Sunday, November 25, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 5

My first hermeneutical bias is to privilege Jesus over all else in Scripture.

I guess I can't take for granted that a bias is a good thing. Because some of you are thinking, "Doesn't it say somewhere that 'All Scripture is God-breathed...'" Yes it does.

But Jesus (again I'm privileging him anyway) says in Matthew 23:23, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former." Other translations translate the underlined portion as "weightier matters."

And Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures..."

Apparently, Scripture is not a flat text. There are more important and less important matters, though all of Scripture is God-breathed.

Now, privileging Jesus seems like an obvious move, but as I argued in post 4, I'm amazed at how many people don't practice this bias.

Bear with me as I spit some Christology...

Hebrews 1:1-3 is one of the most important sections of Scripture for me. In verse 3, God says that Jesus Christ is the exact representation of God's being. That's a huge statement! In ages past, God spoke through the prophets. But in Jesus Christ, God has revealed himself in human form.

And here's the scandal of the incarnation: It's not just that Jesus is like God; it's that God is like Jesus. If that's not scandalous enough, then listen to this: If it can't be said of Jesus, it can't possibly be true of God.

For all of you mathematicians, here's the equation:

God = Jesus; Jesus = God

Now, that statement has implications. Because it's one thing to use God as a standard of judgment, but to use a 1st-century Jewish man as a standard of measurement against which we understand God is a whole different level altogether. But that's what the text says. "Jesus is the exact representation of God's being."

Wow! If that's true, then there are certainties I now have about God.

On the other hand, there are some tensions I now have to deal with if I hold that statement to be true. Because to be honest, there are parts of Scripture describing God that don't seem to be things that Jesus would do or command.

For instance, I have a hard time with passages like 1 Samuel 15:3 where God commands the Israelites to completely destroy (including women, children, and infants) the Amalekites. I can't imagine those words coming out of Jesus' mouth. How is it possible to square those words with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-48, a passage commanding his followers to nonviolence and love of enemies? (I know there are people who have tried to square those words, but I believe it is impossible.)

That passage might not be the point of tension for you. But I'm guessing there's a point of tension somewhere in Scripture that makes it hard to square descriptions of God with Jesus, who is the exact representation of God.

Marcion certainly felt the tension. Marcion was an early Christian bishop who rejected the deity described in the Old Testament as inferior to the God of the New Testament. That's certainly one way to deal with this tension, but it's a route that will get you branded as a heretic (just like Marcion was).

Now, if I'm going to privilege Jesus and his words in my reading of Scripture, there's another issue.

Which Jesus are you going to privilege?

Education Jesus?
Charismatic Jesus?
Social justice Jesus?
Hippie Jesus?
Bible thumpin' Jesus?
Hipster Jesus?
Psychology Jesus?
Rambo Jesus?
Republican Jesus?
Democrat Jesus?

George Bernard Shaw once said, "God created man in His image and then man returned the favor."

Have you ever noticed that Jesus just happens to agree with you...about everything?
-He would heal the people you think he should.
-He would vote like you.
-He would spend money like you do.
-He would would root for the same sports teams that you do.

Anne Lamott once said, "You know you've created Jesus in your image when he hates all the same people you do."

There are many counterfeit Jesuses out there to choose from. We do it all the time.

But if we truly want to privilege Jesus, then we need to form a clear understanding of who Jesus truly is. And the only way to do that is to drink deeply in the gospels.

And that's why I preached through the Gospel of Mark for 6 months soon after I arrived at Littleton. It's also why we spent all year in the Sermon on the Mount as a congregation.

If we are going to be Jesus' followers, we had better know exactly who we are following.

And that's why any time I am studying with a seeker, I'm not going to take them through a 5-lesson study about justification in the Book of Romans. Instead, we are going to spend time in a gospel getting to know Jesus.

Because the last thing I want is for someone to become a Christian and be unclear about who Christ is.

So, my first bias is to hand Jesus the trump card. If there's anything in Scripture that conflicts with the teaching and life of Jesus, I'm consciously choosing to superimpose Jesus over those texts.

What implications would this bias have if you were to take it on? Thoughts?


Sunday, November 18, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 4

Assuming we all pick and choose in our reading of Scripture as I argued in post 2 and Scripture is a multivocal conversation as I argued in post 3, where does that leave us in our interpretation?

It means we have to take sides. I could say that in a more diplomatic way, but that's the reality.

None of us (including me) are exempt from reading Scripture with a bias. Our family of origin, church of origin, life experiences, and the people who have taught us to read Scripture have all played a role in how we read Scripture.

And that bias leads us to privilege certain texts. And when we privilege those texts, we superimpose our favored texts on top of other texts when studying a topic.

Churches of Christ emerged from a religious tradition called the Restoration Movement, or the Stone-Campbell Movement. Ours was a movement that sought to do everything like the 1st-century church did. The Bible was our only creed. And the focus of our restoration centered on our worship.

