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Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Mastered

I was using some discipleship material recently when I came across this introduction:

“Very few Christians have a plan for mastering the Scriptures… We master all sorts of complicated skills and accomplish major personal learning and development programs when needed in our life and work but remain at elementary levels of development in the Word. In this session, we will explore the importance of every believer developing a goal of mastering the Scriptures…”

I appreciate what the author of these notes is driving at but it’s the word ‘mastering’ that I find disturbing. Is the Bible like chartered accounting – a complicated skill or a series of principles to learn and master? If the Word is a hammer and a fire, if it is the very word of God at work in us who believe, if it is living and active, then surely the cry of Martin Luther is more apt:

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

Surely we need to be mastered by the Word. And specifically by the Christ of the Word. Simon Manchester, speaking somewhat critically of his own Australian conservative evangelical constituency, warned us last year:

“I wonder if you’ve noticed an unedifying tendency… to focus on the Bible at the expense of Jesus… I do urge you to beware this trend. It’s not that we want to separate the text from the author or the text from the subject but if our [preaching], sermon by sermon, is always ‘about the Bible’ we may have missed the purpose of the Bible. And… I think it is more flattering to self to ‘talk Bible’ because we present ourselves as masters of the Bible with the ignorant masses listening to us. But no preacher is ever going to get up and say they’re the master of Jesus. And not only will we teach more reverently if we handle the Bible to see Jesus, we will also, I think, have the blessing of the Holy Spirit whose desire is to see Jesus glorified and not the guru at the front who is showing himself to be so clever. (EMA 2016)

So let’s seek, in our reading and our preaching of the Word to tremble, to find Christ, to be captured and mastered by him, to proclaim him, to see him glorified.

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It’s complicated…

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I vividly remember hearing the following warning 13 years ago:

If there is one mnemonic which irritates me more than any other it is the K.I.S.S. mnemonic – Keep It Simple Stupid. I want to say that I think that it is profoundly unhelpful. It has deeply penetrated many churches and their expectation of preaching. What it comes to mean is that everything has to be reduced to soundbite level: a few mantras that can be reassuringly reiterated and chanted in our songs and in our teaching. They tend to reduce the inexhaustible riches of Scripture… There is a cult of simplicity.

Now people will say at this point, “The simple gospel is all we want to hear. We don’t want any complicated stuff. We don’t want doctrine. We don’t want to be stretched in our thinking.” All the teaching has to be kept easy and reassuring so we come out with our egos massaged… And so many of us pastors are tempted to go in that direction to ‘buy customer loyalty’ and keep everyone happy…

Now please don’t mishear me. I’m not asking for complexity and confusion. That is a very easy thing to produce. Lack of preparation won’t produce simplicity of the right sort it will produce complexity and confusion. It’s very easy to be long, confusing and perplexing. Nor am I advocating what people are pleased to call barren intellectualism. You know the adjectives: abstract, cerebral, impersonal. No I’m not advocating that because the Bible is never like that.

But brothers we do have to tackle, graciously, prayerfully but persistently the refusal to mature that is endemic in the evangelical church and characterises so many congregations and parts of our congregations… I wonder if sometimes it begins in the approach to evangelism which focuses on the ‘basic minimum’ idea. How little do you need to believe to be saved?

…But the Bible writers and their inspired manuscripts are not simple in the sense of superficial. They are not grasped without effort… Of course we want to be understandable. We want to be clear and lucid… but there is a cult of simplicity that is actually fatal to the growth and development of the church. (David Jackman, speaking on ‘The Enduring Word’ at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, London, 2004)

Peter Mead talks similarly of the need for preachers to aim for a simplicity on the far side of complexity. So instead of staying with a quick superficial simplicity on the near side (which will be very thin soup to offer God’s people), we need to head into the forests of complexity and explore the depths of Scripture and wrestle with (or rather be wrestled by) that complexity, before hopefully emerging out the other side with something clear and presentable but much more rich and deep and satisfying (like a good Thai dish – fresh, healthy, colourful, arresting, integrated, complex).

No short cut. We need to face up to the complexity and enter the forest.

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One of the big cultural differences I’ve encountered in Kenya is the perception of written communication. Each year, in the session on communication at our induction workshop for the new apprentices we ask for the advantages and disadvantages of oral and written communication. If you asked that question of a group of UK fresh graduates I’m pretty sure that you’d hear quite a lot of disadvantages of oral communication and quite a lot of advantages of written. In Kenya we come up with the reverse – lots of advantages of oral communication and hardly any advantages of written (beyond the fact that there’s a record).

It’s a challenge to the western mind to appreciate the sentiment of the elder John who would “rather not write with pen and ink” but “see you… and… talk face to face” (3 John 13-14). It’s a challenge to those of us who gravitate towards blogs and emails rather than picking up the phone or getting out and seeing people. Certainly there are great advantages in bodily presence, fellowship over food, really connecting. The great joy we look forward to is seeing Christ face to face. And there are advantages in the process of communication – body language and facial expressions helping us get the tone and mood more accurately, immediate feedback, the chance to work things through, clarify misunderstandings, negotiate, develop a conversation in new directions.

And I was reminded by our Eastern European sisters (whose culture may in some ways be closer to Africa than NW Europe) that coming and visiting someone to talk about something or request something, rather than writing an email, communicates effort and importance and humility. It is more costly and risky but at the same time harder for the person being visited/asked to say No!

So there are lots of advantages to face to face communication but as Harrison often reminds us and as Njeri reminded me a in a recent post, there are advantages to pen and paper too in this present age.

