How to Read the Bible

rembrandt_christ_in_the_storm_on_the_lake_of_galileeFor Christians the big questions in any discussion of science and faith generally come down to Scripture. How are we to read Scripture as the word of God? In much of the church there is an assumption that this should be straightforward… just read it literally. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold up well for many of us. It isn’t even science that is the biggest challenge to this “simple” reading, it is Scripture itself. It isn’t clear that the Bible was intended to be read in this flat, literal manner. Among other things, Scripture is full of figurative language and allusions. The books have been structured to convey a message and often (more often than we expect) the flat reading misses in significant ways.

This is not just an insider issue, it is also an evangelism issue. The flat reading is often easily dismissed by skeptics, especially educated skeptics, those who might see books by Richard Dawkins or Bart Ehrman and find it easy to reject the possibility that Christianity is in any fashion reasonable for the modern (enlightened) person. We don’t want to deny truth to attract outsiders, but we also don’t want to erect unnecessary barriers.

reading-backwards-41pum5wfyul-_sx355_bo1204203200_I am leading an adult Sunday morning discussion class this winter that digs into the question of interpretation, looking for the full depth of meaning in Scripture. One of the primary resources we are using (after the Bible itself) is Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays. Scot posted on this book several years ago, just after it came out, and reviewed the book for Books and Culture (Believing to Understand). The book is a bit academic, but well worth reading. (As an aside: We desperately need resources that make ideas like those developed by Hays accessible to the average Christian reader and small group or class discussion.)

Calming the Sea. Consider the image above – Rembrandt’s depiction of the calming of the Sea. For many Christians this is just a demonstration of the deity of Christ. He can perform miracles, therefore he is divine. (Of course prophets in the Old Testament and apostles perform miracles as well, but ignore this for now.) Others find it necessary to look for scientific explanations – such as this example about the story of Jesus walking on water, suggesting a layer of ice as a possible explanation. Both the typical Christian brush and the search for scientific explanation miss the point (although the former gets closer). What can we say about the calming of the sea? The following is a passage in Mark (4:35-41).

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

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The Dividing Line

emergence-of-personhoodWhat distinguishes humans from other animals? The question is hard to answer definitively. We know intuitively that a dog, a dolphin, or even a chimpanzee is not human. Certainly no other animal builds schools, writes symphonies, performs surgery, or ponders the intricacies of the universe. Building, while not unheard of, develops none of the complexity of human cities including cities and villages dating back thousands of years. But how can we classify the difference?

I picked up a book recently, The Emergence of Personhood, A Quantum Leap? edited by Malcolm Jeeves, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This book explores the question of personhood from many different perspectives ranging from evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology to philosophy and theology. Although many of the contributors are Christian, this isn’t true of all and wasn’t a requirement for participation. Jeeves invited contributions from humanists, theists and atheists to “bring a genuine multiplicity of voices to speak to common themes.” Christian theologians and psychologists (e.g. Anthony Thiselton and Justin Barrett) might bring in the concept of imago Dei or image of God. Such a perspective is foreign to humanist or atheist thinkers, but other important questions are highlighted in this case. On complicated questions we will move forward most clearly in a polyphonic discourse rather than a monologic discourse. N.T. Wright (also at St. Andrews) comments on the back cover that the book is an “exhilarating effort to tackle these questions from as many angles as possible.” Different perspectives will sharpen our views and arguments, and sometimes change minds. (Other animals, by the way, don’t do this.)

a_bonobo_at_the_san_diego_zoo__fishing__for_termitesMany “human” traits are shared in the animal kingdom. Tool making, for example, is more wide spread than previously thought – although there is a boundary that is crossed even in early hominin stone tools. Chimpanzees recognize themselves in a mirror. Other animals can even conduct warfare in some sense. Richard Byrne, author of the first essay in the book, points out that some chimpanzee communities carry out a form of warfare. (The images here are of bonobos, from Wikipedia)

Groups of males set off silently and purposefully like a commando unit, to raid neighboring communities. If they can, these raiders kill males and coerce females to return with them. The killings are brutal and take many minutes, with a group of males joining in beating, biting, and pummeling the unfortunate victim, usually leaving it dying rather than quite dead. This violence is not an isolated or pathological phenomenon. Warfare is known in many chimpanzee communities, though it is usually sporadic, with periods of “guarded peace” between communities. (p. 19)

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God Intended It For Good

diego_velazquez_065It has been awhile since the last post on Genesis, but it is time to step back and wrap up the story with the Joseph narrative, chapters 37, 39-50. The story is well known – long a Sunday School and sermon favorite.I brings the narrative of Genesis from the patriarchs to the opening situation in Exodus. The sons of Jacob move to Egypt where they become the people of Israel under bondage and in need of deliverance.

The story can be told in a variety of ways – Joseph, the epitome of virtue, is misunderstood by his father and brothers when he reveals his dreams. He is sent to his brothers who are tending sheep. They plot to get rid of him, first by murder, stopped by Reuben, the eldest, and then sold into slavery instigated by Judah of all people. Judah’s is the line of David and of Jesus the Messiah. In his virtue and wisdom, by God’s power, Joseph prospers in the house of Potiphar, captain of the guard, until Potiphar’s wife accuses him of attempted rape. Thrown into prison, he again prospers through his virtue and wisdom, by God’s power. Interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams (they are one) he suggests a course of action and again he prospers through his virtue and wisdom, by God’s power.

I’ve heard sermons preached along these lines – but they don’t ring quite true.

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Human Rights, Another Form of Western Imperialism?

united_states_declaration_of_independenceIn our last post (Are We Morally Obligated) on Tim Keller’s recent book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical we dug into the issue of the foundation for morals … with a rather vigorous discussion in the comments. In the next chapter Keller digs in deeper, and suggests an important role for religious belief in general and Christian faith in particular.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Most Americans will recognize this paragraph. It comes from the Declaration of Independence passed by the 2nd Continental Congress on July 4th 1776. Today many Westerners would strike the phrase “by their Creator” and simply affirm that all humans are endowed with certain unalienable Rights. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights merely lists these as self-evident (Keller cites this document) . The rights and freedoms described are given a practical motivation – to preserve the peace for the good of all – but other than this they simply “are” inalienable rights. Many of them are distinctly Modern and Western in focus. “Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Many countries and peoples around the world see this document as a form of Western Imperialism. Why should people have a right to change religion? Why should involuntary marriage be prohibited? Why isn’t torture a valid way to get information? (oh wait, maybe even some Westerners have problems with this one!) and we could go on. The more fundamental question is clear … why do humans have any “rights” at all? Capacity arguments are often advanced, but these leave the very young, the very old, and the disabled at risk. Why do these people have rights?

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Adam, Evolution, and the Imago Dei

9781587433948Scot McKnight has a new book coming out at the end of this month, Adam and the Genome, co-authored written with Dennis Venema. Dennis is a biologist – and he handles the genome in this book. Scot looks at what this means, or could mean, as we read Scripture. I’ve read or heard parts of these ideas from Scot and Dennis over the last several years and look forward to reading and interacting with the book over the next few months. (You can get more details and read an excerpt here.)

The Origin of Sin and Death. The question of Adam raises a number of issues for Christians, some are centered on Paul’s use of Adam and his contrast of Christ with Adam: Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned … so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12,19) Sin, death, and victory over death play a crucial role in Christian theology. Some Christians claim that Adam is thus the foundation for the work of Christ. Talk about high stakes! Many others look at the question a little differently. Scot addresses Paul’s use of Adam in the context of first century Judaism in Adam and the Genome.

creation-of-adamThe Image of God. But the origin of Sin is not the only issue. Adam and evolution, common descent, also raises the question of human uniqueness. If we are in one lineage with hominoids and other primates. what does it mean to be created in the image of God. Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 bring this to the fore.

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: (Psalm 8:4-6)

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The Heavens Declare!

hst_carina_ds2The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

All Christians agree that the heavens and the earth are intelligently designed for a purpose. The God we worship is the creator of all. The marvel, beauty and wonder of creation make known the Creator. The classical design arguments of William Paley and the more recent Intelligent Design movement spearheaded by the Discovery Institute have complicated the landscape. Intelligent design is seen by many people as inherently anti-evolution and anti-science. This shouldn’t be the case.

Both J.B. (Jim) Stump (Science and Christianity) and Denis Lamoureux (Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes) dig into the concept of intelligent design. The discussion in Jim’s book provides a brief history of creationism and the Intelligent Design movement. Denis provides a deeper look at the issues from a faith perspective. The Intelligent Design movement is an attempt “to show that natural explanations of certain phenomena are inadequate and that the best explanation appeals to an intelligent designer.” (S&C p. 53) Although proponents claim that this isn’t a “god of the gaps” approach, many of us are unconvinced, especially when it comes to biology and the diversity of life. Stumps notes: “They are adamant that they have not resorted to intelligence only because there are no other explanations but because it is the best explanation, all things considered.” (S&C p. 53) One problem is that little phrase “all things considered.” Because there is (of yet anyway) no positive scientific proof for design distinct from natural process, and because our current state of knowledge is not exhaustive, “all things considered” necessarily encompasses many gaps. It seems unwise to put too much weight on Intelligent Design as a scientific argument for the existence of God.

Intelligent design as a Christian conviction. Denis Lamoureux makes it clear where he stands on Intelligent Design as a scientific argument used to counter evolution: Continue reading

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Job for Today

how-to-read-job-2What does the book of Job mean for us today? What is the message and application? John Walton and Tremper Longman III conclude their book How to Read Job by addressing these questions.

The book of Job provides answers – important for us today as they were for the original audience. Christians often turn to Job, and Pastors recommend Job, in times of suffering. Here, we think, we may find both the answer to suffering and the recipe for endurance. This is not really the case. We do gain some insight into suffering – but no real explanations.

We cannot dismiss all suffering as the just desert of sin. “We know that inherent sinfulness is not the answer the book promulgates because the text makes it clear throughout that Job is considered righteous. … No one is without sin, but we cannot just pull out that theological trump card when we try to understand our human plight.” (p. 163)

We will not always find an answer to the why of suffering, and we need not ask. Some will claim that God is inscrutable (impossible to understand or interpret) and this is true, but he is not inconsistent and capricious. “We may agree that God is inscrutable in the sense that he cannot be fully known, but in the book of Job it is God’s reasons that are beyond are knowing and beyond our ability to infer. … The argument against inscrutability is that we need not seek answers that will justify Job’s or our experiences; we know enough to believe that God is wise.” (p. 164)

But, you say, God’s ways are above our ways, certainly there must be a purpose to suffering. The book of Job does not address the question of purpose. “When we look to the past, we are seeking reasons. When we look to the future, we are seeking purposes. The former attempt should be abandoned and the latter held loosely.” We can, sometimes, find tragedy serving a purpose in our lives … but not always, not (for example) for the one who suffers a tragic death. God has a purpose for his world, and the unfolding of the world is according to his purposes – but that doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of purpose in every event.

We cannot out-God God.” (p. 166) God’s first speech from the storm makes this point. Neither Job nor we could do a better job of organizing the cosmos than God has done and continues to do.

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