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 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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Kinnaman and Lyon Research Faithful Living, Part 2

Kinnaman and L:yons, Good Faith

Kinnaman and Lyon Research Faithful Living, Part 2

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. 2016. Good Faith: Being A Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme.[1] Grand Rapids: BakerBooks. (Goto part 1; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The notion that Christianity is irrelevant and extreme feels odd, having grown up at a time when things were different. In the course of one generation, the consensus about how the world worked and our place in it changed dramatically, not only on the street but in the church. Snap, one morning you wake up and, after the coffee kicks in, you realize that the “invasion of the body snatchers”[2] occurred while you slept and pod people now control everything. What do you do now?

In their book, Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons divide their argument into three sections:

  1. Understanding Our Times.
  2. Living Good Faith.
  3. The Church and Our Future (7-8).

Part one of this review focused on the first section (the invasion of the space aliens above). In the next review (part three), I will address the third section. In this review (part two), I will focus on this second section.

Living Good Faith.

Kinnaman and Lyons offer an interesting contrast involving six principles, which illustrates why Christian faith feels so out of sync today.

Cultural principle 1:

“To find yourself, look within yourself.” (57)

Christian principle 1:

“To find yourself, discover the truth outside yourself in Jesus.” (60)

Cultural principle 2:

“People should not criticize someone else’s life choices.” (57)

Christian principle 2:   “Loving others does not always mean staying silent.” (60)

Cultural principle 3:

“To be fulfilled in life, pursue the things that you desire most.” (57)

Christian principle 3: “Joy is found not in pursuing our own desires but in giving of ourselves to bless others” (60)

Cultural principle 4:

“Enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life.” (57)

Christian principle 4: “The highest goal of life is giving glory to God.” (60)

Cultural principle 5:  

 “People can believe whatever they want as long as those beliefs don’t affect society.” (57)

Christian principle 5: “God gives people the freedom to believe whatever they want, but those beliefs always affect society.” (60)

Cultural principle 6:   

“Any kind of sexual expression between two consenting adults is fine.” (57)

Christian principle 6: “God designed boundaries for sex and sexuality in order for humans to flourish.” (60)

The scariest part of this observation is that many Christians have bought into the cultural principles, first articulated by Roman philosopher Lucretius one hundred years before Christ, and abandoned the Christian ones (59, 62). People forget that the church has been struggling with pagan philosophies from the very beginning.

How do we live the good faith?

Kinnaman and Lyons write:

 “The secret recipe for good faith boils down to this: how well you love, what you believe, and how you live.” (72)

Double Love Command

This is an old recipe for dealing with an old problem and should come as no surprise to those who spend time with their Bible. The authors point to Matthew 22:37-39, which cites the double love command: Love God; love your neighbor. But most people ignore (or misinterpret) the next verse:

“On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:40 ESV)

“The Law” is a rabbinic reference to the Books of the Law (of Moses), which are the first five books of the Bible. “The Prophets” is a rabbinic reference to all the other books of the Old Testament. If you understand what Jesus is saying, then what you believe is not up for grabs—you cannot just interpret love anyway you want. The Old Testament context for love is found in Exodus 34:6 where God provides an interpretative key to the giving of the Ten Commandments:

Interpretative Key to Ten Commandments

“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 ESV)

In this context, love (וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד; rav hesed) is better translated as “covenantal love”—keeping your promises. Keeping your promises is another way of saying living them out, as Jesus’ younger brother James famously says:  “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2:17 ESV)

Consequently, Kinnaman and Lyons’ secret recipe for good faith is no secret to practicing Christians, who naturally spend a lot of time with their Bible.

Assessment

In their new book, Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons explore the perceptions that Christian faith is both irrelevant and extreme, employing empirical studies and data to make their case. Their analysis bears examination and discussion by practicing Christians, seminary students, pastors, and researchers.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.barna.com, @BarnaGroup, www.GoodFaithBook.org, @DavidKinnaman, http://QIdeas.org, @GabeLyons

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasion_of_the_Body_Snatchers.

