Followup — Studying to Serve, or, On Not Being a Self-Centered Idiot

November 11th, 2009

It occurs to me that when I wrote my last post, the basic thought I had in mind got lost in all the reflecting.

Self-centered teaching: Go off, think allegedly insightful, ground-breaking, epiphanic thoughts.  Then gather an audience and broadcast your views.  Stop there.  (Analogy:  A radio.  Tossing spaghetti against the wall, but not really caring if it sticks.  Example: Arrogant, unconcerned professors.)

Christ-like teaching: Because you’re motivated by genuine affection & concern for people, you get involved with people’s lives.  You make time.  Intimacy happens.  You might be a lecture-style teacher, or a blogger, or a radio host–but your life also includes discipleship relationships. You meet with people, you know what’s going on in their lives, you’re concerned about them and their growth.  You follow up.

Why this is on my mind: I’ve been realizing that some aspects of my personal relationships really stink.  Or are underdeveloped.  I want to change–to see all my relationships be more natural, friendly, affectionate, generous, discerning, and humble.  In the area of truth/teaching/doctrine/understanding, I want to include a genuine posture of hearing & receiving.  I want my speaking/teaching/encouraging to come out of an integrated concern for people.  I want to be able to talk about these things naturally, conversationally.

Coincidentally, Frank Turk just posted something this morning on a related subject (comment #6).  He included a highly appropriate verse, so here it is:

Paul, talking to his protege Timothy:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (1 Tim. 1:5-7)

Studying to Serve, or, On Not Being a Self-Centered Idiot

November 7th, 2009

There is a difference between simply studying and being a disciple.  The same is true on the teaching side.  Why do we do what we do, and what kind of fruit are we seeking?

I love to study.  To read.  To learn.  I’m like many theology-reading, coffee-shop-dwelling, blog-haunting, podcast-devouring twenty-somethings.

It can be a source of pride.  Forget justification by works–we’ve got justification by podcast.  You want to see fruit?  Just look at the list of people who I read & listen to.  Impressive, no?

Studying Well

Do we study to master the information?  To delight in fascinating controversy?  To best opponents?

Or do we study to see God more clearly, to love him more truly?  Know him, to depend on his promises, and to stop living in small-minded, self-centered ways?  Do we study to look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere in pure, undefiled religion before God?  To see and hear Christ, and act?  To rein in spiteful tongues, to speak blessing & encouragement, and to love those who need it most?  (James 1:22-27)

(Keep reading…)

“Was I Really Baptized?”, and Other (Quibbling?) Questions

September 25th, 2009

Over at the SBC Voices blog, they’re starting a new series of debates between fellow Baptists.  The mission statement requires that they be civil, biblical, non-personal 1000-word essays–enforced by the editors.  It looks to be interesting.

The first debate is over baptism and local church oversight.  Who performs baptisms?  Does it need to be done by a local church?  Can you baptize yourself?  Where the rubber meets the road: If you weren’t baptized by a church, should you be rebaptized?

I like the discussion.  Here are the links.  (I’ll try to add the rest, as they post more.)  As always, I comment under the name “Jugulum”.

  1. Diverse Voices Debate: Is Church Oversight Essential for Baptism?
  2. Diverse Baptists Debate: Church Oversight of Baptism- Foster’s Rebuttal of Miller
  3. A Response to the Baptism Oversight Debate

——————-

In my judgment, the case  for necessary church oversight isn’t strong.  But I want to make two “meta” comments about conversation itself, and one about the content of the debate.  (The specific observation is a quote from a comment I left at the first entry.)

The two general issues:

1.) Is it stupid even to be having this kind of debate?  Is it just quibbling?
2.) Even if we disagree with the other side’s final conclusion, we can still learn & grow from the principles & arguments they use.  (In this case: We can grow in understanding the symbolism & meaning of baptism, and think about how to preserve the richness of what God has given us.)

