Category Archives: Scripture

Skipping Scripture

I’m skipping church this morning.

Well, not precisely. I’m skipping MY church. I’m skipping the church where my heart is. I’m skipping worshipping with the community I have come to love and appreciate.

I’m skipping because people tell me I must. That I need to be on vacation. That I need to take a break. And so, I, with my family, will worship with others today, in a place where I can be relatively anonymous, which is somewhat contrary, in my mind, to what church is supposed to be.

Because of that, I have a bit more time on my hands – time I rarely have on a Sunday morning. It is the Lord’s day, and so to turn my thoughts in His direction I casually picked up Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace, one which I’ve been working through occasionally over the past few months. Her perspective, different as it is from my own, is often stimulating. (Previous comments here and here and here.)

It only took a few paragraphs (pages 189-190, if you are following along at home) for me to be impacted. She notes the irony that in Protestant churches, especially those of the more evangelical type, worship consists of so little reading of Scripture. In the history of protestant churches men and women died to secure the right to have the Scriptures in the language of the people, died to have access to the Bible. In evangelical churches, we speak of the centrality of Scripture and call ourselves Bible-believing and toss the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura around like a talisman. But one would be hard pressed to prove that the Bible means anything to us judging from the amount that is read in worship.

Our contemporary services of worship don’t allow for the tedious and drawn out reading of Scripture. We sing about Jesus, but do not listen to his words or the prophets who spoke about him. We read the text given for the sermon, but little more. If the pastor does not preach on the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve not done for many years, a congregation will never hear its promises and warnings and rhythms and tone.

But they can read it at home, no? Perhaps. But that cannot be taken for granted. And what they read, they often do not understand. The Bible was never meant to be a private book. It belongs to the church and needs to be read in the church. I’m saddened and somewhat embarrassed by this lack in my own congregation. It takes time, it may seem tedious, it may seem opaque. But is it not worth it if in so doing we build a growing rootedness in the book from which we learn of life?

My own, admittedly private, reading of Scripture earlier this morning came from, ironically (or providentially!), Psalm 119. I was struck with this verse:

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)

I wondered how one comes to view God’s word with such longing. Perhaps God is pointing me in at least one direction toward an answer.

How to Read a Bible

As one committed to historic Christianity I believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture – that God so moved the writers that what was written was precisely what he wanted written. But I also believe that what was written, being written by human beings in human language, is to be approached and read in most respects as we would approach and read any other book. We need not apply any special code or method (and we certainly don’t need bibles edited for every possible demographic, but that’s for another post).

Years ago, I read what I thought to be a curiously titled book, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. The premise of the book was that though most of us can ‘read’ words on a page, few of us have developed the ability to read for understanding. I found to be extremely helpful on a number of levels.
It struck me as I read it that if any of us were to apply his insights to the simple reading of the Bible we would come away with a good bit more understanding and, perhaps more importantly, far less mis-understanding.

I get giddy when really smart people agree with me. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth is an excellent little book on understanding the Bible written by Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee. They ask, “How do we learn to do good exegesis? (“Exegesis” is a fancy word for the process of understanding the Bible.) Their answer, among other insights, includes this:

“The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. One of the best things one could do in this regard would be to read Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940, rev. ed. With Charles Van Doren, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972). Our experience over many years in college and seminary teaching is that many people simply do not know how to read well. To read or study the Bible intelligently demands careful reading, and that includes learning to ask the right questions of the text.”

I still get giddy when I read that. But I’m weird that way.

On Study Bible Alternatives

In the previous post, I mentioned my hesitancy regarding study bibles. Continuing to quote from my response to my friend, I consider the alternatives, if there are any.

But is there an alternative?

A great alternative would be for a publisher to publish the Bible and the notes separately. This would satisfy my concerns. I wish someone would publish a book called “The Reformation Bible Study Companion” or something like that which would print the notes from a study bible in its own stand alone format. This would make the valuable content available but would keep it separate from the text of Scripture itself.

But no one in our modern era has done that. However, in my mind, there is a great alternative. If one was not to buy a study bible, I would recommend this that as a companion to your bible you have at hand a copy of IVP’s New Bible Commentary.          

