Hermeneutical Repentance: An Open Letter To My Former Tribe

24 May 2018

I was reared in a conservative evangelical tradition that was heavy on strict grammatical-historical hermeneutics. I have repented of that school of thought in favor of following the examples set by the NT authors themselves.

Look, you know I love you, but there’s no point in mincing words here: you guys suck at reading narrative. I mean, it’s terrible. Either you reduce the story to a disconnected set of little morality tales for Sunday school kids, or you chop it up into however many dispensations or homogenize it all into two covenants (or both). At best, you think it’s there as a means to the end of teaching “doctrine,” by which you mean something like systematic theology. In practice, of course, many of you mostly ignore the narrative in favor of the church epistles, especially in your preaching. To be fair, you’re mostly pretty good at the church epistles. Straight-out didactic literature is your forte.

But look, the narrative is three quarters of the Bible. Paul says that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, and your hermeneutics courses are all a-flutter with warnings against “getting doctrine from narrative.” This means — it has to mean — that there’s something wrong with your hermeneutics. As long as you insist that your hermeneutics are fine, you’re going to continue to have the same problem, to wit: you don’t know how to read three quarters of the Bible. As soon as you contemplate some sort of hermeneutical repentance, though, you feel as though you’re about to throw open the door to every perversion and silliness that hermeneutical laxity has ever visited upon the Church. How can you proceed? How can you gain the ability to read the other three quarters of the Bible well without falling victim to the many traps and pitfalls that have snared so many of your unwary brethren?

I want to make an observation and propose a way forward. The observation: you’re scared. If your reason for avoiding narrative is that you don’t know how to avoid hermeneutical excesses, and your response to your lack of skill is to run away and hide in a church epistle…stop it. You can’t learn to swim by running from the water. God has not given us a spirit of fear.

Now, for a way forward. It’s simple in concept, sufficiently rich to cover the variety of problems you’ll have to face along the way, and as a bonus, it starts in your old stomping grounds — the church epistles. Even there, however, you’re going to have to face hermeneutical repentance. You’ve missed some pretty obvious stuff. The authors of the church epistles had none of your reluctance about drawing doctrine from narrative. For example, you somehow fail to notice that Paul derives his doctrine of justification by faith in Romans 4 from the narrative accounts of Abraham and David — the very thing you warn your students not to do. Nor is that circumstance unique — the authors of the epistles overwhelmingly draw their doctrine from the biblical narratives. Peter does it. Hebrews certainly does it. James does it. Know why? Because they’re following Jesus–He did it too.

The authors of the epistles may not have left you a hermeneutics manual, but they certainly did leave you with an enormous set of examples. Start with Romans 4, and work your way out from there. What other examples can you identify? How might you follow the example set forth for you?

Of course I realize that there will be differences of opinion, excesses, and all that. Sure. But if you’re not willing to get out there and make some mistakes, you’ll never get anywhere. You’ve gotta learn somehow.

Or you could keep being bad at reading three quarters of the Bible….


Parabolic Living

11 August 2013

This post is part of the August 2013 Synchroblog on the subject “Parables: Small Stories, Big Ideas.”

Parables are weird. I’m not talking about the specifics of particular parables — although those are often weird too. I’m talking about the entire genre. The very existence of parables is a really odd phenomenon. The premise of the parable is that small stories of mundane events, sometimes just a few sentences long, can somehow contain life-altering challenges.

Have you ever thought about how odd that is? It’s one thing to see big ideas at work in, say, the sack of Rome, the failed Mongol invasions of Japan, the death of colonialism, or even something as comparatively small as the Berlin airlift or the Tiananmen Square massacre. It’s quite another to see big ideas at work in the tale of a nameless sower at work in a generic field. Why does it work? What sort of world do we live in, that such a thing is possible?

In the beginning was the Triune God, and the Word spoke all things into existence. The world we live in is the ultimate spoken-word performance piece, and like all works of art, it reflects the nature of the Artist. Within that overall spoken mixed-media portrait, we as human beings are meant to reflect the likeness of God in a special way. “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” God said, and “in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” This is reflected to some extent in the parables. Have you ever noticed how virtually all the parables center around human activity — sowing and reaping, buying and selling, making bread, fishing, investing?

