Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What Kind of a Thing is the Bible? 6 Theses

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Sometimes it’s helpful to state the obvious—to step back and remind ourselves of the forest so that we don’t get lost in all the trees. Within academia, hyper-specialization and the tyranny of the pedantic often obscure the obvious; within our everyday life, routine and the tyranny of the mundane often veil the obvious. So we need continual reminders of the obvious—not only in our relationships and everyday life, and also in our theology and spiritual life.

Here I list 6 evangelical theses about the Bible in the spirit of “naming the obvious,” with an implication for each one for how we read and/or preach the Bible. My hope is these might be helpful for those of us choosing and starting in on some kind of Bible reading plan for 2015. What kind of a thing are we planning to read? What is the forest we are about to enter?

1) The Bible is shaped as a story

I say “shaped as” because obviously not everything in the Bible is a story; rather, as a whole, story or narrative is what shapes the Bible’s form. It starts with narrative; it ends with narrative; the middle bulk of it is mostly narrative (roughly 75%); and even the prominent non-narrative genres arise only in tight relation to this narrative backbone. The exodus and the exile, for instance, are the two poles of the Old Testament narrative of Israel, and so the law and prophetic oracle tend to cluster around these historical events.

Even the wisdom literature of the Bible is unintelligible apart from the surrounding historical narrative because so much of it assumes a corporate context, and corporate context means Israel, and Israel means the story of Abraham starting in Genesis 12 as God’s answer to the wreckage of human sin in Genesis 1-11. You cannot understand, say, Psalm 68 unless you have read about God saying to Israel, “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

In short, narrative is the skeleton of the Bible; things like epistle or psalm are the organ and tissue.

Implication: read the particular parts of the Bible in relation to the unified whole

If the Bible is a narrative, it should be read more like a novel than like the newspaper or a fortune cookie or a collection of Aesop’s fables. The whole thing hangs together, and the concrete parts are most meaningful when viewed in relation to the whole. When you start to see each tree as a part of the forest, a whole world opens up in Bible reading. You start noticing larger patterns and rhythms—thematic lines starting in Genesis and ending in Revelation that guide you through each individual book. All the odd little corners of the Bible—say, the book of Ruth, or the sacrificial system, or that strange bit at the end of Ezekiel about a new temple—suddenly take on a much larger significance and meaning.

I would say this art of reading thematically across the Bible (sometimes called pan-biblical theology; or just biblical theology) is maybe the single greatest neglected tool among both preachers and lay Christians reading the Bible. Without it, so much of the Bible is just weird. With it, so much starts to make sense. I would be far less eager to preach from the Old Testament without biblical theology, for instance—it is my constant recourse for finding Christ there in a non-forced way. For a great starting point in learning about biblical theology, check out Greg Beale’s writings (like maybe this book or this one). He is the most helpful writer in this area I have read.

2) The Bible comes in two basic installments

The Bible contains two basic chunks: an earlier collection of writings that primarily look forward, and a later collection of writings that primarily look backwards. There is a longer, more concrete, Hebrew part; and a shorter, more abstract, Greek counterpart. Of course, there are further subdivisions; but the fundamental structure of the Bible is a two-fold promise –> fulfillment movement.

Now this is obvious. We talk about the Old Testament and New Testament all the time. But do we think about the implications of having two-stage deposit of revelation? This is relatively unique among religions, and it provides some unique advantages (see number 3 below for more on this).

Implication: read the entire Bible, not just the New Testament

The Old Testament, at least much of it, can feel more foreign and difficult than the New Testament. Sometimes we might think of the New Testament as superior; or at least the Old Testament as somewhat outdated. Even if we won’t formally acknowledge this, we functionally affirm it when we read books like Mark or Philippians 5 or 20 times more frequently than books like Ezra or Nahum.
The truth is that the New Testament disconnected from the Old Testament is just as impoverished as the Old Testament disconnected from the New. Promise is empty without fulfillment; but fulfillment is meaningless without promise. We need both Testaments; and we need to read both in relation to the other. What Hebrews says about Jesus’ death will be immeasurably more meaningful to you if you’ve struggled with the purity motif in Leviticus; the apostles’ sermons in Acts will start to click more once you’ve been disappointed with and perplexed by the slow decline of the monarchy in Samuel-Kings; and you won’t be able to make heads or tails of the majority of the imagery and language or Revelation until acquaint yourself with books like Ezekiel and Zechariah.

Another subsidiary implication should be humility and patience in awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises. Judging by the seeming slowness and unexpectedness of how the B.C.’s went, we in the A.D.’s probably have some surprises and some bumps in the road still to go. How many godly Jews sincerely expected the Davidic Messiah to go through both Isaiah 53 and Psalm 16:10 in one weekend? How many could have envisioned that 2,000+ years of expansion to the Gentiles would then follow before Isaiah 65:17-25 would be fulfilled? And so forth.
3) The Bible has lots of diverse parts
The Bible is not just a book. It is a collection of many different books (if “books” is an elastic enough word). The extent of the Bible’s diversity makes it stand out from other sacred texts, and really from all other pieces of literature. The Bible is diverse with respect to genre, ranging from law code to proverb, oracle to parable, poetry to apocalypse. It is diverse with respect to history (spanning roughly a millennium), cultural and political framework (from ancient middle-Eastern theocracy to persecuted minority in the Roman empire) and language (Hebrew + Greek, and a little Aramaic). It has diverse human authors (everything from Kings to fishermen, doctors to shepherds) and diverse means of inspiring those authors. It is even diverse in how it conveys theological truth: Esther and I John are both about God, but they convey truth about him very differently.

Once again, this is obvious; but sometimes we take it for granted. Think about this: if we had never encountered the Bible, but had heard that there was such a thing as “God’s Word”—what would we anticipate? How would we conceptualize a generic holy book? For some reason, I envision one smaller book, with one author, primarily or exclusively in the genre of oracle, more demanding and harsh in its tone, and more elevated in its topics.

Interestingly, this is similar to what we have in the Koran, which comes fundamentally from one man, at one time, in one language, one basic genre, directly from God, and in one basic historical process (following the prophet Muhammad’s alleged encounter with the angel Gabriel in the cave of Hira in 610). Though I don’t reduce the reason solely to this, I don’t think its incidental that Islam tends to assert Arabic culture rather than contextualize its message into new cultures. By contrast, the Bible’s message must be contextualized because it is already contextualized to different cultures within the Bible itself.

Implication: read different parts of the Bible differently

Because the Bible is very diverse, we have to tackle its different parts with different reading strategies. There are lots of hermeneutical directions this point could go, but let’s just make a practical point here: if you are doing a yearly Bible reading plan, it may be helpful to take larger chunks per day for certain genres (like narrative), and smaller chunks for others (like Proverbs).
I find momentum is key for faithfully executing a Bible reading plan. So I do whatever I can to not lose steam and have to play catch up. Therefore, I will often read medium-length books like Hosea or Daniel in one sitting, and take larger chunks of narrative for as long as I can sustain my attention (one year I read I and II Kings on a Sunday afternoon in one sitting). If you read the same amount every day, you would need to read a little over 3 chapters every day to get through the Bible in a year. It can be difficult to absorb over 3 chapters of Leviticus or Romans in one sitting. So if you take longer chunks whenever you can, you relieve the pressure on yourself and allow yourself time to digest the
more compact parts. That way you can take a whole day for, say, Psalm 23 or Romans 8.

Another practical thing to do is read certain parts of the Bible out loud; it might seem strange at first, but it is only appropriate given that many of the Bible’s books were intended to be heard rather than read. And it’s amazing the effect reading out loud can have for both sustaining attention and focusing the message.

4) The Bible was mainly written for ordinary people

The Bible is strikingly down-to-earth and honest. It has books on sex and what we would call existentialism (Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes). It is as practical as can be imagined: “whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing” (Proverbs 27:14). It is also as honest as can be imagined: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6).

The primary audience is not scholars, but ordinary people without theological training. It is not first and foremost a textbook or a curiosity to be studied, but as a divine Word to be received and obeyed. This does not mean the Bible is not profound or that it should not be studied with rigor. But the overwhelming majority of people who have read the Bible across the ages have not had any kind of formal training, and the Holy Spirit seems to have inspired a kind of book that accords well with this fact. The Bible is not intimidating and opaque, like an obscure scholarly conference; but inviting and humane, like a kind neighbor.

Implication: prayer and spiritual desire are just as important as scholarly tools (if not more so)
We should never give the impression that our brains are the primary way to get the Bible’s message. Of course, our brains play an important role, and scholarly resources can help with that part of it; but it is always ultimately the state of our hearts that determines whether we understand the Bible in the most important way it needs to be understood. Hence Jesus is always saying, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear;” not, “he who has a brain to understand, let him think.”

My sense is that too many lay Christians get intimidated by the mass and depth of biblical scholarship available to us. Commentaries and Study Bibles, for instance, are great resources, and there are so many of them around. Compare what is available to us to what was available in the average library of a medieval monastery and it’s embarrassing and overwhelming. Sometimes it is also paralyzing, and so it is good to remember that you can usually get the main point of the Bible simply by reading the Bible thoughtfully, humbly, slowly, and carefully. People like John Bunyan got a pretty good theological education from doing just that. And it is nothing short of amazing how much scholarly treatment of the Bible ends up making obscure what the Bible intends to make clear. I would rather read the Bible with an imaginative 5th-grader who at least remembers the biblical stories and distinguishes the good from the bad than with a PhD who is over-specialized, under-curious, and asking all the wrong questions.

Don’t think of the Bible’s meaning as some esoteric secret, available to the experts. God has put his truth on the bottom shelf. His target audience is not scholars but peasants and farmers and maids. Scholarly resources can help, but the most important thing is a humble heart and a spiritual appetite.
Another implication: preachers should make the meaning of their sermons plain. If a Junior High student with average intelligence cannot understand you in the main point of your sermon, you are probably making the Bible more complicated that it makes itself. That is bad. If the Bible itself determines our level of erudition, our sermons will have both shallows that children can happily splash in as well as deeps that drown the pride of philosophers.

Read more at http://gavinortlund.com/2014/12/26/what-kind-of-a-thing-is-the-bible-6-theses/

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