Humble Hermeneutics

His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:16

We’re given a good reason to avoid reducing Scripture to pithy little (universal) principles (that I keep seeing on Facebook, more than anywhere else). The way it happens, is that people read a Scripture, quote it, then draw out a principle from it. And it’s done so confidently, so ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ -ly. That, I think, is dangerous.

Peter, in this epistle, notes the difficulty in properly interpreting Paul’s letters. The basis of his warning is, Scripture + ignorance = distortion and destruction.

I can hear listeners say, “well I guess we can’t read Scripture then.” You think that way simply because you, like every human, (including myself), have a tendency towards extremism; like a pendulum swinging from right to left. In other words, we are either too confident in our interpretation of Scripture, or, give up the hope for better interpretation.

I like what Paul tells Timothy in his second epistle: “Think over (or reflect) what I am saying, for the Lord will give you understanding in all these things” (2 Timothy 2:7). Something similar is said by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6).  Two things I note from these passages. First, is the need for work. Hard (intellectual) work is underrated in some  denominations. It is treated as an optional add-on; the proverbial third plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet: have some if you can fit it in. It is ironic and quite sad that the average Christian (and I’m speaking in my North American context) is progressively getting less thoughtful in a context that is progressively more resourceful with regards to Bible study. Thinking well and thinking hard needs to be emphasized for all ages again – the Church must rediscover the riches of Catechesis, and that sola scriptura always meant, ‘now you can read/study the Bible for yourself’ – a very prominent theme during the Protestant Reformation! Secondly, God is the Engineer in this whole process. He creates, he sustains, he brings growth, he multiplies. He is the One who gets the glory.

The answer, I think, is the need for humility.

It doesn’t mean that we do not attempt to interpret Scripture, but quite the contrary. We work hard, we attempt, and we maintain an attitude that is willing to be wrong, willing to jump in and make a mistake – because lets face it, we all make mistakes in all areas of life. This won’t apply to all things biblical hermeneutics, but it does provide a framework by which one can explore the treasures of Scripture. With learning, humility, and discernment (that is of course, empowered through communion with the Resurrected Lord), one can learn to hear Scripture, and hear the Lord speaking through it.

Lord, help us come humbly to your word, knowing that it bears witness to You, not a principle, but a person who is part of a grand story: the story of salvation, of rescue, of love and grace and beauty, a beauty that has been revealed, is being revealed and has yet to be revealed in its fulness. We are created and you are Creator: all glory is yours.

Amen.

N.T. Wright – Justification

It is unfortunate that most have pigeon-holed N.T. Wright into being a theologian with “liberal tendencies.” Many have categorized him as unbiblical in his “New Perspective” approach that at first glance seems to undermine classical Protestant Theology. “Justification by faith” has become the end all of Protestantism, more specifically for Reformed Theology, and Wright’s approach is not to discard it completely, but to understand in the grand framework of the Abrahamic Covenant.

The implications regarding our definition of justification is enormous, and Wright is simply using the New Perspective as a means to show that Paul’s use of “justification by faith” has way more implications than simply securing ones destination to heaven. Paul’s use of Abraham throughout his epistles, namely Galatians, and Romans, aren’t merely examples or illustrations of faith, but rather provide a framework in which we understand what faith and salvation really is.

The first part of this book is dedicated to a grand introduction, engaging with the “justification” on the basis of history, tradition, and of course the Bible. The second part of the book focuses on the exegesis of Scripture, as he goes through various Pauline epistles, bringing them into light through his exposition framed by the Abrahamic covenant.

Without giving away too many details in this book I will say a few things. Wright defines words like “righteousness” and “justification,” and does so with historical and literal context in mind. These words have familial and communitarian implications and essentially provide a greater Ecclesiology, Christology, and Missiology.  For Wright, the righteousness of God is not explicitly (though perhaps implicitly) a moral virtue, but specifically refers to his covenant faithfulness made with Abraham. This is made clear throughout Wright’s exposition of the book of Romans. Our ‘righteousness’ has to do with our covenant membership and behaviour. The marker then for those who are part of this covenant community is — like abraham — faith, not “works of Torah.” The problem is, that since the late medieval period, the church has ‘de-judaized’ the gospel, and has assumed that the problem with Judaism, and specifically 1st century judaism was legalism; essentially, that Jews from the 1st century were trying to earn their salvation. This is precisely wrong.

The 1st century Jews were quite aware that they were already a part of this covenant family, and the works of the law were a “marker” that intensified their separation from their gentile neighbours. For them, they were “justified by the works of torah” – in other works, they were counted as part of the covenant family and the works of torah was evidence of that fact. There is no such idea that 1st century judaism is attempting to earn salvation, it was already given by God through Abraham.

It was an ethnic elitism that had become problematic for the famous Jewish sect known as the Pharisees. Legalism was not the problem. God’s purpose of the Torah was not to intensify some kind of ethnic elitism but to provoke the surrounding nations to become part of the family of God, always intended since God’s covenant with Abraham. They were to be a “light unto the nations,” so that through Abraham, “many nations would be blessed” (Gen. 15). For this reason, Jesus reminds them that they are “a light unto the nations” and a “city set on a hill,” yet unfortunately, they failed miserably.