Within these simple stories, each parable presents its own challenges to us. The Good Samaritan: will I be a neighbor to anyone I meet? The Wheat and Tares: am I willing to leave final judgment to God for the sake of protecting vulnerable saints? The Leaven: will I be patient with the slow and hidden coming of the Kingdom, or will I try to gin up something flashy and quick, something I can take credit for?

If simple fictional tales set in mundane circumstances can contain such life-altering challenges, might the mundane moments of our own lives not contain those same challenges? Might it be possible to see those challenges, and live in such a way that our choices make parabolic lives?

Of course it is. There are famous examples, like when the Pope forgave his would-be assassin. But that’s pushing it up onto the grand scale again, and that’s not where parables happen. When a mother loves her teenage daughter, even though the girl has just screamed “I hate you!” and slammed her bedroom door — a parable is taking place. When a husband and wife stop in the middle of a stupid fight, forgive each other, and try to make date night work after all — a parable is happening. When an infertile couple conceives, then goes ahead with the planned adoption anyway, because that child needs a home — a parable appears before our eyes.

So what will it be in your life? The Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who…[your life here.]

This is the promise of the parables: that your life, rightly ordered by God annd lived in the power of His Spirit for the glory of Messiah’s Kingdom, your life, can be a succession of parables for the world to read.

Of course, as Jesus once explained to the disciples, parables have a dual purpose: to conceal from some, and reveal to others. Some people will look right at your God-glorifying, poetically lived, parabolic life and see nothing of consequence…or worse still, entirely misunderstand. Some people won’t have eyes to see. They just won’t get it. But some will — and for those that do, you can be a lamp set up on a lampstand, that gives light to the whole house. What will they see in your light?



You can find the other August Synchroblog participants here:

Jesus’ Parables are Confusing? Good! – Jeremy Myers

Seed Parables: Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom – Carol Kunihol

Parables – Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper – Paul Meier

The Parables of Jesus: Not Like Today’s Sermons – Jessica

Penelope and the Crutch – Glenn Hager

Parables and the Insult of Grace – Rachel

Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds – Liz Dyer

Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run – Jerry Wirtley

The Kingdom of God Has Come

30 September 2012

“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God is come upon you.”

With these simple words, Jesus raised the stakes on the religious leaders. He had just cast out a mute demon, a difficult feat that some rabbis maintained could only be done by Messiah Himself. Rather than believing, the Pharisees had rejected Him again and accused him of casting out demons by Satan’s power. Jesus pointed out what a foolish thing it would be for the ruler of demons to cast out his own demons, but the real challenge was yet to come.

The real challenge was simple: What if He wasn’t using Satan’s power? What if it was the Holy Spirit? What then?

Then the Kingdom of God is come. God’s rule, already firmly established in heaven, is breaking into earth, and where that is happening, the agents of the kingdom of darkness are being driven away.

The Kingdom is future. One day, we will see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and Christ’s enemies will be His footstool. As Hebrews 2:5-9 observes, that day has not yet arrived, and so we can confidently say that the Kingdom has not yet come.

But then again, there are little pockets where we see exactly those things happening — God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and Christ’s enemies crushed under His feet. Jesus was pointing out one such pocket. In that place, at that time, the rule of God was being asserted, which is to say that the Kingdom had arrived.


Abram’s servant, seeking a wife for Isaac, met her at a well. Jacob met Rachel at a well. Moses met Zipporah at a well. In the Bible, when a man meets a woman at a well, you can practically hear the wedding bells in the background. So when Jesus meets a woman at the well outside Sychar, we know what is about to happen.

Jesus is going to marry Samaria.

Samaria has had five “husbands,” five nations who possessed her (see 2 Kings 17:24*), and the nation that dominates her now, Rome, is not really her husband. The emperor is just using her for the tax revenue. She’s defeated, hopeless, oppressed — a captive, trapped in the kingdom of darkness.

She meets Jesus, and her world changes. Finally, a man who knows her: “He told me everything I ever did,” she later says. He bypasses the theological smokescreen she throws up on the Gerzim-Zion question (there was a right answer, but she didn’t really care about it anyway). Instead, He speaks to the deep need of her heart: to have reality in her relationship with God, to have life. She drinks the water that He gives, and as He promised, it wells up in her and becomes a fountain of life. All her neighbors hear about it from her, and then meet Jesus for themselves, and He remains a few days in Sychar.

Now here’s the key question: In terms of the kingdoms of light and darkness, what just happened?

Obvious, isn’t it? Yahweh’s reign has come to Sychar, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom of God has come to Sychar. Has it come perfectly? No. Has it come fully? Nope. But has it come truly?

Of course. Where Jesus is, the Kingdom is already forcefully advancing.


So the question is, do we believe His promise?

Jesus sent His disciples out, not just with a commission, but with a promise: “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all the things that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Do we believe His promise?

If we do, then we know that He is with us wherever we go. As He cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, so we have the indwelling Holy Spirit in us, always.

If the Kingdom breaks out wherever Jesus is, then why shouldn’t the Kingdom break out wherever His Body is?


If we understand that it’s God’s will for the Kingdom to break out wherever we go, then we can pray boldly. He wants to break the domain of darkness through us. From driving away oppressing spirits to freeing broken people, we are agents of God, seeking to establish His reign. Knowing that He sent us out, that He is with us, and that He wants to establish outposts of His reign on earth, we pray as Jesus taught us: “Thy name be hallowed; Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

*many thanks to Michele for pointing out the 2 Kings 17:24 connection.

Paint by Numbers?

6 May 2012

The artist regards the canvas for a long moment, then takes up his brush.  He touches it lightly to the palette, then to the painting, just a single stroke.

“Why did you put the brush stroke there?” the apprentice asked, watching from his shoulder.

“Do you see the way the shadow falls just there, on the model’s cheek?” the master said.

“Yes.”  The apprentice nods vigorously.  “The principle of attention to detail.  They drilled that into us in art school.”

“Do you see the way it changes the color of the blush on her cheek?” the master continued.

Again, the apprentice nodded vigorously.  “Sure.  The principle that light level changes the way that the colors look.  I’ve read all about it.”

The master looked back at his painting, frowning.  “So now you understand?”

“Completely, sir.  All the principles are in the textbooks we used at school.”

A grin tugged at one corner of the master’s mouth.  “Excellent.  Since it’s all in the principles you already know…where will I place the next stroke?  Will it be heavy or light?  Which brush will I use, and which color?”

The apprentice opened his mouth to speak, his finger reaching for a spot on the painting.  Halfway extended, his arm faltered, and his expression slowly changed until it was an open-mouthed gape.

Theopoetics: My Insight Engine

22 January 2012

My partner and I have occasion, from time to time, to introduce people to the Bible, or parts of the Bible they’ve never met before.  Or at least never met before that way.  Or never seen how that bit connected so nicely to this bit, over here.  When one of these things happens, we look like absolute geniuses. In fact, genius has very little to do with it.  The Bible is at once a simple and a demanding book, and as we seek to engage it fully, there’s certainly room for genius if there happens to be any lying about.  But the genius is not the point, and in fact it’s not really required.

On a good day, someone will ask us how we do it, and we have a chance to engage that discussion.  On a bad day, they just assume that it takes something they don’t have, and they could never do what we do.  Now, in all modesty, God has gifted us in certain areas, and no amount of training and schooling can put in what God left out.  Understanding Scripture, though, is for everyone; this is a thing that can be learned.

We have accepted a fairly simple set of practices — hard, but simple — into our lives.  These five things have shaped us into the sort of men who can do what we do.  There’s nothing magical (or even especially academic) about it, and the truth is that we learned relatively little of this in seminary.  It doesn’t take a degree or time in the classroom; it doesn’t take knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.  Again, there’s room for those things to find expression, if you should happen to have them, and if you want them, I can help you get them.  But they’re not essential.  Diligence is essential, a passion for pursuing God.  It was our passion for pursuing God that led us into these things to start with.

So, without further ado, the five core practices that I’ve dubbed my “insight engine”:

Walk with God personally.  No excuses, no imitations, no treating God as a thought experiment, a set of principles, or a vending machine in the sky (even if it’s just dispensing spiritual blessings).  It is the birthright of God’s children to hear their Father’s voice, to know it for what it is and converse with Him, and to partake by grace in the dance of the Triune fellowship.  Accept nothing less.  The better you know a person, the easier it is to understand what he writes — and God is a Person.  Three, actually.