This is a commentary on the whole bible written by some of the best of conservative evangelical scholars. The editors themselves are worthy of note. Donald Carson, Alec Motyer, Gordon Wenham, and RT France are all trustworthy guides with no axe to grind other than a love for the biblical text. It does use the NIV as its base text, but that is not really a problem as the commentators themselves take the original text into consideration as they comment. 

The only downside is that it is hard to carry with you. Anyone caught carrying this to a bible study would be instantly labeled as one slightly left of normal, whereas carting in a study bible raises no eyebrows. It is strictly a ‘look it up at home’ kind of resource. But at the same time, you have at hand thoughtful reflection on every passage of the bible and not just those the editors of the study bibles think need explication.

So, for what it is worth, my recommendation would be to keep your own bible in hand, and instead of spending $30 on a study bible, spend it on this commentary. If, on the other hand, one wants the more theologically oriented commentary found in a study bible, then buy the one you are looking at, but use it as a reference and not as your primary portal into God’s word.

[There is another resource I'd pick up if I were you. R. C. Sproul's book Knowing Scripture really is a great tool for learning how to read scripture. I'd recommend you get this as well, regardless of what route you take in study bibles or alternatives.]

Thanks for trusting me enough to ask my opinion.


On Study Bibles

I was asked recently by a friend what I thought of his purchasing the ESV Study Bible. If he thought that I had perused and had an informed opinion on this particular study bible, he was wrong. If, though, he imagined that I had an opinion, well, on that score he was not far off. I reproduce my (slightly edited) answer here and in a subsequent post because I think there are some important matters the very existence of study bibles raises.

Several responses come to mind.

1) Since I don’t use a study bible, I’m not a good one to review this one for you. I’ve never held a copy in my hand, never flipped through the pages, never looked directly at any of the notes. So, I have no personal knowledge of it. That said, I can’t imagine where I would quibble with it. I’m sure the comments are sound and trustworthy. I suspect that in the study bible world, you could do much worse.

2) That said, I’m not a big fan of study bibles in general. You may write this off as one of Randy’s many idiosyncrasies, a word which has a lot in common with ‘idiot’ and ‘crazy’, but I think I have some good reasons for my tepid attitude.

a. Study bibles are heavy. Probably not the best reason, but it does play into my thoughts on the matter. People don’t normally spend the money for a study bible and then more money for one to cart around – they cart around the large study bible. There is I suppose the cardio-vascular benefits to consider here, but aside from that, it is something to take into consideration. (Wouldn’t it be great to be able to leave the notes at home and use them only when you needed them? More on that later.)

b. More important reasons for questioning study bibles are these:

i. When studying a text of Scripture, what is the best way to approach a difficult section? The best way is to stare at it, ask questions about it, ponder it, wrestle with it, and think through a few ways of unraveling the puzzle. That is hard, but it is the best way to really chew on scripture and allow scripture to get into our heads and hearts. It’s after wrestling with a text’s possible meanings ourselves, that there is value in consulting what others have said about the text. The major and most weighty problem I have with study bibles is that they encourage laziness in confronting the text. They allow us to too swiftly find an answer, and not just any answer, but, if we are not careful, an answer we consider to be THE answer because RC Sproul (or Charles Ryrie, or whomever) said it. 

ii. A subtle but consequent result is that the lines between the text of scripture (fully authoritative) and a given interpretation of that text (not necessarily authoritative) begin to blur because the two occur on the same printed page between covers that are stamped ‘Holy Bible’. This is subtle, I know, but I think it is an issue. Months, years later, we may find ourselves searching for something we read in the Bible, when, in reality, it’s not in the Bible at all – it was in a footnote or a side bar in a study bible we once owned.

These concerns, to me, are weighty and worth your consideration. But I’m not going to condemn anyone for disagreeing with me. And like I said, I think if one is going to get a study bible, this is probably a good choice.

To be continued…

John the Painter

I’m getting closer to the day when I will preach through the book of Revelation. It is such a fascinating book, but one about which so many people have such strong opinions. I want to make sure that I can swim before I wade into those waters.

