Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Reflection: Women of the Word

I finally found some time to read Jen Wilkin's Women of the Word. Between my seminary schedule and my own teaching, I just didn't have the time until this past week. Since many have recommended this book, I thought I would have a look, and I was even able to borrow one rather than buying something I don't have room for on my sagging book shelves.

Jen Wilkin, herself a Bible teacher, writes with a very easy, engaging style. She introduces the subject matter with personal stories which lead into the topic at hand. She comes across as a very likeable person, and her love and passion for the study of God's word is evident. Her goal in writing this book is to help others learn to study the Bible on their own. We have a treasure in God's Word, and we should know it, study it, and allow it to change us. That message was very clear, which I was I thankful for.

I was also thankful that she emphasizes that the Bible is not about us. It's a book about God. When we begin to read the Bible with the immediate reaction that it's about us, not only will we misunderstand it, we could actually misinterpret it. Wilkin makes it abundantly clear that this is a book about God, not us.

She presents her approach using an alliterative outline:
  • Study with Purpose - getting an overview of the entire Bible; the big picture.
  • Study with Perspective - understanding context
  • Study with Patience - remember it takes time
  • Study with Process - following a plan
  • Study with Prayer - incorporating prayer with our study
A chapter at the end, "Putting It Altogether," Wilkin gives an example of how to put the principles into practice, using the book of James. I thought this was a very good idea. For those who are more "learn by doing," seeing someone put things into practice is very helpful.

This is a book for beginners. It encourages women to see the need for biblical literacy and to pursue a purposed, pro-active approach to study. I think this would be a great tool to get someone started, but ultimately, if she is looking for more information or more discussion about specific interpretive principles, she would need to add to her resources. If it's introduction you're looking for, this book would work well. The strength of the book is in encouraging a student to take a structured approach to Bible study rather than just reading with no set goal in mind. For some, this may be a new way of studying, and Wilkin provides lots of encouragement to get started.

While I really enjoyed the book, there are two little quibbles I had. First, in "Study With Perspective," Wilkin lays out the types/styles of biblical literature. She mentions narrative, parables/storytelling, law, poetry, and wisdom literature, and prophecy, she does not include the genre of epistle. The New Testament letters are a very specific kind of literature, and given the amount of doctrine taught within them (and the potential for misinterpretation), a distinction should be made. In discussing her example of James, she mentions that it is like wisdom literature, but first and foremost, it is an epistle, and that means we approach it with a certain set of principles.

Second, I felt there could be more guidance in teaching interpretation. There is a process by which we have to bridge the context of original audience/author and bring it into our context. The tools were given, i.e., looking up cross-references, paraphrasing (although, I think paraphrasing, which includes interpreting, is much more difficult than she made it seem), but there could have been more discussion about how these things help us make that interpretive journey. I don't think it would be too onerous for a beginner. Even having another example, using a different genre of Scripture, would have given more guidance. We certainly don't interpret Psalms in the way we do James.

That said, I think this is a great tool to introduce women to Bible study. It doesn't take long to read, is not expensive, and it's a pleasant read. For those getting their feet wet, it would be a good introduction. Last week, here at Out of the Ordinary, we talked about summer reading, and this would be a good book to start with.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Looking ahead to summer reading

Spring is here, and that means summer is around the corner. For those who are thinking ahead to summer reading lists, please consider the books mentioned here. This is a re-post from a couple of years ago, and each book on the list is still a book worth reading.

As you put together your reading plan for the coming year, consider these books. Each is easy to read, not too long, and of classic quality. If you are new to the study of doctrine, these won't be too difficult for you, and once you've read them all, you'll have an excellent overview of basic Christian theology.

If you're already a theology buff and you haven't read all of these, put the ones you've missed on your reading list. You'll learn something in each one, I promise.

On Scripture
40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer is made up of short stand-alone chapters answering 40 common questions related to understanding the Bible. There are plenty of charts and lists to keep things uncomplicated, and enough humour and stories to keep things unstuffy. I don’t know of any introductory book on interpreting scripture that would be more useful for the lay person who desires to better understand the Bible than this one.

On God's Nature and His Work
Knowing God by J. I. Packer will help you understand who God is, what he has done for you, and cause you to love him more because of it. Years ago when I was writing posts on God's attributes, I referenced this book frequently because Packer has a way of expressing truths about God precisely. This is one of the most frequently recommended Christian books, and there's good reason for it. I know people who re-read this every couple of years, and there's good reason for that, too.

On the Trinity
Michael Reeves’ passion for the doctrine of the Trinity comes through on every page of Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. It’s obvious that for him the doctrine of the Trinity is not dry, irrelevant, or embarrassing, but the central truth of Christianity, “the truth that shapes and beautifies all others.” Reeves doesn’t assume that the reader has a background in Trinitarian theology, so this is an excellent choice for a student or new believer. And his passion for the subject makes it a good choice even for those who consider themselves well-studied in the faith. None of us are beyond more delight in the Trinity.

On the Work of Christ
Leon Morris wrote the definitive scholarly work on the cross of Christ, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Happily for those of us who aren't exactly scholars, he took the material from his big book and made a version just for us, titled The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. Here Morris explains the terms associated with the atonement, like justificationsacrifice, and propitiation, so we can understand the meaning and significance of what Christ accomplished for us.

On the Big Picture
I have two recommendations in this category. The first is The World-Tilting Gospel by Dan Phillips. It's the whole-Bible gospel delivered to us in an energetic, easy-to-understand, earnest-but-never-preachy style. I suspect this book was written with newish believers and young Christians in mind—and it’s perfect for them—but it is also good for every believer as a reminder of the unabridged Gospel.

Second, there's D. A. Carsons' introduction to the Christian faith, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God's Story. In fourteen chapters, Carson explains the big story of the Bible, the story of God's work in the world from creation through to final restoration. Out of the Ordinary's own Kim Shay wrote that this book assumes
the reader knows very little about the Bible, and would be an excellent tool for sharing with someone interested in Christianity, or even someone who has a lot of pre-conceived notions about it.  Dr. Carson writes like a wise father figure, patiently, carefully explaining very difficult concepts in a way that leaves you thinking with delight at the end, "Hey, I understand that!" 
She's exactly right. If I could say it better, I wouldn't have quoted her!

Even if you consider yourself well versed in the big biblical picture, these two books will help prepare you to communicate the Christian faith.

Are there any easy-to-read doctrine books of classic quality that you would add to this list? 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Don't disregard your theological grid

Yesterday was the last scheduled class for my hermeneutics course. I handed in the second of my three papers, and I will hand the third one in on the 19th of April. I could share about many things I have learned. Since starting this course, I feel like my mind has been constantly whirring (or clanking and clunking) in activity. If I had to isolate one of the most valuable lessons, it would be the importance of understanding my own theological pre-suppositions. We all approach Scripture through a particular theological grid. In fact, we learn theology before we start to investigate its claims in Scripture.

Think about it. If you came to faith in Christ as a child, you definitely learned theology first. You grew up in a particular church culture, perhaps a particular denomination. You grew up being taught a particular set of beliefs. You learned Bible stories, how to pray, how to be good and kind. Your parents, church leaders, and Sunday school teachers taught you principles that were important. As a child, you did not have the cognitive or intellectual abilities to investigate the claims you were being taught. Only when you were old enough did you begin to evaluate what you were taught in light of Scripture, assuming you did that at all.

It was the same for me. I was not converted until I was 20 years old, but I was still taught basic principles. The people in my life who were used to bring me the gospel came from a very specific environment: evangelical, non-denominational, dispensational, pre-millennial, credobaptist. There was also an assumption that denominational distinctives meant a church was mainline, and therefore, liberal. This theological grid was where I began to learn about what it meant to be a Christian. In my lack of maturity, I didn't question much. Not yet, anyway.

When I was in my thirties and homeschooling, I met another homeschool mom who didn't believe that there was a rapture. I was stunned. What? I thought. There isn't? She's wrong, surely. I figured that if you didn't believe in the rapture, you couldn't really be committed to Scriptural teaching. My reaction proved that I was bound more to my own theological grid. I hadn't really even investigated the matter seriously. We all have a theological grid; we all have presuppositions.

For many years, I didn't want to evaluate my presuppositions because I was afraid that I would "lose my faith." I had heard that people who educate themselves too much lose their faith. Going to seminary would make me become a rabid, radical, man hating feminist.

This semester, I have learned to put aside the fear of evaluating my theological grid. This does not mean that I am in search of ways to usurp authority, refute the beliefs of others, or emancipate myself from any kind of perceived oppression. It means that I am learning to think more. Listening to the stories of how my formerly Independent Fundamentalist Baptist professor has worked through many issues over the years has been enlightening. He has not lost his faith. He has, instead, become more committed to a high view of Scripture and a love for Christ. He also renewed my faith in civil debate. He did not avoid objections; in fact, he welcomed them. And he was a patient and gracious listener. This was a real treat for me, because I'm more used to the more unruly online discourse that disguises itself as dialogue.

It is worthwhile considering why we hold particular convictions. Do we hold them because that's simply the way we were brought up? Or because it is the party line of the particular denomination we are part of? How much time have we spent evaluating our convictions in light of Scripture, with a willingness to understand our own theological grid? Are we afraid to hear contrary voices? If so, why?

I have personally seen the negative impact not allowing Christians to investigate the why of what they believe. If we are afraid to ask ourselves why, is it because we are uncertain of what we believe? That is a question worth asking ourselves. And we need not be afraid to do so. The beauty is that when we seek God, he always reveals himself to us.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Two ways

Last Friday on my way to a women's retreat I drove through a small town and passed two young men standing on a street corner, each man holding a placard with a Bible verse written across. I don't recall the exact Scripture references but one sign referenced the sure destiny awaiting the wicked, the other the righteous.

