Think Deeply About Application, Attention on Significance and Authority
Authority for application: narrative intention and antecedent authority
The focus on moving from exegesis to application is characteristically discussed within the context of sermon preparation or homiletics. Typically there is a detailed discussion regarding the need to discover the “significance of a text,” that is the time (age, era) and cultural gaps between the Bible’s historical and cultural settings and the now. This process is labeled under various titles: “contextualization” (Osborne), “transferring the message” (Greidanus), “fusion of horizons” (Gadamer; Thiselton), and “principlization” (Kaiser; Virkler). This part of the process, however, is not only about seeking the universal truth behind the life situation of the text, or attempting to link the ancient cultural value or historical situation to something similar in the contemporary, but is to decipher the relationship of the text’s meaning to those in front of the text. Mark, in his Gospel, offers a paradigm for deciphering that relationship between the text and us, the modern reader/listener, and provides a realm of authority for making application.
Also, just attaching application to a text (or even a text to application) is not enough; application must find some basis in reasonable authority. Application must produce relevant obedience to the demands being placed upon those on this side of the text. Obedience ought to correspond in-kind to Mark’s narrative. In other words, there needs to be a reasonable association between Mark’s understanding of the gospel and faithful compliance. When application is “separate” and “dissimilar” from Mark’s narrative and programmatic meaning, then there is no authority for that application. Application on the contemporary side of the text finds support by analogous applications made by the original writer of the Biblical text. Mark’s commission text (3:13–15) has a “consequent” (resulting) sense based on its literal (i.e., grammatical-syntactical-historical) sense that provides a framework for both significance to the reader/listener in front of the text, as well as a range of potential application. In this sense, when application is based on the consequence or result of the text, both the meaning and its application carry the weight of divine authority, which leads to faithful obedience.
Abraham Kuruvilla offers a helpful set of principles that provide a paradigm for developing such significance and range of application. Kuruvilla proposed what he calls “the two rules” for developing the world “in front of the text” that helps establish the significance of the text to the readers/listeners, that is their relationship to the text, and then culminates in relevant application: 1) the Rule of Plot that “prepares the interpreter of biblical narrative to attend to the structured sequence of events emplotted in the text, in order to apprehend the world projected by that text” and 2) the Rule of Interaction that “directs the interpreter of biblical narrative to attend to the interpersonal transactions of the characters as represented therein, in order to apprehend the world projected by the text.”
Mark draws his authority to define and give content (meaning) to the gospel from the Old Testament (1:2–3). Each of the studies in the previous chapters has endeavored to form a definition and understanding of the gospel that reflects Mark’s own methodology and use of the OT. Mark’s own Gospel is helpful in providing a framework for moving from meaning to significance, and then to application. The previous five chapters have been a slow, sometime tedious, argument for my premise that social action outcomes should be a component of a church’s evangelistic activities. Mark’s narrative and his use of the OT provides a programmatic framework for defining the gospel of Jesus Christ, thus offering content and meaning of this gospel that we are to believe (1:15), that is a whole gospel that is to form the church and inform Christian discipleship and church evangelism. Now, we turn toward developing a framework for deciphering the significance of Mark’s Gospel for determining, planning, and implementing obedience to the gospel.
Think Deeply About Application, Attention on Significance and Authority
Obedience to the biblical text is essential to the Christian life and is defining for church life. This is the goal of the mindful Christian and what faithful leadership intentionally seeks for its church community (cf. Mark 3:35). This is why developing appropriate application is important. However, if we move too quickly to application, it is quite possible to miss the obedience the text and, in view of this volume, the gospel demands. Before examining the Mark 3 commission (3:13–15) and the mission summary (1:14–15), it is worth considering the problem of application and the need for authority in developing appropriate application.
The problem of application
“Exegesis is never an end in itself.” Walter Kaiser rightly points out in Toward an Exegetical Theology that the ultimate purpose of exegesis is “never fully realized until it begins to take into account the problems of transferring what has been learned from the text over to the waiting Church.” Yet, applying the Bible can offer its own set of problems and difficulties.
In their book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart point out that many Christians start with “the here and now” and “read into texts meanings that were not originally there.” They rightly affirm that Christians do “want to know what the Bible means for us” (their emphasis) and “legitimately so.” However, we cannot make the Bible or the gospel or any text for that matter “mean anything that pleases us and then give the Holy Spirit ‘credit’ for it.” Fee and Stuart are spot-on when it comes to the problem of interpretation: the step of good study and exegesis to decipher the original author’s intention is too often skipped over, jumping straight-away to “the here and now.” This actually confuses interpretation with application.
Although Fee and Stuart’s point concerns interpretation (i.e., the biblical original author’s meaning), reading the “here and now” into the text is also an underlying problem for Bible application. Similarly, we cannot make any application we want from any text and give the Holy Spirit credit and call it obedience. Christians tend to read application into a text, again, confusing interpretation with application. A praxis-centered approach, that is, a fixation on the practical, does not necessarily lead to obedience to the biblical text and, in view of this present study, does not necessarily indicate faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This can be a problem with application—application is not always obedience.
Moving from meaning to significance, and then application
Understanding what the original Bible author (in this case, Mark) meant is certainly the first step necessary for seeking faithful obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). The previous five chapters have sought to do just that. Yet, bridging the gap from the then to the now demands specific, mindful attention. In order to think more deeply and thoroughly about application three basic steps are always necessary: 1) seek the author’s meaning; 2) decipher the significance of that meaning for those standing on this side of the text; and then 3) determine the action (i.e., application) that reflects obedience to the meaning and significance of the text.