Recently a certain motif, a certain way of looking at the book, has occupied my mind which, if justified, may be very helpful in my trying to understand and then to communicate the sense of the book. John, it seems to me, was a painter.

So much damage has been done to the book by trying to force it into a linear pre-telling of human history. The book does not bear a forced linear interpretation and those who try to treat it as an overlay of current human history are always embarrassed by the result.

We need to think of the book less like a western history and more like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is a collection of images masterfully sketched and shaded and ordered to convey a grand vision of God for his people, some who are facing severe persecution and others who are in danger of allowing their passion to dry up and blow away. It is a great work of art in which a variety of images come together to form a unified whole which speaks more than the individual images isolated from one another.

I’ve not developed this much further, and would not be sharing it here were it not for some corroborative input from the late New Testament Scholar Donald Guthrie. In his New Testament Introduction he assesses the structure in this way:

The majority of interpreters of this book assume that the action is not intended to be continuously described but rather that successive groups of visions each portray similar events in different ways. (page 969)

Much time spent in the evangelical subculture would lead one to be surprised by this statement. Most, in the evangelical world ASSUME that the book contains history ‘continuously described’, and that before it happens.

I know that seeing the book as a series of images or impressions is nothing new. But I also know that it is not a view often spoken. I make mention of it here as a help for those of you reading the book and as a helpful alternative for those whose thinking is only informed by the linear approach.

I’m hoping that thinking down this line might help us make better sense of a difficult but profound book. I’m thinking I will begin to preach on the book by the end of 2014 should the Lord tarry and I not come to my sensese.

Lenten Fast

Predictably this time of year debates ramp up over the propriety of the observance of Lent in the Church. I’m not interested enough in those debates to enter into them now. What I can affirm is that properly framed, fasting is good and commended by Jesus. And I can also testify that fasting from anything is anathema to me because the stuff I love, I love. I don’t let go easily.

But I’m fasting this Lent, and am loving it.

I’m a naturally introspective person. And generally, when I turn my thoughts inward, I don’t like what I see. My sin, my weakness, my personality defects, my lack of faith, often overwhelm me. And I can’t seem to help it.

Consequently, when I read the scriptures, I don’t see the kindness and compassion of God. I see more readily my inability to hold on to God’s promises, I see my weak commitment to holiness, I see commands that I’ve been unable to keep.

THAT is what I’ve decided to give up for Lent.

My focus this season – and one hopes there is a lasting effect – is to read Scripture with the goal of simply seeing my Savior. I read and reflect upon the attributes of God. I’m not allowed to ponder long my defects along the way.

I’m not expecting this to give me a whole new personality. I’ll still be far too quick to note my faults and highlight my failures. But perhaps incremental progress will matter in the long run.

A guy who cares too much about his appearance will look in the mirror and see only the mole on his nose or the hair out of place. Such a focus will wear him down to the place he can see nothing good. The remedy is to take his eyes off himself and look at the beauty of the One who loves him without concern for his appearance.

I’ve put away the mirror for Lent. Care to join me?

A Teacher

A follow-up to my two previous posts. If I find the time, someday, perhaps I will comment.

The bible as a means of grace requires reflection:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1, 2)

The bible as a means of grace requires community:

And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:27-29)

The bible as a means of grace requires integrity:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

But I Don’t Understand What I Read

An earlier post questioned the nearly universal assumption that to be a good and growing and maturing Christian, one needs to be a regular, preferably daily, reader of the bible. Being raised in the tradition that I have, it grates against me to question that. But years of experience as a pastor causes me to wonder if indeed it is true.

I have known people who were absolutely voracious students of the bible whose theological conclusions were wide of anything that could be construed as sound, and whose profession and character were far from godliness. At the same time, I’ve known wise and godly people who were sporadic readers of the bible. My experience is anecdotal, I know, and no match for the pollsters, and yet I wonder if there is not something to it.

There is a diversity in the mix of those who do or who try to read their bibles. Among that diversity, there are those who admit that there is much in the bible they do not understand. As well, there are others who stumble over the same passages, but are afraid to confess it. I can say this because I often read without understanding. I have a seminary degree. My day job requires me to study the bible. And yet, when I’m just reading the bible, there are large sections as opaque to me as they are to others.

