The God of Bad Interpreters

Is God the God of the good Bible interpreters only? Is He not also the God of the bad ones? Yes, He is the God of the bad ones, too.

This little opening, which you might notice alludes to Romans 3:29, summarizes something that has dawned on me recently. As I read more Scripture and study it more deeply, I often feel like there’s a serious problem with clarity for the average reader. In some passages or verses, it seems like study reveals meanings and depths which are not only inaccessible to someone without certain outside resources, but in fact may contradict or at least relativize the the meaning the same text might appear to have from a surface reading. In some cases obscure allusions, strange cultural thought patterns, or difficult to detect uses of irony may even completely reverse what you think a verse says on its own.

Yet in tension with this seeming reality is, it seems, the doctrine I have always been taught of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture. By most accounts I’ve ever heard, at least in the Protestant world, the meaning of any given part of Scripture is supposed to be more or less plain to whoever reads it with attention and care. You’re not supposed to need a bunch of outside help to get what a passage means. But given the radically different feel I get from in depth study, what gives? Is Scripture essentially clear, with scholars and theologians just complicating things, or is its meaning far from clear unless you are greatly learned?

I think the answer is, in some way, both yes and no. The Westminster Confession of Faith, a defining classic in the Reformed world, says this of the clarity of Scripture:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

I think this understanding of the clarity of Scripture works. On the one hand, there are things which are not equally clear to everyone. The meaning of every part of Scripture is not necessarily plain as day, or for that matter even as clear as mud. However, the WCF does specify that what we must know and believe in respect to salvation is clear enough that anyone, educated or not, who does basically proper reading.

I would in fact go a bit further than this to identify what exactly is plain. The one clarity that I believe shines forth from Scripture is the image of Christ Himself, the Savior who died and rose for us in self-sacrificing love, inviting us into His grace. Even if you find everything else called into question by lack of knowledge, or by bad teachings, or by cultural blindness, or by sin, the crucified Lord who loved us to His death and beckons us to follow that kind of life is plainly obvious to anyone who would crack open a Bible. If you know nothing else about the Bible, you know Jesus appears through its pages. Therefore what is clear in Scripture, Jesus Himself, is enough to be saved, as the WCF says.

Beyond this point, though, I do not think it is necessary to insist that the specific meanings of various parts of the Bible are all that clear. Sure, many of them are, and probably many of them are clearer that some scholars would make them out to be, but a great many of them may not be. Some passages may turn out to be so odd, obscure, or unique that the majority of people get them wrong, even the majority of well-educated people. Many passages will not be that bad, but will still need a decent amount of study, both of what the text says and of behind-the-scenes details, to properly get.

Is this a problem? Does it render much of the Bible basically unusable to normal Christians? Does it take the Bible out of their hands and return us to a day when only trained people could teach or interpret Scripture? I don’t think so. See, we must remember that there is more to the Bible that the words written in a particular context by a particular author to a particular audience. Its fullness is not exhausted by the precise original intentions, what exactly the authors were trying to say. While this is all an important part, a very important one, we must also recall that Scripture was inspired under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and now is read by believers with the same Spirit dwelling in them. Cultures and languages may pass away, but the Spirit who breathes the life of the Scriptures never passes away.

This link, the indwelling Spirit of God, makes it possible for the Bible to do things that it couldn’t rightly do as a purely natural book. For the authoring Spirit is still here to speak to us as we read it. So when we dig into Scripture, even if we lack a great deal of information that would shed light on the “original meaning,” He is more than able to speak to us through what we are reading, and to illuminate for us truth about Jesus Christ, even if it’s not the same truth the particular text was written to communicate! The same Spirit who oversaw the creation of Scripture now lives in us and oversees the intake of Scripture, so that no matter how educated or uneducated we are we can still hear the very voice of God speaking to us, telling us what He wants us to know, as we read the inspired words.

