Monday, September 01, 2014

There are no hidden meanings in the Bible

Many well meaning Christians will dispute the title of this post. In fact, many will claim that the discovery of such hidden meanings results from the Spirit's work, which leads to the accusation that someone who claims that there are no such meanings must be unspiritual or even opposed to the Spirit's work. Even so, it is the contention of this post that recognizing that such hidden, supposedly spiritual meanings do not exist is an essential aspect of a healthy Christian life and that the quest for deeper spiritual and hidden meanings in the biblical text is spiritually harmful and even dangerous.

The reason that it is potentially dangerous is that the person who unmoors Scripture from its historical context and proper reading can as a result make the Bible out to mean anything that comes to mind. Without objective criteria for proper interpretation, there really are no mechanisms for determining whether one's claims for finding a meaning are accurate. At worst, this can become self-delusion, as a person reads his own desires, interests, or pet peeves into Scripture. Using Scripture in this way is also ultimately idolatrous, as the practice in essence leads its practitioners to claim as the Word of God what really are their own thoughts.

Thus, the reader of the Bible should approach its teaching in a straightforward manner -- and when he does so, he finds two things that on the surface seem contradictory. The Bible is a clear book that anyone can read and understand.  The Bible is a hard book to read.

The Bible is clear in that an ordinary person can read and understand it. Scholars are not required, though it should be noted that saying that they are not required is not the same thing as saying that they can't be useful. It is hubris, not spiritual maturity, that leads some to claim that they don't want to use teachers. Those who have a hunger for understanding the Bible should enjoy the work of those who have a more thorough knowledge of its contents.

But while the Bible is a clear book, it is also a hard book to read. In order to understand why this is true, it is important to briefly review the factors that make it hard.  The Bible is 1) a very large book 2) containing a collection of works of different genres 3) written in different languages 4) to people from a different age and culture 5) sometimes in response to concerns that aren't clearly stated.

That the Bible is a large book makes it difficult to master all of the contents in a way that allows us to see how all of the parts fit together. For example, there are hundreds of references to the Old Testament in the New. Many readers have no idea that is the case; yet, understanding why the New Testament writers borrowed Old Testament language can be essential to understanding their meaning.

That the Bible contains various types of literary genres will make understanding difficult for someone who doesn't realize that history must be read differently than a proverb or a Psalm differently than a letter. Each of these require looking at the text in different ways.

That the Bible was originally written in other languages means that there may be issues of translation that most readers lack expertise to evaluate. While the popular English translations are good, the typically minor differences do create some uncertainty about meaning to readers. Idioms cannot always be translated clearly, and sometimes words or phrases from one language have no clear parallel in another.

That the Bible was written to a different age and culture means that it sometimes addresses questions in a way that is not immediately applicable to modern life. Finding the original meaning prior to determining proper application can become a difficult task. Cultural mores might be a complete mystery to the reader.

That the Bible was sometimes written in response to unstated concerns means that sometimes the reader is only getting half the conversation. For example, the reader finds Paul's solutions to problems, but there is no statement as to what the problems were that required solving. In I Corinthians, Paul clearly indicates that he is responding to questions in a letter that had been delivered to him, but the full contents of the letter are not provided. Without knowing the questions, it is possible to misconstrue the significance of the answers.

While each of these items creates some difficulty, that difficulty is not resolved by some sort of "spiritual" reading of the text. Rather, these difficulties point us to the value of good books and teachers that address them. Looking for hidden meanings in the text only adds a layer of confusion on to the difficulty.

How, then, should the reader approach the Bible? The short answer is that the reader should approach the Bible by looking for its plain meaning. In other words, the texts of Scripture should be read 1) in their historical context; 2) using the ordinary rules of grammar and word meaning; and 3) recognizing the distinct literary form. One should also read the Scripture with a view toward its unifying themes, which might be described as redemptive or covenantal (ultimately, the Bible is a book about Christ).As indicated before, all of this is not intended to require the reader to be an intellectual. Anyone can benefit by looking at resources that help one understand things like context or how words were used. However, the emphasis here is on reading the text for its plain meaning.

While that might be a hard concept for one to get used to if he/she has been taught to look for hidden spiritual meanings in a text, it is ultimately liberating. There is no comfort to be found in the need to look for hyperspiritual meanings that can't be found by ordinary eyes. It is a joy to realize that the Bible, with the help of good teachers, is a book that is not out of reach. To find the Word of God, as Romans 10 explains it, one needs neither to ascend to the heavens nor descend to the depths. Rather, God's Word is near.

