Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Continued, Courageous Bible Interpretation:

The "How do I want it to turn out?" question:
Let me start right in with an example.  I came of age in the church in the early 70s.  It was a time when Fundamentalism, of which I was (maybe am) a part, was spelled with a capital "F."  One of the tenents of the brand of Fundamentalism of which I was a part was a total, or almost total condemnation of divorce and remarriage.  When I began examining scripture on this subject one of the objections that was raised against any liberalization of the view on marriage, was basically, If you say this, then they will do that."  In other words let's decide the outcome that we want, and then say that's what the Bible teaches.  It was never blatantly stated, but that was the clear implication.
I've heard the same rational put forth concerning the Bible's teaching about drinking alcohol, and concerning teaching about upholding Christian liberty.
It is legitimate to follow a scriptural interpretation through to its application and ask whether that application is consistent with what we know about scripture and God, but there is a difference between using this "Where does it lead?" question as one of the tests that apply to an interpretation and making it the controlling concern.  We distort the scripture when we ask what interpretation do I need to adopt in order to lead to the ethical teaching I want?"  Instead we need to fearlessly ask, "What does the Bible say?"  Having answered that, then I need to seek to responsibly put that into a consistent Biblical ethic.
There needs to be a certain fearlessness in proper Bible interpretation.
Have the courage to ask, "What does it say?"  not, "What do I want it to say, so it will lead to the behavior I want?"

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

". . . in ways wonderful to behold."

I have been reading a book that originated as a set of lectures by A. T. Robertson, delivered at Princeton Seminary nearly a 100 year ago.  The Pharisees and Jesus is a worthwhile read--so far anyhow.  Over the course of my ministry I have read a good bit about the Pharisees.  I am always amazed at their hermeneutic and ethical gymnastics.  Robertson made me aware of one routine I hadn't seen before (or had forgotten) Is it acceptable to eat an egg that a hen laid on the Sabbath?  One doesn't have to go farther than the New Testament to observe the contortions Robertson speaks of:  "They either read all the oral law into the written law (eisegesis) or twisted it out of the written law (exegesis) in ways wonderful to behold."* (emphasis added)  Just look at Matthew 23 and Mark 7:9-13 for some examples.
Another good read on Pharisaism is Extreme Righteousness, by Tim Hovestol.  He points out that 21st Century (Well it was still the 20th when he wrote.) Conservative Christians bear a closer resemblance to the Pharisees than they (we) may care to admit.  This premise has been born out in my reading of Robertson, thus far.
One of the similarities of 1st Century Palestinian Pharisees and 21st Century American Evangelicals is our faulty hermeneutics (principles of interpreting scripture).  I hope to explore this concept over the next few posts.  I would welcome your input.

At this point indulge me, and perhaps be amused, while I use humor to make a point.  There are several versions of this joke.  If your version is better, please share it.  A Fortune 500 executive had an important decision to make.  He needed some data.  He called in his lawyer, the head of public relations, an accountant, and an economist.  After explaining the gravity of his situation he told them he needed their best answer to a question.  Each of them were to report separately on, "How much is 2 + 2?"
The accountant was sure that he knew the answer, but had been recently accused of bean-counting and not understanding the nuances and complexities of business, so doubt began to creep into his mind.  He spent a sleepless night wrestling with formulas, and running calculations on several different computers.  The next morning the strain was evident on his face when he fearfully reported, "Four."

The PR guy and the economist likewise stayed up all night plying their trade.  The PR specialist shared various surveys.  "If women spend $2.00 for one item, and $2.00 for another, they consistently report the sum to their husbands as "about $3.00."  On the other hand surveys show that when a fisherman catches two fish each weighing two pounds he reports the total to his fishing buddies as "about five pounds."  With a possibility of error of +or- 3 my research indicates 4."  
Fine the exec said and dismissing him, called in the economist, who after displaying an office full of charts declared that he was comfortable with a range of three to five with things in (insert state of choice) trending toward six."
Giving him time to gather his stuff the decision-maker thanked his employee and sent for his lawyer.  He had stopped off on his way home the evening before for a few games of tennis, after a sumptuous meal he had enjoyed time with his family, and slept soundly.  Tanned and fit he strode into the room, pulled down the window shade, and made sure the door was locked.  Satisfying himself that no one was listening he leaned across the bosses desk and in a low whisper asked, "How much do you want it to be?"

Too often that is the approach that we take in our interpretation of scripture.  We already have a conclusion then we go to the Bible to justify it.  Here are some ways that I have seen this happen:

  • The "Which Translation?" question:
    Those of us who are English speakers are blessed with a number of good translations of the Bible.  Generally they say the same thing--perhaps one doing a better job of it than another.  Sometimes though they don't.  I ran into this with the text I was dealing with last Sunday.  In Luke 18:11 some translations indicated that the Pharisee prayed to himself.  Others have him standing by himself praying.  I'll let those more capable than me weigh in on the Greek grammar, etc.  The fact of the matter is, I want the passage to say he prayed to himself, because that translation fits my sermon better.  I came to the conclusion that that is the best translation, for reasons that, no doubt, some of you would regard as inadequate, but the fact of the matter is that I need to restrain the "What do I want it say?" question, (I hope I did.) and work hard (2 Timothy 2:15) to answer the only question that really matters--"What does the text say?"
    Here is a yellow flag for laypersons.  If a book, sermon, or study sheet, quotes from a number of Bible translations, it is fair to ask, "Is the author picking translations that agree with him, or is he using the translation that best captures the sense of the original?"
    Sometimes "things wonderful to behold" take place in this regard.
  • The "How Do I Want It To Turn Out?" question:
    Stay tuned.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Prayer Request for some friends on the other side of the world:

I just posted a prayer request, with fairly lengthy explanation, on Covington Bible Church's Facebook page.  I'm re-posting it here, with even more explanation and links.

A prayer request:
It will require a bit of explanation.  Chuuk, one of the Federated states of Micronesia, is one of the places that missionaries from Liebenzell Mission worked in the last Century.  Churches were started there.  These churches banded together in what amounts to a small denomination, the Evangelical Church of Chuuk (ECC).
The US branch of Liebenzell is an organization with which I am privileged associate.  Missionaries from Liebenzell Germany and US bravely went to the Islands of Micronesia with the Gospel (You can get some basic information about Micronesia here:  Keep in mind that "Micronesia" is the name of a region in the Western Pacific (about the size of the continental US, but with a land mass like Rhode Islands), and at other times is used as an abbreviated reference to the Federated States of Micronesia.  Chuuk, the subject of this prayer request, is the largest of the four states that make up FSM.)
Unfortunately the church organization, and some of the local churches, have been influenced by politics and clan in an unhealthy way.  (The same can be said for many US Evangelical churches, but that is another posting.)  Recently, a major split has taken place within the ECC.  I know people on both sides.  They love the Lord, and on some level are convinced they are right.  I guess, because of broken relationships in my recent past, I am particularly sensitive to this (though I know that much more than feelings are involved.)  When people with whom you formerly wept and worked cut themselves off from you, it is painful.
I know that I don't know what should happen in these lovely Islands.  Perhaps the sound churches within the ECC should simply do what my Fundamental ancestors did--separate and become independent.  Perhaps the young men graduating from solid schools like Pacific Islands University (a majority of our student body is Chuukese) should simply start new assemblies of believers rather than try to work in churches torn by--or at least affected by--the strife.   I raise those questions with a profound knowledge of my ignorance.  I am compelled to pray that God's will be done, Romans 8:26.  I ask you to join me in that prayer.  Knowing the limited resources of Chuuk and the incredible investment that has gone into what has become the ECC, my heart and gut would like to see it redeemed and the conflict resolved.
There have been and are those, both on the islands and off, who, it appears to me, are more interested in building their kingdom, rather than THE Kingdom.  I know this is a charge that is easily made, and just as easily denyed.  I make the observation with humility.  I pray that wherever it is true there will be repentance and a heartfelt praying of the part of the "Lord's Prayer" that says, "THY KINGDOM COME."
Several friends of mine, including Bill Schuit (Global Ministries Director of Liebenzell USA, and leader for the Micronesian area for Liebenzell International), whom many of you know, will be traveling to Chuuk later this month.  Their plan is to meet with, pray with, and encourage leaders on both sides to seek Godly solutions.
Pray for this team.
Some of the key Chuukese leaders that I know are Mokut, Yosta, Switer, and Asael.  Some outsiders with strong influence are Martin, Roland, Steve, Ron, and Sandy.  Pray for them and their colleagues.  There are many others in both groups.
Pray for these leaders on and off Island, who have opportunity to make a difference.
There are many outstanding Chuukese men and women, some recent graduates, who just want to impact their Islands and their world for Christ.  Pray that they will have wisdom and sound guidance in making career decisions.
(By the way it will help you remember to pray if you know how to say the name of the place.  If you say what you do with food and put a "K" on the end you'll be close or say "you" with a "ch" on the front and a "k" on the end you've got it--at least good enough for a small-town American like me.
Please join me in prayer.