The specific comment:

3.) We should care about preserving & reflecting the symbolism of baptism in how we practice.  But “this preserves the symbolism better” doesn’t imply “it’s not valid without it.”  A comparison to the Lord’s Supper may help.

(Keep reading…)

Bible Study, Community, and Orthodoxy

September 16th, 2009

Recently, I’ve been talking with some friends about some hard questions, and we turned to a particular chapter of Romans.  After I sent them a link discussing part of the passage, one of my friends started searching for other commentary about it.  But then he stopped, because, as he put it:

After that, I decided researching the passage would be counter-productive.  My goal is to understand the passage, not understand what scholars say about the passage.  I suppose I’m going on the assumption that if God is conveying truth, even someone as ignorant (unschooled) as myself should be able to understand at least the main point.

He then proceeded to read the chapter himself, think about it, and send an email to the rest of us explaining what he saw in the passage.

In thinking about his comments and his approach, I find myself both agreeing, and wanting to preserve a right place for commentary.  At the core of good Bible study is personal Bible study–you the Christian, with God, studying the Word and receiving from the Spirit.  It should never be less than that.  But Bible study should be more. It should include community & relationship, accountability, and connection with the rest of the Church–now and in the past.

Personal Bible Study

We’re supposed to pore over Scripture directly.  I think study Bibles aren’t very good for new Christians–they should be poring over Scripture, getting in the habit of looking there, first.  Not getting in the habit of answering every question by reading what other Christians say.  We shouldn’t depend on study notes to give us the answers–our first impulse shouldn’t be to look there, but rather to wrestle with the Word.  The same applies to commentaries.  We can’t let studying them replace Bible study.

Bible Study in Community

The Christian life isn’t about me & God, it’s about us & God.  We’re not supposed to be solo Christians.  That goes for Bible study, too.  It should be relational.  It’s not “me & my Bible & God alone in the woods”.  We study by ourselves (just like we pray by ourselves), but we shouldn’t stop there.  We need to do things in community, in fellowship.  Solo prayer & worship is important, but there’s also a richness to group prayer & worship–to the “one another” work of the Spirit.  Same with Bible study–there is richness and help in studying together.  Christ did not die to make solo Christians; he died to purify a people, to make a family, to make a Body of various parts joined together–who will be loving and serving and blessing each other, teaching each other, through the work of the Spirit.

So we talk about it, and you help me see what I might have missed, and vice versa.  Or you help me see that it doesn’t say what I thought, and vice versa.  If something seems obvious to me but you can’t see it at all… Then we need to step back and look again, together.  “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Is the Bible Plain?

Community Bible study is part of accountability, and we all need it.  Because the Bible is written for us all to read, but there are lots of ways that we can get things wrong.  We have blind spots, we have preconceived ideas.  We fail to see things because we don’t want to, or we see things because we want to see them.  Or we just miss things for no apparent reason–even things that seem obvious after someone points it out.  And sometimes the Bible is hard to understand–it’s not written for scholars, but not everything is plain & easy.  As people say, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.”  The basics of the Gospel & following Christ are plain, but it’s also easy to miss things, and we need to help each other see more clearly.

So… I think Bible study should have steps.  (1) Spend time prayerfully studying the Word by yourself.  (2) Spend time studying it with other Christians.

Commentaries Are Christian Community, Too

“Studying it with other Christians” includes going out into our Christian community and study it with each other.  But commentaries are another way.

A commentary is just something that another Christian has written.  It might be quite helpful, and show you things in the passage that you missed.  It might tell you some helpful background info–something that would have been obvious to the original audience, but isn’t obvious to a 21st century American.  Or it might say things that are totally off-base.  Just like any time you study the Bible with another Christian.  It’s not a replacement for reading the Bible yourself, and you need to apply discernment to what you read.  But it can be very, very helpful.  Our fellow Christians can be very, very helpful.

