Posted tagged ‘interpretation’

Meaning in the Metaphor in the Bible

October 13, 2018


Imagine hearing these words in the First Century:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in youWhoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
(John 6:47‭, ‬49‭-‬54‭, ‬56‭-‬58 ESV) (emphasis added)

The crowd asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”… and they were probably thinking, “Why would we want to it? That’s disgusting!”

They took him literally, but we understand that he was speaking figuratively. In fact, Jesus spoke figuratively all the time. In fact, Mark says that Jesus spoke in parables everywhere. (Mark 4:34).

To Jesus, the physical world was like one big figure of speech. He spoke about bread, and light, and salt, and a lamp, and a vine, and a mustard seed, and on and on and on. In this way, Jesus was continually challenging the people listening to him to think beyond the physical world they knew to consider spiritual truths that transcend it.

Many, like the Jews who asked how Jesus could give them his flesh to eat, had a hard time with the way Jesus spoke. Even the disciples, themselves, found these words the comparison of Jesus as living bread for people to eat hard to swallow (pun intended). (John 6:66)

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Back to an Early Church View of Genesis

September 7, 2018


I have much enjoyed reading Joel Edmund Anderson’s blog, resurrecting orthodoxy. So much that I am reblogging his latest post which is part of a walk through Genesis: Making Sense of Genesis 3 (Part 1): The Big Picture, Nakedness, and Two Trees. Knowing history allows us to avoid the mistakes of those who came before us, but not knowing history makes it likely that we will repeat those mistakes.

So it seems that some have made the mistake in this modern day and age of reading Genesis too literally. Just saying that triggers a slight shudder as I can imagine someone taking umbrage with the suggestion that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally. I maintain that we should take the Bible seriously, which means that we should let the Bible inform us when we should read it literally, when we should read it figuratively, and when it has both literal and figurative meanings. (Should we take the Bible Literally? Or Seriously?)

Anderson reminds us that this is how some of the most influential early church fathers viewed Scripture. For authority, he cites all the way back to Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp who was a direct disciple of John – John, the disciple of Jesus and writer of the Gospel of John, the epistles of John and Revelations. He is just two spiritual generations removed from John, who sat at the feet of Jesus and learned from Him face to face.

I realize that this isn’t the simple formula for Bible interpretation that a person might want. But, there is nothing simple about the universe we live in, reality or (most of all) God. His ways are higher than our ways. We shouldn’t lean on our own understanding. Jesus left the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, and Jesus said we must learn to worship God in spirit and truth.

This is no New Age spiritualism or secret Gnostic knowledge. We are talking about the Living God who spoke to Abraham and David and took on human form in the body of Jesus, lived obediently to His own purpose as a man to the point of dying on a cross for our sins and rising from the dead in that same body to give us hope. This is the uncreated Word of God who was with God in the beginning, and was God, and through whom all that was created was made – the seen from the unseen.

Anderson says in his latest article:

“Genesis 3 was not claiming that God had created a ‘perfect’ world, because God alone is perfect. In fact, Irenaeus called the teaching that Adam and Eve were originally ‘perfect’ a gnostic heresy. Irenaeus was emphatic: God didn’t create Adam and Eve as ‘perfect’ beings.”

God called the world He made “good” (not perfect). It was good for His intended purpose, and it still is. He knew humanity would fall and fail. That was inevitable because we are not perfect; we are not God. God knew we would fail because He can see the end from the beginning, and everything in between. When He hit the “start” button on the creation, He saw how His purpose would unfold before the foundations of the earth. And, He saw that it was good.

Through our experience we learn good and evil, and the value of embracing good and rejecting evil. In this way, our experience is intended to lead us to God who alone is perfect. Through our experience, we learn to rely not on ourselves, but on God. Through our experience we learn to embrace God and His purpose. As we yield ourselves to Him, God works in us what we could never do in ourselves – perfecting us in Him.

We make a critical mistake when we think that Adam and Eve and Eden were perfect. Only God is perfect.

I’ve heard people say that there was no pain or death before the fall. Why, then, does God tell Eve that her pain in childbirth will increase (multiply)? (“To the woman He said: “I will sharply increase your pain in childbirth; in pain you will bring forth children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)(Berean Study Bible))

We need to be careful not to let the agendas and theological constructs of others inform us rather than the Word, itself. The Word of God is living and active, sharper than a double edged sword, and able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12-13) We need to let God’s Word inform us through the guidance of His Holy Spirit. It isn’t a theology or a secret formula. It’s the Word of the Living God, the Bread of Life. It is God-breathed and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The idea that Genesis should be taken absolutely literally and historically is more of a modern construct than a biblical one. (See Is Young-Earth Creationism Another Gospel?) That doesn’t mean Scripture isn’t God-breathed and we shouldn’t take it seriously. From the beginning the followers of Jesus read Scripture as the word of God. They took it so seriously they were willing to die for it – not for it alone, but for the God it revealed. And though they clung to the Scripture, for in it was revealed the Messiah, Jesus, who they followed, they didn’t read Genesis as literal, historical record.

