Community Participation in the Triune Life

24 March 2020

Now when [Jesus] had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”  And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”

Jesus could have made the graveclothes disappear, could He not?  So why didn’t He? Is He lazy? Inattentive to detail? Surely not.

Jesus involved the community in His miracle. By the power of His spoken word (“Lazarus, come forth!”), Jesus brought Lazarus to life–an impressive feat that no one else present was prepared to do. But as he shuffled forth from the grave, Lazarus was alive, but not free: he was still bound hand and foot. So Jesus spoke another word: “Loose him, and let him go.”

This word was not like the first. It did not accomplish what it signified: the graveclothes did not magically slip off. Rather, it was a word of command to those who stood by and had seen the miracle. Jesus commissioned them to set the newly alive man free. It was their job.

And so it is.

 


Going Literal, on Steroids

11 February 2020

A while back, Theopolis Institute hosted an online conversation on the quest for human maturity. The scholar who took the lead, one Dr. David Field, proposed a side-by-side comparison of four approaches: Protestant/Reformed, the Desert Fathers, Zen Buddhism, and Freudian/Jungian depth psychology. The initial article is a real jaw-breaker; very long, but the follow-up conversation (and the furor it caused in some quarters) is worth wading through it. While I commend the entire conversation to your attention, I want to call particular attention to this bit of commentary by the director of Theopolis, Peter Leithart:

As David explains the “prima facie case” for his proposal, his radicalism shows its face. He out-Bibles the Bible-only types, opening an expansive horizon for investigation along a Biblicist pathway….

David starts by taking the creation of Adam with what some will regard as naïve literalism: Man becomes a living soul because the breath/Spirit of God is breathed into him. Our spirits are breath because God’s Spirit is breath and we are made in His image. Our inmost self is “God’s life in us.” We are dust animated by divine breath.

For David, this isn’t a poetic flourish. It’s the truth about man, tied to the inextricably physical fact that we must breathe to live. Say what you will about the intake of oxygen and the outflow of carbon dioxide. The essence of breathing is a rhythm of sacrifice, of laying down life in order to take it up, of receiving life we do not have in ourselves; breathing is a dance of divine inspiration, deathly expiration, glorifying conspiration.

Along this line of reflection, David has, and has not, left the Bible behind. At first, it appears that Scripture serves as little more than springboard; much of what David says might be described as “natural theology,” drawn from steady observation of the simplest of human experiences. But his account of that experience is shaped at every moment by the Bible; every claim is theologically charged. Breathing is death-and-resurrection; and so it is also the radical self-denial of discipleship; and so it is also transfiguring union with God. And all the while, David is talking about breathing– not “spiritual” breathing, or breathing as a metaphor for something less gritty and earthy, but breathing. The entire paragraph aims to provide a theological account of the practical power of controlling, holding, pausing our breath. Biblical and natural realities snap together like pieces of a puzzle – provided we doggedly cling to the Bible as fundamental anthropology.

In conversations where the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture are very much at issue, this doggedly literal approach is not just a productive way forward. It is the only productive way forward. I’m looking forward to more of it.


One Book or Two?

7 January 2020

In Matthew’s usage, “fulfill” has a fuller sense (if you’ll pardon the expression) than just the Micah 5:2//Matthew 2:5-6 predictive prophecy usage. For example, the Hosea 11//Matthew 2 usage is real fulfillment, but it’s not predictive prophecy. The Hosea passage is not a prediction of the future Messiah, but a reflection on Israel’s history: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.”

The original sense in Hosea is critical to Matthew’s meaning. Knowing that Israel is God’s son is necessary to understanding the points that Matthew is making: first, that Jesus is Israel (in a meaningful sense that Matthew will spend the whole book exploring), and second, that the land of Israel has become spiritual Egypt – a point that will be reinforced by John the Baptist when he calls the remnant out into the desert to pass through water.