1) Meaning—what the text means
2) Significance—what the text’s meaning connotes or signifies to the reader/listener
3) Obedience (i.e., application)—what we do to be obedient to the text
Meaning is that which is represented by the text, what the author intended by his words, syntactical and contextual relationships, and use of antecedent biblical material and contexts. Significance establishes the relationship between the original meaning and the person, persons, place, or situation (or “anything imaginable”) on this side of the text. The meaning of the text does not change, but its significance to those on this side of the text does change and can be relevant in different ways. Application is, on the other hand, the least fixed of the three ingredients for determining faithfulness to the gospel and can be multiple to reflect obedience. But still, application needs flow from the significance to appropriate action that reflects the obedience the text demands.
For example, the meaning of the Mark 3 commission is determined by exegesis and an analysis of the text and surrounding narrative. The significance of that meaning is deciphered by the text’s relationship and implication to those in front of the text. In other words, what is the significance of the Mark 3 commission to me, to you, to your church? Application is the relevant and appropriate actions, behaviors, and/or mindset/attitudes determined to produce or indicate faithful obedience to the text (to the gospel). If Mark intents his readers/listeners to understand that those who follow after him will be created fishers of men, that is, those created to have a role in inaugurating the kingdom that has arrived in the appearance of Jesus, God’s Messiah-King (1:14–15, 17), then it is important to discern the significance of the commission components “to preach” and “to cast out demons” (3:13–15) for today’s readers/listeners—to the Christian and to believing communities. Application, then, is determining what actions correspond to that significance.
Today, let’s not confuse sermons and messages. A sermon will be a declaration of a biblical text, reflecting the biblical author’s intention and its significance to the date and time it’s being declared to the audience—the present congregation. A message is a speech in the guise of a sermon, hearing from the one delivering the message, not the texts referred to. Now understand I am not saying what the “preacher” says in a message shouldn’t be heard, or isn’t true or isn’t needed—the message from the minister might very well be a speech needed to be spoken. However, let’s not confuse God’s Word through the sacred text to a congregation with the minister’s morning word to the congregation.
J. Kahmann once wrote that “As a message of salvation...preaching is in fact a coming of God into this world. It is not merely a presentation of salvation, an announcement of God’s plan with requirements to be met by mankind, but it is an act of salvation by God.” The Sunday sermon, if it be from God’s Word, is actually God showing up and speaking to the congregation. S. Greidanus reminds us that “God uses contemporary preaching to bring his salvation to people today, to build his church, to bring in his kingdom. In short, contemporary biblical preaching is nothing less than a redemptive event.”
James Daane, in his short book on Preaching with Confidence, writes
“The Word itself creates its own hearing, as it once created its own world, by re-creating those through faith who once had no faith. Nothing more needs to be done; no homiletical gimmicks or artificial techniques are required to make the gospel effective. The gospel is mighty to work its way to those who have ears but do not hear. It breaks hearts of stone to create hearts of flesh. ‘Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?’ (Jer 23:29).”
This morning there will be a whole lot of messaging going on—some of it needed for sure, but still only from the voice of man, the thoughts and plans of men. The people of God should not settle for the message, but ask, now what does God say. We are starving for God’s Word to us from our pulpits. We are realizing what Amos the reluctant preacher from Tekoa foretold
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,
“When I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,
But rather for hearing the words of the LORD.
People will stagger from sea to sea
And from the north even to the east;
They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD,
But they will not find it.
In that day the beautiful virgins
And the young men will faint from thirst (Amos 8:11-13).
There is vast difference between a message from the preacher and a message of God. We confuse or settle for the former, when what we need is the later. The sermon is a redemptive historical event where God’s presence invades and the Kingdom of God is revealed in a moment in time, in a particular place, through the proclamation of His written Word.
I know. I know. Greek is just not practical. Yes, it’s not like a how to course; not like one of those “practical” courses. A potential student for my Greek course (he has the ability!) said he probably won’t take it because it’s not a practical course. Of course I took issue with that—now if he’d had said he is just a lay-person and didn’t have time, or even I don’t want to learn New testament Greek, I’d have accepted that. Such reasons are fair and understandable. But, not “It is not practical.” Sorry. I just couldn’t help myself:
Look around, I said, all this, the fellowship all, evening youth ministries; everything that’s on the church calendar is temporary, part of our ability in this freedom to have as “practical” ministries. Not so with the Word of God—that will always remain and in need of those who can understand the original text in order to guard against all sorts of poor interpretations and heresies. Learning NT Greek, as far as biblical ministry is concerned, is very practical. Say you don’t have time. Or, you don’t want to. But certainly don’t tell me it is not practical.
I add here: If you want to minister in the Word, whether lay or professional, a working knowledge of the original language is, frankly, an ought to, not a maybe because it’s optional….just saying…there are plenty around in the Bridgeport-Fairfield area that climb into the pulpit or teach a study with no working knowledge of the original text, nor how to get at the original text… that ought not to be. Here is an opportunity to give it a whirl and learn the basics of NT Greek…join us and see where it takes you…read and then enroll….
“On May 26, 1703, election day, [Solomon] Stoddard preached ‘before his excellency, the governour, the honoured Council and Assembly,’ and his fellow clergy on ‘The Way for a People to Live Long in the Land that God hath Given Them.’ The subject was survival. The text was the Fifth Commandment: ‘Honour they father and they mother, that thy days nay be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’ (Exodus 20:12). The commandment taught, as the Puritans had conventionally argued, to honor not only parents but ‘all who are in authority,’ including civil rulers and clergy. These were God’s representatives on earth. To honor them was to honor God. Survival and prosperity depended on honoring God” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden, p 12).
