Reading the Bible Literally

Some years ago I read something scoffing at Christians for taking the Bible literally. One example the author used was the Bible’s speaking of the sun rising and setting, because of course we know that the Earth revolves around the sun: the sun itself doesn’t rise and set. Yet meteorologists use the terms sunrise and sunset every day. We understand in the English language what those terms mean while not taking them literally.

Taking the Bible literally means we don’t interpret it as myth or stories, even though it contains a few stories in it. But we understand the Bible uses different expressions of literature which are not strictly literal without detracting from an overall literal approach to the Bible. What are some of these literary devices?

Idioms. Terms like sunrise and sunset, as mentioned, or phrases like “kick the bucket,”  a somewhat slangish euphemism for dying. Making a “bucket list” capitalizes on that idiom to mean having a list of things one wants to experience or accomplish before dying. On a side note, I was amused recently to see someone take that a step further in an article on “my bucket list for the summer,” apparently not knowing the significance of the bucket in that phrase.

A couple of Biblical idioms:

  • The land of Canaan “flowing with milk and honey.” We understand that to mean plenty, not literal rivers of milk and honey.
  • To be “stiff-necked” or to stiffen the neck indicate stubbornness, not a need to see a chiropractor.

Metaphors. A simile compares two things using the phrase “like” or “as”: “Her smile is as bright as a summer day.” A metaphor does the same thing but without “like” or “as.” In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we have this famous metaphor: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

A few Biblical metaphors: ‘Behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song of Solomon 1:15b. “You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13a).

Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to something not human. “The flower lifted it face to the sun.” “The wind roared.”

Biblical examples: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). The Bible says that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and as such does not have body parts as we know them. Yet to communicate with us in ways we can understand, the Bible speaks as if He does. “ And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5). Psalm 17:6 says, “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.” Deuteronomy 33:27 says, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” We understand that to mean that God’s care is just as real as if He were literally holding us in his arms.

Personification is closely related to anthropomorphism, meaning to treat something abstract or inanimate as if it was human. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems personifies death: “Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality.”

Biblical example: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Proverbs 1:20-23).

Hyperbole exaggerates something for effect. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Biblical examples: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). “The cities are great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28b).

Poetry uses many of these devices, but poetry itself is often phrased in a non-literal way. To quote Emily Dickinson again:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Biblical examples: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God didn’t actual send in giant birds, a la The Lord of the Rings, but His care of them was just as if He did. “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10).

Parables are very short stories with a moral or religious meaning, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They differ from fables in that they have human characters and are plausible, whereas fables use animals, sometimes inanimate objects or nature, and are usually obviously fanciful.

In the Bible, Jesus’s teaching abounds with parables: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the sower, the good Samaritan, etc. But there are parables in other parts of the Bible as well, especially among the prophets, like the one Nathan told that convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba.

Symbols involve an item being used to represent something else, like a newscaster referring to the White House and meaning the government: “The White House issued a statement today…”

Revelation is full of symbols. The dragon and the beast, for instance, are not animals but evil people whose characters are represented by those beings. There has been argument over the elements of communion, or the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s table, for years, but it makes the most sense to believe that the elements of bread and wine are symbolic rather than actually containing the body and blood of Christ. One indication of this is the reaction of the disciples as they listened. They were not above questioning and even arguing with the Lord, but no one batted an eye at His statements at the last Supper, indicating that they didn’t think He was advocating cannibalism.

When we listen to the news, read nonfiction, or hear a speech, we can easily discern these literary devices, and we don’t dismiss everything else the speaker or writer says as symbolic or untrue because they use anthropomorphism or an idiom or a metaphor. We’re able to discern from the context whether certain phrases are literal or figurative, usually without even thinking about it, and we get the message the communicator is trying to convey.

I, for one, am glad the Bible uses different literary genres of devices rather than just giving us lists of facts and truths and teachings. Many of us “get” truth in different ways – some prefer it plainspoken, some benefit from a story or illustration. Hearing the same truth in the law, in a parable, in poetry, in prophecy, in an epistle, reinforces that truth to us.

The Bible uses these devices, but the Bible is not wholly a story or parable or fable. There are some who interpret the first two chapters of Genesis or all of Genesis or even the greater part of the Old Testament as myth. But much of the OT is literal history.

The better way to read the Bible is in an ordinary way like you would any other nonfiction, taking it as meaning what the words would ordinarily mean unless the context indicates it is figurative speech. For instance, there is nothing in the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation that indicate anything is meant other than normal 24 hour days. Sure, Peter says “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” but that doesn’t mean every time you see the word “day” in the Bible that it could possibly mean 1,000 years.The ordinary reading of this passage would indicate that creation took place in the span of a week. That’s certainly not beyond God’s power to do. Good people differ on this, and I don’t think anyone’s salvation hinges on whether they think the days in Gen. 1 and 2 are 24-hour days or eons. But I have read accounts where this is taken as mythic or symbolic that then skew other parts of the Bible to mean something quite different from what a more literal reading would indicate. Though good people can differ here and there on some of the fine points, overall a literal approach (except where obviously figurative) is the best.

