‘Do Not Muzzle the Ox’: A Logical, Intertextual, and Eschatological (but not Allegorical) Reading of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9

 

paulDo I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop,
– 1 Corinthians 9:8–10 –

When Jesus describes the value of the sparrow in Luke 12 and says, “Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows” (v. 7) is he speaking allegorically? What about when he tells the elaborate parable about the four soils (Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23) or the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43)? The answer will depend on how you define ‘allegory,’ but most will not see Jesus’ comparison with the sparrows as an allegory, even as many do see Jesus parable as incorporating allegorical elements.[1] What makes the difference? And do we rightly read allegory, without allegorizing?

Allegorical Literature vs. Allegorical Interpretation

In truth, there are in Scripture elements of allegory. When Jesus explains some of his parables by saying, “The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” (Matthew 13:38–39), he is speaking in allegory. Allegory by definition is

A work of literature in which many of the details have a corresponding “other” meaning. The basic technique is symbolism in the sense that a detail in the text stands for something else. Interpreting an allegorical text must not be confused with allegorizing the text. To interpret an allegorical text is to follow the intentions of the author. Allegorizing a text  implies attaching symbolic meanings to a text  that was not intended by the author to be allegorical.[2]

This distinction between between allegorical literature (e.g., The Pilgrim’s Progress) and allegorical methods of interpretation (e.g., Origen’s approach to the Bible) is one of the most confused and confusing aspects of modern evangelical hermeneutics. To be sure, Scripture includes multiple instances of allegory.

  • When Jotham told his story of the bramble who would be king, he used allegory (Judges 9).
  • When Nathan confronted David in his sin with Bathsheba, he employed allegory (2 Samuel 7).
  • When Jesus told his parables he often intended for one element (“the field”) to stand for another (“the world”).
  • Paul even understands the story of Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16ff) to be written “allegorically” (Galatians 4).[3]

In each of these instances, the author’s intent is allegorical. Therefore, the extant literature is allegorical, which requires any literal method of interpretation (i.e., one that aims to understand and reproduce the authorial intent) to read the passage “allegorically.” But—and this is where the confusion comes in—in reading the biblical allegory, we must not allegorize the text. And even more, we must not adopt an allegorical method because we find some allegories in Scripture.

But this brings us to the text in question (1 Corinthians 9:8–10): Did Paul use an allegorical method in his quotation of Deuteronomy 25:4? And if he is allegorized a passage from the law—a genre not given to allegory—can we do the same? Or did he, like Jesus with the sparrows, make a simple comparison between oxen and men? Or did he do something else entirely?

Logical, Intertextual, Eschatological: Tracing Paul’s Argument

Following the lead of John Calvin, Richard Hays, and others, I will argue that Paul’s use of the verse is (1) very logical in its structure (not fanciful), (2) very textual (not twisting the original context of Deuteronomy), and (3) very theological (specifically, eschatological). But in no way is it allegorical. Continue reading

Literal, Christological, Spiritual: A Look Into Calvin’s Approach to Hermeneutics and Preaching

calvinWhat is our aim in preaching?  What should it be?

This is a debated question among preachers who share many of the same evangelical convictions—namely, the authority and sufficiency of Christ. Some argue for a “text-driven approach,” which gives pride of place to timeless truths of the text discovered through a rigorous grammatical-historical approach to the text. Others call for an “apostolic” or “redemptive-historical” approach, where the methods of the apostles are imitated.

Often the former critiques the latter of reading into the text, appealing too much to typology, even straying into allegory. (Full disclosure: I think this argument is a red herring. It applies to some who advocate a figural approach to Scripture. But it falls flat against interpreters like Richard Gaffin and G.K. Beale). By contrast, those who read with an eye to the redemptive-historical nature of Scripture, worry that exegesis which only reads passages at the textual level and makes direct application (e.g., drawing ethical principles from Boaz’s treatment of Ruth) misses the Christological aims of Scripture—not to mention, the way any passage fits into the context of the whole Bible (what is known as the “canonical context”).

Space doesn’t permit a full discussion here. Two helpful books that engage this subject are the edited volume by G.K. Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text? Essays on the New Testament Use of the Oldand the multi-perspective book Biblical Hermeneutics: Five ViewsThese books will show the turning points in the debate. For now, let me put forward a mediating approach which takes the best of both positions, one historically modeled by John Calvin. Continue reading

Loving God By Loving Others (1 Corinthians 8:7–13)

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A chapter on “meat sacrificed to idols” may not, at first glance, look like the most relevant subject for us modern technophiles, but as is always the case—the eternal Word of God is living and active and never dull in bringing piercing insight to our lives. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses the strong and weak consciences of the Corinthian believers and challenges those with “knowledge” (a key idea in this chapter) to use that gift to care for and edify their weaker members in the church.

This chapter is one of a few key passages that deal with conscience (the others include Romans 14–15; Galatians 2; and Colossians 2). It also shows how love must be worked out in matters where Scripture does not give a specific command. From the love God has shown us in Christ, we are to love in steadfast and sacrificial ways, to people who are not like us, with the goal of spiritual unity and edification.

In preparation for this message I found great help from a book on the conscience (Conscience by Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley) and from considering the the nature of idolatry and meals in Corinth. You can find a few reflections on Naselli’s book here and notes on the culture here.  For further reflection, you can listen to the sermon, read the sermon notes, or discuss the questions and resources below. Continue reading

Calvinism in Context: 1 Corinthians 8:11

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And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed,
the brother for whom Christ died.
— 1 Corinthians 8:11 —

When Paul confronted the Corinthians for eating meat sacrificed to idols, he warns that their carelessness threatens to “destroy” their brothers. In the context of 1 Corinthians 8, Paul uses this warning to motivate followers of Christ with greater “knowledge” (i.e., stronger consciences) to think twice before eating meat sacrificed to idols in the presence of younger believers whose consciences have not been so trained. This is the literary context. In the context of theological debates, however, this verse serves another purpose—namely that this verse proves general atonement, the belief that Christ died for all humanity without exception.

Convinced that Christ’s death effectively accomplished the salvation of his elect, a vast number beyond comprehension (see Revelation 7), I believe that it is errant to conclude 1 Corinthians 8:11 is a proof text for general or unlimited atonement. Rather, it is one of many verses that articulate a view of Christ’s death that is personally connected to a people the father gave him before the foundation of the world (cf. John 17). But instead of making a theological case, let’s consider the context of 1 Corinthians 8 to see what Paul says and how his language informs this theological debate. Continue reading

Considering the Conscience: A Book Review

conscienceAlready in this election cycle we’ve heard a great deal about the conscience. Religious liberty stands or falls with ones ability to speak and act according to conscience. Likewise, many political commentaries have spoken about the conscience with regards to voting. Some, like Wayne Grudem, have made a matter of moral obligation to vote for Donald Trump. Others, like Andy Naselli, have explained why his conscience cannot vote for the not-so-conservative “conservative” choice.

In truth, we are going to hear a great deal more about the conscience. But what is it? And how does a biblical understanding of the conscience help us in these difficult times—in our voting and more to be at peace with brothers or sisters in Christ who hold different views of the political landscape. Again, Naselli is helpful, as he and J.D. Crowley have written a book on the subject: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, And Loving Those Who Differ.

In what follows I provide an overview of their book that both encapsulates some of their key points and hopefully whets your appetite to consider further this important topic. Continue reading

Like the Breaking of the Dawn: How Faith, Prayer, and the Holy Spirit Bring Spiritual Illumination

morningIn the Gospels, the disciples of Christ often appear as experts in missing the point. While seeing, they don’t yet see. Like an untrained miner, they do not yet possess and appreciation for the jewel that stands before them. Christ is the pearl of great price, the treasure of incomparable value. Yet, it took time for the disciples to perceive who Christ was and how he was bringing the kingdom of God.

The same might be true today. Although, we do not physically see Jesus Christ, we inhabit a world where the Spirit of Christ has been sent. While Christ’s absence may constitute some disadvantage to our understanding, the gift of the Spirit is a far greater advantage. As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

Thus, contrary to what we might think, to have the Spirit of Christ in this age is better than having the physical Christ. For to have the Spirit is to have Christ and the Father—for he is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. And more, in having the Spirit of Truth, we have One who opens our blinded eyes, convicts our dull souls, and enables us to see and believe in the Lord. Indeed, by the Spirit-inspired Word of God we have access to knowing in ways the disciples struggled to grasp. Continue reading

Loving the One, True, Triune God (1 Corinthians 8:1–6)

sermon photoIn the Gospels, Jesus says the “Great Commandment” is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself (e.g., Mark 12:29–30). Indeed, it is impossible to love God and hate others (1 John 4:20–21). Just the same, it is ultimately unloving to do good to others without reference to the God of love; true love labors and suffers to increase another’s joy in the love of God.

This week our sermon considered this intersection, how knowing God means loving God and then loving others. In the context of 1 Corinthians 8, love for God looks like rejecting culturally-acceptable idols and sacrificing our own rights to serve the needs of others, especially our church family. You can listen to the sermon here or read the outline here.

Below you can find discussion questions and further resources on the love of God and fighting idolatry in our day. Continue reading

How the Lord’s Supper Retrains Our Appetites

fooWhere should we eat? What should we eat? Where’s the best place to eat?

Whether we take time to think about it or not, questions about food come up every day. Wherever you live, food plays a large part in who we are. Restaurants are often associated with various countries, ethnicities, or even religious practices. Shall we eat at the Mexican grocery or the Kosher deli? Is this food on my diet? Where did it come from?

How we eat—or refuse to eat—says a lot about us. In a sense, we are all foodies—even if you prefer McDonald’s over the farmer’s market. Or to turn it around, dietary practices and table fellowship shape who we are. Studies have shown that children thrive on family dinners, while rigid commitment to veganism may result in deeper relationships with other herbivores and increased disgust with carnivores.

In these ways, food choices are ethical decisions. Eating is an undeniably moral activity. Therefore, as we sit down to “eat” the Lord’s Supper, we should ask: How does Scripture speak about food?
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When Evil Solicits Your Vote: Six Lessons from Judas’ Betrayal

 

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Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?
— James 4:3 —

Going back to Cain (Genesis 4), evil has always positioned itself right outside our doors looking to destroy. But recently, Christians in America have faced new challenges. In a country that continues to trample first amendment rights and eviscerate religious liberty, there is great temptation to do anything to maintain our place in the public square. I value that endeavor and lament the way Christians are being threatened in public, but I wonder if we are not being tempted to overcome evil with evil—or at least, the lesser of two evils.

What follows began as a study in Matthew, not an attempt to speak into the political fray. But as I considered the actions of Judas, I couldn’t help but think about Christians who are using (or being tempted to use) their proximity to Jesus as a means of securing our worldly standing. In truth, as Psalm 118:8–9 says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

With that truth in mind, I share a few observations about Judas that I pray will protect us from putting confidence in earthly princes, and instead will steel our resolve to take refuge in Christ. Continue reading

15 Disciplines of a Loving Church (1 Corinthians 5–7)

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After spending the last eight weeks (JuneJuly) looking at Paul’s instructions on sex, singleness, marriage, divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 5–7, we pulled back the lens yesterday to see how these three chapters inform our understanding of church discipline.  As Jonathan Leeman argues in The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love“local church membership and discipline . . . define God’s love for the world” (17).

In our sermon, we too considered from the text of 1 Corinthians how a church displays love through church discipline. If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, please listen to or read the sermon and read this article on objections to church discipline.

(If you are still not convinced, order Leeman’s book and a set of steak knives. The fusion of holy love and church life is a feast to consider, but it is not for the faint of heart. It is not a milky doctrine but true meat for the maturing disciple). Continue reading