How about that? Just imagine the 21st century, American clergy preaching to their State and local governments—freely and as a part of the cultural norm. Anyone who says that the Church did not have a role in the founding of America and that the so-called “wall of separation” between religion and the state was what the founders intended, doesn’t know our history. Any interpretation of our First Amendment ought to be, at least, good exegesis of the original intent. (It is interesting that our framers saw fit to put Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, AND Freedom And right to petition government for redress of grievances in the same amendment! And the lead one at that!) Events like the one described above affirm the prophetic voice of the pulpit and preacher in our beginning of days as a country. I also found it interesting that the topic was family, and that even our Christian forefathers of the new world understood the dynamic between survival as a “country” and how God’s Word made compulsory the importance of the hierarchy of the most important social unit—the family. Revival was also necessary for Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards’ and their newly settled New England world. We haven’t had an awakening like the first two in the 1700’s and 1800’s (the second with men like Timothy Dwight, former President of Yale and a Pastor in Fairfield, CT, in the lead). I wonder if it is possible, today? Preaching today can’t address the governor or local councilmen, nor does it seem to move us toward discipleship that pushes us to affront the powers for righteousness sake; but in fact such times when our pulpits do address the powers, it seems more geared to help us as Americans learn to live more comfortably in our wayward and fading culture and demand that our level of comfort be sustained. This is not righteousness.
According to my website data, my Rough Cuts exegetical essays have made it around the globe. I am, of course, glad I have produced something useful and that people will want to read. A good friend said, “Rough Cuts will be your signature—and maybe another book someday.” Maybe. But whatever others think of my interpretations in these Rough Cut exegetical essays, the essays themselves “show” how to do exegesis—they at a minumum show how I got to my interpretation of a text of Scripture. That’s the point whether it be a sermon or Sunday School lesson, or mid-week Bible Study—learn to show how you get your interpretation of the text you are preaching or teaching. (At least in brief.)
One can go to almost any good Christian book store, or find a reputable Christian publishing house and find books on Bible Study, hermeneutics, exegesis, and biblical exposition (even for lay-people). This post, however, seeks not to expound on the qualities, value, and limitations of such volumes. Here I am interested in what you, the Christian as an individual or in a group, can do to foster good interprative skills. Sound ground work before undertaking the privilege of actually interpreting a text of Scripture. First and foremost, you need to become familiar with the whole context before narrowing down to one text, one paragraph, or (heaven forbid) one verse. (Please consider never interpreting one verse—at least consider the paragraph it is in—but this for another Margin post.)
“Contextual-observation” is the phrase I use to describe my “method of study.” I am not sure, but I probably didn’t invent the concept. Nonetheless, I believe most errors in interpretation are related to lifting the text out of the original context and giving it a whole new meaning; a meaning not intended by the author (nor the Holy Spirit I might add). I am not against study and research—I was a Greek professor at one time and now teach at a new, local School of Theology. Of course, reading good exegetical commentaries is a fine discipline as one seeks to understand a text of Scripture. But, it’s the simple, paying attention to the original context and the author’s own flow of thought (.i.e., the literacy context) we seem to have trouble with right from the start.
Before tackling one text, or in preparation for a series on a Bible book or topic, reading and re-reading the context of the text (or texts), that is the whole book (e.g., Philippians, I & II Kings, Genesis, James, etc.) is, in my opinion, the best way to hear the context and pick up the flow of thought—simply reading it over and over and over, and over. Not too hard. As you become familiar with the whole content of a book, your understanding of one particular text—whether it is a verse or a paragraph—will be connected to the whole of the book. I have always had a problem with “inductive bible study,” that is looking at the smaller parts to determine the meaning of the whole. I think this is backward; and starts the whole process of interpretation from the wrong end.
I don’t believe God is looking for inspired “misunderstanding of the text of Scripture” from our pulpits and in our Sunday Schools and bible studies. It seems reasonable to believe that He desires a faithful rendering of His Scriptures. Though there are many more steps involved, the following help apply the “contextual-observation” method by, first, becoming familiar with the whole of the context:
First: Read the whole book (Romans, Isaiah, I Peter). Just read it once, all the way through in as few sittings as possible. The smaller books can be read in one sitting—Romans, for example, takes about an hour. One should try, even with the larger books of the Bible, to learn to read them through in one sitting—some require you to block out a larger period of time. (If you can watch a football game or go to a 90 movie, you can read almost any book of the Bible through in one sitting—almost.)
Second: Read the whole book again, noting this time, possible sections. Write them down. (Most English translations will already have paragraph divisions. This can be helpful as you do this step.)
Third: Read the whole book again. This time make an extended outline of the book. In your outline headings, try only to use the words from the text rather than your own interpretation (at this point).
Fourth: Read the whole book again, and give a short summary of each section. But one rule here: Make sure you use in your summaries only words that are found in the text (in the paragraph) in your summary. Re-read your summary and make sure, at this point, you haven’t “interpreted” by putting your own concepts into the summary.
Fifth: Read the whole book again. This time, on a separate piece of paper, write down the themes, concepts, ideas, and words that are used over and over again throughout the book. Note them and write the references down as well.
Sixth: Read the whole book again and make a syntactical display of the flow of thought. This is the most difficult part of these steps. Work through the text, line by line, showing yourself on paper how each part relates to the rest. If doing a syntactical analysis of a whole book is too much to undertake, at least do a syntactical analysis of the chapter that your text/paragraph is found—at least. May I suggest that you read Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching for an explanation of what is a syntactical display.
As you can see, you haven’t even picked up a commentary yet. But you will have read the whole book five times and worked through it, verse by verse at least once, before you even begin to interpret or even “exegete” the text you want to preach or study. This method actually helps you to see what needs to be studied; what parts of the text and what words need further study. Do this “before” you start studying a text for a sermon or before a sermon or Bible study series. This is the first step in a series of steps that are part of the exegetical process.
Remember, for most of the Church’s history and even today, it is a luxury to have all the Bible study tools and helps available to us. (If you have to choose between reading my site and reading a whole Bible book—read the Bible book!) Even though there are many good commentaries, which are helpful, when we turn to them first, we can get distracted by what appears to be (and in most cases with good commentaries) good exposition. And, we can trade away simply paying attention to the text and the author’s own flow of thought. This is where you should start. This is the best place to start.
See the first post
in this two-part thread, 1 of 2
Some things bear repeating. And, I cannot help put continue the thought thread on the subject of exegesis and sound biblical interpretation—even if I am re-posting an older, yet revised, Words’nTone post.
