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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Brueggeman’s Prophet Imagines What Might Be

Review of Walter Brueggemann's Prophetic ImaginationWalter Brueggemann. 2001. The Prophetic Imagination (Orig Pub 1978).Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The defining characteristic of Christian groups lies in their hermeneutic method—how they read and interpret scripture. The rampant scholarly innovation in hermeneutical methods in our time accordingly represents not only a search for truth, but also, as a deconstructionist might observe, also represents a power-play, both a rejection of past verities and a diversion of consciousness. The nature of this competition and its implication for the church appear veiled to most Christians because such cultural influences operate at the presuppositional level of our thinking—it’s just the air we breathe.

Introduction

In his book, Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann enters this field of inquiry from the unlikely perspective of an Old Testament (OT) scholar. Most hermeneutic innovations today start with defining a new Jesus and discount much of what came before—that was then; this is now—is the common refrain. Brueggemann breaks the norm by developing an important OT theme, the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, and demonstrates how this theme has continuing relevance in the role and voice of the prophet both in the OT and NT, even now.

Moses and Pharaoh

Brueggemann sees the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh as a paradigm for interpreting much of the human conflict in scripture and conflict in the church today. Moses stands out from other historical figures because he engages Pharaoh in an ideological struggle. Pharaoh rules over the people of Israel with numbing work and unpreceded prosperity, masking the reality of Hebrew slavery.

People today forget that Egypt, like the United States today, surpassed other nations with its abundant food supply, a product of innovative irrigation unknown in most of the ancient near east. Remember the temptation of the Israelites in the desert:

“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”(Num 11:5-6 ESV)

Remember also that Jacob brought his family to Egypt originally because of drought in Israel (Gen 42:1-2; 46:4). Pharaoh offered the people food and security as slaves; Moses offered them an alternative reality that included freedom from slavery. Corporate America, the government, and, all too frequently, the established church all try to offer much the same thing today.

Solomon

Ultimately, Brueggemann argues, Moses’ theology proved too radical for the Israelite people. Over the course of time, worship left the Moses’ tabernacle, a tent where access to God was freely open to all, and entered Solomon’s temple, a house devised to regulate access to God. The sovereign God worshipped in the tabernacle became a domesticated God managed by priests. And Solomon taxed and enslaved the people as much or more than Pharaoh, his father in law. Solomon’s taxes so burdened the people that when he died, the kingdom split when his heir threatened to raise taxes even more (1Kgs 12).

The Prophet

Freedom from slavery starts with a transcendent God, who hears the cries of His people. But how can people know to cry out to God when they have been satiated with the food and wine of kings? Brueggemann sees:

“The task of prophetic ministry [as] to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture…”(3)

The prophet must teach agnosticized people how to cry again. The problem is not unlike teaching a co-dependent person how to stand on their own two feet or convincing a drug addict to go straight.

The prophetic voice, according to Brueggemann:

“…is not carping and denouncing. It is asserting that false claims to authority and power cannot keep their promises, which they could not in the face of the free God.”(11)

This is the prophetic model of Moses as he confronts Pharaoh during the ten plagues, but “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.”(11)

Where is God?

Although Brueggemann cites Jeremiah, known as the Crying Prophet, extensively, the model of people crying to God and God providing them a deliverer is a central theme in the Book of Judges. For Brueggemann, God is a transcendent, listening God who hears the cry of his people and acts. He is also a God who is not bashful in putting his thumb on the scale for the poor in their conflict with the rich. If Brueggemann’s insight seems far-fetched, then consider the second Beatitude:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”(Matt 5:4 ESV)

Who feels blessed in grief? In the context of the conflict between rich and poor, comfort in grief appears subversive—comfort that only God can provide. Hearing such words from Jesus, which echo Isaiah 61:1-3, suggests that Brueggemann’s Jesus both plays the role of an OT prophet and uses words that speak at a presuppositional level to undermine the dominant culture, most remarkably the Roman empire.

Assessment

Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imaginationis perhaps his best-known book, one of over a hundred published works.[1]He is a retired seminary professor and much-sought-after speaker. Although a darling of liberal Protestants, his analysis could easily be recast in more covenantal terms and appeal to Evangelicals.

The role of a covenant lawsuit prophet, for example, is to remind OT kings of their obligations under the Mosaic covenant—no Marxist dialectic need be evoked—as Brueggemann’s prophet. And his focus on the conflict between prophet and king does not interfere with the usual paradigm of salvation history—creation, fall, and redemption. Rather, it points to the failure of the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7) and the need for Christ.

I enjoyed reading The Prophetic Imaginationbefore seminary, but only understood it some years later on a second read. For anyone up to the challenge, I recommend it highly.

[1]http://www.WalterBrueggemann.com/about.

Brueggeman’s Prophet Imagines What Might Be

Also see:

Sabbath Rest as Cultural Firewall by Brueggemann 

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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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Monday Monologue, Interpreting Scripture, April 30, 2018 (Podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I share a prayer and a reflection on interpreting scripture.

To listen, click on the link below.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

Monday Monologue, Interpreting Scripture, April 30, 2018 (Podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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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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

Continue Reading

Schultz Clarifies Biblical Context and Use

Review of Richard Schultz's Out of ContextRichard L. Schultz. 2012. Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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.[1]The phrase, What Would Jesus Do?(WWJD), is a similar interpretive key, just not one directly focused on scripture itself.

Introduction

In his book,Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible,Richard Schultz describes his objectives with these words:

“The purpose of this present book, similar to the one Augustine wrote at the end of the fourth century, is to correct the common misuse of the Bible by presenting the ABCs of proper biblical interpretation.” (137)

This focus on biblical interpretation is important because the Christian faith fundamentally rests on the teachings of the Bible, an important principle (solo scriptura—Latin for only scripture) reiterated in the Reformation.

Context is Important

As suggested by his title, Schultz view taking scripture out of context as the single, most important misuse of scripture (41). Context, according to Schultz, “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.” (40) He cites four types of biblical context:

  1. Literary context—the “text surrounding an individual verse or passage”(41).
  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…”(45)
  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.”(49)
  4. Theological-Thematic Context—“when studying a text, it is helpful to identify its dominant themes…” (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.

Who is Schultz?

Richard Schultz is the Blanchard Professor of Old Testament in the Graduate School at Wheaton College in Chicago, Illinois. His masters of divinity is from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and doctorate is in Old Testament studies from Yale University. Interestingly, he taught for a decade at the Freie Theologische Hochschule in Giessen, Germany.[2] Schultz is widely published.

Organization

Schultz writes in seven chapters:

  1. The ‘Jabez Prayer’ Phenomenon: Flunking Biblical Interpretation 101.
  2. The Roots of Faulty Interpretation: Examining Our Convictions about Scripture.
  3. The Consequence of Ignoring Context.
  4. Divine Truth Expressed in Human Words: Challenges with Language.
  5. Understanding the Literary Menu: How Genre Influences Meaning.
  6. Caution—Prooftexting in Progress: Avoiding Pitfalls in Applications.
  7. What’s So Bad about ‘Textjacking’. (5)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by chapter endnotes.

Proper Use of Scripture

While I found Schultz’s critique of popular twists (such as the Jabez prayer) on scripture fascinating, his advice on how to avoid misuse of scripture is more instructive. He offers seven specific suggestions:

  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]. (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.[3]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 is there for a reason.

Assessment

Richard Schultz’s Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible is a helpful, accessible, and interesting read. Seminarians and pastors are the obvious audience for this book, but anyone serious about studying scripture will benefit.

[1]The Gospel of Matthew offers another interpretative key in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-19). More commonly cited is the admonition on how to use scripture(2 Tim 3:16-17)

[2]https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/faculty/profile/?expert=richard.schultzphd.For those unacquainted, German biblical scholars are unparalleled in the Christian world in spite of the secularization of German society. My own year in Göttingen, Germany as an exchange student proved unexpectedly helpful in my seminary studies.

[3]A pericope is a self-contained unit of scripture, such as a story or parable. Usually, a pericope is more than a couple verses but less than a chapter.

Schultz Clarifies Biblical Context and Use

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

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Chapters 2-3 of Revelation: Tools in Interpretation

CloudsBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

When you are lost, how do you find your way home? In my training as a boy scout, I learned to read a map and to work with a compass during the day and to follow the stars at night. Revelation is one of those books in the bible that tests your skills in biblical interpretation.

Role of Genre in Interpretation

One form of interpretation starts by asking a simple question: what kind of writing (genre) are we looking at? Possibilities include: narrative (simple stories or history), Gospel, poetry, song, wisdom literature, prophecy, parable, epistle (a letter), law, genealogies, or apocalyptic. We tend to look at each of these a bit differently and particular books of the Bible often have multiple genre. Revelations, for example, contains prophecy, history, narrative, song, poetry, and even law.

Role of Perspective in Interpretation

Another important aspect of interpretation is to ask which perspective on the text to take: the author’s, the scripture itself, and the reader’s.  When you see a commentary talking about the audience or the historical context, this is an attempt to understand the author’s intent in writing. Or when you hear a pastor citing Old Testament (OT) references that explain a New Testament (NT) passage, this is using scripture to interpret scripture. When you hear someone explain what a particular passage means to them, this is using the reader’s perspective. John Calvin used these three principles of interpretation, but added one more of interest to pastors–use of the texts in the original languages–which leads to word studies, issues of grammar, literary criticism, and other questions of syntax.

Role of Interpretation in Church Controversies

Biblical interpretation is a bit technical and boring, but it is important. Many of the controversies of our day in the church have at their root differences over issues of biblical interpretation. For example, when the Apostle John writes prophetically in Revelations is he writing primarily to the seven churches in Asia Minor or is he writing to us? If you answer the seven churches, then you are taking the author’s perspective. If you answer to us, then you are taking the reader’s perspective.

New Covenant in Christ

An obvious interpretative pallet for understanding Revelation is John’s Gospel. What is striking about John’s Gospel is that John seems to suggest that the New Covenant in Christ is not a written document or teachings, but rather the person of Jesus.[1] So when John gives us a vision of the son of man in Revelations 1:13, an allusion to Daniel 7:13, we find ourselves witnessing an image of judgment under the New Covenant. Christ has returned to take stock of those he left behind. What is perhaps shocking is that John sees this judgment[2] starting with the seven churches.

Why are the seven churches the first focus of this heavenly vision of judgment and not the gentiles, especially not the Romans, John’s jailors at Patmos, who were persecuting the church at his point?

Questions for Revelation 2

  1. Do you have questions from last week? Did any important events happen in your life this week? Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share?
  2. Which four churches does John address in this chapter? (vv. 1, 8, 12, 18)
  3. Why does John starts with Ephesus? (Acts 18:9-19:5) Or do we really know?
  4. What are the strong points of the Ephesus church? (vv. 2-3) What are the weak points? (v. 4)
  5. What blessings/curses are attached to the judgment of the Ephesus church? (vv. 5-7)
  6. Who is John addressing in verses 7, 11, 17, and 26-29?
  7. What is the morning star reference about? (v. 28; Matt 2:2, 2 Peter 1:19)
  8. What are the blessings and curses faced by the church at Smyrna? (vv. 8-10)
  9. Read Deuteronomy 4:30. What is prophesied?
  10. Read 1 Samuel 26:22-25 and Matthew 5:44. What is enemy love; what is tribulation?
  11. Who are victorious? What is the second death? (v. 11)
  12. What strong points does John mention in the church of Pergamum? (v. 13)
  13. What weak points afflict the Pergamum church? (vv. 14-16)
  14. What is the sword of the mouth? (v. 16; Rev 1:16, 19:21)
  15. What new name are they to receive? (v. 17)
  16. Who is known from the city of Thyatira? (Acts 16:14)
  17. What strong points are mentioned about the church of Thyatira? (v. 19)
  18. What sins afflict the church of Thyatira? (vv. 20-25)
  19. Read Psalm 2:9. What is the reward for the victorious? (vv. 26-27)
  20. Who is Jezebel and what are Satan’s dark secrets? (vv. 20, 24; 1 Kings 16:30-31)

Questions on Revelation 3

  1. What strong points does John mention about the church at Sardia? (vv. 4-5)
  2. What weak points does he mention? (vv. 1-2)
  3. What metaphor of judgment does John use? (v. 3)
  4. What does it look like to be victorious? (vv. 4-5) What is the metric?
  5. Is this judgment applicable only to the church at Sardia? (vv. 6, 13, 22)
  6. What complaint does John offer about the church of Philadelphia?
  7. What praise does he offer? (vv. 8-10)
  8. What encouragement does John offer Philadelphia? (vv. 8, 10-11)
  9. What open door is John referring to? (v. 8)
  10. How does John describe Christ in verses 14, 19-21.
  11. What complaint does John offer against the church at Laodicea? (vv. 15-18)
  12. How does John’s complaint compare to Paul’s observations in Colossians 2:1-3?
  13. Read Proverbs 10:13 and 13:24. How is Christ’s love expressed? (v. 19)

References

Osborne, Grant R.  2006. The Hermenutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretations. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Thompson, John L. 2004. “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter.” Pages 58-73 in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Edited by Donald A. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vanhoozer, Kevin H. 1998. Is there Meaning in this Text? Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Footnotes

[1] Unlike Matthew or the author of Hebrews, John never uses the word covenant, not even in reference to the last supper (John 13:1-14). And John uses the word commandment consistently to refer to the double-love commandment. For example, John writes: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (John 13:34).

[2] When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17-18).

Chapters 2-3 of Revelation: Tools in Interpretation

Also see:

Chapter 4 of Revelation: The Times and The Seasons 

Chapter 1: Alpha and Omega 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2wVZtbb

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Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Webb_08192014William J. Webb.  2001.  Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Toxic waste is a term once used in Washington to describe issues that could not be openly discussed without tainting the person discussing them.  High on the list of such issues were race, gender, and sexuality.  Hopefully, it is now possible to engage in reasoned conversation about these issues.  William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis clearly attempts to begin that conversation.

Introduction

Webb begins with a question and an answer.  The question is:  So how does a Christian respond to cultural change?  His answer is:  It is necessary for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values;  it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters (22).  The tough part arises in distinguishing:  between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text (23).   This is what Webb sees as the interpretative (hermaneutical) task.

Webb applies his hermaneutical framework primarily to 3 issues:  slavery, women, and homosexuality.  He picks slavery because he believes the issue to be settled within today’s church.  Clearly, the role of women and the issue of homosexuality are under active conversation—at least across denominations and, in some cases, within denominations.

Four Views on Women in the Church

Webb (26-28) defines these 4 positions as held on the role of women within the church:

  1. Hard/strong patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with an extensive power differential;
  2. Soft patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with a moderate power differential;
  3. Evangelical egalitarianism—mutual submission with equality of power between male and female; and
  4. Secular egalitarianism—equal rights and no gender-defined roles.

Three Views on Homosexuality in the Church

Webb (28) likewise defines 3 positions within the church on issue of homosexuality:

  1. Marital heterosexuality only—homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle for Christians;
  2. Covenant and equal-partner homosexuality—homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle for Christians provided that the partners are equal-status, consenting adults, and the relationship is one of a monogamous, covenant, and lasting kind; and
  3. Casual adult homosexuality—homosexuality is an appropriate lifestyle for any member of society provided it involves consenting adults.

In laying out these positions, Webb is simply defining the field of inquiry.  He is not at least initially advocating for any one of these positions.  Near the end of the text, however, he identifies himself as an evangelical egalitarian on women’s issues and argues for a marital hetersexuality only position with respect to homosexuality.

Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic

An important contribution of Webb’s work is a concept that he calls as a redemptive-movement hermaneutic.  In defining this concept, he outlines a model:  X=>Y=>Z.  The X stands for the original culture;  the Y stands for scripture; and the Z stands for the ultimate ethic (30-33).  This model permits us to ask 2 important questions.  First, does scripture move beyond the cultures of surrounding nations in addressing an issue? (X=>Y)  Second, does scripture point to an ethic beyond that actually embodied in scripture? (Y=>Z)  These 2 questions allow us to isolate the redemptive movement implied in the text of scripture.  Webb uses this model to examine several scriptural passages that today sound bizarre, but which would have been at least slightly redemptive to the original audience.  One example was the taking of female prisoners as spoils of war:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV)

Attitude about Ugly Texts

Webb (32-33) argues that this is clearly an ugly text in today’s culture [2], but in relation to the customs of ancient times was redemptive in its application under the X=>Y criteria.

Today’s application of the text would not follow the exact words prescribed in the text, but rather to observe the redemptive spirit of the text and draft an appropriately redemptive, modern policy dealing with female captives (33).  Webb describes an attempt to apply the exact words of the scriptural text in a new context as a “static” interpretation (36-38).  Ignoring the redemptive spirit of the text leads to wooden or misleading interpretations and may lead to the text being discredited in the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.  Clearly, much more could be said about this redemptive-movement hermaneutic.

Organization

Webb writes his book in 8 chapters preceded by a foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction and followed by a conclusion, 4 appendices, a bibliography, and a scriptural index.  The chapters are:

  1. Christian and Culture;
  2. A Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic;
  3. Cultural/Transcultural Analysis:  A Road Map;
  4. Persuative Criteria;
  5. Moderately Persuasive Criteria;
  6. Inconclusive Criteria;
  7. Persuasive Extracriptural Criteria;
  8. What If I Am Wrong; and
  9. Conclusion:  Arriving at a Bottom Line.

The foreword is written by Darrell L. Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary [3].

Assessment

Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals is a readable and engaging text that focuses on applying scripture rather than simply arguing over it.  It is gutsy for a writer to take on the ugly texts of scripture and to find both redemption and application in them.  Personally, my initial response was to reject cultural analysis because it lies outside the twin authorities of scripture and God’s direct revelation.  However, I realized that I was guilty myself of discounting or skipping over the difficult texts rather than engaging them.  In effect, I was already doing cultural analysis, just not employing a consistent method.  This internal struggle led me to reconsider Webb’s analysis.

I am sure that some readers will simply not be able to engage in conversation about politically incorrect topics, but I would challenge them to stretch their own views a bit for the sake of understanding scripture better.  Webb’s own words are helpful when he says:  I must thank our modern culture for raising the issues addressed in this book.  But our cultural only raises the issues…it does not resolve them (245).

Footnotes

[1] http://www.tyndale.ca/faculty/bill-webb

[2] This exact issue was in the news this past week in the Middle East war in Iraq as ISIS fighters rounded up women hostages to the horror of the onlooking world.

[3] http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock.

Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Also see:

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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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