We don’t want to read something into the text that isn’t there. At the same time, we don’t want to miss something that *is* there—and the NT shows us repeatedly that there’s a LOT more there than one might think at first glance. From Jesus Himself proving the resurrection by exegeting a verb tense in Genesis (Luke 20:37-38) to the fulfillments of the first few chapters of Matthew (1:22-23, 2:15, 17-18, 23) to the dizzying displays of Hebrews, the NT shows us a way of reading the OT that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. It had to be revealed to us.

In conservative circles, we have gotten our hermeneutics from the Book of Nature (mostly as read by E. D. Hirsch), which is very useful as far as it goes. But God wrote two books–God’s Word and God’s world–and the Book of Scripture also has something to teach us about how to read well. We should not refuse to learn that set of lessons as well.


Lots of Little Fires

29 November 2019

Reading assignment: Numbers 10, Psalm 68, Ephesians 4. Then let’s discuss. I don’t have time right now to draw this out in detail, so I’m going to sketch some suggestive high points, and see where that takes us.

In Numbers 10, Moses’ liturgy for the movement of the camp tells Israel what it means that the pillar of cloud/fire is moving: Yahweh is invading the world, scattering His enemies before Him.

David begins Psalm 68 with that same liturgy. The psalm is an extended meditation on its meaning.

Ephesians 4:7-10 shows us how Jesus fulfills a portion of that meditation in His incarnation, resurrection, and ascension, rising to victory at the Father’s right hand, receiving as His due the spoils of victory, and distributing the gifts He’s received to His people. A Christian functioning in the gifts Christ gave is what the Tabernacle/pillar was: Yahweh invading the world. There is no longer one pillar of fire lighting the darkness: there are tongues of fire above every Spirit-baptized person’s head — and like Samson’s foxes running two by two through the Gentile fields, we set everything ablaze as we go.

The invasion continues….


Joel Is Not A Cessationist

5 November 2019

In Acts 2, Peter applies Joel 2 in an interesting way. Some people believe Peter is stating the direct fulfillment of Joel 2: Joel predicted this day, and here it is.

Most commentators, however, notice some end-of-the-world markers in Joel 2, and therefore feel that Joel’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. That being the case, they then say either that Peter was saying Joel 2 was partly fulfilled at Pentecost, or that Peter was just making an analogy.

What I’m about to say here would apply to partial fulfillment positions, but just for the moment let’s accept, for the sake of discussion, that Peter is making an analogical argument (This is like what Joel prophesied…”).

That means Peter is claiming that Pentecost has various points of contact with the Joel prophecy, but the events of Pentecost do not exhaust Joel 2; the actual fulfillment is yet future from Peter’s point of view (and from ours as well, yes?).

In turn, that means—follow me closely here—that all the favored cessation proof texts that are supposed to be telling us that revelation is over, finito, done with, the canon is closed, no fresh revelation, no more—every single one of those passages is in conflict with Joel 2, which pointedly tells us that in the future, our young men will see visions, our old men will dream dreams, our sons and daughters will prophesy—in short, that there will be fresh revelation in the future.

If the fulfillment of Joel 2 is future, then prophecy has not yet ceased.


Hallucinating Your Ideology

29 October 2019

“A theory is a very dangerous thing to have.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

One of the core ideas of Nassim Taleb’s work is that many small errors in a system are much safer than one big one. If you let individual grocery store managers handle their own ordering, sometimes they’re gonna screw it up, and a particular store will run out of potatoes. You can solve that problem by taking away local control, and hiring a handful of specialists at headquarters. But if you centrally control all ordering from corporate headquarters, when you make a mistake, all the stores west of the Mississippi run out of potatoes at the same time.

So yes, the store manager in Paducah is bad at ordering produce, but his errors don’t propagate to other stores, and someone from the produce department can always pop over to the next town and grab a few crates of potatoes to hold them over until the next shipment. Can’t do that when corporate makes a similar mistake, because the consequences are so much bigger. Centralized control prevents many small errors, then in a single blunder costs more than all the small errors put together.

And this why giving primacy to exegesis works better than giving primacy to an organizing theological concept.

Examples of that centralized, top-down approach abound–it’s far more common than not. Gordon Clark is a particularly good example, because he was very clear-eyed about what he was doing. Clark talked up the importance of starting points, and pointedly said that his starting point was the sovereignty of God, and he never wavered from it–and to my eye, he didn’t, even when that meant doing violence to a particular text of Scripture in service to his big idea. The truth is that everybody does this sometimes, and most theologians do it habitually; they just pretend they don’t.  Very few are as clear and honest about it as Clark was. God bless him for his clarity.

I’m not against Big Idea thinking; it’s a good lens to look through at times. You see some things you’d have missed otherwise. The danger is that if you look through the same lens all the time–if you allow the Big Idea to become your master rather than your tool–you can no longer see clearly. You see your Big Idea in everything, whether it’s there or not. And the corollary danger is that you miss things that are right in front of you, because you’re too busy hallucinating your ideology to notice what’s actually there.

Once you do that, you’re not doing exegesis anymore.


What It Can Mean

22 October 2019

One of the most frustrating, and most important, lessons I ever learned about interpreting Scripture happened when I was in Bible college. I’d had some Greek, and in an inter-session course I had the opportunity to take an elective from a wise old scholar whose name (I am ashamed to say) now escapes me. He was retired, but came in to spend mornings for a week lecturing us on Ephesians. Every morning, he would arrive at the classroom with only his English Bible and his Greek text. No lecture notes, no notepad, nothing but his two Bibles.

He would set his English Bible on the corner of the desk, where it would sit untouched for the next several hours. Then he would open up his Greek text to Ephesians and begin to lecture. The lecture consisted of reading a phrase or so at a time in Greek, translating it on the fly into King James-style English, making comments at length on the meaning of the Greek words and the overall passage, and entertaining questions along the way. I think we spent 4 hours a day for 5 days making a single pass through Ephesians, which will give you some idea of the length of the comments and the overall pace.

In that class there were several of us who had taken varying amounts of Greek, and a couple of dynamics quickly developed that were repeated many times over the course of our 5 days together.

The first one was when we thought we had caught him propounding an interpretation of Ephesians which contradicted some other passage of Scripture.

“But wouldn’t what you’re saying contradict [other passage], which says ______________?”

“Well, that would be a contradiction, young man, but [other passage] doesn’t say that. It says — ” and here he would quote the other passage, in Greek, from memory, translate it, and explain what it actually said and why it didn’t contradict his understanding of the Ephesians passage under discussion. He would then return to the lecture. As far as we could tell, this man knew the entire Greek New Testament by heart.

The second dynamic that happened repeatedly was when we thought he’d mistranslated one of the Greek words in the text.

“Sir, couldn’t that Greek word also mean ______?”

“Yes, young man, it certainly could. But in this passage, it doesn’t.” He would then explain why, in the passage at hand, the word meant what he was saying it did. I remember these explanations as well-reasoned, succinct, and effectively impossible to rebut.

Frustrating as it was, these were really important lessons in interpretation. Contradicting what I think a passage says is not the same thing as contradicting the passage. Choosing an interpretation of a word is harder than it seems. Words have different meanings: trunk can be the front of an elephant, the back of a car, the middle of a tree, the torso of a person, or an item of luggage. The fact that “trunk” could mean any of those things in some context does not mean that it does mean a particular one in this context. You don’t get to treat the list of possible meanings as a menu and just pick the one you like. The meaning has to cohere with the particular context, and demonstrating that you’ve made the right interpretive choice is not always a trivial undertaking. Sometimes it’s obvious, like using the word “trunk” when we’re talking about an elephant, and not talking about cars, trees, people, or luggage. Other times, it is less obvious: in the middle of a move, when the family car and Grandpa’s old steamer trunk are right next to each other in the driveway, “Put this in the trunk” could mean more than one thing. But if the back of the car’s already loaded with Dad’s greasy tools, the steamer trunk is open and half-full of linens, and Mom just handed you a lily-white tablecloth and said “Put this in the trunk,” there’s an excellent case to be made that she means one and not the other.

“But can’t trunk mean the back of the car?”

“Of course it can, young man. But in this case it doesn’t, and if you don’t want a spanking, you’d better get your exegesis right.”