Monday, November 26, 2012

Dull Reading is Misinterpretation

Pastors and teachers spend a lot of time ensuring that they are properly interpreting the Bible. To do this they must not only study the text but must also study how to study. A continual examination of the appropriate methods of interpretation and application characterize those who feel the weight of their responsibility to teach the Word of God to His people. The major concern is always that the message taught is the message that God intended when He breathed forth the passage. Often, however, we spend so much time concerned about our explanation of the text that we forget that the reading of the text aloud also involves a process of interpretation. If our presentation of the text does not convey the tone and emphasis of the author, we give a misinterpretation even though we faithfully share the inerrant words. The Word of God is not boring and when we read it to people as though it is the list of ingredients on the back of a cereal box, we fail to communicate its message accurately and do violence to the text.

At no point should our teaching or preaching degenerate into a stage performance, but many of us could learn valuable lessons from those who have finely tuned their oral interpretation skills. The reason why listening to Alexander Scourby or James Earl Jones read the Bible is so much more powerful than listening to ourselves read is not just because they have been gifted with wonderful voices. It is because they have been trained in the art of oral interpretation. They are able to use emphasis, pauses, and varied speed and volume to vividly convey the imagery and tone of the text to the mind of the listeners. I am not at all advocating preachers or teachers being overly dramatic. We certainly do not want to use rhetorical devices that distract from the message, but a certain amount of oral interpretation is necessary to communicate the text faithfully. If we read Paul’s warnings, the exhortations of the prophets, or Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees without conveying the cutting power, urgency, and boldness of those statements we deprive the congregation of the full impact of what God has revealed even though all of the content is there.

As teachers and readers of the Bible, we are supposed to declare the full counsel of God. If we fail to communicate the tone and tension of the passages we read, we fall short of what we are called to do. We all know that we may hear different preachers preach the same text and essentially make the same points and yet one message will be powerful while the other will be forgettable. Often the reason is not that the observations or applications of one are any better than the other but rather that the better preacher takes time to let the Word itself settle into minds of the congregation rather than hurrying through it to get to what he wants to say. I believe that if we spend more time carefully communicating the words of the biblical text itself we would serve our churches better.

This advice is not limited just to preachers and teachers. Often one of the most underappreciated elements of the worship service is the scripture reading. It does not help that it often seems to be tacked onto or squeezed into the flow of the service. Sadly, some churches have eliminated the practice altogether. Why is it that God’s people often do not respond to the scripture reading? It is, after all, the very word of God. Perhaps it is because quite often it is not allowed to breathe. The power and majesty of the text are frequently undermined by our poor delivery of it. I am convicted that this is an area that I need to work on in my own teaching. I pray that if you are a person who has an opportunity to read the Bible publicly that you would give some prayerful thought to this issue. God is not dull, His word is not boring, and our communication of His revelation should not obscure that.

God Bless

Monday, November 19, 2012

Is The Bible Hearsay?

The testimony of the Bible is the foundation for the Christian faith. Many have argued, however, that the testimony the Bible gives is hearsay. As such, they argue that it would not even be admissible in court and is insufficient as testimonial evidence for anything it affirms. One of the best examples of this argument is found in the writing of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine who was one of the first to publish it widely for a popular audience. Paine is most famous for his pamphlets Common Sense and Rights of Man, but he also penned a theological treatise (arguing for Deism) called The Age of Reason where along with various other attacks on the Bible, he offers the hearsay argument against the Christian faith.

Paine writes, “But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it. It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.” (Paine, The Age of Reason, Section 1)

This argument goes right to the heart of the obligation of humankind to accept the Word of God and so it deserves an answer. A common Christian response is to offer an analysis of types of evidence and testimony, usually pointing out that in any case not all hearsay is inadmissible in court. Often, this is followed by evidence that the text of scripture is historically reliable and so forth. These responses may have their place but in this case, the response must address something more fundamental. Technically speaking the criticism is a straw man argument because although it might work on a popular level it does not properly address the Christian doctrine of how revelation through the Word of God functions.

The thrust of the argument is that we believe that God revealed certain information to prophets or apostles who then told others, either in person or through their writing. That, however, is not the Christian doctrine. Some modern theologians have argued that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation but the traditional Protestant view is not that the Bible is a record of revelation but that the Bible is revelation. This is a small distinction but it makes a massive difference.

Hearsay describes an indirect communication as when a person receives information that is at least one level removed from the source. The Christian view of revelation, however, is that the Bible is direct communication from God to those who read or hear it. We do not consider the Bible to be an indirect communication. We do not understand its accuracy to be dependent upon the veracity of Moses, Paul, or John. It is in every sense the Word of God and people are therefore under obligation to believe it. The Bible itself makes this claim in various places, perhaps most clearly in Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy. Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16 ESV) He is claiming unequivocally that God is the author of the Bible. The claims are not the claims of the apostles and prophets; they are the very claims of God. The transmission of the Bible is therefore a miraculous process whereby God reveals through rather than merely to His chosen messengers.

The written Word of God is therefore similar to the incarnate Word of God in that it is both human and divine. The scriptures are the thoughts of God expressed through human language and literature. The Bible is not merely a witness to revelation, nor does it only become revelation in encounter, or depend on the responses of men for its validity or its standing as revelation. The inspiration of its writing is not in the sense that God dictated each word but rather that the Holy Spirit influenced the mind of the human author such that he selected out of his own experience and vocabulary exactly those words that conveyed God’s message precisely. These human words are therefore properly God’s words though communicated through the particular style and vocabulary of the various human authors.

The message is not mediated to us through the prophets or apostles in the sense that it is a message they received and then give to us. Rather, the message is mediated directly to us through the work of God the Holy Spirit as His word is read or preached. As a result, anyone who has read the Bible, heard a scripture reading, or heard a faithful exposition of the Bible from a teacher or preachers has heard the very voice of God and is therefore under obligation to submit to it. If, as Paine argues, revelation is limited to the first communication then based upon a proper understanding of the doctrine of the Bible any who have heard the message have received direct testimony from God. They will therefore be responsible for their acceptance or rejection of it. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bible Study Tips: Look for Pattern Variation

I have written often about how important it is to identify repeated words and concepts when studying the Bible. Doing so helps us to identify the main themes and topics within the book or passage that we are studying. The value of paying close attention to repetition, however, is not limited to this role. Often slight variation on common or expected repetition can provide helpful insight as well. This works at both a big-picture level (something I plan to deal with in a future post) and on the micro level which is where today’s Bible study tip is focused. In this post, I want to explore how a slight variation on a common repetition can add reinforcement to a particular theme that is in view. Of course, our goal in study should always be to understand the plain meaning of the text but these subtle reinforcements of the message help us to appreciate the richness of the Bible and the glory of God in His revelation of Himself.

As an example let us examine one of the statements that Jesus makes while on the cross. Both Matthew and Mark record that “…about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Matthew 27:46 ESV, c.f. MK 15:34)

The emphasis of this verse is clear enough. Jesus is asking why God has abandoned Him.
For the first time Jesus is experiencing separation from the Father as He takes upon himself the sins of His people. He is experiencing a separation from the Father that He has never known. Theologically we understand that this separation is the result of God’s righteous judgment of sin. Many people point out that Christ’s words here are a quotation from the 22nd Psalm and that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of David’s famous lament. What many people often miss, however, is just how unique these words actually are in the mouth of our Lord.

Jesus prayed constantly. The Bible repeatedly describes Him praying or going off to pray. In most cases we are not told exactly what He prayed about but there are at least 10 or 12 times where some of the specific words He used are recorded. Remarkably, this verse and the parallel verse in Mark are the only instances I know of where Jesus does not address God as Father when speaking to Him. In fact, when He teaches the disciples how to pray He instructs them to address God as Father also.

Whatever else might be intended by the use of “father” as a title for God it is certain that a certain intimate relationship is implied. Father, while being a title of authority and respect, is also a signifier of a close relationship. It is therefore interesting that the only place where Jesus does not address God as “Father” is when He is crying out to ask why He has been forsaken. It is only when Jesus is aware of His separation from God (due to our sin) that He addresses God as sovereign deity rather than the normal address of familiarity. While the meaning of the verse is sufficiently clear, knowing this detail adds gravity to the scene and reinforces the theme of separation. Not only do we see the pain of our Lord as He cries out to God but the very words that He uses indicate how dramatically His relationship with the Father has changed as He takes the place we deserve.

By noticing this slight alteration to the normal pattern that Jesus uses when He prays we are able to notice a “layer” of the text that reinforces the theme and deepens the force of the statement. Paying close attention to these slight variations can often lead to observations about passages that deepen our understanding. If you are interested in taking this further I suggest you begin by studying each of the introductions to Paul’s letters. Look carefully at how each one slightly alters the general pattern then pay close attention to how the variations relate to the message of each particular letter. You can then go on to apply this kind of observation to other texts.

I pray God blesses your continued study.