There is no joy, and from what I can imagine, no longterm benefit from hours spent reading something that, truth be told, makes no sense to us. The lack of bible reading is no surprise to me.

The ‘fix-it’ answer to this dilemma, of course, would be to ‘teach them how to do it’. There is some sense to that, and maybe that is the answer, depending on how we conceive of the ‘teach them’. Inevitably, bookish people that we are, we will challenge bible non-readers to first read a good book on how to read the bible. Again, not a bad idea, but it does not somehow manage to address the issue.

The issue is not volume or depth of bible reading; the issue is the pathway to the knowledge of God. We understand that the word of God is a means of grace, a pathway to knowing and communing with God. But is reading the primary means by which that word becomes a pathway to God?

Though I may be wrong, bible ‘engagement’ (Stetzer) or ‘intake’ (Whitney) in the bible is nearly always a corporate act. We are to allow the word of God richly to dwell in us “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) We are to respect our “leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) Faith, it seems, comes by hearing (Romans 10:17) the word of God, through the gathering of God’s people and through its preaching (Romans 10:14).

Perhaps our evangelical emphasis upon bible reading is itself a reflection of the literate and individualistic culture of American Christianity. Yes, indeed, faith depends upon the word of God revealed, heard, understood, and applied to the heart. I’m just not convinced that the absence of bible reading is the precise thing to be alarmed about.

Again, I am interested to know what you think.

The (Bible Reading) Sky Is Falling

LifeWay Research has recently released an alarming statistic: less than 20% of churchgoers read the bible daily.

I have two problems with this. The first is ‘statistic’ and the second is the sense of ‘alarm’. I have addressed both of these concerns before. We are drawn to the seeming irrefutability of statistics and we seem to be only motivated by the sense of alarm that those stats can raise.

I find that when I am inundated with stats and alarm that I become numb to both. Lacking the tools to evaluate the methodology of the statistic purveyors, I am inclined to mostly ignore them.

But this study raises a more critical question. I really don’t doubt the general concept the study has measured: that few Christians read their bibles on a consistently regular basis. It’s been measured before, but common experience shows it to be true. My question here is not with the reality, but with the conclusion – that this is somehow an alarming thing.

Should we see this not as a measure of a crisis but the identification of a reality, akin to the fact that 99% of people who jump in pools, and 100% of them without scuba gear, get wet? That people do not and have not and may never read their bibles should not alarm us but be accepted as a simple reality. In this case, perhaps the question should not be ‘What can we do about this?’ but rather ‘Why are we surprised or concerned about this?’

Perhaps we should be willing to say that people do not read the bible and that is, generally, an okay thing.

Ed Stetzer of LifeWay, in discussing this study, doesn’t quite seem to know what language to use in addressing his concern. The study addresses ‘bible reading’ but he speaks of ‘bible engagement’. Maybe his term, akin perhaps to Donald Whitney’s ‘bible intake’, is purposely chosen to make room in the spiritual spectrum for the illiterate. Stetzer asks the question, “…if tangible life changes are statistically related to bible engagement in the life of a disciple of Christ, why aren’t more reading and studying the bible?” A reasonable answer might be that reading and studying are not the only ways, and perhaps not the primary way, by which people receive God’s word.

Few, I suppose, would disagree that the goal of the Christian life, and of bible reading, is to know God. And few would disagree that the book through which God has revealed himself is, in fact, important to that goal. But if spiritual growth occurred for fifteen hundred years before the printing press, and if maturity still somehow happens in cultures where literacy is low, and if, in fact, people who read their bibles infrequently still come to know God with depth and devotion, is it not reasonable to ask whether we have put too much emphasis upon the ‘necessity’ of individual, private bible reading? Is it possible that we focus here because bible reading is measurable and knowledge of God is not?

I ask this as a serious question and am interested in genuine responses. Do we put too much emphasis upon the idea of individual, private bible reading?

What Is That Text About?