Can you guess which texts our movement favored in that task? We favored Paul. Yes, we also focused on the Book of Acts, but when we had a question about worship, we focused on Paul's epistles.

Some segments of our movement went as far as to argue for a dispensational view of Scripture that favored Acts-Revelation over the rest of Scripture. In some minds, the Old Testament was nearly useless for restoring 1st-century worship. But not only the Old Testament. We valued Paul over the gospels, the very words of Jesus.

Now, that kind of bias has tremendous implications!

-What do you do about slavery in the 19th century? Well, one major way our hermeneutic led us astray was to privilege and superimpose Paul's words (Colossians 3:22-25; Ephesians 6:5-8; Titus 2:9-10) and Peter's words (1 Peter 2:18-21) over the entire counsel of Scripture. And if your a slaveowner who benefits from this bias, it's easy to see how many of our preachers preached in favor of slavery.

-How do you read Scripture when it comes to the role of women? Once again, superimpose and privilege two seemingly clear passages (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12) from Paul regarding women and the case is closed. How could anyone allow women to lead when these texts from Paul are so clear? A broader reading of Scripture shows that this conversation can't be settled by two proof texts from Paul.

-How does a church select new elders and deacons? Well, what does Paul have to say? Then, we go to Paul's counsel (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1) and we have our checklist of qualifications.

This biased hermeneutic has been practiced for so long that we don't even think to question it. We don't even realize how often we superimpose and privilege Paul's words over the rest of Scripture, even the words of Jesus.

How might these three examples turn out differently if we superimposed different texts?

-What about slavery? This one is more simple since most of us (there certainly are some who would argue that Paul's words allow for slavery even today) have learned to rethink Paul's seemingly easy-to-interpret words from Colossians, Ephesians, and Titus. Yet, I still wonder why our change of heart on the issue of slavery doesn't cause us to question our taken-for-granted hermeneutic. Why hasn't our new stance on slavery dealt a death blow to the Old Hermeneutic (command, example, necessary inference)? It should have produced some kind of cognitive dissonance.

-What about the role of women? First, anyone using a careful eye in 1 Corinthians must acknowledge the inconsistency between Paul's words regarding women in 1 Corinthians 11:5-10 & 14:34-35. Second, why do we settle the issue with two proof texts (usually read out of context) rather than taking the entire scope of Scripture? What would it look like to superimpose and privilege Paul's words in Galatians 3:26-28 over what he says about women in 1 Corinthians 14 & 1 Timothy 2?

-What about selecting elders and deacons? Have you ever noticed that the lists in 1 Timothy and Titus are not identical? So, which of Paul's list do we favor? Well, we don't favor either text usually. Most often, we combine the "qualifications" from each text and impose more stringent standards on elders and deacons than either letter imposed...all in the name of playing it safe. What if we were superimpose and privilege Ezekiel 34? What if we were to look for men who lived out the Sermon on the Mount most clearly? What if the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 became our standard for selecting elders and deacons?

Now, I'm conceding that we all must pick and choose in our reading of Scripture. We all have a bias when we come to the text. We all superimpose certain texts over other texts as we interpret.

We can't fix those problems.

But we can be more forthright and intentional in the ways we interpret through our biased lenses.

When our biases are allowed to affect us completely subconsciously, we can maintain our inner belief that we are "neutral" interpreters. And when we believe we are "neutral" interpreters, it's easy to devalue the interpretations of others because they are so obviously "biased."

In order to read Scripture better, we must consciously choose how we will pick and choose. There are better biases to bring to Scripture than others. For example, a racist bias will lead us to worse reading of Scripture than a bias centered on Galatians 3:26-28 (at least that's my bias).

Over the next couple of blog entries, I'm going to reveal some of my conscious biases. I will never be able to access all of my biases, but I can begin with those I am aware of.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 3

So, if you've read posts 1 and 2 in this series, you might feel a bit disoriented at this point. More probably, these posts have revealed a breakdown that was already unfolding in your experience with Scripture.

I grew up with the assumption that the Bible was a book with one clear and consistent message. And in a sense, it is that. The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture and continues to inspire readers of Scripture to understand the overarching story of God's redemption.

And yet, this flat understanding of Scripture fails to account for the miracle of Scripture.

Think about it: The 66 books of the Bible were written by more than 40 authors, in 3 languages, on 3 different continents, spread across over a millennium. Some of the authors, like Moses and Paul were educated in the finest schools of their day, but others, like Peter, were uneducated men who were more comfortable with fishing nets than pens in their hands.

I would challenge anyone who could bring me another book that speaks with such unity while being written as diversely as this book. It's a miracle. It's a work of God...literally!

But I want to push back against the idea that the Bible is univocal. If it's univocal, it's flat. It has one clear-cut meaning. And that was the assumption I left home with. So when I entered my first preaching class, I was paralyzed and couldn't write my first sermon because I feared that I would interpret the text wrong. 

Let me assure you: I'm not a relativist. There certainly are wrong ways to interpret/apply a text. But there are several right ways to interpret/apply most texts.