Two placards, two ways, two destinies. This sort of polarity is throughout the Bible. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus warns of two gates:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Later in that same chapter Jesus tells the parable of the two houses:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matt. 7:24-27)
In John 15:4-6, we see the contrast of the two kinds of branches:

Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear bruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine you are the branches. Who ever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gather, thrown in the fire, and burned.
This same polarity is evident in the Old Testament as well. Psalm 1, for instance, contrasts the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. After describing the blessedness of the man who delights in the law of the Lord and who meditates on it day and night, the psalmist compares the righteous to a tree planted by streams of water and the wicked to chaff blowing in the wind. Finally, he concludes,
the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish (Ps. 1:6)
Two ways to live, two destinies. Like the signs the two young men were holding on the street corner, there is the way of the righteous and there is the way of the wicked. There is no middle road. There are true disciples and untrue disciples. There is the true vine and there are fruitless branches, the wide gate and the narrow gate. The house on the sand and the house on the rock. The tree and the chaff.

Which are you? Which am I?

If I'm honest, I have to admit I like this sort of dichotomy when we speak of others. But when it comes to me and my own self-examination and I am forced to think soberly about whether or not I abide in Christ and bear fruit vine like the vine of John 15 or if I delight in the Word of God and meditate on it day and night as does the righteous of Psalm 1, I have to confess that sometimes I do, maybe, and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I do just as Psalm 1 warns: I walk in the way of the wicked and maybe I even sit in the seat of scoffers.

What then? How do I reconcile my compromise with the demands of true discipleship?

The answer is, always, Jesus. He is all my righteousness. He completely and perfectly fulfilled all obligations of life and godliness and He bore the wrath of God for sin in my place. Because He died and rose again, He took my sin and I get His righteousness. The true blessedness (Ps. 1:1) that marks the true believer is this unmerited favor, the amazing grace, of God. There is therefore no condemnation for those of us in Christ Jesus!

So to abide, then, as a true disciple doesn't mean I follow Him perfectly but rather faithfully. It means I persevere and in my perseverance I fail but I confess and I repent and I seek and I follow, again and again and again and again, in the strength and sufficiency of the Spirit. This is the way of the righteous and it ends with glory.

The warnings to the wicked are real and true. If you do not know Christ, please, heed them. Turn to the Lord, acknowledging your sin and your rebellion against Him, believe His promise to save you and forgive you and give you life in Him, and you will be saved. You will be righteous and the sure hope of glory with Him is yours forever.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

When Christians Disagree

Growing up, I was very compliant for the most part. I did not make waves, and I did not ask questions, unlike Question Quigley. It may have been part of my ethnic culture or just my personality, but I never doubted what I was taught, whether it was in the classroom or from the pulpit. It also made life easier. In school, I was a model student who dutifully regurgitated the material for the sake of the grade. (Whether that was really learning is another matter.) In the church, I was a model sheep who went along with the rest of the herd, so there were no awkward conversations over doctrinal disagreements.

But the time came when I had to ask some hard questions. Circumstances forced me to examine what I believed and why I believed it, and my belief system was found wanting. This resulted in a shift from my previous theological position, and for the first time in my life, I found myself at odds with other believers.

This was extremely uncomfortable. I was so used to accepting pretty much everything from any authority figure in my life that it almost felt like treason to disagree with people who I had looked to as spiritual mentors. But like Martin Luther, my conscience was bound by the Word of God, so several awkward and difficult conversations followed. Some of my friends were glad I had not abandoned the faith and was part of a local church even with the differences in doctrine. But for others, the disagreements were deal-breakers. Fellowship was broken, and this hurt.

This led me to wonder, is it possible to disagree and still be in fellowship?

Well, I learned this is possible through the church I began attending. One of the first Sunday school topics was eschatology. I was only familiar with one view come to find out there were four?! And each view was represented in this little church?! How could this be? The teacher was upfront about his personal conviction, but his goal was not to sway us to his side. He took great pains to use primary sources and let each position speak for itself. We were encouraged to examine the views in the light of Scripture, but our teacher would not tell us what to believe, which was a huge eyeopener for me. There was spirited discussion between the opposing views, but when class was over, we were still one, just not necessarily in our eschatology. Even a few weeks ago, after a lively debate about the meaning of a verse in 1 Peter 3, our Sunday school teacher mentioned that we were going to celebrate the Lord's supper in the service to follow. He encouraged us to remember that our unity isn't based on the translation of a particular Greek word, but in the Gospel and what Christ has done on our behalf.

I need to take the example of these brothers to heart. They encouraged give-and-take and acknowledged differences in interpretation, but they did not lose sight of the source of our oneness. I am more than likely to jump into the fray, make waves, and ask questions than in former days. There are doctrines and issues that I hold dear, so it is tempting to look for oneness in agreement on these specifics. But I need to remember that unity with fellow believers flows first and foremost from our union with Christ. A day is coming when all will be made clear, and there will be no disagreements. But until then and even amidst the healthy process of iron sharpening iron, I want to hold fast to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity. - Rupertus Meldenius
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Eph. 4:1-5

Update: For further reading - Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us by Roger Nicole