Christians Who Aren’t Like Us

We all have blinders & bad assumptions–things that make us misunderstand Scripture, or read our theology into the text instead of reading it out of the text.  Those problems sometimes come from our cultural background.

But people from other cultures have different blinders.  We make different mistakes–and if we examine them together, we can help one another to see more clearly.

The more we listen to Christians who are very different from us, the more we will have iron sharpening iron.

So, it’s exciting that Christianity is growing so much in Africa and China.  I can’t wait to find out how they contribute to our understanding of what God has said–to see how they challenge the Western church’s priorities and assumptions.

The History of the Church

We also shouldn’t just read commentary from modern people.  We should be connected with the church as a whole, throughout history.  We should be grounded in history.  We should be aware of how Christians have wrestled with and answered questions in the past, and we should hear their voices as well.  Because:

  • Just as people from other cultures today have different blinders, so do people from the past.  They’re less likely to make our mistakes, and we’re less likely to make theirs.
  • If we really think the Bible is clear, do we think it is clear only to us, now?  If we think the Bible is saying something that no other Christian in the history of the world has seen, shouldn’t that make us wonder?
  • If we have the Holy Spirit, so did they.  If we are fallible, so were they.  If our fellow Christians today are worth listening to, so were they.

Let’s listen to the dead guys, too.

Catholics and Eastern Orthodox understand this point, but go too far.  They invest the history of the Church with too much authority, letting it move into the role of interpreting  for us, instead of with us.  But sometimes Protestants do a pendulum swing, too far in the other direction.

Only sometimes.  But it definitely happens.

We should draw on the wisdom of the Christians who have gone before us.  It’s one thing to look at it with caution and discernment; it’s another to throw it off entirely, like a teenager convinced of his parents’ irrelevance & foolishness.

Summary

The Holy Spirit has been teaching Christians from the Scripture for 2000 years, and it doesn’t make sense to cut ourselves off from that.  It is not “Me and my Bible alone in the woods with God.”  As we pray for God to help us understand his word, we should be plugged in directly to the Bible, and into our community, and into the broader community of Christians, living and dead.  Study the Bible directly, and then do it with other Christians.  We help keep each other from going off in weird directions.

New Features! (And more on Romans 9)

September 10th, 2009

Two bits of news!

First, I finally replied to Bob, in our discussion of the church and Israel in Romans 9-11. I recap the situation, and then look more closely at Romans 9:24-27. I also include a couple diagrams to help visualize what I’m thinking vs what Bob is thinking. Here’s the direct link.

Second, I’ve recently added a few features to the blog, so I thought I’d point them out.

1.) “Recent Comments”. In the sidebar, there’s now a list of recent comments next to the list of recent posts.

2.) Threaded comments. I didn’t know, but apparently WordPress added threaded comments a year ago. But my theme didn’t have what it needed to use it. So I updated my theme this weekend, and now the threads work! Woo.

3.) Gravatars! Gravatar is a picture that accompanies your comments. Like a user-pic on a forum website. It stands for “globally recognized avatar”. Basically, you go to the Gravatar website, sign up for free using your email account, and upload a picture.  Then when you post a comment at gravatar-enabled websites, the image will show up.

4.) Lost the WYSIWYG editor. I had a plugin for a WYSIWYG editor for the comments–giving you buttons for bold, italics, etc. But it was breaking the threaded comments, so I had to turn it off. I might be able to replace it soon.

5.) Broken theme! Well, this is a bug, not a feature. For some reason, when updating my theme, a grey border appeared around the main column. I’ll try to get around to fixing it sometime.

Update:

6.) Whoops, I forgot one!  There is now a check-box when you leave a comment, which lets you sign up for email notifications when people reply.  That way you don’t have to remember to check the entry.

A Nutshell of “Scripture Alone”

August 25th, 2009

I’m still going to come back to Romans 9-11, but in the meantime, I have a quick comment on sola Scriptura.

