How do we read the Bible well? Part 4

2.4 Consider your view of the Church

It might surprise you to think that one’s view of the church, or ecclesiology, is an important component in competent Bible reading. Yet when we recall how, in the New Testament, the church is described as “a body” then this begins to lead in the right direction. Specifically, when we accept the notion that the church is a body then we can more easily agree to a couple of key ideas about Bible reading.

First, each member of the body is not identical: key differences between Christians allow the church to function optimally. As such, Christians need not simply recognize their limitations (regarding the many difficult aspects of reading the Bible well) but also can benefit from the gifts and talents of other Christians. In other words, it is not simply that resources are available within the Christian body but, more positively stated, Christians believe that God has equipped the church with the resources needed for success.

Second, and similar to the first point, we are able to rely on fellow members of the body in carrying out our various tasks, including Bible reading. In this way Christians can rely on biblical scholars (in the sense of not having to “re-invent the wheel” and do all of the work that they have done). Relying on scholars does not mean accepting their views or conclusions uncritically, but gladly engaging with the hard work that has already been done in order best to read the Bible as effectively as possible.

As an aside, a key implication of this sort of “critical engagement” with biblical scholars is that Christian communities, if not individual Christians, need to develop the insights required to adjudicate between experts. Sound daunting? Thankfully these insights can be developed as we engage more fully with the considerations explained in this document. More specifics on this later.

2.5 Consider the Bible

So why not start with the Bible? I hope that the preceding points have illustrated why we need to start with ourselves and our views: in order that we will be able to read the Bible better, and understand it more correctly, as per our goal!

Also, in addition to our external or physical resources there are internal, mental resources that are important. Notably, there are certain dispositions that will foster better results and others that can lead to worse results. To have a clearer understanding of these dispositions think of the Bible as a person—how do you aim to treat others? As Christians we typically seek to “love others as ourselves”: what would it mean to treat the Bible as a person?

If the Bible were a person we would want to treat him or her compassionately. We would want to approach him or her with honesty and with a listening attitude, yet also by balancing openness with a critical perspective. We would also want to value the relationship enough to engage any “differences of opinion” or points of confusion with further effort on our part to undertand (through research and investigation). Further, just like a commitment to a long-term relationship, we would want to view Bible reading not as an activity but as a lifestyle, something that is simply “part of who we are.”

These are but a few examples of the dispositions required for competent Bible reading.

2.5.1 Consider your “Bible-related” resources

Where interpretation is unavoidable resources are essential. So what resources do you think can help you interpret the Bible better?

I want to suggest a few types of resources, typically books though sometimes videos, that I and others have found helpful in this regard. I will start with the most general and move to the most specific:

1a) Introductory Guides are the most general and often both introduce the subject matter and address common concerns or confusions. Stephen Barton’s Invitation to the Bible is very helpful.

1b) Reading Guides, such how to read the Bible or New Testament are more technique-oriented, focusing on reading awareness and skills. Such books as Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth or Rece and Beardslee’s Reading the Bible: A Guide are helpful.

2) Exegesis Handbooks are similar but somewhat more specific than reading Guides, and are also helpful. See Douglas Stuart’s Old Testament Exegesis as an example.  See here for an explanation of “exegesis.”

3) Biblical Introductions, such as introductions to the Old or New Testament, offer specific information about the literary and theology of their subjects. Paul Achtemeier’s Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology is quite good.

4) Commentaries focus on a specific biblical book or part of a biblical book. Commentaries come in a wide range, from general and accessible to detailed and scholarly. For the budget minded the Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition contains abridged commentary by a variety of major scholars and covers the entire New Testament in a 13 volume set.

5) Scholarly Articles are the most specific information generally available. Articles on biblical texts can cover anything from an entire section of 10-15 verses down to a part of a single verse. In most cases scholarly articles are dense and will require 2-3 readings to be understood. Also, these articles can be tougher to source: you will likely need accesses to the ATLA (American Theological Libraries Association) database at a local theological library, where you can search by verse, by author, or by topic.

Overall, I suggest the Christians focus on categories 1a, 1b, 3 and 4. Or, for category 4, you could ensure that your church has a full set of commentaries that balance accessibility and detail. See here for a detailed explanation / buyer’s guide of the various types of commentaries.

How do we read the Bible well? Part 3

2.3 Consider your philosophy

Bible reading is made much more difficult by two, somewhat prevalent views which are infact philosohpical postions. The first is that there is only one truth or one way of stating or expressing truth. The second is that there are a vast variety of truths and so a multitude of possible truthful expressions.

The first view is inspired by Modernism and the Enlightenment, the second by varieties of Postmodernism. Insofar as these philosophies concern truth about what and how we know, they relate to the branch of philosophy called “epistemology.” Now the important part is that everyone holds some manner of belief about truth and how the knowledge needed to acquire truth and, once again, we hold such beliefs whether we are aware of / can articulate them or not. So when we are unaware of our philosophical perspectives then they function as expectations that impact what we believe the Bible can mean, and how this meaning is acquired.

On the one hand, those holding a modernist perspective typically believe that there is only one truth, and that truth equates with “reality.” A statement you might hear from a Bible reader with modernist sensibilites is “you may need to interpret the Bible, but I just read what’s there,” or “the meaning of this passage is clear to anyone using their common sense,” or again “we can be absolutely certain that this is the proper meaning of this verse.”

The view that truth equates only with reality ignore those Biblical truth claims that present God as being God of “the possible.” For example, God’s claim to love and forgive those who see themselves as unlovable or unforgiveable is not false, but is a claim to possible truth, waiting to be realized through certain events and through the passage of time.

Importantly, in each of the above three cases the modernist is making a faith-related claim on the basis of philosphical convictions unrelated Christian convictions.

On the other hand, those holding certain postmodern sensibilites (I mention “certain” sensibilities because postmodernism is much broader and more varied than modernism) typically focus on how truth is formed and used—how culture and story work to created established ways of thinking that we equate with truth—and so can abandon any definitive notion of truth altogether. A postmodern statement might focus on truth as relative “That’s true for you, not for me” or as produced “I think ideas in this passage are only an accepted norm or cultural value.”

Importantly, in each of the above two cases the postmodernist is making a faith-related claim on the basis of philosphical convictions unrelated Christian convictions.

Indeed, both of these philosophies miss the point, or rather points. The first point: as limited, finite entities human beings are always forced to interpret, and human knowledge is never final. Only God know accurately (and so does not interpret), and only God knows fully (and so need not revise or augment God’s knowledge). Yet the second point: as limited, finite entities human beings have the power to interpret, which provides valuable knowledge and understanding. God has created humans as competent but dependant knowers who can have partial yet true knowledge of their world.

The upshot of above is twofold. First, we need to balance between these extremes by embracing the tension inherent in human life and human being as valuable and productive, such as between confidence and humility. Second, in what will only be satisfying in a longer presentation, these philosophical considerations lead us toward three components that are necessary to competent Bible reading: interpretation, hermeneutics, and dialogue.

I will define each before moving on:

a) Interpretation is what me “make of” something: what we take it to mean or imply based on a number of factors that together could be called context. Further, where there may be upwards of 3 or even 4 valid interpretations to a biblical text, there are not 14 or 40: interpretation has bounds.

b) Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation: it is the laws and norms that guide the practice of interpretation and includes a sense of “practical wisdom” as to how and when we apply these laws and norms.  One’s hermeneutical lens governs the outcomes of one’s interpretations.

c) Dialogue is the practice of listening not to formulate a counter argument but in order to promote the true strength of what is being proposed. As such dialogue requires listening first, though it also requires that we maintain the ability (and willingness) to critique. Dialogue opposes both dispute and debate, and dialogue is the best mode of engaging with others about such things as what the Bible means.

How do we read the Bible well? Part 2

2.1 Starting with yourself

I believe that to become competent Bible readers we must “start with ourselves,” for various reasons. First, one’s theology (or simply, ‘theories about God’) significantly effect how one views the process of reading and the nature of the Bible as a text. Second, one’s philosophy effects one’s expectations about the results of reading. Third, one’s practical understandings also condition one’s agenda and hopes when it comes to Bible readings. As all of these are important I will take a moment to explain each.

Before doing so, I want to underscore that theological, philosophical, and practical concerns exist for every reader, whether s/he is aware of them or not. As such, perhaps the greatest obstacle that can arise for Bible readers is to remain unaware of these concerns, such that they function as powerful but invisible assumptions, assumptions that have the power to determine ‘how’ and ‘why’ we read and what we take to be the meaning and implications of what we read.

Let’s begin with some theological views that can make Bible reading, ironically, very difficult.

2.2 Consider your theology

Unless we consider our theories about God—our theologies—we will continue to read the Bible as we always have. And if we “do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten.”

Example 1

Here’s an example: some folks believe that the Holy Spirit gives or communicates the Bible’s correct meaning to Christians. In this case a Christian need do nothing more to understand the Bible correctly: s/he already has the right understanding of any passage! Now so long as those who hold this view are clear and unconfused about the Bible’s meaning then it seems logical that they have nothing new to learner, and so they should expect to “get what they always got” when reading the Bible.

Difficulties arises, of course, when another Christian who is equally endowed with the Holy Spirit comes up with a different meaning for the same passage. What do we do? Clearly we need to re-think this view, and even to reconsider it’s nature as being theological. Specifically, aside from the impossibility of substantiating this view (either biblically or practically) this view is not actually a “theology” but is instead a way of “starting with ourselves”: elevating our personal intuitions to the rank of judge and excluding other standards of judgment on the basis of a (false) theological claim.

We address this issue—and others like it—by becoming aware of ourselves, both generally and specifically. Generally, we need to develop an awareness of the motivations that prompt human beings to hold certain beliefs, and particularly to become aware of what is called “false consciousness,” by which people claim to hold a belief for one reason while actually holding it for a very different reason.

For example, false consciousnesses is at play when Christians claim to believe something about God yet they support this truth claim with Bible readings that are extremely questionable or even widely rejected by those who know the Bible well. So what’s going on? Well, seen from the perspective of false consciousnesses the person claims to believe because of the truthfulness of the view but, where this truthfulness is very unlikely (or even impossible) then its clear that the person really holds the belief for another reason, not its truth.

Through the skilled use of suspicion, which could be defined as a “wary awareness of the human propensity for self-deceit” (where self-deceit results in my willingness to embrace false consciousnesses as a means of achieving illicit goals or achieving valid goals for the wrong reasons) we can dig under or behind the stated claims and decipher more truthful motivations.

In this case, some possible motivations are: confusion, fear, or utility, to name a few.

-Confusion. It is confusing to have to work out the Bible’s meaning for oneself, and to ease my anxiety about facing this confusion I believe that the Holy Spirit communicates biblical meaning (and legitimate my belief with the self-deceptive claim that I believe it because it is true).

-Fear. Even worse, where one must work out the Bible’s meaning for oneself there is the risk that one cannot determine what the Bible means with certainty, and so one’s relationship with God (and entire belief system) could be threatened. Here again, I legitimate my belief with the self-deceptive claim that I believe it because it is true.

-Utility. In addition to being confusing and frightening it is a lot of work to try to develop Bible reading competencies, and just “living life” takes so much time. So my belief that the Holy Spirit communicates biblical meaning is useful in that it allows me to spend time on more important or imminent matters.

Example2

A second example is the issue of what kind of text the Bible is: a unique text or a typical text, like any other? Those who would see it as unique, or special, typically emphasize the role that God has played in creating (or even authoring) the Bible. Yet those who exclude—or marginalize—the Bible’s typical, textual aspects in favour of its special, divine aspects often underplay the literary, linguistic, and even historical considerations that contribute to the Bible’s meaning. The result is that we overplay God’s part and underplay our own.

Those who would see it as a text “like any other” would emphasize the text’s nature and aspects as text. In other words, the fact that the Bible’s books contains genres, that they display such literary features as metaphor, rhetoric, etc. Yet those who exclude the Bible’s very claims to be inspired and to offer specific and important truths about God often overplay the textual considerations and underplay the personal ones, such as the generosity, patience, and tolerance necessary to treat the Bible respectfully even when biblical claims seem confusing, unbelievable, or distasteful.

Instead, when we see that the Bible is both special and typical we are be cognizant of fostering (and bringing) the full range of skills and dispositions to bear when Bible reading, and thereby to develop more correct understandings, as is our goal.

How do we read the Bible well? Part I

1. The Goal

It usually goes without saying that, when it comes to the Bible, the goal of most Christians is to read it well in order to understand it correctly. The question that logically follows is: How can this best be done?

2. Considerations

In replying to that question I want to focus on a series of considerations—those subjects and concerns most likely to impact how anyone, and perhaps Christians in particular, approach the Bible.

These considerations arise out of such questions as: What is the Bible’s nature, and how important is to understand that nature in order to read the Bible it well? For example, how important is it to understand the original language, the genres and literary structures, the word plays and vocabulary, the historical setting and context, and any logical arguments of the Bible?

Indeed, How important is it to understand about the original texts upon which our current translations are based? Or, what about the process by which the books were written, and the process by which they were selected—or canonized—to be part of the Bible? What about the books that were “left out” of the canon?

Still more questions include: How important are you as the “reader” of the Bible? What is your role in the process of reading and What responsibilities do you have in reading (leaving aside for now the matter of appropriating and applying what you read)? Further, what is the actual process of reading? And if there is more that one way to read, how do we determine which are better (and worse)?

I want to propose to you that these questions (and many others) are important, and that their importance means that, as Christians, it is necessary to investigate and be knowledgeable about all of them, even though very few Christians will need to develop specialized knowledge about them, much less “expertise.”

Competent Bible reading takes time to develop the required skills, dispositions, and knowledge. More importantly, while competent Bible reading requires a variety of skills (such as the use of our intellect, emotions, imagination, our will, etc.), as a Christian my own aspiration to read the Bible competently is actually not intellectually motivated. Instead, competent Bible reading is motivated by a desire to enhance my relationship with God—to know and love God more.

In other words, because I view my relationship with God to be a “love relationship based on truth,” where my “pursuit of truth is oriented by (and toward) love of self and other,” so competent Bible reading helps me love God better, just as loving God better informs and orients my pursuit of truth (and so allows me to engage with myself and others more rightly).

Yet as Christians we need not be anxious about the task of becoming more competent readers but can instead eagerly anticipate good things, alongside of the hard work and sometimes frustration, as we rely on the one who inspired the Bible’s authors to come into clearer focus and fuller relationship.

So where do we start? I want to propose that the crucial starting place when considering “how to read the Bible well and understand it correctly” is ourselves. Next post I explain why.

Beauty: Transcendence vs Relevance or Transcendence AS Relevance?

A friend posted an article in the Untangling Christianity FaceBook group entitled “Stained Glass Isn’t Irrelevant (Or, Why the Beauty of the Church Matters).”

I was thankful for the post’s impassioned view on the value (and necessity) of beauty as I believe that Christians can—and should—see beauty, and particularly “goodness,” as both something in which to revel and as a valid starting point for dialogue about who the Christian God is / what Christianity is about.1

Yet I also found myself confused—and ultimately disagreeing—on a particular point (and what followed from it). The author, Haley Stewart, wrote: “We have so much to offer that must not be swept away in a misguided effort for relevance when what is being longed for is transcendence.”

To my mind, presenting the matter as a choice between transcendence and relevance represents an “either / or” mentality that actually undercuts her argument, for is she not advocating beauty as (supremely) relevant (so your comment that, “The True, the Good, and the Beautiful. These are the things human beings are wired for”)?

It seems to me that she is.

Further, it seems to me that just as beauty is critically important, so is the context within which we are appraising something as beautiful. This includes the historical context. And when we consider the historical context for stained glass windows in cathedrals we circle back to the distinction between transcendence and relevance. In other words, stained glass windows served a dual purpose within cathedrals or, more likely, offered one thing in the service of another.

This is Joseph Gies’ perspective in Cathedral, Forge and Waterfall:
“Back in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great had made a plea for depicting scriptural scenes on church walls for the benefit of the unlettered faithful. A synod at Arras in 1025 reiterated the recommendation, for ‘this enables illiterate people to learn what books cannot teach them.’ But wall paintings in barrel-vaulted churches were hardly discernible in the dim light.” p. 132

So stained glass was used as a means of teaching the illiterate masses and of beautifying the church.

Yet if anything I would say that these windows originally represented “beauty in the service of communication,” rather than communication in the service of beauty. In other words, their primary function was that people should understand the content of the gospel and of Christian belief, that it should be made relevant to their daily lives. This does not negate their aesthetic value (or ignore that this role is no longer pivotal for stained glass in modern cathedrals), but it shows the necessary interweaving and benefits of both “form” and “function.”

Given the above it seems to me that “relevance versus transcendence” mistakenly places each notion within its own category (and so perhaps other notions, such as truth or goodness, might also be placed in separate categories). Instead, and for the purpose of this discussion, I believe that they are all within a single category: relevance for / in the context of lived existence.

So let me ask: What if we were to see “relevance” as relating to “life and lived experience” rather than as merely concerned with “facts,” “proofs,” or “evidence?” Surely a thing can (and many times should) be the latter as well, but my wager is that relevance actually has to do with the former. And to my mind, this makes all the difference.

Please understand me: I am not stating this for argument’s sake but because I believe that situating beauty and transcendence in this manner offers something much larger (and more essential), something which I believe is also central to the point that you are making in this post. Namely, when “relevance” means “that which is essential to life and right living” this then leads to seeing beauty, truthful facts, loving relationships, lived experiences—all of it—as necessary components to a proper integration of faith and life.

In other words, I see a deep and necessary reciprocity between the experience of life (lived truthfully, lovingly, beautifully) and our best understandings of the Christian God (as derived from competent, informed Bible reading), such when properly integrated they are mutually informing and / or correcting:
a) life is richer and more authentic—and I become most my “best self”—when I live in right relationship with the Christian God,
b) I best approach the biblical text—and thus understand God more truthfully and relate to God more lovingly—when my life is oriented by the truth and love, love and truth.

So when we see beauty, or transcendence, as a necessity of “life” as well as the result of rightly relating with God then it becomes both something of tremendous value in the ‘here and now’ and a pointer (or a witness) to something greater. In both cases beauty / transcendence is “relevant” while not being confined to the narrower sense of “factual, quantifiable” relevance. If anything, beauty expands this category even as God explodes so many of our categories (such as our understanding and practice of love, truth, forgiveness, justice, mercy, fairness, etc.).

I see this to be confirmed when beauty is experienced as “transcendence.” In such cases we do not cease to be human but become more ourselves through this experience. Or better, we become more our “best selves.” Thus transcendence does not imply denying or overcoming our humanity but is the proposition of a fuller, richer possibility of oneself in the context of something greater still: for in being “superfluous” and “gratuitous” beauty points, in my view, to that which is gratuitous and excessive to its very core: love.

And so this reciprocity continues, in that the Christian God is not simply loving but is love.

What is Christianity? Part III

After several preparatory posts on this subject the time has come to lay out what, in my view, constitutes the most appropriate characterization of Christianity.

First, two caveats:

Given what I have argued previously about “owning” one’s faith I simply do not believe that a scriptural characterization of Christianity—whether by one verse, a pastiche of verses, or a whole chapter—is valid. Scripture helps people understand Christianity but cannot not represent, or sum up, that understanding.

Given what I have argued previously about the social and moral implications, among co-adherents, of defining a shared belief system I am both suspicious of the absence of a generic, evangelical characterization and, sadly, unsurprised by it.

So what is Christianity like, and how would I best describe it?

To my mind, Christianity is best likened dually to a “research project” and a “dramatic performance,” and this dual orientation reflects the dual “prioritis-in-tension” that I see in love and truth, truth and love. This post focuses on Christianity as a research project.

Why a “research project?”

I characterize Christianity in terms of a “research project” because Christianity is intimately concerned with truth. Primarily it concerns the truth about who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate. Secondarily, it concerns truth about how human beings are best to relate to one another and to the physical world around them.

In other words, the Bible contains certain truth claims with which readers are presented and upon which, as part of the very process of reading, they will necessarily pass judgment.1 So my proposal is that one responds best to these truth claims by seeking to understand them correctly and then adjudicating their respective truth value (rather than simply accepting or rejecting them).

Broadly speaking this involves three steps. First, determining exactly what the biblical truth claims actually are. Second, determining what is necessary / how to assess their truth values. Third, carrying out a process of adjudication in order to decide both a) to what degree these claims are indeed accurate (as truthful) and b) to what degree they are applicable (as real or relevant).2.

So what is a “research project?”

A research project is not simply an investigation, a way of answering a question, or a hobby. It is a sustained and systematic inquiry into and development of a field of knowledge, carried out in the most appropriate manner to both the field studied and the goal desired. In this case the “field of knowledge” would be those domains providing information and tools helpful to understanding better Christianity’s primary and secondary concerns (as noted above).

So this research project will, of necessity, be multi-disciplinary, for it focuses not simply on a text (the Bible) but on all aspects of human beings (humanity as such, the nature of human relationships, the world as the realm of inter-human relations and as an element of relationality with humanity, etc.). Further, philosophy and hermeneutics (as the “art and science of interpretation”) will also necessarily be involved because the relationship and distinctions between the human and divine, insofar as the biblical truth claims are concerned, needs to be formulated.

The desired goal of such a project must be informed not only by the project’s immediate objective (satisfactorily determining the Bible’s truth claims, in order to decide how best their truth value may be assessed, and then to adjudicate their truthfulness and relevance) but also by the project’s scope. Specifically, with respect to Christianity one is not only dealing with claims to truth but also with their putative claimant.

Thus it is impossible to engage with Christianity as a research project without the specific nature of the biblical truth claims coming into play. For instance, on my determination the Bible minimally proposes such claims as “God exists as an entity” and “this God knows human beings more truly than they know themselves and loves human beings more deeply than they love themselves.” If the biblical truth claims are false then these notions are either meaningless or at least removed from reality in a manner that renders them incompatible with the professed views of much of evangelical Christianity (i.e., incompatible with the view that Christianity relates to all of life—that it offers the “really real”).

I recognize, however, that the argument that we should start by orienting ourselves to Christianity as a research project (in order best to understand and assess its truth claims) would be rejected by those who believe that we come to know God and validate truth claims by developing Christian habits and implementing Christian practices. For these folks we learn most (and first) by “doing.”

Now I too value the mutually informing nature of theory and practice, but I submit that this scenario is not an example of such. Instead, I would argue that acting as though “God is real and God loves me” is merely conjuring up feelings about / attitudes toward God in a “fake-it-until-you-make-it” sort of way, and that this is not the way to engage successfully with self-involving truth claims: when we engage with these biblical claims as a research project we are never merely observers, but are always also participants.

Thus I begin by characterizing Christianity as a research project because it is at this level that those contemplating Christianity’s initial meaning and veracity must start. Only once we develop the tools to evaluate (and begin to see some legitimate content within) Christianity’s truth values can one—as a further, natural step of participation—begin embracing Christianity as a dramatic performance.3

What is exegesis?

Exegesis is essentially interpretation of a text, though typically it refers to interpreting difficult or challenging texts.

In the case of text-based religions (particularly Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) exegesis refers to the rule-based process of determining the original meanings of their sacred texts. The difficulties related to such exegesis are due to the differences between older understandings and current expectations.

Thus both ancient texts (such as the Hebrew Bible / Christian Old Testament) and antiquarian texts (such as the Christian New Testament) were written using conventions and according to standards that are very different from those used in today’s letters or novels. The result is that modern readers easily overlook these conventions or misinterpret these standards, and so misunderstand the text’s original meaning.

Now “original meaning” is crucial. For example, Christians and other religious adherents claim to live their lives in accordance with certain standards—to act and think in certain ways, to certain ends. Yet how do we know what those standards are? Christians rely on sound exegesis in order to apply the Bible’s meaning within its original context to the new and different contexts in which they find themselves.

So the text’s current meaning, or application, must be informed by / related to its original meaning(s).

For this reason also exegesis is “rule-based.” In other words, because ancient and antiquarian texts consistently present certain differences from modern texts, exegetes (people performing exegesis) seek to treat all such texts fairly by treating them similarly.

The core of this uniform treatment originates with the hermeneutical principle of “context.” Hermeneutics is the theory and practice of interpretation and, as such, exegesis is a subset—or form of—hermeneutics.

“Context” comes into play within exegesis in various ways.

For example, properly exegeting the Bible requires reading its various books in context—reading them as ancient / antiquarian texts written according to various literary forms (narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.). It also means reading these texts as documents containing various literary devices (hyperbole, parable, chiasm), composed for a particular audience, to certain ends (to inform, persuade, denounce, etc.).

The text’s historical context is also essential as some familiar notions had quite different meanings in earlier times, as well as having different meanings between ancient and antiquarian time periods, or between Judean and Greco-Roman cultures (the notion of slavery is a prime example).  Readers further need to be aware of the context for authorship and authentication, in that there were different rules for claiming authorship of a text, different standards for what counts as “historical,” and different rules for how stories could blend factual information and literary embellishment.

In terms of linguistic context, the Bible was not written in English and so readers need to understand—or at least be aware of—the nuances of the original languages. Further, as the Bible was a composite texts (that is, the Bible was pieced together by scholars from various ancient scrolls and fragments of texts) readers need to be aware of some of the issues related to this task of re-composition, knows as “text criticism” (which simply means critically assembling a large text from smaller pieces).

Now for a few caveats.

First, exegesis does not imply finding the “one true meaning” to a text, but rather the text’s domain of meaning in light its full, historical context. So this may mean that there are 4 valid meanings to a passage, of which one or two seem best for various reasons.  Second, exegesis does not imply that reason alone is the sole or best method of understanding a text like the Christian Bible. Indeed, the interplay between experience and text is crucial, because the two are meant to mutually informing. Yet to be clear, we are never “simply experiencing” something (such as experiencing love or cold or a vacation) but we are always interpreting our experiences.

This means that while reason cannot “go it alone,” neither can Christians dispense with reason–and with developing a skilled use of reason–when trying to exegete the Bible.

Choosing a biblical commentary

For some time I have been meaning to offer some perspectives on how to select a good commentary and which series / individual commentaries I recommend. Here it is!

Q1: What makes for a good commentary?

There are so many commentaries that it is difficult for the inexperienced to know how to assess what represents a good, mediocre, or even a poor choice. The first point to consider is that commentaries are works of exegesis and so they require the skills of trained exegetes, and preferably exegetes who are specialists in that particular biblical book. As a result I avoid, in descending order:

a) commentaries written by non-exegetes (avoid these altogether),
b) commentary series written entirely by one exegete (likely insufficient for most needs),
c) commentaries written by exegetes not specializing in the biblical book in question (acceptable but not ideal).

Regarding a), my concerns with commentaries by non-exegetes are typically:
i) they have not been properly vetted by a major publishing house (which is staking its reputation on the quality of the commentary rather than the popularity of the author),
ii) they lack critical engagement with / critical input from other experts in the field (at very least from a skilled editorial staff and peer comment, if not peer review. A very basic way to check this is to read the comments on the back cover. Are there any? Who are they made by—other exegetes? What are they saying?).

Q2: What types of commentaries seem best to focus on?

Given the above, I focus on commentaries written by exegetes who are specialists in that particular book of the Bible, and likely who are publishing in a well-edited series by a publishing house with a proven track record in this area (though some excellent works are not part of these series).

This means that I would typically “rate” commentaries in the following order, from best to middling (leaving off any commentaries written by non-exegetes as unacceptable):

1) Academic commentaries written by exegetes who are experts in the given book,
2) Application commentaries written by exegetes who are experts in the given book,
3) Academic / application commentaries written by exegetes who are not experts in the given book (or written by theologians, not exegetes),
4) Non-academic series of commentaries written by a single exegete.

Q3: What is the difference between “academic” and “application” commentaries?

The latter tend to be somewhat more approachable for the lay person, cost somewhat less, offer less argumentation for the viewpoints presented and put more focus on current application. Also, the price of a commentaries tends to align in descending order with its category, as I have indicated below.

Q4: So which series of commentaries would you recommend, in each category?

Before offering my choices in each of the four categories, above, it is important for me to emphasize that my training and specialization is in the areas of hermeneutics (both biblical and philosphical) and philosophical theology (again from hermeneutical perspective). So while my knowledge relates to biblical exegesis I am admittedly not an exegete myself. In other words, I too seek recommendations from other parties, such as my mentor or former professors, who are more exegetically grounded and have more exegetical training than I do.

That noted, here are my recommendations:

1) Preferred academic series $$$$-$$
* The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT—Eerdmans),
* The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC—Eerdmans),
* Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker),
*? Word Biblical Commentary (Zondervan)—this series covers the entire Bible.

The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC—Eerdmans)—less preferred
New Testament Library (Westminster John Knox)—least / not preferred

2) Preferred application-oriented series $$$-$$
* NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan),
* IVP New Testament Commentary (Zondervan).

Tyndale New / Old Testament Commentaries (IVP Academic)—budget option,
Application Commentary (Cross Centred Press)—not recommended.

3) Preferred non-expert exegetes / theologians series $$
Expositor’s Bible Commentary (13 volumes on entire Bible, ed’s Longman & Garland),
Brazos Theological Commentary (Brazos, a division of Eerdmans)—less preferred

4) Preferred non-academic series $
New Testament for Everyone (18 volume set), by N. T. Wright

Q5: What are examples of potentially less reliable commentaries?

Examples of commentaries in category a), by non-exegetes, that I would avoid:
-McArthur New Testament Commentary / MacArthur Bible Studies, by John MacArthur,
-Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, by Charles Swindoll,
-St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, by R. C. Sproul,
-Life Lessons Commentaries / commentaries by Max Lucado,
-Spurgeon Commentary Series / commentaries by Charles Spurgeon,
-Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, by David Platt and various others,
-Jon Courson’s Application Commentary, by Jon Courson.
-John Walvoord Prophecy Commentaries, by John Walvoord and various others,
-The Bible Knowledge Commentary, by John Walvoord and various others,
-Anyone with a commentary on the entire NT, OT, or Bible.1

Coming next: Q6: What specific commentaries would you recommend?

Inclusivity and the Kingdom of God

A friend raised this video and asked for some feedback about it. Here are the words to the song:

“Go in the joy of knowing that you have been included.
Included at the table.
Included at God’s table.
Included in our common life.
Included in the life of God;
In the Life shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Go in the joy of knowing that you have been included in the inner life of the God who is love.
Go, find joy in telling others that they too are included!
Go, find joy in bringing all to God’s table!
Do not be afraid…
for God has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.
You are included.”

My reply to this video centres on my view that God’s orientation toward human beings involves both affirmation and critique.

“Affirmation” in the sense that we are God’s good creation and that God seeks a love relationship, based on truth, with every human being (and yes, this view “cuts back” against some denominational stances that would see God’s interest in relationship limited by anything other than human willingness to be oriented toward truth and love, and thus accept God’s offer of relationship).

“Critique” in the sense that certain aspects of human nature are innate obstacles to entering into right relationship with God (and thus to be able to be rightly oriented to ourselves, to others, and to the created world around us). In other words, human beings have been created to function best when in right relationship with God,

So I appreciate and value the focus on inclusivity (and affirmation) that this video presents. I value this particularly in the simplicity and diversity of the people who attend this meal. I also value the focus on joy, which is part of one’s response to being included. Yet I have some reservations about this video as well. Here are three.

First, the video is oriented toward a context of “the table,” so I get the sense that they are either speaking in relation to the eucharist or are using this table metaphor to be God’s celebration or God’s way of being (to this end they reference being included “in the life shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”).

The eucharist (or “the Lord’s table”) is something that I too believe to be inclusive but it is inclusive to all Christians, not to all people. Similarly, we are included to be part of existence in and with God to the extent that we as human have accepted this invitation—to the extent that we have decided to enter into relationship with God and are trying to live our lives according to this primary orientation.

Second, the video seems to promote joy as both our response to being at the table and our impetus to (and response from) telling others that they too are included. Yet if joy is a result of our relationship with God, it is not the core or the basis for that relationship. Rather, we are to love God entirely—and to love God in and through the context of a relationship where we seek to know more and more about the truth of who / what God is, who / what we are as human beings, and how the two are best to relate.1

In other words, joy is derived from living in a love relationship with God, based on truth. Likewise the video’s comment about “God has chose gladly to give you the kingdom.” This is potentially misleading, almost as though God gives Christians God’s own kingdom as some form gift, rather than God giving us access to God’s kingdom a) as a place for this love relationship with God to develop ongoingly, and b) on the basis of our continued action of prioritizing this love relationship with God above all others, which is the accurate sense (see for example Luke 12:22-40).

Third and most problematically, the video offers nothing about critique. It is as if our entire relationship with God, each other, and the world around us is based on inclusion (and thus affirmation). Yet frankly there are parts of me that God ultimately rejects. Without understanding that I am affirmed yet critiqued I risk wrongly orienting myself to God, to myself, to others, and to the world around me. Stated somewhat differently, grace reigns but sin matters!

In my view, then, this video is beautiful presented but partial: it is very one-sided. And while many Christians may see this video and automatically “fill in” the gap that is this absence of critique, my guess is that many others won’t. Worse, non-Christians seeing this may naturally take this to be full (if concise) presentation of what it means to be in relationship with God. And as far as I can see, it is not.

So I while I value a number of things about this video I would seek to offer, to Christians and non-Christians alike, a presentation whose balanced nature allows both Christians to embrace their relationship with God more truly and to present this relationship to others more fully. And above all, to remind us—and proclaim to others—the true reasons for joy at this prospect: God loves us more deeply than we love ourselves and knows us more truly than we know ourselves.

In other words, out of this deep love and true knowledge we can be the people that we most hope to be—our “best selves” as the best parents, children, friends, etc. that we can (and are meant to) be. So in being loved by God (and loving God in return) we are able to be the sort of selves that can truly love, and who can truly—and rightly—love others.

And in my books, that’s something to be joyful for.

What are ultimate truth claims?

Previously I discussed the difference between truth claims and truth values. This post considers a related matter: What is the difference between a regular truth claim and one that is absolute (or better, ultimate)?

Perhaps we need to start with a more fundamental question: What are the components of a truth claim?  A few that come to mind are:

a) contents (on a scale of importance),
b) scope (on numeric, geographic, and temporal scales),
c) comprehensiveness,
d) likelihood of error / exposure to critique,
e) consequences or import,
f) degree of access,
g) degree of immanence between claim and value,
h) nature of the claimant.

In order to be ultimate truth claims would need to meet these criteria in particular ways.

For instance, they would need necessarily to be true in all regards, for all people, across all circumstance, for all time. Moreover, neither self-evident nor logically necessary claims could be considered as “ultimate.” So the reality that “water is wet” is self-evident and the fact that “mortals die” is logically necessary. Thus while both could be called universal truths, I would consider neither of them to be ultimate.

In addition, I would say that ultimate truth claims must also originate from (or be under-written by) an ultimate source. This is because an ultimate truth claim has or implies complete immanence (i.e., no distance) between the truth claim and its corresponding value, based on the nature and capacities of the claimant. This conjunction of claim and value is equivalent to saying that the claimant causes—or is the source of—the thing claimed.

Further, for this source actually to be “ultimate” it must not only be capable of having a completely immanent relationship between any given truth claim and its corresponding truth values but between all truth claims and all of their (corresponding) truth values. The notion here is that ultimacy begets ultimacy. Stated philosophically, the only claims that may rightly be termed “ultimate” are those claims made by an ultimate being—by one capable of turning the claim into reality, or validating the claim, each and every time.

Moreover, as stated initially such claims must not be contingent to place, time, or recipient but must themselves be ultimate in scope (or where in a given case they are not, this would not reflect or imply a limitation in terms of that being’s capacity to “ultimatize” the scope of any given truth claim). Finally, such ultimate truth claims not only could not be contradicted but would in fact be beyond all contradiction: they are irrefutably true and universally applicable in that they efface all other options.

So my definition of “ultimate truth claims” are universal claims to ultimacy (claims to universal scope and application that are neither self-evident nor logically necessary) by an ultimate source (a source having a completely immanent relationship between the truth claim and its value) that are necessarily beyond refutation. Let’s consider some examples.

For instance, was Jesus promoting ultimate truth while on earth?

Yes and No.

Yes in a “latent,” or restricted sense. So Jesus made many claims (about who /what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate) that reflected—and directly quoted—biblical texts (purportedly) originating from divine inspiration. Yet their “latency” resides in the fact that these claims await a future moment in order to be shown to be truly ultimate. Further, in this case the gap between truth claim and its truth value does not diminish the claims’ ultimacy because the delay is prescribed within the claim).1

Yes in an unrestricted sense. So Jesus sometimes acted to fulfill certain claims made by / about him (Matt 11:1-5, Lk 7:18-23) by doing just what was claimed or expected: by healing, giving sight, bringing justice, etc. In these cases Jesus’ own actions at that time offered the proof necessary to validate the ultimacy of such claims.

No in the sense that Jesus was not acting, and indeed is recorded as expressing no intention, to fulfill all of the biblical claims all the time. So Jesus never claimed or acted as though he was the entirety of God / that he and God the father were identical—he always pointed objectors back to God the father, via himself and the Scriptures (noting that he was “the way, the truth, and the life” and yet he had not come “to abolish the Scriptures but to fulfill them” and that his authority had been “given” him by God the Father).

In this way we could say that Jesus presented himself as the “ultimate interpreter” of Scripture by offering himself as its true hermeneutical key, so that those who believe in Jesus have the possibility to understand the Bible’s claims (to ultimate truth and ultimate reality: to presenting the “really real”) correctly.

Yet while the full truth value of the Bible’s ultimate claims must await a future moment (or must rely on testimony to past events, such Jesus’ acts of power in first century Palestine) there is the possibility and indeed, the necessity, that partial truth values are realized in and through human lives now: individually and corporately. Thus the importance of experience and above all, being a “competent reader” of oneself, is relevant to this discussion.2

My next post builds on this working definition to examine how / whether the Bible is (or is claiming / offering) ultimate truth, and how ultimate truth claims and human truth claims integrate (or not).