And by saying that we read it in an ordinary way, I am not discounting that we need the Holy Spirit’s help to open our understanding. The Bible is a supernatural book and we need God’s help to understand it rightly. I just mean that we read it as literal unless it’s obviously figurative.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I am way past the time I allowed for this post, and it’s plenty long already.

A couple of other helpful articles are Taking the Bible Literally (though I’d disagree with him on a couple of points, like hell) and Do Faithful Christian Take the Bible Literally?

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival, Tell His Story, Faith on Fire)

Advertisements

Thoughts on the MacArthur ESV Study Bible

MacArthur ESVI mentioned in my last Nightstand post that I had finished reading the ESV version of the MacArthur Study Bible but wasn’t planning to review it. How do you review a Bible, after all? But one friend said she’d like to hear my thoughts about it. So here goes.

I’d like to discuss it in two parts: the ESV version and then MacArthur’s notes.

The subject of Bible versions can be touchy and whole books have been written on them – I can’t possibly go into everything concerning them here. The best book I know of on the subject is From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman’s Guide to How We Got Our Bible. A former pastor, someone whose exposition I trust more than anyone else I’ve heard or read, is one of the contributors, I knew one of the others in college, and I have heard a couple of others speak. That doesn’t mean these men are infallible, of course, but I have heard and read enough of them to generally trust them, and I have read enough elsewhere that supports what they say. Probably the biggest issue for those who are “King James Only” is the manuscripts that the different version or translated from. I think this book handles that ably, and I have read and heard enough to feel assured about reading version like the NASB (New American Standard Bible) and ESV (English Standard Version), as well, as, of course, the KJV and NKJV. (If you differ with me on this, that’s your prerogative, but I really don’t want to get into any arguments about it here. I have known some KJO people to think less of other Christians who use different versions, or even to break fellowship with people who don’t use the KJV. I think that is definitely going way too far.)

If you’ve read much about Bible translations, you’ve probably come across different theories or processes. No translation of anything from one language to another is going to be word for word exactly, literally, like the original. There are differences in syntax: for instance, Spanish puts the adjective after the noun while English usually puts it before: Casa Blanca for White House. One language may not have the exact word equivalent for every word in another language, and so on. If you’ve ever looked at a Greek interlinear New Testament, which has the Greek words and then the corresponding English above or below them, you’ll get some idea of the difficulty. (Take a look at Luke 2, for example.) Translators fall into two camps: those who try to translate word for word, staying as close as possible to the original while making ti understandable in another language, and those who translate thought for thought. The thought-for-thought translations are usually the most readable, but the least accurate.

Forgive the excess background material, but I felt I needed to go into that to explain that I think the ESV is probably my favorite translation. The KJV will always hold a special place in my heart, and I tend to think in King James, after having used it and read it for over 40 years now. But the ESV seems to me to best combine accuracy and readability.

Now on to MacArthur’s notes. I think this is the first time I have ever read through a study Bible, and I found the bulk of the notes very helpful. At the beginning are sections called Introduction to the Bible (kind of an overview), How We Got the Bible, How to Study the Bible, a preface to the ESV explaining the philosophy and style that went into this transition, an explanation of the features, especially the cross references and footnotes. Before each of the Testaments are introductions, chronologies, overviews, etc., and even the intertestamental period gets a few pages. Each book is introduced with a few pages discussing authorship, date, background and setting, historical and theological themes, interpretive challenges, and an outline. I found this especially very helpful to read before beginning a particular book. Throughout the book are applicable maps, charts, and diagrams and footnotes on most of the verses. At the end are appendices on The Character of Genuine Saving Faith, an Overview of Theology, a plan to read through the Bible in a year, an index to key Bible doctrines, Monies, Weights, and Measures, and a concordance.

The book is too bulky to carry to church, almost a little hard to handle while sitting on the couch, where I usually do my Bible reading. The print in the notes especially is very small, but if it was any larger, more pages and therefore more bulk would be required. So the size of both the print and the book itself are probably the best compromise.

I did not know much about MacArthur before reading this. I had found him to be a little terse in what things of his I had read, and that seems to come through here, but then again, that’s the nature of the verse-by-verse notes. Sometimes something I had a question about wasn’t addressed, or at least not to the extent I’d like, but I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a commentary, and the notes needed to be limited to a degree.

At first it was a little distracting to read a verse and then read the corresponding notes, but after a while it didn’t seem to be. It did help to reread or at least skim through the chapter again after reading it verse then note then verse, to put it all together.