I’m not suggesting, I should add, that the Spirit will just lead us willy-nilly to make whatever we will out of the Bible. God is not the God of relativism, or of confusion. He is, however, the God of fresh life and revelation. Even when the words of, say, John were penned nearly 2000 years ago, God’s Spirit knew all the possible uses He might make for this book, and all of our needs today. From the beginning, He was able to breathe a kind of life into Scripture that adapts itself to the hearer, not to change the message to make things easier on us, but to break down the walls of culture and context which might otherwise separate us from what God wants to tell us. In the very same text He may be saying multiple things to multiple people in multiple times and places, the Spirit working in each reader to show him the Word of the Lord.

If I could sum this rambling up, I would simply say this: the “original meaning” of many texts in the Bible is far from clear. Jesus Himself, on the other hand, is very clear in the Bible. And as for everything else in Scripture, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for God to speak to us personally with an inspired message even when we can’t or don’t nail down exactly what the original author was trying to say. Therefore God is not only the God of good Bible interpreters, but of bad as well. Praise be to Him for His self-revealing kindness!

The God of Bad Interpreters

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

[This is the third post in my Bible study on Mark. See the others here.]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight,'”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

Mark 1:2-8

What the Bible Says

As we saw last time, Mark has just abruptly opened his Gospel with the good news that Jesus is here. Now he moves into the actual story of that arrival. This story begins, rather unexpectedly, not with Jesus Himself but with John the Baptist (or baptizer, as the NRSV renders it).

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah — Mark begins right off with an appeal to the Scriptures, which is a reasonable strategy to back up his claim that Jesus is the Messiah. If anyone is to accept Jesus as Messiah, they will have to see how He fulfills the relevant Scriptures.

A potential problem, for some, arises at this point. While Mark says “the prophet Isaiah,” the following quotation is not just from Isaiah, but actually starts from Malachi. There are also other manuscripts which simply say “the prophets,” which probably resulted from a scribe trying to fix that problem. In the end, though, this doesn’t need to bother us. Over half of the quote is from Isaiah, and since Isaiah is also the more prominent book of the two, the lack of precision is unimportant.

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way — This part of the quote is from Malachi 3:1. In the original context, God was declaring judgment on Judah for her sins. In 2:17, God accuses the people of asking, “Where is the God of justice?” Then 3:1 comes as the answer. God has sent a messenger ahead to prepare His way, and according to the next part of the verse He will come suddenly to His temple. Then verse 2 makes it clear that this visit will be a day of judgment, for “who can endure the day of his coming?”

the voice […] paths straight” — This part of the quote is from Isaiah 40:3. The wording of this verse is very similar to Malachi 3:1, but there is an important difference in meaning. Isaiah 40 is an announcement of comfort and promise of redemption to Israel. Instead of the impending doom Malachi speaks of, this verse references impending forgiveness, despite being nearly the same.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness — Again, Mark works with sudden appearances, the kinds of abrupt changes you would expect in a vision or dream. Now John has appeared, apparently as the fulfillment of the cited texts. Based on these verses, he is a messenger preparing the way for Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem. The wilderness location is significant. Israel has always had an interesting relationship with the wilderness, having wandered for 40 years. New religious movements at this time often retreated to the wilderness, including Messianic ones. Yet John is not secluding himself with followers; he is baptizing and preaching.

proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — Now we know what John is preaching. Baptism was at this time a rite that Jewish proselytes (Gentiles who wanted to fully join Judaism and Israel) would undergo, hinting that John saw sinful Israel as cut off from God’s people and they needed to essentially convert as though they were outsiders. They were called to repent and receive forgiveness. I should also point out that this would not have been understood primarily as individual. It wasn’t just about Mr. Jacob or Mrs. Martha. As I mentioned before, most the Israelites still thought of themselves as in exile, and exile was understood as the result of Israel’s sin as a nation. Therefore the call to repent and receive forgiveness would be understood as the means by which Israel might finally return from exile, and thus God’s kingdom would come.