Map your world with the Word of God.  What is man?  Dust and breath.  What is the sun?  A power made by God to rule the day.  It’s not a “love scene” in a movie — it’s not even a “sex scene.”  It’s a “fornication scene.”  Take everything that happens in your world and go back to the Word with it.  Find it there, in the Word, and then you will know what it is, and what to do with it.  This is a key part of the task the Scriptures describe as meditation.

Talk like God talks.  Having done the hard work described above so that you can think of the things in the world, talk that way.  Constantly.  With everybody.  Yes, when you say, “Can we fast-forward through the fornication scene?” they will look at you funny.  So?

Walk with the wise.  Spend lots of time with people who are skilled in these things.  We don’t learn nearly as well from lecture or musty classrooms as we do from apprenticeship, working together with someone else who is more skilled.  Find those people and spend all the time with them you can.

Know your limitations.  Jesus could walk up to a guy mending nets on the beach and say, “Leave your dad and his servants here, drop your nets, and come follow me.”  He was walking so closely with the Father that He could see exactly what the Father wanted, and He could speak it out directly.  If I don’t hear the Father quite that clearly, then I ought to be hesitant about speaking that clearly and authoritatively. I am not, in fact, the Holy Spirit, and it’s not okay to poach on His territory.

So that’s it.  If you like the biblical insights you find here, this is where they come from, and there’s nothing in the list above that you couldn’t do just like I do.  (If you think I’m a nut, well, these things are to blame.  But I think all the people who thought me nuts quit reading a while ago.)



11 December 2011

I recently had occasion to hear from a disaffected pastor who felt that my talk about “community” was an affectation, an unnecessary flirtation with a popular buzzword.  That furnished me with an occasion to think a little more deeply (and theopoetically) about why community has become a pillar of my practical theology.  Below you’ll find some of my ruminations; I hope they’re helpful to you.

One person is a rotten image of the Triune God.

In the beginning, God saw that everything He made was good, except for one thing: a solitary person.  It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the person: the “not-good-ness” was very specific: “It is not good that man should be alone.”  God is three Persons; one person is not a good image.

The fix?  God puts the man in a death-like sleep, tears him in two, and fashions woman — the crown and glory of man — from his very flesh.  She is different from him, other than him, not-him.  And yet, what does he say?

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.”

He sees her, and knows her for what she is.  She is his flesh — if you’ve seen her, you’ve seen him.  And then, you haven’t; they are different.

“Show us the Father,” Philip says to Jesus, “And it is sufficient for us.”

“He who has seen me,” Jesus replies, “has seen the Father.”  He later adds that He indwells the Father, and the Father indwells Him.  In big theological polysyllables, we call this perichoresis.  (That’s Greek for “dancing around,” by the way.)  In another author’s terms, “In Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.”   This extends to the Church, and that’s only natural: we are the Body of Christ, of His flesh and of His bones, which is to say, His Bride.  And while He has ascended, the Body remains here on earth, a tangible witness to the Father.

A solitary person, no friends, no family contact, is a lousy image of God.  This is the image of the Trinity in the world: that we dwell in each other’s lives.  A lot.  In a husband and wife, this dancing around one another leads to nakedness and physical union, an intimacy so deep and glorious that it’s too dangerous to share with more than one person.  Too much glory can kill you.  On the other hand, that glory is also the ultimate picture of Christ and His church.

In other contexts, this dancing around leads to the shedding of masks and armor, so that we can see and love one another for who we are.  A different sort of nakedness, to be sure, but it’s still quite threatening, and we’re still tempted to start stitching fig leaves together.  Another person in my life is going to act like…well…not me.  He’s going to be himself.  In my life.  He might not like me; he might not do things like me.

That’s all true, and it’s my job to give him the freedom to do that, as a gift.  And to receive the same freedom from him, if he’s willing to offer it.  That mutual gift becomes a dance that lets us both be ourselves, in harmony, richer than we could be separately.  Sinners can’t do this naturally, but God never meant for us to be only natural; we were always meant to partake in the divine nature.  The dance depicts the Trinity, and the dance requires the presence and guidance of the Trinity, or it will never work.

When it does work…wow.  God has blessed me with this dance in a number of relationships, and I am rich beyond measure.  I can’t begin to express my gratitude adequately, but the very least I can do is name some names: my Sunday morning thinktank partners, Jim and Michele; my youth ministry partners, Joe and Becca; my “huddle,” Dave, Jody, Brad and Joe (again); my church family at The Dwelling Place, whose names are too numerous to list, but y’all know who you are; and saving the best for last, my Lady Wife, Kimberly.  I aspire to be the sort of blessing you have all been to me.

And you, gentle reader, wherever you may be: May God bless you with the same, and may you bless others with the same, that the world may know that the Father sent Jesus, and has loved us as He loved Jesus.

The Tradition

13 November 2011

The Tradition is a building.  The foundations are set in stone, as they ought to be.  Some rooms are finished and decorated, for the moment.  We may redecorate, or even renovate them eventually, but not right now.  Others were finished, but someone left the windows open all winter.  There’s a lot of water damage, and it’s starting to leak into other parts of the house.  And there’s a nest of rattlesnakes that live under the bureau, and bats in the closet.  Need to do some serious work in there, pronto.  Other rooms are framed in, but there’s exposed wiring, sawdust and tools everywhere, the occasional hole in the floor.  You probably don’t want to let a kid in those rooms yet, at least not unattended.


Adding to the Tradition is part of the Tradition.  Always has been.  When Moses gave the Torah, the only music in the Tabernacle liturgy was somebody occasionally blowing a trumpet.  And not a Louis Armstrong trumpet, either — a shofar, a hollowed-out ram’s horn.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the shofar.  But there’s a reason nobody’s recording a whole CD of shofar music.  It’s not capable of a particularly broad range of musical expression.  Along comes David, and brings the Ark up to Jerusalem, where the Temple will one day be.  He makes musical instruments, writes psalms, and organizes the Levites to bring a service of musical worship that parallels the service of animal sacrifice in the Tabernacle.  There’s not two words about any of this in Torah, but David does it anyway, and when Solomon builds the Temple, the musical worship is included in the Temple as well as the animal sacrifice.

Scraping off accumulated barnacles is also part of the Tradition.  Jesus does this very forcefully in a number of ways, with His “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” utterances, His parables, His miracles and actions.  But Jesus is not leading some sort of fundamentalist “Back to Torah!” movement.  When He cleanses the Temple, He drives out the bazaar in the court of the Gentiles, but He leaves the choristers and musicians alone.  He celebrates Hanukkah, too.  Some changes harmoniously build on and glorify the foundation that has been laid; others obscure and obstruct it.  Jesus differentiates between the two, as well He ought to, since He’s about to introduce some innovations of His own.

Of course it’s not as simple as “good accretions” versus “bad accretions” to the Tradition.  To everything there is a season: some accretions are glorious in their time, but not intended to be everlasting.  The Tabernacle gave way to the Temple.  Animal sacrifice gave way to the death and resurrection of the Messiah.  (The folks in charge of offering sacrifices were a little slow to take the hint, so about 40 years later God razed the Temple to the ground.  Hadrian constructed a temple to Jupiter some 40 years after that, God apparently preferring demon-worship on the Temple Mount over the emptiness of animal sacrifice after His Son’s death.)  The feast of the peace offering gave way to the feast of the Lord’s Table.  Sipping grape juice at that Table will give way to drinking new wine with Jesus in the Kingdom of His Father, as we hear Him declare the Father’s praises in our midst…but I’m getting carried away.  Back to the Tradition…

It’s a living Tradition, a succession of experiences and relationships mediated by the Holy Spirit.  Along the way, there are ordinations, baptisms, structures of civil and ecclesiastical government, and so on, but the succession of those things is a characteristic of the Tradition, not its backbone.  The Tradition is the life of the Church, the Body, the fullness of Christ, and is in turn perichoretically filled by the Holy Spirit.  It is the life God gives, manifested among men.  Think River Ecclesiology here — where the living water flows, the Tradition is alive. 

The Spirit inspired the Scriptures within that mighty stream of experiences and relationships: “Holy men spoke as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit.”  The Scriptures are part and parcel of the Tradition.  It’s a serious category mistake to talk about “Scripture and Tradition” as though the two were separate sources — no matter which one you want to have primacy.

Can the Tradition be wrong?  Of course.  If Christ is not risen, if Yahweh is not king above all gods, if the gods of the nations are not idols, then the Tradition is finally, fatally, irrevocably wrong.  But since Christ is risen, Yahweh is king above all gods, and all the gods of the nations are deaf and dumb idols…the Tradition is not wrong.

Praise Yahweh for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!