I have multitudes of places marked, much more than I can share here, but here are a couple:

It helped to realize that Chronicles was not just a repeat of Kings, but was written when the Jews were returning to Israel after 70 years of exile to a land far different from their “glory years” of David and Solomon.

The chronicler’s selective genealogy and history of Israel…was intended to remind the Jews of God’s promises and intentions about: 1) the land; 2) the nation; 3) the Davidic king; 4) the Levitical priests; 5) the temple; and 6) true worship, none of which had been abrogated because of the Babylonian captivity. All of this was to remind them of their spiritual heritage during the difficult times they faced, and to encourage them to be faithful to God (p. 557).

Of Exodus 20:5-6, which speaks of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” MacArthur says:

Moses had made it clear that children were not punished for the sins of their parents (Deut. 24:16; see Ezek. 18:19-32), but children would feel the impact of breaches of God’s law by their parents’ generation as a natural consequence of its disobedience, its hatred of God. Children reared in such an environment would imbibe and then practice similar idolatry, thus themselves expressing hateful disobedience. The difference in consequence served as both a warning and a motivation. The effect of a disobedient generation was to plant wickedness so deeply that it took several generations to reverse (p. 123).

Re the imprecatory prayers in the psalms: “As God’s mediatorial representative on earth, David prayed for judgement on his enemies, since these enemies were not only hurting him, but were primarily hurting God’s people. Ultimately, they challenged the King of kings, the God of Israel” (p. 734).

There were a few places I disagree with him, some minor, such as whether David was wrong to mourn Absalom in the way he did (MacArthur thought it was “melancholy,” “weak, ” and “unwarranted zeal for such a worthless son”; I thought it was perfectly natural to deeply grieve not only his loss of life but his state at the end of it). Some differences were major, particularity a Calvinistic bent which I had not known he possessed.

Calvinism is another issue too large for one blog post. I agree with parts of it but seriously disagree with other parts. But for just one example, one of the ares where I most disagree with it is with the “I” in the TULIP” acronym: Irresistible Grace, the idea that if God calls you to salvation, you can’t say no. One passage that particularly counteracts that idea, in my opinion, is where Jesus laments, ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34). That sounds pretty much like they resisted His overtures and attempts to gather them to Himself. Here’s what MacArthur says of the Matthew passage:

God is utterly sovereign and therefore fully capable of bringing to pass whatever he desires (cf. Isa.46:10)–including the salvation of whomever he chooses (Eph. 1:4-5). Yet, he sometimes expresses a wish for that which he does not sovereignly bring to pass (cf. Gen. 6:6; Deut. 5:29; Ps. 81:13; Isa. 48:18). Such expressions in no way suggest a limitation on the sovereignty of God or imply any actual change in him (Num. 23:19). But these statements do reveal essential aspects of the divine character: he is full of compassion, sincerely good to all,  desirous of good, not evil–and therefore not delighting in the destruction of the wicked… (p. 1403).

This passage makes sense to me if Christ is lamenting that people turned away from His attempts to draw them, because He knows what it will ultimately mean for them (if you turn away from Him, there is nowhere else to go. If you won’t accept his grace, there’s nothing left but wrath). But it doesn’t make sense if He is saying, “I didn’t elect you, and you don’t have any chance, but I feel bad about that.”

The Bible itself is inspired by God: no man’s notes and commentaries are. But someone else’s intense study of the Word of God can be greatly beneficial to us in our own study, and, though I disagreed with MacArthur in a few places here and there, I was greatly helped by the majority of his notes.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday,
Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books,
Carole’s Books You Loved)

 

Save

Word Studies in the Bible

IMG_0377

Generally it’s better to read a book of the Bible from start to finish, in one or consecutive sittings. You get the whole context then, the way the passage fits within the rest of the book, etc., and you get it the way it was originally intended to be read. But sometimes a topical or word or phrase study can be beneficial, too, either as a break from just reading, or because you have found something you want to study out a bit further.

We have to be careful with word or topical studies that we don’t string together a bunch of unrelated verses out of context. But if we take context into account, sometimes these studies can be real eye-openers. I’ll share a few of my own later.

The place to begin is a concordance. You probably have a small concordance in the back of your Bible, and that can be a good starting place. But you’re probably going to want to invest in a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, or, if you have a computer, learn to work with some online programs. There are several Bible computer programs you could buy, but for just a basic study like this, free online resources like BibleGateway.com, BibleStudyTools.com, or blueletterbible.org are all fine.

Say you wanted to look up verses about God’s love. You look up “love” in the concordance, and there are tons of verses with that word in it. You go through them and find the ones that deal with God’s love rather than the love of people for each other, and either write them out, or, with a computer you can just “copy and paste” them into your word processing program. As you do this, you’ll find characteristics of God’s love (it is eternal, merciful, etc.), and you might want to organize the verses into categories. Even doing this you won’t find all the verses about God’s love, because some verses that may talk about it may not have the word “love” in the verse, and so won’t show up in that category in the concordance. So if you want to be really thorough, as you study those verses you can look up the cross references or look up the verses just before and after the ones you find in the concordance (that is a good practice anyway to make sure you are taking the verses in context).