I am not so naïve to believe that there is only one way to interpret a text of Scripture. Well, okay, I’ll also admit I do believe there is only one way to do it rightly. I mean, there are numerous approaches to interpretation posited by all sorts of people and groups. You have feminist hermeneutics. There are various ethnic approaches to understanding the Bible. You have dispensational hermeneutics, covenant/reformed hermeneutics, and Pentecostal hermeneutics (and more). You can find reader-response and postmodern approaches. But mostly there is the “sloppy and shoddy” approach to interpreting Scripture. In fact, there is an approach I call the “I-have-some-personal-agenda-or-self-interest-so-I-see-what-I-want-to-see-in-Scripture” approach. Everyone has one, and really, a nice combination of approaches with too much of the last one mentioned mixed in to boot.
There are so many different ways of interpreting that to posit only one way seems arrogant, narrow-minded, and simply naïve. However, each approach—hermeneutic is the big 50-cent word—has liabilities and strengths that must be considered. Agreed, each perspective can offer hearing a text in a way that might be hindered by one’s own perspective. But in the end, it is what does the text say? What was the author’s intended meaning? What did the author actually mean for us to hear?
My issue is not that “reading” the text from a certain vantage-point or perspective, or even ethnic and cultural background, does not have some merit. My concern is, there must be a way to say is this interpretation good or bad, right or wrong, poor or legitimate, or even worth considering? I say there is—simple, grammatical-historical exegesis of the text. What did the text mean when the author wrote it? Would could have the intended readers/listeners understood it to me? What did the text mean in its own literary context? And, what could it have meant in its historical, social context? We expect the same approach to what we say and write every day.
Any overarching approach, i.e., hermeneutic, that is placed over one’s reading of Scripture will color what the original authors intended their audience to hear. But it is digging at, digging out really, what the author intended that counts. Let me offer a few reasons why I think good exegesis, which attempts to get at what the original author was intending his readers and listeners to hear, is a good thing for the Christian community.
First: It makes the foundation the same for everyone—the text. Nothing hidden. No working agenda by the interpreter. Not even the audience gets to replace the foundation. The text is the one common denominator that makes it fair, reasonable, and accessible for everyone.
Second: Sound exegesis prohibits interpreters, especially church leaders, to have spiritual upmanship, that is superiority over others. The interpreters of Scripture, especially preachers and Bible study leaders, have a lot of power, and if they end up giving an interpretation—no matter how charismatic the interpreter or how tickling-to-the ears the interpretation is—that another person, the hearer, cannot get, or cannot see without their interpretative prowess, that is spiritual illegitimacy. Good exegesis and the priority of the text helps the interpreter and the ones listening to the interpretation stand equally before the text—no one spiritually superior.
Third: Good exegesis and faithful exposition of the text of Scripture dissuades spiritual despotism. Enough said on this one, for it is cousin to second reason.
Fourth: Learning to let the text speak keeps the interpreter humble and accountable, and lets the audience hear for themselves what God is saying in and through His Word. Anything else but sound exegesis and faithful exposition of the text of Scripture means the audience will be learning more about the preacher or Bible study leader than God’s Word, and will be defining the Christian life by a man (or a woman), not God and His inspired Word.
Fifth: Good exegesis and sound exposition of the text of Scripture lets the listener in on how the preacher/teacher got his or her interpretation. Showing the audience how one got one’s interpretation, even if they end up not believing it, or agreeing with it, it helps them to see its not “your” message in the first place, because they will see where you got it, how you arrived at it from the text.
These are only a few good reasons to do the work of exegesis as you seek to render an interpretation and call people to hear God’s Word. In the next post (2 of 2), I will outline a simple, yet effective way to help prepare and to think about an interpretation of a text of Scripture. I call this the “contextual-observation method.”
See the second post
of this two-part thread, 2 of 2
As I pour out my stream of consciousness on the subject of exegesis and communicating the Word of God (whether it be in the forms of preaching or teaching), here’s a rather ironic twist: Would it surprise you that the very conservative evangelicals that make up the political right and inhabit most evangelical church pulpits have a liberal view of their own “Christian Constitution”? The very sociological group of people who would be the first to point out liberal, progressive, detached interpretations of the U.S. Constitution is also very guilty of the same with their own constitution for faith and practice, the Bible.
Most evangelicals pride themselves on being originalist regarding the U.S. Constitution. As conservatives, we like to think of ourselves as guardians of what the framers have written—and had meant. In fact, evangelicals tend to be part of the base that support originalist Supreme Court candidates and originalist political candidates. But, if you visit any church on any given Sunday morning, as well as most Sunday school classes, evening bible studies, or read most popular Christian books, you will not hear an originalist commitment to the Bible as far as guarding the original meaning and intentions of its authors. We want the original intentions with our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, but we seem, by word and deed, to believe in a living and breathing and nuanced, filled with ambiguities, and gaps-to-be-filled-in Bible.
One U.S. Supreme Court justice on the current bench, Antonin Scalia, defended his originalist approach to constitutional interpretation, saying that he applied “the common sense” meaning and definition of the words as they were intended and written at that time. He spoke of those on the opposite side as those who advocate that the Constitution “changes from age to age in order to meet the needs of a changing society.” Despite our more evangelical and conservative faith-views, many of us seem to apply the non-originalist approach to reading and understanding the Bible. At least we accept that approach from our preachers and church bible teachers. We claim to be the people of the Book and believe and defend its inerrancy and divine inspiration, but ignore and do not demand a hermeneutic that bases interpretation on a sound exegesis of the authors’ original intent. We expect more—and apparently want more—from those who are to interpret the Constitution, than we do of ourselves with regard to the Bible. We want originalist appointed to the bench; but we tolerate and applaud non-originalist in the pulpit. We want those who are going to uphold our values, define American life (roles, benefits, limits, and responsibilities), protect from cultural deterioration, and guard the Constitution and Bill of Rights to interpret the Constitution as the authors intended. However as for interpretations, and methods of interpreting the Bible, we do not want the same—we approve of non-originalist among us, both in preachers/teacher and among ourselves as congregants, and along with them posit that the Bible is a living set of documents, i.e., an open document that keeps up with the times.
