the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream–be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto the knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book–to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.

I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better way of handling the Bible…and opening its pages among those whose lives are as full of as much stink and noise, light, tone, and habit as those whose lives the Bible wants us to capture whole. Work too hard at getting them out and off the page, and you’ll do them damage or injustice. Better to open the page and let the stories crawl out all by themselves. That’s when your preaching will be its best, and you’ll find yourself working at your task with more wonder and a lot less chore.” (pages 49-50).

Topical Hazards

When I was back in school I enjoyed taking a systematic theology class. Through the years I have read a number of helpful systematic theology books. I know there is a place for discussing Bible teachings topically. But having said that, there is a real danger when Bible study, and for that matter sermons and classes, are limited to topical approaches.

The expository preaching class I took years ago at Harding University Graduate School of Religion was one of the highlights of my time there (there were many). I remember discovering for the first time the importance of approaching scripture as it was written. I vividly remember the time when I was sitting in that class back in 1981 and realized, “If God had wanted to give us a topical Bible, He could have (but He didn’t).”

In spite of the fact that He didn’t, some people approach their Bible study, even their teaching and preaching, as if God had given us a topical Bible. And so if they want to do in-depth study about, let’s say for example, baptism, healing, or prayer they just look up those topics and study the verses wherein the words appear with little thought of the context.

What results is we end up reading isolated verses about baptism without reading the broader context of the story of redemption God has given us. So, for example, baptism is isolated from the broader themes of faith and grace. We know what happens when we study baptism in isolation from the story of faith and grace, don’t we? And, as a second example, what happens when we pull out the topic of healing from the story? We isolate it from the bigger story which includes suffering, trials, perseverance, and death at every turn. Finally, consider the topic of prayer. Think of how much richer and fuller our understanding of prayer if we see prayer as a part of the overall story instead of just pulling out verses. What was the situation? What was being prayed for? How was the prayer answered? Did what resulted from the answered prayer have the intended consequence?

I have found the best way to study a topic is to read the Bible. That allows us to see whatever the topic of interest as a part of the bigger story of redemption that is the Bible (Similarly, the story of the disciples’ spiritual formation that I mentioned yesterday is best understood as you read through the entire gospel of Mark). So what’s your topic of interest? Worship? Gender roles? Justice? Poverty? Sexual ethics? Whatever it may be – may I suggest that actually reading through the Bible may be a much more effective way of discovering God’s will than resorting to a topical Bible.
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And on a related note —

Skyline’s adult education curriculum was designed with special attention to the big picture of the Bible. I want to share just a few quotations from Walter Brueggemann’s book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education that help explain why attention to the whole is essential in Christian education. I want to highly recommend this book to anyone who is taking on the challenge of putting together a church education program.

The discussion I propose is simply this: Attention to the process and shape of canon may tell us something about education in ancient Israel. In addition, it may provide clues for our own educational task. . . (page 4).

The three agents of instruction are identified as priest, wise, and prophet. The three shapes of knowledge are said to be Torah, counsel, and word. Each of these, I shall argue, has a special substance and a distinct mode in the life of Israel. And a faithful community must attend to all three, not selecting one to the neglect of the others, or subordinating one to make it conform to the others (page 8).

I propose that church education, both in its modes and its substance, has gone awry precisely because of the failure to hold these three parts of the canon, these three normative modes of disclosure, in balance and in tension (page 11).

Such education, such ministry rightly done is radically subversive. It evokes resistance and hostility. That should not surprise us. That indeed is the condition of church education. Any educator who hopes to avoid that abrasion by focusing on one aspect alone cannot claim to be facing the whole canon in all its richness (page 13).

Jesus in the Synagogue

“They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:21-22).

Jesus and his new followers go to Capernaum on the Sabbath and Jesus goes into the synagogue. This is a great opportunity for Jesus to instruct the people assembled about the evils of the synagogue.

After all, the synagogue is not mentioned in the Old Testament. It was never commanded by God — therefore, it must have been an “invention of man.” We know about the silence of scripture, don’t we? If it is not authorized, it is forbidden, right?

But Jesus was more interested in teaching Good News about God reigning than he was in teaching the finer points of our hermeneutic. The people were amazed. This was not the usual sermon fare. This is authority.

Text and Pretext

I’m passing along another Stott quote, this one form one of my favorite of his works, The Preacher’s Portrait. Hard to believe he wrote these words in 1961.

“Although there are, strictly speaking, no prophets or apostles today, I fear there are false prophets and false apostles. They speak their own words instead of God’s Word. Their message originates in their own mind. These are men who like to ventilate their own opinions on religion, ethics, theology or politics. They may be conventional enough to introduce their sermon with a Scripture text, but the text bears little or no relation to the sermon which follows, nor is any attempt made to interpret the text in its context. It has been truly said that such a text without a context is a pretext.”

–John Stott from “The Preacher’s Portrait” (London: Tyndale Press, 1961), p. 13.

The Anchor of Christology

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

The September 8, 2006 edition of The Washington Times carried an article by David R. Sands entitled “Episcopal bishops hit ‘inappropriate’ speech.” Sands reports the opposition of some bishops to the decision to invite former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to speak at the Washington National Cathedral which is “the seat of the presiding bishop of the church’s American branch.” What caused the opposition? Was it the former president’s lack of belief in Jesus as the Son of God? No. The critics called the invitation “ill-conceived and inappropriate” because of “the Iranian regime’s stance on women’s rights, homosexuality and Israel.”

