Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Which Bible-reading plan will *you* abandon?

Friday, January 1st, 2010

As I said on Twitter recently, now is the time of year when Christians across the nation are deciding which read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan they’re going to give up on in February.  Teehee.

To encourage Discipline and avoid Discouragement, we have:

1.) My choice:  The Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan.  It’s a member of the “read from four different sections of the Bible each day” species of reading plan.  Benefits:

  • Scope. I love the read-from-different-sections plans.  Among other things, it makes it much easier to slog through the rougher patches, like Leviticus, Number, & Deuteronomy.
  • Flexibility. There are four readings for each day–but you can do just one, or two, or three.
  • The most awesomest super-cool feature: Good for slackers! It only has 25 days worth of readings for each month, giving you free days to catch up if/when you fall behind.
  • It’s also recommended by both my own pastor, and John Piper. So it’s gotta be good.

2.) Good news for those of us who look to the ESV Bible as the One True Translation™ (I kid, I kid): The ESV.org people have put together a fantastic site with 10 different reading plans.  Including a podcast feature for listening to the readings!  According to Justin Taylor, the plans can be accessed by:

  • web (a new reading each day appears online at the same link)
  • RSS (subscribe to receive by RSS)
  • podcast (subscribe to get your daily reading in audio)
  • email (subscribe to receive by email)
  • iCal (download an iCalendar file)
  • mobile (view a new reading each day on your mobile device)
  • print (download a PDF of the whole plan)

Here’s all 10 ESV Reading Plans

JT also explains how to sign up for these plans as podcasts in iTunes.  (They don’t show up in the music store, but you can still easily add them.)

3.) Finally, we  have The Bible Reading Plan for Slackers and Shirkers.  It doesn’t mark the readings by date, so you can never tell that you’ve “fallen behind” if you missed a day.  There’s no such thing as falling behind!

The advantage of this plan is that it provides guidance as we read each day but does not put us on an internal guilt trip if we miss a day – we just pick up with the next reading on the day it happens to be.  Also, this plan allows us to see the many interconnections between sections of Scripture. So, as Margie puts it, on the same day you may be reading about God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis and a few days later read Paul’s commentary on the Abrahamic covenant in Romans.

4.) A couple other suggestions from Facebook friends:  Jennifer Lawton pointed out that having other people to encourage you can help keep you going.  And LaNette Lathem said that reading from an unfamiliar translation can keep things fresh.  (If you’ve got any other suggestions for avoiding the doldrums–or if you have a favorite plan I missed–then please leave a comment!)

Good luck to you all!  Er, I mean, “Good providential outworking of God’s plan for your life!”

“Jesus Never Talked About X”

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

So, Jesus was a Jew.  He didn’t come to begin a religion; he came as the culmination of the Old Testament, in its prophecies & promises.

With that in mind, does anybody really think Jesus had to repeat everything from the Old Testament in his teachings–or we can dismiss it?  That would be a pretty odd expectation.

And yet, modern religious discussion seems to have a new trump-card:  ”Jesus never talked about ______.”  If Jesus never talked about [insert traditional/conservative/disliked belief], then supposedly it has no place in true Christianity–it’s just man-made.  (The argument also has a more reasonable form, which I’ll talk about below–but first I want to look at the dismissive form.)

It might be used against any view seen as “traditional”–anything part of widespread assumptions about Christianity.  As an experiment, I googled “Jesus never talked about”.  Six of the first ten results were on homosexuality.  Another says that all sex-related rules are just man-made.  (That one’s odd, since Jesus did talk about sexual morals.)  Another says that Paul can’t be legit, because Jesus never talked about him.  I tried again, excluding “homosexuality” from the results, and came up with:  Original sin, “saying The Prayer”/”becoming a Christian”/”salvation”, legislating morality, and purgatory.

The Problems

Does anyone really think that if Jesus didn’t explicitly, directly mention something, it’s not sin? Did he talk about rape?  Child abuse?  Did he mention the common infanticide practiced in the Roman Empire?  Did he mention bestiality?

We know he spoke about murder, and sexual immorality in general.  But we don’t know that he ever mentioned these.  Does that mean he condoned them?

So where does this thinking go wrong?

The first problem:  The written gospel accounts don’t pretend to record everything Jesus said.  We can’t say, “Jesus never mentioned X.”  We can only say, “The gospel writers didn’t include anything about it.”  Each gospel writer included and emphasized different portions of Jesus’ teaching; they don’t claim to include all of it. (On the contrary.)

Even if Jesus himself actually did directly mention every moral issue during his time on earth, we don’t have everything he said.

The second problem: Red-letter Christianity.

Sometimes, modern printings of the Bible put the words of Jesus in red letters.  And some people view the red letters as the only part that’s really Scripture, really God’s word.  Oddly, people will reject Jesus’ own view of the Scriptures.  He appealed to the Old Testament as the word of God; he affirmed Moses and the Psalms and the prophets.  They spoke by the Spirit of God–the same Spirit by whom the apostles & prophets of the New Testament spoke.

If you try to separate Jesus from the Scriptures, reading only the red letters, you can’t get very far.  You have to excise all the red letters that talk about Scripture and the Holy Spirit.  (That’s exactly what Marcion tried to do.)

And that takes us back to the third problem: Jesus didn’t come to create a new religion.  He’s not dropping in out of the blue and starting with a blank slate.  Jesus is a Jew; Christianity continues & builds on Judaism.  And according to Jesus, he didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

Jesus’ birth in Israel wasn’t an accident of history.  He’s not a moral teacher who just happened to appear in Israel, and when he spoke about the Law he wasn’t simply commenting on the prevailing morality of his surroundings–he certainly wasn’t affirming some and discarding the rest.  (It’s not as though he set out to ratify the valid parts of Old Testament morality and ignore the parts he didn’t like.)  The Law was from the Father, with whom Jesus is one.  When he criticized the prevailing morality, it was because they departed from the Law for the sake of man-made traditions.  But the Law itself was the word of God.

If we take Jesus in the gospels seriously, we have to take the rest of the Bible seriously.  Jesus, the Word of God, affirmed Scripture as the word of God.  You can’t separate its teachings from his.

On The Other Hand…

More reasonably, “Jesus never mentioned ___” does raise a question about importance and emphasis.  It’s silly to assume that Jesus mentioned every moral issue and theological truth, but he did specifically teach about his purpose in coming, the kingdom of God, and the central meaning of the gospel.  So it seems reasonable to expect that the main things would show up coming from Jesus himself.

It’s a slippery question, but at least it raises food for thought.

Aside from that, the criticisms people are making might still be valid, even though “Jesus never mentioned X” is a bad argument.  Going back to the list from Google, I certainly agreed with some of the critiques–against purgatory, against some forms of legislating morality, against “praying-the-prayer”-as-magical-words-that-grant-eternal-security.

But to make a valid critique on anything, you need a lot more than this argument from Jesus’ supposed silence.

To Sum It Up

Saying “Jesus never talked about ____” isn’t a good trump card.  It doesn’t do much, though it can raise food for thought.

Bible Study, Community, and Orthodoxy

Wednesday, 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.

A Nutshell of “Scripture Alone”

Tuesday, 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.

No Infallibility for Anyone

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

So, something I’ve been doing during the long gap between my posts has been an occasional comment on other blogs, under the name Jugulum.  One of my exchanges ended up being highlighted by Carrie (a contributor to the blog), who posted excerpts in a separate entry, saying,  “Not that the general discussion points haven’t been covered here and elsewhere many times over, but I thought Jugulum provided a nice clarity to the issue in his comments”.  Thanks, Carrie. :)

The exchange has to do with infallibility in Roman Catholicism.  One of the appeals of Catholicism is the idea of certainty.  If you have to read & interpret the Bible for yourself, how do you know if you’ve got it right? You’re just a fallible private interpreter.  But if you listen to the Church, you have an infallible interpreter to tell you what you should believe.

The major problem is this: Who interprets the interpreter?

When you read the Scriptures, you have to try to figure out what they mean.  You might get it wrong.  And when you listen to the Pope or read the Catechism or read the rulings of councils, then you also have to try to figure out what they mean, and you might get it wrong.  Either you’re reading the infallible Scriptures, or you’re reading (allegedly) infallible proclamations of the Church–and you have to interpret both.  Because you’re fallible, your theology will always be fallible–even if you were sitting at the feet of Christ during his ministry on earth, you could still misunderstand.

  • Note: This argument doesn’t tell us whether or not God actually did give us the Catholic teaching Magisterium to be our guide.  It just means that your theology will always be fallible, regardless of who’s right about sola Scriptura.  This common Catholic argument ends up being an (unintentional) shell game.
  • However, the Catholic system does offer something that would be nice, if it were really from God.  Even though we can’t become infallible, it would be nice to have an infallible interpreter.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to ask Paul what he meant sometimes?  To interact with him in person? If the Catholic Church (or the Orthodox Church) could actually give us authoritative interpretations from God, it would be nice.  (And we would be obliged to submit.)  But, we can be assured that if God didn’t give us such a thing, then we don’t need it.  If we Protestants are right that the only infallible authority is Scripture, then we can be confident that we have all the guidance we require–everything God wanted us to have.  (Other authorities–like tradition, philosophy, etc.–might be helpful, but they’re under Scripture, and they’re not infallible.)  If so, then Catholics are (sadly) seeing deficiency in what God has graciously lavished on us.  We need to get this right.

So, now that I’ve summarized it, on to the exchange.  It started when I replied to this comment from Alexander Greco:

Within Catholicism, granting that its teachings are true, a person has the possibility to know that he or she is holding beliefs at variance with sound doctrine, and can avoid this.

My reply starts here, and the exchange continues through the combox.  Or, if you don’t want to read everything, you can check out the excerpts pulled out by Carrie.

Understanding God’s Word

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

Easy Exegesis

“Exegesis” is a technical term for interpretation of a text. It’s about serious interpretation–doing your best to get past what you want it to mean, or what you’ve always assumed it means, or what you’ve been told it means, getting through to figure out what the author actually meant. The nutshell definition is “drawing meaning out of a text”.

It’s the opposite of “eisegesis”, which means “reading meaning into a text”. (Calling someone’s interpretation “eisegesis” is basically polite, scholarly trash talk. Any time I read something like, “That’s really more eisegetical than exegetical,” I imagine the target of the comment saying, “Oh no you di-int! Snap!”)

An in-depth exegesis involves looking at the context of the individual verse or passage, at the flow of thought, at the details of the language, at the original audience, at the historical context, and at the other writings of the author (if there are any). That’s the best way to get the most confidence that you’re understanding the fullest meaning of what the text was intended to say.

But…Well, all that makes it sound very complicated, very involved, and much too difficult for anyone who can’t read the Greek text and translate it on the fly. But it’s not. It doesn’t have to be. Don’t get me wrong, some passages really are very challenging, even for the brightest minds with the best resources and the strongest education. But most of the Bible isn’t like that. To get the fullest meaning, it may take practice and a lot of effort–but there are very simple ways to study the Bible that will help you understand quite a lot.

There’s a simple, easy rule of exegesis–one you’ll find yourself using all the time, one that’s widely useful, one that will prevent you from making most of the easy mistakes of interpretation.

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