If you wanted to take it a step further, you could look up the original Greek or Hebrew words. The Strong’s Concordance will have a number assigned to each word, and you can then look up words by that number. I believe Strong’s numbers are only available for the KJV and NIV. In BibleStudyTools.com, for instance, if you look up John 3:16, then you can click on the “Settings” icon and click on the Strong’s numbers. All the words with a Strong’s number will turn blue, and you can click on any of them to see the definition. If you click on “loved,” you’d be taken to a page which shows you the Greek word there is “agapao,” and you’ll also see the word origin, part of speech, definition, other places in the Bible where this word is used, and other ways the word is translated. You can even listen to what the pronunciation sounds like.

Once in a Child Care class in college, we had to do a study on what the Bible says about child discipline. For that kind of a study, you might go to verses you are already familiar with first, then look up the cross references listed beside them, then look up pertinent words in the concordance, like “rod,” “discipline,” “train,”, “child,” “son,” etc. Then you might go from the actual verses telling about child discipline to examples in Scripture of parents disciplining their children in good or bad ways or examples of how God disciplines us.

When you go back to your regular reading, you’ll likely find other verses that would fit in to your study, and your study will likely heighten what you get out of that passage as you read it again.

I’ve done studies on particular problem areas I’ve wrestled with, like anger, pride, anxiety, gluttony, that have been very helpful.  One pitfall is that it be can be very easy to look these verses up and get them all neatly categorized and organized….and then file them away without really going back to read and study them to see what they teach. But they can be a handy and helpful study guide.

Once I did a study on the words “in Christ” or “in Him.” I had noticed a few verses that detailed some things that we have in Christ and wanted to study it out further. It was a very rich study! Here are just a few of those verses:

Romans 3:24   Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

 Romans 8:1  There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Romans 8:38– 98   For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 1 Corinthians 1:30   But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.

 1 Corinthians 15:22   For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

 2 Corinthians 2:14   Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place.

John 1:4   In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

 Colossians 2:10   And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.

Another time, to try to fight against my desire for my own way so much of the time, I did a study looking up verses like “own way,” “own understanding,” “own thoughts,” “own sight,” “own eyes,” etc. I ended up with four pages of very convicting notes! Here are just a few:

Isaiah 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Proverbs 14:14a The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways

Proverbs 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the LORD pondereth the hearts.

Romans 10:3  For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

Proverbs 1:31 Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.

Proverbs  3:5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

Proverbs  3:7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.

Philippians 3:9   And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.

One of the most impactful word studies I did was on the phrase “God is able.” I saw a few verses with that phrase in the March 8 evening reading of Daily Light on the Daily Path, and decided to look up more.  Some of those:

II Chronicles 25:9: And Amaziah said to the man of God, But what shall we do for the hundred talents which I have given to the army of Israel? And the man of God answered, The LORD is able to give thee much more than this. (See II Chronicles 25:1-9 for the bigger picture.)

Daniel 3:17: If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.

Daniel 4:37: Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.

Matthew 10:28: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Acts 20:32: And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

Romans 4:21: And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.

Romans 14:4: Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.

2 Corinthians 9:8: And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work…

Ephesians 3:20-21: Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

Philippians 3:21: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

2 Timothy 1:12: For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.

Hebrews 2:18: For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.

Hebrews 7:25: Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.

James 4:12: There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?

Jude 1:24: Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy….

Matthew 9: 28, 29: Believe ye that I am able to do this? . . . Yea Lord. . . . According to your faith be it unto you.

What a great boost to faith, and how much we have to praise our God for!

Have you ever done a word or topical study in the Bible that impacted you? If not, I hope you’ll give a word or topical study a try!

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival)

Book Review: Taking God At His Word

Taking God at His WordTaking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung discusses…well, exactly what the subtitle says it does, “unpacking what the Bible says about the Bible.”

He begins with Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, an acrostic “love song” about God’s Word in language that would seem excessively emotional by many today, even many who read and love the Bible. He wants Psalm 119 to be the goal, the application, that the rest of the book leads to rather than a “ho hum” or skeptical reaction.

I want to convince you (and make sure I’m convinced myself) that the Bible makes no mistakes, can be understood, cannot be overturned, and is the most important word in your life, the most relevant thing you can read each day.

He then goes on to discuss what we should believe about the Word of God – it says what is true, it demands what is right, it provides what is good – and what we should feel about the Word of God – delight in it, desire it, depend on it. He then discusses what we should do with the Word of God (with supporting points for each section).

