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Posts Tagged ‘hermeneutics’

Note: file this in the “thinking out loud” category.

I’m not sure when this question, the title of this post, popped into my head, but I’ve been mulling it over a bit.  Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of complementarianism is rooting this view in the creation accounts.  Complementarians argue that Paul’s injunction against women teaching in church (1 Timothy 2:11-12) are binding today because they are rooted in creation (vv13-15) rather than cultural mores.   It can’t be seen as temporary because it’s very foundation is the God’s created order.

Let me state right now: the purpose of this post is not to evaluate the merits of this argument.  I am well aware that posts like this can be hijacked and turned into an argument between the “oppressive complementarians” and the “culture-capitulating egalitarians.” 

My purpose in writing this is because I wonder how consistently this argument is applied to other areas, such as the Sabbath.  The observance of the Sabbath is rooted in the creation accounts.  God rested on the seventh day and set it apart as a special day (Genesis 2:1-3, the word normally translated “rest” or “cease [from working]” shares the same Hebrew root with “Sabbath”).  In the 10 Commandments, God instructs Israel to keep the Sabbath day holy (set it apart), “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

So if the Sabbath day is rooted in the created order, should we still observe it today?  Or, more specifically, if complementarians are standing on the creation accounts to support their position, should they also be sabbatarians? 

Perhaps the answer is as simple as arguing that the New Testament doesn’t repeat the Sabbath command, therefore it’s no longer binding to new covenant believers.  I still have questions regarding that approach, but I imagine it’s probably where most people in this camp land.  I welcome any insights our reader(s) might have.

Are non-sabbatarian complementarians inconsistently applying their hermeneutical principles?

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There’s been quite a bit of buzz as of late regarding creation again (how we should reconcile science and the Bible- if at all, creation vs evolution or some combination of both, etc).  I don’t really want to get in on all of that, but I want to jump in to talk about one idea: the “natural reading” of the text and the “day” of Genesis 1.

There are various ways to view the days of creation in Genesis 1: literal 24 hour days, longer and undefined periods of time, a literary device, etc.  Each of these views has their own merits and problems, which I won’t go into here.  But I do notice that many of those who argue for a literal 24 hour day do so, in part, on the appeal to the “natural reading” of the text.  That is, they claim that if you just take the text for what it appears to be saying, you’d have to see them as 24 hour days.

I suppose, in one sense, that’s true.  Most of us would probably see the “day” as 24 hour periods of time.  That doesn’t prove, in my opinion, that it’s the natural reading, and certainly not that it’s the correct reading.  My point is that the “natural reading” is often times a fantasy, rather than a fact.

Before anyone accuses me of dipping my toes in the murky waters of postmodernity, let me affirm that I do think there is a correct understanding of the word “day” in Genesis 1 (namely, mine).  I’m not arguing that there are multiple correct views, that we can each pick our own view and everyone gets to win.  I do think some readings are more “natural” than others, but I’d argue that this isn’t always the case.

The problem is that none of us come to a text as a blank slate.  I try quite often.  I fail quite often.  What sounds like a natural reading to me may not be all that natural; it simply may fit my grid more easily than other readings.

Let’s go back to the days of Genesis 1.  Many have claimed that the refrain “there was evening, and there was morning- the __ day” is a clear indication of a literal 24 hour day.  It’s the most natural way to understand the text.

But, how natural is it when you consider that the sun, moon and stars don’t show up until Day 4?  I could be wrong, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a civilization who kept track of days without the use of the sun.  Yet, we’re supposed to believe that the natural way to understand “day” is as a 24 hour period of time, even though the only means of measuring an “hour” is the sun, which didn’t exist until Day 4.  See the problem?  It doesn’t sound all that natural to me.  Side note: I know that there are other views that argue the sun, moon and stars were already created, but weren’t given their function until Day 4 (whatever that means).  I’m not convinced because this is not the natural reading.  =)

Interestingly, in my 5 years or so of teaching Genesis 1 at church, I have not had a single student point this out.  Not one.  Mind you, these are intelligent people.  I live and minister in Boston, and it’s a proven fact that people in Boston are smarter than people everywhere else (and by “proven fact” I mean “arrogant and unfounded assumption”- and don’t get mad, I’m just trying to keep you interested).  I’m not entirely sure why no one has caught this, but I’ll hazard two guesses:

  1. We’re generally bad readers, whose powers of observation desperately need a work out.
  2. We seek the familiar.

The second point is the one I want to make.  A reading may seem “natural” because it already sounds familiar.  We understand the concept of “evening and morning.”  When we read those words we fit it into an existent category, because it feels natural.  And we pass over the fact there was no sun or moon.  But we also need to look for features in a text that seem “unnatural.”  Noticing the unexpected can often reveal more than you bargained for (see the broken chain of death with Enoch in Genesis 5, or the unexpected list of tribes in Revelation 7 discussed in this post, and so on).