You know this to be true. I'm sure all of you can relate a story about coming to a familiar Scripture that you've read 1,000 times, but on the 1,001st time you read it, a message emerges from the text you had never seen before. You wonder how you could have missed it.

Today, I view Scripture as a conversation. I view it as a library (66 books in a larger anthology) rather than a univocal book. I view it as a mosaic pieced together from the writing of a diverse group of authors who gave their own inspired spin on the mess humans have contributed to the world and the beauty that God works out of that mess.

Here's just one example of Scripture's multivocal conversation:

Deuteronomy gives the people of God a straight-forward theology. Deuteronomy 28-30 sets forward a black and white picture of Israel's future. If they do what is right and honor God, he will bless them. If they do what is wrong and dishonor God, he will curse them. That's the basic premise of Deuteronomic Theology.

And when we come to the Book of Job, it's obvious that Job's friends have subscribed to Deuteronomic Theology. Job seems to have been cursed. For seven days, they are silent. It's the best pastoral care they can offer Job. But when they open their mouths, it all goes downhill.

You see, Job believes he has suffered unjustly. He believes he's blameless and in chapter 1, the readers know that Job's right. But Job's friends know Deuteronomy. And they're sure the righteous don't suffer for nothing. So, they beg Job to confess whatever sin he has committed, so that God will stop bringing curses on Job and his house. 

So, what does all of this have to do with how we view Scripture?

I think what's going on in the Book of Job is just one example of many of how different Scriptural authors are in conversation with one another. The author of the Book of Job is pushing back on the author of the Book of Deuteronomy. He's getting a word in for God to let his readers know that suffering doesn't always mean that God is actively punishing you.

Jesus is engaged in the very same dialogue with Deuteronomy in John 9. There's a guy who's been blind since birth and the disciples have read Deuteronomy. So they astutely ask, "Who sinned, this guy or his parents, that he was born blind?" And instead of siding with Deuteronomy and Job's friends, Jesus pushes back and says neither of them sinned.

If you've grown up in Churches of Christ, this can be quite disconcerting. We like things black and white. We've viewed Scripture as more of a constitution than anything else. (I wonder where that idea came from? Possibly the early American frontier as our movement emerged?)

So, if this is so, how would that impact our biblical interpretation?

(I'd love your thoughts. Join the conversation!)


Sunday, November 04, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 2

When we read and interpret Scripture, we all pick and choose.

Few of us admit it, but all of us do it.

How do I know that? Because not one of us can honestly say we do everything Scripture says.

One of the hardest parts of Scripture is adapting a 1st century text to life in the 21st century. We aren't consistent in our adaptations. But I believe we are sincere in our adaptations. We disagree on how to interpret and live out the text.

While I was at ACU, Ken Cukrowski took my class through an exercise that was extremely revealing. I'd like to ask you to take part of that test:

Put a "C" beside those items that are "cultural" and a "P" beside those items that are permanent.
1) Greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26).
2) Be baptized (Acts 2:38).
3) Wash one another's feet (John 13:14).
4) Abstain from fornication (Acts 15:29).
5) If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt. 5:39).
6) Love your enemies (Matt. 5:44).
7) Prohibit women from wearing braided hair, gold, pearls, or costly attire (1 Tim. 2:9).
8) Permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12).
9) Anoint the sick with oil (James 5:14).
10) A woman should pray and prophesy with her head covered (1 Cor. 11:5,10).
11) Long hair on a man is degrading (1 Cor. 11:14).
12) Take communion in a large upper room (Luke 22:12).
13) Drink communion from a single cup (Luke 22:17).
14) Do not own property, but meet in house churches (Acts 12:12; 16:40; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phlm. 2).
15) Each member should bring a song, lesson, etc. to share with the church during worship (1 Cor. 14:26).
16) Women should keep silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34).
17) Owe no one anything (Rom. 13:8).
18) Advise engaged couples not to seek marriage (1 Cor. 7:25-27,37-38).
19) Wives, be subject to your husbands (Eph. 5:22).
20) Slaves, obey your earthly masters (Eph. 6:5-8).

How did you decide whether the practice was cultural or permanent?

Ideally, we would have a way to interpret Scripture that would form our practice. But what I noticed when I took the test is that I subconsciously flipped the process. I determined my current practice and legitimized myself by interpreting Scripture to support my current practice.

And that's scary!

If we don't pay close attention to the way we pick and choose in our interpretation and practice, then there's a good chance we will read Scripture in the most gracious way we possibly can to make ourselves feel good about our current lifestyle.

So, the question I want to consider is not if we should pick and choose. We all do that. What I want to pursue is how we can pick and choose in a conscious, faithful, repeatable way.

As Scot McKnight says in his book, The Blue parakeet, "We all pick and choose...I believe many of us want to know why we pick and choose. Even more importantly, many of us want to know how to do this in a way that honors God and embraces the BIble as God's Word for all times."