Reading the Psalms Canonically: Neither Undisciplined Allegory nor Christ-less Historicism

psalmsHow did we get the Psalms? And how do we get into the Psalms? Meaning, how do we apply the Psalms of ancient Israel to ourselves today? And in applying them, how do we avoid undisciplined allegory and mere historicism devoid of Christ?

These are important questions for reading the Psalms. And few have answered these questions better than Bruce Waltke.

In his essay, “A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms” (found in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, 3–18) he observes four historical phases in the development of the Psalms. And rightly, I believe, he helps us to see (1) how individual authors wrote Psalms, (2) how these Psalms were gathered into various collections (perhaps stored in Solomon’s temple), (3) how these collections were arranged at a later period by a (Levitical?) editor, and (4) how this collection of Psalms serves to point forward to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who has now come and fulfilled the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44–47). Continue reading

On Biblical Theology and Interpretation

Christ in OT“Jesus became the direct and primary source of the
church’s understanding of the Old Testament”
— David Dockery, “Typological Exegesis”
in Reclaiming the Prophetic Mantle, 174 —

If reading the Bible well is a passion for you, you will appreciate the reflections of these interpreters of Scripture.

 

The Text, the Whole Text, and Nothing But the Text. Willem VanGemeren is right when he argues that the historical-grammatical interpretation is the way to read the Bible on its own terms.

Hermeneutics refers to the manner in which we listen to the text, relate it to other texts, and apply it. Hermeneutics calls for a discipline of mind and heart, by which the student of Scripture may patiently study the biblical text in its various contexts, including historical, grammatical, literary, and cultural.  This approach is best known as historical-grammatical analysis. (Van Gemeren, The Progress of Redemption, 27)

The Textual Horizon is not Enough. And VanGemeren is also correct to caution against exegesis which fails to consider the larger framework of the Bible.

The problem with the historical-grammatical method, however, is that students of the Word may be tempted to think that they have control over the text when all they have done is examine its constituent parts—but what grasp do they really have of its message?  Only after seeing how the parts fit together and how they relate to the rest of the book and to the rest of Scripture can the student master the clear message of the text.  Proper exegetical theology, therefore, requires synthesis. . . .

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, 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 Redemption, 29, 38) Continue reading

Reading the Bible Better: What Makes a Valid Chiasm?

chiasm_textStructure is not simply artificial device or literary elegance. It is a key to meaning. Oversight of structure may result in failure to grasp the true theme.
— Ernst Wendland —

This week, I enjoyed participating in my second Simeon Trust workshop. To those who teach the word regularly I can think of few ways to invest three days that will encourage and equip you more in your “Word work.” (You can also find great resources on their website).

At our workshop we focused on Prophetic literature, specifically on the book of Isaiah. Therein, the topic of finding a text’s structure was discussed, which brings us to the point of this post: chiasms.

Chiasms are literary structures that shape the words of Scripture in a X-like manner (hence, chiasm for the Greek letter X [Chi]). That is, chiasms work like a series of concentric circles, with an outer ring (A, A’), an inner ring(s) (B, B’), and an emphasized center (C). For instance, Jonah 1 presents a chiasm, with multiple layers.

A The LORD HURLED a storm (4)
A1 The mariners were afraid and joined YHWH in hurling cargo (5a)
A2 Jonah was unafraid and went down to sleep (5b)
B The captain confronted Jonah with God’s Words (‘Arise, call out …)
C The sailors query Jonah (7–8)
D Jonah identifies himself (9)
E The sailors are exceedingly afraid (10a)
       10b                  X Fleeing the Presence of the LORD = God’s Discipline
                           E’ The sailors want to know what they can do (11)
D’ Jonah suggests that the sailors drown him – repent? (12)
C’ The sailors try to save him and themselves (13)
B’ The sailors call out to YHWH ‘let us not perish’ (14)
A’ The men HURLED Jonah into the sea – the storm stopped (15)
A1’ The men feared YHWH exceedingly (16)
A2’ Jonah was swallowed by a fish (17)

(For other chiasms see Genesis 1–11Matthew 3:1–4:17; 1 Corinthians 11–14).

While most acknowledge the use of chiasms in Scripture, there is greater disagreement on what designates a true chiasm. Put into the form of a question: How do we know when a passage is truly “chiastic” and not just the literary creation of the interpreter? What validates a chiasm? Continue reading

The Bible in American Public Life: Two Lessons from Mark Noll’s New Book

nollMark Noll’s new book, In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783is a fascinating look at Scripture role in forming the influencing individuals during the first three centuries of the American Experiment. He opens, “It is no exaggeration to claim the Bible has been—and by far—the single most widely read text, distributed object, and in reference book in all of American history” (1). Because of its central place in the personal, social, and political thought life of America—not to mention its spiritual and religious influence—the Bible has given language and leverage for all kinds of actions in American history.

This is the goal of Noll’s book, to show how self-conscious biblicism translated into the public square. He begins with the Bible’s impact in England and follows it across the Atlantic, showing how the move from British Christendom to American colonialism shaped the way Americans read the Bible. As he has demonstrated in his other books (especially, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln and The Civil War as Theological Crisis), America’s political crises and military engagements (e.g., the Revolutionary and Civil Wars) deeply shaped America’s reading of the Bible. Continue reading

Feeding on the Bible: An Approach to Bible Reading for Those Who Don’t

bibleThere is a curious condition I have found among many who regularly attend church. I’ll call it personal, spiritual malnutrition. It is the regular pattern of NOT reading the Bible that many in church experience.

I can’t tell you how many times I have sat down with someone who regularly attends church, knows much about the Bible, who expresses love for Jesus and trust in the gospel, but who doesn’t read their Bible. If pressed, they know they should, and often they have tried to read their Bible, but for a variety of reasons, they have not committed to that spiritual discipline.

This is a perilous condition and one that is “curious” because of how central God’s word is in making a Christian.

James 1:18 says, God saves us by his word: “He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Likewise, 1 Peter 1:23 concurs: “since you have been born again, . . . through the living and abiding word of God.” And Romans 10:17 clarifies the picture that this word-generated life comes through the “hearing of the word.” In other words, anyone who professes to be a Christian must have become such by the Word.

Next, the Scriptures repeatedly speak of God’s Word as life-giving nutriment. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man does not live by bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Matthew 4:4). The Bible is not a trifling thing; it is our life, Moses says (Deuteronomy 32:47). What food is to the body, Scripture is to the soul. A newborn infant cannot live apart from his mother’s milk, and neither can the child of God survive without God’s Word.

And yet, there is a whole category of Christians who survive on secondary sources. A weekly sermon, a favorite iPod preacher, a few memorized verses (usually disjointed from context), a popular book or two, hours of Christian radio, and a variety of other Christian-ish props. But no personal Bible reading.

It is to them (and their pastors) I pen this post. Continue reading

Finding Life “According to Your Word”: What Psalm 119 Says to Tired, Doubting Souls

lifePsalm 119 is a elongated exaltation of the truth, beauty, and goodness of God’s Word. In twenty-two stanzas it leads the reader to consider all the ways in which God’s Word intersects our lives. There are dozens of themes to consider, but one that stands out is the way in which the Word mediates and regulates our relationship with God.