While this process is liberating, at first it may seem hard, as it removes one's ability to "claim" verses as one's own in ways that have nothing to do with what they actually mean. This means recognizing that "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength" has nothing to do with prevailing at the football game on Friday night -- it has to do with contentment, even when facing, as in the Apostle Paul's case, the ravages of prison. That Jesus' command to "judge not" comes only a few verses before another command not to "cast your pearls before swine" might give one pause before asserting the popular view of the former mandate.

When it comes to the subject of end times prophecy, the self-proclaimed spiritual interpretations get even stranger. The subject of events related to the return of Christ is a complex one that divides even responsible interpreters. Sadly, many of those who write on such subjects do so in ways that are irresponsible. While it would take more than a blog post to resolve and respond to all of those sorts of craziness, one can at least say that the above principles of historical/grammatical/literary interpretation apply even to prophesy and apocalyptic literature, which must be understood in its historical and literary context.

Recent decades have seen huge numbers of people follow after prophecy teachers that claim to find secret codes and messages, as well as odd numerological sequences. These kinds of teachers should be avoided like the plague. Spiritual illumination does not refer to secret meanings that the enlightened uncover. Instead of seeking that sort of gnostic illumination, read the Bible for its plain meaning and look for the Spirit's illumination in applying the truths that are found to life.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Ordinary Means of Grace

Peter Dietsch of Providence Presbyterian Church in Midland, penned an outstanding piece on what it means to be an "ordinary means of grace church."  From the post:

"The ‘means of grace’ refers to the concept that God uses particular means (methods or modes of communication) to communicate or give His grace to His people. When we speak of the ordinary means of grace, we are speaking specifically of ‘the word, sacraments, and prayer.’ This idea and the language used to express it comes from the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. For instance, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 88, says this:

Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
 These are the things that Christ has instructed us to use as His church to receive His grace. Of course, God is able to work through any means He wishes – or even apart from means, should He desire to do so – but the Catechism is here summarizing the teaching of Scripture that the ordinary things that God uses to bestow His grace, bless His people, bring them to faith and grow them in that faith are: the word, sacraments, and prayer.

At one time, the Lord even used a donkey (!) as a means of communication (Numbers 22; 2 Peter 2:16); however, it’s certainly not ordinary. Simply because God chose to speak through a donkey at one point in history, it does not mean that we all need to start listening to donkeys or keep one in our back yard just in case God desires to do it again. Instead, we attend to the instruction which He has given us in the Scriptures and pursue God’s grace through the ordinary means that He has given us: the ministry of the word, the sacraments, and prayer."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ambassadors-Errant?

In his classic novel Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes parodies the literature of chivalry, which many regarded in his day as pointing back to a glorious past. In contrast, Cervantes showed these books to be absurd. Only an insane man, the title character, could take them seriously, and taking them thus resulted in a terrible price paid by both him and his mostly credulous sidekick.

Can evangelical preaching and literature sometimes have similar consequences? Certainly, some Christians do bizarre things and claim that it is because of their faith. Usually, the majority of their fellow Christians will say that their extreme behavior resulted from them not truly understanding the message that they heard. But, perhaps they understood all too well. If this theory is corrct, it could be said that many people benefit from their ministers and the teaching of their churches as long as they learn without taking it all too seriously. Taking it too seriously could be harmful.

What kind of harm?  Some less mainstream, but sometimes occurring and obvious examples come to mind: the family that sells all that they have to move to a place that gives them a front row seat for the imminent return of Christ. The person that declines to save for retirement because doing so is unnecessary since Christ is coming back and saving would show a lack of faith in his return. Someone who declines to go to the doctor because he trusts God to heal.

Other examples are more widespread and subtle: the suggestion that devotion to Christ results in a never ending high and that a shortage of passion evidences a decline of faith. Taken seriously, this can lead to emotional instability and burnout. Seeing laying out a fleece as a means of determining God's will rather than, as with Gideon, evidence of a failure to trust God. Understanding God's guidance as something apart from reasoning from Scripture and listening to the input of godly friends. Basing one's closeness to God and leading in life on hearing inner voices purported to be the promtings of the Holy Spirit. All of these can lead to tragic consequences for those who think that they are seeking God's will. Notably, they badly misunderstand what Scripture says about guidance, though they are consistent with what many well-meaning pastors sometimes counsel.

