Hebrew Anthropology and Apologetics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithDelight yourself in the LORD, 

and he will give you the desires of your heart. 

(Ps 37:4 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) and not simply emotions that come and go. Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual.

Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church because the center of your being is not adequately engaged. Emotions and thinking are more like appendages to the will, not its center. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.

Hebrew Anthropology

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” `If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire?[the heart]” (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.

The Future is Always Present

Smith offers an interesting ethical insight—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view. He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith (2016, 89) observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (88).

This sense of worship explains why Revelation draws many illusions from the creation accounts in Genesis and paints many pictures of worship in heaven. Our collective objective as Christians is to live into our vision of heaven (our eschatology) where we reflect and commune with the God that we worship. Our end (ultimate story) is always in view and it informs how we should live and worship.

How are we to live into our collective future if we love the wrong things today?

Sacred and Secular Liturgies

Smith (2016, 46) spends a lot of time discussing liturgies. He writes:

“Liturgy, as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”

The Apostle’s Creed is, for example, both a ritual and a story that explains who Jesus is, who we are and what we are for. Repeating the creed until you can recite it in your sleep implies that it has become a ritual and a part of your identity.

Holy music goes a step further to bury it in your heart. Having work with Alzheimer’s patients, I can tell you that songs like the Doxology are the last thing you forget before getting lost in the mist—I have seen patients lost, unable to speak, brought back to themselves when you sing such songs with them. This is what Smith means by a sacred ritual.

The problem is that our society has its own liturgies. He spends a great deal of effort, for example, analyzing and dissecting the liturgies of the shopping mall. When you are upset, do you go to chapel and pray (think of the film, Home Alone)⁠1 or do you call a friend and go shopping? Why shop? The liturgy of the mall suggests that individual find empowerment in purchasing things that they probably don’t need. The problem with this secular liturgy is that inherent in purchasing things to make us feel good about ourselves is we are broken, need things to fulfill ourselves, and don’t measure up to others with more stuff. Worse, the feel-good benefit quickly wears off because it is a lie (Smith 2016, 47-53).

Hospitality as Apologetic

If the heart is the center of our identity, not just our emotions, we need to think about apologetics differently. An apologetic focused on heart needs to appeal both to the mind and the emotions. Let me offer three examples.

The first example concerns the first letter of Peter, where the most famously quoted verse is: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15) The thing is that the rest of the book focuses on lifestyle evangelism, as it says.

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Pet 2:12)

Works like hospitality speak directly to the heart without words. 

The second example arose in the fourth century when we see that Saint Patrick was famous as the first successful evangelist in Ireland. His success was not anticipated because Patrick, as a teenager sixteen year old, was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. For the next six years he worked as a slave caring for his master’s cattle in the Irish wilderness. Later, he escaped and traveled abroad to study to become a priest. Much later, he returned to Ireland as the church’s first missionary bishop and evangelized the Irish out of love for them. His love of the Irish was obvious and his evangelism focused on offering hospitality. In the end, Patrick and his companions planted more than seven hundred churches in Ireland (Hunter 2000, 13-23).

The third example is more recent. In the city of Rio de Janeiro  there are many young people caught up in the gangs of the drug culture. In Brazil they call young people with mixed blood (blacks and Indians) as the “killable people.” Many of them die from the violence, but those that survive and are incarcerated by the police don’t have much hope. In the jails, the police do not feed them or offer medical care. For the most part, the gangs control daily life in the prisons. In this hellish world, there are few visitors, not even Christians, but those that come are mostly Pentecostals who provide food, medicine, and worship services. As a consequence, the gangs respect the Pentecostals, providing security for their services and allowing young people who really come to Christ to leave the gangs—the only option other than a body bag (Johnson).

As we have seen, hospitality can be more than just food. In these stories, it can be a faith journey that travels the path to the Hebrew heart.

References

Hunter, George G. III. 2000. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Johnson, Andrew. 2017. If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford. (Review)

Smith, James K. A. . 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Footnotes

1 ps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Alone. In the story, church is where eight-year old, Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley and finds out that he is not scary, but a nice man. The two become friends and help each other resolve their problems.

Hebrew Anthropology and Apologetics

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Hebrew_Heart

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A God Who Listens

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

I sometimes joke that when we talk to God, secular people call that prayer, but when God talks to us, they call it psychosis. While Christians are accustomed to God answering prayer, one of the most astonishing attributes of God is that he listens. For example, in the Book of Judges we read:

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The Spirit of the LORD was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand.” (Jdg 3:7-10)

Pattern in Judges

Brueggemann (2016, 59) records this pattern: “(1) doing evil, (2) angering YHWH enough to produce historical subjugation, (3) crying to the Lord in need, and (4) raising up a deliverer.” Crying out to the Lord may seem like a strange prayer, but the point is that God listens to people in their suffering, even when it is well-deserved. As the Apostle Paul writes: ”God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8)

Why does this hearing attribute of God astonish us? Well, if you do not believe that God exists or that he exists but is aloof (only transcendent), then God’s attentiveness comes as a complete surprise—why would an almighty God pay attention to an insignificant, little me? The short answer is that he loves you—enough to die for you—like a parent loves their child because you are created in his image.

Biblical Accountability

God’s willingness to listen also denotes accountability, as we read:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner [immigrant] or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exod 22:21-27)

Mistreating the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, or the poor can evoke the wrath of a listening and compassionate God. Note the penalty for mistreating widows and orphans—you will die by sword and your wives and children will suffer without you. Thus, we see that ignoring God does not imply that you can do anything that you want.

The pattern in the Book of Judges is especially interesting because we read: Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jdg 17:6) This description might equally apply to our own times.

Modern Examples of Accountability?

Modern example of this accountability might be found in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, who could described as the patron saint of postmodernism. Nietzche, the son of a pastor, philosophied that “God is dead,” which implied that the Christian foundations of Western morality no longer had any relevance (Hendricks 2018). His work served as the philosophical foundation of the Third Reiche in Germany and communism throughout the world. Both atheist regimes brought about enormous suffering particularly through the Second World War, but also through concentration camps and widespread starvation, even as we witness today in North Korea.⁠1 

Could the defeat of Nazi Germany (1945) and the collapse of communism with the fall fo the Berlin Wall (1989) be viewed as the wrath of God being poured out because of the suffering caused? Was Nietzche’s own insanity⁠2 (1889) a random events?

Personally, I think that we serve a God who listens.

References

Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Hendricks, Scotty. 2018.  “God Is Dead: What Nietzsche Really Meant.” Online: http://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/what-nietzsche-really-meant-by-god-is-dead. Accessed: June 8.

McGrath, Alister. 2004.  The Twilight of Atheism:  The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.  New York:  DoubleDay.

Footnotes

1 While some see atheism still on the march, Alister McGrath (2004, 1) dates the heyday of atheism from the fall of the Bastille (1789) to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche.

A God Who Listens

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Hebrew_Heart

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The Person of Jesus

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

No description of God would be complete without an understanding of the role of Jesus Christ that starts with God’s transcendent nature. God’s transcendence arises because he created the known universe as revealed in the Genesis creation account:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1)

As creator, God had to exist before the universe that he created and he had to have been set apart from it. Time, as we know it, is part of the created universe. Consequently, God stands outside of time and space. Because we exist inside time and space, we cannot approach God on our own. He has to reveal himself to us. Likewise, we cannot approach a Holy God, because we are sinful beings, not Holy beings. Our sin separates from a Holy God and motivates our confession when we ask God to draw us to himself.

Thus, we cannot approach God on our own because he transcends time and space and because he is holy. Only God can initiate connection with unholy, created beings such as we are. No path reaches up the mountain to God; God must come down. As Christians, we believe that God came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was prophesied from the earliest days of scripture. 

For example, the Prophet Job wrote: 

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”  (Job 19:25-27)

The Book of Job is thought by some to have been written by Moses before any other book in the Bible and before he returned to Egypt, which makes the anticipation of a redeemer all the more stunning. Moses himself lived about 1,500 years before Christ.

Who then is this transcendent God that loves us enough to initiate connection with us in spite of our sin?

Later, after giving Moses the Ten Commandments for a second time on Mount Sinai, God reveals himself to Moses with these words:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod 34:6)

Notice that God describes himself first as merciful. As Christians, we believe that God love is shown to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because God himself has provided the ultimate sacrifice of his son on the cross, Christians do not need to offer animal sacrifices—in Christ, our debt to God for sin has already been paid. This is real mercy, real love.

Listen now to the confession given by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”  (1 Cor 15:3-5)

Jesus, as the perfect son of God, is the bridge that God has given us to connect with himself through the Holy Spirit, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost:

“And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to pray to God with the assurance that we will be heard; we are able to read the Bible with the confidence that God will speak to us; and we are able to live our daily lives knowing that God walks with us each step of the way. In this way, as Christians we are always connected with God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. The Gospel is accordingly the story of Jesus in the context of Old Testament prophecy and how through him God came down from outside time and space to dwell in our hearts.

The Person of Jesus

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Image Theology and Idolatry

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of God—

“So God created man in his own image [בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ], in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27 ESV)

—may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) For example, how time or money each week do you spend in different activities? How does God stack up in this list of priorities?

The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶ֣֙סֶל], or any likeness [תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exod 20:4-6)

The focus on “carved images” suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Ps 115:4-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them”. Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god. Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Is this statement hyperbole? Not all all. If we worship idols, they let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy.

Think about the priorities in the United States today. If your number one priority is work and you loose your job, what happens? Even a casual observer knows that anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are rampant in the United States.

The issue of suicide is indicative because suicide is currently at historically high levels. Two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest idols that have crashed.

For every suicide there are probably another five or ten people suffering miserably. If psychiatric problems, such as anxiety and depression, have a spiritual root (idolatry), then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem.

To sum up, if we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy arises for our advantage. God’s jealousy is not vanity; it is part of his care for us. Love for God, as the prayer goes—

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

—actually serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.

References

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Image Theology and Idolatry

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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The Ethical Image of God

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ethical image of God is a hot-button issue today because of the proclivity of many pastors and Christians to view God exclusively through the lens of love, as we read repeatedly through the writings of the Apostle John: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Matthew’s double love command is likewise frequently cited:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?  And he said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40)

The Greek word for love (ἀγαπάω) is the same in both cases and means: “to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love” (BDAG 38.1). Agape love provides little help in understanding God’s character because of the wide scope in Greek usage. More useful is focus on the word depend (κρέμαμαι) in Matthew 22:40, which means: “to cause to hang [like a hinge].” (BDAG 4395.1), because the law and the prophets hang on love, but they also inform love’s meaning. The law and the prophets inform Matthew’s use of the word, love.

Covenantal Love

In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)

The word translated “steadfast love” here (חֶ֥סֶד; hesed) means: “obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants, &c.; unity, solidarity, loyalty” (HOLL). The context makes it clear that the type of love in view here is not a generic agape love, but a more specific covenantal love focused on keeping one’s promises. We honor God and our neighbor by treating them with respect and keeping our word, especially when it hurts. This is a heart-felt relationship, but it is more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

The fact that love is not the first characteristic of God, mercy is, reinforces the idea that love requires an interpretation beyond the warm and fuzzy agape love that so many cherish. When we say that Jesus died for our sins, we experience his love by means of (or through the instrument of) his mercy. The point that mercy is more primal than love is also reinforced in Jesus’ Beatitudes: mercy is listed; love is not (Matt 5:3-11). When we experience God’s love through his mercy, covenant keeping love, not warm and fuzzy agape love, is in focus.

The Hermeneutics of the New Covenant in Christ

This interpretation of love in Matthew makes particular sense because Matthew views the new covenant in Christ in terms of five commandments. The first commandment is to honor the law and the prophets (Matt 5:18-20). The second has to do with stepping out in faith (Matt 14:2829). The third instructs the disciples not to obsess about spiritual experiences (Matt 17:9). The fourth instructs then disciples not to pic nits with the law (Matt 19:16-21). The five commandment is the double love commandment already mentioned (Matt 22:36-40). 

If this set of commandments seems obscure, what we see is Matthew struggling to interpret the new covenant in Christ in an Old Testament framework of specific rules. By contrast, the Apostle John sees the new covenant in terms of the person of Jesus, which is hermetically harder and leads to competing visions of the person of Christ. Whose Jesus are you going to accept? 

Matthew’s double love commandment gives us a better idea of how to interpret the person of Christ because it “hangs” on our understanding of the Old Testament. It also pre-empts attempts to adopt a licentious interpretation of God’s love inconsistent with Old Testament teaching.

References

BDAG – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition.  Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago Press. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on the Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und für frühchristlichen Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English Editions by W.F.Arndt, F.W.Gingrich, and F.W.Danker. This edition is an electronic version of the print edition published by the University of Chicago Press.

HOLL – A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, edited by W.L. Holladay. Copyright © 1997 by Brill Academic Publishers.

The Ethical Image of God

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Interpreting the Bible 2.0

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith“Then the LORD God said, 

it is not good that the man should be alone; 

I will make him a helper (‎עֵ֖זֶר) fit for him.” 

(Gen 2:18 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

 In earlier reflections, I noted how important hermeneutics is to understanding scripture, distinguishing Christian groups, and sorting out controversies in the church. In this reflection I will give an example of how to interpret scripture focusing on just one verse, Genesis 2:18, cited above. In this verse, God talks about creating Eve and refers to her as Adam’s helper.

A Patriarchal Read?

Historically, Genesis 2:18 has been used to justify male dominance in the marriage relationship. This view has then been supported by pointing out that Adam named Eve, another sign of dominance, and in Genesis 3:6 Eve yields to Satan’s temptation, a sign taken as weakness on her part. 

An alternative interpretation notes that Adam and Eve are created together as a pair: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) Later, in marriage Adam is to give up his father’s household to live with Eve (Gen 2:24), which was not the typical custom among other people groups in the Ancient Near East. Further, if one reads the temptation narrative closely, Adam is standing next to Eve when she get tempted. If he is truly “the man of the house”, then why does he stand there mute while his wife is talking to a snake? Is the snake addressing the boss?

Key to this patriarchal interpretation is the word translated as helper (‎עֵ֖זֶר). While helper can sometimes mean a slave, more typically it refers to a higher status person or even God himself: “Behold, God is my helper (‎עֹזֵ֣ר); the Lord is the upholder of my life.” (Ps 54:4) Webb (2001, 128) writes:

“…a survey of the Hebrew world for ‘helper’ (ezer) should caution against using the word itself to support either position. When including both the noun and verb forms, there are about 128 occurrences int he Old Testament. The majority of uses (72%) are of superior-status individuals helping these of a lesser status. Yet, there are a number of examples where the ‘helper’ is either of equal status (18%) or of lower status (10%) than the one being helped…Only contextual factors beyond the word should be used to establish [status].”

Here we find that the original author, Moses, is unclear as to the intent of the passage. Readers of the passage are likewise divided. However, in scripture we find a clear statement by the Apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) While some commentators will debate Paul’s commitment to equality, his comments on family relations in Ephesians 6:1-9 completely undermined the patriarchal system of his time, when the father’s rights over women, children, and slaves were absolute. The early church functioned as a defacto family group (hence, terms like brother and sister used throughout the New Testament to refer to fellow believers) in which equality among the members was a dominant virtue.⁠1

The patriarchal position is harder to argue from scripture than male and female equality, especially in today’s cultural context. Mexican Christians will sometimes joke about two types of husbands: those that are happy and those who think that they are the boss!

Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve?

After many years of Evangelicals saying that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, gay commentators began turning this argument around, albeit tongue in cheek.⁠2 If the Great Commandment (love neighbor, love God; Matt 22:36-40) is true and should be our ethical and interpretative guide as Christians as advocated, for example, by Jack Rogers (2009, 65) , then sometimes the perfect helper for Adam is truly Steve, not Eve. If Adam loves Steve, who is to say it is not so? After all, God had just introduced him to all the living creatures and birds of the air, looking presumably for a helper for Adam (Gen 2:18-20).

Why might we find this interpretation unconvincing?

Two prominent reasons suggest that this is a speculative reading. 

First, the author of the passage, Moses, uses these verses (Gen 2:18-20) as a foil to introduce Eve and Adam is happy with God’s new creation: “Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:23) The immediate context of the passage rules out any substitutes for Eve.

Second, if any confusion existed on how to interpret Genesis 2:18, then Leviticus 18:22 explicitly and unequivocally forbids homosexual relationships.⁠3 Because Moses wrote both Genesis and Leviticus, one would need to argue that Moses somehow disagreed with himself or changed his mind about the Genesis 2:18 passage, which seems unlikely. Looking to the New Testament for further guidance, the Apostle Paul refers to homosexuality and lesbianism both as a curse for having rejected God and his self-identification in creation (Rom 1:19-28). In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state as we see Jesus doing with the woman caught in adultery (John 8).

Why Bother Talking About Hermeneutics?

The point of these examples is to encourage Christians to take scriptural interpretation seriously. Weak or unusual interpretations typically either take scripture out of context or focus exclusively on a reader context. Considering also the author’s intent and the wider scriptural context generally provide a more balanced reading than  talking exclusively about “what scripture means to me” as a reader. 

References

Fortson, S. Donald and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.(Review)

Hellerman, Joseph H. . 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Review)

Rogers, Jack. 2009. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.(Review)

Webb, William J. 2001. Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Downers Grove: IVP Press.(Review)

anImage_2.tiff

1 This is an important finding, in part, because the prevailing interest among many writers today is to allege that the patrilineal kinship group model is used rhetorically to promote hierarchy at the expense of socially disadvantaged groups. Hellerman (2001, 221) disagrees writing:

“those who had the most to gain from the image of the church as a family were the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the imprisoned, the orphans, and the widows. For brother-sister terminology in antiquity had nothing to with hierarchy, power, and privilege, but everything to do with equality, solidarity, and generalized reciprocity.” (221)

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_and_Steve.

3 Fortson and Grams (2016, 251-258) discuss this issue of intent in Leviticus as interpreted in the New Testament at great length.

Interpreting the Bible 2.0

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Image Theology

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Who is God?  And what does it mean to be created in the image of God as male and female?

Let’s start with the reference in the Book of Genesis:

“Then God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:26-28 ESV)

The context here is important. We are in the first chapter of the first book in the Bible so every implied by these three verses about what it means to be created in the image of God has to appear in the prior verses. How does the text describe God?

First, verse one tells us that God is a creator who, being eternal, sovereignly stands outside time and space. Second, verse two shows us that God can through his spirit enter into his creation. Third, having created heaven and earth, verse three describes God speaking to shape the form of creation beginning with light. Note the exact correspondence between what God says (“Let there be light”) and what he does (“and there was light”)—God is truthful, authentic. Forth, verse four tells us that God judged to be good and he separated it from darkness—God discriminates good (light) from the not so good (darkness). God cares about ethics.

God later describes his ethical character in detail to Moses after giving the Ten Commandments a second time:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod 34:6)

God’s self-disclosure was important for understanding how to interpret the Ten Commandments, should questions arise, but it also underscores the creation account providing insight into whose image we are created to reflect.

Going back to Genesis 1:26-28, two aspects of God’s image are highlight in our own creation description. We are created by a sovereign God who creates us to participate in his creation in two specific ways: we are to “have dominion” over the created order and we are to “be fruitful and multiply.” How are we to accomplish these things? Following God’s ethical image, we are to be discerning of the good, merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and truthful. 

Although God created animals prior to Adam and Eve and they were also commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22), they could not reflect God’s ethical image and God did not give them dominion. 

At this point in Genesis, God also intended us also to share in his eternal nature. However, before God conferred immortality on us, he posed an ethical test. Would Adam and Eve reflect God’s ethical nature?

The test came in the form of a command:

“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, you may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:16-17)

Satan tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they ate. Because Satan had done this, God cursed him:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)

The “he” in this verse is singular and points to a future redeemer (Job 19:25), who Christians identify as Jesus Christ (John 1:1-3). After this point in the narrative, God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden where they were subject to the curse of death. We thus see that the original sin of Adam and Eve separated us from the Garden of Eden, eternal life, and fully reflecting the image of God.

Jesus underscores this image theology in several important ways. First, he is revealed as the ethical image of God with God during creation:

“He [Jesus]was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John. 1:2-5)

Second, Jesus uses image theology in teaching prayer to his disciples: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10) In this phrase, the word, “kingdom,” is a commonly used circumlocution to avoid referencing God directly, which in the Jewish faith was considered too holy to be used in common language. In the Old Testament, for example, we often see the term, Lord (adonai in Hebrew), used instead of God’s covenant name, YHWH, often pronounced Yahweh.

