Friday, January 21, 2011

From Babel to the Bible

I always ask the question, “Did God know that most people in the world would not have the original languages of the Bible readily available to them?” And every question that starts with “Did God know…” is answered in the affirmative.

I listened to this talk by Jason DeRouchie given at Bethlehem College and Semenary (ht: Justin Taylor). He gave 7 arguments for the need for understanding the Biblical Languages:
  1. Using the biblical languages exalts Jesus and affirms God’s wisdom in giving us his Word in a book.
  2. Using the biblical languages enables us to observe more accurately and thoroughly, understand more clearly, evaluate more fairly, and interpret more confidently the inspired details of the biblical text.
  3. Using the biblical languages allows us to use more efficiently and evaluate more fairly the best secondary tools for biblical interpretation.
  4. Using the biblical languages fosters a depth of character, commitment, conviction, and satisfaction in life and ministry that results in a validated witness in the world.
  5. Using the biblical languages provides a warranted boldness, a sustained freshness, and a more articulated, sure, and helpful witness to the Truth in preaching and teaching.
  6. Using the biblical languages equips us to defend the Gospel and to hold others accountable more confidently.
  7. Using the biblical languages helps preserve the purity of the Gospel and a joyful glorifying of God by his Church into the next generation.
There are many hindrances to the availability of the Biblical languages. Some I can think of:

  1. While we have had the Bible in one form or another throughout and since its writing, we have only within the past century found enough evidence in the ancient manuscripts to be reasonably sure what was precisely written in the original languages. So they have not been readily available throughout most of history.
  2. The printing press has only been available for a few hundred years now. Most people throughout history have not even had a Bible in any language readily available to them.
  3. There are hundreds of people groups who even today barely have the Bible translated into their language, much less have the education available to them to delve into the original languages themselves.
  4. A significant number of people don’t have the intellectual capacity to learn and understand the original languages. Many are barely literate in their own language.
  5. Of the people who have some education in the original languages, the vast majority don’t think in those languages.
  6. God confused language at Babel for a reason.

Regarding number 5: Scientific American has a short article touching on some research that is being done in the link between language and thought. The language that a person typically uses governs his thought. The example in the article was a 5-year-old Australian aborigine girl who could easily point the way north where a lecture hall of accomplished academicians could not. It reminded me of my mom’s side of the family. Always, they refer to things by their compass directions: “the south bedroom,” “the west field,” “Go to the end of the road and turn north on Kessler Road.” I can’t talk to my wife this way or she would get lost. For her, directions are relative: “the bedroom to the right of the bathroom,” “turn left on Museum Road.” Mastering language means being able to follow the linguistic logic of the references over and against those that one is accustomed to.

Regarding number 6: I’ll deal with this one shortly because it’s in the title. I wanted to make a reference here so you don’t think I just made a provocative statement without talking about it.

What can we make of the fact that A) Studying the Biblical languages is essential and B) The vast majority of Christians are not going to have the spiritual luxury of doing so? I mean, if this were the case then we revert back to dependence on priests for our understanding. We should close our Bibles and not even try to read them because we’ll never quite get it right.

And we indeed need to get it right. Our salvation is at stake if we don’t follow the true gospel. God’s glory is at stake if we don’t get our understanding of Him correct. Judging by the disputes and disagreements between Christians, it is more normal that we disagree on many things than if we agree.

What are we to do? I go back to my original question: “Did God know that most people in the world would not have the original languages of the Bible readily available to them?” We could also ask, “Did God not know that nearly all of the people who profess to follow Him wouldn’t get their theology straight?” So, if we assume that He knows these things we can further ask if He takes this all into account?

This is where we discuss things like the perspicuity of scripture (how clear it is), what is necessary to understand for salvation, and how understandable different things of scripture are. Some factors I see:

  1. Some passages of scripture are more understandable than others no matter what language you use.
  2. Some topics are more understandable than others.
  3. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is necessary for proper understanding.
  4. Some understanding depends on wisdom aside from intelligence.
  5. Some understanding requires great intelligence or education.
  6. Individual levels of understanding depend on personal experiences.
  7. The understandability of some things of scripture depends heavily on cultural influences.
  8. The understandability of most things of scripture depends on our level of spiritual discernment.
  9. God causes a lack of understanding for His perfect purpose.

This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it is these last points that are key to tying Babel with God’s revelation of Himself in scripture and walking away with an assurance that we can know enough well enough.

God caused language to be confused in Babel and then proceeded to reveal Himself through prophets and inspired scripture.

In Babel, the goal of mankind was the exaltation of Man over God and the self-sufficiency of Man. God confused the language of Man so that His revelation to Man would be clear to Man when it came. In other words, Man could not rely on himself for knowledge of God, but had to rely on God to reveal Himself.

We still do. That’s the bridge between Babel and the revelation God gives us in the Bible. Inasmuch as we approach knowledge of God on our own accord, we lack understanding. Inasmuch as we approach knowledge of God by the light and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we have understanding. Those who lack understanding don’t understand how those who have understanding got it, and they often disparage those who have understanding as though they cannot have understanding. Those who lack understanding typically cannot believe that there is some understanding that they do not possess.

Here is another list (I seem to be into lists today) of how God works with us to understand His revelation:

  1. Obtaining an understanding of scripture is part of our being made perfect as we are sanctified, set aside, for His glory. (Romans 15:14-21)
  2. We are told, clearly enough, to study scripture. The implication is that we can know something from it. (Ephesians 5:17; 1 Timothy 4:13)
  3. We are told that scripture is a sufficient revelation for us. (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16)
  4. We are told how to deal with each other in grace as we differ in our understanding. This indicates that God knows that we are going to have slightly differing understandings for a time although we are all brothers and sisters in the faith. (1 Corinthians 8)
  5. God deals with us graciously in our lack of understanding. (Romans 7:15-25; Philippians 4:7)
  6. Although we often get things wrong and disagree, the revelation of God is not open to interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20)
  7. God gives us understanding. (1 John 5:20; 2 Timothy 2:7; 1 Corinthians 2:12; Romans 1:19)
  8. God takes understanding away. (John 12: 39,40; Romans 1:29; 11:25)
  9. It is our desire to understand and our trust in God rather than our own intellectual machinations that give us true understanding. (Hebrews 11:3)
  10. Understanding is not the ultimate goal. (1 Corinthians 13:12; John 5:39-40)

So, seek understanding. Study the Bible. Struggle to get it right. Learn the original languages if you can, but do not despair if you cannot. Understanding comes from God. Trust Him and seek Him above all, and deal graciously with others when you disagree.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Do Egalitarians Really Think Women Are Special?

A poll was taken by Dane Ortlund who writes the blog, Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology, among several prominent theologians and posted the results on his blog. Most of the comments in the meta have been helpful. (Many have been anti-Christian trolls, and sometimes particularly vulgar. I haven’t checked to see how many of these have been deleted.) But one or two comments have been made by egalitarians pointing out that none of the theologians polled were women.

Some are not aware of what egalitarians and complementarians are much less the theological differences between them. I’ll not go into detail here. Dave Miller is writing a series on this where he lays out the arguments of both sides. I’ll only define them quickly and give you my stand on them.

Complementarians believe that God created men and women with equal human value and likewise have equal value under grace. However, God also created them differently to fill different roles, and this distinction is part of His revelation to us.

Egalitarians believe that men and women are created equal in every way and that there are no ministerial distinctions between them mandated or even suggested by scripture. They believe that any place in scripture that seems to indicate a difference is only because the culture at the time either clouded the mind of the writer or made it necessary to assent to aspects of the culture and has nothing to do with cultures that have no such distinction.

I’m a complementarian. Given clear hermeneutical guidelines, there is no other conclusion. To go the route of egalitarianism requires formulating a hermeneutic around a desire to reach that conclusion. Therefore, the conclusion for egalitarians precedes the argument. That’s eisegesis, not exegesis, and the stuff of poor theology at best and heresy at worst.

So egalitarians have commented in the meta of Dane’s blog wondering where the female theologians are. This is part of the issue with communication and argumentation between people of different presuppositions. In short, the tendency is to frame differences in the presuppositions as though they are an incongruence in your opponent’s position by evaluating their position as though they are subject to your sensibilities. Good polemicists with truth on their side know how to avoid this.

That aside, the one thing that is evident if you evaluate an egalitarian as an egalitarian is that if men and women are assumed to be the same, there is no reason to deliberately seek the viewpoints of both as though you would get a usefully diverse answer.

Only the complementarian view assigns women a special place distinct from that of men. In this case, however, theology is the same whether a woman or a man does it.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

As Iron Sharpens Iron: A Test

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17 ESV)
This verse is, rightly I think, interpreted as a general wisdom that people need the input of each other to hone our hearts and minds in the pursuit of spiritual growth in God. I like the way Matthew Henry wrote it in his commentary:
"One man is nobody; nor will poring upon a book in a corner accomplish a man as the reading and studying of men will. Wise and profitable discourse sharpens men's wits; and those that have ever so much knowledge may by conference have something added to them."
Perhaps the writer of Hebrews had this sort of thing in mind when he wrote:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV)
The ESV Study Bible comments on this verse:
"The third and final exhortation in vv. 22–25 calls for serious thinking about other Christians with a purpose to stir up (or “provoke”) them in their love and service (good works). Christian perseverance is thus also a community endeavor."
As Christians, we need other Christians in order to grow in godly wisdom. We need the mental correction of others to keep us from going astray. We need to seek and submit to each other’s correction.

As a Christian, I need interaction with other people. As one with a penchant for thinking outside the box and as one who loves truth above my desire to understand it, and yearn to grow in ministry, I earnestly desire the meaningful interaction of my fellow Christians. My hope has always been to develop the relationships with other Christians necessary for provoking them to grow in their Christian walk as well as receiving the same. I enjoy building others up in Christ as much as anything.

But I need to be built up as well. I blog in order to organize my thoughts. As a non-linear thinker I need to be able to make my thoughts linear in order to communicate them. As one gifted with a certain brand of intelligence, I’m prone to eccentricity. Therefore, it’s necessary to have meaningful feedback if I want to use this gift to edify people.

I’m already aware that few people read my blog articles. It’s extremely rare to receive any feedback from them. I have to consider that there are a few people who may read but never comment. Therefore, I have this request. If you regularly read what I write please leave a comment and let me know how what I write helps you or if I need to pursue some other activity that would be more fruitful. And I want to encourage you that doing so would be exceptionally meaningful. The response I get from this will let me know how important my thought life and spiritual growth is to other people.

To all who respond: thank you in advance.

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What Happens When We Are Saved?

From the latest article written by Dan Barnes at SBC Voices:

"Have you ever noticed how many ideas in the Christian faith seem more hypothetical than concrete? Things like “fall into the arms of grace” or “just give it to God”. What do those look like really? Are they things that have meat to them, or are they just things we say and have no idea what they really mean? How do you fall into grace, or give something in-material to a spiritual being? There are lots of things that we say are hard to define and pin down, but I think it’s symptomatic of a larger issue. We have tried for two thousand years to define Salvation, but I am not sure we are any closer. Something so foundational to the Christian doctrine, but we can’t agree on what it looks like, how we get it and how we know we have it.

"I want to pose some questions today, things to think about. I am sure for every question there are hundreds of opinions, so here is a chance to share yours. What is Salvation? Pin it down, are we talking substitution atonement, penal substitution, ransom theory? Is the nature of salvation illumination, restoration, satisfaction, victory, justification, something else entirely or a combination?

"What happens when we are saved? Does it happen in a split second, or does it happen over time? Is it a one time thing, or does it reoccur? Are we saved once and for all time, or does it happen daily? I have heard, seen or read theories off all and more, different ideas. I have seen verses thrown at verses and arguments made for every side, when and how does it happen?"

My Response:

This is one thing I appreciate about Reformed theology. “What happens WHEN we are saved?” It’s a poor question because our life is eternal, not temporal.

Eternally, we are saved from Death: our separation from God. This salvation is accomplished by the incarnation of the Son of God who justifies His people through submission to Death even as He has power over Death.

Things eternal are worked out temporally. Our separation from God is temporally represented in our sin and the death of our bodies. It is just that our sin is paid for by death. It is for justice that Christ came as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who, being God Himself, had no sin and gave His physical life for all sin. His people, being reconciled to God yet living in a world of sin are blessed with His constant presence in the person of the Holy Spirit. So even as His people are eternally justified by this, His people are also each temporally sanctified by the Holy Spirit to grow in the spiritual knowledge of God. That is, God reveals Himself to us temporally not by mere facts but also by our desire for Him. This makes the revelation of God through His inspired scriptures meaningful to us. As such, at some point all those who are alive by the Holy Spirit will realize at once a belief in the facts of Christ, but also a trust in His temporal work on the cross as He demonstrated His submission to death in the justification of our sins. The progression of our growth in this faith throughout our temporal life is called sanctification.

The language we use is typically not this precise, and it doesn’t need to be. Godly wisdom unto saving faith is not contingent on our ability to understand. A baby understands little, but trusts much. Therefore, it isn’t necessary to always express the gospel in difficult language. It is only necessary to speak enough truth at first for faith to resonate in the lives of people who have the Holy Spirit. After saving faith is identified, then more truth and understanding should be taught over time in agreement with the temporal work of the Holy Spirit in continued sanctification in the lives of each of His people.

As for a Baptist distinction, there really should be none. There is only one way we are saved despite our best opinions. It is our incorrect opinions where Truth is absolute that divide us in soteriology. The good news is that our salvation is worked out in the lives of believers not by any opinion or by our flawed understanding, but our mere and genuine trust in God.

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Blessing of Having Weaknesses

It is a wise brother who knows when to correct a sin and when to cover a weakness.

We are all sinners. That means that we are all losers. We are saved not by our fortitude, intrepidity, strength, honor, or cunning. As sinners, we have no strength. Since God is all-mighty, any strength we have was given by Him.

Moral instruction prior to salvation does nothing but let us know what failures we are. If we are led to believe that we can do good things without God, then the message of salvation is moot because the focus is on what we can do.

Moral instruction after salvation has as its purpose the joy of imitating the holiness of our Father through the sacrificial work of Christ. But until the resurrection, our works are still tainted. It is blessing to be corrected by one so humble as to recognize the difficulties in their own struggle with sin.

Too often Christians confuse correction with condemnation. Sometimes this plays out as someone who condemns a brother out of their own self-righteousness. Sometimes, a brother who sins misinterprets the loving correction of that sin as condemnation. Paul never advocates the condemnation of a brother. Even when church discipline is required for sin, the purpose for putting someone out of fellowship is eventual reconciliation – never outright condemnation.

But sometimes Christians confuse weakness as sin. Sin is no mere weakness, but death. But there is weakness without sin. This weakness is actually a blessing from God. But it takes wisdom to know this. First, let’s investigate strengths and weakness by dispelling some misconceptions foisted on us by our culture.

The common idea is to be strong in ourselves and discount the weaknesses of others. We need to be able to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” “make our own way in life,” “pull our own weight,” etc. We are told not to show any sign of weakness. Men certainly pay attention to this because we all know women are attracted to “strong men” who can “hold their own.” But women like to be strong too, especially to dispel the notion that women are the weaker sex.

“Show no fear.” Don’t be a Loser.” “Come out on top.” “Fight to win.”

Phrases like these sum up the sociological expectations of this world. Winning is everything. Being the one with power is always best. Everyone has an opinion, but whoever can get other people to buy into their opinion or manipulate people to act on their opinion is worthy of leadership. People who are confident in themselves can cause others to have confidence in them as well. These people are the winners in this world.

Parenthetically, there is a trend to water down success by rewarding losers for simply participating. This may be an effort to stifle the greedy complaints of losers for not having anything for themselves since the winners took everything for themselves. It’s true that we need to be responsible and contribute where we can. Hard work is good. Appropriate rest is also good. But we know that our individual gifts are given by God, and He does not give gifts equally. There’s a reason for this.
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5 ESV)
Every brick in a wall has at least one weakness: no brick is large enough to be the whole wall. Bricks in a wall are not separated by their strength because determining the strength of a brick requires breaking the brick, which takes its strength from it. So, all bricks are capable of bearing the weight of the wall in the lower courses, not alone but as a team. The bricks in the upper courses are capable of bearing the same weight at the lower courses, but they are not used as such.

Some bricks must indeed be broken in order to be used. They have only half the strength they were created with, but their special purpose is to complete the wall at the edges with a finished line so the house can be properly sealed against the elements.

Bricks are stacked so that they interlock. Interlocking helps to hold the wall up by tying one stack of bricks into adjoining bricks. If the bricks are not interlocked, the mortar will split between columns of bricks and the columns fall independently. Why would one column fall and another one not, or one fall one way and another fall another way? Because bricks are not perfect. A single column of bricks may have a tendency to buckle in the middle or fall from some point at the bottom. The taller the stack, the more evident the imperfections of the bottom-most bricks. Interlocking bricks allow neighboring bricks to cover each other’s weaknesses.

But bricks are not the only things that go into the construction of a wall. There is mortar that joins the bricks together. There is rebar that can be used to strengthen the wall. There are metal plates or wooden frames that can be used to include openings for windows and doors. For large buildings, there is a special sealing substance that is used between wall sections to compensate for expansion and contraction.

And so the brick wall is not called a wall of one brick, but that the brick is Christ. He is the cornerstone on which the construction of the whole building is determined. But we are individual bricks. Alone, we are utterly weak. Together, as Christians, we are strong. We are strong, not because we condemn each other’s weaknesses; not because we stand around and complain about each other’s weaknesses and wait on each other to fix our own weaknesses so that we can get on with the business of being the Body of Christ. We are strong when we first recognize our strengths and weaknesses and as a result use our strengths to cover each other’s weaknesses.

That is the blessing of God in the weaknesses He gives us. Where the world suggests that we be individually strong and take advantage of other people’s weaknesses for self gain, God builds his people up by nominal strengths and weaknesses so that He is glorified in His strength. He rewards us for participating, not for being individually successful. For we participate in the victory that He has already won.

But the message for us is not that we seek to reward each other, but that we seek to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses so that we can use our strengths to cover the strengths of others. It requires that we are not too proud to accept the help of another to cover the weaknesses we each have with the strengths of others. Likewise, we must recognize the unreasonable expectations we place on others and deal with each other in love and patience rather than anger and frustration – for that is sin.

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