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Postscript:

Irenaeus was born in 130 AD, just a generation after the John the apostle died, in Smyrna (now Turkey) to a Christian family. He stood against heresy, being one of the first theologians to use apostolic succession to protect the integrity of the Gospel. His close connection to Jesus, Himself, through Polycarp who was mentored by John the apostle, was his authority. “Irenaeus’ point when refuting the Gnostics was that all of the Apostolic churches had preserved the same traditions and teachings in many independent streams. It was the unanimous agreement between these many independent streams of transmission that proved the orthodox Faith, current in those churches, to be true.” Irenaeus is credited with arguing that all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John), and only those four Gospels, were Scriptural. (See Wikipedia)

He preached the rule of faith, one of the earliest church creeds, as a standard for orthodoxy:

…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race…

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Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism

May 25, 2018


This is a continuation of observations in regard to a podcast interview of self-described agnostic, New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, by the atheist, Sam Harris.  In the first installment, I focused on Ehrman’s personal story about “losing his faith” as he transitioned from high school to Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton College to Princeton Theological Seminary. Along the way, he went from fundamentalist to agnostic. In many ways, though, he never left his fundamentalist view of the Bible.

Ehrman says that he began to shed his fundamentalist views as he learned the original languages and began to read scripture in those original languages. He describes how his rigid, nonintellectual reading of the scriptures began to crumble as he discovered issues with the Bible that didn’t allow such a strict interpretation of a text considered to be inerrant.

As the interview progresses, Erhman relates that he used to believe in a literal rapture, alluding to the Book of Revelations read in light of 1st Thessalonians (being caught up in the air).[1]  Erhman comments, “I not only believed in the rapture, I knew it was going to happen in the late 80’s” (followed by a hearty guffaw).  He goes on to describe that his loss of faith was a long process, but the “rapture was one of the first things to go”.

This was Ehrman’s fundamentalism, but “the rapture” is hardly a point of “doctrine” on which even fundamentalists agree, let alone the rest of the believing world. The verses in the Bible from which the idea of a rapture has been formulated are few, and they are wrought with difficulty in the interpretation, like the visions in Revelations and other apocalyptic writings. Many speculations have been suggested[2], but the whole idea is quite ancillary to the central tenets of the faith.

A person certainly doesn’t have to believe in the rapture or in any particular formulation of the rapture to believe in God or to have faith in Jesus Christ.

We often get the peripheral things inextricably intertwined with the essential things in our minds, and it’s hard to untangle them. This is the danger of placing too much importance on peripheral things, especially peripheral things with as little biblical support as the rapture: when the peripheral things begin to unravel, they are likely to begin to unwind the essential things if we have bundled them too tightly.

Rigid and wooden fundamentalism is brittle for that very reason. It’s an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system. We have to hold on tightly to the whole thing to keep the faith. When we allow any part of it to come unraveled, it’s likely to unravel the whole thing. The issue isn’t with Scripture, however; the issue is with the approach.

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Reading the Bible in Context

September 20, 2017

Depositphotos Image ID: 1439763 Copyright: sframe

We read the Bible, with writings going back to the Bronze Age, through the lens of our modern experience, understanding and knowledge, often without considering that we need to adjust our lens to understand what we are reading.

I do believe that the Bible is Scripture, conveying an accurate understanding of a timeless, changeless, faithful God, but it is written through the eyes of men who lived at particular times in history in particular cultural and historical contexts. It was written by about 40 men, to be more specific, over a period of about 1500 years with the last writing penned about 1900 years ago.

While Paul tells us that Scripture is inspired by God (“God-breathed”),[1] he means that Scripture was “translated”, written out and conveyed through the vessel of people. I don’t mean to get into the subject of inerrancy or whether the Bible must be read literally in all respects. The way God communicated through people in the Bible is different from the claim that Mohammad made, for instance, in regard to the Quran: that he took down the dictation word for word from Allah.

The Bible does not claim to be a word-for-word communication from God (as if God speaks in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek). God inspired what was written, but He didn’t dictate it.

I find this at once remarkable and hopeful. (more…)

Conservatives, Progressives and Sheep

June 20, 2014

Light Post Against WoodsChristians are a very diverse group of people. From fundamentalists to Unitarians, there is a quite a range of beliefs. There seems to be little in common at the ends of the spectrum, and sometimes even from the middle to the ends.