Let’s start with a familiar story:

There was once a young Shepherd Boy who tended his sheep at the foot of a mountain near a dark forest. It was rather lonely for him all day, so he thought upon a plan by which he could get a little company and some excitement. He rushed down towards the village calling out “Wolf, Wolf,” and the villagers came out to meet him, and some of them stopped with him for a considerable time. This pleased the boy so much that a few days afterwards he tried the same trick, and again the villagers came to his help. But shortly after this a Wolf actually did come out from the forest, and began to worry the sheep, and the boy of course cried out “Wolf, Wolf,” still louder than before. But this time the villagers, who had been fooled twice before, thought the boy was again deceiving them, and nobody stirred to come to his help. So the Wolf made a good meal off the boy’s flock, and when the boy complained, the wise man of the village said: “A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth.”

Thus Aesop delivered to us a cautionary fable encouraging truth telling. At least that is how we will read this if we are careful and notice particularly the wise man’s concluding sentence.

If we are NOT careful, however, we might write an entire essay on the struggles of loneliness in agrarian society. Preachers might take such a text and preach a sermon on how economic ruin can come to a community if it marginalizes any of its members in the way this poor shepherd boy had been marginalized. And they might conclude with a stirring challenge to look around and find those marginalized people and reach out to them before they revert to antisocial behavior to gain attention and acceptance.

Not a bad challenge, for sure, but it is NOT what the fable is about. And the preacher, in fact any interpreter of language, has as his first task to understand what a text is about. That may seem obvious, of course, but what is obvious is not always practiced.

When I finished preaching on 2 Samuel 6 on Sunday, two comments following reminded me of the importance of getting the text right. In this passage, David determines to bring the Ark of the Covenant into his newly minted capital city of Jerusalem. The first attempt is met with a troubling death, but eventually the Ark is brought successfully into the city. This is to David’s delight, as he is pictured dancing at the head of the procession. His behavior elicits the disdain of his wife Michal.

One person commented that when she had heard the passage preached before, its focus was upon whether dance should form a part of Christian worship and liturgy. I think it is safe to say that this text is NOT about dance. Yes, David is said to have danced. That is a fact of the text, but it is not what the text is about. To attempt to make it so is to distort the text.

Another, though, said that my treatment of the text went in what he considered to be a unique direction. And that comment concerns me. I never want to come to a text with the intent of taking it in a unique way. I cannot consider that I am the first to have opened a text. I hope that my preaching exposes to the hearer the fundamental intention and application of the text, which would have been seen and preached by others before me. When someone finds my treatment ‘unique’ I’m always concerned that I have imported too much of my own interpretive spin into the text and perhaps have missed myself what it was intended to be about.

It is also possible that I have gotten the text ‘right’ and have helped this person and others in the way they see such texts. I’ll trust that this indeed is the case. But I never want to let the prior concern grow silent. It keeps me from too many flights of interpretive fancy.

This is a great concern of mine because I have this notion that the Bible is disrespected by so many not because the intellectual arguments against it have been so great, but that the Christian misuse of the Bible has been so widespread. If we are not careful, we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want it to say. But when we can make the Bible say anything we want, then it really says nothing at all.

By extending the authority of the Bible beyond where it intends to go, we run the risk of undermining its authority where it does speak authoritatively. If, for example, there are Christians arguing with great passion that the Bible teaches a capitalistic economic system, and other Christians arguing with equal passion that the Bible envisions an economic environment of communal ownership, there will be a large number of those looking in from the outside who will have a hard time believing that the Bible speaks with authority on things of greater import, such as the deity or resurrection of Christ. Our carelessness undermines our testimony.

I once had a couple of people ask me to preach on things the Bible “clearly” taught, such as an alleged prohibition against women working outside the home or its supposed ban on contraception. I have opinions on those matters which are biblically informed and which I’m happy to discuss. But I pray I never confuse in the pulpit my biblical opinions with the true direction of the the message of Scripture. I hope only to preach what a text is about that we might come to know the mind of its Author.

[I will, of course, get it wrong. Soon the sermon on 2 Samuel 6 will be posted here. There you can judge how close I came.]