Love and Relationship: Some Insights into Progressive Theology

If you’ve ever been out of your depth, then you’ll know how I felt several months ago, attending a theological conference whose starting points were deeply entrenched in progressive ideology. The people were friendly, the discourse was generally courteous, but I found myself holding little sympathy for the presuppositions and arguments of my fellow attendees. It was an odd experience, but probably a good one, because I think it’s really important to try to understand what makes other people tick.

one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other-feat-620x350

One moment, in retrospect, has given me quite a lot to think about. Some scholars had presented a paper, and in that paper there was a footnote which casually noted, without argument, that gay and lesbian desires were critically different from other sexual desires for things like adultery. The paper itself had little to do with these issues, but this kind of thinking was generally assumed all around, part of the progressive baggage of the conference, par for the conference course. One more traditionally minded attendee, however, chose to ask a question at this point focusing on that footnote. He pressed the presenters to clarify their casual and undefined distinction between types of sexual behaviour, which would condone one kind of sexual activity (homosexuality) while condemning another (adultery). The instant he asked his question the whole room changed. I could feel the tension visibly rise, heads shook in disbelief, a woman behind me began grumbling angrily not-quite-under-her-breath, and the cheerful congeniality of assumed liberality was swept away in sudden righteous indignation.

Another attendee offered a response, and it is her response that has stayed with me these past months. She posited that the difference between adultery and homosexual relationships is that “while marriage builds relationships, adultery breaks them.” This was met with general and widespread affirmation, and as a result the tension decreased, heads nodded in agreement, there were murmurs of assent, and the ordering of progressive assumptions had been restored for the moment. Here, I realized, is a crucial piece of logic which appears to be generally adopted by progressive-minded Christians. Naturally, I wanted to dissect it more.

underachievementdemotivator

One of my favourite demotivators, reminding me of the importance of keeping my head down.

As far as I can tell the basic premises of her logic appear to be as follows:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is manifested in relationships.

Premise 3: Things that build relationships are good.

Premise 4: Things that break relationships are bad.

It seems to follow, then, that since sexuality is an expression of human desire for relationship, homosexual unions—i.e., marriages—must be good because they build relationships, which manifest love, of which God is the image. This is how adultery can be distinguished from homosexuality, because the one breaks relationship (violating God’s nature), while the other builds it (honoring God’s nature).

If, as my limited experience seems to attest, this is the logic that operates among many progressive Christians, then it makes sense of a few things. First, it explains why, for them, monogamy is used as justification for homosexuality. If the essence of marriage is found not in biology but in a concept of “committed, covenantal relationship,” then homosexual unions must be good if they are committed and covenantal. The argument makes it feel as if arguing against homosexual marriage is to argue against marriage itself, and how can you argue against that? Second, it provides a clear example of a kind of ‘Bible within the Bible’ thinking where, basically, the love commands of the New Testament trump all other laws and regulations. Beyond even this, the love commands trump the ethical teaching of the New Testament itself. Since we know that God is Love, we can use that knowledge to make judgments about all other ethical behaviors in the present, homosexual love inclusive.

Love wins 3

 

There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. In another post I plan to spend more time with the question of ‘Bible within Bible’ (AKA, Progressive Revelation). There is also a significant problem regarding the definition of terms—what justifies the above definitions of “love” and of “marriage”? These terms have been insufficiently queried, but I don’t intend to home in on those today. Instead, today I want to focus solely on the statement I heard at the conference, that, in essence, what builds relationship is good, and what breaks it is bad.

First of all, is it true that everything that “builds relationship” is good? Let’s consider some cases. What if I profess a love for (consensual) degrading sex acts, where sexual pleasure is experienced in proportion to the level of degradation? If such a relationship is consensual, and monogamous, but degrading to the Imago Dei, can it still be a good? Or what if I profess a love for sex (consensual) with underage boys? Moreover, what if I am ‘monogamous’ in such a sexual relationship? If the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ in a blanket sense cover each of these types of relationship, then we retain no ground from which to proscribe certain ‘loves.’

Nambla banner

Nambla is an actual organization that advocates to legalize “consensual” adult-child sexual relationships.

Alternatively, think of the following case: imagine a husband and wife in monogamous marriage. However, the husband has become convinced that he wishes to invite another woman into the relationship, thus shifting into polygamy. His motives are based on an ethic of love—I love you (wife 1), and I love you too, (wife-to-be 2), and I think that the three of us together will increase our love. The polygamous marriage, by increasing the love-quotient in the relationships, should be a relationship-building good. However, might it not follow that if wife 1 refuses to enter into the polygamous relationship, then she becomes the culpable party, choosing a sinful rejection of relationship rather than the polygamous building of relationship?

There’s more. Isn’t it the case that sin also “creates relationships”? If I commit adultery, I may have broken a relationship with my wife, but at the same time I’ve also created a relationship with another woman. In fact, in any situation where I wrong someone, haven’t I generated a relationship with that person—however decrepit? If I sire children and abandon them, don’t we still have a ‘relationship’ even if it is one rooted in my own selfish sinfulness? If I economically exploit a poor person, do I not have a ‘relationship’ with that person, even if it is unjust by nature? If a given act of sin creates relationship, then it cannot be the case that all things that build relationships are good. In fact, in many of these cases that which breaks the relationship is in fact the greater good.

Rich Man and Lazarus_Eugene Burnard

Injustice binds the rich man and Lazarus together in relationship.

In each of these cases, the concept of love has been divorced from any meaningful reference points (whether historical or scriptural) and applied to the modern world as a sign of divine approval. But the fact remains that without some concept of ordered loves, we won’t be able to tell the pedophile that he is wrong, nor he who is pleased when God’s image is violated for his pleasure, nor, for that matter, the individuals who want to commit adultery and ‘break’ relationships on the basis of love found elsewhere, or love lost in the original relationship. What, in such a situation, is the benefit of a ‘monogamous covenant’? If love adjudicates all ethical matters, lack of love becomes justification for any number of wrongs. And the crucial fact is this: unless we have a way to distinguish between good and bad loves, and unless we have a way to distinguish between godly and forbidden relationships, we have no grounds whatsoever to proscribe any relationships or any loves, however reprehensible. Love cannot be its own justification, without definition and qualification, without falling into an inevitable, slippery slope of relational chaos.

