Reformation Day

Today is Reformation Day, October 31 – the celebration of the event that is the source of all Protestant denominations.

Yet in 99% of North American churches, including the one I attend, few or no words will be spoken of this great event. Sermons will not focus on it. This is truly a travesty and a betrayal of all those saints and martyrs who went before us by the Grace of our Lord.

It betrays the sad state of the visible church today. Mores the pity…

Book Review – Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 2/2

Evaluation

I read the author’s intent as including several overarching goals, some stated and some implied. The first stated goal is to show that the Bible is a form of literature. This is proven by the full spectrum of literary forms that are used consistently across most Scriptural genres, in both the Old and New Testaments. This also demonstrates that the extensive use of literary forms by scriptural writers was deliberate. This is effective in making Dr. Ryken’s case.

Second, having established that the Bible can be studied profitably as literature, the book seeks to analyze each Scriptural genre individually, briefly cataloging the literary devices used and a set of precepts for read the text with these in mind. Though a more complete academic treatment of each genre in possible, the book provides sufficient explanation, guidelines and examples to make each technique clear.

The area of the reading and application guidelines is where I would suggest that the book has a minor shortcoming. The guidelines or rules provided for each literary device, as applied to each genre, are scattered throughout the associated chapters. This is appropriate for initially explaining the techniques, but it is quite unwieldy in providing a set of tools for use in later application. The book would be greatly enhanced by the inclusions of either a.) an end of chapter listing of the genre guidelines developed in that chapter, or b.) an appendix listing the each genre and associated guidelines in summary.  The inclusion of an appendix would be best. The guidelines themselves, however, are for the most part clear and relevant.

The third goal is implicit more than stated. Throughout the book, Dr. Ryken refers to the importance of experiencing the stories and other forms of the text, rather the viewing them as colds fasts to be intellectually supported. He states repeatedly that to ignore the experiential aspect is to miss much of the communication and the intent of the writers.

I would agree very strongly with this. I consider to be more significant that the guidelines provided for literary analysis. I have long held the conviction that though exposition requires a strong commitment to factual analysis, the text has much more to communicate though it’s literary form. From my experience this has been actively discouraged in the church in modern times, yet Dr. Ryken’s book shows that it was clearly the intent of the biblical writers that it be read this way. I was very heartened to see this and I consider it to be the most significant contribute of the book.

Conclusion

This book makes a successful case that the Bible, both as a whole and in individual portions, should be viewed as literature. As such, literary analysis should be an equal tool set beside traditional hermeneutic techniques. The book provides a concise synopsis of appropriate literary forms and associated techniques for analysis for the major biblical genres. The most significant proposal for bible study is that the stories and other genres be experienced as much as analyzed. A convincing case is made that the biblical writers included literary techniques in order to convey an experiential meaning that is beyond that which the plain doctrinal and proof text meaning are capable of imparting.

The text of the bible is demonstrated through structure and example to contain a richness of expression that is only fully received when view from a total engaged perspective. This perspective includes all the experiential, emotion and intellectual inputs supplied by the text, and these are partially communicated almost exclusively through literary form.

Bottom Line

This book added a new hermeneutical and confirming dimension for me. It gave voice to my conviction of the importance of affective content in interpretation (something largely and proactively ignored in the Reformed community), and how that content is communicated.

Literary analysis has an important place in the interpretive process. I am not convinced that, as VP Long would propose in The Art of Biblical History, it must come before historical-grammactical and canononical analysis. However, I do feel it has an equal place with historical-grammatical techniques.

An excellent book.

Book Review – Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 1/2

How to Read the Bible as Literature
Leland Ryken Ph.D.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Zondervan, 208p
ISBN 978-0-310-39021-3

Introduction

How to Read the Bible as Literature by Dr. Leland Ryken is a call to all those engaged in Bible study to included literary analysis in their interpretive methodology and to allow a more complete personal engagement with the Biblical text. Dr. Ryken proposes that the traditional, exclusively intellectual approach to interpreting the Bible does a disservice to the literary nature of the text. This disservice results in a loss of interpretive content. Through the examination of literary devices in the various genres of Scripture he demonstrates the literary nature of the bible. He further develops appropriate sets of guidelines for the literary analysis of each genre, illustrating that this method yields a more complete exposition. He implies that tradition interpretive method alone relegates the emotional and affective content of the Scriptures to an inferior position within Scriptural analysis. This fails to allow the text to engage the reader fully, and as a result, a substantial amount of the intended communication is lost. He contends that complete engagement of the reader was the original biblical intent, a fact supported by the deliberate use of literary forms throughout the Scriptures. His solution is the use of literary analysis in hermeneutics. I agree with his position, though with some misgiving concerning application.

His techniques are able to add a significant wider perspective to both devotional and theological bible study. This supports his contention that literary analysis should have a prominent place in Hermeneutical instruction.

Background Information and Context

The present text stems from Dr. Ryken’s observations over many years in the classroom, primarily at Wheaton College in Illinois. As an English Professor in the seminary environment, he observed that while the tradition, intellectually based approaches to Scriptural interpretation were well addressed, the literary perspective was either ignored or considered inappropriate. He came to see this as completely at odds with his view of the Scriptures as literary writings. Further, he observed that a great deal was being missed in exegesis and interpretation though the omission of literary content which the Biblical authors had included through literary genre and device. This book attempts to address these omissions by developing a literary approach to interpretation. This is accomplished by introducing applicable literary genres and demonstrating techniques for literary analysis of each genre.

Summary

Dr. Ryken summarizes his book as “a ‘grammar’ of literary forms and techniques” (p10). However, in providing this exposition of forms and techniques, the book also provides extensive justification for their use as parallel techniques on equal footing with the standard grammatico-historical method. He proposes that “there is a preoccupation among biblical writers with artistry, verbal craftsmanship, and aesthetic beauty” (p9) which speaks to the experiential and emotional side of the interpreter. This important communication from the biblical writers has been ignored or denied in classic hermeneutics.

The book proposes that the sheer weight of deliberate literary devices used by the biblical writers supports a view of the Scriptures as literature. The bible also illustrates a strong propensity for communicating through the story as a primary medium, as opposed to theological discourse and proofs. This alters both the way the bible should be read and the communication it provides. As a result “The story does not primarily require our minds to grasp an idea but instead gets us to respond with our imagination and emotions to a real-life experience. Literature, in short, is affective, not cool and detach.” (p15).

The affective nature of the Bible, conveyed primarily through story but also expanded in almost all bible genres, is developed as the discussion addresses each genre individually. Beginning with the primary genre of  story, successive chapters extend this theme into poetry, proverbs, the Gospels, Parables, the Epistles, Satire, and Apocalyptic books.

Each genre is addressed with a definition, exposition of appropriate literary devices and textual examples. The examples not only demonstrate the literary devices but add additional weight the evidence in support of the Bible as literature. A set of interpretive rules emerges for the literary analysis of each genre. These rules provide a framework for the reader to apply the techniques to other texts.

The Bible is shown to be a book for stories, some related by biblical characters and others written in the lives of those historical characters. These stories communicate precepts through the experiences of people. A set of guidelines or rules are developed for reading the story genre. Similarly, other genres such as poetry have sets of guidelines for using literary analysis for interpretation. For example: ”Interpret as figurative any statement that does not make sense at a literal level in the context in which it appears.”(p102).

Throughout the discussions of each literary genre, Dr. Ryken demonstrates the use of the literary forms to communicate to the reader experientially. The motif of experiential communications is shown to be consistent over all genres and therefore throughout the Bible. For example, in discussing simile and metaphor within poetry, he states that “There is an irreducible quality to metaphor and simile that we should respect, both as readers and expositors”(p92). This irreducible quality speaks to the experiential and emotional, which is a common thread throughout the book.

The book concludes with discussion of the literary unity of the Bible as a story which “which has a beginning-middle-end pattern, a unifying plot conflict between good and evil, a focus on people in the act of choosing, and a central protagonist who is God.”(p179). These techniques are shown to combine to form a unified theme and convey “archetypal plot motifs” (p191).

All of the forgoing literary genres and techniques combine into an “affective power”(p196) which engages the whole person of the reader. The expositor and interpreter are stronger encouraged to participate in this engagement.

Apples, Oranges or Bananas?

Let’s follow a previous post discussion of fruits of the Spirit in the context of assurance a bit farther…

Before someone accuses me of discounting the fruits of the Spirit, let me state that they are indeed important markers. After all, in Galatians 5:22-23 we have “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”.

So these are significant results of salvation. Fruits grow as the final result in the plant and they appear differently for not only different plant species but occasionally even the same type of plant. Scripture does not indicate that they are the root or even a determining factor for salvation, initial or eternal. To push the plant analogy further, an apple tree that does not produce fruit at any particular point is still an apple tree. The fruit is not the determinate of the species.

If the fruits of the Spirit were in any way a determining factor, then we would have a salvation of works which would vest some of God’s sovereignty into our actions on our own behalf. For those not remembering, that reverts right back to Pelagian heresy of the 4th century. We won’t go there since this discussion assumes a correct Reformed theology.

We should also again stress that discernment of belief is in ones own heart before God, and the message of the Gospel must be believed at that level (the lack of which no doubt creates the tares among the wheat). We can not see into the heart of another and therefore can not determine their status before the Lord, nor would we be correct in doing so. As Scripture points out, only the Lord judges the heart. Our task is only to discern our own heart with the simple, straightforward message of the Gospel. That places us with the saved, or not.

So, the fruits of the Spirit are significant marks of salvation, which may be observed in the regenerate at differing times and in differing ways. They may also be observed in the reprobate. The only true assurance is from the belief in the heart of the Gospel message.

This has hug implications in the life of the believer. Those struggling with the flesh while truly believing on Jesus Christ in their hearts are not showing signs of being a reprobate. Their struggle is not the mark of the unsaved. Quite the opposite. The reprobate does not suffer angst over their sin. The angst suffered over our failures is a sign of election and cause to rejoice in the Lord (for clarification see the Canons of Dort). It is the sign that the law has fulfilled its sole function.

In conclusion, preaching the fruits of the Spirit as the marker of necessity for salvation, and assurance of such, is error, plain and simple. It does not reflect the message of Scripture and does harm to God’s people as they work through their salvation.

Assurance is drawn from ones true belief in the message of the Gospel, and that alone. And that message is about Christ, not fruit…

Congregational Identity

In a previous post, A TULIP by any other name , I posed the question “So, how and to what degree should we seek theological clarity? Does it even matter?”.

A small church pastor of my acquaintance, some years ago, proposed that not only does it not matter but that giving it any importance is wrong and divisive. In the words of the Apostle Paul “May it never be!”.

We are in effect asking what purpose and value there is in theological inquiry, and if it is mandated biblically for the congregation at large. I would propose that not only is it mandated, but to do otherwise would be to ultimately revert to a pre-Reformation state, with an all powerful Magisterium. Further, this would reduce any real Bible reading to word repetition with only magical significance, again falling back to the Magisterium understanding. Surely this not where we are lead to go!

As to the mandate to study the Scriptures, we have only to cite the Bereans, who are praise as correct for searching the Scriptures day and night to attain understanding (Acts 17:11).

Now to the purpose and value there is in theological inquiry.

Let’s start by considering an underlying issue at hand. How does a church get its identity? Or more appropriately – how should a church get its identity? Any difference between the does and the should will help with our original question.

When you think of a church with which you are familiar, what do you think of?

Do you think of their great contribution to the community? Do you think of their great childrens programs and activities. What of their assistance to those in need physically or mentally? Do you think of the wonderful people who attend there? Do you think of their support for the family or marriage in trying times?

If those are the attributes that come to mind, then those are the things that form the identify of that church before the world, the things into which their energy and thought are poured.

All of these things are good in themselves, but are they the primary reason for the church to exist? Do they bring to mind the primary place that believers are to draw identity from? It would not appear so.

All of the attributes listed are supporting things of world. They are secular in nature. All are addressed by other good and honourable agencies, possibly even more effectively than by the church. Though these good works are certainly the hallmark of the church, they can not be the primary distinguishing characteristic because they are man-centered.

Man-centered activities are of the flesh by nature, derived from the mind of flesh. As such, they are can not lead to spiritual things. As Galatians 5:17 states “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”

Things of the flesh and programs based upon it can not produce an identity that is based in the Lord. They are an anathema to one another and the identity produced is of the world.

Does this mean that this identity is bad or evil. Not at all. But is does mean that it, like the fallen man from whom it springs, is not of God and can not by definition truly please god. They do not develop an identity based in Christ. They can not. They are of the world and as such unacceptable before God. As Scripture states, they are clothed in “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), no matter how good they appear.

Conversely, do think of the church in terms of their love of Christ, their dedication to His Word, their passion to understand it, their joyful worship, their passion for glorifying Christ and the Father in everything, almost forgetting their programs and such?

These are things of the Spirit. They lead to correct understanding and to correct standing before God. They are the reason that we were created.

Part of this pursuit is the desire to understand the precepts which the Lord has given us in His Word. To follow His precepts we must understand them and His Word is our source. So (as did the Bereans) we study them, their meaning and the resultant biblical doctrine as a first priority. Following this doctrine in common understanding gives us identity with its source.

The identity of the believers and their church should have nothing whatsoever to do with the programs, works and activities of worldly life. It must be grounded solely in the Word and its precepts (doctrine). This is where the true church draws its identity and the only way it can be know as belonging to Christ. This is precisely the opposite to the worldly focus initially described.

That said, this does not denying the value of programs and activities . They are invaluable. They are not, however, the basis of the church nor the primary focus of believers. They are fruit – an after effect of correct identity, when energy is focused upon Christ and the Word.

So, back to our original questions. The sole source of identity of the church, supporting the faith of believers, is the focus on our Lord and His worship, the seeking of theological truth from the Word and the communication of biblically correct doctrine.

These matters of theology are not small differences. Correct doctrine binds believers together in worship of God, creating a solid church. Without that, identity is a fleeting feeling based in programs that succeed or fail in the world. And without foundational agreement, the body is not solid, but frail.

Identity based upon worldly matters may in fact create a church, but it is not the church of Jesus Christ.

A TULIP by any other name…

For God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I have mercy, and I will show compassion to whomever I show compassion.” So then, it does not depend on the person who wants it nor the one who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very reason I raised you up, in order to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. Romans 9:15-18

As believers, we serve a totally sovereign God, who demonstrates His absolute freedom in saving His elect as suits His own purposes. Being the result of His sovereign will alone, the calling of His elect proclaims that salvation does not depend upon man who wills or man who runs but on God who has mercy.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Giving Offence to God – Part 3

Finally, with all the peripheral groups dealt with, we come to the reason for this set to posts and the real question at hand.

2. The unbeliever actively praying.

Worldly sense would say that this person is actively ingratiating themselves to God by this act of supplication. You could say “Surely this brings blessing to this person?”.

First, their status before a Righteous and Holy God. As with all human beings (past, present and future), this unregenerate person is in open rebellion against God in two ways: 1. by not acknowledging Him as God, creator and sustainer of all that is (see Rom 3:20 below) , and not worshiping Him accordingly: and 2. by not believing in His Son as their sole saviour. Their failure is this regard results is their being wicked, as in our verse from the previous post.

The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,  (Prov 15:3a)

Or the even more pointed

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; (Prov 21:27a)

Notice that their are no caveats or exceptions. The wicked are always an abomination to the Lord. That means that their state makes everything they do an abomination to Him. Outside of salvation in Christ, can anyone be righteous in anything before God? No, not one (Rom 3:10b).

So, we have a person who is in active rebellion against what his Creator requires of him, who actively denies that Creator’s sovereignty and Son, approaching God in a way that He (God) has reserved for believers.

Let us think back in the Old Testament to Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron (Lev 10:1-2). What happened to them when they inappropriately performed what the Lord specified. Right! – the Lord put them to death. So, the Lord clearly takes a very dim view of those who approach Him inappropriate and with the wrong attitude of submission and worship.

Since, as mentioned above, the unregenerate person is inherently and completely tainted by sin, all that they do is similarly tainted and can not please God. Their rebellion is reflected in the essence of who they are and thus in everything that they do. Moreover, their execution of actions that are reserved for believers, who are pleasing to God, is an even greater affront to the Lord.

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination. (Prov 28:9)

In conclusion -> This individual is putting themselves at further enmity with God by performing this act of supposed worship – digging the hole deeper, so to speak. They are incapable of acceptable worship or supplication in their spiritual condition and their attempt to approach God is an affront.

Unpleasant though it sounds, this is the biblical message, and it glorifies God by demonstrating His absolute, unwavering righteousness and justice. He is holy and can not abide unholiness.

Every unbeliever is called by all of creation around them to acknowledge the sole and total sovereignty of God. There are no exceptions.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)

They are further called to repent of their worldly self and turn to His only son Jesus Christ.

Only then are their worship and supplications acceptable to God – becoming a living sacrifice and “a pleasant aroma to the Lord.  (Numbers 15:13)

For the Glory of God alone!

 

Giving Offence to God – Part 2

So, the big question is, what about the unbeliever who is doing the praying. They are, after all, praying for good things.

As mentioned previously, their prayer is being used by God for both the benefit of the elect and the sanctification and definite redemption of His creation. Does this count as redemptive credit to the unbeliever, in some way bringing them closer to salvation?

The short answer, to steal a phrase from Paul, is “May it never be!”. In other words – absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite, as we shall see.

Actually there are two groups to consider here: unbelievers passively in the audience and the unbeliever praying.

1. The passive unbelieving attendee

To be clear, this is not the ‘yet unsaved’ member of the elect. They were dealt with in the Part 1 post.

This is the remaining, non-elect, passive unbelieving attendees.

“The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.” Prov 15:9

Since all of the fallen, that is all of mankind throughout all of the ages since the Fall, are at enmity with God by default, in active rebellion against Him, and serving Satan, nothing in this situation affects their status. The wicked are all those who are not redeemed.

However, that is not to say that they do not contribute to God’s program of redemption, but only that this contribution (since God uses all things to the benefit of His program) does not benefit or change their status before Him. The only thing that can change that is salvation.

Further, since this situation, like all of creation, confronts them with the sovereignty of God, they are herein implicitly commanded to acknowledge His sovereignty. Their denial and failure to do so is an ongoing affront (wickedness) to Him.

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened.” Romans 1:20-21

 

 

 

 

Giving Offence to God – Part 1

In a post a while ago (Five Points and Luke 6:45-49) I stated “Now, in reference to apparent good verbal acts of the unsaved, these are good in the natural sense. They can not, however, appear good to God since their root does not emanate from God.” I would like to follow this train of thought a bit further. Fasten your set belt please, as the going may get a tad rough.

Let me pose a scenario: You are visiting a group of friends or family, and you sitting down to a meal together. Or you are at a large, primarily secular gathering, for the meal. Countless other scenes are possible in your memory I am sure. In line with modern inclusiveness, ecumenical sensitivity, and in deference to you or other ‘religious’ folk in the room, the non-Christian leader says a prayer for the meal and all who are in attendance.

Now let us look thru a Biblical lens at the attitude of God to and the efficacy of this praying.

We know that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). First, this covers the believers in attendance. This is not qualified and is irrespective of the current circumstance. It is also exclusive. That is, God works in the interests of His elect only. As such, they are blessed. I think that I would even extend this to any yet unsaved elect in attendance, since they are headed for the Lord, so to speak.

Next, “all things work together for good” is inclusive of all circumstances, working for the ongoing sanctification and redemption of the elect in God’s purposes. So we have not only individual benefit to the elect but also to the Lord’s “purposes” in creation. This would included the benefit to the earth of eventually being released from the effects of the Fall, under which it continually suffers (Romans 8:19-23). Again, this is irrespective of circumstance or in this case who is the active agent in the scenario.

So God uses all circumstances for the good of His elect and His creation, all in the movement forward of His program.

Since He is absolutely sovereign in all things, there are no surprises or variances to Him. His program can not be thwarted and even the worst scenario will be used in the interest of the elect and towards Heaven.

Next, the sticky part…