Reflections on exegesis

I recently finished three books which are relevant to the task of exegesis (a close reading of the biblical text, with the purpose of discovering the intent of the biblical author).  The three authors are fairly well respected in evangelical circles (and often wider ones as well).  I read D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, and David Alan Black’s Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.   All contributed added to my knowledge of the task, though some were more interesting than others.  Here I’ll collect some various thoughts that resulted from reading and reflecting on the books.

From Carson’s book, I was reminded of the absolute necessity of humility in scholarship.  Scholarship which isn’t humble (and in turn, self critical) usually ends up veering off into some fallacy or another.  Going hand in hand with humility is the need for intellectual honesty.  It’s very easy to get an idea and run with it, ignoring any evidence to the contrary.  Usually this results in ignoring important evidence.  When the scholarship in question surrounds scripture, it’s even more important to be honest and humble.  Reading about all the ways which people misuse and abuse the Greek text of the New Testament warned me as I study Greek:  tread softly and be hesitant about making broad statements.  Don’t try to bend the text to a preconceived notion.  You do yourself and the text a disservice in this case. 

Fee’s book was the most fascinating for me.  As a Pentecostal scholar and minister, Fee has a very strong appeal to me as someone raised in and involved with Pentecostalism, and as someone who loves intellectual pursuits.  The combination is still rare, though slowly changing I hope.  Fee impressed on me the wealth of all the resources that we’ve been given.  Between the lexicons, the commentaries, the synopses, and dictionaries, it’s astonishing.  Seeing a process laid out for doing detailed reading was also helpful, and I know it’s something I’ll return to in the future, Lord willing, when I preach or teach.  The final thing which struck me in Fee’s book was his deep appreciation for the Spirit’s activity in the text.  His appeal, in the middle of all of the scholarship, to encounter God in the text, and to let God examine you through the text, is something that I hopes stays with me. 

Finally, there was Black’s book on Linguistics.  In all frankness, this book was the most difficult.  Perhaps it’s because my lack of exposure to linguistics, but I found it rather boring.  Black did a good job of presenting the basics of linguistics and giving examples from New Testament Greek.  He claimed throughout that the linguistics discipline has much to contribute to New Testament studies.  While I believe him, he didn’t show this very much.  Perhaps that was beyond the scope of the book, but it would have kept me much more interested in the book.  That said, he did cause me to think more about how language works in general.  This definitely helps one not make bogus conclusions when studying Greek, especially when doing word studies. 

All three books were valuable for trying to growing in the art of Scripture reading.  I’d recommend any of them, with the caveat that the linguistics book may not be the most exciting, and also that all of them might be hard to follow without some exposure to Greek. 

The Bible in 90 Days: Reflections so far

I’ve begun a plan recently that will take me through the entire Bible in 90 days.  I’m hoping it will give me a better sense of the broad Story of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. It’s been challenging so far (I’m on day 18, in Judges), but I’m starting to see budding in my understanding and appreciation.  One thing that fascinates me is how these writings have defined a people for thousands of years: first the Jewish people and then the Christians as well.  Those who wrote the New Testament would have been immersed in these stories, probably having most of them memorized.  It was largely Israel’s story of enslavement, exodus, rise and fall which drove their thinking.

What strikes me most of all so far is how candid the stories are.  The authors, and in turn the Spirit guiding them, was not concerned with dressing things up, or glazing over the difficult parts.  We see the full falleness presented, both of the greatest heroes and the darkest villains.  You have Moses, on one hand parting the red sea and interceding between Yahweh and Israel, great things!  On the other hand, you have him getting so mad with this stubborn group of people that he finally hits a rock too hard, which incurs discipline from Yahweh.  Leadership is not without its challenges.  I’ve a feeling we should give them a little slack some times.

Then you have stories which are just funny.  How about Balaam?  A threatened king tries repeatedly to pay Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Balaam probably shouldn’t have even entertained the king’s request, (made evident by a talking she-ass) but he does.  Instead of pronouncing a curse, Balaam blesses the Israelites 3 times!  I’m sure the situation would have been quite grave, but several thousand years later it’s hard not to laugh ;-)

Summing up, I guess these writings are still quite foreign to me.  I don’t really understand the context in which these things happened, but they are becoming more familiar.  I’m hoping that familiarity will breed deeper appreciation, instead of contempt; so far we’re heading in the right direction :-)

~alex

Good Works in Titus (Part Three)

This post is the final installment of the series on Titus.  The previous two can be found here and here

The 3rd chapter of Titus continues the back and forth between doctrine and practice which characterizes all of this letter.  Verses 1-2 begin the chapter with several instructions concerning behavior.  We’re reminded to be, among other things, ready for every good work.  The last imperative, to show “all courtesy to all people” in verse 2 launches us into verse 3, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray…”  where Paul summarizes the life before Christ.  Following that description, we get an amazing illustration of the christian’s experience with God.  Verses 3-7 form a very concise statement of the gospel, going from our life in sin to our salvation and some of its implications.  In particular, the progression from verse 2 to verse 4 is quite interesting, and deserves highlighting.

First of all, these three verses are linked together.  Verses 2 and 3 are linked with a for and verses 3 and 4 are linked with a but. Initially, I didn’t see the link between 2-3.  What do our prior sinful lives have to do with these behavioral instructions?  After further probing, the link became evident.  The last behavioral instruction in verse 2 is, “to show all courtesy toward all people.” This sets the stage for the summary of the gospel, which follows.  Why are good works important?  They’re important because they display the grace of God to all people, especially those who are caught up in the conundrum described in verse 3: those who are foolish, disobedient, led astray, etc.  The way we act is a vessel of God’s grace to a world which desperately needs it.

Next, we note that verses 3-5 parallel Ephesians 2:3-10 strikingly well.  Paul is communicating a similar point in both places.  We’re not saved by the things we do, but by God’s grace.  However, as God’s workmanship, we have been created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).  Jumping back to Titus, we’re also given a hope that energizes this labor.  In verse 7, it says, “so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”  Our hope in our inheritance (the world!) energizes our labor now, because we know it’s not in vain.

Following this, Paul again ties works and faith together in verse 8, “This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things so that those who have believed in God would be careful to devote themselves to good works.” Faith in God must develop into good labor.  The remainder of the verse states “that these things are excellent and profitable for all people.” Faith, which expresses itself in good works, is excellent and profitable for everyone.  Again we see the link between christian witness and our actions.

Skipping down to verse 14, we get the last mention of good works in the letter.  Verse 14 states, “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works by helping necessary needs, so that they will not be unfruitful.”  A few things pop out.  First, we learn to do good works.  Good works don’t usually come naturally; living out our faith takes practice.  I also find the word unfruitful to be interesting.  The first thing that comes to mind is the command in Genesis chapter one to be fruitful.  Paul very well may have that in mind.  That I’ll explore in a post tentatively titled, “Good Works and New Creation!”  which will be heavily influenced by N.T. Wright’s thinking :)

~Alex

Good Works in Titus (Part Two)

Here’s the second part of the post I started last week on good works.  This part comes after a wonderful discussion, which has given me some helpful insights on the letter.  Any reading this who are fellow NC State/Meredith students are encouraged to come.  It has been fun and insightful.
The first part of this post can be found here.

A basic recap:  Many strands of protestantism have been quite uneasy with the notion of “good works,” envisioning the rather ugly strand of medieval catholicism which contained elements of earning or even purchasing salvation.  In rejecting these excesses, we sometimes miss the message of Paul, who was very concerned that faith work itself out with good, christian service.  This series is an exploration of the nature of good works in Titus, noting as I did previously that good works is more than simply small, discrete good deeds.  In addition, I’d like to note that good works can mean something broader, perhaps akin to our usage when we use a phrase like, “my life’s work.”

With that established, we may move forward into Titus 2.  Paul begins with the statement, “but you, teach that which fits with healthy (or sound) doctrine.”  He then launches into things which fit with sound doctrine.  He makes a distinction between the two: doctrine and practice.  However he also weaves the two together.  In this case, we have behavior which is expected of various groups of people, divided here by gender and age.  In these divisions, I see Paul’s pastoral sensitivities.  While we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) different people are subject to different expressions of the fallen nature.

These instructions on christian behavior work their way back to doctrine in verse 10.  One of the reasons for christian service and behavior is to “adorn the doctrine of God our savior” (this instruction is given to slaves, but I think Paul is applying a general principle to a specific situation).  Our behaviors and attitudes are to make the christian faith attractive.  We then launch back into an exposition of doctrine, “For the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all people.” Notice the connecting for.  He continues, saying that this grace trains us to reject ungodliness and live upright lives.  Furthermore, we do these things in eager expectation for the revealing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We then get a glimpse of God’s purpose in sending Christ, “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”  There are allusions here to some of Paul’s other writings.  Galatians 1:4 is paralleled, as is Ephesians 2:10.  I’m convinced these allusions do matter, and allow us to bring those letters to bear on what Paul is saying here.  That said, I haven’t yet figured out how that works out.  I’m thinking I’ll explore it more on a post devoted to good works in general.  Chapter 3 is chocked full of allusions to other Pauline writings.  At the very least, there are parallels worth exploring.

In summing up this post, Titus 2 shows us that doctrine and practice, while certainly distinct, belong very closely together.  Our christian service and behavior is intended to make the christian faith attractive to others.  This outward expression is only possible because “the grace of God appeared.”  Christian service must not be divorced from recognizing the God’s grace working in us.  Nor can good works be dismissed with a notion of cheap grace, since us being empowered to do good works is a central reason for the grace of God appearing!  I’ll be exploring that idea more in subsequent posts.

~alex

Good Works in Titus (Part one)

In this 2-3 part series I want to look at what Paul has to say in Titus about, “good works.”  As I’ve noted before, we’re going through Paul’s letters in the bible study I’m a part of, so it’s a perfect time to reflect on this letter.  Since the book itself may get split into two weeks, I see no reason to constrain myself to a single post.  :-)

Since the reformation, many in the protestant church have been wary of “good works” because they bring back memories of a rather distorted form of catholicism, which indeed did have some elements of earning (or buying at points) your salvation.  Much of the protestant rhetoric was framed in this context.  It was against these excesses that much of protestant theology was formed.  I fear that at times we’ve been so zealous for faith we’ve neglected it’s proper outworking.  In this examination of Titus, I’m hoping to get closer to letting Paul’s writing guide us on the topic.

First of all, I don’t think Paul’s teachings on “good works” in anyway contradict his teaching on “justification by faith.”  Understood properly, one is a direct result of the other.  In fact, throughout Paul’s writings, we see very clearly that one of the reasons God saves us is so that we can do his work on the earth, which goes all the way back to our original vocation as given in Genesis.  I want to look at how how this plays out in Titus.

Paul begins the letter with doctrine, which is not strange for him.  1:1-3 give a giant picture of God and his mission for and in his people.  After the greeting, he then moves into practical instructions for Titus.  He gives qualifications for elders, covering everything from family life to alcohol and business, and finally their doctrine.  Next we move into the first passage where works are explicitly mentioned, although the theme arguably started earlier.  Here, Paul sharply denounces the heretical groups within the Cretan church, which seem to largely be comprised of some mixture of Judaism and paganism.  The “circumcision group” is explicitly named; Paul is thus opposing the claim that gentile converts have to obey torah after coming to faith, especially laws pertaining to circumcision and food.  He may have other opponents, but these dominate his thinking.

Paul gives a dense statement in 1:15 that helps explain the matter of works.  “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” Here he echoes the teaching of Jesus who communicates a similar point in Luke 6:45, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  The problem with his opponents is that even though they claim to know God, they betray this claim with their actions.  They are guilty of all sorts of things, as Paul points out early in 1:10.  They are defiled, and thus everything they set out to do is defiled.  A bad tree cannot produce good fruit, only a good tree can.  Likewise those who are not pure cannot “do purity.”  Paul doesn’t remind Titus of how that happens, but the point is clear.  Proper good work is impossible for those whose “minds and consciences are defiled.”

A brief aside on the word “work.”  For me, when I hear the words, “good works”, I immediately picture in my head small, quite discrete “good deeds.”  Giving money to someone in need at an intersection, or helping someone study even though you’re tired, etc.  While I think that kind of thing is very important to his message, I think the word here can connote something a little bit broader than a collection of “discrete good deeds.”  I think that it can also mean something bigger, like labor, or even the word, “work” in the singular (my life’s work as an example).  The greek word for work often shows up in the context of labor.  It would be beneficial for us if we melded together the concepts of moral good deeds and solid, hard work/labor back together.  I think these ideas are much closer than we imagine in scripture, perhaps even two sides of the same word ;-)  (disclaimer: I’m a Greek newbie here).

Philemon

The bible study I’m a part of took a look at Paul’s letter to Philemon this week, so I’m going to reflect here a bit after my study and our discussion.  I definitely have a lot to grow in terms of bible study participation.  I neither communicated well nor listened well.  Hopefully that will change as the study progresses. 

First, I had this letter memorized in the NIV (from participating in teen bible quiz), so I was most familiar with that translation.  As I ventured out beyond the NIV, I tried to look at some other translations, and the underlying Greek.  Verse 5 in particular jumped out to me, which I rendered as, “I hear about the love and faithfulness that you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.”  That doesn’t quite bring out the distinction between Jesus and the saints (Paul uses two different words which can be translated as toward), but this seemed more vibrant than the NIV’s “because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.”  Notably, I think Paul is commenting on Philemon’s love and faithful loyalty toward the saints and toward Jesus.  Philemon is demonstrating loving faithfulness in his actions toward God and God’s people, enough so for Paul to hear about it. 

Verse 6 also made more sense as I studied it further, “I pray that the fellowship/partnership (gk koinonea) of your faith would effectively grow toward the knowledge of every good thing that’s ours in Christ.”  Seeing the Greek word koinonea excited me, because it brings out tones of not just partnership, which Tom Wright highlights, but also of rich, Christian fellowship.  Both the ESV and the NIV render the beginning of the verse to like this, “I pray the sharing of your faith would be…” To me, the term “sharing your faith” seems foreign to the New Testament but very common in contemporary evangelical lingo.  Perhaps that’s why Tom Wright, Eugene Peterson, and the TNIV translate along the lines of “partnership” instead of “sharing your faith.”  For me, this fits in better with the rest of the letter, which is not primarily concerned with evangelism (though evangelism is important!) but with the reconciliation of a runaway slave to his master, which will hopefully result in liberation for Onesimus.  Among other things, this would mean that Onesimus could continue helping Paul in Philemon’s place (verse 13)  Verse 7 brings out the depth of joy and affection which Paul feels toward Philemon.  It’s clear that Philemon is a very dear friend in the Lord, and that Paul is deeply encouraged and joyful because of his vibrant, godly life. 

This, I think forms the basis of the appeal for Onesimus.  He appeals on the basis of love (verse 8), on the basis of a deep affection and encouragement (verse 7), and on the basis of a shared partnership and fellowship in the gospel (verse 6).  This is why Paul can make a very bold appeal to Philemon.  Of course, this love is not just toward Philemon, but also toward Onesimus, whom he calls, “my very heart.” (verse 12)  Paul cares deeply for both, and for their sakes and the sake of the Gospel he makes the appeal for reconciliation (there’s interesting connections here with 2 Corinthians, perhaps worth exploring elsewhere).  Paul also drops subtle hints of their equal standing before God, which he develops elsewhere in Colossians and Ephesians.  He wishes that Onesimus could “take your [Philemon’s] place” in helping Paul, and urges Philemon to welcome him back, “as much more than a slave, and a brother in the Lord!”  The deeply subversive nature of the christian gospel fascinates me.  Paul recognizes the legal and practical bases on which Philemon could punish or even kill Onesimus, but he urges him to consider the Gospel, to consider what I have done for you, to consider our koinonea in the faith.  These clearly trump the reasons which come from an earthly point of view (what about the other slaves; our economy is based on slavery! etc).  Paul persuades christianly.  He doesn’t lord his authority over Philemon (though he does remind him of their past together).  That’s one thing I think we need to learn from Paul: how to persuade christianly.  As christians, we have to learn not to beat people up with scripture (or anything else).  Instead we have to argue on the basis of love and affection.  We have to persuade in the shining light of what Jesus has accomplished.  To beat people up or “lord over people” in the name of Jesus, even for something good, is to undermine the faith we declare (especially when we beat up our brothers and sisters!).  God, help us sort this out!

But of course, the greatest theme we see here is the theme of reconciliation.  The ministry of reconciliation which we have been given is astounding.  As God made his appeal through the apostles, “be reconciled to God!” so he continues to do into the present age.  We are to be his ambassadors, his peacemakers, his agents of reconciliation.  Undoubtedly, this won’t be easy.  Sin is nasty.  The full fruition of sin in the fall works out into a fractured and divided humanity.  We have blood feuds which go back generations.  Yet, we must hear God’s desire for reconciliation, and prayerfully step between the slave and his master, all in the name of Jesus, motivated by His love and power.  The world desperately needs this news.  Reconciliation won’t be quick or easy.  Indeed, we won’t see its full fruition until the parousia, until God puts the whole world to rights, but we absolutely have to anticipate it now, because our labor is not in vain:  Happy are the peacemakers, because they will be called children of God.