“Scripture Alone”, or sola Scriptura, is the idea that Scripture is the only infallible, absolutely authoritative source of truth that we possess today.  (Or, depending on who’s saying it, you might say, “source of guidance & revelation for the Church”, or some variation.)  Catholics and Eastern Orthodox reject it.  Protestants stand on it.

I’m reading a debate that just started between Rhology, a Reformed Protestant, and David, an Orthodox.  So far the opening statements are up, and I want to comment on David’s.

He says, as Catholics and Orthodox often do,

Sola Scriptura is ultimately self-refuting. If only Scripture is a binding authority on matters of faith, and Scripture nowhere contains the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, then it cannot be true.

David’s missing two things.  The second is very important, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Catholic or Orthodox who seemed to be addressing it.  (Not on the Internet, anyway.)  I completely understand how people miss it, and someone had to point it out to me–but once it’s pointed out, it’s pretty simple.  (And if you’re not Protestant, I would welcome your reply.)

Let’s grant that Scripture nowhere directly teaches, “Scripture is the only infallible authority.”

1.) That doesn’t mean sola Scriptura isn’t true. Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean, “All truth is in Scripture.”  There are many true things that Scripture doesn’t talk about.  Sola Scriptura wouldn’t have to be in the Bible for it to be true.

But David could rightly respond:  “You’re nitpicking.  The point is that sola Scriptura can’t be a binding doctrine for a Protestant, because the Bible doesn’t ever say ‘Scripture alone’.”  So, move on to #2.

2.) I only believe in one infallible authority today.  Not because Scripture says, “The Bible is the only infallible authority.”  But because the Bible only points us to one infallible authority.

Jesus & the apostles didn’t direct us to view “the Church” in general or the Pope or the Roman Catholic Magisterium as infallible authorities; that’s why I don’t accept Catholic & Orthodox claims about themselves.

It’s not that “Scripture is the only infallible authority” has been revealed.  It’s that nothing but Scripture has been revealed as an infallible authority.

—–

That’s it.

Actually, I would also argue that the Bible does say things about the Bible’s sufficiency, which would add support to sola Scriptura.  And David might argue that the Bible does teach us to look to “tradition” as infallible, too–which would prove sola Scriptura wrong.  We have to look at what the Bible says to settle it.  But I think it should be clear that “The Bible doesn’t say ‘Scripture alone,’ so it’s self-refuting!” is missing the point.

Stop Attending Church

August 17th, 2009

(Taken from my Facebook wall and Twitter page today.)

Stop attending church.

Frank Turk’s reply:  “Indeed: what if you loved your church?”

After I posted a link to Frank’s recent blog series called Not Done Lightly (scroll to the bottom and read upward), where he discusses the reasons for his strong belief that we should almost never leave a church unless we’re asked to leave, Kelly F. posted:

I glanced at Turk’s stuff and I think he’s making very good points. A real challenge, though, in committing oneself fully to a church is that in our mobile, unrooted lives we often find ourselves in the position of ‘shopping’ for a church. There’s really no way around it when you move to a new neighborhood or town. But then after you’ve chosen a particular church you have to stop thinking of it as a commodity to choose and start thinking of it as a family you’re called to love, bear with, and serve. It’s a hard switch to make.

The flip side of this is that church leaders (in general) have to stop acting like they are trying to sell a product to a target market. We’re called to make disciples, not make a sale.

So.  Let’s try not to attend church.  Let’s try to commit to loving a church, a community, as a family.

The Church & Israel — How Much Does Romans Say?

August 14th, 2009

I’m still discussing Romans 9-11 with Bob in the comment section of the last entry.  I may take some of that and make a new entry.  In the meantime, I had already written out this fourth post in the series.  Just a quick thought on how much Romans 9-11 actually addresses.

I think it’s pretty clear that Paul is pointing forward to a future spiritual renewal of ethnic Israel, in which many many Jews will find the Messiah.

