Should discrepancies worry us?
This is going to sound crazy. But I started looking at Ezra 2 a few mornings ago, and didn't really get very at all because there was so much to think about. It got me, I have to say, quite a while to just get beyond Carson's helpful summary in his devotional book "For the love of God (volume 2)":
In this case, there are several reasons for the precision of the report. For a start, such precision gives the account authority: this is not some distant hearsay, but the close reportage of someone who had intimate knowledge of the details. Further, naming these individuals and their families bestows on them an implicit approval. Countless tens of thousands of Israelites never returned to the Promised Land; they were too settled where they were, and the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple was of too little importance to them to warrant such dislocation. Their names have been lost; they are of little consequence in the sweep of redemptive history. But these names are remembered and written down in sacred Scripture. Read them slowly; they call forth our respect and gratitude.
Really helpful stuff. And in fact, I looked at my watch and I had been at it for two hours and hadn't got very far into the text. The time had just flown by. That does happen! It's difficult to exegete the passage without realising it's repeated in Nehemiah 7 and without having to work through in one's head what to do with the differences which some love to make much of. I think it's an error to do so, but nonetheless, we must tackle the issue because it could easily strike at our fundamental understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.
So should these differences worry us?
First, we need to understand that inspiration does not mean that every word we have written down in front of us is without error. Inspiration generally means we believe the Scriptures to be inspired as 'originally given' as the UCCF basis of faith has it.
There will be occasional copying errors. We are talking about manuscripts dutifully copied thousands of years ago. Doesn't this totally undermine the authenticity of the Scriptures? No. There's a practical and a theological reason.
- The practical reason is that the scribes knew they were copying out the Word of God and so they would have taken extreme care in transcription. The very fact that hard things remain and are not copied away gives us confidence that they copied faithfully and accurately. These differences, for example, are nearly all in proper names and digits (Hebrew numbers being all long hand and so relatively difficult to copy).
- The theological argument is that God's character is such that in his sovereign goodness he would not allow the Scriptures' meaning to be distorted and any discrepancies, such as they are, must therefore not be of significance to the overall message of the passage or the Bible. This is not an argument that will wash with unbelievers of course, but it is actually the strongest of the many that could be offered.
As Scottish Cornhill hero Bob Fyall puts it in his excellent commentary,
"Attempts to explain these discrepancies tend to say that the missing numbers represent women, children and perhaps northern tribes. Probably lists, like genealogies, are selective rather than exhaustive, and plainly in material such as this ancient copyists would easily make mistakes in large lists of numbers."
CS Lewis and church
As I blogged yesterday, I did enjoy the background to Screwtape – particularly the part that the Inklings had in forming and reforming the idea. But what struck me most was CS Lewis' view of church. The evangelical world has much to thank CS Lewis for, many of his writings are extremely valuable – but we must not make him into the evangelical hero he is not. I saw this clearly in terms of what he thought of church. According to his biographer, he slipped in late after the service had started, and left during the last hymn. He didn't like the hymns anyway as it involved him interacting with others. And his pew was carefully chosen – small (so it would only fit him) and beside a pillar so he wouldn't have to feel he was with others. "He was a very private person."
I guess there are many today (including evangelicals) who wish church was just like this – entirely private. But (and I'm thankful for this), it's not. The pew in Lewis' church has a plaque – "CS Lewis worshipped here", but in reality that is true only in the very loosest sense if we understand Christian worship to be the gathering of people together to worship God in Christ Jesus. For all his brilliance, it seems CS Lewis had a somewhat defective understanding (or at least practise) of church. Even today, we need to keep teaching what Scripture says about being the people of God.
Only three years late…
Watched a fascinating documentary (more tomorrow on this) about CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters and a "new" dramatised version starring Geoffrey Palmer and Andy Serkis. I enjoyed the background and thought the excerpts sounded really exciting (my previous audio experience being John Cleese as Screwtape – difficult to fully take seriously). Then googled it and found out it was a Focus on the Family initiative from 2009, well blogged and trailed three years ago. Typical. That's the thing with satellite (it was on Sky Arts meaning I watched it with 782 other people in the UK) – you can watch a documentary thinking it's current only to find out it was made in 1872. However, it still looks good and I'm going to order from amazon, listen and – for you, dear reader, report back.
