Blog Archives

Biblical Interpretation is Always Personal

And the hits keep on coming from Swain in Trinity, Revelation, and Reading:

Because of biblical interpretation is an act of covenant mutuality, a living in engagement with the living God through his living in Christ, biblical interpretation is always personal. As interpreters, we are always making decisions either for or against the truth, promises, and commands of a given text. There is no neutrality here. We are either in the process of further embracing Scripture’s truth, promises, and commands or we are in the process of distancing ourselves from them. We are either bringing ourselves into further conformity to God’s word or we are slowly drifting away from that which we have read and heard (cf. Heb. 2.1-4).The timing of biblical application therefore is always “Today” (see Heb. 3.7-4.13).

– Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 134.

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The New Testament Does Not Abolish…

I’m presently working through Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and it’s Interpretation, the latest volume by my former seminary professor Dr. Scott Swain.  It’s fairly small in size, but packs a strong punch. I plan on pulling some quotes to post over the next few days, just to give you a taste of the gems found therein.

Here’s a sample where Swain discusses the link between God’s self-disclosure in both Old Covenant and the New:

The progressive nature of revelation does not suggest evolution from more “primitive” to more “sophisticated” stages in humanity’s knowledge of God, of redemption, and of itself. Nor do earlier stages of revelation require correction or augmentation by later stages of revelation. Contrary to every form of Marcionism that has plagued the history of Christianity, it is the same God who makes himself known to Israel and to the church. Moreover, Jesus, God supreme self – revelation and final word (cf. Heb. 1.1-4), did not come to abolish earlier revelation but the fulfill it (Mt. 5:17-19). Even those institutions that are abrogated in the new covenant (e.g., the Levitical priesthood, the Temple cult, etc.) serve as tokens, promissory notes of the final institutions that Christ came to establish, and therefore function as paradigms – indispensable models – understanding those institutions. As such, they are never truly left behind but are rather incorporated into the brilliant mosaic of New Covenant revelation. Each stage of God’s revelation thus represents God’s wholly reliable redemptive truth, tempered to that stage of redemption by the Divine Rhetor, and therefore profitable in its own rights for imparting the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and to a life that is pleasing to God (2 Tim. 3.15-17).

Old Testament Law and The Charge of Inconsistency

The following is an article written by Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, for their newsletter. It’s so helpful that I thought I would quote it in it’s entirety:

I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.” What I hear most often is “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what they want to believe from the Bible?”

It is not that I expect everyone to have the capability of understanding that the whole Bible is about Jesus and God’s plan to redeem his people, but I vainly hope that one day someone will access their common sense (or at least talk to an informed theological advisor) before leveling the charge of inconsistency.

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Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus, and the Spirit

In a former entry, we looked at several  questions raised by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, also known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wanted to return to some of those questions by zeroing in on question 18:

Who is [referred] to prophetically at Prov. 8:22-31?

Let’s review the content of the passage:

“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.
(Proverbs 8:22-31 ESV)

Sadly, this passage has been hotly debated throughout the course of church history. It’s one of the chief passages from which Arius argued for during the council of Nicea in 325 AD. As the understood by the JWs, Proverbs 8 “prophetically” speaks of Jesus, the “first of [God’s] acts of old.” According to Watchtower Bible and Tract Society doctrine, Jesus Christ is Michael the Archangel, and the first created being of God. Through Michael/Jesus, on their view, God created all other things.

Though others have responded to this challenge is ways quite different from my own, I remain persuaded in thinking that the proper response is straightforward. The JW insistence that Lady Wisdom is Jesus reveals a glaring ignorance of Hebrew poetic literature. Proverbs 8 is not speaking of the pre-incarnate Christ; it is a Hebraic literary device known as personification. Leland Ryken define personification as follows:

Personification—ascribing personal action or characteristics to a nonpersonal thing—is a prevalent figure of speech in the Bible. From the blood of Abel that cries from the ground (Gen.4:10) to the tongues of the arrogant that strut through the earth (Ps.73:9), biblical writers use personification often. Rivers clap their hands (Ps.98:8), God’s light and truth guide pilgrims to the temple (Ps.43:3), Babylon is a prostitute (Rev.18), and money is a rival deity (Matt.6:24).

In much the same way, “wisdom” is portrayed as a female. And surely we don’t want to apply that literary device to say that Jesus was a female!

Now, I would leave my response there, if I didn’t know better. But I’ve discussed this answer to real Witnesses and I’ve been frustratingly impressed with their ingenuity. And this is how it’s done: above I’ve claimed the JW error in regard to Prov. 8 is a mistaken reading of metaphorical and anthropomorphic language as 1) as a prophecy, and 2) as semi-literal. To (some creative) Witnesses this is exactly what orthodox Christians do in regarding to the Holy Spirit. We claim that Scripture addresses the Holy Spirit in personal ways (he feels, speaks, can be lied to, can be grieved, etc.), therefore the Spirit is, contrary to JW theology, a He, not an it. JWs may be tempted to think that personalized language of the Holy Spirit is likewise a case of personification. Therefore, some may argue, we’re doing the very same thing that we accuse them of doing.

But this isn’t the case. Why? They aren’t playing by the rules. The claim that Jesus is doing with the Holy Spirit what I claim the author of Proverbs is doing with Lady Wisdom (personification) is guilty of genre confusion. Proverbs is poetic literature (that’s why it’s grouped along with the Psalms of other like books in our Bibles) and thus communicates using the standard tools of poetic literature: personification, metaphors, similes, parallelism, etc. The various literary genres of Scripture dictate the proper means of interpreting them. In contrast, the Gospels are historical narrative. The “rules” of interpretation are different, though the astute reader is probably aware of more rules for interpreting narrative than they’re aware of. When Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, he does so in the same fashion he would speak about Peter, James, or John. There is no literary cue that something else is going on. In closing, Ryken notes the counterintuitive nature of this type of genre confusion:

Is the Holy Spirit a personification? Well, did that possibility ever occur to you until it was suggested by someone? The plain meaning of the passages is that they describe a divine person. There is nothing in the passages to signal that they are figurative rather than literal. They do not obey the ordinary rules of personification. In fact, to read them as personifications is beyond most people’s power of comprehension.

I agree. Orthodox Christians aren’t employing a double standard when they interpret Prov. 8 as personification and accept Jesus’s (and Paul’s, and Peter’s, etc.) language of the Spirit as literal and historical.

Here is the article by Leland Ryken titled, “Is the Holy Spirit a Personification?” (though his target is not the JWs)


					

Rescuing Jesus from the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Two weeks ago I posted some questions from Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW hereafter) about Jesus Christ. I claimed that these questions betray a gross misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity in general, and the role of Christ in redemption specifically. One thing the reader will quickly pick up is JWs really believe that Christians are modalists. Modalism is the ancient heresy which denied the existence of 3 external, distinct, and equal divine persons in the godhead. A modalist claims there is only 1 person in the godhead, but this 1 person appears, manifests, or acts out difference roles. A modalist will usually frame this by the slogan, “Father in creation, Son redemption, and Holy Spirit in regeneration.”

This is not what the Christian church, nor the Bible, teaches. Nevertheless, JWs insist this is what we believe. In personal conversations with the Witnesses I have had to politely correct them time and time again. So, if this theme pops up in my answers, you’ve been warned.

So, on to our first question:

1. Why is he called the “firstborn” of all creation? Col. 1:15, Rev.3:14

In Colossians 1, Paul refers to Christ as the Creator of all things yet also refers to Him as “firstborn” (Col. 1:15). Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the term firstborn to mean Christ was the first created being. But, to belabor the point, Paul specifically says Christ is firstborn, not first created. First, let’s take a look at the larger context of Colossians 1, and then we’ll zero in on a word study of the specific term firstborn.

If Paul wanted to say Jesus was the first created being of God there was a perfectly acceptable Greek term he could have used, but he didn’t.

According to The Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon of the New Testament the Greek term for “firstborn” (prototokos) means simply the first-born child or sheep, etc. Yet during the period of the NT writings, “it is uncertain whether the force of the element –tokos [“born”] is still felt at all.” During the New Testament period the force of “born” in firstborn was dropped and the emphasis centered on the primacy and preeminence of the person referred to, i.e. first, head, leader, etc.

And this clarifies what Paul (and I would include John in Rev. 3:14) is saying. To call Jesus the “firstborn of all creation” refers to his preeminence over all things. ‘All things’ and ‘all creation’ are parallel terms. He (Christ) is over all things “created, in heaven and on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities” (v.16). Christ is “before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (v. 17). Paul bears out this interpretation when He states in verse 18 “that in everything [Christ] might be pre-eminent.” Psalm 89:27 refers to David as God’s firstborn. But clearly David is not the first king. Firstborn here is interpreted by the very next half of the verse, ” the most exalted of the kings of the earth.”

