Why sharp exegesis matters
We have been reading a family devotion book recently that has, up to now, been pretty good. The format is well tried. Each day there is a verse or short passage followed by 200 words or so of the author (in this case a well-known retired preacher) expounding on the verse. So far. So good. But yesterday's reading was dreadful. I don't mean that the words the author had written were wrong – they were a careful description of a Biblical truth (that our God is with us in all circumstances, even those which frighten and alarm us). But the thought did not relate to the verse. It might have done, taken out of context (the verse spoke about fear), but in its context the verse was about something different. It was sloppy exegesis.
Does it matter? Some of my friends who think I am a bit right wing tell me not. What does it matter? The truth is a truth, after all. It encourages and makes a point. As a truth it will strengthen, confirm and encourage God's people.
I beg to differ. The truths need to be rooted in The Truth. This, for one thing, is how people are taught to read their Bibles. As we preach and teach we show them how glorious truths are derived and seen in the word of truth. If we build in a disconnect, how are they ever to see whether our truth is true? Moreover, how are they ever to read the Bible for themselves and see what truths it contains without resorting to sloppy platitudes. No, sharp exegesis really does matter.
I think one of the thrills of the last thirty years is seeing preachers from all backgrounds sharpen up on their exegesis. I'm not saying they all need to preach the same (perish the thought!) nor that we want a particular kind of sermon only (though I do have strong views on the kind of preaching that is best). But just sometimes we are tempted to fall back into the style of old where we hang all kinds of (worthy) truths on a text that cannot take the weight, nor was ever intended to. Enough already.
And enough from me. I need to do some work on Genesis 4 (my next preach) to make sure my exegesis is not sloppy. It matters, you see.
The small print of the gospel
This week, cycling to work, I was confronted with a huge e.on advert proudly telling me that for 2012 it would not put prices up. Brilliant. Only I've just got a letter through the post from e.on saying my prices are going up by 10-11%. Not so brilliant. As always, the devil is in the detail. Cycling a bit closer to the poster I saw that it said at the bottom "does not apply to contracts ending in 2012". Yep, that's us. So, we'll have to go through the rigmarole of switching provider again because e.on won't give existing customers whose contracts are ending the same promise. Small print, huh?
There's small print in the gospel too. Or at least, there is in the way we often present it. Last week, in an evangelistic preaching group, one brave soul chose to preach from Mark 8.34-38. When it comes to Jesus teaching (and Paul and Peter) you can hardly say that he made suffering into the small print. No, there it is writ large. TAKE UP YOUR CROSS DAILY. But we've made it so. Like the caveats and conditions that pepper the end of radio ads and spoken at one hundred miles an hour, we don't think that suffering will attract anyone to the gospel.
But suffering is part of the gospel. It's part of the way that salvation was achieved and it is part of the life where salvation is appropriated. "Anyone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted." Clear enough? And because we relegate this to, at best, something of secondary importance, we struggle to pastor people effectively. Think about your pastoral ministry. How many situations and difficulties would be avoided, or at least changed for the better somewhat, if people knew and believed that to follow Christ is to choose his path.
We tut at the prosperity gospel but the truth is many of us, and our people, believe a version of it. And our pastoral ministries are almost certainly littered with the remnants of such a faith-lite. Preaching the whole counsel of God must surely mean that we must preach Mark 8 too. No small print, please. We're not insurance salesmen.
Why do evangelicals never get fairly represented?
David Aaronovitch wrote a very pejorative article in yesterday's Times about women bishops. Sadly (or perhaps, fortunately) it's behind a paywall. But he managed to dismiss proper biblical arguments with one clean sweep of the pen:
Objection in the Anglican church usually boils down to these essential propositions: first, we are part of a bigger Christendom and can’t just alter stuff like this on our own. In any case, second, we don’t want to because Jesus was a bloke in the image of God (also a bloke) and his word was passed on to the Apostles who were all blokes. This was no accident — it was deliberate on the part of God. He could have chosen women and didn’t. Third, even if you want to argue about that, we’ve done it this way for 2,000 years and the very fact that we’ve done it this way for so long suggests that this what God wants. If he hadn’t, he would have moved us to change it. [So far, evangelicals will not recognise any of these arguments as having weight]
And that, plus a few quotations from St Paul about how women shouldn’t talk in church, is what the argument amounts to. There’ll be letters after this column suggesting other abstruse doctrinal reasons. Ignore them. Jesus was a chap. Since him we haven’t had women bishops. Therefore God doesn’t want women bishops.
