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Category Archives: Theology

Should Theology Shape our Bible Reading?

A friend and former student contacted me this week. He had listened to a lecture I delivered a few years ago at a conference in Rockford, Illinois. (Unrelated: the conference there is held annually, and if you can make it, it is well worth your time and money.)

After listening to what I said, he requested some clarification on this point: how much should we allow our theology to shape our reading of the Bible? Is there wisdom in coming to the text with no preconceptions, so that we can read it more accurately?

The text below is from that reply, reproduced here in the hopes that someone else might find it helpful.

In general, the tension that you’re feeling here is a tension that we should be feeling. What I mean is this: when you read a text that conflicts with what you believe that the Bible says, your first impulse should not be to simply chuck whatever you already believed.

I’m not sure what examples I used in the Rockford sermon, so I’ll use this one. The Bible tells me that our Lord shelters us under his wings. Upon reading that verse, I shouldn’t immediately discard my conviction that God is a spirit, and therefore that he has no wings.

But we also need to (always!) be willing to change our doctrinal convictions under the weight of biblical evidence. The reality is that there a numerous passages which refer to body parts of God. Maybe there is something to the idea that God has a body. And so we explore the idea, taking into account all that the Bible says. What we’ll find is that there are certain passages that are *foundational* to the question, and other passages that are less clear, so that they could be read either way.

In this case, for instance, I would consider the second commandment (the prohibition against making any images of God) as definitive. We cannot make images of God, because God is *incapable* of being portrayed as an image. He is *unseen*. (Check the context for the argument in the text.) For this reason, then, I have very good reason to believe that all of the verses that speak of God’s body parts are not to be taken literally, but as figures.

In this way, then, my theology is always shaping my reading of the text. Remember, by the grace of God, your theology isn’t something that is just made up out of nothing. Your theology comes from the knowledge of the Bible. Because God does not contradict himself, what you know about God (your theology) from one part of the Bible must shape your understanding of every other part of the Bible.

But it also remains true that my reading of the text is always to be shaping my theology as well. This process always goes both ways. We must always be willing to reexamine our understanding of Scripture by what the text in front of us actually says.

As to the idea that we can read “with no prior thoughts”: I think this notion is both impossible and ungodly. It is impossible because, as you read, you always are going to assume certain things are true. Should you pick up and read a passage, for instance, with no conviction one way or another as to how many gods exist? Or whether the Bible is in fact the Word of God? Honestly, we will always have certain convictions that must be in place for us to read the Bible faithfully. Indeed, the idea that “reading the Bible is better without any preconceived notions” is itself a preconceived notion that must be examined; I think it is one that will be found wanting, when compared to Scripture.

Not only is it impossible to be a blank slate, I’m convinced it is also ungodly. Over and again, we see in the NT that the teachers and pastors in the church are gifts to us from our risen Lord (Ephesians 4). The idea that we should completely disregard what we have been taught previous is never considered a virtue: rather, it is a mark of ingratitude, not only to our teachers, but to Jesus, who gave us the gift of pastors.

Now, I’ve spoken strongly here. There is, of course, a more minimal and limited sense of coming to the text with fresh eyes. This, in itself, isn’t a problem. But what we shouldn’t do is think that this kind of careful honesty about the text happens in a complete vacuum, as though we’ve really succeeded in cutting ourselves off from any previous commitments.

In summary, then, the key point is that Scripture shapes my theology. Inasmuch as my theology has been shaped by Scripture, that theology will help me read other Scriptures more accurately. When I’m reading, however, my theology is always becoming *more informed* by Scripture. So it is not that theology trumps Scripture, or that Scripture is best read without any consideration of theology, but that they form a spiral, each influencing the other, so that we come to a fuller understanding not only of each individual passage, but also of the bigger themes taught in Scripture.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2017 in Pastoral, Theology

 

Love: feeling or choice?

Against my better judgment and normal practice, I involved myself in a Facebook theology discussion last night. Because I maintain a view that, for those participating in that discussion thread, is more than a bit outside the norm, I felt it worthwhile to offer a clarification and expanded defense of my position.

The debate question was of the basic nature of love: is it a feeling or a choice? I offered a briefly sketched defense of the view that love is a feeling. As expected, my position was a distinct minority in that thread, but as my theological convictions aren’t formed by counting Facebook affirmations, I remain undaunted.

Let me begin here by commending what I take to be the core concern of those who define love as a choice. Characteristic of our time and place is a lack of loyalty to anything outside a decidedly rosy image of self. This is a narcissistic astigmatism, a self-love that sees no real faults in the hero of our autobiographical epic. People thus afflicted value other people only inasmuch as they reinforce their narcissism. Unsurprisingly, then, relationships ride surges of passions.