With this in mind, (and much more if you read the book for yourself), Wright points out that being “justified” by faith, has more implications than merely assuring the believer that he will one day go to heaven. So, if you’re wondering what those implications are, read the book. I highly recommend it.

 

Criticism of A Separate “Rapture”

The following is an excerpt from http://www.theopedia.com/Rapture, Text licensed under CC BY 3.0.

The doctrine of the rapture as an event separate from the general resurrection is a fairly recent doctrinal development within the scope of the Church’s historic body of belief.  Prior to 1830, most of the ‘rapture texts’ were regarded as referring to the General Resurrection. This was especially the case with the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage which was primarily regarded as referring to the resurrection rather than a rapture.

Virtually no prominent theologians held to this theory before Darby‘s influence in the 1840’s.  For example, none of the great reformers, e.g. Luther or Calvin, believed in a “Secret Rapture” theory. Nor did the ancient church fathers such as John ChrysostomJustin MartyrIrenaeus,Hippolytus expressly assert the theory of the pre-tribulation rapture, with the possible exception that The Shepherd of Hermas, 1.4.2 speaks of not going through the Tribulation.

Some Reformed theologians are still favorable of using the term “rapture” but insist on making a very clear distinction between rapture as a synonym for resurrection and what Dispensationalists propose by the term, namely an escape from a yet-future tribulation period. John Stott calls this idea “escapism” in his book Issues Facing Christians Today (2006, 4th ed.). He goes on to write that the Dispensational concept of a “secret rapture”  is one of the most destructive doctrines gripping the Evangelical Church today. According to Stott, it thwarts planning, hinders social involvement, and gives Christians a gloomy outlook for the future.

Other texts used by proponents of a separate rapture, such as Matthew 24:40 – Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left., when taken in context (especially Christ’s statement in Matthew 24:34) are seen by some Preterists as predictions of the Roman catapult bombardment of Jerusalem during the 42 month siege of Jerusalem from late 66-70 AD, not to a rapture. While Dispensationalists claim that the predictions in Matthew 24 are yet-future, centering on a secret-rapture, critics maintain that an exegesis of this passage reveals that this is at best unlikely, if not biblically and historically impossible (cf. The Most Embarrassing Verse In The Bible by Andrew Corbett).

“Pia Desideria” (Pious Desires) – Philip Jacob Spener

“Every Christian is bound not only to offer himself and what he has, his prayer, thanksgiving, good works, alms, etc., but also industriously to study in the Word of the Lord, with the grace that is given him to teach others, especially those under his own roof, to chastise, exhort, convert and edify them, to observe their life, pray for all, and insofar as possible be concerned about their salvation.” (Pia Disideria, Fortress Press, 1964, p. 94)

Introduction

Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria was first published in 1675 written as an instructional treatise intended for ministers of the church. Spener was a Lutheran bishop who had originally written a preface for Johann Arndt’s True Christianity.  Within six months, he published Pia Desideria also known as “Pious Desires.” Its purpose was to respond to barren spiritual conditions in the church, of which he described as “slothful,” “a terrible ignorance,” and consequently a “disorderly life” (93).

3 Dimensions

The main theme revealed in the selected excerpt is that of the personal Christian lifestyle. Under the assumption that the readers are themselves Christian who have experienced salvation, Spenner emphasizes the outcome of that salvation has having three main dimensions. Firstly that of the inward dimension; that “every Christian is bound” to “offer himself and what he has.” This of course is closely associated to a preceding dimension that is assumed in the text, that of upward relations with God manifested in salvation. Lastly, and perhaps most emphatically is the outward dimension; the edification of fellow Christians by means of a community centered on good works and the study of Scripture. This is the visible manifestation of the Christian lifestyle seen in three dimensions; upward, inward, and outward.

The Big Idea

The outward dimension of the personal Christian lifestyle is the main emphasis of the document. The author assumes that the reader is a Christian, and “all Christians are made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts” (92). This inward dimension of the Christian life is one of assuming a responsibility,  Spenner ardently claims that “the people must have impressed upon them and must accustom themselves to believing that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice” (95). Upon acquiring this responsibility, the Church experiences edification on primarily a personal level, and leading up to a universal level, “more and more would be achieved, and finally the church would be visibly reformed” (95).

Historical Impact

The protestant reformation, though essentially a positive shift in orthodox theology, came with some unfortunate consequences of extremism. Prior to the reformation, there existed an immense fear of sin, purgatory, hell, and ultimately God (perhaps for wrong reasons).  17th century scholastics who sought to systematize doctrine and rational thought, positively emphasized the importance of the Christian mind, breaking down notions of anti-intellectualism. The unfortunate repercussion was an antinomian lifestyle dominating the church. The challenge offered by Spener in Pia Desideria was one that instigated the change from a religion of the head to one of the heart. The dry and lifeless Christianity of the 17th century was now “coming alive” with the help of Spener’s legacy and the many who built upon it.