Archive | Theology/Bible

Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air?


Howard Hendricks, his wife Jeanne, my wife Susan, and me at a DTS post-graduation party, May 7, 2005.

“Have you ever left a bible study feeling like you have your feet firmly planted in mid-air?” That is the question that Dr. Howard Hendricks used to ask when I was one of his Hermeneutics[1] students during my first semester at Dallas Theological Seminary. He knew, as most of the rest of us knew, how so many small-group bible studies are racked with superficiality and are “bible studies” in name only.

How many times had I myself sat in a bible-study circle of earnest young believers where the leader reads a text then asks the question: “What does this verse mean to you?” The inevitable response from the members in the circle is a cascade of ill-conceived interpretations that contradict one another, ramble into therapeutic incoherence, and ultimately miss the point of the Scripture. Then, after all had offered their version of “what this verse means to me,” the leader says “amen” and closes with prayer with everyone feeling satisfied that they had shared their feelings with one another. What I learned from Dr. Hendricks is that those kinds of “bible studies” are less a study of the Bible than they are a haphazard pooling of everyone’s ignorance.

As I finish my third semester of teaching hermeneutics to undergraduate and graduate students, I am contemplating Dr. Hendricks’ question again. It is clear to me that as long as there have been readers of the Bible, there have been disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture. This situation is due to no deficiency in the Scripture, but to the fallenness of its readers. How do we get our feet planted on the ground in our interpretation of the Bible?

The one question that must be answered as we interpret the Scriptures is what is the criterion by which we evaluate whether a particular interpretation is valid or invalid. Think about the young people sitting in the bible-study circle offering their contradicting interpretations. When interpretations contradict, it is possible for all of them to be wrong or for one of them to be correct, but it is logically impossible for all of them to be correct! So what is the criterion by which we distinguish a good interpretation from a bad interpretation?

I answer that question to my hermeneutics students by pointing out that any written communication involves three components: (1) author, (2) text, and (3) reader. Hermeneutical theories differ from one another in where they locate meaning. Some say the author controls meaning, some say the text controls meaning, and others say the reader controls meaning.

For instance, the New Criticism is an example of the second approach. This mode of interpretation was popular among literary critics from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s, and it focused its attention on the text as the determiner of meaning. Meaning was thought to be a property of the text itself, quite apart from anything external to it (including the author and the reader!). If you are familiar with the work of T. S. Eliot or Robert Penn Warren, then you know a little bit about the text-focused work of the New Critics.

I recently blogged on Stanley Fish, a prominent contemporary literary theorist, who falls in the third category. He would argue that it is not the author who gives meaning to a text, but the reader.[2] Fish, who is not the originator of this point of view, is but one of many literary critics that belong to the reader-response school of interpretation—“a group of approaches to understanding literature that have in common an emphasis on the reader’s role in the creation of the meaning of a literary work.” This approach is all the rage today in universities across America.

As with the New Criticism, the reader-response school of interpretation has not only affected the interpretation of biblical texts, but also the interpretation secular texts as well. Recent controversy over the role of federal judges in the intepretion of the U. S. Constitution is fundamentally a debate about who controls the meaning of texts: the author (i.e., the framers) or the readers (i.e., the judges).[3]

The hermeneutical approach that I advocate to my students is that the author is the controller of meaning. In other words, meaning is defined as the message that the author consciously wills to convey through the words that he uses.[4] That means that all attempts to distinguish valid interpretations from invalid interpretations must be grounded in what the author willed to communicate.

This is essentially the common sense approach to interpretation. When you read the words that I have written in this blog, you are trying to understand what I mean by what I say. If you were to have a conversation with me, you would try to interpret what I mean by what I say. If you try to read your own meaning into what I’m saying or writing, then there will be no way for us to communicate. You would never hear me, but only yourself. Common sense says that you should try to understand me (the author) and my intention in writing (the text) as you read (the reader).