 

Also see:

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/2wVZtbb

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Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 1

Rogers_review_06162015Jack Rogers. 2009. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality:  Explode the Myths, Heal the Church.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Goto Part 2).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA; PCUSA) approved ordination of homosexuals in 2012 and gay marriage in 2014. As moderator of the 213th General Assembly in 2001 and in other leadership roles, Jack Bartlett Rogers was an important advocate for these changes[1]. In his book, Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality, he lays out the argument for why he believes that:

“We need to give people who are LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] full and equal rights within the church and work for their rights within the broader society. That means that marriage, ordination, and every other right necessary to bring people who are homosexual into full equality with people who are heterosexual.” (107-108)

Because this book was published in 2009, it anticipated changes in the policy of the PCUSA by several years and played an active role in advocating for these changes. As such, readers interested in the genesis of these changes will want to be familiar with the arguments in this book[2].

Rogers is currently Professor Emeritus of Theology  at San Francisco Theological Seminary. While he is the author of numerous books, I am most familiar with his book, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (2001), a study both in church history and dogmatics. Dogmatics is: “the study of the arrangement and statement of religious doctrines, especially of the doctrines received in and taught by the Christian church.”[3] Rogers describes himself as “evangelical theologically” which makes sense for a former faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, but probably not for a faculty member at San Francisco Theological Seminary (6).

As advocacy, Rogers’ Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality can be described as a work in the field of dogmatics. Rogers writes in 8 chapters:

  1. Studying Homosexuality for the First Time.
  2. A Pattern of Misusing the Bible to Justify Oppression.
  3. A Breakthrough in Understanding the Word of God.
  4. Interpreting the Bible in Times of Controversy.
  5. What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say about Homosexuality.
  6. Real People and Real Marriage.
  7. Recommendations for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
  8. All are One in Christ Jesus. (vi)

Before the chapters are 2 prefaces and acknowledgments. After the chapters are an appendix, a lengthy study guide, notes, and a topical index. Missing is a scriptural index.

Rogers requires careful reading.

For example, one of the problems with the term, evangelical, is that the meaning has changed dramatically over the years and is often criticized as being a meaningless term. In chapter 1, Rogers defines an evangelical as:

“someone who accepts three propositions: (1) People can and should have a personal relationship with God through trust in Jesus Christ. (2) The Bible is the final authority for salvation and living the Christian life. (3) God’s grace in Jesus Christ is such good news that everyone should hear about it” (6).

So far so good. Rogers then goes on to distance himself from “fundamentalists” whom he describes as “more politically monolithic and more theologically conservative than evangelicalism.” (7) Fundamentalists have attempted over the years to give theological substance and voice to the evangelical movement.  Yet, Rogers uses them primarily in his book as a foil for criticism.

Rogers is an artful politician.

Chapter 2 is a case in point. Attorneys often cite this old saw:

if the facts support your case, then argue the facts; if the facts don’ support your case, then argue the law; if the facts and the law don’t support your case, then stand and shout.

Here the chain of reasoning is:  homosexual conduct is medically risky (fact) and it is a sin (law) [4], but it is also okay by Rogers (stand and shout).  If biblical interpretation provided a strong case for mainstreaming LGBT persons in the church, then one would expect chapter 2 to lay out the case for homosexuality—it does not. Instead, chapter 2 focuses on how biblical interpretation was misused to oppress blacks and women in the past (17). The art of politics lies in using innuendo—an indirect rather than a direct assault—to make an emotional point (standing and shouting) supporting your case. In this case, he argues that the Bible was misused in the nineteenth century to support slavery and oppress women—now, it is being misused to oppress homosexuals.

