Are We “Standing Over” Scripture When We Interpret It?

In a recent article in Charisma magazine Mark Driscoll made the following comments:

“When Jesus taught the Bible in Luke 24, none of his disciples attempted to interject their own opinion. You don’t hear Thomas saying, ‘Actually, Lord, I believe Isaiah 53 is more figurative in nature.’ There are really only two views of God’s Word: You either stand arrogantly over it or kneel humbly beneath it.

If I stand above the Bible, then I decide what it says. I decide what to keep and what to toss. I decide which parts to follow and which parts to ignore. I can change it, explain it away or alter it to my liking. I am in authority over the Scriptures, and the Bible is just another book filled with opinions to consider and apply as I see fit as God’s editor. In this approach, I exist to change the Bible.

If the Bible is over me, then I submit to its authority. I listen to God’s Word instead of censoring it. I obey the Bible rather than discarding it. Knowing that my finite, 3-pound fallen brain does not compare to the vast wisdom of God, I want to submit to it, be formed by it and agree with it as God’s worshipper. In this approach, the Bible exists to change me.” (Charisma, Sept. 2014 p. 52)

Let me start by saying I realize that this is a magazine article. Driscoll could not possibly give all the nuances he may have liked. With that said, this appears to be a bit simplistic.

First, we don’t know what the conversation look liked in Luke 24. Luke gives us the bare bones of what was certainly a longer conversation than what is recorded in the Gospel. So the argument is one from silence and though there is a place for that kind of argument I don’t think it works here.

Second, doesn’t everyone at one time or another “decide” what to follow and what part to ignore? We don’t offer animal sacrifices. We don’t greet one another with a holy kiss. Many don’t wear head coverings. Some are continuationists (a la Driscoll) others are cessationists. Is one group more humble than the other? Is one group being more selective than the other? When Driscoll reads several commentaries and they argue about the meaning of a passage he will eventually “decide” who makes the better case. Is he then “standing above” the Bible because he has reached a decision on what the passage says? I don’t think so. The nature of interpretation is that we struggle through the issues and come to a decision. That process can be done in a manner that seeks to find the truth and then to kneel before it or to alter it to fit my preconceived ideas. But the process itself is not the problem.


What’s the Genre of the Book of Jonah?

The genre of the book of Jonah has been a hotly contested issue. For many it is simple: Jesus refers to Jonah and therefore it must be an historical account (see Matt. 12:38-42; 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:16, 29-32). Walter Moberly offers an interesting case for an alternative reading in his Old Testament Theology. He notes three aspects which he says point in a different direction.

  • “First is the repeated use of the adjective ‘big’ (gādōl), which comes a total of twelve times: Nineveh is a big city, YHWH sends a big wind such that there is a big storm, sailors fear YHWH with a big fear, and a big fish swallows Jonah . . . this is a story in which big things happen.”
  • “Second, and correspondingly, the story line consistently has a larger-than-life dimension to it. Jonah is given the hardest conceivable assignment (the original Mission Impossible): he is to go to the capital of Assyria, the greatest earthly power in his world, and a power that had no reason to heed Israelite prophets. Jonah is a most uncompromising prophet; although it is common for prophets to respond to God’s call with an expression of inadequacy and difference, Jonah surpasses them all by saying nothing and just running away: when told to go east, he catches a boat to the west. While on the boat, Jonah is more heedless and less prayerful than the non-Israelite sailors, yet these sailors are awed by Jonah’s testimony about YHWH, respond readily to God, and even (apparently) convert to Israel’s faith. . . [he] goes to Nineveh [and] finds a city that is astonishingly large. He enters, goes a short way, and preaches what is arguably the shortest sermon on record (in 3:4), five words in Hebrew. . . . this address is surely subversive of his commission. Nothing is said about sin or repentance, and ‘forty days’ is the Hebrew idiom for an indefinite period of time and thereby would imply ‘no hurry’; existential urgency would only be conveyed by Jonah’s specifying ‘three days,’ the Hebrew idiom for an indefinite short period of time. [Moberly notes that the LXX reads “three days.”] . . . Jonah achieves the greatest success [such that] everyone in Nineveh from the king downward turns to God, so much so that even their livestock are to be included in the acts of repentance.”
  • “The final indicative feature is that the story concludes with a rhetorical question, which functions as a punch line. We are told no more about Jonah, because once the punch line is reached the unfolding narrative sequence no longer matters in its own right: the story serves the punch line. Although God’s final rhetorical question about His compassion is put to Jonah, it is presumably the reader/hearer who is meant to go away and ponder the appropriate response. If the reader’s imagination is concerned with what happened next to Jonah rather than with the nature of the divine compassion, then the reader has failed to get the point.” (185-87)

This is an impressive case. Moberly deals with the citations of Jesus as well as the “evidence for a historical Jonah, the eighth-century prophet mentioned in Kings” but to go into those discussions would go longer than I wanted for this post. I just wanted the reader to be aware that he’s aware of those issues and does attempt an answer to them.

It’s something to think about. By the way, I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Moberly this past week. It was fortunate that I happened to be reading his book. He was delightful to talk to though we only had a short time to speak.

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Coming November 2014 – “Hidden But Now Revealed” by Beale and Gland

G.K. Beale is one of my favorite authors. This fall IVP Academic will release a new book he co-authored with Benjamin L. Gladd called Hidden But Now Revealed. Here’s the catalog description:

“When reading through the Bible, it is impossible to ignore the troubling fact that Israel and its leaders—and even Jesus’ own disciples—seem unable to fully grasp the messianic identity and climactic mission of Jesus. If his true deity, his death and resurrection and his role in the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom were predicted in the Old Testament and in his own teachings, how could the leading biblical scholars of their time miss it?

This book explores the biblical conception of mystery as an initial, partially hidden revelation that is subsequently more fully revealed, shedding light not only on the richness of the concept itself, but also on the broader relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Exploring all the occurrences of the term mystery in the New Testament and the topics found in conjunction with them, this work unpacks how the New Testament writers understood the issue of continuity and discontinuity. This investigation of the notion of mystery sharpens our understanding of how the Old Testament relates to the New and explores topics such as kingdom, crucifixion, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles and more. As such, it is a model for attentive and faithful biblical theology intended for students, scholars, pastors and lay people who wish to seriously engage the Scriptures.”

Nicholas Perrin says:

“In the realm of lay readers, I can hardly think of an area that is more misunderstood than the area of prophecy; in the realm of biblical scholars, I can hardly think of a topic more controverted than the relationship between the Old and the New. At the crosshairs of both discussions is Daniel’s term ‘mystery.’ For the sake of both readerships, I’m grateful that we finally now have a book that reduces the mystery behind ‘mystery.’ Many others will be grateful as well, and will want a copy for their own library.”

G.K. Beale (PhD, University of Cambridge) holds the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Benjamin L. Gladd (PhD, Wheaton College) is assistant professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and previously taught New Testament and Greek at Wheaton College.

Put this on your Christmas list. It’s due out this November. It will be a hardcover with 384 pages and sell for $27.00.

Hidden but now Revealed


I Want to Be Like the Pharisees

In the past couple of years I’ve been reading about first-century Judaism(s). Part of what I’ve learned is that the reputation of the Pharisees has been sorely misunderstood. In fact, the reputation has become so bad that has as the second entry for the definition as “a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.” If you were to tell anyone in a church today that you’d like to be more like the Pharisees they might look at you like you had two heads. Brad Young, in Jesus the Jewish Theologian, notes how the Pharisees are primarily seen as hypocritical but this was not their reputation during the first century. On the contrary he notes “[t]he Pharisee represents piety and holiness and not self-righteous hypocrisy.” (188) He notes that “[t]he theology of Jesus was actually almost identical to that of the Pharisees. . . While Jesus criticized the hypocritical practices of some Pharisees, he never uttered a negative word about the teachings of the Pharisees. . . Like an insider, Jesus said that their teachings were good, but they did not always practice what they preached (Matt 23:1-2). His sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of some Pharisees is far different from an attack against the theology of Pharisaism.” (228)

In a new book by Rabbi David Zaslow, Jesus: First-Century Rabbi, he makes the same observations only from a Jewish perspective. Like all groups there are good and bad representatives. “Among the Pharisees”, he says, “were saints, geniuses, scholars, and hypocrites too.” (51) “Jesus seems to have challenged the Pharisees as an insider with a kind of healthy self-criticism of the movement he was so close to. His words against some Pharisees are in line with what other Pharisees later wrote, which were collected and published in the Talmud.” (52) “Jesus, along with many of his rabbinical colleagues, was critical of those Pharisees who did not practice what they preached. For example, Talmudic rabbis such as Yehoshua used to say, ‘A foolish pietist . . .and the plague of the Pharisees bring destruction upon the world’ (Sotah 20a). Another passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 3:4) declares, ‘What is the plague Pharisee? He who gives advice to orphans in order to benefit from the widow.'” (52-53) “One Talmudic source was very specific indeed regarding different types of Pharisees. The Talmud (Sotah 22b) reports that there were Pharisees who looked over their shoulders to see whether anyone was observing the good deeds they were about to perform. Such internal criticism still goes on today between various sects in all religions.” (53)

“Jesus and Paul ought to be seen as active members of the Jewish community. Otherwise, inaccurate information will continue to be perpetuated about what was really said about the Pharisees.” (Zaslow, 54)


Did the Israelites “Utterly Destroy” the Nations in the Promised Land?

Deuteronomy 7:1-5 reads

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles,[a] and burn their idols with fire.

The key phrase here is “utterly destroy.” In spite of various attempts to ameliorate this passage many are not satisfied and insist it represents a sub-Christian ethic. Stop making excuses and simply call it what it is—mass murder. I was reading Old Testament Theology by R.W.L. Moberly and thought he had an interesting take on this passage. At least it was one I hadn’t heard before. Below is an abridgment of his discussion.

“It is important initially to recognize the rhetorical nature of the text and to take this rhetoric seriously without taking it woodenly. On the one hand, the seven nations of 7:1 can hardly be placed on a map of Canaan in terms of historical geography. ‘Seven’ in Hebrew idiom often functions to indicate ‘many’ rather than a precise number (as in ‘Your enemies . . . shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways’ [Deut. 28:7]). Moreover, comparable lists of the peoples of the Canaan in other contexts (e.g., Gen. 15:20-21; Exod. 3:8, 17; 13:5), lists that vary both in the number and identity of those mentioned, suggests that the function of the lists is more rhetorical than geographical. In other words, the seven nations are probably symbolic opponents who represent a threat to Israel within its home territory. On the other hand, the strongly rhetorical character of Deuteronomy 7 as a whole is evident in its depiction of the seven nations as ‘mightier and more numerous than Israel, such that they make Israel afraid as to how they can succeed against them (7:1, 17).”

Moberly says the key term here translated “destroy” (ḥērem) can be translated other than as “destroy.” “Deuteronomy has two other verbs to express a straightforward sense of ‘destroy.’” ḥērem could be also be translated as “put under the ban,” or simply “ban.” Moberly astutely asks, “If the seven nations are to be ‘destroyed’ (v. 2), why should intermarriage need to be prohibited (vv. 3-4)? Since, to put it bluntly, corpses present no temptation to intermarriage, the text surely envisages the continuance of living non-Israelites in close proximity to Israel. . . .Thus when Israel comes into contact with the seven nations in the promised land and YHWH enables Israel to overcome them, then the requirement is that Israel should practice ḥērem with regard to them (7:1-2a). This means refusing normal practices of treaty making or being moved to pity for the vanquished (7:2b). The content of this ḥērem is then given in what immediately follows, in terms of two specific practices. Negatively, Israel is to avoid intermarriage (7:3-4), for this would entail religious compromise, since intermarriage as a rule entails acceptance and incorporation of the religious culture of the non-Israelite and thus could lead to a dilution of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH. Positively, Israel is indeed to carry out destruction—but the specified destruction is not of people but solely of those objects that symbolize and enable allegiances to deities other than YHWH. In other words, ḥērem is being presented as a metaphor for unqualified allegiance to YHWH. On this reading ḥērem is not a ‘mere’ metaphor, for it envisages specific and demanding practices. These practices, however, do not entail the taking of life on the battlefield, but rather the rejection, the absolute non-use, of that which could compromise Israel’s covenantal allegiance to YHWH: intermarriage and the presence of alien religious symbols within Israel’s promised land.” (Emphasis his. pp. 59-62)

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Where in the New Testament is Worship of the Holy Spirit?

It used to frustrate me when I would hear people begin a prayer with “Father we thank you . . .” then later in the same prayer say, “and we thank you for dying on the cross.” There was never a transition to let us know that he was now addressing the Son. We were supposed, I guess, to just figure that out for ourselves. If not, he was guilty of heresy. I say “used to” not because it wouldn’t still frustrate me today but I have not heard that in a long time.

The question of our post today is addressed by Daniel Block in his new book For the Glory of God. He says, “In true worship, the persons of the Trinity may not be interchanged without changing the significance of their work.” (50) I have abridged his discussion below.

“Remarkably, the doxologies never ascribe praise, honor, glory, dominion, or power to the Holy Spirit. This reserve is consistent with the portrayal of the Spirit generally in the New Testament. No one addresses the Holy Spirit in prayer, or bows down to the Holy Spirit, or serves him in a liturgical gesture. Put simply, in the Bible the Spirit is never the object of worship.” (50)

“However, the urge to treat the Holy Spirit as an object of worship is extrabiblical; it derives not from Scripture but from philosophical and theological deduction. It assumes that since the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally divine, they are equally worthy of worship. But does recognizing the equality of the three persons of the Trinity demand equal worship of each? On one extreme, we could argue that addressing the Holy Spirit in worship has no more biblical warrant than addressing prayers to Mary, saints, or angels. However, unlike these persons, the Holy Spirit is a part of the divine Trinity. . . . While the New Testament is emphatic in characterizing true worship as ‘in Spirit’ (John 4:24), ‘in/by the Spirit,’ and ‘through the Spirit’ (Acts 4:25), it knows nothing of the worship of the Spirit. Should Christians worship be Trinitarian or binitarian—addressing only the Father and the Son? If we agree that it should be Trinitarian, how would this look in practice? The biblical pattern suggests that this does not call for the three persons of the Triune God to receive equal and identical attention in worship. The pattern established by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) appropriately addresses praise and prayer to the Father, though other texts demonstrate that these may also be directed to the Son. When we read Scripture, the focus will be on God the Father or Jesus Christ the Son. However, it seems that the Holy Spirit is most honored when we accept his conviction of sin, his transforming and sanctifying work within us, and his guidance in life and ministry, and when in response to his leading we prostrate ourselves before Jesus. The Spirit is also honored when we give thanks to the Father and the Son for his presence and work within us, referring to him in the third person rather than addressing him directly. . . But Trinitarian worship need not be balanced, if by balanced we mean giving the three persons of the Godhead equal time and space.” (52-53)

For the Glory of God