And to this, I find myself asking: If only there were a place where we could locate, and study, such a definition…

“Super Why” is an Abomination that Causes Desolation

Ask any parent, and he or she will tell you that Children’s television falls into roughly three kinds of categories. In the largest, there is a wide swath of mediocre shows, with flashing lights and simple stories, which capture the attention of your children and allow you to clean your kitchen or take a nap. You don’t love letting your kids watch them, but you estimate the value of living in a clean house to exceed the relative inanity of the show.

Barney

No comment.

Then, there is a group of shows which are actually really good television. They tell good stories, or have fun concepts, and they’re so good you find yourself watching those shows with your kids and enjoying them. These are shows (at the moment) like Odd Squad, and Peg+Cat. These shows make you feel better about being a lazy slob and letting your kids rot their brains watching the telly. If you didn’t have anything to do, you’d probably rot your brain alongside them.

Then there’s a set of shows which are so stupid, so canned, so awful, that you suddenly understand why people might go insane. They’ve got flashing lights, and colourful characters, and loud music, and your children (who don’t have a discerning bone in their bodies) love watching them in the same way they’ll eat anything made of sugar, no matter how revolting. They are the nightmare fuel of children’s television.

PBS’s Super Why is such a show. And yet, Super Why is even worse.

Super Why_full cast

Super Why, in its most basic sense, is a storybook show which follows a precise pattern for each episode. A group of super friends encounter a problem in their world. This problem will require them to learn a lesson, and in order to learn their lesson they’ll have to “Look, in a book!” (The comma is there because they pause after saying ‘look’.) The super friends then suit up and dive into a classic fairy tale or storybook—Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or something else. The show progresses while they read through the storybook, reading the pages, looking for secret letter clues, and eventually solving the problem of the day. One character is a pig who digs up letters. One is a fairy who helps you spell. All well and good (apart from being mind-numbingly banal).

However, the critical dénouement of each episode is when the story reaches its crisis point. At that point, the hero (whose name is Whyatt) arrives with his special power, and “saves” the day. (Saves is in scare quotes for reasons which will be explicated shortly.) In the episode my children watched the other day, the real-world problem is that the main character wants to eat the same thing all the time. To solve this problem they look in a book called King Eddie Spaghetti, about a king, named Eddie, who only (as you might well guess) eats spaghetti. In the storybook page, displayed on screen, it read that Eddie only eats “spaghetti, and spaghetti, and spaghetti!”

King Eddie Spaghetti

Enter the hero, suited and ready to save the day. He announces, as a preamble to his actions, “With the power to read I can change the story!” (He says this each episode at this point.) He then proceeds to tap two of the three words, changing one spaghetti for beets, and another spaghetti for meatballs. The new sentence reads that Eddie ate, “spaghetti, beets, and meatballs!” Problem solved. Now we can return to the real world with our new secret word, Variety, and solve our problem. Yay!

Or not. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on what has just happened. We are looking in books to find solutions to our real world problems. When we encounter a possible solution, we don’t actually read, and interpret the book, we’re going to re-write it. What is more, we’re going to sanction this re-writing process by calling it, “The power to read.”

What?! That’s not reading. That’s not what the word means. That’s not how we deal with texts. That’s not how we deal with the world, or people, or problems. That’s not how we manage data, or interpret information. On no account and in none of the possible worlds is that a proper way to deal with a set of data. In fact, it represents the absolute antithesis of what good reading is, and we’ve got a word for it: eisegesis.

Jefferson Bible sources

Thomas Jefferson famously removed sections from his Bible that he didn’t like.

 

Maybe you don’t know this word. It’s the process of reading what we want into a text, rather than drawing out what a text actually says. It’s the process of projecting our own fancies, desires, and needs onto a body of literature, reforming it into a more convenient package. It’s a bad word. It’s repulsive. You don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Think plague, Ebola, Chicken Pox.

And yet, eisegesis is the kind of reading being taught to children through the monotonous rhetoric of Super Why. Jack and the Beanstalk? Let’s change the words so that the giant is tired and wants a nap, so that we can teach a lesson about using music to relax. Hansel and Gretel? Let’s change the candy house to a house of vegetables so we can teach a lesson about balanced diets. Humpty Dumpty? Let’s “use the power to read” to get him down safely and change it to a story about encouragement. In each case, a perfectly good story is mangled so that it can communicate an inferior message. And this, really, is just salt to the wound, because rather than finding a story and drawing a lesson from that story, however awkwardly, whatever real value these stories have is pressed through the transforming matrix of banal moralization. In addition to not learning how to read, your child is also being fed a diet of thin and watery stupidity.

Super Why_Variety

Your daily indoctrination.

Texts challenge us. Texts expose us to other worlds. Texts give us insight into other mindsets, other human perspectives, other viewpoints. Occasionally those viewpoints are comfortable; occasionally they are not. But in either case, learning to read is the process of learning what it means to wrestle with that discomfort—of taking texts, as best we are able, at face value; of refusing at all points to edit or change them to our liking, to project on them our own desires or fantasies. And in the end, the way we treat texts is a great deal like the way we have to treat people—each with a perspective, a vantage point, a set of understandings that are different from our own. We are no more permitted to project our desires on other people than we are on texts, and yet the people who do so are considered the worst of us. Imagine speaking to someone about lunch plans. “What would you like to eat today?” “I’d like a cheeseburger.” And his response, “Okay, we’ll go for pie, then.” That’s not listening, that’s simple projection. And that’s the kind of person Super Why is training children to be. It’s abominable.

Scofield’s Abominable Study Bible

I love the Bible, but I’ve hated reading it this past year, and the reason for my hatred has been C.I. Scofield.

By my count, I’ve now read through the entire Bible five or six times. I’ve read through the New International Version two or three times—once in High School when my faith came alive, once (I believe, but I’m not certain) in College, and once again in Seminary. When I was ordained I read it again, but this time for variety I read the New Living Translation. Afterwards, I read through the New American Standard, which is the version I personally use for preaching today. Last year, wanting to read still another translation, and always planning to spend time in the most famous of translations, I set myself to read the King James. The experience has been most miserable.

Scofield_Handsome VolumeThe edition I’ve read was a gift from my grandparents back in 1998 (likely a graduation present) and is quite handsome to look at—a hefty, burgundy leather volume with gold edges. It feels nice to open, and sits nicely in the lap, and looks impressive on my shelf, although its bulk rendered it inconvenient for travel so that I quickly found myself reading it only at home during my morning devotions. Devotions are meant to be a time of stillness before the Lord, a daily period of attentiveness to the word where we seek to hear His voice and attune ourselves to His presence throughout the day. They are not, as a rule, a good time for experimental reading, and yet into my efforts to engage the King James text an unsolicited voice kept inserting itself, noisily, bombastically, irritatingly. It was the voice of C.I. Scofield.