But I don’t think Romans 9-11 says anything else about the end times.  It doesn’t say anything about the role of Israel in the end times.  If you only read these chapters, you don’t find anything about Israel’s role in the kingdom of God.  You don’t find anything about the millenium.  You don’t even find anything about the land of Israel.

Not directly, anyway.  Paul does say, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (v. 29).  And he does seem to think that the bloodlines still matter for something.  But we have to read other parts of the Bible in order to find out what exactly are “the gifts and calling of God”.

It might still turn out that some of the promises & prophecies were typological, or “spiritual” in some sense.  Not face value.  (When they’re fulfilled, it might not turn out like you would think at first glance.)  But like I said in the last entry, we have to be careful with that.  If you want to claim that’s what will happen, you should have good exegetical reason for doing it.  (Just because you can think of some way that “This promise about Israel is fulfilled in Christ & the Church”, doesn’t mean you’re reading it the way it was intended.)  Especially the further you move away from taking it at “face value”.

The Church & Israel — Thinking About Rom. 9-11

August 3rd, 2009

Continuing from the last entry, where I put Romans 7-12 in my own words, here are some observations.

Observations

1.) When Paul says that God’s promise hasn’t failed, his emphasis is not, “Because the Church is the true Israel.”  (That’s what Replacement theologians tend to say.)  Instead, his emphasis is, “Because the remnant of the Jews has come to Christ.”   Even if you think the Church is Israel–even if you think Paul says so–it should be clear that Paul doesn’t depend on that idea here.  His response is based on the remnant.

2.) Paul makes a big point of the fact that God did have a faithful remnant of some Jews.  Apparently, if all the Jews had rejected the Messiah, God’s promise would have failed.  So in some way, the bloodlines do still matter.   It does matter for ethnic Jews to follow Christ.

3.) Paul does talk about including the Gentiles as God’s children, as beloveds, as his people.  God brings “vessels of mercy” from out of the Gentiles, as well as from out of the Jews.  But Paul doesn’t directly say anything here like, “Therefore we can call the whole body of Christ ‘Israel’.”  (The arguable place is 11:25-26, which I’ll get to in a moment.  Also, Gal. 6:16 or Rom. 2:29 might say so–but that would be a different argument.  What does this passage mean?)

4.) In some places in the passage, “Israel” can only mean ethnic Israel, not “believing Jews + the Gentiles”.

As an exercise, try walking through all three chapters, and replace “Israel” with either “ethnic Israel” or “true Israel”.  Try it both ways in each case.  See which ones are clearly “ethnic Israel”.  See which ones are arguable.

Especially, let’s try that in 11:25-26.

5.) “Israel” shows up twice in 11:25-26.  The first time is clear, but the second time is arguable.

a partial hardening has come upon [ethnic] Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel [???] will be saved, as it is written,

On the one hand, maybe it means “a vast majority of Jews will come to Christ”.  (“All Israel” doesn’t necessarily mean “every individual”, even though that might sound more natural.)

On the other hand, maybe it means, “every individual from true Israel (whether Jew or Gentile) will find mercy”.

That makes more sense out of “all Israel”.  And the basic idea of “true Israel” makes sense with the earlier stuff about including the Gentiles.  And it makes sense with some other passages.  But–I can’t make sense of it in the context.

Paul had talked about making the unbelieving Jews jealous in order to save them, and desiring them to be grafted back in.  Then he talks about a temporary partial hardening.  It seems to go, “Partial hardening on the Jews until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, and then the hardening will be released, and more Jews will be saved.”

The “true Israel” really doesn’t fit well, if you keep going from v. 25 through to vs. 32.  You might think “true Israel” works in v. 26, but keep reading.  Pay attention to what happens when you hit v. 28, and especially v. 31:

so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.

Who has been disobedient?  Ethnic Israel.  Who is Paul hoping will receive mercy?  Ethnic Israel.