There is danger in this for both evangelicals and the Christian community. Interpretation cannot be baseless; there must be a foundation from which to start. If the original intent of the biblical authors is not the basis for interpretation, then the basis for interpretation must be elsewhere; it will rest with someone. If the foundation isn’t the intentions of the original author of a text, then it will be about power—and that is, someone’s power. As the 16th century reformation began to spread, one fear that was posited was that there would no-longer be one Pope, but many little popes. This does point toward the danger in not demanding originalist among our preachers, teachers, and bible instructors (whether lay or professional). Demanding an originalist approach to interpreting the Bible will help to thwart and dissuade spiritual despotism, that is, creating of so-called powerful individuals who can make their power known through their interpretations of Scripture.
An originalist approach, that is, good, sound biblical exegesis, for understanding and interpreting the Bible will better preserve the authority of the Bible and of Jesus in the life of the Christian community. A non-originalist approach to the Bible will give too much room and enable men to impose their own subjective views and values on congregations.
Allow for a cheap digression to personalize the point. If you or I were to write a will, declaring our wishes, you would expect that those who read and interpreted it would do so in light of the meaning and intention we gave to the original will. In fact, when we sign a contract or someone makes us a vow, we expect the original intentions of that contract or vow to remain valid and carried through—no matter the distance in time. For sure, we’d be angered, to say the least, if we went to the bank to withdraw our money and was told the original agreement was a living contract and the bank decided to re-interpret the original intent, you know, bring it up-to-date.
I urge Words’nTone readers to hold their pastors, bible study leaders, and anyone (including themselves) accountable to what the text of Scripture says and ask for an originalist foundation for making interpretations of the text of Scripture and, then, relevant application of those interpretations. Otherwise, it is just about power: A non-originalist approach to the text of the Bible, without good, sound exegesis, gives power to men and leaves the Church of Jesus Christ in its local expressions powerless.
“Keep to the word” thread posts 1 of 3
, 2 of 3
, 3 of 3.
We are only fooling ourselves when we attempt to pitch our interpretations, using Bible phrases, words, and texts, sounding all spiritual, as if they are God’s Word. Despite what we say is not actually in the text or what the author’s had, originally, in mind, somehow we think we’ve been given some form of special revelatory information, claiming some authority to pronounce that our words are God’s Word. This is dangerous.
If the foundation of our interpretation is not the biblical author’s intentions, we can claim all we want that the Divine author’s intention is primary, but in the end any interpretation outside the human writer’s intent will always be about power, human power. I do not mean just man’s power, but the power of men—individuals who claim to speak for God. The preacher’s power.
I have always been astounded at how powerful and popular some preachers and pastors become. They used to get persecuted, maligned, and thrown out of town, even jailed. Now, yes there are mega-church pastors who have followings of thousands; many preach a populist gospel, really, not the Gospel. That group of so-called preachers is way too easy of a target for my comments here. I just mean any self-claimed minister of the Word who declares before people that he (or she) is preaching the Word of God.
I am thankful for Mike Cronk, Jack Anderson, and the other young (at the time) Christian men who helped form my early years of understanding the Bible. Right away after my July 10, 1978 conversion to, I was discipled by a few fellow Airmen who were stationed on Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. Whenever we studied the Bible or talked about the preacher’s sermon (all of which we did a lot), Mike Cronk would constantly say, “But what does the text say?” or “What does the Bible say?” We were always driven back to the text. Later at Crown College (formerly St. Paul Bible College), this approach was again underscored: we should listen to the text of Scripture, dig out its meaning, exegete the text in order to hear what God was saying through the text—and even to struggle with it (thanks, Dr. Donald Alexander). (Too bad some of our chapel speakers didn’t always follow this hermeneutical foundation, but my Bible teachers did—thank you Bruce Olsen, Dr. Alexander, and Dr. Gianoulis.) Then at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Drs. Greg Beale, David Gordon, and Aida Besacon Spencer gave me even more in-depth tools for exegesis, pointing more and more at what the text says.
Although I never had Gordon Fee as a professor, his book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth was very instructive as I was developing my interpretation skills. I learned so clearly that “a text cannot mean what it could not have meant to the original author or his readers.” Let me repeat that quote from Dr. Fee:
“…a text cannot mean what it could not have meant to the original author or his readers.”
If we are allowed to find something in the text that the author did not intend, then we claim some form of superiority to both the text and those listening to us. I don’t know how many times I have heard people say that the Holy Spirit taught them or gave them their understanding of the text. (“My teacher is the Holy Spirit,” I have heard too often.) But as Gordon Fee tells us,
“We cannot make [the text] mean anything that pleases us, and then give the Holy Spirit ‘credit’ for it.”
The task of Bible study is primarily to determine what the Scriptures meant, that is the author’s intention, at the time they were written. Then and only then, should we seek how that meaning applies today. Unless we do this, it is all about power—that is, who has the most charisma, or status, or hold over people. Whether it’s a mega-church or small store-front church, apart from exegeting to seek the original intention of a biblical author, the word spoken is not God’s Word, but man’s. It is the word of the one who is able to obtain power, gets the audience and spreads his or her word. Not God’s. The power we need is the power that comes from God and God alone. Exegesis. Exegesis. Exegesis, as Karl Barth has said. Do the work of an exegete, for it is in the text you will find and we will hear God’s Word to us.