An author-centered approach is also the one that best accords with what the Bible teaches. I could point to many texts, but let me select one: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1 Peter 1:20-21). According to this text, the authors of the Bible were given a Divine competence that enabled them to express adequately the revelation that God had given them. If you want to know what God means in the Bible, then you have to get to the bottom of what the Spirit-moved human author meant when he wrote.[5]

I say all of this so that I can encourage all of you Bible readers to plant your feet firmly on the ground of the Bible, God’s holy and infallible word. But you cannot have your feet planted firmly on the word if you are seeking to find meaning in any place other than the author’s intention. So when we are sitting in the Bible-study circle, and the leader asks, “What does this verse mean to you?”, in love and with great patience, let’s endeavor to point our brothers and sisters to find out what it meant to the author. This may throw a wrench in the stream-of-consciousness approach to Bible study that is so popular today, but it will be the only way to avoid having our feet planted firmly in mid-air.
________________________
[1]“Herman who?” is the question that many people ask when they first hear the word hermeneutics. Hermeneutics comes from the Greek word hermeneuō which simply means to interpret or to explain. Textual hermeneutics is the study of the principles that govern the interpretation of texts. Because preaching the biblical text is the central work of the Christian minister, a hermeneutics course is typically included in the core curriculum of seminaries and bible colleges.
[2]Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (London and Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980.
[3]On this topic, I commend to you John Piper’s sermon: “Discerning the Will of God Concerning Homosexuality and Marriage,” preached August 7, 2004 at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
[4]This definition and indeed my whole hermeneutics course rely almost entirely on the work of Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). Dr. Stein was a great mentor to me when I worked as his graduate assistant at Southern Seminary. Other significant influences include: E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1979); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Zondervan, 1998).
[5]There is much to be said here about the issue of Sensus Plenoir, but I shall refrain for the sake of space.

3

Stomping Your Baby To Death: Just or Unjust?

There are at least 30 states “that recognize the unlawful killing of an unborn child as homicide in at least some circumstances.” The laws that forbid such killing have come to be known as “Fetal Homicide Laws.” There is a situation brewing now in Lufkin, Texas that might call some of these laws into question from a constitutional perspective.

A 19-year-old young man in Lufkin, Texas was just sentenced to life in prison for ending his girlfriend’s pregnancy (source). The man was accused of stepping on his girlfriend’s stomach and causing her to miscarry. The hitch here is that he did this deed with the apparent consent of his girlfriend who wanted to end the pregnancy (source). Could he not argue on appeal that his girlfriend has the constitutional right to choose to end her pregnancy (à la Roe v. Wade), and he was just helping to carry out her wishes?

The case brings into sharp relief an inconsistency in our laws—an inconsistency that illustrates the immorality of abortion. John Piper has commented to this effect on the fetal homicide law in Minnesota:

“There is a fetal homicide law in Minnesota. According to the Minneapolis Tribune it ‘MAKES IT MURDER TO KILL AN EMBRYO OR FETUS INTENTIONALLY, EXCEPT IN CASES OF ABORTION.’ Now what makes the difference here? Why is it murder to take the life of an embryo in one case and not murder in the case of abortion? Now watch this carefully, because it reveals the stunning implications of the pro-choice position. The difference lies in the choice of the mother. If the mother chooses that her fetus live, it is murder to kill it. If she chooses for her fetus not to live, it is not murder to kill it. In other words in our laws we have now made room for some killing to be justified not on the basis of the crimes of the one killed, but solely on the basis of another person’s will or choice. If I choose for the embryo to be dead, it is legal to kill it. If I choose for the embryo to live, it is illegal to kill it. The effective criterion of what is legal or illegal, in this ultimate issue of life and death, is simply this: the will of the strong. There is a name for this. We call it anarchy. It is the essence of rebellion against objective truth and against God” (“Challenging Church and Culture with Truth”).