  1. Writing gives stability, consistency and longevity to a communication. As Njeri points out, how would we know anything about Athanasius and Augustine and Luther if they had never written? How much of the detail of Paul and his missionary journeys would have survived if Luke and Paul himself hadn’t written? Oral communication can carry words a long way over long time periods but over time it inevitably gets distorted and splits into multiple traditions and versions which all recite the history somewhat differently. You can imagine the confusion after a few hundred years when one story teller recites the teaching of Paul in one way while another recites it very differently. One says that Jesus said this, while another tells us Jesus said that. We end up with different gospels and little way to tell between them which is the true one. This is why the laws of nations are written down. Some of the earliest writing discovered is of legal documents. Imagine the chaos if law was passed on orally and each policeman and judge just had to remember the law as it was passed down to them with no fixed point to refer to (we may think that sounds rather familiar in our context but that’s another story). Similarly, when it comes to organisations, having written policies is what maintains consistency and impartiality (1 Tim. 5:21). Interestingly, when it comes to the Bible, although there was certainly some oral transmission involved at certain points, compared to most ancient narratives, God’s Word was written down very early, often by the eye witnesses themselves (Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:24; John 5:46). Luke clearly wanted to move things from oral to written (Luke 1:1-4). The Bible is not just a bunch of amorphous ideas, like a jellyfish, shifting, without sharp edges – according to Jesus it is very important that every word in the original languages is persevered precisely, unaltered (Matt. 5:18 cf. Rev. 22:18-19). Our faith rests on the fixed rock of truth.
  2. Writing takes responsibility, accepts accountability. Recently a friend checked with the local government whether he and his organisation were complying with all the statutory requirements to operate as an NGO in a particular location. The council representative checked through the requirements and said, “Yes, you’ve done everything you need to do.” My friend asked, “Can you put that in writing for us? Just a note to say that we have done everything we need to do and are legal here?” To which the answer was, “Errrr, no – I’d rather not do that.” When you put something in writing and put your name at the bottom you take ownership of your words. Walter Chen: “Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility.” When we just speak words into the air we can deny them or edit them later. When we have written there is something to stand by. When God puts his word in writing he is taking ownership of it. “Thus says the LORD.”
  3. Writing indicates the seriousness and trustworthiness of a warning or a promise. This flows from the last point. When we say, “I’ll put it in writing” we are saying that we seriously mean what we say. A written warning in the workplace is a step up the discipline ladder from a verbal warning. A written commitment to pay back a loan usually has more seriousness (and legal currency) than a verbal agreement. A particular case in point is a Last Will and Testament (which if you haven’t done you should get done today!) which is a written document. As Luther realised, the whole Old Testament can be looked at as a legal Will – a set of promises that require the death of the one who made them for them to come into force (cf. Heb. 9:16-17; Matt. 26:28; Rev. 5:1-10).  Sentiments also mean more if they are put into writing too. “I love you” said to my wife is one thing. “I love you” written down for her in a letter or card and given means something slightly different, perhaps even more. Another way of looking at the Bible is as a love letter – God has put his love for us in writing.
  4. Writing gives time to think, structure, craft and REVISE. This is one of the great advantages of written communication. Once my words are out of my mouth they are gone. Once they are on paper I can screw up the paper and try again, or today just tap a few keys to delete a sentence, substitute a word, change the order and flow. I can read and check it. I can leave it overnight and read it again in the morning and find that it is far too harsh. Even better I can ask my wife to read it before I hit send! When you read the Bible you see huge amounts of careful crafting. Think of Lamentations – the way the poetry is so carefully organised with each verse starting with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. That wasn’t something that someone came out with spontaneously. Or think of the New Testament letters, crammed with theology, where every word counts. When it comes to a carefully nuanced, precisely weighted communication, often writing is best.
  5. Writing develops clear, focussed thinking & communication. Harrison has reminded us of this a number of times. Prayer letters and reports have as much value for the writer as for the recipient. It is a way to discipline your thoughts. Walter Chen again: “Writing out full sentences enforces clear thinking.” Jeff Bezos of Amazon: “There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking” (RT Chen). There is a vagueness and sloppiness and incoherence that you can might get away with in verbal communication that gets ‘found out’ very quickly when you are forced to put your thoughts on paper. As someone once said, when your thinking is confused, “Write yourself clear.” And – old advice – write something out in old fashioned pen and ink and paper before you hit the computer – that will get you even clearer.
  6. Writing can be re-read multiple times. This is a major advantage of written over oral communication. Isn’t it great to get a letter from a friend or fiancée and be able to read it over and over? My daughter loves to read her favourite books again and again. And for understanding: when I’m reading J I Packer or John Owen I often have to stop and read a paragraph again, maybe two or three times to get the full impact. Paul tells Timothy to think over what he is saying (2 Tim. 2:7) and he can do that because he has it in writing. He can read the words about the good soldier and the athlete and the hard-working farmer because he has the letter in his hands. He can pore over it, read it slowly again and again. And we can do that with the whole Bible (thank God for Bible translators).
  7. Writing gives opportunity to develop complex arguments and accurately cite sources. Oral communication can communicate quite complex ideas – think of a science lecture or a Puritan sermon – but there comes a point where a book is a better form. You cannot convey 20 points in a sermon and you certainly can’t show all the interconnections and implications and look at the issues from different perspectives and address all the counter-arguments. This is why book writing and book reading is so important. Think how impoverished our thinking and theology would be if there had never been an Augustine or Calvin or Edwards or Dostoyevsky writing serious, long books. And particularly when it comes to scholarship and the academic exercise, writing allows you the format not only to structure complex ideas but also to give credit and evidence by citing very precisely the words and work of others, something that is essential not only to integrity but also to being able to check the truthfulness of our words.

So let’s long for face-to-face but let’s also keep writing…

 

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We’ve mentioned our nervousness about the idea of ‘principles’ before. But I’m returning to the theme, prompted by an excellent article by Brian Brock, “On generating categories in theological ethics” (Tyndale Bulletin, 61.1), to add a couple more points:

  1. Principles tend to ignore the specificity of the biblical commands. Brock shows how there has been a movement in Christian ethics, since the Enlightenment, to focus on one or two big principles – especially ‘love’, with the greatest commandment and the golden rule being pointed to most often – while ignoring the huge amount of very specific instruction in the OT and NT on exactly how we should love. A ‘principle’ is (in modern thought) something that you have to ‘apply’ in concrete situations. As long as you are guided by the principle you are relatively free to work out the application in your context, taking into account all the particularities of culture, time, geography, temperament etc. Doesn’t that sound very familiar? We might say, all marriages are different, all children are different, all workplaces are different, you just need to be guided by the principle of love and work out what is right in your situation. But the Bible doesn’t seem to work like that. There are a lot of detailed commandments. At the great commission the disciples aren’t send out to “teach them to love” or “teach them the top 10 principles” but to “teach them… everything I have commanded”. God doesn’t leave it all up to us to work out the details. In marriage, for example, the Bible doesn’t just say, love (whoever, however, whenever). It says that the marriage must be between a man and a woman, that believers should only marry believers, that the love should take place within a secure public covenant which should only be dissolved by death, that the love of a husband for a wife must be expressed in Christlike sacrificial servant leadership and the love of a wife for her husband should resemble the submission of the church to Christ. It is not left to us to figure all that out. It is not dependent on context and temperament and orientation what sort of marriage we come up with. As Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
  2. Principles tend to sound optional. The Bible’s language is not ‘principle’ but rather ‘command’ and ‘promise’ and ‘truth’. The great commission says, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded“. “Let us be clear – there are no ethical principles expressly stated in Scripture, though there are many commands, in both testaments” (Brock, Ethics, p. 51). The difference is that a principle has something of a ‘take it or leave it’ quality. It is something I can apply if I want to or need to. You can’t talk of ‘obeying’ or ‘disobeying’ a principle. But a command is a word from the King that I must obey. Likewise a promise (and Brock shows that through Christ commands are bound up with promises) is something that must be ‘believed’ and ‘clung to’. Not to receive the promises with faith is at best a foolish slowness of heart and at worst a sinful hardness of heart (Luke 24:25; John 16:9; Hebrews 3-4). And ‘truth’ (e.g. that God is Trinity, that Jesus is fully God and fully man, that men and woman are equal in status but different in role) is a reality that is there and must be revealed, known, obeyed and walked in (Gal. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 John 1:4).

A word on Hebrews 5

Admittedly, Hebrews 5:12 talks of the ‘first principles of the oracles of God’ but it may be worth noting:
a) In the context these are not a great thing to be fixed on. These are seen as ‘milk’ in contrast to the solid food of the mature. The whole point is an impatience to move on from this unsatisfactory diet which is for the ‘unskilled’, the ‘dull of hearing’. In fact the way the warning passage continues into chapter 6 it looks like sticking with the first principles and not moving on may be bound up with a sinful hardness of heart and apostasy.
b) One might counter that even if they are not a good place to stay then they are a good ‘first base’ – essential teachings that you need to get clear at the start. But from the context of the beginning of chapter 6, the first principles look like they could well be Jewish/OT rather than distinctively Christian/NT (Messiah, repentance, ceremonial washings, hope of resurrection etc.). So perhaps the use of ‘first principles’ (literally ‘first lines’) here could be a slightly scolding and sarcastic jibe that his readers seem to be stuck in Sabbath School / still in kindergarten learning their ABC.
c) What the author of Hebrews is most concerned to tell his readers about is Melchizedek and how Christ, coming as high priest in the order of Melchizedek has accomplished the perfect sacrifice and has gone ahead of us and for us into the most holy place. This is what he spends the majority of his time teaching them. Where he does need to refer to background to help them understand this he goes back not of some abstract principles but to the promises of Scripture and to the particularities of how the tabernacle was set up.

So let’s leave behind principles

Let’s talk more about commands and promises and truths and the stories of Scripture and the riches of Christ.

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We’re all aware of the challenge of the prosperity gospel in our context but perhaps there is another, more subtle threat on the horizon. Here are the notes and Powerpoint from a seminar/workshop I did at the Renew Conference at Brackenhurst yesterday (incorporating some feedback and contributions from the discussion):

More feedback welcome…

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MTC Dec 2014 2

More notes and resources:

And for the 2nd year apprentices:

 

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books

With the rise of smart phones, tablets and Kindle, have the days of paper and ink passed? The sales figures for print versus e-books suggest not. The following 10 reasons are based on those given by respondents to a survey by book seller FatBrain explaining why they still preferred analogue, supplemented with some other thoughts:

  1. Sheer physicality – the weight, notes, inscriptions, feel of the cover, well-thumbed pages, folded corners, the old shopping list tucked into page 56, the coffee stain on the back and the biscuit crumbs in the middle. ‘There’s no ap for that.’ Matthew Barrett argues in Dear Pastor, Bring your Bible to Church that there is something about the physicality of a real Bible at the front of church that underlines the physicality of our faith in terms of flesh-and-blood humans meeting together, sitting under an ancient unchanging written word, remembering a physical saviour through the physical means of grace – baptism, Lord’s Supper and preaching. He also notes, as others have, that a physical Bible is much better for biblical literacy and getting a sense of context – both at the level of the whole Bible (am I near the beginning of the story in Genesis or somewhere in the middle in the Psalms or towards the end in Hebrews?) and at the level of the particular text and the verses and chapters around it. If I have a three verses visible on my phone I am far more vulnerable to false teaching than if I have my print Bible open and I can see the whole two page spread: I can see not only the verses around but quickly get a rough idea where I am in the book or letter and what happens in the chapter before and after.
  2. Learning – ‘So who studies without Post-its, highlighters and three volumes open at once?’ In their classic, How to Read a Book, the authors discuss in chapter 5 how to ‘Make a book your own’ – which basically means scribbling all over it. Not just the ‘note’ and ‘highlight’ options available on e-book readers but also 1) underlining; 2) vertical line in the margin; 3) star in the margin for the 10 or so key points in the book; 4) numbers in the margin to track the author’s points in an argument; 5) page numbers in the margin to point to other pages which discuss the same topic or clarify an ambiguity; 6) circling key words; 7) writing in the margin questions, objections or a phrase summarising the page; 8) outlining the structure of the book on a blank front page; 9) writing a personal index or reflection on the book on a blank end page. Now someone might argue that all these options exist on their new iPad but surely just using a pencil on a paper book is easier and expresses more strongly your ownership and mastery of the book (back to the physicality point).
  3. Sharing – Unless it was published as a free resource you can’t lend an eBook to friends and loved ones. And when you can it’s probably a pirated copy. This is a particularly relevant issue in our Kenyan context (ironically one of the most pirated books in Kenya has been Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat). Sharing physical books with one another is a great means of discipleship.
  4. Seeing – e-readers are getting better but they still don’t do very well on pictures, maps, diagrams. A well published book with clear text in a nice font with the right amount of space on the page is a work of art.
  5. Re-selling – A hardcopy is yours. You’ve paid for it and if it’s in half decent condition you can re-sell it. For businesses and ministries in Kenya this is an important point.
  6. Collecting – A pastor friend used to talk of ‘book collectors’ – people who, every time there’s a free book available at church or a conference, will snap it up only for it to sit unread on a shelf. That’s sad. Particularly when its a Bible. But building up a book collection is not a bad thing if its a library that you can easily turn to for reference, sermon preparation and lending to others. Sure you can have a ‘library’ on your phone or Kindle but it’s not the same as scanning along a nice shelf of books.
  7. Giving – Buying someone an eBook is a bit impersonal as a present. And if you haven’t got a Visa card its probably not possible anyway. Or it’s a free eBook which isn’t really much of a gift (though it might be a good resource to share). In the Kenyan context gifts are usually pragmatic so we’re not so likely to give books, but why not? It could be best thing you could do for someone’s soul.
  8. Shopping – Buying a book on Kindle takes about 5 seconds which is pretty cool (IF you are lucky enough to have Visa or Mastercard). But even where online shopping is a possibility lots of people (maybe it’s just a UK-thing) actually like poking around for an afternoon in a dusty old bookshop until they find the treasure hidden on the back top shelf.
  9. Smelling – ‘Books smell nice. eBooks don’t. Simple.’
  10. Being seen– With an e-book or smart phone people can’t see easily what you’re reading. All they can see is you’ve got a fancy bit of electronics. Which is a problem (especially on public transport). With a physical book, no-one is likely to want to steal it but they will be able to see what you’re reading. Now we don’t want to be posers, trying to impress people that we’re reading Dostoevsky in Russian or Calvin in Latin. But when it comes to the Bible (as Matthew Barrett points out) it can be a great conversation starter with a non-Christian you’re sitting next to or an encouragement to a fellow believer.

eBooks are a great invention and there are loads of excellent free ones out there (e.g. from DesiringGod or collected by Monergism) that are a great resource to the church (I’m reading some myself at the moment) but let’s have some paper and ink too.

And for quality, affordable, Christ-centred, paper-and-ink books in Kenya check out the iServe Africa Bookstore.

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