In his volume on the letters of John in The NIV Life Application Commentary, Gary Burge tells the story of his friend who was a student at the Harvard Divinity School. Upon finding out that one of the professors was agnostic; his friend began inquiring about the diversity of beliefs among the faculty. “Anything goes” was the response. When his friend pressed, asking “You mean no belief or absence of belief would keep one from being hired to teach theology?” The response was clarified: “Only one, the refusal to endorse women’s ordination.” Burge concludes: “Regardless of how one feels on this subject, John would anchor the starting point (or litmus test) of Christian theology elsewhere. The absence of a sound Christology is John’s test” (p. 60).

These stories have provoked me to do some thinking, even soul-searching, about the place of sound Christology in my life and to our church family at Skyline.

  • How important is Christology in the letters of John? How important is it elsewhere in the New Testament?
  • Is Christology the only test of fellowship in John’s letters? If so, is that solely due to the occasional nature of the letter? If not, what are the other tests?
  • What role does Christology play in our belief system at Skyline? Does it provide an anchor for our identity as a faith community? If not, what does? If so, do we need to give more attention to Christology?
  • Is it biblical for other issues to trump Christology in matters of fellowship? If not, how developed does our Christology need to be? If so, where are the passages where Christology is trumped by other issues?
  • Do we have some “blind spot” that is just as obvious to everyone else as those of the Harvard Divinity School and the Washington National Cathedral are to us?There are many other questions for meditation raised by a reading of the letters of John. For example, in the prologue to his first letter, John writes about the inter-relatedness of proclamation, fellowship, and joy. Most of the questions we raise when working with the text involve the proclamation and the fellowship. Seldom do we even pause to reflect on the important place of joy in the community of faith, and yet joy is identified by John as the very reason for his writing.

    Are you hungry for God? The more time we spend wrestling in prayer over these letters, the more we come to know Him. May God help us as we seek Him with all our heart, mind, and strength. May God Himself – Father, Son, and Spirit – be the anchor we so desperately need in our lives.

The Breath of His Mouth

“And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”
(2 Thessalonians 2:8-12).

Not only do I obsess over the identity of “the man of lawlessness,” but also I obsess over his revealing. When was he revealed? Or perhaps more appropriately, when will he be revealed? Did it happen in the first century? The fourth century? Will it happen next week? At the end of time?

And it is difficult not to get carried away talking about this league with Satan. Here’s a topic I can chew on for a while – counterfeit miracles. Counterfeit miracles? Now just how does that work? I don’t know, but what’s more, there are counterfeit signs and wonders, too.

Suddenly I have this vision of Steve Martin in his bedazzled jacket!

Are you ready for a miracle? I’m ready as I can be!

It starts making sense when I consider those especially susceptible to the deception of the counterfeits have refused to love the truth. They have rejected salvation. That works, doesn’t it? They reject God, and so they are easily duped by some phony spectacle sent by Satan. But wait, here’s where it gets really confusing. Satan doesn’t send the delusion. So where does the delusion originate? God. That’s right; it is God who sends the powerful delusion. What’s up with that? I guess the best way for me to make sense of it is to understand God is not going to force Himself on anyone. If someone rejects Him, it is not out of character for God to give him what he wants. God can do that, even if it doesn’t make complete sense to me.

After all, God is God. And what’s more, I am not.

But there is something in this passage easy to miss as I pore over the words, looking for hidden clues about the lawless man’s identity and exposure. Something easy to miss as I wrestle with understanding the deep mysteries of God’s working through powerful delusions. It’s the power of the Lord Jesus. No matter how lost we get in the details of this most difficult to interpret passage, the simple truth is – God wins. The Lord Jesus is victorious. And how does the Lord Jesus win? What is the secret of His power? The Lord Jesus will overthrow the lawless man with “the breath of His mouth.” Imagine the power! I guess this shouldn’t be such a surprise to someone who believes that with His very breath God spoke the universe into existence and breathed life into mankind.

But the more I get wrapped up in all the theological arguing and the hermeneutical wrangling in this passage the more I become impressed with myself and my ability to think and reason and study and bring forth conclusions. And the best antidote that I know for being impressed with myself – my study, my arguments, and even my faith is seeing God afresh. And that’s what happens when I read those simple words about God’s breath. I realize I’m not so impressive after all. God is. And it’s when I begin to grasp that the Lord Jesus wins and He does so by the breath of His mouth that I realize the best things I can do are pray for His coming, prepare for His coming, and humble myself before the Almighty God.

A Singular and Passionate Conviction

“I begin with a singular and passionate conviction: that the proper aim of all true theology is doxology. Theology that does not begin and end in worship is not biblical at all, but is rather the product of western philosophy. In the same way, I want to insist that the ultimate aim of all true exegesis is spirituality, in some form or another. And I insist on this because of my conviction that only when exegesis is so understood has the exegetical task been done in a way that is faithful to the intent of the text itself.”

— Gordon D. Fee in Listening To The Spirit In The Text, p. 5