The problem is that evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century also successfully led efforts to abolish slavery and promote women’s rights [5].  The fascinating part is that in making these arguments[6] he both lionizes 2 key constituencies (blacks and women) and, by inference, defames his opponents as being in the same league with racists and misogynists from the past who misused the Bible. While this is artful politics, one does not expect this line of reasoning within the church and it does not suggest a strong biblical case for homosexuality.

Rogers’ interest in Christology and his background in neo-orthodoxy are also fascinating. Troubling was the way that he split (much like the earlier split between evangelicals and fundamentalists) Jesus Christ from the scriptural witness—we understand Jesus Christ only from scripture and direct revelation (52-53).   The tradition of the church primarily represents scriptural interpretations rendered over time.  Consequently, because Rogers does not claim a new revelation of God [7],  it is highly misleading to separate Jesus from the scripture witness.

His proposed interpretative technique is laid out in 7 guidelines:

  1. Jesus Christ is the center of scripture.
  2. Focus on the plain text in grammatical and historical context.
  3. Depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Be guided by the consensus of the church.
  5. Let all interpretations be guided by the rule of love—love of God and neighbor [8].
  6. Establish a best text.
  7. Seek the whole counsel of scripture (65).

A key problem with this list is item 6—establish a best text—which is in direct tension with item 7—seek the whole counsel of scripture. Picking a favorite text and reading the rest of the Bible in view of it allows complete freedom to read the text anyway you like—or, if you are a church leader, to control the interpretations of the church with your particular theology in view [9]. In fact, item 5 is an example of a best text (item 6) and an attempt to control interpretation [10].

Missing from this list is a key interpretative technique that Rogers employs repeatedly throughout his book.  He argues that the biblical homosexual prohibitions exist primarily to establish male dominance.  For example, he writes:

“The hosts [in Sodom and Gomorrah] do not seem to think of the attackers as primarily homosexual, or they would not offer women for them to abuse.” (67)

No doubt Moses employs this argument to show the depravity of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah; Rogers employs the argument to defame the hosts as misogynists and to divert attention away from homosexual sin.  Rogers employs this sociological argument repeatedly (e.g. 74-75) which has the unfortunate consequence of undermining the authority of scripture in the eyes of those reading Rogers text—especially women.  How can church unity follow from interpretation techniques that by their nature divide and conquer along gender lines?

The Protestant reformation was launched along with a new interpretative method—John Calvin’s—which focused on the authority of scripture[11].  Without saying so, Rogers discards the interpretative standards of the reformed tradition by substituting his own standards.  The irony of Rogers’ proposed changes in church polity and biblical interpretation follow American culture much the same way as he criticized the church doing in generations past.  The difference is, however, that American culture today is overtly secular, atheistic, and post Christian.

Jack Rogers’ Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality is likely to be debated for years to come. It is easy to read and hard to understand. The target audience is broadly the LGBT community, woman’s groups, and minorities within mainline denominations. Rogers may, however, be remembered more widely as re-energizing interest in the study and practice of dogmatics, but perhaps for reasons he may not want to own.

In part 1 of this review, I have summarized of Rogers’ methods of argumentation and interpretation. In part 2, I will take a closer look at the biblical texts which both focus on homosexuality and at the biblical texts which Rogers’ highlights in his final chapter.

 

[1] Comments supporting this assessment are found on a website:  www.DrJackRogers.com.  Anyone doubting Rogers’ position on this issue will want to read the first blurb on the first page by Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.  Early in chapter 1, Rogers also discusses a group called More Light Presbyterians who have a: “ mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.” (www.MLP.org).

[2] Readers interested in the debate over scripture with Robert Gagnon (author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice) can find this online at:  http://bit.ly/1GrGVvz.  Read part 1 of my review of Gagnon at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-15F.

[3] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dogmatics

[4]  Read part 1 of my review of Gagnon at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-15F.

[5] See:  Dayton (2005).

[6] At the heart of his argument is a weak analogy.  In fact, the Bible’s arguments about slavery and role of women evolve between the Old and New Testaments in a way that is not true for homosexuality. The weakness in this analogy was the focus of a recent book by Webb (2001).  Read my review at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Bn.