If you read v. 26 by itself, maybe it can work.  But it stops working when you hit v. 28.

6.) Last comment: Paul definitely talks about the Gentiles being included as God’s people, and he says they are “children of the promise”.  Galatians also connects us with Abraham (Gal. 3:29).  But what about the later Mosaic covenant?  Maybe we’re included in Abraham, but not Moses.  What about all the later promises that God didn’t make to Abraham, but made to Israel and the people of Israel?  Do we have to be included in both?

I really don’t know.  But I don’t think Paul intended to answer that question in Rom. 9-11–he’s mainly addressing the promises of salvation.  (And in 9:3-5 and 11:28-29, he’s maybe pointing out some particular promises & blessings for ethnic Israel.  I’m not sure.)

So, I don’t think you should take your final answer from Rom. 9-11.  Even if it turns out that Gentile Christians do receive all the promises & covenants & prophecies to Israel, we would need to do more work to figure that out. We need to look at the various promises and prophecies, and look at what the New Testament says about them, and see what makes sense.  In particular, we need to look at the land promises, and see what God specifically promised.  And Jeremiah 31:35-37 is important.

—-

Back to “How do we interpret the Bible?” in general.

Covenant theologians are right–that we need to let the New Testament interpret the Old, where it does so. And Dispensationalists are right–that we need to be careful about over-allegorizing, where the Bible doesn’t justify doing it.  We should take it at face value unless we have good reason not to.

That’s where I’m at.  I need to study the Old Testament promises, and find out what the New Testament says about them.

I have just one more comment about Israel and the Church in the end-times.  But I’ll save that for another entry.  A brief one.  I promise.

The Church & Israel — Summarizing Romans 9-11

July 25th, 2009

Continuing my look at the Church, Israel, and Replacement Theology:

Romans 9-11 is one of the most important New Testament passages about the Church and Israel.  It’s interesting:  People on both sides argue, “My side has to be right–just look at Romans 9-11!”  There are other important passages–Galatians, Hebrews, & Revelation (particularly Gal. 6:16 and Rom. 2:29.) I know I haven’t studied them enough to come to really solid conclusions.  But on Romans 9-11, there are some things that I think are pretty clear.

The three chapters culminate in 11:25-32.  And that passage includes the key phrase, “in this way all Israel will be saved”.  What does Paul mean?  Is he talking about ethnic Israel?  Or is he talking about “true Israel”–all the children of God in Christ?

Dispensationalists (and some Replacement theologians) take “all Israel will be saved” to mean that there will be a future restoration of ethnic Israel:  Many Jews will turn to Christ.  (“See!”, they say, “Israel is still distinct from the Church in the plans of God!”)

Replacement theologians tend to take it this way:  Even though so much of Israel has rejected Christ, the promises of God will not fail–because true Israel is all those who believe in Christ, both Jew and Gentile.  And all of true Israel will be saved.  (“See!”, they say, “Everyone who knows Christ is now part of Israel!”)

I’m still trying to work some things out–there are pieces of this passage that aren’t clear to me.  I do think the Replacement crowd are at least partly right.  Ch. 9-11 is definitely about how the promises of God have not failed, and it definitely emphasizes unity between Jews and Gentiles in salvation.  The whole Church is definitely part of God’s family, and does inherit promises from the Old Testament.

But I’ve also concluded this:  Paul does point to future restoration & salvation for ethnic Israel, i.e. for currently unbelieving Jews.  And ultimately, this passage doesn’t say, “‘Israel’ now means the Church.” Replacement theologians are reading that in, they’re not getting it from here.  (Maybe you could build a case from other passages, but here, it’s not what Paul said.)

To see that, I want to walk through the passage to see the major flow of thought.  Then I want to look at how is the word “Israel” is used–and at what exactly the Gentiles are included in.  (I’m not perfectly clear on the last part.)

(Keep reading…)