“Keep to the word” thread posts 1 of 3
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I believe the Church, and especially the local church, is at its weakest when its preaching and teaching ministries claim to be the Word of God, when in reality it actually is only the words of mere human beings claiming a higher authority. Walter Kaiser, in his book Toward an Exegetical Theology, observed:
“It is no secret that Christ’s church is not at all in good health in many places of the world. She has been languishing because she has been fed, as the current line has it, ‘junk food’ … As a result, theological and biblical malnutrition has affected [us]…[A] worldwide spiritual famine resulting from the absence of any genuine [diet] of the Word of God continues to run wild and almost unabated in most quarters of the church.”
If the words of the preacher and the words of all the church teachers are simply seeking contemporary relevance, clever trendiness, personal agendas, or reflecting more of the preacher and teacher than what God is actually saying in the sacred text, affirming traditions, sounding off on pet peeves, and arguing doctrinal preferences, I don’t care how well a church might be growing numerically, or whether the church budget is strong. The Word of God is lacking in its midst. We face a severe and critical situation when preachers and teachers of the Bible simply do not do good exegesis and study on the texts they are preaching and teaching. Many claim “thus saith the Lord” in their preaching/teaching, so their listeners will believe what they are hearing is “what the Bible means” and is a word from the Lord. This is not only a critical situation, it is dangerously blasphemous for we are replacing the Word of God with the words of mere human beings.
Furthermore, if we continue to promote biblical illiteracy among the laity, we not only are doing a disservice to those who attend our congregations, but we diminish the capacity of the actual Gospel in our communities. I agree with James Denny who once penned, “No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time. No man can give the impression that he is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Everyone, including those yet “saved,” yet incorporated into the Church, loses.
Dr. Greg Beale, my adviser and New Testament professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (now at Wheaton Seminary), gave me this advice just before I graduated from GCTS in 1986, now twenty-five years ago:
“You have the general principles of hermeneutics pretty much understood, you know the rules of interpretation, now spend your time reading exegetical studies. Read anything that forces you into the text.”
He might have forgotten he gave me that small, but important piece of wisdom, but I didn’t. I have taken seriously Dr. Beale’s words, not just as a minister of the Word when I was in professional ministry, but even as a lay-person, now for over twenty-five years—I plan on continuing for the next 25 years. Dr. Beale’s words remind me of the Karl Barth quote that I have often used to underscore the necessity and importance of biblical exegesis:
“We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! ... And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given to us.”
These words, taken from Gordon Fee’s book on New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, were Barth’s formal farewell to his students in Bonn, just before his expulsion from Hitler’s Germany in 1935. It’s the biblical text that matters. Of course we should study backgrounds and ancient history, even sociology—all these help us understand Scripture. But the one thing I have observed in 33 years of being a Christian is that we spend a whole lot more time reading into the text foreign, personal, and so-called contemporary meanings than we do simply exegeting and pulling out of the text what the author intended in the first place. That’s where we find the Word of the Lord.
When I was a professor at Prairie Bible College, I told my students that I prayed God would give them the gift of observation. We should be driven back to the text—and to return again and again to hear it, in context. It is in and through the text of Scripture that God’s voice can be heard. To this end, I pray that God will give you the gift of observation. What does the text say? That is the preacher’s task.
The point of my thread here is not to outline what exegesis is, but to call attention to the sad fact that the discipline of exegesis—real, true, exegesis—of texts of Scripture, simply do not happen, seemingly, very often. The radio, TV, the pulpit, church instructional classes—the content of what is passing as Bible preaching and teaching is not being preceded by a critical analysis of the text. As someone rightly observed, good exegesis of the biblical text is a “question of content,” that is what was said, and equally, a question of “context,” that is why it was said. Cotterel and Turner, in their book Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, offer what I consider one of the best definitions of exegesis:
“Exegesis is the bringing to expression of an interpreter’s understanding of an author’s intended meaning of the discourse meaning of the text.”
“The discourse meaning of the text” is simply, what the author meant in writing a particular text within its context, its discourse in the document. As Walter Kaiser points out, “how can the ancient Scriptures continue to be the living voice of God for the present time?” The answer, through the task of faithful, biblical study, that is, exegesis. Simply put—no exegesis, no living voice of God for the present time.
“Keep to the word” thread posts 1 of 3, 2 of 3
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A while back I posted a quote from one of my favorite books and one that had a most significant impact on me and my Christian life, Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching.
“It is no secret that Christ’s church is not at all in good health in many places of the world. She has been languishing because she has been fed, as the current line has it, ‘junk food’ … As a result, theological and biblical malnutrition has affected [us]…[A] worldwide spiritual famine resulting from the absence of any genuine [diet] of the Word of God continues to run wild and almost unabated in most quarters of the church.”
Good exegetical skills are an imperative for the art and discipline of preaching and teaching the Word of God.
When I was teaching at Prairie Bible College in Three Hills, AB, Canada, I developed a set of annual chapels to promote academic issues. After one of the chapel presentations on the subject of the Study of Greek, I had students who were being trained in pastoral ministry who took offense that we had implied (implied, not we directly said so) it was important and necessary for the pastor of a church and particularly those charged with delivering the preached word every week to have a grounding and understanding of the original Greek. When approached, although I hope kind and gracious, we said it was important and really should be a requirement. Many of the mistakes I see and hear in sermons aren’t because a preacher hasn’t taken the time to study, but that the preacher has miss-used Greek, misunderstood it or just-doesn’t-know-NT Greek-but-makes-a-reference-to-Greek-anyway and gets it wrong, references others who don’t really know the Greek of the NT, or has selectively chosen the commentaries which side with whatever the preacher is pushing and has no clue to see or study for him- or herself.
I know I am not ingratiating myself to anyone who thinks oneself a teacher or preacher who is not NT Greek literate. Nonetheless, it is still the truth and a necessary aspect of the ministry of the Word.