If we allow Paul to define his own terms, and not force our own meaning unto them, we see that Paul doesn’t in any way think of Christ Jesus as a mere creature, a junior partner in creation with the Father.

So the underlying presupposition of this question is fatally flawed, at the linguistic, contextual, and theological level.

Marriage = (A Response)

Perhaps you’ve seen the poster pictured above in your journeys across the interwebs. It’s a quasi-comical statement about the “foolishness” of Biblical marriage. The point is clear, while many (or most) Christians strongly advocate a definition of marriage that sees it as a lifetime covenantal union between one man and one woman, there is a “clear” discrepancy between their “traditional” position and the Book from which they’re supposedly basing that view. My friend Ra McLaughlin, webmaster and Vice President of Curriculum and Web Delivery at Third Millennium Ministries, has given me permission to repost his response to this poster on Facebook. His thoughts are clear, detailed, and yet concise:

Biblical law doesn’t require women to marry their rapists (cf. Ex. 22:17). The bride price to be paid by rapists was a sort of reverse dowry, not payment for “property.” It was owed whether or not the woman married the man. In the only example of rape and subsequent attempted marriage that I can think of at the moment, the woman’s family chose to murder the rapist and his people rather than give her as a bride (Gen. 34).

The Bible also doesn’t require the stoning of women that couldn’t prove their virginity (unless otherwise stated, legal penalties are maximum not mandatory; cf. Joseph’s treatment of Mary in Matt. 1:19). Similarly, levirate marriage was not a requirement; it was assumed that the women would want an heir, but it wasn’t a necessary arrangement (cf. Deut. 25:7).

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Paul’s Second Exodus

One great New Testament theme is that of the Second Exodus. Christ is the new and greater Moses, delivering his people from a greater captor than Pharoah, to a greater Promised Land than Canaan. The Second Exodus theme can be found all over the pages of the New Testament. In light of this, here is N.T. Wright’s exciting reading of Romans 6-8 in his work Paul In Fresh Perspective:

…Paul believes that the new Exodus has been launched through the work of Jesus. When he speaks in 1 Corinthians 10 of  ‘our ancestors’ being ‘baptized into Moses’ and so forth, clearly indicating the parallel between being baptized into the Messiah, he seems to be envisaging Jesus’s death as the moment of new Exodus, an impression confirmed, if somewhat kaleidoscopically in terms of theme, by his almost casual reference to the Messiah as the Paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). This is then filled out by his large-scale exposition, in Romans 6-8, of the entire Exodus theme as applied to the people of God in Christ. To recapitulate the point: in Romans 6 God’s people come through the waters which mean that they are delivered from slavery into freedom; in Romans 7:1-8:11 they come to Sinai only to discover that, though the Torah cannot give the life it promised, God has done it; with the promise of resurrection before them, they are then launched onto the journey of present Christian life, being led by the Spirit through the wilderness and home to the promised land which is the renewal of all creation (8:12-30). This is Paul’s version of the retold Exodus story… (Paul In Fresh Perspective, 138)

Wright is drawing from the approach of Richard Hays in his seminal Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.

 

Inerrancy and Humility

In his article, “One reason I believe the Scriptures are inerrant” author Kevin D. Kennedy shares a story that helped him in his commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture. The article is short and I would encourage you to read it.  Here are what I thought were the best 2 paragraphs of the piece:

…In order for me to claim that the Scriptures contain errors, I must first claim inerrancy for my own interpretation. The other alternative is to conclude that I might be mistaken in my interpretation of the text and it is therefore impossible for me to conclude that this text has an error until I have inerrant knowledge of the biblical languages, the historical background, other events not recorded by this particular narrator, any unique idioms that might have been employed by this biblical writer, as well as inerrant knowledge of the political, social, legal, cultural, familial, geographical, topological, and ethnic setting of the text — just to name a few.

Given these two alternatives, it is clear that the decision of the interpreter is ultimately a spiritual decision. Either I claim omniscience for my own interpretation or I humbly admit that my own knowledge is limited and trust that God will never mislead me in His Word.

Free Worldview Lectures!

If you’re not aware already, you should know about Biblicaltraining.org. They have scores of free seminary level courses in Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, Church history, Apologetics, Pastoral theology, and much more. You need to register in order to listen to the lectures, but there’s no charge whatsoever.

Here’s are my favorites by Christian philosopher and apologist Ronald Nash:

1) Apologetics

2) History of Philosophy and Christian Thought

3) Ethics (Introduction)