The temptations are to stick stubbornly to one set of beliefs to the exclusion of others or to accept them all.

It can be rather daunting to consider all of the very earnestly and sincerely held beliefs of people who call themselves by the label “Christian”. Live and let live is certainly my tendency. When Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate”; however, I want to be one who enters that narrow gate (or door), wherever it is! For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Matt. 7:13-14 & Luke 13-23-34 (door)) Much rests on being “right”.

There are certain accepted, fundamental and core doctrinal statements that most of the Christian world accepts. Jesus was God who came in the flesh, was born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, suffered and died on the cross and rose again. He died as atonement for our sins, and by his death and resurrection we are forgiven and may enter into fellowship with God. Jesus was God and man. He is part of the godhead – being God the Father, God the Son & God the Holy Spirit – three in one. There are certain things that are accepted by most people who call themselves Christian. Is this the narrow gate? (or the wide path?)

There were certain things that were accepted by the religious leaders of Jesus’s time, too, and it turns out they were wrong about many of those things. Jesus called into question the spiritual interpretations and conventions of His time. The Sadducees and Pharisees were the spiritual leaders, and they more or less represented the conservative and progressive points of view. The Sadducees were the conservative “old believers”, accepting only the Mosaic Law and rejecting the newer revelation. They were the aristocratic priesthood focusing on temple worship. The Pharisees were the progressives, embracing the newer revelation (the rest of our Old Testament), believing in resurrection, angels, spirits and rewards and punishments after death.

The Pharisees were a lay group of priests and more in touch with the common man. That may explain why Jesus seemed to run into them more often. Significantly, though, Jesus raised the ire and was rejected by both groups. It seems both the conservatives and progressives of the day missed the boat. (And, that is the problem with labels.)

Jesus did not embrace the conventional beliefs of his day. He was God who became man and walked among His own people, and his own people knew Him not. He seemed attracted most to the irreligious and sinners.

Jesus took issue with accepted beliefs of religious leaders in His time (calling the Pharisees such endearing terms as “white-washed tombs”!), but we also see him describing the right way as narrow and few will find it. No wonder so many Christian groups see themselves as the only way. Who wants to admit their way is not “the” way, especially if there is only one Way.

I am not sure we can really compare today with the time of Jesus. God was doing a new thing, something that had never been done. God was inserting Himself into His own creation and moving the story of man in a whole new direction. Still, I think it is noteworthy that both the conservative and progressive religious leaders had issues with Jesus, and He with them.

When Jesus addressed the Samaritan woman at the well, he was speaking to one who would be rejected by both camps of Jews. She questioned why He, a Jew, would ask her, a Samaritan, for water. Jews and Samaritans had fundamental disagreements over where to worship and who were the chosen people of God. There was even a greater chasm between Jews and Samaritans than Sadducees and Pharisees. Jesus blew through the doctrinal divide by speaking of living water that quenches thirst so that anyone drinking of it will never thirst again.

It was not that Jesus was rejecting what we might call “closed-minded” thinking. He was rejecting wrong thinking. Jesus clearly thought it important that people believe and understand truth. Jesus says one of the most “closed-minded” things imaginable when He said He is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the father except through Him. (John 14:6)

And, so the “dilemma” continues: who is right and who is wrong? In some sense, it is not a matter of right and wrong thinking. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus whether the Samaritans who worshiped on their own mountain or the Jews who worshipped in Jerusalem were right, Jesus threw her a curve ball: it is not where you worship, but who you worship (the Father) and how (in spirit and truth).

Jesus says the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, and so His followers will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him. (John 10:7-11)

I was prompted to write this after reading an article on 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible compared to how fundamentalists interpret the Bible.

I do not want to be dismissive of doctrine. I am reminded that, from early on, the disciples and apostles who were entrusted with the very message of Jesus, delivered to them in person and visited upon them by the Holy Spirit in dramatic fashion on the Day of Pentecost, were very protective of that message. Examples of their concern for the truth of the message exist throughout the New Testament. The message, itself, is obviously of central importance.

They also learned that things like the food a person eats, whether a person is circumcised or uncircumcised, whether a person is a Jew or a Gentile does not matter. It does not matter if a person worships on a mountain or in Jerusalem, in a temple or not in a temple; what matters is the living water, God the Father, worshiping in spirit and truth. It is a matter of the heart. The Shepherd calls His sheep, and the sheep know His voice. We are ultimately all either in a relationship with our God or not. And that makes all the difference that matters.


Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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