Recently, I ran across a reference on someone else’s blog I had made that bears repeating here (with some updating):
There will always be a tension between the original Greek and the original author’s intention and contemporary translations (whether that be the 14th century KJV or the 2010 NIV). I taught Greek at a Christian college for five years, along with exegetical methods, and I stressed that an English translation should reflect, as best as possible, the original intention of the Greek and its use by the original author—so I’d agree [the issue on that blog] that the flip side is worth considering as well, namely that a translation of the original should not be primarily one that considers how English works as language at the expense of how Greek works as a language. This tension and multiple translations will exist if for any other reason that we will always be struggling with this two-sided coin: Should the English version reflect how the modern reader reads English or how the original author used his knowledge of the Greek language [to make his point]. All good translations have a measure of usefulness, they are adequate for study, not sufficient. I contend we are still in need of those in the pastoral vocation to be Greek (and dare I say, Hebrew) literate and exegetically proficient in order to guard the text and its content for future generations.
I still believe this.
Harry Blamires of The Christian Mind fame wrote a novel trilogy published in 1955, the second book of the series, Cold War in Hell, contains a chapter entitled, “The Problem Child.” Here’s an excerpt:
“At present there is grave dispute over the question how we ought to cater for the twentieth century. It is our problem century, for twentieth-century man is our problem child. You must understand that I am not referring to the moral delinquency in you and your contemporaries. It isn’t this that troubles us; for though the delinquency is important it presents no special problem. You see, men of all centuries are delinquents. Morally, twentieth-century man presents the same spectacle as his forebears and, I may add, as his successors. No, it’s the odd state of mind into which he has fallen that disquiets us. His intellect is corrupted in a fashion quite without precedent. In a word, twentieth-century man is irrational. That is what makes him our problem child.”
Of course I wonder, if the 20th century man was heaven’s problem child, what would be the 21st? What is worse than being irrational? Blamires is expressing, 50 years ago, what Peter Berger has suggested in the 70’s, that modern man has created a World without Windows…where it’s hard to listen to heaven. When preachers and Christian communicators downplay the mind and confer on the “heart” what was not intended by the biblical authors in the first place, that is “the heart” is the real central place of man, they are just showing their kinship to the Problem Child and are expressing their own postmodern view of the world. If Blamires and Berger are right (which I believe they are), won’t it be the preacher’s (or any Christian communicator’s) mission to repair the irrationality and seek to help us hear, amid the voices of (post)modernity, God’s voice?
Those who pit faith against reason never think they are applying their very own reasoning skills to make such an argument. In my experience (what a postmodern thought indeed), I have heard all the arguments and it seems to me that all Christians are doing is replacing the word faith for reason—in other words, it is faith that is misunderstood, and reason, poorly applied. For the unchurched this results in a windowless, irrational human being. For the Christian, we, too, lose the power (inherent within God’s gift of reason) to adequately hear God and interpret His world. Harry Blamires writes:
“To begin with, the implied antithesis between faith and reason just will not do. It is reason that guides a man to pass judgments on human life and its limitations; and, having judged, he finds the venture of faith absolutely indispensable. It is reason which enables you to distinguish the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the true from the false. Faith is obedience and self-committal. Reason distinguishes and preserves the values and standards which can call obedience and self-committal into play. If reason does not fulfill its proper function, then moral will is deprived of any sense of direction.”
It seems to me that if reason is fading or eliminated or destroyed, faith suffers for the Christian and, for both the Christian and the unchurched, hearing (God) is impaired. Herein modernity and its super-charged cousin, postmodernity, has made it difficult to hear the natural revelation God has endowed within his creation, the special revelation of His Word, and as well, the revelation of His Son. If one cannot hear God’s Word, one cannot respond in faith; and as Blamires writes, one cannot respond in obedience and commitment to that Word. This is the dilemma the 21st century person finds for himself, that which leads to damnable personal and cultural consequences. For the Christian, who refuses the gift of reason and dispels it as worldly, also is left with emotions and preferences to be a guide among choices and judgments, and as a result is no better off than his or her postmodern neighbor. (No wonder when pastors keep appealing to the heart (alone), obedience isn’t produced.)
I find that we, Christians, love our modern conveniences and benefits, but they are just as postmodern in our exercising truth-claims and obedience, in that our response to information, facts, and ideas and our obedience are measured by the ‘heart’ (read feelings), not guided by our reason. I fear modern Christians can also display that same irrational state of being plagued by our unchurched neighbors.
Take a look at a previous post: “Only the good (Christian) man is rational.”
Again, I mention, I am often accused of finding “the poor” in every text of the Bible. A little bit of an exaggeration being made here for sure, but a fair observation nonetheless. But I do see—hear—the Bible differently than I have in the past. I do see things I never noticed before. Life experience can do that. From the day I became a Christian on July 10, 1978, I was discipled and challenged to dig into the Bible, to do my best to interpret what was there—to do exegesis and not eisegesis, that is, get out of the texts what’s in the texts, don’t read into the texts what is not and cannot be there. My college and seminary training hammered that into me—sound exegesis and biblical theology. Although imperfect I am sure, I have endeavored to do this. So my life experience as a single father raising a daughter (earlier on) and working in the social service field isn’t just a new way to read the text of Scripture; it enhanced my exegesis skills by opening up texts and potential interpretations that I would not have been open to 13 years again simply because I read the Bible as a conservative, white, suburban, anti-government, “republican,” and anything that smacked of social gospel was anathema. So I missed what was there, mostly because I was told it can’t be there and my life experience affirmed such a way to read the Bible.
My constant seeing “the poor” in texts comes from my desire that evangelicals see “the poor” in the texts where they have been missing or ignoring them that is my utmost concern. Even in college and later in Grad-school I had already recognized that the “grace” vs. “law” and the “works righteousness” vs. “faith” categories through what we read and hear in the Bible were simply of our making and not the best framework to listen to the sacred text. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of texts to inform us that we cannot work for salvation or gain God’s approval through “good works.” But still, this is a rather narrow framework to read the Bible, for it colors every text with a hue that isn’t necessarily there, making us often miss the original intent of the author and the insight God wants us to have as we read the ancient, inspired text. In fact, I have found that the “works” vs. “faith” lens for reading the Bible can lead to another form of law (works righteousness) that is used to manipulate church-goers in the contemporary church community. Ah, but for another thread someday…
Framework matters. This was and is borne out in reading the Luke 15 parable of the prodigal son, or what I prefer calling it, the parable of the two sons. We do and can hear in the parable, what we bring to the story, rather than hear the story in the literacy context through which it was given. I found that this is particularly true while working through the Luke 15 parable of the two sons in the thread I previously posted.
