Friday, July 20, 2007

Why Hermeneutics is Important

Here's an issue where I part company with many of my emerging friends - hermeneutics. Without trying to paint with too broad of a brush, let's just say that supporting sound methods of Biblical interpretation isn't very high on the emerging church wish list.

But it's terribly important, and yesterday I ran into yet another reason why...

My wife is an avid blogger, and she reads a lot of blogs too. She frequents a number of blogs that are passionately pro-children and large family. As a father of six, I am - of course - all for this sort of thing. But these blogs and their adherents share one very common but blemished thread, which yesterday Carmen asked me about. Before I deal with it, let me point out a parallel.

Without wanting to get into the whole charismatic/non-charismatic debate (and with all due respect to Mary), very often supporters of modern-day "speaking in tongues" will turn to the book of Acts and cite reference after reference showing how commonplace "tongues" were and therefore insisting that this should be the same today. [Again, I'm not saying this is their only argument, nor do I want this to turn into an anti-charismatic rant.]

Fundamentally, this line of reasoning is flawed. Acts is, by definition, a narrative text. It tells a story. It was penned for a specific purpose - to tell the story of how the Gospel of Christ spread against unbelievable odds. As my pastor puts it, it's to tell the world that "Aslan is on the move".

Acts is not an instructional (didactic) text, in the classic sense. It's not a "do this" and "don't do that" kind of text. The Epistles are didactic, as is much of the Torah, and other texts. But texts like Acts are narratives, and as such we should be extremely cautious about making doctrinal decision based upon them. Sound theology cannot come directly from narratives. Narratives should certainly support the theology gleaned from didactic texts, and narratives can certainly exemplify the orthopraxis (right practice) beyond the orthodoxy (right doctrine). But if your personal theology of issue ___ is based primarily upon narrative texts, you have a problem.

This takes us back to the pro-children/large family blogs my wife reads. Most of them contend that a young and unmarried woman must be "under the covering of" her father until such time as she marries. In practical terms, this means that my Bekah should live at home with me, not going to school after High School, not working much (if any) outside of the home, until such time as she marries. She is then transferred from the "covering" of me to the "covering" of her husband (where she will still not pursue a job or education outside of the home, not coincidentally!).

The basis for this insistence? That's the way it was done in the Bible. See, they've taken narrative texts about the culture and families of an ancient time period and attempted to make them didactic.

So when asked why a woman shouldn't work outside of the home, a standard response is to list all the women of the Bible that "worked" and show that they did so largely (if not exclusively) from home. But even if this were true (and it's not, incidentally) it wouldn't prove a thing about my Bekah. It's an exercise in history and anthropology, no more. Are there principles about raising my daughters that I can glean from narrative texts? Absolutely! But we can't go beyond the bounds of Scripture and make it prescribe something it really one describes.

Incidentally, if we carry this viewpoint about young woman to its natural end, we all end up pretty much Amish.


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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


I was asked a question I don't think I've ever been asked the other day:

Do you think Heaven has dimensions?

And, no, I wasn't being asked by one of my young children! This was a serious question from a man struggling with an unanswered question for some time (years, from the sound of it). He had read the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 - wherein vast dimensions are listed - and took it to be a description of Heaven (not just New Jerusalem). Anyway, in doing some homework to address this question for him, I came across a very interesting verse or two...

The first appears to be the only verse in the Bible in which "Heaven" may serve as a synonym for "God".

Daniel 4:26 They said to leave the taproot of the tree, for your kingdom will be restored to you when you come to understand that heaven rules. [NET]

I suppose there's a good chance this may have been a colloquial way for Chaldeans to speak of the divine ... I'm not sure. But at least on the face of it, it looks like Heaven is simply a stand-in for God/YHWH. I read through all 457 times the NASB has "heaven", and unless I missed something this is the only such verse. At first I thought Rev 18:20 would be another such verse, but upon further consideration it merely personifies Heaven.


Another interesting selection of verses: Psalm 89:29 juxtaposed with Rev 21:1 and Luke 21:33. The Psalm uses parallelism to show that Heaven is eternal; the other two verses speak of the someday-coming destruction of Heaven and earth. Though these verses are not the way I'd start such a discussion, it is interesting to note that they support my contention that this present Heaven and earth will not be completely destroyed and then re-created, but will rather one day be renewed and restored.


Oh, and the dimensions of Heaven question? Aside from explaining that the verses in question relate specifically and clearly to a city (New Jerusalem) within Heaven, I also found a few verses that address the vastness of Heaven in general terms. Nothing at all to support actual dimensions. I leave you with these grand statements:

2 Chronicles 6:18 "But will God indeed dwell with mankind on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You... [NASB]

Job 22:12 "Is not God in the height of heaven? Look also at the distant stars, how high they are! [NASB]


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Saturday, July 14, 2007

More Seeker-Speak

In the past, I've spent some time taking issue with some particular Seeker-speak: the language and terminology specific to Seeker-model churches. I've discussed my disdain for "excellence honor God and inspires people" here, and the notion of "relevance" here. Now I'd like to address another - "the church is the hope of the world".

I read a very interesting post over at The Ooze today. [Insert my standard "I don't recommend or often agree with The Ooze" comment here.] ...

If you'd like to read it all (and I suggest you do), here's the link. In a nutshell, the author takes issue with the mantra that (I believe) Bill Hybels first created. While I think she is somewhat missing the point that Hybels is trying to make, I agree with her in general.

Fundamentally, every single church that exists is flawed - they're all composed of (sinful) people! Of course, one could argue that Seeker-folk mean the Church is the hope of the world [which they almost seem to sometimes], but most generally they mean to paint the local church as the care-taker of the Gospel and thereby the hope of the world. But local churches are flawed. They have problems. They have dysfunction. And unless we temper the "hope of the world" mantra with this truth, we're likely setting people up for failure or heartbreak.

The more accurate truth is the Jesus is the hope of the world; His churches are merely those gathered for His service. One of the ways we serve Him is by sharing the Gospel message. But that work is often best accomplished by individuals living and moving as true Christ-followers within whatever context the LORD has placed them. Making the LORD's work fly under the banner of "the church" is perhaps just as silly as forcing it under the banner "Pastor ______" or "Denomination ______". The LORD's work is the LORD's work; our job is to come along side His work in the context He places us.

Church is great. I love the local church. I think the local church accomplishes amazing things. But Jesus - not the church - is the hope of the world.


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History repeats itself

The one question I get more than perhaps any other lately - "So, how's the search for a church going?". The answer is usually something like, "Faith and patience". That's the journey I'm on right now - one of faith and patience.

But as I was recounting the story of how I came to be in Indiana in the first place, the LORD drew my mind to some interesting connections...

For those that don't know the basics of this story:

Eight years ago I transferred from Capital Bible Seminary in Maryland (just outside of Washington, DC) to Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana. The move made sense for a number of reasons: the cost of living was killing us, Grace has some strengths that Capital lacks, we're from the Midwest originally (Michigan), etc... But the process of moving was anything but normal.

I transferred to Grace, so I knew where I'd be schooling at. What I didn't know was a) where we were going to live, and b) where I was going to work. Not exactly minor details, eh? I had a background in outdoor power equipment (think: chainsaws and lawnmowers), so I used the Internet to find all the Toro and Stihl dealers within a certain radius of Warsaw (where Grace is). I sent my resume to all of these folk ... and got nothing! So went to dealerships on the very fringe of my radius and found two - on in Kendallville and one in Auburn. I sent my resume to both, and got an almost immediate response from the one in Auburn. Before long, we were this close to coming to an agreement for my employment. We were discussing finer points of pay scale - that's how close we were. But then ... silence. I stopped hearing from them. I finally called again and things had clearly changed, for the worse. I still don't know exactly what happened, but I knew I was mad at God for allowing it.

Silly, eh? It was. Especially since I had specifically prayed that the LORD would make it perfectly clear where He wanted me. How could He have made it more clear that I wasn't to go to Auburn?! It took the better part of a day for the LORD to remind of this truth... it's not something I'm proud of.

So, after repenting of my foolish anger, I called the dealership in Kendallville. One thing (slowly) led to another and the next thing you know, I'm employed! I've been there since, and it's been perfectly clear that it was the LORD's place for me.

So now I knew where I'd school and work, but still no clue as to where we'd live. As my grandmother graciously agreed to house us for a few days and watch our two children (from her home in Sturgis, MI), we simply got out a map and started visiting the communities from Kendallville to Warsaw. We started in Kendallville (it's closest to Sturgis) but found nothing. We just kept going down the road, looking, hoping, and praying.

On the second day (if memory serves me right) we found ourselves in a little town (read: 1,600 people) called Churubusco. I couldn't pronounce the name at the time, nor did I see any apartments to rent. But it was around lunch time, so we stopped at the Magic Wand, a burger joint on the main road. As we're talking about our housing dilemma, our waitress happens by. As "luck" would have it, she's also a rental property manager! Turns out she has a house for rent that ends up working for our family for the next four years.

That's the short version of how I got where I am. And now I'm poised on the edge of a similar situation. I'm done with school and know the leading the LORD has given me for vocational ministry. What I don't know is exactly where He'll take us or when. But there have been some really interesting similarities to last time:

- I came very close to taking a pastoral position at a church in KS, only to have things fall apart near the very end. This time I remembered the lessons of history and chose to be thankful for clear guidance instead of angry at a closed door.

- Just like last time, it seems every time I find myself a bit overwhelmed or worrisome about the situation, God provides just enough encouragement to keep me on the path of faith and patience.

- Like the "lucky" encounter with the property manager, I had a similar experience in hiring the man that will eventually replace me at my job. On a whim, I agreed to place our ad with a local placement agency, expecting nothing. The very first email I received from an applicant eventually ended up being the guy we hired - not the guy I initially thought we should pursue. And thus far he's worked out fabulously. Moreover, he's rapidly turning into a good friend, too!

I often advise people struggling with patience to remember how the LORD has worked things out in the past, and trust Him for the future based (if nothing else) upon that past working. He's proving that to be wise counsel in my own life right now.

And I'm (so far) patiently, faithfully thankful.


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Saturday, July 7, 2007

"Ask the Pastor" #2 - part 3

Sorry for the lag in answering this last part of Mary's multi-part question from a few weeks ago.

For those of you not following along at home, Mary asked about Mormons, Islam, and Jehovah's Witnesses. I addressed Mormonism here, and Islam here. Today I'll finish the rest of her question: what about JWs?

First and most importantly, Mary - yes, Jehovah's Witnesses are cultists and not Christian.

Second, let me address the very name "Jehovah". One of the distinctives of JWs is their insistence that God's proper name is Jehovah. They get wildly bent out of shape when an English version of the Bible translates the Hebrew YHWH as LORD. Let me explain a bit further.

The closest thing we have to a personal name for God in the Old Testament is, in Hebrew, YHWH. There were no vowels written down in ancient Hebrew, native speakers simply knew how to pronounce the words. Thousands of years later, a group of scribes known as the Masoretes realized that people were forgetting how to pronounce these ancient Hebrew words, and thus set about the task of adding marks to the text to indicate what vowel sounds were used. So the vowels in a Hebrew Bible that you pick up today are not inspired, they were added in the 10th century (AD!) for the sake of preserving what was believed to be standard pronunciation.

But it gets more complicated. Jews from the beginning have tried not to say God's name aloud, so when they would come across it (YHWH) in the Hebrew text, they would say Adonai - "Lord" - out of respect for "the name" (Ha Shem). If they happened upon a Hebrew text that read "Adonai YHWH", they would "Adonai Elohim" (Lord God). To this day, orthodox Jews that speak and read English will routinely write G_d, instead of God.

Still with me? Okay. So the Masoretes, wanting to indicate pronunciation but not wanting to somehow violate the name of God, did what was common practice - they would say "Adonai". But how to indicate this in writing? They didn't want to actually change the text itself - never! They were amazingly faithful scribes. So instead they added the vowels of Adonai to the consonants of YHWH, which - after hundreds of years of the English language - eventually ends up pronounced "Jehovah". How that happened is a whole other story!

My point is this: the name Jehovah is entirely made up. It's an English corruption of a Jewish traditional practice predicated upon the fusion of consonants from one name and vowels from another! And I'm supposed to make use of the name Jehovah one of the guiding factors of my faith?!?

This alone should tell you a fair bit about JWs, frankly. But this does not make them heretics. Loopy, maybe - but not heretics.

What makes them heretics is their denial of the Trinity. They simply do not believe that Jesus is God. Their official website contains this and this article explaining why Jesus is God's Son but not God. It's almost amusing to read these articles and watch them dance around context and other issues. Almost amusing. Really is sad ... and heretical.

They've conceived their own translation of the Bible to cover up the clear evidence of Christ's divinity - the New World Translation. They publish tons of literature denouncing what they call the "pagan belief" that God exists as three-in-one. For them, the Holy Spirit is merely God's "active force", not the personal member of the Trinity we know Him to be.

Aside from this heresy, they deny the fundamental nature of salvation by grace, instead insisting on a works based/earned salvation.

They also deny the existence of Hell, insisting that non-Christians (which for them means strictly non-JWs) simply cease to exist after death - they are annihilated. Of interesting linguistic note: there is basically no way to express the concept of annihilation in either Greek or Hebrew. The words for this kind of thought simply don't exist. To say "annihilation" in ancient Greek would require at least a few sentences of explanation. Funny how no such explanation shows up in the NT, eh?

There are a multitude of other troubling teachings. An excellent resource is found on this page of Hank Hanegraaff's website (otherwise known as the Bible Answer Man).

In short, JWs are not Christian and I'd personally advise you to avoid them at all cost. They have a training program dedicated to teaching their new converts how to cover up the truth and deceive - that's why you never find just one JW on your doorstep. Ask a tricky question and the "elder" JW will step in to answer with their pre-scripted responses. It gets frustrating fast. Just avoid them. Pray for them, but avoid them.


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Friday, July 6, 2007

"The Greek means..."

I haven't had a rant in a while. I hope this doesn't turn into a full-fledged one, but I have to get this off my chest.

Please, would every Christian in America advise their leaders to stop saying "the Greek says/means..."!?!

Allow me to explain...

By way of background, let me simply state that I've had nine semesters of formal Greek training, plus one year of tutoring. I've studied Attic (3 semesters), Homeric (1 semester), and Koine (5 semesters). I do not claim to be a "Greek expert" or even a "Greek scholar", nor am I boasting. But I write this post as a man with more than twice the formal Greek training of most seminary grads.

Let me chronicle the path of Greek knowledge for you. I've discovered this to be true in my own life and the lives of many, many other Greek students (with 9 semesters you meet lots).

Stage 1: Infatuation - "Wow, I'm gonna study the language God chose for the New Testament!"

Stage 2: Trials and Tribulations - "Dude!, this is freakishly hard!"

Stage 3: Depression - "Honest, professor, I'm just not getting it and never will."

Stage 4: Revelation - "I just woke up one morning and - poof! - it totally made sense!"

Stage 5: Arrogance - "God chose Greek because it's the most precise language of all time, and now that I know it I can make sense of all those so-called hard passages."

Stage 6: Upon Further Evaluation (aka: Advanced Participles) - "You know, the more I study Greek the more I realize it's not as clear-cut as I thought."

Stage 7: Humility - "Greek is a great language, but even full knowledge of it alone won't solve the time-tested difficult passages of Scripture."

Here's the fundamental problem with Greek training at nearly every seminary in America:

The vast majority of students never get past Stage 5.

Because of that, these guys have graduated, taken jobs in the pastorate and boldly proclaimed from the pulpit that "the Greek says..." thus-and-so. It's almost never that simple, folks. Almost never.

So to help you non-Greek readers out, I offer this list of red flags - warning signs that perhaps the speaker doesn't quite speak with the authority you might think.

1.) Anytime you hear "the Greek...". Would you take seriously a English teacher who constantly referred to "the English"?

2.) Anytime you hear "the Greek means/says...". Trust me on this one - there is hardly any text that a preacher would ever use this phrase on that is actually that cut and dry.

3.) Anytime you hear "this verb is in the aorist tense, so it means...". The aorist tense can mean lots of things, folks. It often means what most preachers say it always means - a once-and-done (snapshot) past action.

4.) Anytime you hear "this verb is in the present tense, so it means...". Like the aorist (and all tenses, frankly), the present tense can mean a number of things. It often means what most preachers say it always means - an ongoing action.

... and the number one warning sign is ...

5.) Anytime you hear "this is a participle in the Greek, so it should be translated...". Participles are notoriously mean in Greek. Some would say evil (in a colloquial way). While it is sometimes possible to pinpoint the nuance of a given participle (though rarely), virtually every use of a participle in the NT could be taken in more than one way without doing violence to context or theology.


Having said all that, please don't think I'm devaluing the study of Greek. On the contrary - I highly encourage it! What I don't encourage is a cursory study of the language that leads to Stage 5 and no further.

Honestly, I'd rather have people stuck at Stage 3 than at Stage 5. At least Depression is more humble than Arrogance.


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