He discusses the “feeling as though God speaking to us through the Scriptures is an inferior, less exciting, less edifying means of communication. We can’t help but conclude, ‘Yes, the Bible is important, but oh, what a treasure it would be if I could experience God really speaking to me! If only I could hear from the sure and infallible voice of God'” and assures us that that’s exactly what we do have in the Bible.

He devotes a chapter each to God’s Word being enough, clear, final, and necessary, concluding with “Christ’s Unbreakable Bible,” which shows what Jesus believed about and how He responded to the OT Scriptures, and “Stick With the Scriptures.”

A few more quotes:

The authority of God’s Word resides in the written text–the words, the sentences, the paragraphs–of Scripture, not merely in our existential experience of the truth in our hearts.

The goal of revelation is not information only, but affection, worship, and obedience. Christ in us will be realized only as we drink deeply of the Bible, which is God’s word outside of us.

To deny, disregard, edit, alter, reject, or rule out anything in God’s Word is to commit the sin of unbelief.

Just because God cannot be known exhaustively, that does not mean he cannot be known at all.

We should not abandon faith in anything God has taught us merely because we cannot solve all the problems which it raises. Our own intellectual competence is not the test and measure of divine truth. It is not for us to stop believing because we lack understanding, but to believe in order that we may understand (This is a quote from J. I. Packer’s book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God).

There is an objective standard of truth which supersedes private impressions or experience.

But, someone may ask, doesn’t Jesus sometimes argue that the Old Testament was wrong? Doesn’t he actually correct the Scriptures on a few occasions? It may look that way, but upon closer inspection we see that Christ never corrects a verse of Scripture when rightly interpreted and applied. For example, the claim is made that Jesus relaxed the requirements of the Sabbath, thus violating his own principle and tweaking Scripture to be less rigid. But actually Jesus appealed to Scripture—to the story of David and his men eating the bread of the Presence—to show that the Pharisees were imposing standards which violated the teaching of Scripture (Mark 2: 23–28)…Jesus is not correcting Scripture itself, but the misapplication of it.

Scripture doesn’t tell us everything we may want to know about everything. But it tells us everything we need to know about the most important things.

The author covers a lot of ground in a short book (146 pages) in a way that is thorough, engaging, clear, learned but not full of academese, easily accessible, I believe, for non-Christians, new Christians, or experienced Christians. I enjoy Keven’s writing, and though in other posts and books of his I may not agree with every little point, I don’t recall anything I objected to in this book. Highly recommended.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

 

Save

Save

Why Study Doctrine?

Doctrine can seem like a cold, dry concept, something stuffy theologians fuss over when they should be trying to reach others. We’re more excited by a group study on relationships or parenting or womanhood or just about anything rather than a doctrinal study. We don’t usually approach our time in the Bible or church rubbing our hands eagerly anticipating what doctrine we’ll learn about today. We’re usually looking for help, encouragement, affirmation. We want to feel something. But feelings don’t last. If I get a warm fuzzy spiritual feeling in my devotions, that can dissipate in seconds when someone crosses me or something goes wrong. Winsome sermons and books may inspire me for a short while, but unless there is meat to them, that inspiration won’t last.

But doctrine is vital. You can hardly read a NT epistle without coming across a mention of doctrine and warning against false doctrine. If we think of sound doctrine as a manifestation of God’s truth and character, we can in turn worship Him by knowing and sharing the doctrines of His Word.

A.W. Tozer once wrote that “there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

So what are some advantages to studying right doctrine in the Bible?

Doctrine leads us to true worship. When we don’t worship God for Who He truly is, then we are worshipping a god of our own making, and that is idolatry. Now, of course, all of us are imperfect in our knowledge of Him and are, or should be, ever growing in Him, and He’ll correct our understanding along the way. But that is different from not knowing Him for Who He is due to neglect or misapplication of the Word.

Doctrine increases our intimacy with God. We can’t know Him aright apart from what He has revealed of Himself in His Word. As we learn more of Him, we love Him and worship Him more, and what seemed like “dry doctrine” then does become something that warms and thrills our hearts as the Holy Spirit brings that truth to mind.

Doctrine protects against error and therefore the wrong path. For example, years ago when cult leader David Koresh was in the news, I watched an interview with someone from his compound. I was shocked to hear her say that she was impressed that he knew his Bible so well. Nearly everything he brought from the Bible, he twisted. Knowing doctrine would have kept this person and others from being deceived by him and others like him.

Doctrine bolsters our faith and confidence in God.  Recently I was troubled by a question I had no answer for that cast doubts on God’s character. I still don’t have an answer for it, but I rested on the previously studied truth that He is good, righteous, kind, and merciful.

Doctrine meets our deepest needs at the most basic level. If I am feeling lonely, what most helps except the truth that God is present everywhere, even with me? If I am afraid, what helps most but meditating on God’s power? When a trial comes and people feel forsaken, what most comforts but the precious truth that God will never forsake us? If I am feeling ashamed, sinful, and unworthy, my only help is turning to the only One who can wash away my sin and remind me that I am in Him and beloved by Him.

Doctrine is stabilizing. “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14, ESV). I’ve known women and read women who do just this, float around with whatever is popular with little discernment. 2 Timothy speaks of “silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” who are “lead captive” by a whole host of wrongdoers in the “perilous last days” (2 Timothy 3:1-7, KJV). By contrast, Titus 2 exhorts us to “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (v. 1, KJV).

Doctrine determines deeds. Our beliefs affect our behavior. When a lie seems the only way out of a tough situation, what keeps us from it but the knowledge that it will displease a God whose essence is truth? Even the Titus 2 admonition to older men and women is couched in the context of sound doctrine.

Doctrine honors God. He is the one who determined what sound doctrine us. If we love Him we should want to know what He says and live accordingly. It’s so important to Him, He inspired John to write, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (1 John 1:10, ESV).

Doctrine is not an end in itself. If it is, then it does become dry and stale. The point of doctrine isn’t to line up our beliefs in neat, orderly systems and leave them there. The point is to know God better, serve Him in the ways He desires, and minister His truth to others.

People concerned about right doctrine can seem pesky and picky, and, true, it’s too easy to be that way. We shouldn’t be nitpicky just to be so. But we should “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB), and as kindly and gently as possible bring His truth to bear in our conversations and interactions. We have to remember to let our speech be always “with grace” (Col. 4:6) and to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We don’t need to “pounce” on every comment or reference another person might make, but graciously seek what the Lord might have us say. We also have to distinguish between clear doctrine and those areas where good people can differ or personal preferences.

II Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (KJV). We “behold Him” through His Word. And, the more we behold Him, the more we are changed into His likeness.

Learning doctrine doesn’t necessarily mean digging up systematic theology books, though some might like to do so. In our everyday reading and Bible study, it means looking for the truth about God when we read. The Bible is so much more than moralistic stories (“Be like Joseph and Daniel; don’t be like Jonah and Judas”). Look at what God is doing in the passage, what we see of His character and wisdom in what He is doing.

So, don’t be dismayed by that word “doctrine.” II Timothy 4: 3-4 says, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” That is a warning to us not to turn away from sound doctrine, but also possibly an admission that sound doctrine needs to be “endured.” Learning doctrine may not always feel warm and fuzzy, but the Holy Spirit will use it in our lives in blessed ways.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Wise Woman, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire)

LMMLinkup-Featured-Button-4

Book Review: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth

In How to Read the BibleHow to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart attempt to help the reader understand and interpret the Bible with particular consideration of the genre of each book. They explain that the “Its” of the title is deliberate, rather than “It Is,” saying, “‘Its’ is a deliberate wordplay that works only when it appears without the apostrophe; and in the end our own emphasis lies with this possessive. Scripture is God’s Word, and we want people to read it because of its great value to them. And if they do it ‘for all it’s worth,’ hopefully they will also find its worth.”

The first chapter covers general principles for reading and understanding the Bible: exegesis, “the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning,” which involves learning “to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text,” questions of context (historical and literary) and content; interpretation, and hermeneutics, learning “to hear that same meaning in the variety of new or different contexts of our own day.” They insist, several times over, that we must understand what the text meant to the original readers before attempting to apply it to ourselves.

The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.

Whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Let it be said at the outset—and repeated throughout—that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before. Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task. The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.”

Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture.

The second chapter deals with the different translations of the Bible. You may not agree with the one they feel is best (I later learned one of them was on the translation committee for it), but this chapter will help you appreciate the difficulties involved in translating and the reasons there are so many translations, but will also reassure you that we have a few today that are especially accurate and trustworthy. There are a number of considerations, but the main differences in translations are those which use formal equivalence, “the attempt to keep as close to the ‘form’ of the Hebrew or Greek, both words and grammar, as can be conveniently put into understandable English”; functional equivalence, “the attempt to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English” at the time of the translation, and free translation (or paraphrase), which is more concerned about translating the ideas rather than the “exact words of the original.”

The problem with a “free” translation, on the other hand, especially for study purposes, is that the translator updates the original author too much…On the one hand, these renditions often have especially fresh and vivid ways of expressing some old truths and have thus each served to stimulate contemporary Christians to take a fresh look at their Bibles. On the other hand, such a “translation” often comes very close to being a commentary, but without other options made available to the reader. Therefore, as stimulating as these can sometimes be, they are never intended to be a person’s only Bible; and the reader needs constantly to check particularly eye-catching moments against a true translation or a commentary to make sure that not too much freedom has been taken.

