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)

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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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Impediments to Thinking, Learning, and Decision Making

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom 7:15)

We are the best fed and most pampered generation of all time; yet, our young people and senior citizens are committing suicide at historically high rates and “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” (Lucado 2012, 5) Why?

Isolation and Loneliness

One answer is that we have become painfully isolated from ourselves: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds” (Nouwen 2010, 89). Our isolation has been magnified by a loss of faith and community, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Technology Facilitates Rumination

Isolated people often ruminate about the past. In ruminating, obsessing about a personal slight, real or imaged, amplifying small insults into big ones. For psychiatric patients who are not good at distinguishing reality and illusion, constant internal repetition of even small personal slights is not only amplified, it is also remembered as a separate event. Through this process of amplification and separation, a single spanking at age 8 could by age 20 grow into a memory of daily beatings.

Amplified in this way, rumination absorbs the time and energy normally focused on meeting daily challenges and planning for the future. By interfering with normal activities, reflection, and relationships, rumination slows normal emotional and relational development and the ruminator becomes increasingly isolated from themselves, from God, and from those around them.

Why do we care? We care because everyone ruminates and technology leads us to ruminate more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the video game played every waking hour, and the work that we never set aside all function like rumination to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads.[1] Much like addicts, we are distracted every waking hour from processing normal emotions and we become anxious and annoyed[2] when we are forced to tune into our own lives. Rumination, stress addiction,[3] and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful when alone and in today’s society we are frequently alone even in the company of others.[4]

Rumination is Not New

Jesus sees our anxiety and offers to relieve it, saying:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

Self-centered rumination is a heavy burden, not a light one, and Jesus models the Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness that break rumination by encouraging us to look outside ourselves. In Sabbath rest we look outside ourselves to share in God’s peace, to reflect on Christ’s forgiveness, and to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to prayer. In prayer we commune with God where our wounds can be healed, our strength restored, and our eyes opened to our sin, brokenness, and need for forgiveness. When we sense our need for forgiveness, we also see our need to forgive. In forgiveness, we value relationships above our own personal needs which break the cycle of sin and retaliation in our relationships with others and, by emulating Jesus Christ, we draw closer to God in our faith.

Obsessions Interfere with Reflection

Faith, discipleship, and personal reflection require that we give up obsessing with ourselves. On our own, our obsessions are too strong and we cannot come to faith, grow in our faith, or participate in ministry. For most people, faith comes through prayer, reading scripture, and involvement in the church, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. For the original apostles, the discipling was done by Jesus himself.

Jesus takes the world’s threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity and reframes them as promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth. But, Jesus ties these promises to discipleship and does not extended them to spectators.[5] These issues interfere with our spiritual development directly but they also interfere indirectly by impeding our normal thinking, learning and decision making. In many ways, psychiatric dysfunction has increasingly been mainstreamed.

References

Blackaby, Richard. 2012. The Seasons of God: How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.

Footnotes

[1] Technology connects us yes, but it more often isolates us from one another. A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend. Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations. For an exhaustive treatment, see: (Turkle 2011).
[2] This is a form of escalation in which psychiatric patients amplify rather than dissipate any tension in conversation. Even polite disagreement quickly evokes an increasingly hostile response.
[3] Stress addiction is a situation in which stress becomes the norm in our lives. Peace and quiet upset us because we are unaccustomed to it. Because we cannot relax, stress threatens not only our mental well-being, but also our physical health.
[4] Loneliness in the company others is the theme of a recent book by Sherry Turkle (2011). Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination. Blackaby (2012, 47) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.
[5] The yoke (Matt 11:28–30) Jesus uses to describe the work of a disciples was a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work without injury. Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not. This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples. This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (Jas 1:22)

Impediments to Thinking, Leaning, and Decision Making

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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Origin of the Bible

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For Christians, what we know about God is revealed primarily in scripture. In order to understand the Christian perspective of God, it is accordingly important to understand the nature of the Bible and what it says about God. Let me start by describing the origins of the Bible.

People of the Book

In the Koran, Christians are described as people of the book. Part of the reason for this distinction may be that the New Testament was the first bound book. Books were cheaper to produce and more portable than scrolls, which continued to be used, for example, to record the Hebrew Bible. It is noteworthy that more New Testament texts have survived from ancient times than any other ancient manuscripts.[1]

New Testament Compilation

Athanasius suggested the twenty-seven books which now make up the New Testament in his Easter letter of AD 367. This list was later confirmed by the Council of Carthage in AD 397. The common denominator in these books is that their authors were known to have been an apostle or associated closely with an apostle of Jesus. Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to prepare an authoritative translation of the Bible into Latin in AD 382 commonly known as the Vulgate (Evans 2005, 162). The Vulgate remained the authoritative Biblical text for the church until the time of the Reformation when the reformers began translating the Bible into common languages.

Reformation

In 1522 the reformer Martin Luther translated the New Testament into Germanand followed with an Old Testament translation in 1532.[2] Luther kept the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, but followed the Masoretic (Hebrew Old Testament) rather than the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) in selecting books for the Old Testament.[3] The books left out of the Masoretic text but in the Septuagint became known as the Apocrypha. These books continue to distinguish the Catholic (Apocrypha included) from Protestant Bible translations (Apocrypha excluded) to this day. The list given below, which excludes the Apocrypha, is taken from the Westminster Confession:

OLD TESTAMENT

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

NEW TESTAMENT

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

Jesus’ Attitude About Scripture

In our study of the Bible, Jesus’ attitude about scripture guides our thinking. Jesus said:

“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” (Matt 5:17-18).

The Law of Moses refers to the Law (first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets refers to the other books of the Old Testament.

Timing of Writing

The last book in the Old Testament to be written was likely Malachi which was written about four hundred years before the birth of Christ. The last book in the New Testament to be written was likely the book of Revelation which was written around 90 AD.

Compilation and Divine Inspiration

The Bible represents the work of many authors, yet its contents are uniquely consistent. This consistency adds weight to our belief that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. This point is expressed within the Bible itself with these words:

“Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the people of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

References

Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Penguin.

Evans, Craig A. 2005. Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to Background Literature. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. 2005. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stone, Larry. 2010. The Story of the Bible: The Fascinating History of Its Writing, Translation, and Effect on Civilization. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.


[1] The technical description is the Bible was the first publication to appear in widespread circulation as a codex (bound book) (Metzger and Ehrman 2005, 15). Stone (2010, 14) cites the existence of 5,500 partial or complete biblical manuscripts making it the only document from the ancient world with more than a few dozen copies.

[2] Luther completed the entire Bible in 1534 (Bainton 1995, 255).

[3] Luther translated the Apocrpha in 1534 but specifically said they were not canonical, just good to read (see: http://www.lstc.edu/gruber/luthers_bible/1534.php).

Origin of 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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Creation and Trinity

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Bible starts telling us that: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) What do these simple words tell us about God?

In the Beginning

The phrase—in the beginning—tells us that God is eternal. If creation has a beginning, then it must also have an end. This implies that creation is not eternal, but the God who created it must be. If our eternal God created time, both the beginning and the end, then everything God created belongs to God. Just as the potter is master over the pottery he makes, God is sovereign over creation (Jer 18:4-6). God did not win creation in an arm-wrestling match or buy it online or find it on the street, he created it—God is a worker (Whelchel 2012, 7).

Transcendence

God eternal existence suggests that as mortal beings we cannot approach God without his assistance, an immediate consequence of God’s transcendence. The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 makes this point in a physical sense, but it also stands as a metaphor for philosophical towers that we might attempt to build, such as the Enlightenment Project.

Sovereignty

God’s sovereignty is reinforced in the second half of the sentence when it says: God created the heavens and the earth. Here heaven and earth form a poetic construction called a merism. A merism is a literary device that can be compared to defining a line segment by referring to its end points. The expression—heaven and earth—therefore means that God created everything.[1] Because he created everything, he is sovereign over creation; and sovereignty implies ownership.[2]

Holy

So, from the first sentence in the Bible we know that God is eternal and he is sovereign. We also know that he is holy. Why? Are heaven and earth equal? No. Heaven is God’s residence. From the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush (Exod 3:5), we learn that any place where God is becomes holy in the sense of being set apart or sacred. Because God resides in heaven, it must be holy. Earth is not. Still, God created both and is sovereign over both (Rev 4:11).
Genesis paints two other important pictures of God.

Holy Spirit

The first picture arises in Genesis 1:2; here the breath, or spirit of God, is pictured like a bird hovering over the waters.[3] Hovering requires time and effort suggesting ongoing participation in and care for creation. The Bible speaks exhaustively about God providing for us—God’s provision. Breath translates as Holy Spirit in the original languages of the Bible—both Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament).[4]

Immanence

The second picture appears in Genesis 2, which retells the story of creation in more personal terms. As a potter works with clay (Isa 64:8), God forms Adam and puts him in a garden. Then, he talks to Adam and directs him to give the animals names. And when Adam gets lonely, God creates Eve from Adam’s rib or side—a place close to his heart.

Summary

Genesis 1 and 2, accordingly, paint three pictures of God: 1. God as a mighty creator; 2. God who meticulously attends to his creation; and 3. God who walks with us like a friend. While the Trinity is not fully articulated in scripture until the New Testament, God’s self-disclosure as the Trinity appears from the beginning (Chan 1998, 41).
The Lord’s Prayer casts a new perspective on Genesis 1:1when Jesus says: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10) Because we are created in God’s image, we want our home to modeled after God’s.

References

Dyck, Drew Nathan. 2014. Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Whelchel, Hugh. 2012. How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press.


[1] Heaven and earth can also be interpreted as proxies for God’s attributes of transcendence and immanence (Jer 23:23-24; Dyck 2014, 99).

[2] God’s eternal nature is also defined with a merism: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

[3] This bird (avian) image appears again in the baptismal accounts of Jesus. For example, in Matthew 3:16 we read: “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.”

[4] Breath itself is necessary for life—part of God’s provision.

Creation and Trinity

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

Continue Reading

Why Think About Faith?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live at a time when discussions of faith focus on our emotions and relational response to God in Jesus Christ. A subtext in these discussion is what will God do for me, not as a member of a family, but as an individual? While emotions and our relationship with Jesus are clearly important, how can we trust someone intimately who we know little or nothing about?

The Therapeutic Gospel

The therapeutic gospel fosters this attitude by focusing heavily on God’s love and seeing the role of the pastor through the lens of a counselor. In this context, Sunday morning worship becomes a group therapy session helping parishioners to purge anxiety through upbeat, uptempo music and an uplifting and witty sermons (all within a one hour timeframe of course) that provide nice to know religious information devoid of prescriptive advice. The triumph of the therapeutic gospel has come at the expense of traditional moral teaching.

If you do not believe me, consider some recent observations by one pastor about the difference between churched and unchurched young people in his youth group. The churched kids knew “how to get drunk, have sex and smoke marijuana without their parents ever knowing about it.” Meanwhile, the unchurched kids were “mostly fatherless boys and girls, some of whom [were] gang members, all of them completely unfamiliar with the culture of the church.” and did not even try to hide their sinful activities. (Moore 2015, 70-71) These observations suggest that in the absence of moral guidance, we all gravitate towards hypocrisy.

The love promoted in the therapeutic gospel is motherly love (or grandfatherly love), not fatherly love. Mothers love their children unconditionally while a father’s love is conditioned on the need to learn discipline and prepare them for adulthood. Both types of love are needed, but motherly love in the absence of fatherly love does not prepare a child for the hard realities of adulthood. Adulthood provides independence, but only in the context of discipline and limitations. If you have never been denied anything growing up, how are you to learn to live within a budget or to deal with disappointment? Written large, the same problem faces our nation—how can our politicians ask for sacrifice when people think that their are entitled to free education, health care, and other public services?

Problems with the Therapeutic Gospel

Already in the 1930s, theologians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1995), warned about the problem of cheap grace—forgiveness without confession. Closer to home, Richard Niebuhr (1937, 193) warned of the development of: “A God without wrath [who] brought men [and women] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

What we have in the therapeutic gospel is a kinder, gentler Jesus, but without the possibility of salvation because this Jesus did not die for our sins. This is because we don’t believe in sin, which precludes the need for forgiveness. We just need a bit of therapy from a good counselor—all we need is love, to quote John Lennon.

Clearly, the focus on emotions to the exclusion of theology leads us somewhere that we do not want to go.

The Cognitive Theory of Emotions

In his path-breaking 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).

Significantly, the only example of Jesus being described as angry is in Mark 3:5 after the Pharisees displayed a hardness of the heart with respect to a man with a withered hand.[1] If God himself gets emotional about things that he believes are important, then clearly his emotions and reason are interrelated. By contrast, other gods in the ancient world would get angry spontaneously and did not limit their anger to matters of principle.

Perceptions, Learning, and Decision Making Introduced

If our emotions are to follow from things that we feel are important, then theology (our understanding of God), not emotions, should come first in our faith walk. How we perceive the world, how we learn, and how we make decisions remain more important than our emotional assessment of them.

[1] When we see Jesus clear the temple, he is shown angry, not described as such.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

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

Moore, Russell. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

 

Why Think About Faith?

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/Lent-2018

Continue Reading

Faith in Our Learning and Decision Making

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Faith is indispensable to how we perceive our world, what we consider good and bad, what we invest time and energy in learning more about, and how we make decisions, as I earlier discussed. In mathematical reasoning, faith provides the assumptions on which we base our analysis. When we take the discussion further to ask, why is it important to believe that God is a personal god—a trinity of three persons—we move beyond abstract assumptions and analysis to experience God’s love. God loves us enough to mentor us every moment of our lives, in good times and bad.

Our Rock

One of the most fundamental defenses of faith cited in the Bible arises in a parable told by Jesus:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matt 7:24-27)

Jesus might easily have addressed a room full of mathematicians because the order and stability of the created universe testifies to God’s existence and sovereignty.

Kurt Gödel, a Czech mathematician, who was born in 1906, educated in Vienna, and taught at Princeton University, is famous for his incompleteness theorem published in 1931. This theorem states that stability in any closed, logical system requires that at least one assumption be taken from outside that system. If creation is a closed, logical system (having only one set of physical laws suggests that it is) and exhibits stability, then it too must contain at least one external assumption. This is why computers cannot program themselves and why depressed people are advised to get out of the house and do something outside their normal routine—the same logic applies to any closed system.[1]

As creator, God, himself, fulfills the assumption of the incompleteness theorem (Smith 2001, 89) not only for us as individuals, but for the universe itself. Most eastern religions fail to grasp the significance of Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) How can there be an alternative path up the mountain to a Holy God who stands outside of time and space because he created them? Obviously, there is no other path up the mountain because as sinful people we are bound by time and space—we cannot approach a holy god. Humans have tried to build towers up to God since the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-6)

God must come down the mountain because we cannot go up it. As Christians, we believe that God came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, a point reiterated on the Day of Pentecost with the giving of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the human house really is built on a rock.

Our Mentor

In recent years, we have heard occasionally about an expression, WWJD, short for what would Jesus do? The Prophet Isaiah said this of the long anticipated Messiah:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa 9:6)

Who wouldn’t want a divine counselor? Jesus likewise described the work of the Holy Spirit as that of a counselor:

“And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

If God himself, who is omnipresent and omniscient, is our counselor how can we fail?
What is most interesting about God’s willingness to mentor us is not just that we have the world’s most powerful person on our side—actually, an omnipresent, omniscient helicopter-parent would be most unbearable. What is interesting is that God mentored us from the beginning. In Genesis we read:

“Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19)

God could have just put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as slave-gardeners, but instead he gave them responsibilities and spent time with them like a loving parent, a theme reiterated in the story of Abraham. God blessed Abraham so that he could be a blessing to others (Gen 12:1-3).

Like Abraham, God mentors and blesses us so that we can mentor and bless those around us. To those for whom much is given, much is expected. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins makes possible God’s forgiveness, but we are expected to forgive others (Matt 6:14-15). We are to model God’s love.

References

Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.


[1] An example can be seen in economics as applied to price theory. The U.S. economy requires one price be set outside the economy (in the world market) to assure stability. In the nineteenth century, that price was gold, and the system was called the gold standard. Every price in the U.S. economy could be expressed in terms of how much gold it was worth, as the dollar functions that way. Economists refer to this principle as the fixed-point theorem.

Faith in Our Learning and Decision Making

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/Lent-2018

Continue Reading