Reconsidering “Above All”: How Hermeneutics Must Intersect with and Inform Our Hymnody

aboveallYesterday, I raised concerns with the popular song “Above All” by Michael W. Smith. For some time, I have taken theological issue with the central lyric of the song:

Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall / And thought of me
Above all.

Those last two lines have always made me stumble because of the way they seem to eclipse God with humanity. I’ve always heard them as making the claim that Christ thought more of me than he did of God—which I argued reverses the God-centered nature of the universe and the cross.

For that reason, I was theologically opposed to the song. While I could sing the rest of the song with delight, I always cringed as the chorus neared. Hence, I set out to write these reflections so as to expose the errant chorus. However, a funny thing happened along the way—I read the lyrics again (and again) and this time in context.

Unlike any time before, I read the chorus in light of the whole song. Not surprisingly, reading it context provided greater light. But surprisingly, I had to adjust my thinking for I realized that if I (or we) let the song define its own terms—a principle of general hermeneutics—it does not ascribe humanity to a place higher than God. In fact, the song rightly retains a high view of God’s sovereignty and the dignity assigned to humanity, as the pinnacle of creation. Continue reading

Four Reasons You Should Read and Preach the Old Testament

ot“Long ago, at many time and in many ways,
God spoke to our father by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,
whom he appointed the heir of all things,
through who also he created the world.
He is the radiance of the glory of God
and the exact imprint of his nature,
and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
After making purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
having become as much superior to angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
— Hebrews 1:1–3 —

If it is true that in these last days, God has spoken by his Son as Hebrews 1 says, why should pastors preach from the Old Testament? If we have the full revelation of God in the substance of Christ, what interest should New Testament Christians have with Old Testament shadows? Surely, it is good to know history and to learn lessons from the past, but do we really need lengthy sermon series of Exodus or to read 1–2 Kings and 1–2 Chronicles?

Without committing the Marcion heresy of denying the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament, some self-identified “New Testament” preachers have stressed the New Testament so much they have lead their flocks to miss (or deemphasize) more than two-thirds of the Bible. In the language of Galatians 3:8, they miss the gospel preached beforehand and hence minimize the full riches of the gospel contained in both testaments.

If you have heard or imbibed such thinking, you might ask whether regular portions of the Old Testament are necessary for reading and preaching for New Testament discipleship. I believe it is, for at least four reasons. Continue reading

How do you recognize a biblical type?  

seekfindIf we agree that typology unites the Bible, identifies who Jesus is, and reveals God’s progressive revelation (which I argued here), then it is vital to know how to recognize a type. Indeed, one of the of the reasons people doubt the validity of a given type (e.g., Joseph as type of Christ, or Noah’s ark as a type of salvation) is that they fear reading too much into the Old Testament. Perhaps, they have seen typology gone wild and have concluded that such interpretations are fanciful and forced. Indeed, while there are many poor examples of misinterpretation, typology remains a vital reality in the Bible. And it behooves us to ask again: “How do you recognize a true biblical type?”

In what follows, I’ve given 5 ways to help you do that. This list isn’t exhaustive and it (over)simplifies some very technical discussions, but for those just beginning to consider or reconsider typology, may it serve as a starting point for recognizing types in Scripture. (For a more comprehensive approach to detecting types, allusions, and patterns in Scripture, see G. K. Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretationesp. chapters 3 and 4). Continue reading

Prolegomena Matters: Engaging with Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology

prolegomenaYesterday, I posted my review of the first section in Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic IntroductionAs with most theology textbooks, Bird opens with a discussion of how to do theology. In theological circles this is called the prolegomena and it portends to how the rest of the book will be developed.

As I mentioned in that review, I am encouraged by his focus on the gospel but concerned about how he is actually going to do his theology. In my review I mentioned in passing four general concerns. Today, I want to substantiate those concerns. Continue reading

Postmodernity and Envangelical Thought (3): The Basic Tenets of Postmodernism

Yesterday, I outlined a number of the basic features of modernity. Today, I pick up by looking at the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Postmodernism’s Progenitors: Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche

It has been said that in the history of Western thought there have been two French Revolutions that gave birth to modernism and postmodernism.  In the Enlightenment, Frenchmen Rene Descartes brought about a new way of thinking when his Cogito turned Western thinking towards the subject.  Instead of keeping God at the center, now all centered on man.  This was the first French Revolution.  The second was the rise of Jacques Derrida, who not only questioned the Author of the universe, he questioned every single author who rose in his place.  Derrida has rightly been esteemed as the forefather of postmodern thought, and for good reason. Continue reading

Taste and See the Sweet Layers of Scripture

My wife is an excellent maker of cakes. My favorite is the homemade chocolate cake she makes. What makes it so good? Well, the sweet, moist cake is a good starting place, but it moves from good to great when she adds the frosting, and it goes from great to ‘out of this world,’ when she makes a double-layered cake with a large portion of frosting in the middle.

Makes you hungry, doesn’t it?

Well, the richness of a double-layered, chocolate is not unlike the word of God, which the Psalmist described as sweeter than honey (Ps 19:10). If he had chocolate in his vocabulary, I bet he would have made that comparison, as well.

Continue reading

For Your Edification (5.17.12)

For Your Edification is a bi-weekly set of resources on the subjects of Bible, Theology, Ministry, and Family Life.  Let me know what you think or if you have other resources that growing Christians should be aware.  

BIBLE

Is the Bible Really Living and Active?  Imagine a conversation at the end of Sunday service:

Pastor:  Fred, did you spend time in the word this week?

Fred: Oh, yes.  I spent hours in the word this week.  It was refreshing.  God says that he gives rest to those who ask, and when I was in the word this week, I felt the comfort of resting in the word.

Wilma, Fred’s wife (driving home later): Honey, I didn’t know that you spent so much time in the Word this week.  With your busy schedule, how did you do that?

Husband: Well, what I failed to mention was the fact that I named my Lazy Boy “the word,” so that whether I am watching TV, reading the paper, or reading my Bible, I can “be in the word.”

Wilma: Huh . . . that’s a good idea.  Maybe, I’ll try that.

Of course, no one would really say that.  Right?  But the point is made: The time we spend in the word is as effective as the way we spend it.  Jen Wilkin, mother of four, writes about why so many Christians get so little out of the word.  She nails down the fact that those who read the Bible, need to use effective means of Bible study, or they will just reinforce unbiblical ideas, and remain unchanged.  This is how she begins,

Why, with so many study options available, do many professing Christians remain unschooled and unchanged? Scripture teaches clearly that the living and active Word matures ustransforms usaccomplishes what it intends, increases our wisdom, and bears the fruit of right actions. There is no deficit in the ministry of the Word. If our exposure to it fails to result in transformation, particularly over the course of years, there are surely only two possible reasons why: either our Bible studies lack true converts, or our converts lack true Bible study.

Jen goes on to explain a number of common ways Christians “lack true Bible study.” Read the rest of her helpful article: Why Bible Study Doesn’t Transform Us?

Summer Bible Reading Plan.  Here is a 100 day Bible reading plan that would be great to use this summer if you do not currently have a reading schedule, or you have fallen off the wagon since January.  It is called E100, which stands for Essential 100 Scripture passages, and it designed to help Bible readers get through the whole of the Bible in a manageable amount of time.  It is published by Scripture Union and is designed to help young Bible readers or discouraged Bible readers make their way through the most important parts of the Bible.  The E100 website has more details; here is an easy access print-out.

THEOLOGY

Lessons in Ecclesiology.  Jonathan Leeman answers a couple important questions about the doctrine of the church.  First, he defines what the characteristics of a local church are.  Most importantly, in his article, What Is the Local Church?, he defines the difference between a ‘group of Christians’ and a ‘church’ (Hint: They are not the same thing!)  Then, he follows up by considering church membership.  In his article, What Is Church Membership?, he points out that a church is more than just a ‘voluntary organization.’ For those who want their church reflect the priorities of Christ, these are important questions, and Leeman gives biblical answers.

Additionally, Leeman is finishing his doctoral research on ecclesiology (i. e. the doctrine of the church) and has written a number of helpful resources on the subject, most recently: Church Membership and Church Discipline.  His larger work, The Church and the Surprising Offense of the Love of God: Reintroducing Church Membership and Discipline, goes even deeper into the biblical case for reclaiming a knowledge and practice of church health.

Carl Trueman on John Owen. John Owen has been described as the “Redwood of the Puritans” by J. I. Packer, and indeed his exegetical theology stands tall centuries after he has passed into glory.  Trueman, a church historian and gifted writer, introduces Owen in this ten minute biographical sketch that is worth watching to know better this great pastor-theologian.  For more on Owen, see John Piper’s biographical sermon: The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness.

FAMILY, LIFE, & MINISTRY

What Should We Say About Gay Marriage?  A few weeks before President Obama made his public declaration to endorse Gay Marriage, Southern Baptist Pastor, Mark Dever, sat down with seminary president, Albert Mohler, to discuss the subject of marriage according to the Bible and in our culture.  This discussion recorded at Together For the Gospel, will give you a good handle on a number of the key points in the gay marriage debate, and how Christians can defend God’s design in marriage–one man, one woman, united by law, until death.

Don’t Be a Passive Reader.  N. D. Wilson, author of Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl and a handful of other well-regarded fiction books, gives his critical review of The Hunger Games.  His review is spot-on and shows that Christians who enjoy the book/movie are in need of reading the book with much greater sensitivity to the world in which we live.  His review reminds us that when we read, watch, or listen to any sort of entertainment, we are imbibing a worldview (that is probably not inspired by the Holy Spirit) and thus we need to read pro-actively.  Beware of being a passive reader.  It may be more dangerous than the hunger games themselves.


May God use these resources to grow you in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

George Smeaton on Christ’s Own System of Hermeneutics

Ever wonder how the apostle’s developed their particular brand of Christ-centered hermeneutics?  This has been a frequently-discussed and hotly-debated subject over the last few years.  Numerous books have addressed the subject.  For instance, Greg Beale, ed. The Wrong Doctrine from the Right Texts?; Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period; Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim; Sidney Greidnaus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament are a handful of them.

Yet, perhaps the best answer I have found goes back nearly 150 years.  In the opening pages of his book, The Apostles’ Doctrines of the Atonementnineteenth century New Testament theologian, George Smeaton, answers this question: How did the apostles develop their hermeneutics.

Without batting an eye, he turns to the forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples between his resurrection and ascension.  He posits that the “Lord’s system of hermeneutics” was passed on to these inspired authors and that in every instance where the disciples spoke of the terms, concepts, and types found in the Old Testament, they did so as learned pupils of their master teacher–Jesus Christ.

Smeaton’s quotation is lengthy, but well worth pondering.

But the fresh instruction which they received from personal interviews with the Redeemer subsequently to the resurrection must next be noticed.  This oral instruction received from the lips of the risen Lord is certain as to the matter of fact, and on many grounds was indispensably necessary.  Nor was it limited to the eleven alone.  Paul, too, received it at a later day, when he took rank among the apostles as one born out of due time.  How far the oral instruction of the risen Redeemer extended, it may be difficult for us to say.  Whether or not it comprehended all the great articles of divine truth, it certainly extended to the atonement (Luke xxiv. 25).  This was to be the substance and foundation of all their preaching [1 Cor 2:2], and it was indispensably necessary for them to possess the most accurate knowledge of it.  One object, therefore, which the Lord had in view during those forty days’ sojourn with the disciples after His resurrection, was to open their understandings in the course of these personal interviews, to apprehend with all possible precision the nature of His death–its necessity, consituent elements, and efficacy; against which, in every form, they had long entertained the most invincible prejudice.  He now made all things plain, showing that the Christ must have suffered these things.

How they were introduced into the theology of the Old Testament is specially worthy of notice.  A due consideration of this point serves to bring out one most important fact, viz. that Christ’s oral expositions are to be taken as THE MIDDLE TERM, or as the connecting link between Old Testament records on the one hand, and the apostolic commentary on the other.  In a word, He was Himself the interpreter of Scripture, and of His own history, in the course of those oral communications.  In the book of Acts, and in the epistles, we find numerous interpretations of the prophecies, as well as of the types and sacrifices which owe their origin to this source.  The evangelist Luke relates, that on the first resurrection-day, upon the Emmaus road, in order to instruct the two disciples with whom He entered into conversation, the Lord, beginning at Moses and all the prophets, expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27); that is, He led them to a full survey of the typology and of the prophetical system of the Old Testament Scriptures.  The same evening He reviewed the whole subject not less fully in presence of the eleven and other disciples, expounding them how the Old Testament Scriptures received their fulfillment in Himself, and  opening all that related to His death and resurrection. . . . The evangelist [Luke] mentions that His exposition extended to the Law of Moses, to the Prophets, and to the Psalms.  The allusion to the Law of Moses recalls the whole range of typical theology–the sacrifices, the priestly institute, and the temple services.  The allusion to the prophets reminds us of the wide field of Messianic prophecy, form the first promise in the garden of Eden to the last of the prophets.  The allusion to the Psalms recalls those utterances which were put beforehand into the mouth of the suffering Messiah in a series of psalms in which the Lord Jesus found Himself.  He thus, in all these three divisions of Scripture, supplied them with the key which served to unlock what had never been so fully understood before in reference to His atoning death.

These invaluable expositions, which may be called in the modern phrase the Lord’s own system of hermeneutics, formed the apostles to be interpreters of the Old Testament, directing them where and how to find allusions to the suffering Messiah.  Hence the certainty and precision with which they ever afterwards preceded to expound those holy oracles in all their discourses.  Although these comments from the lips of the Messiah, have not been preserved to us in a separate form, they are doubtless to a large extent wrought into the texture of Scripture; and under the apostle’s allusions to the Old Testament we may read the Lord’s own commentary.  These expositions, whereby He opened their understandings to understand the Scriptures, introduced the apostles into the true significance of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44), throwing light on the two economies [Old and New], and thus bringing in the authority of Christ to direct them in all their future career.  His sanction is thus given to the apostolic interpretation of the Jewish rites; and we are warranted to say that we see the Lord’s own commentary underlying that of the apostles, whether we find allusion to the types, or to the prophecies, or to the Psalms, in their sermons and epistles.  These expositions made the apostles acquainted with the doctrine of the atonement, in its necessity and scope, in its constituent elements and saving results.  The apostles received the fullest instruction from the lips of their risen Lord; and on this theme it appears that the instruction was subject to none of the reserves which checked their curiousity upon another occasion, when they would make inquiries as to points bearing on the future of His kingdom (Acts 1:7).  (George Smeaton, The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 4-7)

If you are not familiar with Smeaton, you should be.  He is a model exegete and a learned theologian.  In his day, he was the foremost New Testament scholar in Scotland and maybe beyond.  His two volumes on the atonement of Jesus Christ are excellent as is his reading of the gospels and the epistles.

May we continue to see Christ in all Scripture and faithfully show others how the Old and New Testaments are united in him.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Speaking of the Trinity

Keith Johnson, in his insightful new book, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralismprovides a concise survey of Augustine’s trinitarian theology.  He marks four traits about Augustine that are often obscured or slanted (52-55):

(1) Key to Augustine’s understanding of the trinity was the “inseparable operation” of the divine persons, meaning that in creation and salvation all members of the trinity were at work together–the Father as the Father, the Son as the Son, the Spirit as the Spirit.

(2) Augustine’s massive volume on the trinity is grounded in Scripture.  In fact, the first seven chapters are pure exegesis, and in hiw whole work he cites 6,800 biblical citations and allusions!  Despite contrary opinion, he is not a speculative theologian.  He cites from every book in the New Testament, minus Philemon, and twenty-seven Old Testament books as he makes a biblical, theological argument for the Trinity in chapters 1-7 and then as he considers how we might make sense of the Trinity in chapters 8-15 of the De Trinitate.

(3) “Despite popular claims to the contrary,” Johnson states, “Augustine’s teaching does not stand in sharp contrast to the trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians” (54).  Cf. Lewis Ayre’sAugustine and the Trinity.

(4) Augustine’s doctrine progresses over time.  Since his classic work took two decades to produce (AD 400-420), there is development in his understanding.  Johnson cites Ayres, “Augustine moves ‘towards a sophisticated account of the divine communion as resulting from the eternal intra-divine acts of the divine three” (Augustine and the Trinity3).

Two Rules By Which Augustine Interpreted Trinitarian Texts.

After presenting these basics, Johnson outlines three material ways that Augustine approached difficult texts about the Son.  He provides a handful of hermeneutical “rules” that serve current interpreters well as they come to the difficulty of reconciling passages that say things about God that seem to be in tension.

Combining these two rules, New Testament references to Christ can be grouped into three categories: (1) texts that refer to Son in the ‘form of God,’ in which he is equal to the Father (e.g., Jn 10:30; Phil 2:6); (2) texts that refer to the Son in the ‘form of a servant,’ in which he is ‘less’ than the Father (e.g., Jn 14:28); and (3) texts that suggest the Son is from the Father (e.g., Jn 5:19, 26)” (De Trinitate, 2.3, 98) (Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism62).

Keith Johnson summarizes a hermeneutical rule that Augustine employed to discern different way in which Scripture spoke about the two natures of Christ:

In the form of God, Christ created all things (Jn 1:3), while in the form of a servant he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4).  In the form of God, Christ is equal to the Father (Jn 10:30), while in the form of a servant he obeys the Father (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, Christ is ‘true God’ (1 Jn 5:20), while in the form of a servant he is obedient to the point of death (Phil 2:8).  These two ‘forms’ exist in one person–the Son of God (De Trinitate, 1.28, 86) (Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism60).

Last, Johnson points out another ‘rule’ that Augustine used to handle texts that speak of the Father sending the Son, or texts which speak of the Son coming from the Father.  Commenting on John 5:19, 26, Augustine observes,

So the reason for these statements can only be that the life of the Son is unchanging like the Father’s, and yet is from the Father [v. 26]; and that the work of the Father and Son is indivisible, and yet the Son’s working is from the Father just as he himself is from the Father [v. 19]; and the way in which the Son sees the Father is simply by being the Son (De Trinitate2.3, 99; quoted by Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism62).

In general, these ‘rules’ while not commanded in Scripture, come from someone who is saturated with the Bible, and who models well an approach to understanding the Trinity from the text of the Bible.  Next time you read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Philippians 2:5-11, or John 5, 8, or 10 consider how these rules might serve your understanding of the glorious relationship between Father and Son.

And if you have never read, Augustine’s De Trinitate, it is worth the effort.  The first half is Bible-rich, while the second half engages in epistemic reflection on how we might best understand the Trinity through the use of analogies.  For Augustine, these analogies are not paradigmatic or authoritative, so much as they are ministerial.  They help him and put in words an  understanding of the three-in-one, even while each of the proposal ultimately fails.

May we have eyes to see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we read the Bible, not as blind monotheists, but as worshipers of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Biblical Interpretation Requires Both Testaments

At the close of his introduction to The Progress of RedemptionWillem Van Gemeren summarizes the need for including both testaments in our interpretation of the Bible. 

Interpretation also involves equal concern for the Old and New Testaments.  When the two parts of the Bible are held in careful balance, the continual tension between law and gospel, token and reality [VG’s terminology for shadow and substance], promise and fulfillment, present age and future restoration, Israel and the church, and earthly and spiritual only enhances a christological and eschatological focus.”  (Van Gemeren, The Progress of Redemption38)

As you read and study Scripture, be aware that a right understanding of the immediate text requires awareness of what came before it (antecedent theology–types, shadows, terms, and concepts), what time it is (where in the storyline is the passage), and where it is ultimately going (Christology and eschatology).  Only as we relate the trees to the forest will we gain an appreciation for both.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss