Category Archive: Bible
A follow-up thought, hard upon the heels of what I wrote earlier about the kind of commentaries you need.
When you do your own study of Scripture and then turn to your commentaries, are you hoping they’ll function as yes men, reassuring you that you’re on the right track, or that they’ll function as conversationalists, even partners in an argument over the text?
Do you hope that they’ll say what you want them to say or are you willing to listen to them and let them convince you?
Does it ever happen that you read a commentary and find it compelling, only to go on and read another one and find that he demolishes the first one’s position, only to read a third and find that he brings you at least part of the way back to that first writer’s view or maybe pushes you toward a different view altogether?
If you never find yourself going back and forth, never find yourself having to work through arguments and weigh them, never find that you have to change your mind as you study, something has gone wrong somewhere, maybe in you, maybe in the kind of commentaries you’re reading.
What kind of commentaries do you need to help you in your study of the Bible?
You don’t need commentaries that tell you, in passage after passage, exactly what you’ve always thought or only what you yourself have already discovered. Such commentaries are generally a waste of your time. Why read So-and-so telling you what you could figure out on your own?
Such commentaries may confirm your thinking, which can be comforting (“So I’m not the only one who holds this view of the text!”), and that’s fine. But they aren’t challenging — and you need to be challenged.
If you’re buying commentaries, you should know that most evangelical commentaries say what other evangelical commentaries say. Which means you don’t need a pile of evangelical commentaries on any book of the Bible. If you have one good one, you pretty much know what all the rest of them are going to say.
That’s especially true if the one good one you have is by Gordon Fee, who carefully interacts with a lot of other great commentaries to such an extent and so helpfully that once you’ve read him, you have a good sense of what those other commentaries say too.
But what you do need, alongside one or two of the best of these evangelical commentaries, are commentaries that present options you may never have considered, that argue for certain options and against others, that bring to light things you may have overlooked, that make you think and rethink.
I’m thinking of commentaries like those by John Paul Heil, who shows (and does a remarkably good job of demonstrating) that epistle after epistle is written chiastically, with each subsection chiastically structured as well.
I’m thinking, too, of commentaries like the ones by Jakob van Bruggen, because Van Bruggen is never afraid to raise exegetical possibilities you’ve never even thought of and to argue for them and back up his arguments by pointing to things in the text that never jumped out at you.
Such commentaries are time-consuming, not to say sometimes troubling, because they make you rethink things you thought you had already figured out. But for that very reason, they are worth their weight in gold.
If you’re studying a passage of Scripture and no commentary you read ever makes you change your mind or at least pulls you up short and makes you say, “Huh. That’s not how I’ve always taken this verse!” and if you never change your mind in the course of your study or waver between the very different views strongly argued in two commentaries, both excellent, you need better commentaries.
It’s finally available: Peter J. Leithart & John Barach, eds., The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).
Foreword — R. R. Reno
Introduction — Peter J. Leithart
PART ONE: BIBLICAL STUDIES
1. The Glory of the Son of Man: An Exposition of Psalm 8 — John Barach
2. Judah’s Life from the Dead: The Gospel of Romans 11 — Tim Gallant
3. The Knotted Thread of Time: The Missing Daughter in Leviticus 18 — Peter J. Leithart
4. Holy War Fulfilled and Transformed: A Look at Some Important New Testament Texts — Rich Lusk
5. The Royal Priesthood in Exodus 19:6 — Ralph Allan Smith
6. Father Storm: A Theology of Sons in the Book of Job — Toby J. Sumpter
PART TWO: LITURGICAL THEOLOGY
7. On Earth as It Is in Heaven: The Pastoral Typology of James B. Jordan — Bill DeJong
8. Why Don’t We Sing the Songs Jesus Sang? The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of English Psalm Singing — Duane Garner
9. Psalm 46 — William Jordan
PART 3: THEOLOGY
10. A Pedagogical Paradigm for Understanding Reformed Eschatology with Special Emphasis on Basic Characteristics of Christ’s Person — C. Kee Hwang
11. Light and Shadow: Confessing the Doctrine of Election in the Sixteenth Century — Jeffrey J. Meyers
PART FOUR: CULTURE
12. James Jordan, Rosenstock-Huessy, and Beyond — Richard Bledsoe
13. Theology of Beauty in Evdokimov — Bogumil Jarmulak
14. Empire, Sports, and War — Douglas Wilson
Afterword — John M. Frame
The Writings of James B. Jordan, 1975–2011 — John Barach
The book is currently available for order directly from Wipf & Stock for $40.00 (but there are discounts if you order more than 100). In a couple of weeks, it should appear on their webpage, and in six to eight weeks should appear on Amazon.
Whenever the Word of God comes, it is an end to business as usual. Some people taste life, others taste death, and there is conflict between the quick and the dead. God sends confusion to those who have chosen death, and gives miraculous persevering strength to those who have chosen life. Eventually, the wicked are judged and the redeemed are gathered around God. God lets His Word loose among us to create new life, thresh out the husks and gather the wheat into His barn. He calls the sheep out from the goats and brings them home. He disturbs us to bring us true rest.
Jesus’ parables were a two-edged sword. They forced the believers to wrestle with spiritual truths. They also confused and incited the unbelievers to a showdown that would expose their true natures and hasten their destruction. The Bible is the same. It is living water or a cup of destruction depending upon who is drinking.
The Bible is not an easy book to understand. It takes time, discipline, meditation, a childlike imagination — and the indispensable guidance of the Spirit. God sent it not just as spiritual food but also as a regular workout that brings strength and maturity. Like Jacob, we are to wrestle with it, obeying in faith what we have already learned before God reveals any more. It is a process deliberately designed by God to align us to His way of thinking, to make us wise and mature, able to judge between good and evil. — Michael Bull, Totus Christus: A Biblical Theology of the Whole Christ, 9.
In the course of his discussion of reading (better: hearing) the Bible, Eugene Peterson draws our attention to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: “On the road to Gaza I find the focus for my hermeneutical work as pastor: the Ethiopian reading Scripture and not understanding it; Philip guiding him into comprehension” (Working the Angles 127).
While we often hear in the Bible about people listening to God’s Word in the assembly of God’s people, here we have a case of a man reading it all by himself. I wonder if this stands out to us the way it should. In much of the Christian world today, with its heavy emphasis on daily Bible reading, we may take it for granted that a man would read the Bible all by himself. In fact, this may even be our preference: Ask Christians today which is more important, the private reading of the Bible or the corporate hearing of Scripture in church, and I suspect that many would point to the former.
More than that, I suspect that many trust the former more than the latter. We prefer to read it for ourselves rather than hear someone read it to us, and so even when the minister is reading Scripture in church we open up our Bibles and follow along (or perhaps get distracted by the ways in which his translation differs from ours). To really understand the Bible, we want to study it ourselves.
Now there’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible all by yourself. It was fine for the Ethiopian eunuch to be doing so, and it’s fine for us to do so as well. But if we think that we can understand the Bible best if we study it all by ourselves, poring over the text without anyone else instructing us, then maybe we need to listen more carefully to the story in Acts, where God does not leave the Ethiopian eunuch alone. Peterson writes:
Hermeneutics begins with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). The play on words in Philip’s Greek is untranslatable: ginoskeis ha anaginoskeis? The difference between reading and understand seems so slight — a mere prefix (ana) in a Greek verb — that we are slow to realize the abyss that separates what Isaiah wrote from what we understand…. We ride along in uncomprehending familiarity with the biblical text for years, in devout travel to and from Jerusalem, and then a well-timed question stops the chariot.
The question is answered with a question: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (v. 31). The questioner is questioned: Will you guide me? The word choice is critical: not explain but guide. The Greek words for “explain” and “guide” share the same verbal root, “to lead,” and have a common orientation in and concern for the text. But the explainer, the exegete, leads the meaning out of the text; the guide, the hodegete, leads you in the way (hodos) of the text. Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more. The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide. This is going to take some time…. Philip decides on hodegesis. He climbs into the chariot and shares the journey (127-128).
I wonder if it would occur to us, accustomed as we are to thinking that we can study the Bible best on our own, to answer Philip’s question the way the Ethiopian eunuch did: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” The implication, surely, is that without a guide he could not have understood what we was reading in Isaiah. He may have been able to grasp what the various sentences meant and yet he did not get the full meaning of the whole: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34). In particular, he did not see that Isaiah was speaking about Jesus until he had a guide who led him down that path.
That, as Peterson says, is the calling of a pastor: to guide people into the right understanding of Scripture, and in particular to guide them to Christ. And that is why we need pastors: How can we understand Scripture rightly without a guide?