Those who insist that love is a choice rightly understand that love grounded in this way is no love at all. There is no constancy here; commitment exists only insofar as the one loved affirms the lover. That is to say, then, that commitment doesn’t exist at all. And if commitment doesn’t exist, biblical love doesn’t exist there, either.

This, I say, is an admirable critique of a certain kind of distorted feeling. However, the reduction of love to mere choice and pure volition is an unbiblical overreaction to a real problem. I say reduction here because there are many who will flatly say that love is a choice and not a feeling.

Let’s begin with a point of clarification: the word feeling, like the parallel term emotion, is far too broad to be useful here. Love, biblical love, is more properly an affection. The distinction is important, even in this discussion. First, let’s let Jonathan Edwards sketch the difference, and then we’ll apply it to our present topic:

The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.

First, note that Edwards defines affections as “lively actings of the will.” Already, the distinction between love as a feeling and as a choice is blurred here, and rightly so. But even more that this, Edwards wishes to distinguish affections from passions; the latter are the kind of sudden and overwhelming feelings that overrun the mind. Because many people do not distinguish between affections and passions, lumping them together as emotions or feelings, and because living by passions is in fact decidedly unbiblical, the assumption is that feeling is itself suspect. This is a category mistake.

Why then did I take the side that love is a feeling? Because it was a discussion on Facebook, which as a medium is unserious and discourages nuance. Do you see how many paragraphs I’ve already written here? I skip Facebook comments that look like this, and so do you.

Let’s begin to cash this out. I was asked, “On that inevitable day when the feelings just ain’t a-coming with respect to your wife, will that mean you have stopped loving her?” We now have categories to clarify, first, what is meant by feelings in this question. If we’re talking about an absence of fluttery butterflies in the belly, something rightly identified as a passion, then I can certainly love my wife without those. In fact, mature love isn’t characterized by passions.

But if we frame this in terms of the affections, the question (I think) becomes more revealing: “So on the day in which you no longer cherish your wife, you do not value her, you do not wish her good, have you stopped loving her?” The only answer I can see to this question is “Yes, if that accurately describes my case, I could not be said to love her.” And what must I do if I were to reach such a deplorable situation? I must repent, because I have covenanted to have that affection for her; I have vowed to cherish her. The choice that I have made (and continue to make) isn’t the love, but it establishes the obligation to love. This is the point of Bonhoeffer’s aphorism, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

To illustrate this further, allow me to bring it into the realm of sanctification. The first and greatest commandment is love for God. Is love for God merely volitional? If I obey God by rote choice, have I loved him?

I think we all recognize that, in our progress in sanctification, we have truly advanced only to the degree that our values have been re-inclined. Suppose I decide that I have been slacking in daily Bible reading, and purpose to rise each morning a half-hour earlier than usual to read the Word. When the alarm sounds, I grumble, but drag myself out of bed and read the Word. And it is better to have chosen to do so, even absent any positive inclinations, than to be unfaithful in this matter. But suppose my reaction to my time in the Word remains similarly bitter and loathsome to me for decades. We might admire the persistence involved in such a life, but there is something deeply amiss here. Such a person could never rightly affirm Psalm 119, what Kevin DeYoung calls a “love letter to Scripture.” Do we not see that the Psalmist here not only chooses the Word, but delights in the Word?

One more Scriptural appeal:

Philippians 1:9–11

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Here is a prayer of Paul for the Philippian church. The climax of the prayer suggests its importance: if his prayer is answered, the Philippians will be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” It’s hard not to read this as a summary of the entire goal of the Christian life.

What might accomplish this goal? Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians would abound in discerning love, so that they give their approval to truly excellent things. Does it not seem evident that Paul’s prayer is for a certain inclination of heart, and not merely a set of choices?

Once again, I understand the suspicion attached to love as feeling, especially if we make no effort to distinguish kinds of feelings. But to advocate a definition of love that is absent feeling is to run counter to what it is that we must pursue.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Pastoral, Theology

 

Salvation in the Church

I have a weekly column in our local newspaper. What follows is this week’s essay.


There’s no point in avoiding the obvious: I’m biased in favor of the church. For the cynical reader, the reason for my bias is obvious: I draw my paycheck from the church, and so promoting the church is in my own interest. But may I suggest another, less insidious reason that I love the church? I believe that I love the church because Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). If I love Christ, I will love what Christ loves.

In our day, the church is a suspect institution. Some of this is of her own doing. But some of it is in our national DNA. We Americans are an independent people. And as I’ve told our church before, many of us who live here in the UP do so because we’re especially independent people. Generally speaking, you don’t live in New York City if you like to be left alone, and you don’t live in the Upper Peninsula if you like the constant buzz of society.

This independent streak shows up in how people view the church. For many professing Christians, the church is thought to offer a service. The church provides help to people with spiritual needs. And therefore, if these folks don’t view themselves in particular need of that assistance, they don’t feel any need to connect themselves to a church. They can love God on their own, thank you very much.

The problem I see with this approach to Christianity is that it is strikingly unbiblical. Let me point you to one passage that highlights this.

In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about our salvation in two ways. The first is very familiar to us. In verse 1–10, he reminds us that, before we came to Christ, we were “dead in the transgressions and sin” in which we once walked. But God intervened in mercy, and because of Christ’s work (received by faith alone), those of us who were once dead have now been made alive by grace. This is salvation viewed individually.

In verses 11–22, Paul talks about our salvation again, but this time corporately. Here, he reminds us that before we were saved, we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” Why does this matter? Because, in biblical terms, to be cut off from the people of God was to be cut off from God himself.

So here Paul observes that Christ’s work makes us “no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Again, this is simply another way for Paul to talk about our salvation. In one metaphor, we were dead but are now alive. In another, we were foreigners to God’s people, and now we have been made part of the people of God.

The bottom line is this: we cannot rightly understand the work of Christ in our salvation while intentionally cutting ourselves off from the people of God. To do so is to reject one of the major reasons that Christ came to die: so that we, who once were far off, could be brought near. Therefore, come near to God’s people!

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2014 in Newspaper Article, Theology

 

Conversion

To review: a sound church is one that is committed 1.) to obeying Scripture as its final authority, 2.) to a steady diet of expositional preaching that explains the meaning of the Bible, and 3.) to understanding Scripture within its proper context of systematic and biblical theology.

The next commitment of a sound church is exceedingly important, because it is the kind of thing that identifies what the church is. The church is made up of those who follow Jesus Christ. But following Jesus is an ambiguous expression. Are we following Jesus if, before making any decision, we ask what Jesus would do? (Side observation: I suspect he wouldn’t wear one of those bracelets, although I may be mistaken.) While the Bible does point to Jesus as an example for right living, the Christian message can never be reduced to exhortations to live like he did. To quote the great Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen, genuine Christianity can be distinguished from spurious Christianity in this way: for some, Jesus is the example of faith, but for the true Christian, Jesus is the object of faith.

There is a world of difference between these two conceptions of Christianity. If Jesus is merely the example of faith, the Christian message is one of works: be saved by doing what Jesus did. The problem with this should be obvious: who among us would dare claim that we live up to this standard? To reduce salvation to following the example of Jesus is to lay a burden on people that no one can meet. A message of works can produce only two kinds of people: the insufferably arrogant who falsely believe they can meet the standard, and the despairing who know they can’t.

By contrast, to say that Jesus is the object of faith is to maintain that it is of high importance that all people affirm certain truths about Jesus. We’ve considered this already in Paul’s explanation of the gospel in the opening of 1 Corinthians 15. The gospel is, quite literally, good news. It is a message to be believed. The core of this belief is that Jesus died for our sins, which means that we need to believe (at least) that we are sinners and that there is something about Jesus that makes his death the means by which I can be delivered from sin.

To believe this gospel is to be converted; this is what it means to be saved. Any church that fails to make this message central to its entire operation has abandoned its real reason for existence. We should not be surprised, then, to find that this message, the necessity of saving faith in Jesus, characterized the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. In his very first message, Peter explained to his audience who Jesus is, and concluded by instructing them to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

To insist on the importance of conversion, then, is another mark of a church with its priorities in order.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

On the incarnation

To some degree, the incarnation of Christ will always remain mysterious to us: how can God become man and yet remain God? There is mystery here, I say, and the volumes that theologians have written on this topic can hardly be condensed to a short paper column. So I will offer a simple devotion for this Christmastime.

The author of Hebrews highlights for us some astonishing truths that are possible only because Jesus Christ was fully human: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7–9).

These are truly statements that, if we didn’t find them in the Bible, we might hesitate to think them (much less say them out loud), lest we be considered irreverent. Jesus prays with tears? Jesus learned obedience?! How does the perfect Son of God learn obedience? Wasn’t Jesus always obedient? By turning our heads this direction, the author of Hebrews forces us to look squarely at the humanity of Christ, the humanity that is his because of his incarnation.

These are not just abstract theological questions; for believers, these verses are foundational to the mercy we find in Christ. The verses that immediately precede this passage tell us that the full humanity of Christ is the basis upon which he can be a merciful priest for us (Hebrews 4:15). He knows, in a fully experiential way, what it is to come to the Father in prayer as a reverent son (even though he is also the Son). He knows what is to pray with loud cries and tears. We must think here, quite obviously, of the Garden prayer, in which Christ, agonizing in prayer, submits himself to his Father’s will. Do we not find encouragement here, that we share these struggles with Jesus himself?

Further, Jesus knows what it is to learn obedience. The Gospels tell us that the young Christ grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man (Luke 2:52). These verses most clearly show us the fullness of the humanity of Jesus; his growing in favor with God and man and his learning obedience show that his perfect humanity was no sham, no mere show. While the Bible teaches that Jesus is the sinless man, it also here tells us that his experiences, and particularly his sufferings, were how he grasped the full human concept of obedience. And we share this with the Son of God as well. Who among us has not grown to know obedience to the Father more clearly through our suffering?

And so, as we celebrate the Christmas season, the rejoice in the full humanity of our Savior, who has mercy on us because he shares our flesh.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Theology

 

A sound church: systematic theology

Just to get our bearings, let’s review where we are in our series. I’m addressing the question, “What does God look for in a church?” We began by observing that a sound church will be one that looks to the Bible alone as the final authority for everything that it does. We then saw a church should feature, as a first priority, preaching and teaching that attempt to clearly explain the meaning of the Bible. And most recently, I’ve argued that a good church will give careful attention to the meaning of the text by placing it in its context.

The context of the Bible is its theology, and theology is of two kinds. The first we addressed last week: the Bible, from beginning to end, forms one major story. This story, as we see illustrated in so many of our Christmas hymns, is ultimately about the kingship of Jesus. Understanding a passage of Scripture rightly involves, at the very least, knowing where it falls in the biblical story. This kind of theology, with its emphasis on the story of the Bible, we call biblical theology.

The second kind of theology is not organized as a narrative, but rather by topics. If we ask, for instance, what the Bible teaches about salvation, or angels, or the end times, we’re asking questions about doctrine. The theology of the Bible that is concerned with questions of doctrine is called systematic theology. Although most people assume that theology is a dry and impractical thing, systematic theology ought to be deeply important to anyone who takes the Bible seriously as being the Word of God. Almost always, when we encounter a verse in the Bible that addresses a particular topic, there are also other verses that speak to the issue as well. If we want to get a good grasp of the Bible, we cannot merely pick and choose verses that support our own positions; instead, we need to see how the Bible as a whole addresses our questions. To do this is to do systematic theology.

We can illustrate the importance of theology this way: come this time of year, we give our attention to the birth of Jesus Christ. By why is this birth so important? As soon as we ask this question, we are doing theology. Here is one answer to this question, from John 1: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” That is to say, when Jesus was born, God was in human flesh. To see this baby was to see God. The implications of this theology are truly life-changing.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

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A sound church: biblical theology

In last week’s essay, I commented on the importance of reading the Bible in context. We noted that, without context, a person can make the Bible say just about anything he wants. However, just as you object when your words are taken out of context, God expects us to read his Word with careful attention to its intended meaning. And we are on a better path to finding the intended meaning when we stop reading the Bible as though it’s simply a scattered collection of wise sayings; instead, we should read it as a coherent book.

We can speak about the coherence of the Bible, however, in at least two ways. The first one is this: the Bible, from beginning to end, tells a story. (I’ll address the second kind of coherence next week.) What is the Bible’s story about? To answer that, let’s take a brief rabbit trail.

Have you ever noticed just how many familiar Christmas carols proclaim that Jesus is a king? “Let earth receive her King.” “Come and behold him, born the King of angels.” “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!’’ “Noel! Born is the King of Israel!” And this list is merely a quick sampling.

The hymnwriters here reflect an accurate understanding of the story of the Bible: from beginning to end, the Bible is about God’s plan to establish his kingdom on earth, with Jesus as the king. We see hints of this in the Garden, when the first man is given the instruction to subdue and have dominion over the world, establishing the principle of kingship. Even before we reach the end of Genesis, we find prophecy that a king will arise from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10). The story continues, gradually highlighting David as the head of the royal family of Israel. God gives David this promise: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).

And so we should not find it surprising at all that the announcements of Jesus’s birth are filled with language about kings and thrones and kingdoms. Consider Gabriel’s announcement to Mary: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). And skipping ahead to the end of the story, in the words made so familiar in Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

This theme is the story of the Bible: Jesus is king, and he will reign!

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology