Studying the Bible until it hurts

bible studyWhen comparing ancient manuscripts of the Bible and trying to reconcile the differences between those manuscripts, one rule of thumb is that the hardest reading is often the original one. That is, one can see why a scribe would “correct” a text that says something difficult, but it’s less likely that they would take a simple statement and make it harder.

To some degree, I think the same applies to biblical interpretation. Not that we should seek obscure meanings or secret codes within the text. What I’m saying is that I trust someone’s conclusions more when I realize those conclusions aren’t necessarily what the person wants them to be.

It’s a bit like some news I heard the other day. A study found that a certain medication greatly reduces the risk of heart disease. The study was funded by the company that makes that medication. That makes me less likely to accept their findings as valid.

Years ago, when speaking about a now-defunct publication, one of my friends said, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Yay, the Bible finally says what we always wanted it to say.'”

I often hear someone say, “Here’s a great study about this topic.” Usually what they mean is that the study agrees with their position. Rarely are they enamored of the methodology; they like the outcome.

We need to be willing to study the Bible until it hurts. We need to follow Jesus not because he makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because he challenges us to re-examine every aspect of our life. We need to dig into the Bible until what we read makes us think, “Surely it can’t mean that.”

I’m pointing the finger at everyone else, but especially at me. It’s time for some painful Bible study.

Just how clueless were the biblical writers?

Apostle PualThe title to this post reflects a question that’s been growing in my mind as I read what many are writing about the Bible these days. Seemingly, the biblical writers were pretty clueless.

You know, like when the Pentateuch talks about God wanting people to offer sacrifice for sin. Fortunately, later writers (the prophets) corrected this misconception. There’s no sin between people and God. Just bad feelings and frustration. God didn’t want sacrifice. He just wants people to feel better.

And that talk about God being angry? That’s just ancient writers projecting their feelings into the text. God is love. God is forgiveness.

Hints that salvation is a privilege and not a right? Merely a reflection of the views of ancient people living near God’s people. God wants everyone to be happy and plans to save everyone. The apostles risked their lives preaching the gospel to let people know that they would be saved no matter what they did or believed.

And as clueless as the biblical writers were, I must be even more so. Because I just can’t wrap my mind around the rewrites of the Bible progressive Christianity offers. And I’m silly enough to think that inspiration counts for something. Go figure.

Law and Grace, Faith and Works

legalLast week we were looking at some unhealthy attitudes toward the Old Testament (and the Gospels, along the way). But it’s not just about the attitudes toward that (huge) section of Scripture. It’s really about how we look at the Bible itself.

For some people, the Bible is merely a book of rules, a legal code, the constitution for God’s Kingdom. Wade Tannehill said it well the other day:

But here is what has changed. The legal texts of Moses were in some cases highly detailed and prescriptive. Some would read the New Testament literature as if it were the same genre as the Book of the Covenant or the Holiness Code. This amounts to viewing the New Testament books, not as occasional literature written to aid disciples in a Christocentric reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, but as a flat law code of new legal stipulations for Christians.

Where the old law / new law dichotomy really misses the point is its misunderstanding of law in Scripture. Those seeking to understand the New Testament writings as a legal code are making a similar mistake to the Judaizers of old. The law is imagined to be in a position it was never intended to hold. The law has never been a means of salvation. No one has ever been saved by law-keeping, under any covenant. Salvation has always been by grace through faith.

Yes! Exactly. When we think that what Jesus did was substitute one written code for another, we fall into the trap that Paul condemned in the Galatian letter. When we depend on law, any kind of law, then we are no longer depending on grace. And that’s a dangerous thing: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)

I heard a man speak at a youth camp 30 years ago, presenting the argument that the New Law was merely an improvement on the Old Law. He argued that when Paul says we aren’t saved by works, he only means works of the Law of Moses;”obviously we are saved by works.”

No! The New Testament is not a revised copy of the Pentateuch. It’s about coming into a relationship with God through Christ, seeking to live out our lives as an imitation of our Redeemer. We do that not to be saved but because that’s who we were called to be.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Not saved by works, but created for works.

We don’t need a new legal code. We need a Savior.

So how’s your list of widows coming?

Continuing yesterday’s discussion (thanks for the comments!), I want to give a good example of how our conversations are shaped by our current situation. Churches of Christ are part of the stream of belief that is called the Restoration Movement. The Restoration Movement flourished in the United States in the 19th century, and many of the doctrines that we hold were shaped around what was and wasn’t practiced in churches in general at that time (particularly Presbyterian and Baptist).

I know that idea is distasteful to many, which is why I want to offer an example. My colleague, Steve Ridgell, is doing a series of blog posts on gender roles in churches of Christ. Yesterday he brought something that is rarely discussed: the list of widows, as described in 1 Timothy 5.

“Honor widows who are truly widows.” (1 Timothy 5:3)
“Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.” (1 Timothy 5:9–10)
“If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows.” (1 Timothy 5:16)

So there was to be a list of widows that would be honored and cared for by the church. (Context shows that this care includes financial support) These women were to be active in the church, and there seems to be an implication that they will be expected to continue to serve. Seemingly, according to verse 12, they made some sort of pledge of devotion to the church.

Do you know of any congregation that does this? Do you know of any congregation that has seriously discussed how to fulfill this?

My thought is that we are quick to dismiss this passage because it hasn’t been a part of our practice nor that of churches around us. We may talk about it out of curiosity, but few seek to practice it in any way, despite it meeting all of the standards that command-example-inference hermeneutics would demand.

Some would argue that the lack of clarity on the exact practice is what limits us, but shouldn’t that merely be a call for further study and investigation as to what Paul is talking about?

We don’t practice it because nobody practices it. Which means our beliefs come less from the Word than from the beliefs of those around us.

Or am I missing something?

photo by Ariadna on www.morguefile.com

Form versus function

As I read through the comments this week, I couldn’t help but think about a missiological principle, that of form vs. function. It has to do with what is done and why it is done.

We know that. We do. We feel comfortable substituting the holy kiss with the warm handshake. We look at John 13 and say that Jesus was teaching about service, not creating a new act of worship through washing feet. Many people feel that “raising holy hands” can be accomplished with the heart. [Sometimes we misuse the word “cultural” by saying “That’s just cultural.”]

There are other areas where we feel that the form and function are inseparable. Most feel that pizza and Sprite aren’t suitable replacements for the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Most members of the churches of Christ feel that water is an intrinsic part of baptism, to such a degree that the term “water baptism” sounds foreign to our ears.

How do we decide? How do we know when fulfilling the function is enough and when to insist on the exact form?