While most systematic theologies present the doctrine of God’s Word in categories of inspiration, authority, sufficiency, clarity, and inerrancy, Psalm 119 speaks of the Word in purely existential terms. He commends us to pick and read—Tolle Lege!—because of what the Word has promised and produced in his own life. Psalm 119 is devotional theology of the highest quality, and for those struggling to get into the Word of God, it’s praise for God’s Word may be the very thing a tired and doubting soul needs to (re)turn to the Word. Continue reading

Believing and Belonging: Which is the Source for True Fellowship?

fellowsThe next time you read through the books of Acts, underline every time you find the word “believe.” At the same time, circle every time you find a mention of the Scriptures, the word, or preaching. What you will soon discover is how radically committed the New Testament church was to proclaiming the Word of God and calling for belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Everywhere the apostles went they proclaimed the Word. Empowered by the Spirit, they were called to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). Indeed, filled with the Spirit they fulfilled their calling of proclaiming the Word (Acts 4:31). As a result, in just a few short decades churches were planted all over the Mediterranean. And within three centuries, the early church would become the dominant world religion. Continue reading

Five Truths About the Sinfulness of Sin

sinThe sinfulness of sin, to borrow Ralph Venning’s language, is beyond our natural comprehension. Born in sin (Ps 51:4), we are unable to see the sinfulness that engulfs our hearts, minds, decisions, and daily activities. Because we love sin so much, we do not even realize the way we manufacture and fondle our idols. Only with the light of God’s Word can we begin to see what sin is, and only as the Spirit illumines our minds do we begin to see our darkness.

Indeed, simply to know truth about sin does in no way eviscerate the presence of sin in our lives, but it is a start. Truth about sin is necessary for putting sin to death. Such knowledge is not sufficient to grow in holiness, but it is necessary for sanctification. With that hope in mind, I have listed out five points regarding the (1) prevalence, (2) power, (3) pervasiveness, (4) partnership, and (5) pleasure of sin.

May God use these biblical truths to help you and I understand the enemy that lives within that we might cry out with greater earnestness for the grace that pardons sin and the power to say no to sin. Continue reading

Food for Thought: Competing Visions of Heaven

heaven2What would a trip to heaven look like?

In 2004, Baker Books decided to test-run a book about one man’s trip to heaven. The book was Don Piper’s Ninety Minutes in Heaven. In ten years, his book has sold over 6 million copies, been translated 46 times, and prompted a whole new genre of “Christian “ book—heavenly tourism.

I put “Christian” in quotes because even as visions of heaven are known in Scripture, the descriptions are nothing like the visions described in newfangled spiritual journeys. In fact, it is worth asking: What should we think about  Heaven is for Real, Ninety Minutes in Heaven, Twenty-three minutes in Hell, etc.? Let me offer five thoughts.

First, descriptions of heaven are superfluous to and compete with the Bible.

There are a number of times in Scripture when God’s word speaks of prophets and apostles entering God’s heavenly court. However, in the case of Isaiah (Isa 6), Paul (2 Cor 12), and John (Revelation), their vision became recorded Scripture. This is categorically different from the accounts offered by Piper, Burpo, and others. In a world of competing sound bytes, these books add to Scripture’s testimony of what to know and believe about God, heaven, and how we get there.

Likewise, for those raised back to life, Scripture has no record of their experience. Apparently, God’s sufficient word did not (and does not) need such testimony. In fact, in Jesus’ parable with the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Jesus makes it clear that if earth-dwellers “do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” In context, this has direct application to Jesus death and resurrection, but it also relates to near death experiences today. If Heaven is for Real is considered a way to engender faith in those who won’t read the Bible, such thinking is a vain invention of man, not the ways of God. The Spirit (who inspired the Word) will do nothing to undermine the authority of the Scripture.

Second, in Scripture heavenly visions were accompanied by great afflictions.

John was not brought into heaven until his tortured exile on Patmos; when Isaiah left God’s throne room, he was tasked with proclaiming the ‘gospel’ to a nation who wouldn’t believe (Isa 6:9–11). And in Paul’s case, the apostle declared that a messenger from Satan accompanied his visions, so as to keep him from becoming conceited (2 Cor 12:7). By contrast, the recent heavenly accounts have brought acclaim, book contracts, and movie deals. There might be some slight discomforts that followed, but thorns sent from Satan himself? I’m doubtful. When we reconsider the places in Scripture where Paul, John, and Isaiah encounter God, it is apparent that the comparison is apples and oranges.

Third, God’s revelation always exalts Scripture and Jesus Christ.

In 2 Peter 1, Peter speaks of the origin of Scripture as arising from the Spirit and not man (vv. 19–21). Strikingly, he contrasts his own vision of glory with that of the OT. He says that the inspired word is more reliable than his own experience with the divine. Such apostolic humility gives us pause when we hear others speaking (and getting paid to speak) of their experience, especially when their message is more about heaven than Jesus. While Scripture is a radically, Christ-centered book (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), these new bestsellers focus more on heaven, than Jesus. And yet, what would heaven be like without Jesus? In a word, it would be hell! Indeed, for Christians, Christ is our heavenly hope. Or more put more starkly: Heaven is Christ.

Fourth, why are we convinced that uninspired heavenly visions are from God?

Since we know Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 10:4), why would be surprised that in these days, the father of lies would seek to lead astray the elect of God, as Jesus says in Matthew 24:22, 24, 31? Would it not be a stratagem of Satan to concoct a series of visions that feign heaven, but without mentioning the gospel? Satan is very happy for people to believe in heaven and the afterlife, especially if takes them away from God’s Word or it increases the likelihood that they would begin looking for the sensational in life, instead of life in Scripture (cf. Deut 32:47). In other words, if Satan’s goal is to distance Christians from the truth God’s Word, why wouldn’t he use heavenly tourism as a way creating a taste for something less than Christ himself?

Fifth, and most importantly, heavenly visitations are superfluous for the believer who worships every Sunday.

Though we don’t often speak this way, when Christians assemble for worship, they visit heaven every Lord’s Day. Or better, heaven visits them. According to Hebrews 12, when believers gather in the name of Jesus, they are Spiritually and literally (if not bodily), gathering around the throne of Christ. Read Hebrews 12:22–24.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 

It doesn’t say, “And you will come to Mount Zion” in the future; it speaks in the present tense: “You have come . . .”

When believers gather to worship, the Spirit of Jesus is present. When the Scriptures are read and preached rightly, Jesus, who sits in heaven, speaks on the earth. When the congregation sings a new song (i.e., a song of salvation), they are joining with the angels. And when we lift our hears in prayer, we are entering the very throne room of God. Sadly, too many Christians forget that they “travel” to heaven every week. As a result, they are vulnerable to the exotic testimonies of others.

In the end, heavenly tourism, as sold at the local Wal-Mart, is deficient, dangerous, and possibly even demonic. It competes with the way in which God has spoken, and it leads believers and unbelievers alike to put confidence in the words of men and experiences that stand outside of Scripture. All in all, it is a kind of literature that is not needed and should be avoided. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness in God’s word (2 Pet 1:3). The question for each of us is, “Do we have an appetite for the things of God, or are we content to settle for visions of heaven that speak little of the gospel?”

For more on visits to heaven, read David Jones four-page outline on ‘Near Death Experiences.’ It will give you more than a few things to think about and help you formulate a better understanding of what Scripture says about heaven, seeing God, and near death experiences.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

 

What’s Going on in Genesis 1–11?

genesisSince Julius Wellhausen suggested that the first five books were not written by Moses, there has been an endless discussion between biblical scholars about the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Some have suggested that it is a compilation document written over time from the various viewpoints of various redactors. For others, its poetic form proves that it is mythological account of creation, on par with other pagan etiologies. However, following the likes of G. K. Beale, it seems best to see any interaction between Moses and other ancient Near Eastern religions (and there certainly was familiarity and interaction) as polemical attempts to esteem Yahweh-Elohim as the sovereign creator of all things.

There are many reasons for affirming the historical nature of Genesis 1-11 and the singular authorship of Moses, but perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring is the literary arrangement of Genesis 1–11. Borrowing from the observations of others, let me suggest two suggestive patterns in Genesis 1-11 that show how carefully Moses, schooled in Egypt and inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote a record of Creation, Fall, Judgment, Salvation, and New Creation. Continue reading