And people […] their sins — The unrest of the time at a national level meant many people were ready to take an opportunity at seeing God’s kingdom come and receiving forgiveness in the return of Israel exile. People flocked to John, clearly enthusiastic about this prospect.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey — This well fits John’s persona as a prophet. In fact, it hints, when combined with the prophecy from before, that John is fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was expected to come before God’s kingdom came. Elijah was described similarly in 2 Kings 1:8, and Zechariah 13:4 reveals that this kind of dress was associated with prophets. He also clearly had no trouble with purity laws.

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. — Again, the role of forerunner is apparent, which strengthens the Elijah parallel. John clearly sees himself not as the Messiah or fulfillment, but as called to prepare Israel for God’s kingdom by preaching repentance.

I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” — This curious statement has always been debated. What does it mean that the one to follow John will baptize with the Holy Spirit? There is no doubt that the Charismatic “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is not in view. No one in John’s day had such a concept, and indeed it did not exist for hundreds and hundreds, if not over a thousand, more years. More likely, the word “baptize” should be understood with its original meaning of “immerse,” so that the picture is of Israel being immersed in the Spirit, which would call to mind eschatological expectations that God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh when His kingdom came (Isa. 44:3, Ezek. 39:29,  Joel 2:28).

The Theology Part

So what picture does this paint for us theologically? The first thing to note is, again, the sudden appearance. Carrying on the visionary or dream-like elements, the Messiah’s forerunner shows up in the wilderness and begins preaching. His message to Israel is that they must repent and be baptized for forgiveness of sins, the return from exile. The theme is clearly the coming of God’s kingdom. The prophecies cited make this abundantly clear, as well as the allusions to John’s role as the coming Elijah.

The specific combination of prophecies used here points to God’s return to Jerusalem as both a positive and negative occurrence, both salvation and judgment. All of the Jews would be expecting this, though later we will see just how subversive and shocking the outplaying of this actually is.

Other overlooked, but in my opinion very important here, is the way the coming of Jesus is identified with the return of God Himself to His people. Remember that both Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 in their original contexts refer to prophets announcing the coming of the Lord, Yahweh. Yet in Mark “Lord” clearly refers to the subject of verse 1, Jesus the Messiah. This theme will not stop in Mark or any of the Gospels. As we go on, we find it more and more impossible to separate Jesus from God. They are one, and this realization eventually became detailed church tradition in the glorious affirmation of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

One more important theological point to notice is the relationship of baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. For some verse 4 would be used with other texts to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Yet this does not regard the original context of the verse. John was calling for Israel to repent and essentially reconvert to their God in preparation for the return from exile and coming kingdom. This baptism and the baptism instituted by the risen and glorified Christ are not exactly the same, being on opposite sides of the Cross.

What to Do about It

So, what do we get from this? How should the announcement of John the Baptist affect us today? Two main thoughts come to mind.

  • John knew the time had come, and that God’s kingdom was about to break into the world through Jesus Christ. So he preached that message to all who would listen, baptizing them and teaching them to repent of their sins. Now Jesus has gone away, but will return, and we know that He could be back any time. We must therefore follow John’s example, preaching the Gospel of Jesus to all who will listen, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all Jesus commanded. Basically, the Great Commission Matthew 28:19-20.
  • John also was constantly clear to make himself nothing and Christ the focus. We really ought to be doing the same way. So much of our approach as Christians tends to draw attention to the preachers, the speakers, the bloggers, and even us as individuals with our testimonies. Or in church, we may find ourselves trying to get the word out about Our Church, or its programs, music, or relevance. Our worship services may seem more like concerts about the band and lights than about the God who revealed Himself as Jesus Christ. But all of this would be wrong. Our energy should go altogether towards making Jesus the object of focus, desire, and proclamation. If our message is anything but Jesus, we are in trouble.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

To continue my Mark Bible study (which began in this post), I’ll move on to the very first verse:

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What the Bible Says

Let’s not miss the significance of this. Mark has the simplest introduction of any of the Gospels. No genealogy (Matthew), preface (Luke), or poetic allusions to creation (John). He just says, “this is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” By the next verse, he’ll be introducing John the Baptist. So let’s take a closer look at this first verse.

Good News – The words “good news” here come from the Greek word euaggelion, which is usually translated “gospel” and from which we get our word “evangelize.” It was primarily used in particular of politically-relevant military victories, especially if the emperor was involved. This kind of good news would be along the lines, “Good news! We’ve won the battle!” or “Good news! A new emperor has been crowned!” The theme of royal victory was most likely a common connotation. Keep that thought in your back pocket for now.

Jesus Christ – The name “Jesus” doesn’t really warrant much explanation, though an interesting tidbit is that “Jesus” is the English way of saying the Greek translation of the Hebrew name “Yehôshua.” That name, if translated straight to English instead of to Greek first, is “Joshua.” So you can tell all your friends that Jesus’ name was Joshua. More important is the “Christ” part. What does that mean? The word “Christ” essentially means “anointed one,” or the same as “Messiah” from Hebrew. By saying “Jesus Christ,” Mark is saying, “Jesus the Messiah.”

This makes sense in connection with the theme of royal victory behind the term “Good News.” After all, there is nothing many of the Jews of Jesus’ day, of whom He was a part, wanted more than a Messiah who would rescue them from Rome in a military victory, and be crowned the true king under God. An unsuspecting reader from Mark’s world would at this point probably have in the mind the picture of a king like David, who would defeat God’s enemies and be acknowledged as God’s chosen ruler. The difference of the Messiah would be that He is the final king, whose victory and reign would be permanent and through whom God Himself would rule.

the Son of God – This is a particularly interesting title. See, before the early church did some serious study of what Jesus said about Himself, the term “son of God” had not been used to say someone had a divine nature, or was God. The most popular use of “son of God” when Mark was written would have been as more or less a synonym for “Messiah,” but with special emphasis on the royal aspect. In the Old Testament, the king of Israel, and Israel as a whole, was often spoken of as God’s son (Exod. 4:22-23, 2 Sam. 7:14, 1 Chr. 17:14, 22:10, 28:6, Ps. 2:6-7, 89:20-26, Ezek. 21:9-10, Hos. 11:1). This is important. God called Israel to be His child, and the king was especially so as God’s anointed representative of the whole nation. By Jesus’ day, these connections developed in many concepts of the Messiah, and the two phrases were practically synonyms (Matt. 16:16, 26:63, Mk. 14:61, John 1:49, 11:27).

So Mark here is again claiming Jesus as Messiah, only this time the emphasis is even more on His role as the King who represents all Israel in Himself. What He does is relevant for the whole nation. (Note that none of this is to say that Jesus wasn’t God’s son in another, more unique and divine, way as well. That’s simply not the original focus of the title “son of God.” Part of the reason this changed is because of who Jesus revealed Himself to be.)

The Theology Part

Putting these pieces we’ve just looked at together, we can start to see the startling scene Mark is trying to show us. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. Like an unexpected scene in a dream, the Messiah has shown up. This is the beginning of the apocalyptic vision Mark has written his Gospel as. To dramatize it: “Good news!” he yells to his readers out of the fog. “Your Messiah has come!” The fog then parts to reveal the silhouette of Jesus.

We should remember that, for Mark’s readers, God has seemingly been silent and unhelpful to the Jews for many years. Even though they came back from Babylon way back when, many still believed that the Exile was still going on in some sense. They may be back in their land, but they’re still under pagan rule (the Romans this time), their king (Herod) is a corrupt puppet, and God has yet to do anything to show that He has returned to Jerusalem to dwell in His temple like He promised.

With this gloomy backdrop, the sudden appearance of the Messiah clearly has significance. Jesus has come to fix this situation, lead Israel out of exile, and win the final victory of God. This is indeed “Good News!” Yet whatever expectations may have been created in this first verse, the rest of the Gospel will end up confusing them.

For us, on the other side of these events, we know what has been accomplished. Jesus, the Messiah, who is God’s Son not only as King but as the eternal Word of God Himself, has defeated Satan and dealt with our sin on the Cross, then rose again. Now He is reigning on high, exalted above all. For us, the Jewish Messiah has already completed His mission, fulfilled the destiny of Israel, and brought us, the Gentiles who didn’t belong, in on the blessings. We now stand as one body, saved by Jesus alone, and acknowledge Him as the Son of God whose sudden appearance in history was the day of salvation for all people!

What to Do about It

So how are we to respond to what Mark 1:1? What changes can even this little verse make in our lives? I can think of a couple possible applications.

  • Just like Jesus suddenly appeared in the middle of Israel’s suffering to save His people, we now wait for Him to suddenly return. When He does, we have hope that He will implement His victory once and for all. In the mean time, we must work and prepare, telling the whole world about what Christ has done for us. One day time will run out, and just like Jerusalem was destroyed after it missed its chance with the Savior, so next time the whole world will fall if we do not prepare them for the return of the King.
  • God is always faithful, and we can trust Him. It had been 400 years since the Old Testament was written, and the Jews were wondering where God had gone. When would He help them again? Yet He did return to His people in Jesus just as He swore, and today we can trust that He will fulfill all of His promises to us. This means we can live boldly and without fear, doing whatever God calls us to, because we know He will do what He has promised.
  • We should never lose hope. Like I said, 400 years had gone by. No word from God in this time. Even after the Jews’ victory in the Maccabean revolt (study here if you’re interested), little progress was made and all the authorities were still corrupt. Pagan rule hadn’t stopped. Even in the midst of this bleak situation, though, God suddenly made His move for His people. So we can wait patiently, but also eagerly, because God might act at any moment to help us in whatever we need, or to rescue us from any of our sufferings. He could change your life whenever, so never lose heart.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

This is the third and final new series I’m starting now. I thought it would be fun to do a Bible study series on a particular book of the Bible. My recent studies have led me to Mark. The shortest and (according to most scholars) earliest of the Gospels, as well as the most cryptic, it begged for good study. So, on to the background details.

Date and Authorship

Mark is widely believed to have been the first Gospel written. More conservative dating puts it in the AD 50s, while more mainstream scholarship says 65-70. Very few people date it any later, simply because the book gives no indications that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 had yet happened, which would have been very theologically significant if it had since Jesus is recorded to have prophesied this event.

While no solid historical evidence exists surrounding the author of Mark, and the book itself does not specify the author (remember that the titles were added later), the tradition of the early church was that a disciple of Peter named Mark wrote the book based on Peter’s preaching. Modern historians mostly disbelieve this tradition, but the reasons for this seem to be mostly involve skepticism about the historical truth of Mark. If Mark is taken as overall a reliable work, then there is no obvious reason to question the traditional claim.

Theme: Let the Reader Understand

The idea which I have recently run across, and which I plan to explore with this Bible study, is that Mark is essentially an apocalypse. At first, this may not make sense, but this is probably because of the widespread misunderstanding about what an apocalypse is. So in order to explain how and why Mark might be an apocalypse, I should address briefly what apocalyptic literature actually is.

In popular imagination, “apocalypse” means “end of the world.” But that’s not quite right. Our word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which basically means an “unveiling” or a “revealing.” Specifically, the genre of apocalypse involves God revealing His secrets in mysterious ways, usually by strange visions or dreams. Daniel, for example, consists of much apocalyptic material. Sometimes they are interpreted there (like often happens in Daniel), and sometimes the reader is left to understand by himself. Often times, these revelations have to do with what God is about to do in the future (such as end times matters), but they can also refer to the present and the past, giving the heavenly, theological perspective on earthly events.

How does Mark fit into this category? It seems that Mark portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection like a series of apocalyptic visions. The events of His life are written as short and cryptic, strung together like the scenes of a dream or visions with the word “immediately,” and ultimately ending in suspense. “Let the reader understand” seems to indeed apply to the whole of Mark; he gives us a mysterious picture of the Messiah which only those with ears to hear will truly understand.

Coming Up

With this context in mind, my next post will start at the beginning in Mark 1:1 and move on from there. I’m hoping to find lots of interesting goodness in this book, a book which testifies of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Any fresh riches to find about Him are worth the search. So until next time, maybe try reading Mark with what I’ve mentioned in mind, if you’re at all interested. Comment if you find anything to say, as always.

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

How To Be a True Biblicist (Or, Unexpected Truth about Taking the Bible Seriously)

“I just believe the Bible.” People say this a lot, and in a previous post of mine I examined why that’s not really true for anyone. That said, there is a worthy ideal behind that statement. Pardon my Protestantism showing, but I believe we are called as Christians to subject all of our thoughts and beliefs to the teachings of the Bible. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final authority for us. This means we have to accept what the Bible says in faith, at some points even just giving up on the use of our own reason.

This brings me to the term “Biblicist.” This word is usually only used by people who either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t understand major doctrinal systems, and wish to indicate that they simply believe what the Bible teaches. As an example, many people in the debate over Calvinism/Arminianism claim to be neither and call themselves “Biblicists” instead. Regardless of how true that is—most of the people I hear say this just agree with Arminianism without the name—there is an implied concept of what it means to just believe the Bible, and that concept is regarded as a worthy goal.

I, too, believe that we should be content to believe the Bible, and just take it for what it really says. But I do not agree with the popular idea that you can do this just by reading the Bible, thinking about it by yourself, and sticking with your first impressions. While many people do this, and many people would even say this is what you should do, I do not believe this is at all faithful to Scripture. The irony then becomes that in trying to respect the Bible, they end up abusing it.

So what does it really mean to take the Bible seriously? How can we “just believe the Bible” in a way that is neither naïve and ignorant nor critical and arrogant? Here are several points about what I think it means to be a true Biblicist:

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible. As obvious as it sounds, actually reading the Bible is a must to really treat it faithfully. Brilliant theologians, angry KJV-onlyists, and the everyman believer alike all struggle with this. Reading the Bible is key, but way too often we don’t really do it. That makes a difference in both how we live and what we believe, since the more we read the Bible the more stuff we realize is in there that we didn’t even know about.

  • A true Biblicist reads about the Bible. What many people don’t realize is that you can’t read the Bible for all it is worth without also reading about the Bible. Why is this? See, the Bible was written for us, but not to us. Every book of Scripture was written to people of a totally different culture, in totally different cities, with totally different worldviews. So there are phrases, nuances of words, and even entire lines of thought which would make immediate sense to the original authors and audiences of the books of the Bible, but not to us (or, worse, they could give us a completely different impression than they did the original audience). This is why we have to read about the Bible in order to learn what they knew that we don’t know. Otherwise we’re likely to make the Bible say things it isn’t really saying.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible with trust. As opposed to the skeptic who suspects errors, biases, or political agendas behind the text of every page, the true Biblicist assumes the authors to be reliable, straightforward, and honest without good reason to think otherwise. When he runs into something that throws him off, he does research, uses real reading comprehension, and approaches it all with charity before shouting, “Error!” or “Contradiction!”

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible honestly. As opposed to the fiery young apologist who uses his own creativity or fantasy to figure everything out, and accepts or promotes far-fetched answers to the perplexing problems of the Bible, the true Biblicist is willing to accept when the Bible doesn’t make sense. He won’t deny the difficulties, and he won’t go to absurd lengths to reconcile everything that doesn’t obviously connect (e.g. he won’t propose that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice). He’ll say, “I don’t know,” when he can’t figure out a passage.

  • A true Biblicist reads judges tradition by the Bible. I am fairly squarely within the broader Reformed tradition, theologically speaking. Most of my family and friends are in the Baptist tradition, or a closely related part of the evangelical Protestant tradition like Pentecostalism. All of these traditions must be judged by Scripture. The true Biblicist is willing to move from one tradition to another based on what he finds in the Bible. He will not force fit everything the Bible says into his tradition’s party lines.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible within a tradition. Reading the Bible without tradition is a quick way to fall into all kinds of heresy. The broader Christian tradition tells us about the Trinity and Jesus’ dual natures, and without this tradition you’d need to be a genius to sort this all out by yourself in a single lifetime. More specific doctrines like election, end times, baptism, and spiritual gifts are all interpreted differently in different traditions, and the true Biblicist recognizes this. He does not seek to understand the Bible all by himself, but instead joins forces with like-minded believers so that he can share in the wisdom and insight God has given them, both the fellow members of his tradition in the present and the formers of that tradition from the past.

  • A true Biblicist forms his own opinions on what the Bible says. Unlike the “my daddy taught me this” traditionalist, the true Biblicist reads and wrestles with the Bible personally. He doesn’t just inherit his ideas and beliefs from his parents, pastors, and teachers, because they are all fallible, normal /people. Instead, he checks the Bible himself to make sure that what he is hearing is true.

  • A true Biblicist never forms opinions on the Bible all by himself. Even though the Biblicist seeks to understand the Bible for himself and not just take the word of others as Gospel, he also listens closely to the words of others for help. The Holy Spirit works in all believers of all places and times, so the true Biblicist recognizes this valuable resource. He knows that he is not the smartest, most educated, most enlightened, or more spiritual reader of the Bible, so he is ready and willing to seek advice, insight, and answers from other Christians, even those from totally different traditions.

  • A true Biblicist respects the Bible as the word of God. The Bible claims for itself in various ways a special status as God speaking to people through human authors. It is filled with divine authority, and when we read the Bible we (through the power of the Holy Spirit) hear the voice of God. It comes from the Father through the Spirit working in human beings to testify about the Son. Therefore the Biblicist listens to God when He reads the Bible.

  • A true Biblicist recognizes that Jesus is the Word of God. There is a reason that I capitalize Word when referring to Jesus but not the Bible. The Bible does not seek to be the focus of our attention, the utter fulfillment of God’s revelation, but to make us see Jesus Christ—the Word who was in the beginning—in its pages. It is Jesus who is the exact expression of God’s nature and the radiance of His glory, God’s final revelation of Himself in word and deed. The Bible serves not to usurp Jesus’ role as final revelation and make us focus on itself, but to complement His role by unpacking and explaining Him with inspired authority. After all, the Scriptures themselves do not save and sanctify us. They lead us to the Son of God, the eternal Word, who accomplished it all!

And while all of this is necessary to be a true Biblicist (even if some of these points are rather counter-intuitive), there is a final and perhaps most important part of being a true Biblicist. The Bible is meant to be understood with the illuminating work of God’s Holy Spirit, and there is only one way to receive the power of the Spirit. This way is prayer. The true Biblicist prays that God the Father will give Him the help of the Spirit so that He can see the glory of the Son in the Holy Scriptures. Without this, all of the other efforts will fall short. The Bible, after all, is just words without the Spirit of the Living God bringing them to life in our hearts. So let us pray that He will do it! Amen.

How To Be a True Biblicist (Or, Unexpected Truth about Taking the Bible Seriously)

The Hunger Games, Amos, and American Christianity

If you have any idea what this post is about by the title, you deserve a prize. I doubt the connection between the items is at all obvious, unless maybe you’ve recently given them each good thought. But there is a connection, and one that concerns me. To put it as concisely as possible, the connection is “luxury and poverty.”

The Hunger Games presents this theme quite prominently, and even a bit humorously. While most of the people in Panem live difficult, impoverished lives, working hard to just provide the basics for their families and avoid the government’s wrath, one small part of the population does none of this. The residents of the Capitol live pampered lives in comparison. They feast while those in most Districts starve. With plenty of leisure time, they keep busy with absurd fashions, graphic television, and celebrity gossip. All of this comes, of course, from the slavish toil of the inhabitants of the Districts who struggle to get by.

Our reactions to the citizens of the Capitol seem to range from condescending amusement to unadulterated loathing. We tend to look down on them and think they should realize the tragedies outside of their walls. We may find ourselves indignant: “How dare they party so hard with so much food while poor children like Primrose never know if they’ll have enough to eat!” And that reaction would hardly be unwarranted.

The people of Israel in the prophet Amos’ day were in a similar place. There were poor and needy people throughout the land, but the rest did not care. They made their poverty worse with high taxes, lots of fines, slavish work, and apathetic attitudes. All the rich offered lavish sacrifices with extravagant celebrations which did not include the beggars they pushed their way through on the way to the temple. Women exploited those in need for clothes, then called to their husbands for more wine bought with fines and tax revenue.

Again, it is clear to see where the Israelites were wrong, especially when you see the strong language of the actual Bible. The natural response is horror and disbelief that people could live such luxurious lives at the expense of others who must live pathetic ones. The exploitation going on in Amos’ day seems to clearly justify the violent and terrible judgment which he prophesied against Israel.

I now reach us, the American Christians, and find disturbing parallels. Like the citizens of the Capitol and the rich Israelites, we never lack in food or clothes, and instead have our own problem of too little space in our closets and fridges. We act and speak as though we think of ourselves as the only people in the world, much like Cinna’s oblivious assistants. Many of us do not know or care anything about the state of peoples and nations that are aren’t in the news, like the Israelites who grew so proud in their national election that they thought nothing of the people near them. Republican Christians are likely to despise legislation which could actually help those in need if the government plays any part, while Democrat Christians are likely to support high taxes and strict regulations that no matter who they target, are likely to do damage all the way down to the poorest. In our individual lives, we applaud God’s condensation of the women who enslaved the poor for sandals, but I wonder how different that is from our imported clothes made in sweatshops. We stuff ourselves after church at Golden Corral without a thought to the millions of people whose budget to feed their children for a month is less than the price of our meal.

The truth is that we American Christians, even those of us who make below the official poverty line, live a life of luxury compared to most of the human race, both historically and geographically. This isn’t to say we’ve got no problems or lack. The rich life brings its own troubles. But we do sit obliviously atop the world’s economy. Ninety nine percent of Americans are really the top 1% of the world at large. This itself isn’t a bad or wrong thing. What justifies or condemns us is how we respond to that fact.

So what should we do if we don’t want to fall like Israel or Panem? I doubt God will be pleased if all we do is tag Jesus in the album of our otherwise normal, oblivious, pampered lives. In fact, I know He won’t be, since He tells us Himself in the parable of the sheep and the goats that He identifies deeply with the poor, oppressed, and needy. So to go most days ignoring them is all too close to ignoring the Father, even when we do personal devotions and church. Jesus tells us that He is hungry, He is sick, He is imprisoned, His children have been sold into sex slavery, He works hours and hours for a couple bucks, and can’t afford a place to live. So what will we do for our God?

To be honest, I’m not sure what all to do. Since I don’t see much of the suffering out there, it’s hard to get most of the needs. Moreover, I don’t like boycotts or such things because they are rarely effective or consistent. I’m also not convinced that the best route is a radical abandonment of normal life. Normal isn’t bad, after all. It’s a gift to be received with thanksgiving. But it is simply not enough on its own. So what do I propose? I don’t have much of anything concrete, but here are a couple ideas bouncing around in my head.

  • During a month or longer, or even indefinitely, match all the money you spend going out to eat with a donation that puts food in the mouths of the hungry.
  • Get out and see needs up close. Find the bad part of town and explore. Imagine how you would feel if you and your children had to live in that ratty house in that dangerous neighborhood. Make it hard to forget or ignore.
  • Start keeping up with the politics, news, and general welfare of another, less prosperous country, and consider what it would be like if you lived there. Start praying for them and getting involved in projects that can benefit them. Maybe even take a trip.
  • Try getting involved in something obvious and stereotypical that you never thought to do, like helping at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Avoid excuses, e.g. You are not truly too busy, and if you are, then get less busy. Take real time and real effort to meet needs and involve yourself with people who don’t have so much luxury.
  • Fast, but not for your personal growth in particular. Instead, give up something you have that much of the world doesn’t, and spend the time in prayer, service, and giving for their provision.

All of this is pretty experimental in my head, and I still need to try to implement stuff like this in my own life. I haven’t so far, at least not much, but reading Amos has convicted me again. So also remember not to be offended, because most of this criticism is really about me.

The Hunger Games, Amos, and American Christianity