The rest of the book’s chapters discuss the different genres of literature in the Bible: epistles, narratives, Acts, the gospels, parables, the law, the prophets, the psalms, wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon), and Revelation.  They apply the principles they discussed in Chapter 1 to each and also discuss their forms and the particular difficulties or concerns in reading and interpreting each one. For instance, concerning the epistles, the authors  “offer the following guidelines, therefore, for distinguishing between items that are culturally relative on the one hand and those that transcend their original setting on the other hand and are thus normative for all Christians of all times.” Of the OT narratives, they say:

Our concern in this chapter is to guide you toward a good understanding of how Hebrew narrative “works,” so that you may read your Bibles more knowledgeably and with greater appreciation for God’s story. Unfortunately, failure to understand both the reason for and the character of Hebrew narrative has caused many Christians in the past to read the Old Testament story very poorly. If you are a Christian, the Old Testament is your spiritual history. The promises and calling of God to Israel are your historical promises and calling. Yet, in our experience, people force incorrect interpretations and applications on narrative portions of the Bible as much as or more than they do on any other parts. The intended value and meaning are replaced with ideas read into rather than out of the text.

Old Testament narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings…[and] are not intended to teach moral lessons. The purpose of the various individual narratives is to tell what God did in the history of Israel…

However, even though [they] do not teach directly, they often illustrate what is taught explicitly and categorically everywhere.

One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.

Even though the chapters on the different genres make up the bulk of the book and I have multitudes of places marked in them, for the sake of space and time I’ll stop there.

They have an appendix for “The Evaluation and Use of Commentaries” and their recommendations for good ones.

Overall, though I would not agree with every little point, I found the book very helpful. Though there is value in reading it through as a whole, I think there would be more value in reading the chapter on a particular genre just before reading that genre, and I may try to do that, or at least refresh myself on some of the applicable points, on starting a new genre in my own reading.

The authors are scholars who try very hard to make their points readable and understandable to the average layperson, and they mostly succeed. I don’t know if this is a book I would give to a brand new Christian right off the bat, though. It might be overwhelming, like trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant. But maybe not. Maybe it would help people get off on the right foot.

One frustration was that the authors often referred to what they called “How to 2” for further reading or for information they evidently didn’t want to reprint here. Since this is a third edition of the book, I thought they were referencing the second edition, and wondered why they didn’t just include that information here. But as I reread the first part, “How to 2” is referring to a different book of theirs, How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

I got this book on a Kindle sale because I had seen it referred to often, and it happened to be the third edition, which apparently is no longer available in the Kindle format. There is now a fourth edition, though, available both for print and ebook form.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

lmml-button-2-6

Books you loved

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Principles For Interpreting the Bible

IMG_0039

Have you ever wondered why two people can take the same Bible passage and come up with different meanings for it? Have you ever heard anyone say, “Oh, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say,” especially when you’re trying to bring spiritual truth to bear on a situation? It’s true that people wrest Scripture to make is say something it wasn’t meant to say. Whole false religions have been created by doing just that. How can we guard against doing that ourselves? By applying good principles of interpretation, called hermeneutics.

 “Biblical hermeneutics is all about finding the correct interpretation of the inspired text. The purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to protect us from misapplying Scripture or allowing bias to color our understanding of truth.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/Biblical-hermeneutics.html).

Some of you might think something like, “I will never be a preacher; I’m not even a teacher—so what does it matter how I interpret Scripture?”

It matters, first of all, because we’re instructed to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15). Even though that verse was written as instruction to a preacher, it’s also God’s inspired Word to us. Really, is there anyone who shouldn’t rightly divide the Word or study it aright? We want to understand what God said to us and not be led stray by misunderstanding His Word.

It matters, secondly, because each of us has a sphere of influence. Whether we ever stand in front of a classroom or audience or not, we come across people in our daily walk, we have relatives, friends, neighbors. What we read and how we read Scripture forms our understanding of spiritual matters (and our spiritual understanding of practical matters) and will influence our views, which in turn will affect our conversations and character and witness and influence.

Besides paying attention to the words themselves and how they are put together grammatically, like you would do with any reading, here are a few principles for rightly interpreting Scripture:

  • Pray. In Psalm 119:18, the psalmist prayed, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” Several times he asked for God to give him understanding or teach him. In How to Master the English Bible, James Gray said, “The most important rule is the last. Read it prayerfully. Let not the triteness of the observation belittle it, or all is lost. The point is insisted on because, since the Bible is a supernatural book, it can be studied or mastered only by supernatural aid. … Who is so well able to illuminate the pages of a given book as the author who composed it?” (I don’t know anything about the author or book than this, but thought the last two lines especially good.
  • Take the passage literally unless it’s obviously not meant to be literal. Someone once said about understanding the Bible, “When common sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” There are some who “spiritualize” much of the OT, saying that the creation account, among other things, is just a myth and there was no real historical Adam. But the Bible presents creation and OT history as literal events in the lives of real, literal people. In Genesis 1, there is no reason to interpret the days of creation as anything other than 24-hour days. But when Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, we know He is speaking figuratively, partly because of the reaction of the disciples—or lack of reaction they would have had if they thought he was speaking literally.
  • Context, context, context. Taking a verse or passage out of context is one of the biggest violators of its meaning. Just one example: You can find nice plaques or Pinterest quotes that take Exodus 14:13-14 (“And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace”) and condense it down to a pithy saying like, “Be still! Your God will fight for you.” But in the very next verse, God says, “Wherefore criest thou unto me?” And then He tells them what to do. Later, though there were times God supernaturally gave Israel the victory, most of the time they had to take up swords, spears, and shields, and fight. They still couldn’t win unless they were depending on Him rather than their own strength, but they trusted God to work through them.

