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.


What is the Kingdom of God?

27 August 2019

We looked last week at the difficulties inherent in saying that the Kingdom of God is future (which it is) and still trying to maintain that it is somehow a present reality (which Jesus said it was.) That causes headaches, and one of the major questions that arises is “What do we mean by ‘Kingdom of God’?”

So let’s tackle that. I need to begin by observing that we get in a lot of trouble when we over-theologize biblical words in the effort to manufacture theological terms. People who talk/teach for a living love doing that sort of thing–it makes job security for them–but the truth is often much simpler. This is one of those cases.

The kingdom of God is where God rules.

There you go.

All the rest of this post is in anticipation of the acute whataboutitis that afflicts theological discussions. They want it to be more complicated than it really is. 

Does God rule in heaven now? Yes. So that’s part of God’s Kingdom. Will He rule on Earth on the last day? Absolutely. So that’s what the consummated Kingdom looks like. Was God’s rule extended when Jesus cast out that guy’s demon in Luke 11? Yup, sure was. So the Kingdom of God came right there. (See Luke 11:20 and its parallel in Matthew 12:28, and note the verb tenses.)

In between the Fall and the Consummation, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God, and said so. His followers preached the word of the Kingdom, and did the works of the Kingdom, as Jesus did. We still do so today (saving where we have accepted the excuses of institutionalized unbelief and allowed ourselves to be discouraged from actually following Jesus.)

From that day to this, anywhere the word of the Kingdom is obeyed and the works of the Kingdom are done, the Kingdom of God has come upon you, just as it once did in Jesus’ day.

Has the Kingdom come in its permanent fullness? No. No more than it did in Jesus’ day. Is the kingdom really, truly present? Yes—just as it was in Jesus’ day. Then He was bodily present. Today, He is present in His Body, and where the King is present, honored, and obeyed, the Kingdom is among you.


Biblical Voices: the Sage

30 May 2019

The Bible is a book of specific, verbal revelation. In it, God speaks. You would expect such a book to lead off its proclamations with phrases like “Thus saith the Lord…,” and in many places it does.

However, not in all.

In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular, we find a different voice coming to the fore. It’s not the voice of a prophet or a priest, delivering a word directly from God. It’s the voice of the sage, the wise man observing the world. Where the prophet says, “God said…” the sage says “Here’s what I saw…,” and then “Go look for yourself!”

Van Til and other thinkers downstream from him have made much of the observation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. So it is. If you don’t start there, they will say, then you haven’t got anything. I want to make a slightly different point. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of wisdom. There’s nothing holy about willfully remaining a beginner. The goal is to grow.

So once you have the fear of the Lord, you have the beginning. What more do you need? Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!

Do you see? A sage, speaking in Scripture, is telling you to go outside Scripture into the world, pay attention to what is happening there, and contemplate it–because you will gain wisdom by so doing.

Can you interpret the world wrongly? Sure. Just like you can interpret verbal revelation wrongly. Discernment is required. Mistakes will be made. But God has given us the task: it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out. Let’s be about it.


Levels of Language

3 August 2018

A couple years ago, I read Paul Graham’s ruminations on higher- and lower-level languages in Hackers and Painters. Although he’s talking about computer languages, his insights have bearing on biblical language and hermeneutics. So bear with me while I lay out some of the basic points, and then we’ll look at the applications. 

  • The very lowest level of language has a very small number of things it can do. Every level up combines those basic instructions in increasingly complex ways to get tasks done.
  • Anything a computer can do, you can do in binary. But you can’t do some things in Basic that you can do in C++, and you can’t do some things in C++ that you can do in Lisp (Graham’s examples; I wouldn’t know). Lower-level languages lack the abstractions and features that higher-level languages have.
  • Perhaps equally important, many of the things you can do in all 3 languages take more steps in Basic than C++, and more steps in C++ than Lisp. The code is longer, the further down the hierarchy you go. Longer code tends to breed more mistakes, because humans don’t deal well with obsessive levels of detail.
  • Conversely, the higher the level of language, the faster you can work. If it takes 3x longer to write in (say) C++ than in Lisp, and your competitor is writing in C++, he can’t keep up with you. A feature that takes you a month to program takes him 3 to duplicate. A feature that takes him 3 months to program, you can duplicate in 1. When you’re ahead, you’re way ahead. When you’re behind, you catch up quickly.
  • A programmer thinks primarily in a certain language. Down the hierarchy, he can see that all the languages are lower level than his preferred one, because “they don’t even have [feature].” Up the hierarchy from his primary language, the languages just look weird, because he doesn’t think in them. So they have these higher-order abstractions that he can’t quite grasp, or he can’t see what anybody would ever want them for.

One other observation that is going to be important for this: good programmers often don’t solve a really difficult problem. They formulate another (easier) problem that is the practical equivalent of the hard one, and then solve that.

So given that, the analogy for biblical studies:

  • Basic linguistic/textual analysis tools like sentence diagramming or outlining are like machine code. There’s a very limited number of options, and it’s very laborious to describe what’s happening in the text.
  • Didactic literature is the next level up. It’s using the linguistic options available in a pretty basic, transparent way. 
  • Narrative comes after that. While narrative is often grammatically simpler than didactic (paratactic rather than hypotactic, and so on), there are some very complex things going on that you really can’t get at with a sentence diagram. The tools you use to decode didactic literature aren’t sufficient to interpret narrative well. 
  • Proverbs, parables and typology are very high-level, an order of magnitude beyond narrative. 

So if you think in Didactic, and you do it well enough to really have it and know you have it, then you know you don’t quite have a handle on Narrative. Narrative operates with a whole set of signifiers that your interpretive grid doesn’t know what to do with. And you really have an awful time with Typology. (This was the case for the folks that trained me in exegesis. We had a great set of tools for didactic literature, and we knew we didn’t have a parallel set of tools for narrative. And for typology? Forget it! One of our hermeneutics texts seriously claimed that we could only identify something as a type if the New Testament (didactic) literature said it was!)

Conversely, if you can operate in Typology, you can certainly handle Narrative. And when you go to prove a point using Narrative, your argument makes no sense to a Didactic-speaker, because your reasoning just doesn’t translate into his language (and it’s worse if you use Typology!) You’re using higher-order abstractions that he simply doesn’t have. If we are going to be good interpreters of Scripture, it’s not enough to grasp the didactic literature. We need to learn to read the higher levels of language as well. 

And then, because we are called to speak like God speaks, we need to learn to speak at higher levels of language, too. It comes in handy. I was having breakfast with a group of friends a while back, and one of the guys was making his case for education outside the home (and against homeschooling). His argument centered around the impossibility of sheltering your kids from the prevailing culture forever, and homeschoolers’ inability to cope with the culture when they were suddenly thrown into it at age 19 or so. He took maybe 10 minutes, and early on I told him I was going to rebut him. As he reached the end of his case, someone pointed out what time it was, and he said “Oh, crap! I gotta go!” As he was getting up from his chair to put on his coat, he said to me “But you were going to argue against that. I’m sorry about this, but can you say it fast?”

I said, “‘As arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.’ You want to send your arrows out in the midst of your enemies — but you don’t let your enemies mess with the arrows while the glue on the fletchings is still wet.”

He got it. I was able to cleanly counterpoint his 10-minute speech in 2 sentences because I was able to find a way to operate at a proverb/parable/type level of discourse. Of course, that’s not the same thing as winning the argument, and I’d have really liked to have more time. But I laid out a relevant objection to his point of view and gave us room for further discussion. Not bad for 2 sentences. 

The Bible is genius-level communication, and the more time we spend with it, the better off we’ll be. Read first for what it’s telling you. After you start to have a good handle on that, start reading for the lessons in communication. I promise, you’ll learn whole new ways of speaking well.


Not Working for the Same Boss

26 April 2018

Last post, I addressed speaking as God speaks, and the fear that keeps us from doing it.  The more common manifestations of divisiveness in the body of Christ have also been a regular feature in discussion here, and in this post, I want to suggest that those two subjects are closely related.

We don’t want to speak as God speaks because we know that our gnat-strangling, separatist brethren will treat us like heretics if we do.  They’ve done it before, and we don’t want to be next.  Moreover, we know perfectly well that “But that’s exactly what the Bible says” will not be a good enough excuse.  It may save us at the heresy trial — don’t count on it! — but we’ll still become outsiders.

Fear of man brings a snare,” like the wise man said. So how do we get rid of the fear? “Perfect love casts out fear.” If we are willing to receive God’s love, then divine love will overflow from our hearts onto everyone around us. That context of divine love is necessary for this next bit, because “though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” In love, let us speak as God speaks, not only to the gnat-strangling separatists, but about their gnat-strangling ways.

This might be a rough ride, kids. Find something to hold onto. Here we go:

These people say they’re serving Christ. That’s what it says in the doctrinal statement, and the church constitution, and the membership covenant.  It’s even on the big sign out in front of the church: “Serving Christ in our community since 1982.”

They’re not. They are serving their own appetites, their own lusts.  Simple as that.  Some people want power, some want to feel superior, others have other sinful desires that they are gratifying by dividing Christ’s body.  But mark it down, no matter what they say, they are not serving Him, but themselves. If that sounds harsh, just wait. It gets worse.

Their victims are complicit in the sin. These people get away with playing their divisive games for so long because they flatter people.  They’re good talkers, sure, but bottom line, it’s a spiritual con game.  They tell you that by joining with them, you’re in the know, you’re more righteous, whatever you want to hear.  Because they’re stroking your ego, you don’t look too closely at the reasoning; you want it to be true.  They deceive you, sure, but you’re complicit in it; if you were struggling for godly humility the way you should be, you’d see right through their nonsense.

How do I know this?  How can I dare to judge motives this way?  Can I see their hearts, or yours? Read Romans 16:17-18, and then ask yourself: Can you dare not to speak in exactly this way?

So now what? Do we shun them, just like they were going to shun us?

Not a bit of it. God loves these people. He’s crazy about them. Do you think He would shun them? Of course not. He came to save them. So this is where we ask what Jesus would do…or better still, what Jesus did do.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to draw bright lines.  He would heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the gospel for anybody: Jew, Roman, tax collector, didn’t matter. (He gave that Syro-Phoenecian woman a hard time once, but He did the miracle all the same.) But when it came to close fellowship, He set the bar a little higher. The guy who said he’d follow Jesus as soon as he’d buried his father? Jesus wasn’t having any of that. “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

You gotta believe that when Jesus picked out the 70, there was a 71st guy who wanted to be on the team, but didn’t make the cut. When He picked the 12 who would walk with Him, surely most of the 70 would have wanted in on that. Among the 12, there were 3 who went up the mountain of transfiguration. You best believe the other 9 guys would have given their right ears to be there too. What’s the point? Jesus would serve anybody, but He was very selective about who He walked closely with. (And take a look at John 2:23-25. Jesus was not the naively trusting sort.)

So how did He pick? The same way He did anything: “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do.” Luke 6 says He went out all night on the mountain to pray, and when it was day, He chose the 12. He listened to the Father. There is no substitute for listening to the Father.

Paul has given us some guidance. Notice those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to Jesus’ teaching, and avoid them, because despite what their doctrinal statement says, they are not working for the same boss you are. So be obedient, like Jesus was. Serve anybody. Love everybody. Walk closely with a few that you pick after much prayer.

Follow what the Father gave you in the Word, too. You’re not going to walk closely with a divisive person; Paul and the Holy Spirit say not to. That doesn’t mean God is going to steer you to easy people; remember that one of the 12 was a traitor, and despite his good intentions, Peter was no picnic either. God has a purpose in all He does.

So what does this look like in practice? I have one person (the Lady Wife) who has complete access to my life, period. Nothing is closed to her. I have a few people that have near-complete access to my life, and I to theirs. They are devoted followers of Jesus who have stuck with me through good times and bad, and I treasure them. We live in each other’s lives. I have a range of divisive folks in my life. I love them. I serve them as the occasion arises. I do not, however, partner closely with them. How could I? We’re not working for the same boss.


If the Trumpet Makes an Uncertain Sound…

19 April 2018

I heard something really appalling the other day in a sermon by a Christian brother of mine.  Now you’ve got to understand, this guy hasn’t had any formal training in the Word, but he’s walked with the Lord for a long time, and he has a gift for being doctrinally spot-on.  I really expected better of him.  I’m not going to name the guy — I don’t want to embarrass him — but it so perfectly highlights a common problem that I’m going to quote you the offending portion of what he said:

Remember how God waited patiently back in Noah’s time, while they made the ark?  Remember how in the ark God saved eight people by water, the water of the flood?  This is a pattern for us, and it corresponds to our salvation.  In the same way, what saves us is baptism.  Now I’m not talking about just washing off dirt; I’m talking about baptism as a response to God from a good conscience.  And we can have that good conscience because Christ rose from the dead and has ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and all the powers are under Him.

Now, no matter what this sounds like, I know this guy, and I assure you that he soundly believes in justification by faith.  That’s why I’m so stunned that he would talk this way.  I mean, you expect it from a Roman Catholic, or a Church of Christ guy, but him?  No way.  In his defense, he does get the qualifiers in, right?  He’s very careful to say that it’s not just about the physical act of baptism; it’s about baptism as an expression of a heart that’s right toward God — so presumably the faith would be there.  But still, what a confusing way to say it!

When he’s discussing the use of tongues in the church service, Paul says this:

Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played?  For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?  So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

Let me be clear: Paul is speaking about interpretation of tongues.  That’s the primary context.  But the principle surely applies: If we speak unclearly, then people will won’t understand, and we’re just — at best — talking into the air.  If we’re lucky, they’ll just walk away scratching their heads and thinking, “I wonder what that was about?”  More likely, they’ll misunderstand, and in a case like this that can cause real spiritual trouble.

It’s obvious — or at least it ought to be.  If you say “what saves us is baptism,” you’ll have people starting to think that getting dunked in the water (or sprinkled) somehow has something to do with your salvation.  You’ll have people who haven’t been baptized beginning to wonder if maybe they’re not really saved yet.  You’re going to have all kinds of salvation-by-works trouble.

Back before I heard him say this, I would have thought it would be great to go out and evangelize with this guy, but now I’m starting to wonder.  Maybe I’m better off staying away from him, if he’s going to be that careless.

*****

Okay, so for those of you who haven’t tumbled to it yet, the “offending” quote is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:20b-22.

But I’m right, aren’t I?  If somebody got up and said “Water baptism saves you” out loud, across the pulpit, in one of our churches, he’d hear all the things I said, wouldn’t he? Of course, he could defend himself by saying, “Hey, it’s right there in 1 Peter!”

Do you think that would work?

If your answer is yes, then I want you to put your reputation on the line by trying it.

A little reluctant?  A little nervous about it?  Tell you what, I’ll let you qualify the statement however you want, just so the words “baptism saves us” come out your mouth — and you make it clear that you’re talking about water baptism.

Still nervous?

I was too.  And that’s sin. Let me ask you, is it righteous to speak in the way that Peter and the Holy Spirit are speaking?  Of course.  Should we speak about things in the way that God teaches us to speak about them in the Bible?  Yes.  And should we be hungry to learn how to do this?  Yes again.

But we aren’t.  We’re scared.  We don’t want to learn to speak like God speaks about things.  We don’t want to make waves, or rather, we want to make only the waves that are pre-approved by our communities.  We want to speak the language of our doctrinal statements, and if that means there are certain plainly biblical things that we just can’t say, then so much the worse for the Bible.  God should have been a little more clear if He wanted us to follow His example.

Oh, yeah.  This is sin.

Jesus had a different take on things: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  If this is a righteous way of speaking — and it is — then we should be hungry for it.  And Jesus tells us that if we hunger for it, that hunger will be satisfied.  We will be able to see our way clear to speaking that way, if only we want to.

But we don’t want to.  Doesn’t Jesus know how people will talk about us, if we do this?

Jesus thought of that.  “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you.”

*****

So there it is: Water baptism saves us, just like the waters of the flood saved Noah and his family.

*****

You’ll note I haven’t tried to explain away the passage or rescue my theological credentials.  I just said what the passage says, and left it there.

Does that bother you?