Some have already pointed out that I am wrong to see a “poor” context behind the parable of the two lost sons in Luke 15. Of course if one isolates the text away from Luke’s context, this parable seems to neatly fit into the “works vs. faith” framework; but that, too, is a reading into the text.
In this follow-up thread to my Luke 15 posts, I’d like to make some contextual notes that I helped put the parable of the prodigal son (which I prefer, the parable of the two sons) back into the contextual flow of thought Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has place it. First, I want to do this by looking at the surround teaching in Luke 14 and 16. Second, take a look at Luke’s own penchant for the poor in his Gospel. And third, by looking at Jesus’ issues and confrontations with Jerusalem leadership, the Scribes, lawyers, and Pharisee leaders throughout the Gospel narrative.
In the next post in this thread, the context of Luke 14-16…
As the previous posts have clearly demonstrated, it is imperative to pay close attention to the context, especially the narrative leading up to the Luke 15 parable of the two sons. Luke goes out of his way to ensure we don’t miss his point in providing the Luke 15 parables, and in particular the one that catches are attention and imagination, the parable often referred to as the parable of the prodigal son (which is half right) and way-to-often, nowadays, referred to as the parable of the prodigal Father/God (which is all wrong). As noted throughout the immediate text and the narrative flow, Luke is concerned about how those on the inside of the community are misunderstanding the mission of God, namely in accepting those outside, marginalized, and unclean, and welcoming them into the house for the redemptive party—then the angels in heaven will rejoice!
We are apt to hear the question “Who do you identify with?” in the Luke 15 parable—the father, the real prodigal son, or the stay-at-home-self-righteous-son? Although a worthy question, it is asked wrongly—and, really, for wrong motives (another post for someday). The question ought to be, whom does the text identify you as? Which character(s) have we already encountered in the immediate narrative, and, then, how does that help “you” (“me”) to more adequately hear the parable?
On the matter of who is whom, certainly the father is not the heavenly Father; really the father is Jesus—the one sent and seeking. Later in Luke we clearly hear that Jesus is the One doing the seeking: For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). I am not sure how much more clear Luke can make it for us—the father in the Luke 15 parable is not the Father up in Heaven, but is a picture of the One He sent, Jesus, the One reflecting His mission and purpose. The reality of the Gospel and God’s redemptive action is now taking place through His Son. Ultimately we are all are to want to do as the father/Jesus does in the story—as well as the Shepherd in the first “something-is-lost” parable and the woman searching for her lost coin in the second. However, as the context suggests, the hearers are obviously first to relate to the stay-at-home-self-righteous-son who gets it all wrong. Or, Luke really has no reason for the parable, for the parables are not directed to “lost things” (i.e., lost people), but to those who should know what they are to be doing about lost things (i.e., people), specifically lost outsiders, outcasts, and those marginalized by both the church leadership and society. Now that’s the context of this two son parable in Luke 15! That is what would cause the angels in heaven to party-it-up!
And who is the prodigal son? Who are the prodigal sons (and daughters) among the readers and hearers of the story? Luke clues us in with his previous references. If the stay-at-home-self-righteous-son finds its referent in the self-righteous Leadership, and in the parables, those who have excuses about attending the banquet and those thinking the honorable places upfront are theirs, then the prodigal son finds its reference in the sick, the poor, the marginalized and outcasts, and the disadvantaged and unwanted made to get up from the good seats and forced to the back of the bus. Luke is pretty clear who the prodigal son represents in the parable: It is not “your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors,” who otherwise “may also invite you in return” to their parties and put money into the offering plate (14:12); no, it is “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” those who do not have “the means to repay you” (vv. 13-14). The prodigal are the one’s out in the streets, the homeless, those who are in the lanes and back alleys, the separated and unclean, the ones who don’t have the means to get to the banquet, for they are lame and crippled (v. 21).
The parables in Luke 14 context echo, interestingly, the picture of God’s redemptive acts in Micah and Zephaniah (cf. Ps 147:2; Ezekiel 34:16):
“In that day,” declares the LORD,
“I will assemble the lame
And gather the outcasts,
Even those whom I have afflicted.
“I will make the lame a remnant
And the outcasts a strong nation,
And the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on and forever (Micah 4:6-7).
“Behold, I am going to deal at that time
With all your oppressors,
I will save the lame
And gather the outcast,
And I will turn their shame into praise and renown
In all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19).
So in no way could the first hearers (or the tellers of the parable—Jesus and Luke) have fathomed that the parable of the two sons was about how we are to feel about God, about some made-up, strained interpretation of one word that isn’t even applied to “the father” in the first place in the parable itself. No. This parable is an indictment against the status quo among those who think they deserve the best seats at the table and who keep refusing (by attitude and design and default) to go out to the highways and byways, the streets and lanes and bring in the poor, crippled, the lame, the blind, along with the outcasts and marginalized of society, those who can’t repay us with tithes and offerings to support our church budgets and 6-figure pastor salaries, and church buildings that will not last.
We are protected from the harsh reality of this parable by these very devotionalized teachings, these hallmark card applications, not of Scripture, but applications of our therapeutic culture that seek to make the non-poor and other elite Christianized groups comfortable and feel better about themselves. This parable is about tough discipleship and commitment to the mission and purpose of Jesus, and how it applies to those sitting in the choice seats while there are those who can’t even imagine there is a banquet to enjoy and find their full.