ScofieldCyrus Ingerson Scofield was a civil war veteran who came to Christian faith as an adult, later pastoring churches in Dallas and Massachusetts. Affiliated with D.L. Moody, Scofield later began work on his reference Bible, through which he popularized a new system of theological interpretation called “Dispensationalism,” developed by an Anglo-Irish man named John Nelson Darby. When Scofield’s Bible was published in 1909, at a time of great expectation about the end of the world, his interpretive matrix took fundamentalism by storm, quickly becoming one of the best selling Bibles in history. This is the Bible that created “The Thief in the Night,” Hal Lindsay, Christian Zionism, and Left Behind. In other words, it is the Bible which has dominated a very visible portion of the Christian imagination for the last 100 years.

In full knowledge of this, for over a year I pressed through with my reading—once through each book, four times through the Psalms, 1377 pages in total, countless marginal notes and footnotes. I read every word (and whether I’m a fool or a glutton for punishment has yet to be determined), and I read the whole thing partly because my dear deceased grandparents had given me the Bible. Ditching it felt a bit like ditching them.

The first of my problems with the Bible were its invasive edits into the text. Scofield (or possibly 1967 editors) had taken it upon himself to update a selection of language in the King James. But rather than offer marginal notes explaining difficult language, the text has forcibly replaced the “difficult” words with edits, and the reader must look to the margins to find the original. Many of these are completely unnecessary—for example, “nigh” has been replaced with “near,” “suffer” with “permit,” and “rent” with “torn.” These alterations are unnecessary, and have the effect of reducing some of the majesty of the text. After all, I’m not reading the King James because I want it to be a modern book. But every five to ten verses or so there was notation that indicated a word had been changed. This made reading a constant battle between the text and the margins.

Scofield_Text DetailBut Scofield’s Reference Notes are where the real grievances emerge, and I’ll narrow my vast,  overwhelming, and yearlong discontent to three categories of offense. A first offence is that the notes reveal an agenda other than opening the text. Scofield’s notes, by and large, don’t illuminate the text (which is the primary purpose of a Bible with study notes, as far as I’m concerned). There is a spirit of defensiveness in Scofield’s notes—he comes out swinging at a number of imaginary opponents, eager to defend the text against all foes. Notes then exist to engage in a fight to which the reader may or may not have any awareness. Just now, flipping through at random, I opened to Micah 4, where the footnote from verse 1 says the following:

Micah 4:1-3 and Isa. 2:2-4 are practically identical. The Spirit of God gave both prophets the same revelation because of its surpassing importance. It is impossible to prove that either prophet was quoting the other.

Here we can easily imagine Scofield’s perceived nemeses—those who would claim that the Bible is not, somehow, perfectly inspired (because Micah might have borrowed from Isaiah). So the note exists not to illuminate what Micah might be saying in chapter four, but to argue with an imaginary opponent who might claim that because there is a similarity between Micah 4 and Isaiah 2 the Bible is somehow falsified. Scofield’s way through this difficulty is to appeal to the Spirit’s revelation to both men—which certainly might be the case, but also does not have to be the case. And yet anchoring the Bible in Spiritual authority fits within Scofield’s underlying program of rendering the Bible impervious to various “modern” attacks. The agenda for the vast majority of notes is similarly cantankerous and argumentative, and regularly fails to open the text for interpretation. The dominant spirit is one of protection, not illumination.

 

Scofield_Nice on the Shelf

It looks so nice on the shelf. I guess you can’t judge a book by its formatting.

A second offence is that the notes reveal a fundamentally flawed methodology. When Scofield does interpret the text, he interprets it quite badly. As one example, consider his comments on Leviticus 2:1-11, where Moses describes the “recipe” for grain offerings in the tabernacle. Scofield writes:

The meal offering: (1) fine flour speaks of the evenness and balance of the character of Christ, of that perfection in which no quality was in excess, none lacking; (2) fire, of His testing by suffering, even unto death; (3) frankincense, of the fragrance of His life before God (see Ex.30:34, note); (4) absence of leaven, of His character as ‘the truth’ (Jn.14:6, cp. Ex.12:8, marg.); (5) absence of honey—His was not that mere natural sweetness which may exist quite apart from grace; (6) oil mingled, of Christ as born of the Holy Spirit (Mt.1:18-23); (7) oil upon, of Christ as baptized with the Spirit (Jn.1:32; 6:27); (8) the oven, of the unseen sufferings of Christ—His inner agonies (Mt.27:45-46; Heb.2:18); (9) the pan, of His more evident sufferings (e.g. Mt.27:27-31); and (10) salt, of the pungency of the truth of God—that which arrests the action of leaven.

This is an interpretive attitude that operates under the assumption that no text has value if it does not somehow point to Christ. The recipe in the text cannot be, simply, a recipe for a grain offering—it has to be something else. And while there might be a kind of devotional benefit in meditating on what the different elements of the grain offering represent, this interpretation stretches the bounds of reason by forcing the reader to interpret the text artificially. Meaning is in this way critically divorced from context.

An even clearer example is in Psalm 40, where David sings about waiting for the Lord and experiencing His salvation. To this Psalm Scofield offers the following interpretive comment:

The 40th Psalm speaks of Messiah, the Lord’s Servant obedience unto death. The Psalm begins with the joy of Christ in resurrection (vv. 1-2). He has been in the horrible pit of the grave but has been brought up. Verses 3-5 are His resurrection testimony, His “new song.”

Let’s be clear—Psalm 40 might be speaking about Jesus, but it most certainly is speaking about David first. This kind of “interpretation” places the whole meaning of the Psalm on its fulfillment in Christ, but it also by proxy eliminates our own engagement with the song. By being purely about Jesus, it can no longer be about us, and this is one of the effects of Scofield’s readings—when he interprets a text, his meaning eliminates personal application. Knowing what it’s “about” reduces our own responsibility to read the text devotionally. It is a kind of knowledge that replaces obedience.