It's amazing how he's managed to reduce important biblical arguments down to nothingness. If this is our case, then I'm all for women pastors/bishops. How could I not be? But it's not and I'm not. It gets worse. Commenting on a petition organised by some brave women we know arguing against women bishops, he concludes:
There is a word for this. It is “backward”. It belongs in the realm of beating children at school, imprisoning homosexuals, arguing that “blacks” are like infants or that masturbation makes you blind.
Just like being against gay marriage is homophobic? This article got Mrs R raving (and she a lifelong Baptist). She even penned a letter to said venerable institution, but decided, in the end, against sending it.
I'm not particularly surprised. For some while now, evangelicals have not been fairly represented. Perhaps, in a sound bite world, our biblical arguments are too hard for people? There may be something in that. And perhaps we do need to try to present more simply what we believe without watering down the content. But you do get the feeling that whatever our arguments, they would receive similar short shrift. I suppose, listening to Jesus, we shouldn't be surprised. But, as Carson has pointed out in his latest cracker – it's all symptomatic of the amazing intolerance of a society which prides itself on being supremely tolerant.
Chance to win Christopher’s book
In a shameless attempt to fill half term blog space, here is a competition (and, by the way, a link to a very good blog) to win a copy of Christopher Ash's bible-overview-with-a-difference book….. Only valid until 7pm tonight.
What did you do this jubilee weekend? I read Lee Gatiss' new book, For us and for our salvation, published by the Latimer Trust. (I know, I know, the Reynolds household is just one big bundle of laughs). It's a book about limited atonement (or definite/particular redemption – choose your terminology). I don't think I'm spoiling the book by saying that Lee is writing in favour – i.e. he believes in limited atonement. But, it has to be said, that's about the only thing that is limited about this book. It's really very, very comprehensive. In just 128 pages, Lee manages to outline all the major logical and exegetical arguments (for and against), give a brief but thorough overview of the historical developments from the church fathers onwards and work through some practical conclusions relating to evangelism and assurance.
Lee is amazingly well read. I suppose I could stand in amazement at the breadth of his reading list – but the benefit of books like this is we can all, as readers, just stand in the reflected glory. I'll go for that. It's dense then, but not unreadable. Lee's style is very engaging, even when the material does not always easily lend itself to such an approach. In this sense, Lee is truly unlimited…!!
But what about the content? It's inevitable that a book on this subject will reflect the views of the author. I don't think that matters. The question is, rather, whether Lee is able to give both sides a fair hearing – whilst still retaining integrity and coming to a conclusion. For my part, Lee does that. It would take someone who didn't share his views (definitely not me – geddit?) to say whether he really succeeds. Curiously David Instone-Brewer says that reading the book convinced him about his own views against limited atonement (I must say I find that slightly odd – to me, it seemed that the only two responses would be either "I agree" or "Lee has done a fair job of presenting our opposing views" – but there you have it).
It's certainly worth picking up. For my money I've not read anything on this subject that comes close in terms of brevity, thoroughness, winsomeness, clear Scriptural argument and helpfulness. I hardly dare make any criticism – my only one would perhaps be that the practical conclusions could have been longer – especially on evangelism. Oh, and when are Latimer going to use a proper italic font? It's quite frustrating (given that there are lots of italics).
Buy, buy, buy! (And read!)
The last word ('definitive' word?) should be left to pastor Lee:
True doctrine should never be hidden as if we were ashamed of things that God has taught us in his word. Yet it is potentially unedifying to use the ordinary means of grace, the regular preaching ministry, as a platform on which to carry out a theological battle between Calvinists, Arminians and Amyraldians. There is a time and a place, and these more controversial and difficult doctrines should not become the everyday heartbeat of our ministry unless we wish to earn a reputation as a theological Rottweiler and produce congregations whose growth is stunted because they are forever drunk on strong drink but cannot digest bread and milk.
It’s the jubilee
We're tempted to post a deep meaningful biblical theological post about biblical jubilee to celebrate the Queen's 60 years on the throne of GB and Northern Ireland. But we're too tired! Plus, we're a mix here in the office of those who love the idea of monarchy and those who are closet republicans (though, in line with Romans 13 we've no rebels). So, instead, it's a chance to replay the Queen's closing words from her Christmas Speech 2011 where she said what many of us wished our church leaders would say more often…
Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: 'Fear not', they urged, 'we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 'For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.' Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love. In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there's a prayer:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin
And enter in.
Be born in us today.
It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.
A week in the life of Corinth
I've just finished reading Ben Witherington (the Third)'s little book A week in the life of Corinth. This is a semi fictional account of life in Corinth seen through the eyes of Nicanor (a released slave) who has a Christian master. It's tied closely to the Acts account – so features Paul, Priscilla and Aquila and Gallio and Sosthenes. The idea is to get a feel for what Corinthian or ancient life was like. Interspersed with the fictional accounts are detailed sidebars about various issues that come up – slavery, worship, life in the suburbs and so on.
