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.”

Laying on Hands

7 June 2019

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will raise the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.

There are a couple of hermeneutical moves here that are common in conservative circles. The first is to simply ignore the text. When a nosy student asks why we don’t do this, you must mutter something under your breath about cultural context, and change the subject.

But that’s not enough. “Cultural context” is not a magical phrase that allows you to ignore a text. The text meant something, and the original readers were meant to obey it. So are we. Obedience in our context might look different, but it will look like something. It is our job to figure out what. The best place to start is with the original context.

In the original cultural context, this was not simply some religious ritual. Oils infused with various herbs and scents were common in the culture, and using such oils medicinally was also common. In other words, to the original readers, anointing with oil was not simply a religious ceremony, it was a medical treatment.

Once you know that, you can transfer the principle to our day. Imagine you have someone in your church who is a cancer patient.

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, giving him chemotherapy in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.

Of course, the oncologist giving chemotherapy is not likely to be an elder in the church — but skip that for now. Let’s suppose the doctor is indeed an elder in this case, and move on from there. Do you see the departure from our standard attitude toward medicine? The medicine is administered “in the name of the Lord,” and when the sick person recovers, the recovery is attributed to the Lord, through the prayer of faith.

So the minimal application of this culturally conditioned command is to address sickness as a spiritual as well as a physical issue.

But I wonder whether we ought not go further. After all, we have mass media and Youtube, but we still believe that going to church in person is better. We have Facebook and phones and texting and many platforms for connection, but face to face is still better than anything else, by a long shot. Would it be so surprising to find that–especially where physical and spiritual matters overlap–the first-century ways of addressing things still have something to offer us?

I think they do. And so I still practice this passage as written: anointing with oil in the name of Jesus, laying on hands, and praying for the sick. My experience has been that this is valuable; when we are simply obedient, we do better than we know.

Providence, Vindication, Vengeance

26 April 2019

I take an occasional interest in a doctrinal fight that I really don’t have a stake in, some bit of inside baseball in a tribe that’s not my own. It’s a tedious exercise, since it requires me to get up to speed on issues I wouldn’t normally pay any attention to, but the work pays off. When you’re not on one side or the other, you can see a bunch of other things more clearly: how they treat one another, how they treat the Spirit-created unity they all have despite their differences, how the fight is perceived by the outside world, that sort of thing. In this way, I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons that I apply to the fights I do have a stake in. Here follows one of those lessons.

Many years ago, some folks in the PCA went after Peter Leithart, accusing him of heresy. At the time, I didn’t know Leithart from St. Moses the Black, but the accusations were related to one of those controversies I was studying. The matter went to trial before the presbytery; I remember listening to the recordings. The lead prosecutor in that trial, one Jason Stellman, argued (among other things) that Leithart was sliding slowly toward Rome, and had departed from the doctrine of the PCA.

As it happens, Leithart was (rightly) acquitted, amid much howling by the heresy-hunters, but that’s not really the point here. The point is what happened next. Fast forward a couple years, and lo and behold, this same Jason Stellman resigns his ordination in the PCA…and joins the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Leithart remains (as ever) a Presbyterian.


In Philippians 3, Paul urges his readers to have no confidence in the flesh, and recounts his own fleshly pedigree:

If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.

Because we’re conditioned by our heritage of revivalism, the meaning we see right away is the individual salvation from hell: Paul has forsaken his reliance on fleshly credentials for the sake of justification by faith. He now trusts in God alone. But there’s more here: a social layer of meaning as well as a theological one.

Remember that Paul had been excommunicated from synagogues multiple times for teaching that Jesus is the Messiah–which He is! They should have welcomed Paul with open arms for teaching the true meaning of the Hebrew Bible, and instead they threw him out.

Now imagine what would have happened if he’d gotten hung up on that. If he’d spent his whole life in a vain search for a retrial, for a fleshly vindication that he’d been right all along. Hold on to that idea, and read what he says next.

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Again, the individual, theological meaning is there, but so is the social meaning. Paul is not seeking a vindication before the Law. A human court has nothing to offer him. He’s leaving all that behind to pursue Christ. If he suffers, if he’s wrongly convicted–that’s just another way to be more like Christ, isn’t it?

If God wants to vindicate him, then God can do it. Paul isn’t going to waste energy chasing that vindication. As it happens, God did vindicate him, although Paul didn’t live to see it. In A.D. 70, God delivered Jerusalem into the hands of Titus the Roman, and expressed His opinion of the Temple that rejected His only Son. Not one stone was left on another.


If we wait, if we just keep pursuing God, we often find that God will vindicate us. He vindicated Paul in the destruction of Jerusalem. Anybody with eyes in their head could see what was happening there (although many are blind).

The same thing happened with Leithart’s heresy trial, not through the acquittal, but in the subsequent events. If you have eyes to see, Providence has painted a little picture in the form of Jason Stellman–the federal head of the heresy-hunters–swimming the Tiber. We are being invited to consider the Romishness of their position, and it’s right there in the trial transcripts, if you missed it the first time through. God has decisively vindicated Leithart in this matter.

I’ve been on the receiving end of similar attacks myself–two stand out as particularly memorable. In one case, I don’t think it was all that hard for bystanders to see what was happening at the time. In the other, it was very hard to see. “The sins of some follow after them,” like Paul said. But in both cases, as time has passed, Providence has done its vindicating work. The people that matter, know. They may be fuzzy on some of the details, but they know enough.

Things become clearer over time.

  • One person holds to the doctrine he was accused of abandoning, while his accuser—that guardian of orthodoxy–abandons it.
  • One person remains faithful to the people he was accused of failing to serve, while his accuser skips town, leaving a trail of wrecked relationships in his wake.
  • One person continues in unity with the believers around him, while the one who excluded him in the name of “preserving unity” excludes more and more people until there’s only a few he’s not at war with.

Over time, it becomes easy to ask a few clarifying questions. Where are the two parties today? Look at one. Look at the other. What do you see?


“He who covers his sin will not prosper,” the proverb says, and the sin of slander is certainly included. God has the habit of causing the truth to come to light in time, and this is one of the practical reasons for leaving vengeance to God.

God does not say “Vengeance is bad;” He says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” As we are tempted to push for vindication, we are also tempted to seek vengeance. Don’t. God’s got it…and He’s better at it than you are.

Count it all loss for the sake of Christ. Pursue knowing Him. Let God take care of the rest.

Armor Up!

18 January 2019

The Bible teaches psychic self-defense.

That statement makes non-Christians wary, because “psychic self-defense” sounds way too hip to be coming from the Bible. It makes Christians nervous for a complex stew of reasons, starting with the new-agey connotations of “psychic” and running to the suspicion some Christians have of anything that smacks of spiritual/mystical reality, anything that can’t be tracked and documented by an “objective” third party. (If you’re one of the latter, buckle up. This post is gonna be rough on you.)

The armor passage of Ephesians 6 teaches precisely this: how to defend your soul, your psyche, against the enemy’s attacks. The armor is exactly that. Armor. It protects us.

Shoes: readiness with the gospel of God’s peace. This is our protection from conflicts that arise — being ready to accept, proclaim, and embody the reality that all conflicts were resolved at the cross, and Christ is our peace; we are just looking for how that works out now, in this situation.

Belt: truth. Our protection against the lies of the enemy is the truth that God has given us, both in Scripture and in our experience. Continually calling those truths to mind is a powerful defense; our biggest problem is that we constantly forget.

Breastplate: God’s righteousness (cf. Isa. 59:17). We have to talk about what “righteous” even means; nobody uses the word except surfers, and they don’t really mean the same thing by it. Righteousness is vindication — being found in the right. It’s the judge saying “not guilty;” it’s the principal saying “You can go back to class.” It’s God saying “You’re ok.” Think of it as the Breastplate of Okayness. The Breastplate of Okayness is your protection against accusations and condemnation. There are only two kinds of accusations you will ever face: true and false. The false ones don’t matter because they’re false. The true ones don’t matter because every sin, mistake, and shortcoming you ever had (or ever will) was nailed to the cross to die and buried in the heart of the earth, and when Jesus rose to a new life, He did not come out of the tomb dragging a Hefty bag of your crap. It’s done. He settled it. God says you’re ok — exactly as ok as Jesus, which is pretty ok.

Shield: faith. This is your protection against doubt. When the doubts arise, trust God. What does that look like? “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). A substance is a hunk of matter right here — the chair you’re sitting on, the desk in front of you, like that. Something that’s here right now, a present, tangible reality. So faith is the present, tangible reality of what you hope for. In your case, you hope for a huddle full of people. So: if you were *sure* God was going to give you a huddle full of people, what would you be doing right now? The present, tangible reality might be something like searching for people of peace and asking God to show them to you. That’s what faith looks like — and coming full circle, faith is your protection against doubt. You can sit in a chair and tell yourself, “God’s got this” all day long; that’s just positive thinking. You can do that and still be worried. Faith is moving forward.

Sword of the Spirit: the word (rhema) of God. There’s more than one Greek word for “word,” and the one used here, rhema, refers to a spoken word, as opposed to the written word. Your offensive weapon for hacking holes in the kingdom of darkness is the spoken word of God. Whatever God gives you to say, say it out loud. Say it out loud even if you’re talking to yourself. (By the way, this doesn’t mean the Bible, the written word, is unimportant. It does mean that if you’re using the Bible as a weapon in the way this passage is talking about, you need to say it out loud, not just think it in your head.

Helmet: deliverance. This is your protection against fear. God will deliver you from or through everything you fear. He is the good shepherd; He won’t take you through the valley of the shadow of death for funsies; He only does that when there’s green pasture and still waters on the other side. Know that even in the presence of your enemies, God delivers you.

Putting On The Armor. So that’s your defensive armor against conflicts, lies, accusations, doubts, and fears, and an offensive weapon for banishing the darkness. But we still need to talk about what it means to put it on. Real quick, let’s try an experiment. Go stand naked in front of your closet and say, “I put on underwear, the brown slacks, that blue polo shirt there, and that sweater.” Then go outside….

A little reluctant? Why?

Well, ‘cuz you’re still naked! You can’t just say you’re putting something on, you have to actually put it on.

Right, so the same with the armor. When the enemy begins to torment you with an accusation, you don’t say, “I put on the breastplate of righteousness.” You say, “God says I’m ok” — which is actually putting on the breastplate of righteousness.

Putting it all together in prayer. None of this is meant to be applied in isolation. You use it in a context of constant prayer, speaking to and hearing from God. And you use the pieces together. So when the enemy torments you with an accusation, you say, “God says I’m ok” (breastplate). But you say it out loud (sword). Maybe you follow it up with reading Romans 8:31-39 (belt). You ask yourself, “If I was really, solidly convinced that God has made me ok with regard to this accusation, what would I do?” — and then you do it (shield). If you’re afraid the accusation taints you forever, you confess your fear to God: “God, I know you said you forgive all my sins, but I’m afraid this one is different somehow. I know that sounds dumb, but that’s where I’m at right now.” And then you ask Him to deliver you from your fear (helmet). All this, obviously, in constant prayer. And that’s what putting on the armor of God looks like.

The Case for Contemplation

28 December 2018

Read Romans 11. I know, I know. It’s one of those passages that people have a really hard time with. Read it anyway; it’s good for you. Don’t stop at the end of the chapter; read through 12:2.

Now, let’s go back and take a look at the end of the chapter. I’m going to drop a few verses out, just as a thought experiment.

For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

So here’s the question: Did you see any break in the argument? Does it seem like anything is missing?

It doesn’t, does it? If vv. 33-36 weren’t there, we would never miss them. What Paul is doing in those verses is not, strictly speaking, advancing his argument. He’s worshipping. Overtaken by the reality of the things he is describing, he launches into praise.

This is a step beyond cognitive theologizing. The cognitive work lays a foundation, but the purpose of the foundation is to see the God we’re thinking and talking about. When we do, for real, we cannot help but praise.

If we don’t find ourselves breaking into spontaneous praise as we think through our theology, we’re probably missing something. We’ve slipped into playing with the ideas as ideas–looking at them rather than at God.

It’s an error I’ve slipped into many times. When this is happening, there is no road to recovery except repentance. So we confess our preoccupation with the play of ideas. We devote ourselves again to God Himself–to loving Him enough to learn and tell the truth about Him, always as an exercise in knowing Him more fully. And we make time to praise. There is no way to learn except to do it.

“Above All Your Name”

28 September 2018

Over time I have noticed a trend in my understanding of Scripture. I can’t figure out what a passage means. It seems odd, or an odd way of saying something. Then one day, I see God do the thing that the passage is talking about, and suddenly it couldn’t be any clearer — it’s exactly the right way of describing what happened.

So Psalm 138 has baffled me for years. What could it possibly mean to say to God, “You have magnified Your word above all Your name”?

Let’s look at the whole first movement of the psalm:

I will praise You with my whole heart;

Before the gods I will sing praises to You.

I will worship toward Your holy temple,

And praise Your name

For Your lovingkindness and Your truth

For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.

In the day when I cried out, You answered me,

And made me bold with strength in my soul.

The speaker is in a foreign land. He sings the praises of Yahweh in front of the demonic powers of that place. Think Daniel, praying toward Jerusalem in Babylon.

So what does it mean in this foreign sojourn that God has magnified His word above His name? I didn’t know until I saw it happen: pagans following the word of God, not out of obedience to Him but because it’s good advice and their lives are better off when they do it. They may have encountered the principle — Sabbath rest, tithing, generosity, what have you — as a word of advice from a friend, or as a principle from inner witness, or whatever. They don’t attribute it to God because they don’t know it came from Him.

Because He has magnified His word above His name. He is willing for people to know what to do without Him getting immediate credit for it. More people know how to live than know that He is the source of direction — that is what it means to have the law written on your heart.

The second half of Psalm 138 says

All the kings of the earth shall praise You, O Yahweh,

When they hear the words of Your mouth.

Yes, they shall sing of the ways of Yahweh,

For Yahweh’s glory is great.

Though Yahweh is on high,

He still regards the lowly;

But He knows the proud from afar.

God will not allow His word to forever remain anonymous. Because He is humble and He loves us, He is willing for people to say, “Wow! That’s a great idea!” and not know, at first, where it came from.

But as it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, so it is the glory of kings to search it out. Kings want to know where the good ideas come from, because where there’s one, often there’s more. As they investigate, they will find Yahweh, because whoever seeks Yahweh (knowingly or not) will find Him. And when they do, they will praise Him.