Pro-choice forces are aware of this tension, and that is why they are generally opposed to fetal homicide laws. Pro-choicers argue that these laws grant an unborn child legal status distinct from the pregnant mother, and this is a notion that they cannot reconcile with their own pro-abortion ideology. Therefore, they “prefer to criminalize an assault on a pregnant woman and recognize her as the only victim” (“Fetal Homicide Laws–What You Need To Know”).

It remains to be seen whether the 19-year-old Texas teen will have any success on appeal. But one thing is certain. The Texas state law is just and reflects the intrinsic value and personhood of the unborn. There is, therefore, nothing wrong with the Texas Fetal Homicide Law. I wish I could say the same for our ailing culture. Believe it or not, there are actually those who would want it to be legal for a father to stomp the life out of his unborn children. God help us.

3

You Might Be an Evangelical If . . .

Common Grounds Online is running a hilarious blog-entry titled, “You might be an evangelical if . . .” All of the following is an excerpt. I’m laughing out loud!

_________________________

If you say the word “just” more frequently than the word “Jesus” when you pray…you might be an evangelical. . .

(See John Stackhouse’s Books & Culture review of Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf….

There is . . . a hilariously sober account of evangelical prayer practices that involve both the frequent use of the modifier “just” (as in “Lord, we just want to ask you”) and what Bramadat calls the typical evangelical mouth-click. He tries to interpret the latter remarkable mannerism:

Its location in the rhetoric is similar to and often follows the word “just”: “God, we just [pause.. click] want to thank you for your son and to ask you…” By implying that the speaker is unable to finish a prayer because he or she is overwhelmed by the opportunity to communicate with God, this sound softens the believer’s petition [which otherwise might sound arrogant].

2

“Devoid of Content”


Stanley Fish, dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Stanley Fish has contributed an opinion editorial in today’s New York Times titled “Devoid of Content.” As a professor who teaches Greek and hermeneutics to undergraduate students and who has graded many papers, I have observed the same thing that that Fish has. Too many students are “utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence . . . Students can’t write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are.” Though I am in substantial disagreement with Fish over hermeneutical theory (he is a reader-response critic), his analysis of the literacy crisis and the remedy in his pedagogy are brilliant. For the few language buffs and teachers who read this blog, I recommend that you read “Devoid of Content.”

Source: Stanley Fish, “Devoid of Content,” The New York Times, May 31, 2005.

4

D. A. Carson Slams the Emergent Church

Carson, D. A. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. 250pp. $14.99.

If you were wondering whether D. A. Carson had an opinion on the so-called “emergent church” movement, wonder no more. In his new book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, Carson delivers a biblical and theological wallop against a movement that he argues has been animated by the values of postmodernity. Carson saves what is perhaps his severest denunciation for the very last page of the book, and it packs quite a rhetorical punch against emergent thought: “Damn all the false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ” (p. 234). Continue Reading →

10

Exploding the Myths of Pro-Choice Arguments

The results of a new study in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology say that women who have an abortion are 1.7 times more likely to give birth prematurely in a later pregnancy. This finding has the potential to explode some of the myths of pro-choice advocates who do not want to admit that any adverse consequences result from abortion. The only way to keep this bomb shell from going off is to keep it buried and out of public view. Let’s see if we hear anything about this story in the news in the coming weeks. Don’t hold your breath.

Sources:
“
Revealed: how an abortion puts the next baby at risk,” by Michael Day, The London Daily Telegraph, May 15, 2005.
“
Previous induced abortions and the risk of very preterm delivery: results of the EPIPAGE study,” by Caroline Moreaua, et al., BJOG (April 2005).

2

Counseling Shake-up at SBTS

Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), is taking some hits in the local and national media for his shake-up of SBTS’s counseling program. Moore comments about the hubbub on his blog.

The Louisville Courier-Journal (here) and the Associated Press (here) portrayed the changes in a negative light. The editorial in the Courier-Journal (here) was particularly critical. The editors said that the changes represented a “retreat from the mainstream of American life.” I suppose that’s supposed to be a derogatory remark, but it sounds awfully good to me. The last thing that we need is a Christian counseling program taking its cues from the dysfunctional “mainstream of American life.”