A third offence is that the notes expose a theology that reads the Scriptures. This is one of my greatest pet-peeves, especially because I have such a great love of the Word. It is the attitude of a reader or interpreter who has forfeited his capacity to read the text for itself in favor of reading it through the lens of his preferred theological construct. In this, theology reads the Scriptures, rather than Scripture governing theology. This has a double effect on the reading of the Bible—on the one hand, when such a reader approaches the Bible, he is often looking, not for a fresh hearing of God’s voice, but for a confirmation of his preexisting theology. On the other hand, when such a reader encounters passages that don’t fit his or her preconceptions, those passages are often ignored or explained away. The lens of the theological construct, in other words, blocks the reader from perceiving God’s word as it is.

In Leviticus 16:6, where the text makes mention of atonement, Scofield offers the following note and comment about the theological principle of atonement:

Atonement. The Biblical use and meaning of the word must be sharply distinguished from its use in theology. In the O.T., atonement is the English word used to translate the Hebrew words which mean cover, coverings, or to cover. Atonement is, therefore, not a translation of the Hebrew but a purely theological concept.

What does it mean to “sharply distinguish” the Biblical use of a word from its theological use? Is that even possible? Doesn’t the theological use derive all of its meaning from the word’s use in Scripture? But here theology reads the text, rather than the text informing theology, and this kind of reading encourages a student to establish his own theological framework and then apply that liberally to the text. We believe what we think, then we read the text accordingly.

And, of course, the single greatest, ongoing, overarching element of this in Scofield’s Reference Bible is the issue of Dispensationalism, which is a massively unhelpful, thoroughly human, unhistorical, and false theological construct into which Scofield’s Scriptures are made to fit no matter what. The chief problem with Dispensationalism, however, remains one of methodology—it is a theology that reads the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures reading the theology.

Dispensationalism Chart

The chart reads the text, rather than the text critiquing the chart.

I still love the Bible—in fact, it is precisely because I love the Bible that I hate what Scofield has done to it. And, as a matter of fact, I should say, in an attempt to separate the King James from Scofield’s foibles, that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the King James Version. And yet after a year in the text I can’t say that there’s anything particularly commendable about it either. For my part I am unconcerned about archaic language, and I find that alternative wordings very often illuminate texts in fresh ways. The single biggest problem I have with the King James itself is versification and the lack of paragraphs. Paragraphs, not verses, are the primary unit of thought, and when a Bible decontextualizes its own text for the sake of an artificial and arbitrary versification, this inhibits the proper reading of the text. In other words, when I approach a passage visually and expect that each verse is a unit of meaning, I from the start am not attending to the contextual meaning. Yet context is king, and therefore the versification of the King James militates against meaning. This is a fairly serious problem, and we see its continuing influence in modern theology today. In part, it makes a thing like Dispensationalism possible.

As far as readability goes, the Psalms are the litmus test of a translation for me. They have been my constant devotional companion for more than ten years now, and so even as I read straight through the rest of the Bible, I would work my way through the Psalms again and again. The first reading was wretched, the second was unmemorable, but I found that by the third reading through the Psalms I was enjoying them in the King James again. One key was my ability, after the first readings, to willfully ignore Scofield’s notes. Another was my increasing familiarity with their language. But four read-throughs is a steep price to pay for general comprehension, and I see no good reason to recommend the KJV to any new Christian.

Scofield_Top ViewThe past year has been difficult devotionally, and I can say with confidence that the Scofield Reference Bible is by far the worst Bible I have ever experienced. Will I read the King James again? Quite possibly–in fact, I’ve chosen to work my way through the Psalms again, and am reading the Sermon on the Mount as well. But I will purposefully avoid all those abominable notes at the bottom of the page, and thus save myself from further angst, frustration, and despair.

Ten Tips for Planning a Bible Study Lesson (Excerpted from “Reading the Word”)

Cracked clay landscape in the Atacama desert.(Note: The following is excerpted from a recent course I have written, called “Reading the Word.”)

In the book of 1 Kings Jehoshaphat and Ahab sat together and inquired from the council of court prophets whether or not they should go to battle. The council of prophets told the kings that victory was assured, but Jehoshaphat wasn’t convinced, and turning to Ahab he said, “Is there not yet a prophet of the Lord here that we may inquire of him?” (1 Kings 22:7). In every age, and at every time, there is a hunger among God’s people to hear from God Himself. We are eager for His guiding voice and assuring presence, and perhaps our greatest, if unspoken, fear, is the one pronounced by the prophet Amos, Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “When I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather for hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11).

This is possibly the most important thing to keep in mind when considering the matter of preparing a Bible study lesson—what the human heart is most eager for is a word from the Lord, illumination that comes from God. We don’t crave human wisdom, or human cleverness, or even human explanations, we are hungry for the word from beyond the world. We want someone to open the Bible for us and illuminate it.

The job, then, of a Bible study leader is to facilitate this communication between God’s word and the individual hearer through listening personally to God’s voice, studying faithfully God’s word, and then seeking effective means of teaching those matters to others. In the simplest terms, then, faithful Bible study can be reduced to three simple questions:

  • 1) What is God saying? What does the text actually say? What does God want us to understand? What’s going on in this particular passage or set of passages?
  • 2) What is God saying to me? How do these words affect me and my faith? What does this passage impact me in my walk with God?
  • 3) What is God saying to my audience? What do I think they need to hear? What are the words of comfort or challenge that God is delivering to these people whom He is leading me to teach at this time?

All the techniques for planning a Bible study lesson work to answer, in some form, these three questions. Now, as far as what the text says to you personally, that is between you and God. What is required there is your own faithful and submissive reading of the text. Without a devotional life in the Bible, you will have little to nothing to say in this category. As far as what the text says to your audience, you must know them as well. My mentor in the faith likes to say that there is no use being able to exegete the text if I cannot exegete the hearts of my hearers as well. So reading your audience is as important, for an effective teacher, as the reading of the text. Not more important, but equally important.

Attentive AudienceAs far as reading the text for what God is saying, the lessons from this book ought to go a long way toward reading effectively, but a few further tips can help any reader achieve a greater understanding of the text. Here, then, are my tips for studying the word:

1) Take notes. Get some scratch paper and keep it handy. Write down key words and themes. Take note of things that strike you as you read through the text in question. Try to draw the connections between passages.

2) Read the passage all at once, then try to break it into pieces. What are the divisions? Are there key ideas that govern individual sections?

3) Read the passage in multiple translations. What do you notice is different in the different translations? Are there different ideas that come through in your different readings?

4) Write up a preliminary summary. What do I think this passage is about? If I had to summarize it for a friend right now, what would I say? Imagine you are explaining it to someone who is a new believer and has no concept of Christian theology.

5) Consult a reference book. Find a commentary or other book that can help you to explore the ideas of the passage. Are there terms from Greek or Hebrew that illuminate this passage more clearly? Are there cultural elements which shape the interpretation of the passage? Consider whether or not your initial thoughts fall in line with the commentator—if they do, great. If they don’t, take stock of the commentator’s argument and evaluate it in light of Scripture. Remember, just because the person wrote a commentary doesn’t mean he’s necessarily right!

6) Consider the main takeaway for the passage. Write it on your notes.

7) Set up an outline for teaching and eliminate unnecessary data. It is very important that you decide what is most important to share in a lesson, and what ought to be left out. Here, you are streamlining your lesson for the sake of your hearers. At this point also you should consider especially what you think God might be saying to you and to them. (Alternatively, you can plan an inductive lesson where the students ask the questions, guiding the direction of the lesson, and your preparation serves as a baseline for student discussion.)

8) If you’re in need of advice, run the lesson past a friend before you share it with your group. Sharing a Bible Study lesson isn’t an examination, and you shouldn’t feel any fear about consulting a friend for input.

9) Remember to pray through the process!

10) When you get to share your lesson, speak with humility, remembering that you sit under the authority of the Scriptures. Make sure you invite questions as well, sharing the authority and process of reading the Scriptures in community.

In the end, if you commit to reading the Scriptures faithfully and humbly, not much can go wrong when you read them in community with other people. God is faithful—more faithful that your best thoughts, more faithful that all our knowledge, and His word is more powerful than all our best efforts. Simply the fact that you are reading the word, and reading it with and for others, will itself bear fruit.

Questions for Reflection

Think of a Bible study that you enjoyed. What was it you enjoyed about the experience?

 

Think of a Bible study you didn’t enjoy. What was it you didn’t enjoy about the experience?

 

Consider the steps listed above. Do these seem attainable to you? Which steps seem to you most difficult and why?

 

The Scriptures say that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1)—how do you think love should govern our reading and teaching of the Scriptures?

 

Three Ways We Read the Good Book

William Cairns Photography.

William Cairns Photography.

(Note: The following is adapted from a Sunday School Course I am currently teaching on “Reading the Word.”)

It should go without saying that every Christian who is able should make an effort to read through the entire Bible at least once. With sustained and planned reading, each Christian in fact should be able to read through the Bible several times throughout his or her life. Let’s take a few moments, then, to talk about three different kinds of reading you might do as a reader who intends to make Bible reading a regular part of your spiritual diet. The three types of reading that I perceive are reading for conquest, reading for devotion, and reading for study. Please note that there is going to be a natural overlap between each of these kinds.

Scratch-CardsTo read for conquest is to read intentionally in order to complete your reading of the whole Bible. Most of the Bible reading plans available favor this kind of reading approach. They organize the Bible into sections of text for daily reading which you follow. The reading might be arranged into one-year or two-year plans. Some Bibles even physically rearrange the text within so that the reader can work from page one to the end, reading different sections each day, but reading them page by page.

Reading for conquest has the advantage of exposing a reader to large sections of text at a time. It forces us to read passages and books we might otherwise skip, and prevents us from hovering in our reading on our favorite passages. It means that some reading will be difficult (like the lists of names in 1 Chronicles), but some will be surprising (I’m always finding new things in the Prophets). The danger of this kind of reading is that sometimes in our desire to accomplish our daily goal, we don’t take the time to read deeply enough. The spiritual benefit of conquest reading can be scattershot—a piece here, a piece there. And while by covering a lot of ground we can be exposed to the big picture of the Scriptures, we can also lose some of its devotional sting in the process.

The cow is you. The hay is the Bible. Get on it.

The cow is you. The hay is the Bible. Get on it.

This leads to the second kind of reading, reading for devotion. In this kind of reading we read with a special eye to the spiritual benefit of the passage in question. We are not reading “just to get it done,” but because we are convinced that there is some spiritual benefit in all the words of this book. When we read devotionally, we are more likely to read with an ear attentive to “God’s word for me today.”

Devotional reading like this requires a certain kind of listening. In the tradition of Spiritual reading, there is a more formal name for this: lectio divina (Divine reading). With this kind of reading we read slowly, taking in the words as they come to us. We reject haste, or the spirit of conquest, and patiently attempt to hear what God is saying to us in a given passage. Another term used for this process is the Latin word ruminatio. Ruminatio is the word which describes the way a cow chews grass—slowly, meditatively. When we read with a spirit of ruminatio we read slowly until a certain word or phrase strikes us. Then we pause at that place and consider what struck us, praying through it. When we have prayed and thought for a bit, we can continue reading until we are struck once again. (Note that Lectio Divina and Ruminatio both find their roots in Benedictine spirituality.)

Of course, while we are reading for “God’s word for me today,” we must keep in mind that God’s word for me today may or may not be an encouragement—it might very well be a challenge! Reading devotionally means having the ears of our hearts open to whatever God’s voice has for us in the text. In this way, it also means reading with an attention to special obedience.

Study at the BodelianA third kind of reading is to read for study. This kind of reading might be motivated by personal study or by the need to prepare a lesson for a group. Either way, here you would want to read the Bible in more than one translation, side-by-side. What are the different nuances brought out by these different translations? A quality study Bible can also provide excellent study notes which offer information about the culture and history of books and individuals within the Bible. Additionally there are a host of commentaries and guide books for each of the books of the Bible, ranging in level from beginner to advanced. Keep in mind, of course, that the Bible has the final word on the Bible, and that all study notes, commentaries, and guide books are subject to the errors and biases of the authors.

When you read for study in order to lead a Bible study, you are faced with a series of choices. Undoubtedly, if you begin to research the culture, history, and context of the Scriptures, you will discover and enormous wealth of information—far too much to unload on your fellow students! This means that good Bible teaching is a matter of faithful study married to faithful editing. It is not that you share everything you have learned, it is that you share what you think will help your fellow readers to read the Bible best. In fact, that is an important point to make—we study outside the Bible in order to make the Bible more readable and more accessible. If our study begins to crowd out the Bible itself, then something is out of balance.

Please note the overlap between all three kinds of reading. There can be a study aspect to conquest, and a devotional aspect to study, and even a long-term conquest aspect to devotion (“I’m reading through the entire Bible slowly!”). None of the three kinds of reading is exclusive, and each Christian will dabble in each kind of reading at different times in the life of faith.

As a final word, you should know that the Bible takes approximately 80 hours to read out loud at a speaking pace. This means that reading the whole Bible in a year would take you less than 15 minutes a day. Chances are, you’ve got fifteen minutes a day, so what keeps you from reading the entire Bible is not time, but priorities. So make a plan to conquer the Bible. Download an audio copy and listen to it during your morning commute. Find a “daily-reading” Bible and start to work your way through. Pick up the Bible you already own and begin to work your way through that. Remember, you don’t have to read all the books in order—you’re free to jump around (although I would recommend reading only one book at a time). Make a plan, stick to it, and see what the Lord does in your life!

Compressed Sight: Revelation 12 and Federalism

Revelation 12 documents what is arguably one of the most vivid and compelling images in all of John’s vision—we read:

1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.

A representation of John's vision by Giusto de Menabuoi. I wonder why the dragon isn't red...

This is a vivid picture—the woman, radiant and elegant, contrasted with the dragon, wicked and twisted.  Here stands a portrait, placed in the heavens as a sign for all to see, that is expansive in its implications.  I hope, in the exercise that follows, to touch on these implications.

However, before we can address these implications  some preliminary work is necessary.  And this preliminary work is necessary for a pair of reasons—first, because the most common way to read John’s vision—as a word about the future—is the most misleading way as well.  And while there is vast misunderstanding about the nature of apocalyptic literature as a whole, let me say at this point only that John wrote this to the first century Church, that he expected them to understand him, and that his dominant desire was to encourage them while they endured persecution under Roman authority.  Our attention, so long attuned to the future implications of John’s words, has been robbed of its present, rich, and potent encouragement for us.  The second need for this preliminary work is because John’s imagination is fed and fired by his immersion in the Old Testament—in fact, it is not too strong a statement to say that without some knowledge of the Old Testament, the meaning of John’s Revelation is impenetrable.  Permit me, then, to jaunt through this passage now, in as brief a fashion as possible, in order to illuminate some of the images John employs to illustrate his ‘sign’.  From those images, I want to draw our attention to a series of ‘compressions’ that John makes.  From those compressions, I want to make an observation about Federalism.

Mary, crowned as queen in an altar piece by Jan van Eyck

The first ‘sign’ in this passage is the woman, and the description of her clothing echoes one of the dreams of Joseph found in Genesis 37:9.  There, Joseph sees his father (the sun) and mother (the moon) and brothers (11 stars) bowing down to him—Joseph’s dream was a sign, foreshadowing the future when Joseph would indeed be raised above his family in authority in Egypt.  The clothing, here, is the first witness to the woman’s identity—she represents Israel, dressed as God’s elect queen (an image which also hearkens to an abundance of Old Testament references).  But her identity shifts as quickly as we get a handle upon it, because in the next verse (12:2) we read that she is pregnant and about to give birth.  Reading ahead (verse 5), we can see that her child is Jesus, the one who would “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (a reference to Psalm 2).  Therefore the second witness to the woman’s identity shows that she is Mary, mother of Jesus.

The second ‘sign’ in this passage is of the dragon—seven-headed, seven-crowned, ten-horned, and red (the sevens here document the utter completeness of his evil); displaying his opposition to the ways of God in his disregard for God’s creation (the sweeping away of stars), and in his intentions to devour the child of God’s promised people.  He knows, from the curse declared by God in Genesis 3, that this child will “crush his head” (Gen 3:15).  That he is in fact the same serpent is made clear at 12:9: he is Satan, the devil, the ancient serpent from the garden.  This revelation has two interesting implications: first, that in some sense the woman in our passage is also Eve, and second, that the dragon here is also Herod, who sought to devour the Christ-child at his birth.

The woman in this passage is rescued and preserved for ‘1,260 days’ (v6).  Later, after the dragon has been defeated, he pursues the woman again—she, once again, is rescued—this time for ‘a time, times, and half-a time’ (v14).  The language of ‘time, times, and half a time’ is an echo from the book of Daniel, and stands for a period of three and a half years, which is, for all intents and purposes, identical to 1,260 days.  Here, again, the Old Testament is our friend, and what I believe we must see is that this number—three and a half years—represents the period of exile.  For more clarity in this matter we need to turn back to chapter 11, where these numbers occurred together again, along with a third figure—that of 42 months (11:2—also three and a half years).  This third figure enhances our understanding in a couple of ways; first, because the period of Israelite exile in the wilderness was, in total, 42 years (40 for the exile, 2 traveling to and waiting at Sinai); second (and perhaps more obscurely), that the number of encampments that the Israelites make while exiled is 42 (cf. Numbers 33).  This number, then, identifies not only periods of exile, but also testifies to God’s provision and ultimate plan superintending exile.  And perhaps it is not too far a stretch to observe that the two periods of the woman’s exile equal 7 ‘years’—a completion.  Enraged at his impotence to harm God’s chosen queen, the dragon makes war “against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (v17).  Here, then, the Church steps into view as the target of the devil’s schemes; unable to harm God, to harm God’s son, or God’s chosen queen, he turns his ire against God’s servants.

The Slaughter of the Innocents, a floor panel from Siena Cathedral.

There is a great deal more that can be said, contextually and historically, about this passage, but for our present purposes we have enough information to move forward, and here I would like to draw attention to a number of ‘compressions’ in this passage.  What we must see in this passage is that John has compressed heaven and earth, he has compressed time, and he has compressed individuals and nations.  This ‘sign’ he documents is a sign that points to a heavenly reality, it is an ageless sign, and it is also a representative sign.  Consider, for the next moments, the ways in which these ‘characters’ play throughout all of salvation history.  First, the woman represents Eve, the first queen, and the dragon/serpent is her enemy from the garden, Satan.  There also is prophesied the enmity between her offspring and the serpent.  Second, the woman is nation Israel in Egypt, giving birth to children while Pharaoh, the dragon, attempts to kill her children (and succeeds).  From her comes Moses, a chosen child who leads Israel out of exile (a forerunner to Christ).  Third, the woman is Mary, who gives birth to Jesus, and must flee Herod, another dragon, who kills infants.  Fourthly, then, and with the most impact upon us, the woman is the Church, God’s chosen and radiant bride, we are her children, persecuted by the dragon, and the dragon—especially for John’s audience—is Rome (which, ominously, is a city built on seven hills).  Here, then, in John’s sign, we see that the material and the spiritual are compressed—heavenly realities are revealed in earthly actions; we see that time is compressed—we shift from the beginning of time, to the dawn of the exile, to the birth of Christ, to the new ‘exile’ of the Church in the world; and we see the compression of individuals and nations—the Heavenly Queen/Eve/Israel/Mary/Church acts in a play against Satan/Pharaoh/Dragon/Herod/Rome.