Sometimes even good people will defend a stand or draw a good principle from a passage that isn’t teaching that principle. If the person you’re speaking with then does go back to look up the passage mentioned, your whole position is weakened if the context doesn’t support it. If the principle arises from the context, however, it is all the stronger and more enriching.

  • Don’t imprint your thoughts onto the text, but let the text reveal its meaning. A former pastor used to say that when he first started preaching, as he studied the passage he was going to preach on, he would ask himself, “What can I say about this passage?” After some time he realized that was the wrong question. The right one was, “What does this passage say?” For example, for years I heard that the people’s surprise at Peter’s release at the prayer meeting in Acts 12 was evidence that they weren’t praying in faith. But Dr. Layton Talbert, in his book Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God, brings up a different viewpoint. We don’t know that they were praying for Peter’s deliverance from prison. He points out that the text doesn’t say. James was killed by Herod earlier in the chapter: since he was not delivered they may not have expected Peter to be, either. “The only precedent we have for the church’s prayer under similar circumstances is in Acts 4:23-30. There, in the face of recent imprisonment, persecution, and renewed threats, the church made only one request. And it wasn’t for deliverance from prison or persecution; it was for boldness in the face of both (4:29)” (p. 203).
  • Compare Scripture with Scripture. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. One of the most important reasons for reading it through is to keep balanced and to keep the “big picture” in mind. A lot of theological error comes from emphasizing one part of a truth and neglecting or deemphasizing of the rest of it. Sometimes seemingly contradictory passages balance one another out or present different sides of the same truth. For instance, Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Those sound like two different instructions, but there is a time to answer and a time it would be unwise to answer, and we need God’s wisdom to discern when and how.
  • Consider the genre. Though all the Bible is inspired and true, we would read Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Romans, and Revelation all a bit differently, taking into account the different kinds of literature each is as we seek to understand them.
  • Consider the historical setting or culture of the passage. Understand that OT Israel was under a theocracy and was given specific promises (like the promise of a particular piece of land) and were under certain restrictions that New Testament believers are not (Acts 15:1-31). Even though some situations discussed in the Bible, even in the NT, are not ones we have to deal with today (like eating meat offered to idols), it’s still important to read them and discern the principles involved.
  • Note the difference in passages of direct instruction and passages of example. I once heard a message that used Abraham’s seeking out a bride for his Isaac as a springboard for telling parents how to find spouses for their children. While there are good principles to glean (like seeking a godly spouse, praying, seeking God’s guidance, etc.), it doesn’t mean that since Abraham found a wife for Isaac, parents today need to find spouses for their children. That was the culture then (see #7), but nowhere in the Bible are parents instructed to find spouses for their children in this way.
  • Note what is said to whom, determine what it meant then, and then determine how it applies to us today. For instance, as a younger Christian I wrestled with whether what Jesus said to the “rich young ruler” in Matthew 19:16-26 about selling his possessions and giving to the poor was something every Christian should do. But then I realized no on else wads told to do that. Though the Bible has a lot of instruction about our possessions (“compare Scripture with Scripture”), that particular admonition was to convict that particular man about his core problem.
  • Don’t “surface” read. Take time to read carefully and meditate on the passage. Biblical meditation isn’t an emptying of your mind, but rather thinking over and over a passage and “chewing” on it.

There is much more that could be said. In fact, every time I come back to this post I think of something else to add. Whole books have been written about this, so I can’t possibly cover every aspect in one blog post. But this gives us plenty to ponder.

Even with these principles in mind, sometimes good people can differ in their interpretations. There are some mysteries that we won’t be able to resolve until we get to heaven. We need to pray, study it out for ourselves, and consult commentaries of those who have had more time and tools to study. Where the Bible speaks clearly, we need to stand firm. But in those areas that are less clear but aren’t a matter of heresy, we need to give grace to those who might not see it exactly like we do.

I’ve wondered through the years why God did not spell everything out so there could be no mistaking the meaning or application of it. Perhaps one reason is to test our own hearts, to encourage our study, our dependence on Him, and grace toward each other.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Mondays, Literary Musing Mondays, Works For Me Wednesday, Woman Word Filled Wednesday, Thought-Provoking Thursday)

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save