Many people believe in these sorts of things and are relatively unharmed by them, although they beat themselves up for lacking faith and not taking them seriously. In fact, taking them with a grain of salt is what saves them. Taking them seriously can be extremely destructive to faith and life.

All of this should be a matter of reflection for preachers. Most -- I would say probably all -- of us would want our parishioners to take our messages seriously. After all, we are proclaiming the Word of God. It is not our intention to be taken with a grain of salt. That being the case, we must preach the Word as it has been delivered to us: as God's Word, providing truth that we can trust in and follow to God's glory and to our good.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Christian Opportunity

Beginning in 1975, and escalating after 1978, approximately 2 million people fled tyrannical, war ravaged Vietnam, with over 800,000 fleeing the nation in the flimsiest of watercraft. These "boat people" created an international humanitarian crisis, and western nations, including the United States, stepped in to help in significant fashion.

Churches and individual Christians contributed much toward the American response, as many churches throughout the United States endeavore...d to "adopt a family." A large number of refugees lived in the South Central Kentucky town where I spent my teen years. I have been told, but don't know for a fact, that a wealthy benefactor was largely responsible for them being there. While a seminary student in the late '80's, I preached a couple of times for a Vietnamese ministry conducted by First Baptist Church in Bowling Green. It is the only time I have ever preached using a translater, which I found to be a fun experience. I was very young, and they were a very gracious congregation.

Christian groups have a similar opportunity today to share the compassion of Christ, as well as the gospel. The children and women crossing our border, in an effort to escape the ravages of anarchy, the drug trade, the sex trade, and much else, stand in need of the love of Christ, if only we will share it.

Regardless of politics, Christians should condemn angry rhetoric and recognize an opportunity to share the compassion and love of Christ with those in great need.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Send it home?

Photo: A little over 4 years ago, word got out in our neighborhood that we were planning on getting a dog. We looked out our window and noticed that neighbors had gathered on the sidewalk, so we went outside to find out what was going on.

After exchanging pleasantries, Joe, the guy next door, came to the point. "We hear you are thinking of getting a dog," he said.

"Why, yes," I replied. "We're looking at a Rottie mix."

A murmur went through the crowd. "A Rottie," some mumbled. "A mix," others said.

George from across the street piped up: "So, why are you suddenly deciding you want a dog?"

My wife replied, "My son has been wanting one, we have the ability to take care of one, and we saw a picture online, and God just gave us a love for animals."

"Theocrat," George bellowed, before walking off toward his house.

Jim, the neighbor from the other side, also had a question: "So, where are you planning on getting this dog?"

"We are going to the Dallas shelter to check him out," I responded.

"The Dallas shelter? Aren't Tarrant County dogs good enough for you?"

"I'm just wanting to help out a dog. I hear they are overcrowded," I replied.

"Yeah, well, Tarrant County dogs have needs, too."

"I'm sure," I said.  "Anyway, I need to get back to work."

"Hang on a minute," Jim said. What do you know about this dog you are talking about bringing into our neighborhood?"

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, where did it come from?"

"I assume it was abandoned. I really don't know."

"What if the owner wants it back?"

"Well, I suppose we will deal with that if it happens, but for now the dog just needs a home and people that will love it?"

"Does it have diseases? Our dogs might not be safe!"

"I assume that they check those things out," I replied.

"Well, you know what they say about assuming," he shot back.

"Yeah, bad word choice," I said. "Now, if I may...."

"No, wait!  You said that you don't know where this dog came from?"

"That is correct. Most have been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Sad stories. I'm glad to be able to help."

"Yeah, but you're being naive. By helping one of these, you're just encouraging other people to abandon their dogs, too. By adopting a dog, you'll just be making sure that more dogs are left. Before long, all our shelters will look like that Star Trek episode. What did they call those things? Dogs will be everywhere."

I could only groan.

Of course, this neighborhood conversation never happened. We don't talk that way about dogs. This kind of talk is reserved for children.
 
 
A little over 4 years ago, word got out in our neighborhood that we were planning on getting a dog. We looked out our window and noticed that neighbors had gathered on the sidewalk, so we went outside to find out what was going on.

After e...xchanging pleasantries, Joe, the guy next door, came to the point. "We hear you are thinking of getting a dog," he said.

"Why, yes," I replied. "We're looking at a Rottie mix."

A murmur went through the crowd. "A Rottie," some mumbled. "A mix," others said.

George from across the street piped up: "So, why are you suddenly deciding you want a dog?"

My wife replied, "My son has been wanting one, we have the ability to take care of one, and we saw a picture online, and God just gave us a love for animals."

"Theocrat," George bellowed, before walking off toward his house.

Jim, the neighbor from the other side, also had a question: "So, where are you planning on getting this dog?"

"We are going to the Dallas shelter to check him out," I responded.

"The Dallas shelter? Aren't Tarrant County dogs good enough for you?"

"I'm just wanting to help out a dog. I hear they are overcrowded," I replied.

"Yeah, well, Tarrant County dogs have needs, too."

"I'm sure," I said. "Anyway, I need to get back to work."

"Hang on a minute," Jim said. What do you know about this dog you are talking about bringing into our neighborhood?"

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, where did it come from?"

"I assume it was abandoned. I really don't know."

"What if the owner wants it back?"

"Well, I suppose we will deal with that if it happens, but for now the dog just needs a home and people that will love it?"

"Does it have diseases? Our dogs might not be safe!"

"I assume that they check those things out," I replied.

"Well, you know what they say about assuming," he shot back.

"Yeah, bad word choice," I said. "Now, if I may...."

"No, wait! You said that you don't know where this dog came from?"

"That is correct. Most have been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Sad stories. I'm glad to be able to help."

"Yeah, but you're being naive. By helping one of these, you're just encouraging other people to abandon their dogs, too. By adopting a dog, you'll just be making sure that more dogs are left. Before long, all our shelters will look like that Star Trek episode. What did they call those things? Dogs will be everywhere."

I could only groan.

Of course, this neighborhood conversation never happened. We don't talk that way about dogs. This kind of talk is reserved for children.

Friday, July 04, 2014

A Children's Crusade?

In the year 1212, a boy from Cologne, Nicholas, claimed that a vision of Jesus showed him that children could succeed, where their elders had failed, in relieving the Holy Land from the rule of infidels. The expedition ultimately ended disgracefully, with a large number of children being captured and sold into Egyptian slavery, and is now remembered as among the most embarrassing events of the Crusades, a sort of recognition that sets the bar unfortunately high.

The details of the Children's Crusade are sketchy, and some historians even question whether it actually occurred, but the story is indicative of what can happen when a large portion of the church internalizes the insecurities of an age, leading them to act in a thoroughly unchristian manner, and sometimes claiming the authority of religion while doing so.

All of which brings me to a modern crusade against children who have found their way in massive numbers, most often unaccompanied by adults, into the southern region of the United States. Knowledgeable accounts suggest that most have fled from frightening conditions in three Central American counties -- El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While federal officials try to figure out what to do about this massive influx of young, huddled masses who often need medical care and reassurance after enduring terrifying circumstances, many of those who compose the coalition of "social conservatives" railing in favor of "family values" know exactly what should be done: get them out of here -- now.

It seems that these children, rather than being regarded as children, have become the latest props representing a cause. This is not a humanitarian cause. It is an immigration debate.

Now, regarding political causes, persons should be cautious about taking positions in behalf of the church on issues on which the Scriptures do not speak, and certainly the entire immigration debate is a complex one that addresses many issues -- economic, legal, geographic, and social -- to which the Scriptures do not speak directly. Nevertheless, while humbly refusing to commit the church to a cause, one can consider relevant material to suggest the position we should individually take on issues. Those of us who do so may not all come down on the same side, but looking for relevant Scipture is the sort of exercise that every Christian should undertake. Too many individual Christians do not do this. Rather than carefully consider the relevant biblical material, they fall in knee jerk fashion into the arguments of their normal allies. When this happens, Christians commit themselves to political positions that may or may not be utterly anti-Christian.

So what is the relevant material on this issue? Nowadays, it is common to say that Christians should love everyone, or perhaps there is a bit more clarity in saying that we should be compassionate toward the unfortunate. That is not the normal biblical way of speaking. Rather than speaking in generalizations, the Bible puts specific human faces on the sorts of people who should receive our compassion.  For example, from Zechariah 7:9-10 (ESV):

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.

The designation of those four groups of people -- widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor -- as worthy recipients of compassion is not unusual in the Old Testament (this set of groupings occurs several times elsewhere), because that represents four specific groups of people who were largely helpless in the ancient world. Treating these people compassionately is represented as essential to obedience to the moral law, and failing to do so violated God's covenant with Israel.

The children crossing the American border comprise at least two of those groups, and some perhaps would be among at least three of them. Of course, I am not claiming that Christians in the anti-child lobby have no responses to these types of verses -- I could probably try to raise some counter arguments myself if I were so inclined. However, my question is: have you tried? Do you even consider the biblical material before crying for their immediate deportation? Medical care be damned, lest we somehow encourage others to show up.

Of course, the political repercussions are complex. The answers are not simple. However, the humanitarian need is also complex, and these are children, not pawns in a political debate.  If many conservatives are joining the anti-child lobby, I would call upon Christians to come out from them and be separate. If you are pro-family, contribute to a discussion on how to show the love of Christ to these poor, destitute children.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

When Practical Religion is Impractical

While attending a conference a while back in the northeast, I had dinner with a colleague who I occasionally see at those sorts of meetings. Our conversation was interesting and wide ranging, touching on our work issues, politics and current events, history, and our personal backgrounds. With regard to the last of those, the subject of religion came up.

He grew up a Southern Baptist somewhere in Oklahoma, graduated from OU, and then headed off to a prestigious law school. Somewhere along the way, he decided that the faith he had grown up with was not credible, and he dropped out until, like many, he married and had children, at which time he found his way into an Episcopal Church. Although his children are all grown, he remains very active in his church, serving in various capacities.

Unfortunately, he said that he was not sure that he believes in God and doubts that there is any kind of an afterlife. Pragmatism, not truth, had brought him back to the church. He returned and remains active in a church because in practical terms it is the best way to raise a family, provide stability to a society, and perform good deeds for the needy. The church provides for life to be ordered in a way that is for him meaningful, providing satisfaction that he is doing good for others.

Yet, he is terrified of growing old and dying. He visits a nursing home in behalf of his church, taking along his dog because the residents love the little animal. He says that he doesn't do this for the residents, but it is "exposure therapy" for himself. He cannot come to grips with the fact that he will grow old (he is currently in his 60's), become "useless," and die. He is hoping that by visiting these people, that he will gain a level of comfort with his inevitable future.

I expressed regret that he had not found resources that would have helped him appreciate the viability of orthodox Christianity and told him that my hope for my future was grounded in the fact that Christ had risen from the dead. Trying to find a point of contact with him, I mentioned some Anglican writers that had been helpful to me, and he brought up C.S. Lewis as someone he had read. When I pointed out that Lewis, though practical in style, argued in favor of Christianity not because it was practical, but because it was true, he noted that as a point that was worth thinking about. We agreed that we would talk more at some point in the future.

I regard his situation as tragic. He has spent much of his life in churches, yet he finds no help with regard to some of the most fundamental issues that Christianity addresses. Of course, some will point out that his experience results from his migration to a liberal version of Christianity. While that is true, evangelicals might want to pause before dismissing the relevance of his testimony.

The fastest growing segments of evangelical Christianity in the United States now largely base their appeal on the practical value of what they claim to offer. Some churches even market themselves in a way that downplays themes such as sin, grace, salvation, redemption, and death. Rather, they focus on practical matters: coming to our church and hearing our message will help your kids, make you a better parent, make you more fulfilled and give meaning to your life, help you overcome addictions, provide you with a sense of community, and so forth. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, though one might point out that you can find resources for them in places other than churches.

Christianity doesn't just claim "to work;" it claims to be true. And in that claim, it asserts that God has dealt with our sins and provides a way of redemption and a future hope. That is, it deals with the truly large issues of life. In his practical religion, my colleague did not find an answer for the most fundamental and certain issues of life. It would be most unfortunate if evangelicals are leading their members down the same banal path.

It is often argued that people in their day to day lives are not concerned about these larger issues, and that may be true. But evangelical Christianity without the Christianity is nothing more than a marketed message that gains adherents without offering anything of value for the long haul. Churches should offer the Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation for everyone that believes; if churches don't, they are doing more harm than good.