Third, just like Jesus asserts God’s sovereignty over heaven and hell in his death on the cross, the disciples are commissioned to assert God’s sovereignty over the earth after the ascension. Right before he ascended, Jesus said:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

This parallel ministry is also discussed in John’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) In other words, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”, is not an incidental footnote in Jesus’ ministry or a latter addition to the text as some allege, it is a direct consequence of the image theology in Genesis 1. Likewise in the Apostle Paul’s writing we see a dichotomy between a putting off of the old self and a putting on of the new self in Christ (Eph 4:22-24), as we are transformed by the image of the living God.

 

Image Theology

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Limits to a Cognitive Approach

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Epistemology takes seriously the question of how we know what we know and the field of inquiry assumes a cognitive approach to learning. The presumption is that human being are essentially rational and that faith itself is a rational undertaking. The Bible suggests, however, that this cognitive approach has two important limitations when we discuss faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image of of a triune God.  Being created to live and reproduce in families implies that we experience the world in community. Much as we want our independence, our thoughts, feelings, and language are not entirely our own. 

Even more so, being created in the image of a triune God differs from being created in the image of a unitary god. The Bible portrays God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a complete community in the godhead, as Jesus references after the Last Super:

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26 ESV)

In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. Unlike a unitary god, which is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, a triune God is dynamic, alive, and changing.

In particular, the language we speak shapes our perceptions of reality in fundamental ways, not the least of which is that it reflects the culture we live and worship in. Our attitudes about gender, work, faith, and many other things are embedded in the words that we use and do not use. We are not alone in this world even in our own thoughts and feelings—we carry our community with us wherever we go. This is, in part, why words can never fully reflect our actual thoughts or feelings.

The Hebrew Heart

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia). Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual. Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.

This confusion of where our faith resides, in our hearts not our minds or emotions, implies that the cognitive approach cannot fully inform our faith. As theologian James K.A. Smith writes: 

“Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His ‘teaching’ doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who ‘penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit’; he ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Heb 4:12)” (1)

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” (5) If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap. 

This line of thought leads Smith to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart] (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.

The Cognitive Theory of Emotions

In his work on emotions in the New Testament, Matthew Elliott (2006, 46-47) outlines a cognitive theory of emotions that “reason and emotion are interdependent.” The alternative is to argue that reason and emotion are independent of one another, a key assumption of the therapeutic gospel because emotions are believed to rule our lives. Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions and his anger (or wrath) is focused on examples of when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

Clearly, we cannot talk about thinking independent of feelings and we cannot think entirely independent of the communities that we reside and worship in. We need to proceed to treat them as interdependent, complicated as that might be. Still, as best we can, we need to understand better how we know what we know before we can even talk about our faith.

References

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006.  Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 

Limits to a Cognitive Approach

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Authenticity

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

What exactly is beauty and why do we care?

Recently my kids took me to see a film. In it, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses portrayed a low-class, manipulative, rather loose woman. The film’s plot seemed shallow and pornographic, designed more to offend than to enlighten. I left the theater upset and annoyed, not entirely understanding why.

In his book, Visual Faith, William Dyrness (2001, 81) writes:

“Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character.  Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste” .

As the old adage goes, beauty is more than skin deep. When it is only skin deep, we take offense as I did during my recent trip to the theatre.

Beauty More than Skin Deep

In clinical pastoral education we were taught to look for dissidence between words and the body language of patients that we visited.  This disharmony between words and body language is, of course, a measure of truth.  In like manner, the Bible paradigm of beauty is that the truth of an object matches its appearance.

Dyrness (2001, 80) writes:  “the biblical language for beauty reveals that beauty is connected both to God’s presence and activity and to the order that God has given to creation.”  The human spirit, although undefinable, is obvious by its absence:  a beautiful, living human body emptied of its spirit is no more than a repulsive corpse.  Morality works much the same way:  “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22 ESV). 

In biblical use, beauty is almost indistinguishable from the modern concept of authenticity. In both concepts structure and character complement one another. The surface appearance reflects a harmony within. The beauty we observe in nature reflects fingerprints of our divine creator.

Measure of Truth

Authenticity provides an interesting measure of truth. The gap between form and substance can be subtle, requiring deep discernment. A brilliant sermon can signal inner emptiness like a gold watch without tarnish may signal the substitution of gold plating for gold. Authenticity is a kind of Archimedes principle,⁠1 a measure of the volume versus density of an idea, person, or piece of art.

Authentic communication is frequently less perfect than other communication. Because of original sin, we intuitively expect every human being to have flaws. Flawless communication appears too good to be true because it masks our underlying humanity, a kind of audible lie.

Biblical Authenticity

The call for authenticity begins in the third verse of the Bible that reads: And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Unlike our proclivity to sin as revealed in our flaws, God’s words and actions are in perfect harmony. The contrast between heaven and earth could not be greater. Unlike heaven, which Revelation reminds us needs no light other than God (Rev 21:23), earth requires illumination that God immediately creates.

God pre-existence relative to creation implies is underscored in the name that he gives Moses in the burning bush. ‎אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Exod. 3:14 WTT) that can be translated either as “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Or in vernacular English: “I am the real deal” which implies authentic being—something that cannot be wholly copied. By contrast, human beings, as images of God, always strive for authentic being, but because of sin never quite get there.

Jesus talked a lot about authenticity and about its inverse–hypocrisy. Perhaps his most famous statement about hypocrisy began with an admonition: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1) We frequently judge people by our own estimate of the degree of their hypocrisy. Howard Thurman (106), in a book with an ironic theme of authenticity, observed about the woman caught in adultery:

[Jesus] “met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she were already here she now willed to be. In dealing with her he ‘believed’ her into the fulfillment of her possibilities.”

For Jesus, the tension between our desires and actions measured not just our authenticity, but also our proclivity to sin. Anger leads to murder; lust leads to adultery (Matt 5:22, 28).

God’s Easter Eggs

From statistics we know that correlation does not indicate causality. A theory is required to suggest why a measured correlation suggests causality rather than random association. If sunspots are associated with weather on earth, what explains this relationship? If the beauty we observe in nature reflects God’s fingerprints, does this indicate that God is good or are we simply projecting our thoughts on natural landscapes? 

Authenticity fits into this discussion of causality because the harmony of form and appearance is entirely arbitrary—the world could just as easily be an ugly, inhospitable mess. 

God’s goodness and superabundance serve as trademarks on all his work. The simplicity of mathematics in a complex world likewise appears like another one of God’s Easter eggs—scientific discoveries intentionally placed where his children would find them.

Authenticity as Critique

Years ago at a dinner party Ruth Graham learned that an older gentleman sitting next to her was the former head of Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI. Because part of his responsibilities included dealing with counterfeit money, she remarked that he must have spent a lot of time examining counterfeit bills.

“On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spent all of my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I saw a counterfeit, I would immediately detect it.” (Lots 2000, 3)

When authenticity is present, glimmering substitutes appear gaudy or cheap, a kind of visual lie.

References

Dyrness, William A.  2001. Visual Faith:  Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Review)

Lotz, Anne Graham.  2000. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Word Publishing. (Review)

Thurman, Howard. 1996. Jesus and the Disinherited (Orig pub 1949). Boston: Beacon Press.

Footnotes

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes.

Authenticity

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Interpreting the Bible

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The critical role of the Bible in Christian faith makes it important to interpret it accurately. The Bible poses at least three hermeneutical (interpretational) challenges to a modern reader. 

Three Hermaneutical Challenges

First, the Bible is only ancient text that most people ever read. The writers of the New Testament wrote roughly two thousand years ago and referenced Old Testament texts written over a period from two thousand to several hundred years prior to that point. Does our inexperience with ancient texts imply that only experts can read the Bible correctly? Historically, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that only a priest could correctly interpret scripture while Protestants insisted that the plain meaning (perspicuity or clarity) of scripture was obvious enough that common people could interpret the Bible.

Second, the ancient source of the Bible implies that these authors lived in cultural contexts vastly different from our own and they wrote in unfamiliar languages—Hebrew and Greek. Both the cultures and the languages therefore require translation that require assumptions to be made that significantly impact the translated text. For example, should the translator translate each word (New American Standard Bible) or translate the meaning of a paragraph (The Message Bible)? Should the translator assume that the text has been written for a high class audience (King James Bible) or is it written in the common language (Good News Bible)?

Third, the Bible is a compilation of books written by different authors in a wide range of genres. Genesis, for example, mostly records historical narratives while the next book, Exodus, combines narrative with law. The witness of the church attributes both books to Moses who, as a major participant in Exodus, might be considered to be writing a kind of memoir. But since the Book of Deuteronomy, another book attributed to Moses, records Moses’ death (Deut 34:5), it might be more appropriate to attribute the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses or the Books of the Law) to the Moses administration. Even though Mosaic authorship was never questioned until the nineteenth century, the meaning of Moses’ authorship requires interpretation. 

Genre Challenges

Similar problems arise in determining genre. For example, what genre are we reading when we read: 

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, Did God actually say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1 ESV)

Is this verse simple narrative, a metaphor, or a fable? Depending on your prior convictions, you may interpret this verse differently, which is an important reason to pay attention to hermeneutics.

Biblical Keys to Interpretation

Although most Christians discount the importance of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation), hermeneutic concerns defined Christian denominations historically and lie at the heart of numerous controversies today. The mere observation that seminarians require intense training in the languages of the Bible (principally Hebrew and Greek) speaks to the subtly of scripture and the need to understand those subtleties. Less frequently noted, however, are hermeneutical keys given in the Bible itself.

For example, after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (the second time), he describes who he is:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34:6-7 ESV)

God’s character is critical in interpreting the commandments wherever a question arises. Note, for example, that God is first described as merciful—not punishing as deserved—then being described as a gracious—rewarding with undeserved blessings. God is a merciful and gracious lawgiver, which is helpful to know if you are charged with implementing God’s law in your own community.

Much like Moses, Jesus gives an interpretative key right after introducing the Beatitudes, the introduction to his Sermon on Mount.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:17-19 ESV)

The term, the Law and the Prophets, is a euphemism for the Old Testament that implies Jesus expects his followers to reference the Old Testament when they interpret his teaching. This admonishment comes as a warning to those who prefer to pick a favorite saying of Jesus and use it to discount Old Testament teaching, as is commonly done today.

The Need for Context

In his book focused on misuses of scripture, Richard Schultz (2012, 41) views taking scripture out of context as the single, most important misuse of scripture. Context, according to Schultz (2012, 40), “refers to the flow of thought in a passage, for example, how a specific sentence is related to the sentences that precede and follow it.” He cites four types of biblical context:

  1. Literary context—the “text surrounding an individual verse or passage”.
  2. Historical-Cultural Context—“biblical authors wrote with a particular readership in mind, who share a common knowledge of key events in Israelite History, religious practices and core theological beliefs…”
  3. Salvation-Historical Context—the Bible “offers one extensive ‘story’ (today sometimes called ‘macronarrative’), which stretches from the creation to the consummation of human history, as we know it, climaxing in the creation of a new heaven and new earth.”
  4. Theological-Thematic Context—“when studying a text, it is helpful to identify its dominant themes…” (Schultz 2012, 52).

The tendency among those who misuse scripture is to ignore the context of the passage being cited and to substitute their own context, which may or may not correspond to the original context in scripture.

Vanhoozer (1998, 25-29) sees the three key contexts for interpreting scripture as the author, other scripture, and the reader. The author’s context focuses on the intent, social context, and audience of the writer. The context of other scripture shares the divine inspiration of any particular text; if something in one place is unclear, perhaps is clearer somewhere else. The reader’s context, when balanced against the other two, provides a valid expression of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in our own lives. Vanhoozer observes: “My thesis is that ethical interpretation is a spiritual exercise and that the spirit of understanding is not a spirit of power, nor of play, but the Holy Spirit.”  If interpretation becomes a power play, clearly divine inspiration is not the prime motivator and the reader’s context may simply be another attempt to insert our own context for that of the text.

How to Interpret Scripture Properly

Schultz goes on to offer seven specific suggestions for interpreting scripture properly:

1. Care about understanding.

2. Catch nuance.

3. Clarify context.

4. Check terms.

5. Consider genre.

6. Consult expert [texts].

7. Correlate application [with text]. (Schultz 2012, 139-140).

Schultz’s first point is instructive. In seminary I found studying scripture in the original languages to be an eye-opener, in part, because the texts were too familiar—I thought that I knew what the text was saying, but often missed the details and main point of a pericope (a self-contained unit of scripture like a parable). Reading in Greek or Hebrew forced me to slow down and consider each word. Scripture is laconic in having a minimum of words so each word serves a particular purpose.

References

Schultz, Richard L. 2012. Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. 

Interpreting the Bible

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

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