The clarity of Scripture
What exactly, is the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture? I think this is something that preachers need to know, and – to be honest – don't always get right. I've just been rereading Tim Ward's excellent book Words of Life (IVP). In it, he addresses precisely this issue. He presents two contemporary definitions – one from Grudem (which essentially boils down to 'the teachings of the Bible are able to be understood by all who seek God's help") and one by Mark Thompson (the essence of which is "as God's communicative act, it's meaning is comprehensible by all who come to it in faith").
This is how Tim (who, by the way, is joining the PT staff as Associate Director of PT Cornhill, early in 2013) responds:
Some individuals pick up a Bible with no one to explain it to them, and find the gospel of Christ coming across loud and clear. Others, though, ask for God's help and read Scripture with an open spirit, but find that the gospel of Christ is not especially clear to them without a teacher to teach them the gospel from Scripture and to show them how to read Scripture (c.f. Acts 8.30-35). These observations are evidence neither for nor against the clarity of Scripture, unless one starts with an overextended understanding of it. In this light the definitions of both Grudem and Thompson risk suggesting a situation that is too individualized, supposing that the primary situation in view is that of someone reading the Bible on their own who finds the meaning of most of its paragraphs to be clear. (p128)
He goes on to put into his own words an orthodox definition of clarity:
- Scripture is the written word of the living Word, God's communicative act, and the Spirit who authored it chooses to speak most directly through it
- Therefore we are right to trust that God in Scripture has spoken and continued to speak sufficiently clearly for us to base our saving knowledge of him and of ourselves, and our beliefs and our actions, on the content of Scripture alone, without ultimately validating our understanding of these things or our confidence in them by appeal to any individual or institution.
Helpful. As is Tim's book.
Loving the delicious detail of Ezra 1
It's been a little while, but I'm back in Ezra in my personal devotions, going very slowly (I read it recently fairly briskly). I love the detail. It's easy to miss the delicious detail of Scripture. It's true we must read large sections as I argued last week. But we've especially got to pause and let things sink in. One of my regrets of regular pulpit ministry is that I too often let it become a routine, grinding out sermons, and sometimes struggled to build in the time in my week to let the passage soak right through me.
Take Ezra 1 as an example. I thought I knew this pretty well. It's relatively straightforward and I love the way the author makes much of the providence of God ruling over all things and bringing his word to fruition. It's a passage to give us confidence in his sovereign arm. But here's a detail I missed (perhaps it was just me!). It's easy to romanticise Cyrus as some kind of proto-believer. True, Isaiah names him as the Lord's anointed or messiah (Isaiah 45.1) but that seems to mean he is the Lord's instrument.
He certainly refers to God in exalted terms in the beginning of his proclamation: "The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth…" But later on in that same edict he reveals what he really believes: "Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him" (my italics) and "..rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem" (my italics again). But the delicious detail in this case is that the opening verses of Ezra demonstrate that he is also the God who is Babylon. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia…"
It's not just that Cyrus speaks better than he knows (as many commentators point out). It's that God is bigger than he knows. Oh, so much bigger. It's a marvellous truth that drives me to my knees in praise, adoration and comfort – knowing that he does all things well.
The ministry of the word is an And
John Benton has written a perceptive piece as his leader in this month's Evangelicals Now. You can read it online here. His point, in essence is, thank God for courses which are teaching people to preach accurately. But this is not enough. Are we teaching (and showing people the importance) people how to pray. We don't just need accurate preachers. We need powerful preachers.
Amen and amen.
And, I might add. It's not just the preachers. It's churches too. How many church prayer meetings whether in small groups or in a larger context, spontaneously (i.e. without being asked) pray for the coming Sunday's ministry? Not many. We've moved in our church from having an elders prayer meeting before the service (very priestly!) to having a church prayer meeting – i.e. everyone's invited. It's small still – but the point is, we call everyone to pray for the ministry of the word. It's that important.
This idea of preachers and churches praying is the subject of a challenging chapter by John Armstrong in the book he edits – now somewhat out of date, but still worth some time. It's called The coming evangelical crisis.
More recently, we felt so strongly about this that we asked Stuart Olyott to write an article for our annual brochure, The ministry of the word is an and, which we've now uploaded to the site as a pdf here.
Financial help: Autumn Ministers Conference
We're in a position to be able to offer some subsidised and free places to our Autumn Joint Ministers conference for those whose financial situations preclude them coming. This year's conference features teaching from Doug Moo, Vaughan Roberts and Glynn Harrison and includes workshops on Colossians, Philemon, Isaiah, John, 1,2,3 John and a group looking at latest or upcoming sermons.The dates are Monday 12 November to Thursday 15 November. There's still time to book on.
- Perhaps you know someone or yourself are in a position where you would love to come but finances don't allow it? Perhaps it's another local minister who would greatly enjoy and benefit from the encouragement of joining us?
- Alternatively, perhaps you have an overseas connection; someone who would benefit from being with us? Why not encourage them to come – and come with them?
Either way, we've got these places on a first come first served basis. In the first instance, please email our conference manager, firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll take things from there. We look forward to seeing you.
Reading the Bible in small groups
I've blogged about this before, but I'm freshly invigorated to share a new kind of small group study. Wait for it…..we read the Bible. OK, that's a bit simplistic. We're aiming to read through the New Testament together in fairly large chunks. We're not doing inductive verse by verse study. We're simply reading and talking. In case that sounds a bit vague, there is some structure to it.
- We're using The Books of the Bible, a Biblica resource which has the NIV text in the order it was written, but without footnotes, chapter numbers, verse numbers or headings. The text is remarkably uncluttered – much like it would have originally been received. By reading together large sections we are trying to receive the word of God in the same way it might have been first received when churches or individuals opened the mail.
- We're using some standard questions – generally these revolve around "what does this tell us about our triune God?" "What does it tell us about the gospel?" "What does it tell us about humanity?"
- Some leading is required. Some prep, of course, and the ability to head off red herrings. However, the most interesting question so far has been, "What do we see as a result of reading large sections that we haven't seen before?"
Our group, I think it is fair to say, is mixed in terms of age and reading ability. But we've all managed (and for those who struggle, the scheme includes a free audio version). And the insights have been inspiring and have prompted prayer and praise. For example – reading through the first few chapters of Luke we saw how clearly the hero of the story is God (Duh!). Read small stories and you have the accounts of Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the angels, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist etc. Read a large section and suddenly the light dawns!
I'm not sure we would want to do this all the time. But it's a refreshing and, it seems, worthwhile task. We're loosely using Biblica's materials – they have a more structured programme if you want – more information here. And this last week's small group was one of the most invigorating we've ever had. So there.
It’s never too early to think about Christmas
Mrs R and I have a book we read each Christmas. It's called Skipping Christmas by John Grisham and it's a short, sharp parody on the excesses of a US Christmas. It makes us smile and gets us into a suitably Scrooge like mood for the festive season. All of which is a rubbish introduction to a great new resource. I can't for the life of me now think why I decided to open that way, but there you go.
Oh yes, Christmas and the potential for a perennial Christian/evangelistic favourite. What if you had a perfect bound (i.e not cheap looking) evangelistic resource that explained the Christmas story in short, sharp language that was accessible and readable? What if it was cheap enough that your church could buy lots and give them away as presents? What if it felt significant enough that it wouldn't just be put in the bin, but read and kept on the shelf? What if it was a faithful telling of the Christmas story? What if?
Christmas uncut is this kind of evangelistic tool. It picks up on key Christmas themes and texts (with links to where the full story can be found in the Bible) and develops them, drawing out the significant meanings that people need to hear and know. Split into seven scenes (Mary, the angel, the shepherds, the magi, King Herod, Simeon and finally Jesus) this is a super way to find out about the Christmas story.
Take a closer look here. It's a 64 page book, but if you buy a hundred you can get it down to £1 which seems excellent value. But this is the kind of book to invest in – I can see it as a good gift for everyone who comes to an evangelistic carol service, for example.
My favourite bit (cheekily) is the quote from Lizzy Smallwood on the back. Not the commendation itself. But the description of her as "presenter of Tales of the Unexpected." And I always thought that was Roald Dahl, sitting in his armchair? Perhaps it's an age thing?
More seriously, make sure you take a look.
Preaching Christ from the Old Testament
Our London fraternal is thinking about preaching Christ from the Old Testament using this paper by Sinclair Ferguson. It's free in our resources section and well worth some of your time (and discussion?).