What is the encouragement, then, from this passage? The encouragement is manifold.  First, John is providing his suffering churches with a framework for interpreting the persecution they are undergoing.  Their enemy, he claims, is not Rome itself, but the serpent who has long opposed God’s ways.  John is simply casting into vivid imagery a teaching that Paul casts in statements: “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).  The good news in John’s Revelation is also that this enemy is thoroughly defeated (go read the poem at 12:10-13 and this will become clear).  Second, we can rest assured that we, as God’s chosen Church, are secure with God’s provision during this period of exile—He Himself superintends our care.  Third, that we are marked as targets of the Serpent’s enmity because we declare ourselves through our obedience to Christ—in other words, persecution is a mark of our faithfulness, and we should, in some ways, be ‘encouraged’ that our service to God makes us targets.

A curiosity in this passage is that, though Jesus stands at the centre of this story, he is not its primary focus; the focus falls upon God’s people and the enemy of God’s people.  And this, I suppose, is because the ‘sign’ that John sees stands in the heavens because it is a picture of our entire age on earth—all of the history of God’s people thus far and all the history into the future is captured in this image.  This ‘sign’ testifies to us about the nature of both God’s chosen people, and also about His people’s hate-filled enemy.  And perhaps that is the most encouraging aspect of the entire vision: our enemy is predictable: we can anticipate how he will behave in a given situation.  But so also, in some sense, God is predictable as well, and will always care for and save His chosen people.  Take heart, then! What you are part of is part of the greater story, of which God is victor and you are secure in Him.

An Ikon of Christ

The final observation I want to make is not, specifically, a point that John was making—John’s specific point was the instruction and encouragement of the Church.  This point is something we can extrapolate from John’s image, and although it was not John’s purpose to communicate it, I believe it is part of the fabric of his image.  The final point I want to make is about Federalism.  Federalism is the name of a theological idea which attempts to explain how it is that we (a) participate in Adam’s sin and (b) participate in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection.  Essentially, it states that we all are represented by Adam (as a government representative stands for the people of his/her constituency), and that his actions have correlative implications for us.  And this is where John’s vision is helpful, because John, here, clearly sees a bright correlation between heavenly and earthly realities—his ‘compressions’ testify to a broader picture of what is happening at this moment in what we call ‘reality’.  Employing John’s ‘compressed’ sight, we can take a long view of our salvation history and see the following things: first, that John’s picture provides us with a way to see that Adam sinned, and therefore we all participate in the sin of Adam through this heavenly matrix—more even than that, we are presently participating in Adam’s sin.  And second, John’s compressed sight can also help us to see that the same mechanism is active in applying Christ’s death, atonement, and resurrection to us, and how we (through belief and baptism) become participants in his work for us.  And employing the same implications of John’s compressions, we can see that we are presently dying with Christ—indeed, dying with him each hour of each day—and also presently living with Christ in his resurrection.  And even further, we can perhaps elucidate the sense in which Christ is the “lamb slain from the foundations of the world” (Rev 13:8).  In the end the message I want to communicate is that in the economy of God’s work in the world, events in the past have present and continuing impact.  In other words, the atoning work of Christ is an eternal sign in the heavens which is actively working in and informing our present reality.

So tell me, read this way, are you encouraged by Revelation 12?

Those Pesky Scriptures

In one of the many fantasy novels I read when I was young(er), a young wizard and his grandfather together attempt to decipher a prophetic text.  Consistently, as they read it, they come across a difficult passage—specifically a difficult word—in the prophecy.  The difficulty has a strange effect upon them.  They are tempted to brush past it and look for information elsewhere.  It seems to resist their attempts to decipher what’s going on.  When they begin together to focus on the difficult place they are brought to an argument.  Finally, with the help of a magic orb, their eyes are opened to see that the difficult place in the text was actually a lengthy passage, hidden by magic in the space of one word, and warded to prevent improper eyes from gazing upon it.

Although I don’t remember a great deal of what I read, this moment came back to me the other day when I was reading the Bible.  Recently I’ve been reading through the New Living Translation, a version of the scriptures I’ve never read before.  I chose the NLT, in part, because at this point in my life I’m familiar enough with the Bible that I’m not really interested in a more accurate translation.  Instead, I wanted a fresh take, if you will, and I thought that the NLT, with its more interpreted nuance on translation, might give me some new insights into the text.  I was rewarded in a few places, but in others I was quite disappointed.

One such place of disappointment was early on in the book of Genesis.  There, in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God all night long.  In the morning, he must face the potential wrath of the brother he had wronged years before, and this is both personally and spiritually a night of reckoning.  After a whole night of struggle, Jacob still hasn’t given up, and as a reward for his tenacity God blesses him with a new name: Israel.  “For you have struggled with God and with men,” says the being with whom he wrestled, “and have overcome.” What’s the problem? Well, in much of the Genesis text, Jacob from this point forward is referred to as Israel.  God has given him a new name, and that new name takes effect on Jacob/Israel’s life.  But in the New Living Translation, the editors have made the decision to retain the name “Jacob” throughout the rest of Genesis, footnoting the change. Why would they do this? Well, no doubt the editors were attempting to ease the difficulties for a reader—after all, who can keep track of all the names in the Bible, let alone people with more than one name? The editors presumed (perhaps rightly) that a person picking up the Bible for the first time would struggle between the Jacob/Israel change in the book of Genesis.  They may be right about the confusion, but in resolving it they have stepped into error.

The reason this is an error, and a significant one, is because the change in Jacob’s name signifies an important theological and historical moment in the Bible.  God is actually saying something by changing his name.  You are no longer the cheater ‘Jacob’ who strove for advantage against anyone and anything in life; you are now blessed by God as ‘Israel.’  To change this name back for the sake of readership is an alteration that strips the text of meaning.

The editors of the New Living Translation, in pursuing simplifications of the text for the sake of readability, have given implicit voice to an unfortunately common belief about the scriptures.  And that belief is that we approach difficult texts as liabilities.  We feel the urge to explain them, or, rather, explain them away.  People accuse the bible of inconsistency, or outright error, and we balk.  “Why are there four gospels?” they ask.  “Why are Jesus’ words different here than they are there?” they accuse.  And we in response become confused and concerned.

This is what brought my mind back to that fantasy story I had read so many years before, because we ourselves, like the characters in the fantasy novel, grow frustrated when we read a passage the meaning of which is obscured on our first go-through.  We may argue with one another.  The meaning may escape us—our eyes may crave simplicity where there is complexity.  And against these trends, the fantasy story provides a surprisingly good picture of how the scriptures are composed—not that they have been written to be intentionally obscure, or lead insincere believers and searchers astray, or that we require a kind of magic to explore them rightly—but that it is in the difficult passages that the meaning is truly stored.  That far from being liabilities in the text, these places of difficulty are actually the storehouses of divine meaning.  The so-called ‘difficult’ texts of scripture are where God has stored many of His most significant thoughts.

Let’s consider for a moment the question of the Four Gospels—why are there four, and why do they disagree at certain points? For example, why does John place Jesus’ crucifixion during the hour of preparation—while the Jews were sacrificing the Passover Lamb—and why do the other three gospels have Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples? We can attempt to explain away the difficulty—we can argue for the likelihood that there was more than one Passover Lamb sacrificed on account of the crowds (entirely possible).  We can try to fudge and shift Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem to make sense of the timeline.  Or, we can look more intently at what John is doing in his gospel—at who Jesus is in John’s gospel.  And with our new attention we can see that John has most likely changed the time of Jesus’ crucifixion to make a theological point.  That point? That Jesus is the Passover Lamb.  Throughout John’s gospel Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts—Tabernacles, Dedication, Passover.  And John arranges the material of Jesus’ life to fit this schema.  He’s making a profound point about who Jesus is and what Jesus means for us by linking his crucifixion to the Passover sacrifice.

Has John lied? By no means! He has interpreted.  And whenever a biblical author engages in interpretation it is because he is attempting to communicate something of substantial meaning to us.  If we de-interpret John’s gospel we are guaranteed to miss his point.  Each of the four Gospels, then, are an interpretation of the life of Jesus.  They each, through editing and selection, present a unique theological picture of who Jesus is.

Consider, as a second example, Paul’s quotation of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4.  There, beginning at Ephesians 4:7, he says the following, “However, he [God] has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ. That is why the scriptures say, ‘When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives, and gave gifts to his people.'” Then, shortly thereafter, Paul lists the gifts—Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers—all for the edification and strengthening of the Church.  The difficulty with this text is that Paul hasn’t quoted the passage from Psalm 68 accurately—in Psalm 68:18 it clearly says that God received gifts from men.  But Paul has changed it to given.  Why would he do this? Once again we can explain it away—Paul made an error; Paul is careless when quoting the Old Testament; Paul feels the freedom to change the Old Testament in order to make his points.  But by opting for any of these we will miss the true intention of Paul’s quotation.  Paul has, we see again, interpreted the text, and we must attend to the interpretation if we’re going to understand him.

Read Psalm 68 and you will see that this is a Psalm about God’s victory, specifically about God bringing into unity the people of the world—both the rebellious and the godly.  A key moment in the Psalm is the people ascending, after God has ascended in victory, to offer their gifts to God.  What becomes clear, then, as we gaze intently at the book of Ephesians, is that Paul sees in the Church of Jesus Christ the fulfillment of Psalm 68.  God is victorious in Christ, and has unified the people of the world in subjection to Christ.  And here is where his change of the text gets interesting, because the people of God have received gifts from God for the edification of the Church.  And Paul knows, as do we all, that all gifts, objectively speaking, come from God alone.  But when we read Paul’s quotation, and as our minds go back to Psalm 68, then the force of Paul’s rhetorical implication is pressed upon us: these gifts are not for us to keep, but ones that we are meant to return to God.  The gifts God has given us for the edification of the Church are gifts meant to be returned to God in service.  Paul’s change of the Psalm 68 text is not a difficulty to be explained away, but an interpretation of the text through which we can discover a storehouse of meaning.

It’s worth taking a moment to say that every New Testament quotation of an Old Testament text is such a storehouse of meaning.  These are passages so often dismissed as difficulties when in fact they are treasure houses of biblical interpretation.

How do we learn to read this way? I would like to suggest three basic principles for the reading of the Scriptures:

1. When confronted with a difficult text, we must give it our sustained attention.  Resist the urge to skip over it, or dismiss it, or explain it away.  Consider it carefully and prayerfully.  Look at the passages around it and the overarching messages of the book you are reading.  There is usually a larger framework at work which can make sense of the text at hand.

2. We must read the Scriptures canonically. And that means, firstly, that our primary resource for interpreting scripture must be scripture itself.  The book contains most of the answers about what is going on in the book.  Secondly, a canonical reading of the bible will necessitate a belief in the inherent edification and worth of the scriptures.  These are words written for our benefit, to instruct and not confuse us.  If there are difficult places, they are probably there for a reason.

3. We must keep in mind that difficulty is an invitation to know God better.  When Paul says that “we see as in a glass darkly”—that the picture is muddled from our gaze—he doesn’t mean we should give up looking.  Rather, he is framing obscurity in its ultimate reality; that is, as an invitation to a clearer vision of God.  The difficult places in scripture always invite us to explore God more.

Confronted thus with a difficulty in the bible, the editors of the NLT chose (on this occasion and in a few others as well) to edit the difficulty. They came upon a difficult word, and rather than allowing the reader to discover the meaning embedded in the difficulty, they have removed the difficulty entirely.  Their choice has robbed the reader of an opportunity to experience and know God more.

This temptation toward simplification is not new—in the early church a man named Marcion, who was frustrated with the ‘discrepancies’ of the gospels, sought to harmonize them into one book.  Notably, he also took issue with the Hebrew scriptures and sought to exorcize them from the text entirely.  His goal was to create a Bible that was ‘free from error.’  He was also, notably, condemned as a heretic.

Yet the enduring truth of the matter is that against all these urges to avoid, or explain away, the text, we must strive instead to reaffirm it.  We must resist, like Marcion, the urge to choose some parts of the Bible over others, and skip over the places with which we are uncomfortable.  And, of course, it is not that ‘explanation’ is in itself wrong, but that we must avoid all forms of explanation that void the text of its inherent meaning.  We must face our difficulties head on—and this is the only way, in the end, that we will come to experience the depth of insight that God has in store for us.

(NB: the NLT is not a bad translation overall, so please don’t read this as a dismissal of that translation.  I plan to review it as a translation in the near future.)

Related Post: F.F. Bruce The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes