Archive for the ‘exegesis’ Category

This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.

From larger-than-life dictators to too-big-to-fail banks, the 21st-century world is dominated by figures and institutions that exert an enormous influence on politics, the economy, and just about every other facet of modern society. Such systems of power, often driven by anxiety and greed, must continually consolidate control and suppress dissension in an effort to protect the status quo, inevitably resulting in the subjugation and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, outlines what he perceives as Scripture’s sustained witness againstany power structure that perpetrates injustice in its frantic pursuit of temporal security. Rejecting an Enlightenment mindset that would confine the Christian faith to “the private sphere,” Brueggemann calls the church “to practice neighborliness in a way that includes both support of policies of distributive justice and practices of face-to-face restorative generosity” (11-12).

The Problem: Fraudulent Power

Brueggemann provocatively summarizes the problem as he sees it:

Public power is everywhere wielded and administered by those with concentrations of wealth, who thereby control the supply of money, who control the legislation that governs credit and debt, and who fund (or refuse to fund) military adventurism and technological advances that are often in the service of the military. Thus power refers to a network of influence and leverage that may be channeled through the state apparatus or, as is the case in our society, through the private sector with its huge corporate combines. (2)

Supporting and legitimating such concentrations of power are what Brueggemann (following Karl Marx) calls “symbolizers” (e.g., the state, the church, the academy, the media). These institutions are crucial for preserving the status quo, and often benefit from their privileged and protected status.

The Solution: Subversive Truth

In answer to such large-scale injustices, Brueggemann advocates a return to the pages of Scripture—particularly the OT—where we encounter narratives that consistently challenge all such illegitimate and self-seeking claims to power. Over the course of four chapters, Brueggemann examines the stories of Moses, Solomon, Elisha, and Josiah, arguing that each narrative illustrates a distinct way in which the God of truth, working through human agents, confronted and subverted unjust power structures of the day.

Furthermore, after exploring each OT passage, Brueggemann highlights how various NT figures drew on and extended the same subversive critiques in their own day.

Unjust Structures

Adapted from a series of lectures delivered to a lay audience, Brueggemann’s writing is clear and forceful. Readers of all stripes will find the chapters accessible and engaging. While the first two chapters seemed forced at certain points (more on this below), the latter two were more convincing, offering readers some truly instructive comments about the Elisha and Josiah narratives. Brueggemann is a creative and insightful biblical interpreter, and where he succeeds, he succeeds masterfully.

Finally, despite the reservations mentioned below, Brueggemann rightly highlights Scripture’s repeated critiques of oppressive power. This reminder may be especially important for conservative evangelicals who have at times been reluctant to critique unjust social structures (notwithstanding those related to a few key issues), preferring instead to individualize and privatize Scriptural principles and commands.1 Readers would do well to recall (and perhaps reread) Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which stands alongside Truth Speaks to Power as a sobering warning to complacent Christians (160).

Suspicious Reading

Brueggemann intentionally eschews a taxonomic approach like that put forth by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture, insisting instead the narratives he examines are “one-off enactments from which generalizations should not be drawn” (8). Additionally, Brueggemann claims he won’t make connections to any particular political agenda(s):

I do not believe the Bible points directly to any political policy or action. . . . Thus I do not believe that one can make direct moves toward or connections with contemporary issues, even though we—liberals and conservatives—keep trying to do just that. (1-2)

However, Brueggemann seems unable (or unwilling) to leave the narratives in their historical contexts, repeatedly alluding (at least implicitly) to recent examples that, in his estimation, parallel the biblical stories he explores (e.g., “banks and insurance houses” [18], Óscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. [32], “the rapacious capitalist-consumerist economy of our society” [58], Richard Nixon [115], liberation theology [121], etc.). Nevertheless, he assures us he has “no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system” (160). Individual readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Brueggemann stays true to this stated goal.

The book’s most serious flaw is the way Brueggemann’s focus on socioeconomic power-critiques occasionally overrides the natural thrust of the biblical narratives. For example, in discussing the story of Moses, Brueggemann cites Joseph, Egypt’s “food czar,” as the one who helped Pharaoh create “a peasant underclass of very cheap labor” (17-18). Later he writes that Joseph likely “turned his life toward the pharaoh and away from YHWH” (23). There is nothing, however, in the narrative necessitating this overly cynical reading. The text instead seems to highlight God’s gracious provision through Joseph’s wise stewardship.Likewise, this overemphasis on power-critiques is also illustrated in Brueggemann’s suggestion that Bathsheba may have framed Adonijah as a pretext for murder—a theory that, while exciting, finds no support in the narrative itself (53).

Moreover, drawing on his distinctive dialectical approach to the OT, Brueggemann relies extensively on a “suspicious” reading of the text (particularly with regard to the story of Solomon), highlighting the significance of subtle ironies littered throughout the narratives in question (47). At times, however, such “doublespeak” seems a bit too subtle, leading this reader to wonder whether or not it really occurs as frequently as Brueggemann suggests (48).

Finally, Brueggemann questions the historicity of the biblical text at certain points (e.g., 36, 116). However, this doesn’t prevent him from listening intently to what the narratives teach us about the God who consistently stands with the weak and downtrodden.

Greed, Denial, Despair

Brueggemann closes the book with a chapter reflecting on the implications of his reading of the OT, highlighting modern expressions of unchecked power in our world, and calling the church to live out the truth amid a society that “depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair” (162).

How the Scriptural narratives outlined in this book are applied to contemporary issues will doubtless differ from person to person and church to church. Nevertheless, Brueggemann helpfully challenges all Christians to pay close attention to God’s Word, where we come face to face with a God who consistently sides with the weak, the orphan, and the widow. Indeed, it is in Scripture that we encounter the ultimate example of righteous power wedded to perfect truth: Jesus Christ, the humble king.


1 For example, see Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford, 2000).

2 Cf. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, The New American Commentary, Vol. 1B (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 850-852; John Sailhammer,Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 266. Sailhammer writes, “First with his brothers and then with the Egyptians, Joseph’s wisdom is seen as the source of life for everyone in the land.”

In Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, Christopher J. H. Wright leads readers on an incredible journey through the rich history of Israel contained in the Old Testament, bringing to light the many streams of thought and practice that ultimately prepared the way for the advent of Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. As Wright masterfully demonstrates, it is only through a study of the Old Testament that believers can fully grasp the person and work of Jesus, Lord and redeemer of the world.

Thesis

Wright opens his book noting that reading the Old Testament “never fails to add new depths to my understanding of Jesus” (ix). This perspective is absolutely correct and a much needed correction to many Evangelicals’ approach to the Old Testament, which is often characterized by moralistic interpretations at best and complete avoidance at worst. Wright’s most complete and forceful statement of his thesis actually comes at the end of the book, where he writes that “without the Old Testament, Jesus quickly loses reality and either becomes a stained-glass window figure – colourful but static and undemanding, or a tailor’s dummy that can be twisted and dressed to suit the current fashion” (251). He rightly notes that the history of Israel “is where [Jesus] found the shape of his own identity and the goal of his own mission,” and thus believers would be foolish to disregard its serious study (ix). This is a message that the American church needs to hear.

Structure

Wright structures his book thematically in five chapters that cover Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament story, promise, identity, mission, and values. Each chapter builds upon those that came before, although they all cover a unique set of concepts relating to the history of Israel. Wright’s focused goal of highlighting some of the major Old Testament themes that directly relate to Jesus and his identity as Israel’s Messiah prevents him from getting bogged down in the complex and multi-faceted world of the Old Testament. Although he does a great job summarizing the many key Old Testament trajectories related to Christ, he doesn’t really cover any of them extensively. However, those interested in digging a little more deeply into a specific topic can consult the helpful (if abridged) bibliography appended to the end of the book (253-256).

Interpretive Approach

Fundamental to his approach to reading the Bible is Wright’s belief that each testament should be used in interpreting the other. He writes that “the Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completes,” and that “This means we need to look at Jesus in the light of the history of the Old Testament, but also that he sheds light backwards on it” (2). This Christological approach to the Old Testament rightly embraces Jesus’ own view, evident in Luke 24:27.

However, Wright is clearly nuanced in his reading, finding the most significant Christological meaning in reading the Old Testament texts as historically situated documents (28-29). One does not find allegorizing tendencies in Wright’s portrait of Israel’s history. Conversely, Wright does not deny that Christ’s advent does shed additional light on the Old Testament, at times even enhancing specific texts’ meaning and significance. He writes, “We may legitimately see in the [Old Testament] event, or in the record of it, additional levels of significance in the light of the end of the story – i.e. in the light of Christ” (28). In a related vein, it is evident that Wright appreciates the progressive nature of God’s revelation concerning his plans for worldwide redemption through Israel. He does not force “one-to-one” correspondence in connecting Jesus to Old Testament promises.

Key Strengths

Knowing Jesus has many strengths worth mentioning, but space constraints will only permit me to name a few. One of the most important is Wright’s accessible prose. He is masterful in his presentation of the material, writing in such a way as to provide nourishment for the layperson and scholar alike. Although summarizing vast amounts of material, he still manages to remain interesting and engaging. I am thoroughly convinced that every Christian could benefit from Knowing Jesus and would recommend it to anyone interested in deepening their awe and love for their Lord.

Another related highlight was Wright’s summary of the Old Testament storyline, what he calls “the story so far” (9-26). His account, following Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ genealogy, was perhaps the most enlightening (yet succinct) summary of the history of Israel I have ever read. Within each section of seven generations, Wright briefly touches on significant themes crucial for a full understanding of Israel’s story (i.e. election, covenant, exile, etc.). He continually connects the various events, figures, and situations to God’s overarching plan to redeem the whole world from sin and death through Israel.

Another great feature of the book was the author’s constant emphasis on the global significance of the history of Israel in God’s plan to bless the nations. He is right when he concludes that “the Old Testament itself quite clearly intends us to see Israel’s history, not as an end in itself or for the sake of Israel alone, but rather for the sake of the rest of the nations of humanity” (36). God ordained Israel as “a particular means for a universal goal” (38). However, in saying this, Wright is careful to nuance his words by noting that this universal end does not negate Israel’s unique place in God’s redemptive purposes (175-177). In his sovereign plan, God chose to manifest his salvation in a historically situated man (Jesus), belonging to a historically situated people (Israel).

Finally, the last key strength that I will mention is Wright’s treatment of typology (110-116). He notes that these “images, patterns and models…for understanding [Jesus]” are scattered all throughout the biblical text, highlighting significant concepts and themes important for a full understanding of Jesus’ person and work (110). He also reminds readers that typology is the study of paradigms, precedents, and analogies, and that there is consequently “nothing fanciful about typology” (111). Despite the way Old Testament typology has been misunderstood and abused, Wright walks a moderate position in arguing that it is an important part of the biblical witness deserving careful attention.

Weaknesses

Despite all its strengths, Knowing Jesus did have a few minor weaknesses. First, despite the author’s obvious pride in writing a book without the use of any footnotes, I found this omission less than ideal (x). It would have been extremely helpful to have direct access to other materials that have shaped his understanding of the Old Testament, especially with regard to the foundation it lays for the coming of Christ. Although he does provide a bibliography at the end of the book, the lack of footnotes makes it extremely difficult to trace the genealogy of a particular idea, concept, or interpretation.

The one other weakness of the book was the lack of a strong concluding chapter or section, summarizing the book’s major concepts and themes. I believe that the inclusion of such a section would have been extremely helpful, especially for the lay reader, for tying together the diverse and multifaceted strands of Old Testament theology woven throughout the book. The scope of the book and the amount of information covered would seem to demand more than the two concluding paragraphs Wright offers (252).

Conclusion

Knowing Jesus is a wonderfully rich exploration of the Old Testament, properly focused on ultimately connecting all that is written to the person and work of Jesus. However, in reading the text Christologically, Wright is careful to nuance his approach, respecting the text as a historical document given to a particular people at a particular time. Wright is a skilled writer who knows how to keep his readers interested and engaged. It is rare to find a book that so skillfully marries both content and form, especially in the field of biblical and theological studies. In light of this accomplishment, Knowing Jesus is a book I would eagerly recommend, especially to those unfamiliar with (or unappreciative of) the Old Testament and its integral connection with Jesus. Wright is correct when he says that it is a book “for people who want to deepen their knowledge of Jesus and of the scriptures that meant so much to him” (x).

Related Resources:
Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament (Christopher J. H. Wright)
Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (Christopher J. H. Wright)
A New Testament Biblical Theology (G. K. Beale)
Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
 
(edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson)
The Message of Sonship (Trevor Burke)
Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament (edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer)

Don’t Abuse Inspiration

Posted: December 15, 2011 in bible, exegesis, theology

Affirming the Bible’s inspiration does not grant us license to read Scripture carelessly.  God’s Word is present before us when our Bibles are open, but that doesn’t mean we will hear Him speaking after a single shoddy skimming of the text.  The first thought that jumps into your head isn’t necessarily from God.

[B. B. Warfield] summarized the implications of Scripture as theopneustos [God-breathed, 2 Tim. 3:16-17] with the phrase ‘what Scripture says, God says’.”  Whenever a phrase like this is used, some will imagine that Warfield is representative of those who read Scripture without paying any heed to the literary, canonical and historical context in which a phrase occurs.  However, Warfield of course had a sophisticated approach to the interpretation of Scripture, and knew how to interpret it appropriately.  When he speaks of ‘what Scripture says’, he means ‘Scripture as properly interpreted’.

– Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 81.

The Bible is not a book of incantations.  Don’t treat it like one.

The NT Use of the OT

Posted: October 27, 2011 in bible, books, exegesis, old testament

The Gospel Coalition blog has a helpful article on the hermeneutics of Jesus and the apostles, arguing that they were not “sloppy” or arbitrary in their exegesis.  The author quotes from Greg Beale’s helpful article in Themelios entitled, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine From the Wrong Texts? An Examination of the Presuppositions of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ Exegetical Method.”

It’s commonly assumed that the NT authors paid paltry regard to the context surrounding their passages of choice. “With all do respect,” the thinking goes, “it sure seems that the NT authors treated Scripture like a gigantic grab bag from which to cherry-pick whatever suited their needs at the writing moment.” Nevertheless, such a mindset maintains, “Even if their OT excursions were exercises in missing the contextual point, the infallible end justifies the exegetically iffy means.”

Beale objects to this reasoning. He writes, “[The] proposal of many that the NT’s exegetical approach to the OT is characteristically non-contextual is a substantial overstatement…I remain convinced that once the hermeneutical and theological presuppositions of the NT writers are considered, there are no clear examples where they have developed a meaning from the OT which is inconsistent or contradictory to some aspect of the original OT intention.”

One other helpful resource related to this topic is the excellent Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Beale and Carson.  This book has been invaluable for my own study of the New Testament.  While not super cheap ($37.79 with free shipping on Amazon), the book is definitely worth the price.  Ask for it for Christmas and you won’t be disappointed!

The Importance of Commentaries

Posted: September 2, 2011 in bible, exegesis, quotes

…Scripture has been read, prayed over, wrestled with, talked about and taught for two millennia before any of us were born.  Those millennia have produced settled convictions about the Bible’s most significant teachings, as well as reliable practices of interpretation.  Our primary attitude towards these things ought humbly to be that of a learner, not a critic.

One small illustration of this point might help.  I have sometimes been encouraged by others, both as a preacher and as a Christian who reads Scripture for myself, only to turn to Bible commentaries as a very last resort, when, after much wrestling and searching for myself, I still could not make out the sense of a passage – or perhaps just to check that what I thought was its meaning was not entirely off-beam.  There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find ‘the answers’ as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself.  Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later.  My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by the generations of believers who have come before me.  Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start.

– Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), p. 173

Amen!

The Bible As Theodrama

Posted: August 28, 2011 in bible, books, exegesis, quotes

Verbal inspiration is not a license for reading words out of canonical context. We need to be able to grasp the whole, and to situate the parts in the whole. The unity of the Bible is neither that of a philosophical system nor a system of moral truths. On the contrary, the unified sum and substance of the Bible are theodramatic: the gospel recounts the history of what God has said and done with his “two hands” (Son and Spirit), and indicates what we should say and do in response.

– Kevin Vanhoozer, “Scripture and Hermeneutics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, p. 46

For more on this, see Stephen Nichols’ new book, Welcome to the Story: Reading, Loving, and Living God’s Word.

O God of truth,
I thank thee for the holy Scriptures,
their precepts, promises, directions, light.
In them may I learn more of Christ,
be enabled to retain his truth
and have grace to follow it.

– The Valley of Vision

How do you approach the Bible?  Do you see it as a collection of stories relating to people who lived thousands of years ago on the other side of the globe, far removed from your life here and now?  Or do you view it as one, coherent, all-important story – the story – that gives meaning, significance, and purpose to all others?  I hope you view it as the latter.  But if you don’t, please don’t feel dismayed.  Rather, pick up the book I am about to briefly introduce and see what God does to open your eyes to the magnificent story – your story – that is hidden (in plain sight) in the pages of Scripture.

In Welcome to the Story: Reading, Loving, & Living God’s Word, Stephen J. Nichols invites readers to enter into the biblical narrative and embrace it as their own.  As he writes in the introduction, this book “invites you to enter in, to participate in, the story of the Bible…This book aims to show you the big picture so you can make sense of all the pieces,” (17).

When I initially picked up this book, my first assumption was that it would be a crash course in basic hermeneutics.  However, I quickly realized that Nichols has a much more foundational (and in many ways, more important) purpose in mind.  Rather than simply give his readers a list of interpretive principles and tools (which are important), Nichols first wants his readers to understand the overarching storyline of the Bible, the lens through which we read and interpret Scripture and the world as God’s chosen people.  To this end, he breaks up the biblical narrative into four parts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  These four themes show up all over the Bible and are provide the necessary interpretive framework through which to understand the many different poems, prophecies, narratives, letters, and proverbs of Scripture.  In devoting a chapter to each theme, Nichols helpfully summarizes Scriptures main “movements,” tracing the biblical storyline in a way that is both engaging and easy to follow.   Throughout these initial chapters, Nichols is careful to regularly connect the biblical narrative to the lives of modern Christians, demonstrating that the text has much to say to us today.  He quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who writes,

We become a part of what once took place for our salvation.  Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land.  With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness.  All this is not mere reverie but holy, godly reality. (22)

After this survey of redemptive history, Nichols tackles a few other topics in more detail.  In chapter six, he reminds us that in reading the Bible, we are reading the stories of real people who lived in real history.  He notes that,

…what we see in the grand narrative of the Bible is actually a composite of narratives.  Stories make up the story.  These narratives tell the grand movement from creation to fall to redemption to restoration.  And they do it through the lens of the lives of individuals. (94)

Chapter seven serves as an important reminder that the Bible’s story is ultimately all about God.  While we have been granted the great privilege and blessing of entering into God’s narrative, it is first and foremost his story, for his glory.  In our age of rampant egocentrism, this is an extremely important reality that needs to be repeated, over and over again.  We often approach the Bible expecting to be comforted, consoled, encouraged, and affirmed.  The Bible does all these things, but it also confronts, convicts, rebukes, and corrects our waywardness.  It often says things that will offend us if we view the Bible as “God’s love letter to mankind,” rather than a display of His glory through the history of His sovereign redemption.  Thus, a God-centered view of the Bible is indispensible to correct understanding and application.

In chapters eight and nine, Nichols examines what the Bible does to and through us as we read and apply it’s truths to our lives.  He reminds us that love for God cannot be separated from living for Him.  What we read in the Bible should have an impact on what we think, do, and say.  The Bible consistently calls us to be image bearers of Christ, through word, deed, and our shared fellowship with other believers.

Finally, in the last chapter, Nichols answers the almost inevitable “Now what?” question.  He helpfully identifies a number of “culprits” that often contribute to our neglect of God’s Word, offering a few tips to help get started and keep going in regular Bible study.  He closes the chapter with a few basic principles for interpretation and a list of further resources for those who want to go a little deeper.

One of the things I most appreciate about this book is just how simple and accessible it is.   Nichols’ summary of the biblical narrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), instructive wisdom regarding how we should approach the Bible (first and foremost as God’s story which we have graciously been ushered into), and practical tips related to actually reading the text (basic hermeneutics) all come together to make this book a great introduction to reading the Word of God and subsequently being changed by it.  It would be a great resource for a new believer or someone just starting to read the Bible regularly.

If you aren’t currently reading the Bible but want to start, consider picking up this book.  You may find that is gives you a much-needed foundation from which you can begin to really understand the incredible truths contained in this God-breathed book.  If you already read the Bible regularly, you could still benefit from this book as well, as it is a great reminder to keep in mind the overarching narrative of the Bible – the story of the great Creator of the universe who sent His Son to redeem sinful humanity from the curse of sin and death, reconciling us to Himself and promising restoration to all things when He returns.

That’s our story.  Welcome.