There are probably a million directions to go with this, but I titled this post “Somewhat Random…” to get me off the hook of drawing out the implications of what I’m saying.  My main point is that there needs to be a little humility when we shoot down an opposing view because our reading is “natural.”  What may be natural to us may betray our own inability to process everything containted within the text, and show that we’re really just fitting everything in to a comfortable category.  It does, after all, feel natural.

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In continuing effort to recommend quality resources that are available for cheap, I’m letting you know about two great resources available online for free.  And free is, as you know, the cheapest of cheap.

Craig Keener and The Pneuma Foundation have made available Keener’s notes for a class on Biblical Interpretation (link for zip file which can open into a Word Document, link for a pdf).  I think it turns out to be 88 pages of notes.  According to his website, he wrote this as a beginner’s class for work in Africa, so there is no required technical knowledge needed to use it.  This would be perfect for a small group or a church class.  You can also find translations of this material in French, Spanish, Russian and Bulgarian at The Pneuma Foundation site!  You may recall Keener from my “5 Good Read Bible Scholars (for the non-academic)” post- you can add this helpful work to the list.

Biblical Training has posted I Howard Marshall’s A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology for free at their site!  If printed out, this comes in at a mere 67 pages!  I own Marshall’s slightly larger (almost 800 pages) book, New Testament Theology, and have been very slowly reading portions of it.  At any rate, the Pocket Guide is a nice resource to have handy if you have basic questions on what the NT teaches. 

Happy reading!

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A final word needs to be said about the considerable importance of this letter to today’s church.  The cosmopolitan character of the city and church, the strident individualism that emerges in so many of their behavioral aberrations, the arrogance that attends their understanding of spirituality, the accommodation of the gospel to the surrounding culture in so many ways- these and many other features of the Corinthian church are but mirrors held up before the church of today.  Likewise the need for discipleship modeled after the ‘weakness’ of Christ (4:9-13), for love to rule over all (13:1-13), for edification to be the aim of worship (14:1-33), for sexual immorality to be seen for what it is (5:1-13; 6:12-20), for the expectation of marriages to be permanent (7:1-40)- these and many others are every bit as relevant to us as to those to whom they were first spoken.

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, pp19-20.

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In the comments of a previous post, Marcus asked what books I’m using in my study of Ezekiel.  For those who know me, it doesn’t take much to get me talking about books, especially commentaries.  But I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to stress how I use commentaries and other resources in the process of studying a book of the Bible.  Obviously commentaries serve well as resevoirs for “quick answers,” but are even better used over a long period of study.

I want to put all of this in context.  Sometime in the fall, I decided to embark on a prolonged study in the Book of Ezekiel.  I picked Ezekiel for a few reasons: of the major prophets, it’s the one I know the least; I’ve often found it confusing; I wanted to justify my purchase of Daniel Block’s two volume commentary; and Ian Boxall’s commentary on Revelation convinced me that Ezekiel was important to John’s Revelation. 

So here are the steps I am taking in my study of Ezekiel.  Mind you, I’m actually only 7 chapters in; I’m moving intentionally slow (and I took a bit of a break when my computer died).  I also don’t want to give the impression that I really think of studying the Bible in a mechanical, step-by-step process.  The crucial thing about these steps is that I never jump forward, but I may move backward.  That is, just because I move on to a new step doesn’t mean I won’t go back and redo a previous one.  But I try not to get ahead in the process, for reasons I’ll explain as I go. 

The one step I’m leaving out of the list is actually the most important.  I pray a lot as I’m studying, through every step.  Not only do I pray the words of Scripture (which can be difficult in a book like Ezekiel), but I pray that the Spirit of God give me wisdom as I go.  If, after all, He inspired the book, I’d rather seek His insight than anyone else’s.