First, its strengths. It's easy to read, compelling even – you want to find out what happens to Nicanor at the end. The prose is not high and mighty. The sidebars you can dip in and out of as you want. There are pictures and illustrations to help along the way. And it's informative. I don't think it will tell the average pastor much he doesn't already know – but it's the kind of thing you might want small group leaders reading, or even church members. It will give them a nice feel for 1st century Roman empire life.
But it's not without weaknesses. At times it feels a little contrived. The last chapter describing an early church meeting seems especially so. I'm no historian but the idea that an unconverted Gentile (Nicanor) might have been encouraged to take part in the Lord's Supper seems quite unlikely, for example. I'm not sure the tongues and prophecies reported at the meeting really ring true either.
Nevertheless, there is much here that is helpful. It's woven into the themes that arise from 1 Corinthians in particular – Paul often "speaks" whole sections and whilst this wouldn't have been the case it moves the narrative along. So, not bad at all as a way of "going to Corinth." At nine of your English pounds (on amazon) it's not cheap. Buy one, read and pass around.
Getting into the detail of Genesis 1-4
Of the making of books [on Genesis 1-4] there is much. As I've been wrestling with the text I've found this one particularly helpful – it's C John Collins Genesis 1-4, A linguistic, literary and theological commentary, published by P&R. I like it a lot. It's fairly technical – lots of Hebrew, for example, but still comprehensible to someone who's Hebrew is not much to brag about. There was a recent exchange of views over at Reformation21 about his latest book, Did Adam and Eve really exist? That might have put you off. It needn't. Notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of the review, that's a different book. (I also like very much Collins Science and Faith).
It has to be said, of course, that any commentary on these first few chapters, comes with the author's preconceptions about the nature of creation (days, age etc). There are no unbiased commentaries, in this sense. I don't always find myself agreeing with Collins, but it's testament to this volume that I still have found it immensely helpful. Not so easy to get hold of in UK, but worth searching out.
Getting the right answer the wrong way
Does it matter if you get to the right answer the wrong way? I think it does. Let me explain.
This weekend I'm preaching on Genesis 2.4-25. There's a huge amount there, and there's plenty of ink spilled. There are also some very obvious things to say – like, for example, that there are NOT two creation accounts. We know this because Jesus, in Matthew 19.3-5 draws from both in the same breath. However, I got a little stuck on Genesis 4.7
The LORD God…breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now, there's some obvious NT work that needs to be done – not least 1 Corinthians 15.45 (where, according to Dick Gaffin, the word "spirit" should be capitalised – only the HCSB does this). But my interest was piqued by the number of popular level commentators who point out, again and again, that Gen 4.7 could be translated, "…became a living soul." This is evidence, so it goes, that mankind is super special and is different from the animal kingdom. He has a soul.
All sounds neat, don't it, Mister? Except that it's exactly the same way the animals are described in chapter 1 (Gen 1.24). And though the land produced the animals, they ultimately got their life from God. But the answer is actually right. We know, reading the creation account (singular) in Gen 1-2 that mankind is special. Moreover we know that to be true just from Gen 2 for other reasons – for example it is only mankind for whom this procedure of giving life is mentioned here. So, it's easy to get to the right answer by the wrong method. And this is why it matters:
- there's no guarantee that you will ever get to the right answer unless you are faithful to the text and use the method. OK, it worked here. But somewhere else, it will not work and you'll end up with the wrong answer
- if this is the kind of thing you need to include in a sermon (and there's no need to particularly) then you will not only be using a wrong approach yourself, but you will be teaching it to others
- in this particular case, the tendency is to elevate a slightly gnostic view of the text (I worked out this clever thing) with a much more basic approach – what does, for example, 1 Cor 15 say about it.
So, yep. The right answer from the right approach is always what we pursue.
Almost as soon as the EMA is finished, we're off to Hothorpe and the summer wives conference begins. This is for wives of ministers in the first few years of ministry. It's normally a sunny, happy, useful time as wives spend time together under God's word and afternoon's relaxing, refreshing and recharging. This year I'm leading three sessions on Numbers (including the amazing women collectively known as Zelophehad's daughters). Carolyn Ash is teaching alongside. We have 8 or 9 senior women to come and assist leading seminars, prayer groups and available for 1-2-1 help. Hothorpe is a great central location with lots of space and comfort. We have a few spaces left, so do think about coming to join us. More information here.
PS sorry if you're trying to book onto the EMA but there is no space left on Wednesday. We have one or two spaces left on Thursday and Friday.