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.