Read the Text

Sounds obvious, huh?  It doesn’t get any more basic and necessary than this.  I try to read the entire book every now and then.  I read large sections at a time, then narrow down to smaller sections as I see them (chapter divisions in Ezekiel are generally pretty good, though chapters can be grouped together, more on that in a second).  I’ve been using the TNIV, though when I start to look at smaller chunks of verses, I compare other translations.  For this study, I’ve opted not to do my own translation work, or at least not the entire book.  I’ve done that before for other books, and will continue to do so.  But, honestly, it would take me far too long to study Ezekiel if I tried to translate the entire thing. 

Break Off Natural Sections

As I noted above, chapters can be grouped together to form units.  For instance, chapters 1-3 go together, with chapter 1 and chapters 2-3 forming subunits.  Chapters 8-11 all go together.  And so on.  This is something I may adjust as I spend more time in the text, if needed.  These sections are the ones I study, so on my computer, there are separate documents for Ezekiel 1-3, 4-7 (4-5 & 6-7 go together), 8-11, etc.

Make a Rough Outline

My outlines are never super detailed, just enough to give me an idea of the flow of a passage.  When I broke down the vision of chapter 1 into 3 main parts (Vision of the 4 Living Creatures vv4-14, Vision of the 4 Wheels vv15-21, Vision of the Glory of YHWH vv22-28), it helped me make sense of what was otherwise a mess in my mind.  Again, I’m always willing to correct this outline, but I find it a good place to start.

Taking Notes & Asking Questions

Using my outline, I begin to take notes on what I think is important.  For example, in chapters 2-3 there is some ambuguity as to the identity of ruach, which can mean breath, wind or S/spirit.  I look at the text and come up with my own thoughts, and try to see if there is anything significant to it.  I note repeated phrases, of which there are many in Ezekiel (e.g., “then they will know that I am YHWH”).  I also write out any questions I have that I may not be able to answer myself, or that I’m unsure of the answer.  I was a bit confused by the 390 and 40 day periods in Ezekiel 4, so I made a note to check it out when I hit the commentaries (again, after I tried to come up with possible answers myself).  This step can take quite a while.

Theological Reflection

After I do the above (which would be termed “exegesis”), I begin writing out some of my thoughts on what the text teaches about God.  There may be a particular phrase that sticks out, an important action, etc.  I’m already thinking about this stuff as I’m taking notes, but now I spend more time thinking on it.  This is important for two reasons: the Bible teaches us about God (duh) and, in my opinion, the theology of the text is the key to hermeneutics.  In other words, if I can determine what a passage is teaching about the unchanging God, I will have a much better shot at faithfully applying a text that is written in a foreign language, to a foreign people living in a foreign world.

Application Ideas

This is where I write out some thoughts on how a text might be preached or taught.  I’m consistently going back to this, sometimes weeks after I’ve finished a section.  This area is a struggle, especially on the personal level, because I seek to apply it to my life before I go tell anyone else how they should live.  The first 3 chapters of Ezekiel really kicked my butt.  I was so powerfully struck by the immensity of what Ezekiel experienced, I couldn’t get it off my mind.  I remember going out for a run (don’t laugh) and realizing that I had actually been walking around aimlessly for 30 minutes, thinking about Ezekiel’s call.  Needless to say, I’ve had the tendency to become consumed with the book. 

Anyway, all that to say, applying a text is much harder than many assume, which is probably why Ezekiel doesn’t get preached on very often (unless you opt for “what’s the vision by the Kebar River in your life?”).   Maybe somewhere down the road I’ll dive into this even more, but this is already getting long enough.

Using Outside Resources

You’ll notice that this is the last item on this list (yes, we’re at the end).  When I was in school, I would always try to do my own exegetical work before I looked at anything else.  I would translate, diagram, work on syntax, etc, without looking at BibleWorks (only cheaters use it) or commentaries (or at least I tried, sometimes I’d get stuck and look something up, only to realize I probably could have figured it out myself).  In my experience, commentaries work best when you have already thought through a text yourself and are looking for specific insights.  Very few commentaries are so well written that you can just pick them up and start reading, gaining incredible wisdom.  Doing that virtually guarantees you’ll learn next-to-nothing.  But if you know what you’re looking for when you start, you’ll glean much that is useful.  I also check out a few other resources, which I’ll give below.

Commentaries

The two Ezekiel commentaries that I am using are Daniel Block’s previously mentioned two volume commentary in the NICOT series and Iain Duguid’s volume in the NIV Application series.  Both are outstanding.  I was already familiar with Block’s, and had heard good things about Duguid’s.  I have to be honest, I was skeptical at first, but am now a huge fan (so is my wife, for what it’s worth).  Although his space is limited, especially in comparison to the ginormous Block, he makes the most out of it, even including things missed by Block.  Once in a while his practical insights are a bit of a stretch, but I think they’re designed to get the reader thinking rather than suggesting sermon bullet points.  If you can’t afford Block, then I strongly recommend Duguid.  Even if you can afford Block, I’d strongly recommend Duguid.

Block has pretty much everything you’d want in a commentary.  He doesn’t just comment on the text, he interacts well with other writers, brings in helpful historical background and, best of all, takes time to discuss the theological implications of the text.  This commentary is worth the hype.

I also own John Taylor’s commentary in the Tyndale series, but haven’t looked at it much.  I go back and look through it every so often, but there’s little in there that isn’t already covered by the other two.  My wife was using this one until I got Duguid for Christmas.  If I were living near a library that carried commentaries, I’d probably look at Allen, Zimmerli and Greenberg, but I don’t so I don’t.

Other Books

Every so often I consult a book that isn’t a commentary.  I would probably take a look at an OT introduction if I liked any.  I’ve poked around Bruce Waltke’s OT Theology to see what he says about Ezekiel, but for the most part, I stick to the commentaries. 

Online Classes

Another helpful resource is BiblicalTraining.org, which we’ve plugged multiple times.  Douglas Stuart has a lecture on Ezekiel, but it’s only 19 minutes, which is too short for anything more than a basic orientation.  On iTunesU, there is an entire prophets class for free taught by John Goldingay at Fuller Seminary.  His lecture on Ezekiel comes in close to 80 minutes, so naturally he covers more ground than Stuart.  Goldingay is left of where I am, but often has much that is helpful.

Sermons

I’ve mentioned before that Ezekiel is rarely preached on, at least in my circles.  I’ve found a few online; you can check out The Gospel Coaliton site for some examples.  Like commentaries, I won’t listen to anything until I’m done doing my own work.

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So there you have it, far more than you ever wanted to know about my process of studying a book of the Bible.  This process is always subject to revision, so if you have anything to add, I’d be happy to hear it out.  Let me end with this:

The more time I spend in Scripture, the more amazed I am at the treasures contained within.  I’ve spent years now studying the Word (and I have the school debt to prove it!), but on a consistent basis I find myself feeling like a novice.  It’s humbling to jump back on the bunny slopes, but humility’s definitely a good thing.  I had no idea Ezekiel, the book and the prophet, could be so compelling, challenging and God-exalting.  Lord help me (literally) if I ever lose the excitement I feel today.

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Superblogger Tim Challies linked this morning to the Personal Promises Bible.  Basically, you can insert your name into promises in the Bible.  I tried it out, to see how it goes:

Even when danny was dead in trespasses, God made danny alive together with Christ (by grace danny has been saved), and raised danny up with Him and made danny to sit with Him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.  (Eph. 2:5-6)

Not so bad, huh?  I suppose there is some good in this.  There are promises for those who are in Christ (“no condemnation”, for example) and it’s good to be reminded of this.

But this betrays a flaw, in my opinion, within evangelicalism today.  Though well-intentioned, we rarely are completely honest when it comes to playing this game.  That is, we insert our name into those promises that we’d like to claim for ourselves and leave out the ones that make us feel uncomfortable.  After all, if the Personal Promise Bible turned this up, I might not buy it:

If danny lets himself be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to danny at all. (Gal. 5:3)

Or how about this one:

But if danny does not wake up, I will come like a thief, and danny will not know at what time I will come to him. (Rev. 3:3)

This is what gets me every time I hear someone quote Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”) without any qualification (like, this wasn’t given to every individual believer ever to live).  Why not quote Jeremiah 25:29: “You will not go unpunished, for I am calling down a sword on all who live on the earth”?  Is claiming the promises of God simply as arbitrarily picking which ones apply to me and which ones don’t.

That’s okay, I’ve decided to run in another direction with this one.  I’ve decided to claim promises for other people, specifically those who make me mad.  No evil sports franchise will escape my wrath (and of course, the wrath of God):

Strike the tops of the pillars so that the thresholds will shake.  Bring them down on the heads of all the Yankees; the Yankees that are left I will kill with the sword.  Not one Yankee will get away, no Yankee will escape. (Amos 9:1)

Cut me off in traffic?  You might receive the Personal Promise Bible, courtesy of Danny, in your stocking this year:

Shatter the loins of the Audi driver, and of the late merger, so that they will not drive again. (Deut 33:11)

You get the idea.  So maybe some of evangelicalism’s foibles aren’t so bad.  If I can arbitrarily claim promises for myself, why not arbitrarily claim curses for others?

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Most of us understand that the book of Revelation predicts and expects persecution for its readers.  The assumption is that John’s readers were under the constant threat of death for their testimony of Jesus Christ.  Basically, this viewpoint goes something like this: if you don’t worship the emperor, you will be killed.

Ian Boxall, in his commentary on Revelation, takes a slightly different route.  He doesn’t deny that there is some persecution going on, but he sees it strictly as local and not really involving Roman authorities.  “The internal evidence of the messages to the seven congregations (Revelation 2-3) suggests a rather mixed picture.  …actual or impending hostility is referred to for some (e.g. 2:9, 13; 3:9)… there is no clear indication that suffering is at the hands of Roman authorities, or involves formal legal precedings” (p12).

Instead, Boxall, and many others, note that the call not to compromise is just as strong in Revelation.  Within the messages to the seven churches, we see condemnations of “Balaam” and “Jezebel”- OT figures who caused God’s people to stray.  In other words, John’s message is for them not to fall into the trap that these false teachers are laying.

This, of course, has implications for persecution:  “If Revelation is not primarily written to comfort the persecuted, it nevertheless represents a rallying cry to Christians to place themselves in a position in which they might find themselves being persecuted” (p13, Boxall).  If John’s readers are able not to stray, they should expect persecution.

I appreciate Boxall’s attempt to balance, though I have to wonder if he’s overstated his case.  I’m not sure what the Beast of chapter 13 represents if not the powerful oppressor standing against God’s people- making war and conquering them, according to 13:7.  Even the harlot of chapter 17, the seductive power of the comfort the Roman Empire provides, drinks the blood of the saints (17:6). And when Rome is judged, she is judged “with the judgment she imposed on you [the saints]” (18:20).

But the connection with bearing testimony for God and the threat of death is undeniable in Revelation.  Jesus himself is the faithful witness who was put to death (1:5).  Keeping in mind that “testimony” and “witness” are from the same root in Greek, we see how Jesus sets the stage for God’s people in this way.  Read 2:13, 6:9, 11:7, 12:11, 12:17, 17:6 and 20:4- all of them combine the notions of faithful and enduring testimony and the reality of death for that testimony.

John’s original readers dealt with the reality that they were called to compromise their testimony (side note: I’ve noticed that we always word it “compromise our faith,” which indicates to me that we’ve internalized something that was intended to be a public evidence, but that’s another post for another day).  For many, if they did not denounce their exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ, they could lose work, be imprisoned or end up in a colosseum face-to-face with a lion.

But they were also tempted to compromise by enjoying the pleasures that Rome offered- this is especially strong in chapters 17-18.  Why “rock the boat” and cause problems?  Why not keep your mouth shut and enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life like everyone else in the Roman Empire?  When she is destroyed, “the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury… will weep and mourn over her” (18:9).  Would John’s readers be among those who mourn her destruction and the comfort that came with her, or would they rejoice in God’s judgment of her wickedness (18:20)?

So both of these realities- persecution and compromise- are undeniably present in Revelation; Boxall states their connection well.  If one chooses not to compromise, they may face brutal persecution.  John is calling his readers to remain faithful in their witness, even if it means death, in the face of these twin realities.

Does this have anything to do with us?  I think it does.  I mentioned this in teaching the other night, and I keep coming back to it.  I have to wonder if we (by “we” I mean American Christians, since that’s where the vast majority of my experience comes in) focus on the persecution apparent in Revelation because it enables us not to face the compromising aspect of Revelation.  The fact is that we are inundated with temptations to compromise in our culture.  We live in an affluent society where you can pretty much have what you want when you want it. We tend not to notice these temptations (do we not have ears to hear and eyes to see?).

There’s a certain wicked wisdom in using pleasurable temptation rather than persecution to make God’s people ineffective.  It is a powerful tool.  The truth is that you can put a gun to my head and threaten to take my life if I don’t deny Jesus, and I will stand firm, I’m sure of it.  But if you parade by me, day after day after day, the siren call of comfort- power, acceptance, money, home, sex, cars, etc- I am much more likely to compromise my witness.

Perhaps the American church isn’t facing the beast, but we are facing the harlot.  The question remains, will we be a faithful witness?  May we hear the message of Revelation and overcome.

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