Reading Scripture is not, it would seem, an autonomous activity. The solitary reader of Isaiah in the chariot on the Gaza road is interrupted by the Spirit-commanded Philip. The Spirit brings people together over Scripture — listening, questioning, conversing toward faith. The questioning reader was joined by the listening interpreter. Isaiah, dead but word-present in the scroll, made a third. The unseen but Spirit-present Christ became the fourth (130).
After commenting that part of his work in writing the history of the Bible in English entails “the switching-off of special lighting, to reveal an illusion for what it is” — by which he means reducing the “King James Version” from the “near-divine status” it has sometimes been given — David Daniell writes this:
In the later twentieth-century work of translating the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew, mundane lighting became the fashion. From the 1980s, the trend to issue the English Bible in “the language we use today” went a long way further into reducing the Bible’s magnificence, and magnificent variety, to a uniform dreariness (The Bible in English, xv).
It will take me another 700 pages or so to get to Daniell’s chapter on the twentieth-century, in which I expect him to illustrate and defend this claim. But I think he’s right. Compare, for instance, the KJV translation of 1 Samuel 25:22, 34 with any other modern translation (which you can do here) and you’ll see one obvious example where the KJV translates accurately and vividly and the others — out of squeamishness? — don’t.
Now why is that the case (assuming that Daniell is right)? One answer might be that we don’t like anything to sound strange in church today. Go to a baseball game for the first time and you expect to have to learn a lot of new vocabulary. Pick up woodworking as a hobby and you expect to have to master new terms. But we think — we, not the unbelievers I’m about to mention — we think that if an unbeliever goes to church for the first time nothing ought to sound strange to him at all. How odd is that? And so we want a Bible translation that sounds like contemporary English, with short, easy-to-understand sentences, no strange words — and no work for the hearer to do.
And that relates to another culprit, namely our own laziness. We want the translator to do the work of interpretation for us, to remove the ambiguities, to change “flesh” to “sinful nature” if that’s what he thinks it means in a particular passage (yes, I’m thinking of the NIV here). And so we lose the striking images and metaphors and strong language of Scripture in the interests of ease.
But there’s at least one other culprit, which we find even in Daniell’s own book. He writes:
The New Testament was written in the ordinary Greek of everyday literature, biographies, historical writings or fictions: in other words, the contemporary “hellenistic” Greek. Only the first four verses of St Luke’s Gospel are in the stylised “classical” Greek of historiography, though the prologues to some of the Epistles follow classical Greek styles (3).
There you have the scholarly justification for the modern approach to translation: The New Testament was written in contemporary, ordinary, everyday Greek (for which the technical term is koine) and so it ought to be translated, not into the heightened language that the translators of the KJV chose to use, but rather in contemporary, ordinary, everyday English.
But is Daniell correct? I don’t think so. Sure, there are lots of similarities between New Testament Greek and koine. But there are also a lot of differences, which are largely due to the NT writers being heavily influenced by the Scriptures in Hebrew. What we have in the NT is not just ordinary Greek; it’s Greek strongly under the influence of biblical Hebrew.
It’s also frequently heightened language, though we might not know it from our modern translations. Again and again in his letter to the Philippians, for instance, Paul affixes the prefix sum (which is roughly equivalent to our co-) to words (e.g., “co-partners”, 1:7; “co-struggling,” 1:27; “co-souled,” 2:2; “co-rejoice,” 2:17, 18; “co-worker,” 2:25; “co-soldier,” 2:25; “co-imitators,” 3:17; “co-yokebearer,” 3:3; “co-struggled,” 3:3). Some of those may have been common terms, but others? I bet Paul made them up. He uses them — coins them even, perhaps — precisely to drive home one of the themes of the letter, namely, the unity of the church. The heightened language is not accidental, nor does it get in the way of the message (as if it would have been better for Paul to speak in ordinary language); it’s deliberate and it communicates the message.
When modern translations opt for “uniform dreariness,” it seems to me, we’re not just losing some of the beauty of Scripture. We’re also at least in danger of losing some of the message, too.
A while back, I was blogging some things I had gleaned from Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles. I hadn’t intended to give up that project, but I did get sidetracked into a bunch of other things. In my last blog entry on this book, I talked about Peterson’s distinction between learning and schooling. Peterson argues that in schooling, because of a drive toward standardization and uniform performance, there is a strong emphasis on the learning of facts and on the transfer of data from the teacher to the student “with as little personal contamination as possible” (94). He goes on to say that this approach to education affects our ability to read:
The reading skills that we acquire under such conditions are inevitably attentive primarily to the informational: we are taught to read for the factual, the useful, the relevant. Most pastors have twenty years or so of such training. We read to pass examinations, to find out how to parse a Greek verb or to run a church office. If we read occasionally to divert ourselves on a cold winter’s night it is not counted as serious reading. We are not systematically taught over these twenty years (I don’t count an occasional course as “training”) to pick up nuance and allusion, catching the meaning and intent of the living voice behind the words on the page. As a result we are impatient with metaphor and irritated at ambiguity. But these are the stock-in-trade of persons, the most unpredictable of creatures, using language at their most personal and best. Our schooling has narrowed our attitude toward reading: we want to know what is going on so that we can get on our way. If it is not useful to us in doing our job or getting a better one, we don’t see the point (94-95).
Peterson goes on to say that, though language does provide information, its primary purpose is relational:
The primary reason for a book is to put a writer into relation with readers so that we can listen to his or her stories and find ourselves in them, listen to his or her songs and sing with them, listen to his or her answers and question them. The Scriptures are almost entirely this kind of book. If we read them impersonally with an information-gathering mind, we misread them (95).
I’m not sure if Peterson means to imply that we are to question the answers God gives in Scripture, and surely questioning is not the only thing we are to do with someone’s answers. But leaving that aside, Peterson’s point is worth pondering.
How much exegesis is really a give-me-the-facts or give-me-something-useful approach to reading the text of Scripture? The Bible is full of poetry, of metaphor, of allusion, of recurring patterns, of “deep weird” comments, of long lists, of a host of things that may not at first seem all that helpful. What am I do to with all the repetition in Numbers 7? Wouldn’t it have been better to say it all once (“Each prince presented …”) instead of saying it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again? Would we really have lost any information if Moses had simply given us a summary? And why did we need to know this stuff anyway? How does having this information help us? And so, as Peterson says, when we read for information or for something we think will be useful, we get frustrated with the Bible as it is.
There are certainly things that we can do to improve our reading — better: our hearing — of Scripture. But Peterson is suggesting that one thing that would help would be a change in our approach to education, so that reading is not presented primarily as a fact-finding mission.
I realize that I know little about how literature is taught today, even in classical Christian schools. So I’ll end with questions instead of ignorant assertions, and hope that someone who knows more (or better) than I do can help answer some of them.
Is Peterson right? Do we do students a disservice with regard to their reading of the Bible — or of literature — by such things as focusing on whether the student picked up certain facts from reading a novel (e.g., a quiz on Pride and Prejudice that focuses on names and relationship and who did what and so forth) or by requiring students to paraphrase or summarize or (the thing I hated the most in school) find the theme of a given story or poem? How could we improve our teaching of literature — and of reading in general — so that our reading of the Bible may also be improved?
Here’s something from a letter, dated October 18, 1919, from C. S. Lewis to his friend Arthur Greeves:
I am not very fond of Euripedes’ Media: but as regards the underworking of the possibilities which you mention, you must remember that the translation has to be rather stiff â€” tied by the double chains of fidelity to the original and the demands of its own metres, it cannot have the freedom and therefore cannot have the passion of the real thing.Â As well, even in reading the Greek we must miss a lot.Â We call it “statuesque” and “restrained” because at the distance of 2500 years we cannot catch the subtler points â€” the associations of a word, the homeliness of some phrazes [sic] and the unexpected strangeness of others.Â All this we, as foreigners, don’t see â€” and are therefore inclined to assume that it wasn’t there. â€” C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, 1:467-368.
What Lewis saysÂ hereÂ may be obvious, but itÂ jumped out at me in this letter as it hadn’t before.Â Â We must miss a lot of allusions and subtle hints, a lot of surprises and a lot of the richness of ancient literature.Â Perhaps we think some things are strikingly beautiful when theÂ original audience would have found them rather dull, or vice versa.Â Perhaps we thinkÂ that a conversation in an ancient play isÂ straightforward when an ancient audience would have been able to “read between the lines” andÂ hear how thatÂ superficially straightforward conversation operates on several levels at once.
What Lewis writes about here isÂ part of the challenge we face as interpreters of the Bible, too.Â We read passages and they mean very little to us, or we conclude that their meaning is very slight and all on the surface, in part because we’re reading these passages thousands of years after they were written.
So, for instance, we read the line in Exodus 15:27 â€”Â “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the water” â€” and we think that Moses must have suddenly felt the urge to provide a bit of color, a bit of description.Â Or, at most, perhaps he’s simply emphasizing how well the Lord provided for Israel after the hardships at Marah.Â But that’s it.Â Most commentaries simply skim over this verse or provide a pious comment (which is not wrong) about God’s provision.Â If we’re reading the text as people of our own day, this verse means little to us.
But to someone who was steeped in the Scriptures, the references to twelve and seventy, to trees and water, would stand out.Â He might see those twelve springs of water as aÂ symbolic reference toÂ the twelve tribes of Israel, for instance, and the seventy palm trees as a reference to the seventy nations of the world (Gen. 10).Â He might think about the connotations of water and trees, going back to the GardenÂ (Gen. 2).Â His imagination, shaped by the Scriptures, might run forward to the Temple with its bronze sea and garden imagery, to Ezekiel 47 where the water flows out to the world,Â to Revelation 22, and so forth.
Here’s anotherÂ example.Â When Mark starts his Gospel, he writes, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son ofÂ God.”Â We read through that verse and barely notice the words.Â But all of theÂ words are significant.Â What’sÂ the “gospel” here?Â Â Reading this verse superficially, we might think that it’s a reference to the book Mark is writing.Â Or we might take it simply as referring to how the good news about Jesus began with the coming ofÂ John the Baptist.
But if we were steeped in the Scriptures, we might think back to the prophecies of Isaiah where “good news” is proclaimed (e.g., Isaiah 40),Â which is, in particular, the good news that Yahweh is returning to rescue and rule His people.Â And if we wereÂ citizens of the Roman empire, as Mark’s original readers were, there might be another connotation,Â as well.Â Â A “gospel” was the announcement of the birth or the victory or theÂ rise to power of an emperor.Â Mark’sÂ Gospel is a “gospel” in theÂ Isaiah 40 sense, but it’s also a “gospel” in this Greco-Roman sense, since it is theÂ story of the coming of the King.Â Â But it’s easy for us to miss those connotations.Â
What Lewis writes may incline us to give up: We can’t understand all the meanings of words, the subtle allusions that a contemporary of Euripedes would have caught, and so forth, and therefore our understanding and appreciation of ancient literature (including the Bible) are always diminished.
I don’t believe that’s necessarily true of the Bible, though.Â Perhaps we will struggle to understand some things.Â Perhaps certain words won’t jump out at us the way they would to, say, Mark’s contemporaries.Â But I do believe that God has given us enough to understand His Word.Â That isn’t true of Euripedes, but it is true of Scripture.
We may learn new things as we study the ancient world, and that may help us understand Scripture.Â There are words we can’t translate because they appear only once in the Hebrew Bible.Â ForÂ now, we make intelligent guesses.Â Â But maybe someday we’ll discover something that helps us get the right translation of those words.Â But we still know enough to understand God’s Word.
But what is most important is that we be saturated in Scripture so that we catch more of the allusions, so that we know the flow of the story, and so forth.Â Will we ever fathom all of Scripture’s depths?Â No.Â Will our understanding always be that of foreigners who can’t grasp the richness of the story?Â Perhaps in some sense.Â But not in another.Â Scripture wasn’t addressed simply and solely to people of one generation.Â It was addressed to us also, and if we are followers of the Word then nothing in the Word can be completely foreign to us.
Here is a recent interview with N. T. Wright by Trevin Wax at Asbury Seminary.Â Here’s a snippet, but the whole thing is really worth reading:
As Iâ€™ve said before, God is going to fix the whole world. Heâ€™s going to put the whole world to rights. But actually, the advance plan for that is to put human beings to rights in advance. And when that happens, which is what happens through the gospel, it isnâ€™t just, Phew! Iâ€™m okay now so Iâ€™m going to heaven! Itâ€™s I am actually being put right, in order that I can be part of that ongoing purpose.In other words, itâ€™s both conversion and call, which as it was for Paulâ€¦ converted to see that Jesus is the Messiah, which heâ€™d never dreamt of before, called simultaneously ipso facto to be the apostle to the Gentiles. And in the same way, when the gospel reaches an individual, it is so that they can take part in Godâ€™s larger kingdom project.
You can listen to the interview here, if you prefer.
It’s come to my attention that there are some people who teach that we shouldn’t identify something in the Old Testament as a type of Christ unless the New Testament makes that identification explicit.Â So it’s okay to say that the rock in the wilderness was a type of Christ because Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 10.Â But it’s not okay to say that the story of Joseph is a type of Christ because the New Testament never says so, even though it should be clear to any Christian reading Genesis that Joseph is rejected by his brothers, goes down to the pit, rises again in glory, ascends to the throne at the right hand of the king, is reconciled to his brothers, and ends up feeding the world, so that all the nations are blessed in him.Â In spite of how much that sounds like Christ, this view says, the New Testament doesn’t say explicitly that Joseph is a type of Christ and therefore we shouldn’t either.
Here’s a question I have for such people: When God says in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, do you think that’s talking about Christ’s victory over Satan?Â Surely the answer would beÂ “Yes.”Â Â I don’t think that’s the only thing that promise refers to.Â It includes other victories over enemies, other crushings of the heads of serpents, such as Jael’s crushing the head of Sisera or David’s crushing the head of Goliath.Â But surely that promise ultimately points to Christ’s victory over Satan, the crushing of Satan’s head.
But where does the New Testament ever make that typology explicit?Â There are certainly passages which talk about Christ triumphing over Satan (e.g., Col. 2:15), but they don’t allude to Genesis 3:15.Â In Revelation 12:9, we hear about the “great dragon,” who is “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan,” but even here we don’t hear that Christ crushed his head.Â Instead, we’re told that war broke out and Michael won the victory and cast the serpent to the earth.
The only fairly clear allusion to Genesis 3:15 that I can think of in the New Testament is in Romans 16:20: “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.”Â But here it’s the church which has SatanÂ crushed under its feet.Â Granted, the church is the body of Christ, and so this may be (and I think is) a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, but it certainly doesn’t state explicitly that Genesis 3:15 is speaking about Christ.
Furthermore,Â the only explicit connection to Genesis 3:15 here in Romans 16 might be the term “crush.”Â After all, Genesis 3:15 says nothing about feet, and Romans 16:20 says nothing about the serpent, its head, or its bruising of someone’s heel.Â In fact, you’ll search the entire New Testament and never once find any reference to the serpent bruising someone’s heel, let alone Christ’s heel.
If you can find another passage in the New Testament that explicitly indicates that the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 is a type of Christ, please point me to it.Â But I don’t think there is one.Â
On the principle of the people I mentioned in the opening paragraph, then, we may not say that Genesis 3:15 is speaking of Christ.Â But surely it is.Â And just as surely, then, the principle must be wrong.Â If it is the case that we may not identify something as a type unless the New Testament does, then Genesis 3:15 doesn’t speak of Christ.Â If Genesis 3:15 does speak of Christ, then we may indeed draw typological connections even if the New Testament doesn’t.
The Bible is a complex book.Â Consisting of sixty-six books written over several millennia, it describes a bewildering array of characters and events.Â The Bible seems especially complex and difficult to modern Christians, because, however hard we try to think biblically, we have been subtly but deeply influenced by modern philosophy and science.Â Often, even when we have rejected the explicit conclusions of science, we unconsciously adopt a scientistic mind-set.Â One example of this is our tendency to operate on the modern assumption that all ideas can be defined with infinite, scientific precision, and that concepts can and should be distinguished very sharply.
The more you study the Bible, the more you will find that it cannot be forced into this mold.Â Ideas and symbols in the Bible meld together, overlap, and stretch out in a thousand different directions.Â This is not to say that the Bible is irrational or unscientific, or that we cannot make any meaningful distinctions.Â But a modern reader cannot escape the sense that the Bible speaks a very different language than he learned in “Chem. Lab” or Philosophy 101.Â As theologian Vern S. Poythress has noted, the biblical world view acknowledges the reality of “fuzzy boundaries.”
Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck drew a distinction between pagan and biblical thought that may help to clarify this idea.Â Bavinck said that modern (and ancient Greek) thinkers attempted to find the “essence” of a thing, that which makes a thing uniquely what it is, by subtraction.Â To discover the “essence” of a pencil, we subtract its color, its size, its shape â€”Â all of which may vary without changing the nature of the thing and all of which may describe something other than a pencil.Â (There might be a red apple as well as a red pencil, a six-inch slug as well as a six-inch pencil, etc.)Â When we have subtracted all the variables, what we have left is the “essence” of the pencil, what might be called “pure pencilness.”Â (Of course, what we really have left is nothing at all.)
Scripture, by contrast, describes the essence of a thing by addition.Â Only when we know the fullness of a thing, all of its attributes, do we really know its uniqueness and “essence.”Â God’s “essence” is not some “bare minimum” of deity, or some “basic attribute” from which all the other attributes can be derived.Â Instead, the “essence” of God is the fullness of all his attributes â€”Â Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 93-94.
Lest that sound too abstract, Leithart relates it to his main theme, the kingdom of God: we can’t know what the kingdom of God is by subtracting everything it has in common with something else to determine what makes it unique, nor can we really know what the kingdom is by reducing it to some basic elements.Â Rather, we need to hear all the various ways in which the kingdom is described, all the images that the Bible uses to depict it, and so forth.Â The more we hear, the more we say, “Yes!Â The kingdom is like that, too.”Â These various images don’t contradict.Â Rather, they offer different perspectives on the kingdom.Â And just as you know a diamond better the more facets of it you see, so we know the kingdom better by looking at its facets, turning it, as it were, so that we can see it from all angles.
That’s an important point.Â But what Leithart says earlier, drawing on Poythress, should not be overlooked.Â Why do we assume that the Bible defines everything precisely?Â Probably because we’re used to a sort of scientific description of things.
But the Bible often presents “fuzzy boundaries.”Â It’s not always easy to fit the Bible’s various images of the kingdom together.Â Various perspectives may seem to us to conflict: How can it be both this way and that way?Â How can the Bible teach this and that?Â The conflict, of course, isn’t in Scripture but in us.Â We don’t understand how both things can be true.Â So our calling is to teach both, to live with the fuzziness.
Nor may that fuzziness necessarily be resolved by more study.Â It’s not necessarily the case that God has given us all the data we’d need to resolve these apparant conflicts, to figure out how this relates to that or how this and that can both be true.Â In other words, God may not have given us everything we need to produce a fully systematic theology.Â That shouldn’t scare us, though, because we can trust that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.
In fact, men in other fields have to live with a certain amount of mystery, too.Â Even in science, I’m told, people work with the concept of the “black box.”Â The scientist puts inÂ a certain input and the same thing happens every time, even though the scientist has no idea how it works.Â It’s a “black box” to him.
And so with theology.Â Think of the Lord’s Supper.Â How is is exactly that we can be nourished by Christ’s body and blood and receive His life as we eat bread and drink wine together?Â I don’t know.Â I do know that God says that’s what happens.Â I don’t know how it happens.Â I can’t explain it.Â It’s fuzzy to me.Â Calvin’s answer?Â By the power of the Holy Spirit.Â And that’s as good an answer as any.Â But notice how that answer is pretty much a black box answer, leaving all the mystery while glorifying God.
Living with the fuzzies may be hard sometimes, especially because we want all the answers and we want them to fit nicely in our minds.Â That’s part of how God made us: we want to see how things work and make them fit.Â But living with the fuzzies is another way of saying living by faith.Â It’s trusting God and echoing what He tells us, even if we don’t understand it all.
As Jim Jordan has pointed out, you can’t read very far in Scripture without encountering something that makes you say, “Huh.Â I wonder what that‘s doing there.”Â You’re reading about Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which is strange enough, but you can handle it.Â And then you reach the end of the story and find out that because the Angel touched Jacob on the hip and caused his muscle to shrink, the children of Israel don’t eat the corresponding muscle on any animal they killed.Â “What’s that all about?” you ask.Â And if you start to think about it, it’s not long before you’re off into the deep weird.
Well, that’s nothing new.Â I learned today that Origen, in his ninth homily on Genesis, pointed this out as he talked about the wonders of God’s Word:
The further we progress in reading, the greater grows the accumulation of mysteries for us.Â And just as if someone should embark on the sea borne by a small boat, as long as he is near land he has little to fear.Â But, when he has advanced little by little into the deep and has begun to be lifted on high by the swelling waves or brought down to the depths by the same gaping waves then truly great fear and terror permeate his mind because he has entrusted a small craft to such immense waves.Â So also we seem to have suffered, who, small in merits and slight in ability, dare to enter so vast a sea of mysteries (cited in Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, p. xiv).
And that’s exactly how I feel as I preach my way through Genesis 1.