[7] Rogers’ revelation is more political than spiritual.  He writes:  “I worked through how the church, guided by the Holy Spirit in understanding the scriptures, reversed our prohibitions against ordination to leadership of African Americans, women, and divorced and remarried people.” (15)  The argument goes 1 then 2 then 3 then 4, therefore 5.  The Bible never promoted slavery, even if it acknowledged it; women are clearly in leadership in both the Old and New Testament, although not as frequently as today; and divorce is a sin in the Bible, except in the case of adultery, yet the modern church has mostly looked the other way.  He is confusing what some people in the church have done with a mandate from the Holy Spirit and drawn an inference that cannot be made in scripture, but is now politically popular.

[8] At the heart of this debate over homosexuality is the proper definition of love.  In the Greek, Rogers is using a principle based on the Agape love (ἀγαπάω; love of neighbor) to excuse a sin based on type of Eros love (ἔρως; passionate love).  At a minimum, this argument is mixing apples and oranges.  It is certainly not an inference that could be drawn from Matthew 22:36-40 which is based on Old Testament law (Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18) which also prohibits homosexuality (Lev 20:13).

[9] The usual way that Protestants seek to interpret scripture starts with a focus on the intent of the author which is clarified by the whole counsel of scripture.  Then and only then is the reader’s interpretation brought in.  See for example:  (Vanhoozer 1998).  See my review at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yq.

[10] The double love command (Matt. 22:36-40) is certainly important and much beloved among Christians. However, how can a general statement about love overrule specific guidance on the sinfulness of homosexuality?

[11] Thompson (2004, 58-62, 67, 71) viewed Calvin having 4 interpretative principles, including:  1. understand the author’s intent, 2. communicate effectively, 3. consult the original texts, and 4. consider the text and its application in the context of the canon of scripture.

REFERENCES

Dayton, Donald W.  2005. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Gagnon, Robert A. J. 2001. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Rogers, Jack. 1991. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

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

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

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

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Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 1

Gagnon_review_06082015Robert A. J. Gagnon.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press. (Goto part 2; goto part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At one point in seminary I asked a professor [1] to outline the biblical case for gay marriage. He responded that the Bible did not offer a strong case for gay marriage; it was just the right thing to do. Evangelicals typically focus on his first point while progressives typically focus on the second point. Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice outlines a detailed interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on this issue.

Gagnon states his objectives as:

“to demonstrate two main points: First, there is clear, strong, and credible evidence that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin. Second, there exist no valid hermeneutical arguments derived from either general principles of biblical interpretation or contemporary scientific knowledge and experience for overriding the Bible’s authority on this matter” (37).

Gagnon’s conclusion that the Bible treats homosexuality as sin[2] (a theological statement) should surprise no one, but it is not obvious how the church should respond to it (a problem in ethics). Theology is easy because a statement is either true or not; ethics is hard because it necessarily involves trade-offs between multiple theological principles in tension. We are all sinners and stand in need of God’s grace.  This implies that no sin is unforgivable and we are to share the Gospel with everyone.  But, how do we properly love the unrepentant sinner?  And, what is special about witnessing to someone struggling with gender confusion?  These are not hypothetical questions.  Unfortunately, the postmodern church (like the church at Laodicea) has often neglected to teach the doctrine of sin which leaves it with scarce moral authority to provide advice on any particular sin (Rev. 3:14-19).

Gagnon summarizes his book with 4 reasons “why those who engage in same-sex intercourse act contrary to God’s intentions for human sexual relations”.  Those reasons (487-489) are:

  1. “Same-sex intercourse is strongly and unequivocally rejected by the revelation of scripture.”
  2. “Same-sex intercourse represents a suppression of the visible evidence in nature regarding male-female anatomical and procreation complementarity.”
  3. “Societal endorsement of homosexual behavior will only accelerate the many negative social effects [serious health problems, greater pedophilic behavior, erosion in expectations of marriage, annihilation of gender norms, and marginalization of those that speak out] arising from such behavior…”
  4. “The practicing homosexual’s own relationship with the Creator will be put in jeopardy.”

Gagnon’s argues these points thoroughly.  For example, in talking about the health effects of homosexual behavior, Gagnon cites[3] an unspecified health condition and lists all the possible negative consequences of this condition.  Reading about this list, one is suspicious that the condition is homosexuality—it is not—the condition is alcoholism.  The health consequences of homosexuality are much worse (471-473), including:

  • “A significantly decreased likelihood of establishing or preserving a successful marriage.
  • A 25-35 year decrease in life expectancy.
  • Chronic, potentially fatal, liver disease—infectious hepatitis, which increases the risk of liver cancer.
  • Inevitably fatal-immune disease, including associated cancers.
  • Frequently, fatal rectal cancer.
  • Multiple bowel and other infectious diseases.
  • A much higher than usual incidence of suicide.
  • A very low likelihood that its adverse effects can be eliminated unless the condition itself is.
  • An at least 50% likelihood of being eliminated through lengthy, often costly, and very time-consuming treatment.” (473)

Having worked in a hospital emergency room, this list is not surprising. I lost a pastoral mentor to AIDS as a young person and personally assisted a number of hospital patients suffering from problems on this list, including HIV, when I worked as a chaplain intern [4].  The Center for Disease Control estimates that more than half a million people have died from AIDS in the United States alone.  Meanwhile, more than a million people are currently infected with HIV [5].  Gagnon’s point is that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is of continuing relevance in postmodern moral teaching.

Ironically, pastors and churches that ignore people suffering from gender confusion (or, worse, condone it) are complicit in the Apostle Paul’s assessment in Romans 1:24-27giving them over to their ungodly passions. Gagnon compares homosexuality with alcoholism both because of the medical problems associated (including an addictive character), but also because recovery is difficult.  Clinical studies prior to politicization of the issue reported recovery rates of about 30 percent (28.8%), roughly on par with success rates reported by Alcoholics Anonymous (420-432) [6].  Recovery in this context means we are able to control our responses, not our temptations.

Gagnon is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He has a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and a doctor of philosophy from Princeton Theological Seminary [7]. The acknowledgments section of his book reads like a who’s who of evangelical scholars.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice is written in 5 chapters:

  1. The Witness of the Old Testament,
  2. Same-Sex Intercourse as a “Contrary to Nature” in Early Judaism,
  3. The Witness of Jesus,
  4. The Witness of Paul and Deutero-Paul, and
  5. The Hermeneutical Relevance of the Biblical Witness (5-10).

The introduction and conclusions are not numbered.  These chapters are proceeded by the acknowledgments and followed by both a topical and a scriptural index.

The response of the church to gender confusion is the defining issue of our day. Until the 1980s, no Christian denomination considered homosexuality acceptable behavior; now, many denominations, including my own, are having trouble establishing spiritual boundaries of any kind—the teaching on homosexuality stands out primarily in that it is the most obvious.  As a consequence,  Christians need to be aware of the arguments being made. In this debate, Gagnon’s research is an important resource.

Here in part 1, I have given an overview of Gagnon’s argument and highlighted health effects of homosexuality.  Christians more normally focus on scriptural arguments.  So, in part 2, I will survey his review of Old Testament passages on homosexuality and, in part 3, I will turn to passages on the New Testament.

 

[1] The professor was on the faculty at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

[2] For example: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Lev. 18:22 ESV)  Also: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1:26-27 ESV)

[3] This reference is taken from Jeffrey Satinover’s “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth” (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1996).

[4] The issue of health effects relating to homosexual behavior was in the media only this morning (http://bit.ly/1RqrW7X).

[5] http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

[6] Earlier I reviewed the story of a Lesbian conversion:  Butterfield Journeys from PC to JC (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wj)

[7] http://www.RobGagnon.net.

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Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 3

Vanhoozer_review_04042015Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (Go to: Part 1  or  Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the postmodern context?

Ironically, the problem of finding meaning in a postmodern world points to God.  Framing a faithful response to the postmodern dilemma consumes more than half of Vanhoozer  book.  He  writes:

“Derrida’s announcement of the death of meaning alerts us to the indispensable tie between literary theory and theology. Deconstructionism, wholly inadvertently and with some irony, proves that God is the condition for the possibility of meaning and interpretation.” (198).

Following Plantinga, Vanhoozer believes:

“…we as Christians have both a right and a responsibility to begin our reflections about God, the world, and ourselves from Christian premises.  To this list, I now want to add meaning. My contention, briefly stated, is that because the undoing of interpretation rests on a theological mistake, we need theology to correct it. Second, I will argue that Christian theology, not deconstructionism, is the better response to the ethical challenge of the ‘other’.” (199)

His response therefore begins with the question:  “What happens if we begin with explicitly Christian assumptions about reality, knowledge, and ethics?” (200)  Vanhoozer organizes his proposal in terms of the author, the text, and the reader.

The Author.  If God is the ultimate author of scripture, then paraphrasing Proverbs 1:7 Vanhoozer writes:  “the fear of the author is the beginning of literary knowledge” (201)[1].  Citing Ricoeur, Vanhoozer writes:

“To consider the text as an authorless entity is to commit what Ricoeur himself calls the ‘fallacy of the absolute text’…Strictly speaking…texts do not have intensions, nor do they act.  We do not ascribe agency to texts, nor do we praise or blame books; we rather direct our praise or blame to their authors.” (216)

In other words, Vanhoozer writes:  “the author is not only the cause of the text [that it is], but also the agent who determines what the text counts as [what it is].” (228)

Vanhoozer spends an enormous amount of energy reviewing the literature on speech acts.  He writes that: “to respect the moral rights of the author is essentially to receive his or her communication, not revise it.” (202)  Understanding speech acts is one way to receive this communication. The need to respect the author is no less for the ultimate author of scripture. Vanhoozer’s writes:

“My thesis is that the ‘fuller meaning’ of scripture—meaning associated with divine authorship—emerges only at the level of the whole canon…the canon is a complete and completed communication act, structured by a divine authorial intention.” (264-265)

We resurrect divine authorship by consulting the full counsel of scripture.

The Text. The idea that a text can have meaning and understanding that meaning are two different things (281)  Vanhoozer posits that:

“…the text can be a source of evidence and a means of knowledge not only about an author…,but also about what the author feels, knows, observes, and imagines.  Indeed, much of what we have in texts is testimony to something other than themselves or their authors.” (282)

To interpret is to make a claim and be willing to defend it (292).

Vanhoozer reviews a number of views of how to interpret and perspectives on dealing with disagreement. What is more interesting, however, is his view on the nature of the church. He writes:

“..the church represents that community of interpreters who share a primary concern for the Bible’s literal meaning.  It may also be because the church is that community in which the interpretative values—intellectual, ethical, and spiritual—are cultivated…literary knowledge is not simply a matter of having the right descriptions but also having the right dispositions.” (320)

Vanhoozer also explains the doctrine of “sola scriptura” as:

“a reminder that textual meaning is independent of our interpretative schemes and, hence, that our interpretations remain secondary commentaries that never acquire the status of the text itself” (321)

He sees “scripture interpreting scripture” as consistent with “sola scriptura” (331).  According to Vanhoozer, we redeem the text with:  “Correct interpretations describe the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that guided and shaped the text as a communicative act.”  This is what he means by a “thick interpretation”.  By contrast, a thin interpretation is necessarily abbreviated or reductionistic (332).  He rounds out his discussion of redeeming the text with comments about genre.

The Reader. Vanhoozer is interested in an ethical response of the reader.  He writes:

“Some of the radical-response critics have concluded, consistently enough, that the role of the reader is to play, and to create.  There is no need, they urge, to go beyond aesthetics to ethics.” (368)

Vanhoozer reforms the reader in 4 steps:

  1. Distinguishing using, criticizing, and following a text;
  2. Reading involves implied moral rules;
  3. Honoring the limits imposed on interpretation by the text itself;
  4. Rooting the interpretation in the theology and spirituality of the reader (368-369).

He likens the church as an interpreter of scripture to a musician who is an interpreter of a score (441).  He sees the sins of interpretation as pride and sloth (462).

Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is there a Meaning in This Text? is a good read.  If you are able to spend the time to study it thoroughly, it will form you.  And you will never look at the Bible in quite the same way.

 

[1]The biblical cite is: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Pro 1:7 ESV)

FURTHER READINGS BY KEVIN VANHOOZER

First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics. 2002.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic.

“Body-Piercing, the Natural Sense and the Task of Theological Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Homily on John 19:34”, Ex Auditu 16:1-29

“Imprisoned or free? text, status, and theological interpretation in the master/slave discourse of Philemon,” pp. 51-94 in Adam, Fowl, Vanhoozer, and Watson, Reading Scripture with the Church.

“Ezekiel 14. ‘I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet: divine deception, inception, and communicative action,” pp. 73-98 in Michael Allen, ed., Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives (T & T Clark)

“Ascending the Mountain, Singing the Rock: Biblical Interpretation Earthed, Typed, and Transfigured,” Modern Theology 28/4: 781-803

“Theological commentary and ‘the voice from heaven’: exegesis, ontology, and the travail of biblical interpretation,” pp. 269-98 in Eckhard Schnabel, ed., On the Writing of New Testament Commentaries: Festschrift for Grant R. Osborne on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday (Brill)

“‘Exegesis I know, and Theology I know, but who are you?’ Acts 19 and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” in Darren Sarisky, R. David Nelson, and Justin Stratis, eds., Theological Theology: Essays in Honor of John B. Webster

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Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 2

Vanhoozer_review_04042015Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (Go to: Part 1 or Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Each of Vanhoozer’s three aspects of interpretation—author, text, and reader—have been subject to postmodern “undoing”, leaving interpretations to seem arbitrary and subject to manipulation. Vanhoozer writes:

“…the very meaning of ‘interpretation’ has shifted; instead of being a knowledge claim concerning some discovery one has made about the meaning of the text, interpretation has become a way of referring to what the reader makes of the text.  The new-fashioned interpreter recognizes no reality principle (the way it is), only the pleasure principle (the way I want it to be) (38).

Who then is responsible for the consequences of such interpretation for the church and society after the text has been deconstructed and discredited?  Vanhoozer discusses implications of deconstruction for the author, the text, and the reader.

Author. In some sense, the author is to the text as God is to creation.  Vanhoozer writes:  “The author is the one who originates…Authorship implies ownership” (45-46) The author instills both authority and meaning to a text.  When 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 ESV)

When God, the author of creation, delegates the task of naming the animals to Adam, Adam is functioning as an co-author and regent over creation.  This is why, for example, the word, authority, includes the word, author.

Vanhoozer writes:

“The author is the foundational principle in what we might call the traditional metaphysics of meaning.  According to this standard picture, the author is the sovereign subject of the sign, the one who rules over meaning, assigning names to things, using words to express thoughts and represent the world…Derrida’s deconstruction of the author is a more or less direct consequence of Nietzche’s announcement of the death of God (48).

Clearly, if the voice of the author is obscured either deliberately or by the text itself, then the attachment of the text to a particular social reality is severed and its authority impugned. Who said X, Y, Z?  We clearly care who said what [1].

Closely tied to the author’s ability to express intention or meaning is the idea that an independent reality exists that can capture and carry that meaning.  Vanhoozer writes:

“‘Realism’ is the metaphysical position which asserts that certain things are mind independent. Hermeneutical realism is the position that believes meaning to be prior to and independent of the process of interpretation. For the ‘naïve’ realist, there is a perfect match between language and the world…For the non-realist, on the other hand, human language and thoughts do not correspond to objective realities or to stable meanings.” (48)

Following the work of Jacques Derrida, “deconstruction is a painstaking taking-apart, a peeling away of the various layers—historical, rhetorical, ideological—of distinctions, concepts, texts, and whole philosophies, whose aim is to expose the arbitrary linguistic nature of their original construction.” (52)  Such analysis can yield new insights and interpretations or it can obscure the author and the intent of the author.  Vanhoozer observes:  “If there is no Author, then every interpretation is permitted.” (98)

The Text. In postmodern thinking, texts and books are distinguished.  Vanhoozer writes:

“Whereas the book resembled an unchanging substance, the text is more like a field of shifting forces. Whereas the book can be studied as though it were a discrete object at some distance from the interpreting substance, the text only comes to light as it is observed from some distance from different points of view.” (105)

The idea that the Bible as a book is unified by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit means that it is a discrete unit with meaning beyond the words found in particular chapters.  Thus, a book can have a stable meaning, if we believe in an objective reality and find unity in the authorship of the Holy Spirit. This idea, however, is taken as a theological assumption in postmodern thinking, which questions such assumptions.

Citing Gadamer and Ricoeur, Vanhoozer (106) notes that: “meaning is the result of a two-way encounter between text and reader.”   In this sense, the postmodern sees no stable meaning. Rather, Vanhoozer reports:  “the text is a network of signs and other texts, radically open and indeterminate.” (111)  Meaning requires a context (112).  Because deconstructive literary criticism places no priority on particular contexts, anarchy rules (138).  The idea of dismantling texts in playful interpretation gives no comfort when, having deconstructed the biblical text, nothing is offered to replace ita kind of theft of meaning and security.  Despair is substituted for purpose like a thief steals a purse yet there is no accountability (182-185).

The Reader.  Vanhoozer observers:

“…if the author is not the origin of meaning and if there is no such thing as ‘the sense of the text’, then meaning must be the creation ex libris of the reader… Meaning in the age of the reader is located neither behind nor in the text, but rather in front of it … Every literary theory is ultimately a theory about reading. Moreover, to say whose reading counts is ultimately to invoke an ethics, perhaps even a theology, of interpretation.” (148)

Vanhoozer further writes:

“Every reader is situated in a particular culture, time, and tradition.  No reading is objective; all reading is theory-laden.” (151)

It is at this point that cultural presuppositions become important.  If I only read books that were discussed on Oprah’s website, it is more important to know how Oprah picks her books than to know about my own tastes and preferences [2].

Having convinced us that understanding biblical interpretation in the postmodern age requires a sophisticated knowledge of philosophy, where does that leave the anti-intellectual majority of postmodern people? Clearly, the potential for manipulation is far-reaching—especially outside the church where there no presumption of an omnipresent, benevolent God. Is it any wonder that our young people are enormously skeptical of all forms of authority and leaving the church?

Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Is There a Meaning in This Text, gives us a clearer picture of what all the shouting is about in biblical interpretation.  This second part of my review outlines Vanhoozer’s problem statement of our current dilemma. In part 3 of this review, I will examine Vanhoozer’s proposal for how to respond to this dilemma.

 

[1] Postmodern fights over the authorship of a biblical text frequently infer that the author’s words were “redacted” which implies that only subset of the text has authority over today’s reader. The fact that different critics find different ways to redact a particular text, the idea of placing oneself under the authority of scripture is practically impossible or, alternatively, one can claim that one believes in the authority of scripture but never have to actually change one’s behavior to comply with “authorative” texts.

[2] http://bit.ly/1O4lWC6

 

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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].

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).

[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.

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