3

Pope Bendedict XVI: A Co-belligerent Pope

Several years ago, I attended a conservative Presbyterian church as an associate member. This was a bit of a strange fit, since I was still a Baptist in my ecclesiological convictions. In my interview with the elders to become an associate of the church, they asked me if I took any exceptions with the Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal standard of the Presbyterian Church in America. I had read through the confession in preparation for the interview and had come up with two things.

First, I told them that I did not believe in infant baptism but held to believer’s baptism. Surprisingly, that was okay with them! Second, I told them that I could not agree with the Confession’s statement that the Pope is the antichrist (WCF 25.6). To my mind then and now, that aspect of the Confession seemed a bit over-the-top and not born out by history or the Bible in any clear way. It certainly was not a hill that I was willing to die on, so I cited it as an objection. Surprisingly, again, this exception was okay with them too. It turned out that the Presbyterian Church in America had excised this portion of the Confession from the one that they were using at that time.

We Protestant evangelicals would all do well to excise this kind of blanket dismissal from our statements about the Pope. I think that Francis Schaeffer’s principle of “co-belligerency” still provides a useful model for how we as evangelicals relate to Roman Catholics in general and to the Pope in particular. Co-belligerence means that we evangelicals can stand together with Roman Catholics in our fight against the pervasive secularism that is overtaking western culture. We are united in our belligerence.

But unity in belligerence does not mean unity in confession. The historic theological differences that divide Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants still exist. Even though we Protestants still do not agree with Roman Catholics about issues such as the Apostolic succession of the Pope, the meaning of the sacraments, and the doctrine of Justification, this fact should not keep us from standing together against evils such as abortion and gay “marriage.”

A good example of this kind of co-belligerence occurred this week in a televised discussion about the senate filibustering of President Bush’s judicial appointments. Al Mohler appeared on the news program Scarborough Country on MSNBC and went to bat for a Catholic judge whose nomination is being filibustered because he is pro-life. Al Mohler is a reformed and Baptist in his theology and hardly sympathetic to Roman Catholicism on a number of issues (click here). Yet during the debate, he announced: “I‘m an evangelical Christian, but I‘m going to speak up on behalf of that man, who is a Roman Catholic, who holds to his church‘s teachings on abortion” (click here for transcript).

The posture that Francis Schaeffer, Al Mohler, and others advocate is not an ecumenism that ignores, minimizes, or compromises on the fundamental doctrines of Evangelical faith. Rather, it is what Timothy George called “an ecumenism of the trenches.”[1] That is, a united fight against the cultural onslaught. Al Mohler writes:

“Given the cultural disaster we face, and what is at stake, it simply makes sense for men and women who share basic worldview concerns to gather strength from each other, join hands and hearts, and enter the cultural fray. On this point, all but the most extreme separatists among us would agree.”[2]

Evangelicals should welcome the new Pope with a spirit of co-belligerence. While not compromising the “solas” of the Reformation, we can be thankful that there will be another voice in the public square opposing the downgrade of western culture. Pope Benedict XVI has taken public and outspoken stances against stem-cell research, abortion, homosexuality, relativism and more.[3] While we are not united with the Pope in our confession, we can stand with him in our belligerence.

For more on this controversial topic, I recommend the following article: R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Standing Together, Standing Apart: Cultural Co-belligerence Without Theological Compromise.”

_____________________
[1]Quoted in R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Standing Together, Standing Apart: Cultural Co-belligerence Without Theological Compromise,” Touchstone July/August (2003).
[2]Ibid.
[3]For these reasons, his election has frustrated liberal Roman Catholics around the world (Ian Fisher, “German Cardinal Is Chosen as Pope,” New York Times, April 20, 2005).

3

Does God care about filibusters?

Sometimes I read things that are so pitifully erroneous that I feel compelled to set the record straight. This is one instance.

Recently Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D.-Ill., complained about Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist’s participation in a simulcast to religious conservatives. The simulcast will include pro-family leaders — such as James Dobson — who have portrayed Democrats as being “against people of faith” for blocking President Bush’s judicial nominations.

Durbin was not at all happy that Frist was participating in such an event. Durbin groused: “I cannot imagine that God — with everything he has or she[1] has to worry about — is going to take the time to debate the filibuster in heaven.”[2]

I will not deny the rhetorical effectiveness of Durbin’s statement. It appeals to peoples’ common sense that a transcendent God would hardly stoop to concern Himself with the mundane details of human existence — much less the jaded world of power politics. After all, isn’t God above all that? Aren’t there more important things in the universe than what happens in one small city located on the galactic speck known as planet earth? The reasoning goes something like this: “God doesn’t care about petty things such as politics, so why should we care what He thinks about our public policies?”

I think Durbin’s statement merely reflects another cynical attempt to remove God from the public square — in this case, from the give and take of political discourse. But the main problem with Durbin’s ill-informed words is that nearly every phrase is chocked full of biblical and theological error. In one fell swoop of misinformation, Durbin manages to turn the biblical portrait of God’s providence on its head. God’s Providence refers to His constant care and control over every aspect of His creation (Ephesians 1:11). And Sen. Durbin misses it.

For starters, Durbin’s “I-cannot-imagine” appeal to common sense gets his listeners off on the wrong foot in their reflections about God — as if what one “imagines” matters one whit in the determination of reality. We shouldn’t be surprised by kooky theological reflection when the source of it is the mere musing of a misguided muckraker. What really matters is not the god of Durbin’s or anyone else’s imagination, but the God who has revealed Himself in the written canon of Scripture. And it is to the Scriptures that we will have to look if we want to know what God thinks about anything.

Jesus taught about the Father’s stooping to be involved in the affairs of men: “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31). In other words, God is very much involved in the day-to-day mundane events of our lives.

When Jesus refers to falling “sparrows” and numbered “hairs,” He teaches that God’s providential concern extends to the smallest details of our existence, to what in our terms would be the molecular level of existence.[3] In other words, there is no aspect of our lives that is beneath God. All of life belongs to Him and only finds its proper meaning and purpose in relation to Him. This truth would of course include the mundane world of politics.

Durbin intimates that God has more important things to do than to “worry” about our politics. Yet God’s Providence in Scripture is not depicted as something that stresses God out. As if He can’t have anything else added to His plate because He’s already got too much to do (like preventing the universe from imploding). God’s meticulous providence does not cause Him worry. On the contrary, biblically speaking, our worry is relieved by our knowledge of His providence. In Matthew 10:30, it is this truth that is to be a comfort to disciples who suffer at the hands of evil governments. If God’s care over His creation extends even to the smallest animal, then it certainly extends to His people.

For Durbin to suggest that God doesn’t care about the judiciary that will decide whether abortion-on-demand will remain legal is to make a grave error indeed. If God cares about the sparrows, you can be sure He cares about the babies. Their justice will not tarry long as God Himself eventually will call to account their oppressors (Psalm 82:3, 8; 146:9), a fact I’m sure many pro-abortionists would like to ignore. And the pro-abortionists will cause many others to ignore this truth so long as God and our accountability to Him are banned from the public consciousness.

So let us not keep silent when dinky theology is substituted for substantive, sound statements about God. Remarks like Sen. Durbin’s may be clever, but they are not true.
______________________
[1]A critique of Durbin’s dithering on the gender of God will have to wait for another time, but this issue in itself is important nonetheless.
[2]David D. Kirkpatrick and Carl Hulse, “Frist Accused of Exploiting Religion Issue,” New York Times, April 16, 2005. Accessed Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/16/politics/16judges.html.
[3]John Piper used this phrase in connection with this text, that the Lord’s Providence extends to the “molecular” level. He used it in a radio interview concerning the tsunami disaster.
______________________
This article appeared in the Baptist Press on August 20, 2005.
http://www.bpnews.net/bpfeature.asp?ID=1803

2

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes