Form versus function, revisited

DCF 1.0OK, let’s get back to the discussion of men and women in the church… soon. This weekend I downloaded Jay Guin’s e-book Buried Talents, and I’d like to at least familiarize myself with Jay’s work before going to much further. I deeply respect Jay and his approach to God’s Word. We are both members of the Church of Christ, so we not only share a common background, but a common present reality. I’d like to hear his voice on this subject. I encourage you to download the free book and read it as well (I’d like to post a link to it, but Jay’s site doesn’t seem to be responding right now. You can find a link at

So let me review a concept that I think can be important as we look at all of this: the idea of form versus function. It’s the idea that, when studying biblical examples, we need to look not only at what was done but why it was done. What was the purpose of the action? Then we have to consider whether the same function can be fulfilled in better ways in our culture, or if the original form is so tied to the function that it should not be changed.

The classic example is foot washing. Foot washing was an act that conveyed a lot of meaning in the ancient world, particularly about social hierarchy and relationships. In short, it was something done by the person at the bottom of the totem pole, i.e. the least important person. (in the views of the ancient world, at least) When Jesus commanded his disciples to wash one another’s feet, he wasn’t merely addressing hygiene.

Foot washing is very different today. In our culture, it’s as likely to make the recipient uncomfortable as it is to please them. It rarely comes across as an act of service; more often than not, it communicates that someone wants to perform an artificial act of service. (I’m not talking about mutual foot washing assemblies; I know that those can be special, spiritual moments)

The function of foot washing can be better served by other acts of service in today’s culture.

I think the act of baptism is a form closely tied to its function. I have yet to see a better expression of the death and burial of the old man, as well as the beginning of the new life. While there can be much debate about its significance, baptism continues to be the form that best addresses its original function.

When we look at the New Testament letters, for example, the question really isn’t whether or not these are rules and regulations for the modern church. The question is what function did each teaching serve and how is that function addressed today.

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Bible-shaped culture or culture-shaped Bible?

Bible in the shadowI realize in talking with others that there are lots of different views as to how the Bible interacted with the culture of the people who wrote it. No surprise, I know, but I understand better now how that deeply affects how we read the Bible.

Some people, for example, take an extremely low view of Scripture. The Bible, for them, is merely a sacred text like other sacred texts written by ancient peoples. Prophecies were written after the fact and adjusted to fit what actually happened. Laws were written to give “divine sanction” to existing situations. The slaughter of other nations is justified by describing it as holy war, while attacks on one’s own people are an affront against God. Women are oppressed and slavery is upheld because the Bible was written to uphold the status quo.

Others see the Bible as coming down from heaven untainted by human culture. If the Bible says God has storehouses for snow, then there are some sort of heavenly structures filled with frozen precipitation, waiting to be sent. If God said not to trim the corners of the beard, then there’s a heavenly reason for that. Laws were not shaped around man; man was shaped around the laws.

Then there’s a myriad of views in between, seeing God as speaking to human culture within the framework of a specific historical context. Heavenly truths expressed through earthly means. God’s word for a particular situation needing to be translated into God’s word for our situation.

That’s why some look at demon possession and say “epilepsy.” Others look at teachings about greeting with a holy kiss and say, “Yes, but that was then.” Others will only take the Lord’s Supper in an upper room.

If you had to state your views on how the Bible shaped and was shaped by the culture of its time, what would you say?

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Those pesky chapter numbers!

01_Ge_08_13_RGOK, I let it happen again. Or, at least, I think I did. I let one of those big numbers printed in between the words of my Bible get in the way of my seeing something that’s obvious in the text.

It’s not a major theological point. But it’s worth looking at.

You remember when Noah got off the ark. After months of listening to animals, smelling animals, dealing with animals, Noah finally did what he’d been wanting to do. He took his knife to them.

Not just one animal. A bunch of them. The Bible says, “Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (Genesis 8:20)

Then the chapter ends with God promising never to destroy the earth. The rainbow is given as a sign of that.

Then we get that big number 9. New chapter. New context, right? Another day maybe. Another setting.

I don’t think so. What God says about Noah being allowed to eat meat is directly related to the fact that Noah has just butchered a bunch of animals and has them cooking on an altar behind him. (If you haven’t read John Mark Hicks’ Come to the Table, I highly recommend it. He is the one that showed me the obvious: many sacrifices in the Old Testament were designed as a fellowship meal between man and God.)

God is saying, “That sacrifice you made… eat any of it that you wish.* And feel free to do so in the future.”

*yes, I know, with certain guidelines about not eating blood, etc.

And I never caught that simple fact because I let the chapter number get in the way.

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The innovation that is the printed Bible

BibleThere was an article that made the rounds the last few weeks, talking about the importance of preachers carrying a traditionally-bound Bible into the pulpit instead of using an electronic version. Several of the arguments centered around the need for people to study out of a “normal” Bible.

I tend to disagree. I think we face some problems in the church because we’ve come to see the Bible in this format as normal. We kind of picture Paul whipping out his Leather study Bible and saying to the people in Troas, “Let’s turn to Romans chapter 8.”

The Mormons believe that Joseph Smith received the complete book of Mormon (and other works) and had divine guidance in translating the material. It’s a book written as a book and designed to be read as a book.

The Bible isn’t like that. It wasn’t written as one book; it was written as dozens of books. It wasn’t written to be read per se; it was written to be heard. The presupposition wasn’t that each church member would have his own copy to study from; it was assumed that the church would gather, hear Scripture read aloud, and discuss the meaning of the text.

What happens when we assume that the Bible has always been around in the form that it’s been in?

  • We assume that we can interpret Matthew based on Acts and Ephesians (to choose some books at random). We’re much safer in using Old Testament books to help us understand Matthew. We can’t assume that Matthew expected his readers to have access to other New Testament writings nor did he necessarily think they had received all the teachings contained in those books.
  • We let chapter and verse numbering get in the way, as well as headings that have been included in most printed Bibles. These study aids can be a great help, but they can get in the way at times, interrupting the natural flow of a biblical writer’s arguments.
  • We make individual Bible study the norm rather than group Bible study. I’m definitely in favor of personal Bible study; I do a radio program in Spanish called “Read The Bible,” seeking to help people read and study the Word of God. But I think we’ve forgotten that the Bible was designed to be a community book, shared and interpreted by the body of Christ.
  • We forget to hear the Word. Reading leads us to nitpick over jots and tittles; we need to be sure that we hear the Bible in a broader way.

What do you think?

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Nailed To The Cross

“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Colossians 2:13–14)

This has been one of the classic verses used against the Old Testament. I’ve mentioned before one of the horrible moments in my ministry, when one young man referred to the Psalms during a heated discussion at a men’s meeting. One older man, who had been in ministry for over 30 years, interrupted him, saying, “My Bible says that was nailed to the cross.”

Really? The Psalms were nailed to the cross? Is that what Colossians says?

Well… no, not at all. What was nailed to the cross?

The King James says “the handwriting of ordinances.” The word “handwriting” is cheirograph in Greek. That word appears nowhere else in the New Testament. However, the word is seen in some writings found in Egypt. In those writings, the word referred to an I.O.U., a record of debt. That reading makes sense in this context.

In an article about this verse, Bobby Valentine notes:

In Jewish apocalyptic there was an idea that there existed a book of records that kept track of our evil deeds. This book, like the mortgage (an I.O.U.) at the bank, provided powerful leverage with less than friendly spirit beings called principalities, powers, angels and the like. This book is mentioned often in Jewish literature of the time (1 Enoch 89.61-64; 108.7; Testament of Abraham 12.7-18; 13.9-14; and many other places). Enoch, for example, tells how he heard the words “write down every destruction {sin} … so that this may become testimony for me against them.” We have an IOU that stands against us and that IOU is our own sin debt. It is that sin that the malignant powers hold over us.

The translators of the ESV understood this passage to refer to a record of debt. They phrased it:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13–14)

But what if Paul were referring to the Law here? That doesn’t seem to fit with other passages where Paul quotes the Law as authoritative, but it is a possibility.

The removal of the Law from a position of opposition to Christians doesn’t mean that every writing before the cross loses validity for Christians. We have to remember that God’s Word is not merely a law book; it is a living, sacred document which teaches us about the nature of God and the way God’s people should live. I’m not talking the plan of salvation; I’m talking about sanctification.

It’s true that we are no longer under the Law of Moses. We no longer offer sacrifices. We await the eternal sabbath rather than keeping a weekly one. Our hope for salvation comes through Jesus and his sacrifice, not through law keeping.

That doesn’t mean that the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah suddenly cease to be God’s Word. That doesn’t mean that the lessons we learn from David and Moses and Abraham no longer hold truth. The Psalms still speak volumes about the nature of God and his creation.

It’s easy to confuse the Old Law with the writings we call the Old Testament. (remember that the term “Old Testament” wasn’t used to refer to Scripture until well into the second century) The Jews referred to the first five books of the Bible as the Law. If Paul really says that “the Law” is nailed to the cross, he is only referring to those books! And even at that, who among us thinks that the creation story was against us and needed to be nailed to the cross? Can anyone read Paul and think that he felt a need to nail Abraham’s story to the cross? Or the story of the exodus?

We need to read Colossians 2 as a celebration of Christ’s victory, not a proof text for dispensationalism. Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message can help us capture that feeling:

“Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate whiped clean, that old arrest warrant canceled and nailed to Christ’s Cross. He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.”