April 26, 2017

Bible Week: Quotes from the Bible — Kenton Sparks

Quotes from the Bible
#3: Kenton Sparks

When we read the Bible with historical and contextual sensitivity, we notice with ease that Scripture does not speak consistently on all matters. It is a diverse book written by numerous authors and editors who addressed different audiences and social situations. Sometimes their discourses are contradictory and, in extreme cases, convey ideas that verge on what we would call vice. But Scripture also offers undeniable beauty as it encourages us to love God and neighbor with a spirit of abandon and self-sacrifice. If this is right — if Scripture speaks the truth through perceptive yet warped human horizons — then how can we use it to weave a useful and coherent understanding of God and of his relationship with us? How can the Bible, as a diverse and broken book, serve as a primary source of our theological insight? My pursuit of an answer to this important question begins below and continues into the next two chapters.

First, if we wish to take Scripture’s human authors seriously, then theological interpretation necessarily includes a “two-step” process that appreciates the distinction between Scripture’s human and divine discourse. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) put it this way:

[T]exts must first be restored to their historical locus and interpreted in their historical context. But this must be followed by a second phase of interpretation, however, in which they must also be seen in light of the entire historical movement and in terms of the central event of Christ.’

…I would maintain that the brokenness and diversity of Scripture do not negate its essential unity.’ In saying so, I do not intend to deny the truth in Pope Benedict’s judgment that, apart from our faith in the God of Scripture, “nothing is left beyond contradictory speech fragments which cannot subsequently be brought into any relation.”‘ There is a sense in which, on a human level, Scripture is incoherent. Nevertheless, I would say that even apart from faith, one can sense in Scripture a narrative portrait of the human situation and of God’s redemptive plan to put it right. I would attribute this coherence to the ancient authors and editors of the Bible, who were modestly “systematic” in their effort to present a coherent theological picture. This systematic tendency appears in the arrangement of the biblical canon as a whole and in some of its individual books, such as the effort of the author of Hebrews to relate the Old and New Testaments theologically.

Because of this editorial effort, Scripture from Genesis to Revelation presents a tolerably coherent story, what one scholar has called a “theodrama.” It begins with God’s creation of the cosmos and humanity, describes the Fall of humanity and its damaging effects, testifies to God’s redemptive work to put his fallen world aright through Christ, and ends with predictions of Christ’s return and a final reckoning of all things. Such is the general effect of Scripture’s narrative shape. I do not believe that this biblical narrative should be construed mainly as a “story world” alternative to the world we live in, as some narrative theologians have suggested. Rather, the Bible seeks to explain what is actually going on in this world, whether we realize it or not, and invites us to see this world in a certain The fact the some biblical narratives depict the world as it should be in contrast to how it actually is only supports this conclusion. To be sure, as Richard Bauckham has pointed out, the biblical story’s unity is “broken” and is neither complete nor perfect.’ But again, on the whole, the coherence and shape of the biblical story give us important clues about how to organize our theology.

The shape and substance of the biblical story explicitly point us to a fourth principle for organizing our theology. Namely, our theology should grant priority to Jesus Christ, to knowing him, his teachings, and the redemptive significance of his resurrection, ascension, and eventual return. As Pope Benedict expressed it, “Christ is the key to all things…. [O]nly by walking with Christ, by reinterpreting all things in his light, with him, crucified and risen, do we enter into the riches and beauty of sacred Scripture.” Benedict’s point is thoroughly biblical. For the entire canon of Scripture, with the first testament leading to Jesus and the second reflecting back on his life, is oriented around the revelation of God in Christ. John’s Gospel, in particular, warns us not to seek life in Scripture itself but rather by embracing it as a testimony that points us to Jesus (5:39-40).

• Kenton L. Sparks
Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture

Bible Week: Quotes about the Bible – Richards & O’Brien

Quotes about the Bible
#2 – E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien

In other situations, what goes without being said for us can lead us to miss important details in a Bible passage, even when the author is trying to make them obvious. Mark Allan Powell offers an excellent example of this phenomenon in “The Forgotten Famine,” an exploration of the theme of personal responsibility in what we call the parable of the prodigal son.” Powell had twelve students in a seminary class read the story carefully from Luke’s Gospel, close their Bibles and then retell the story as faithfully as possible to a partner. None of the twelve American seminary students mentioned the famine in Luke 15:14, which precipitates the son’s eventual return. Powell found this omission interesting, so he organized a larger experiment in which he had one hundred people read the story and retell it, as accurately as possible, to a partner. Only six of the one hundred participants mentioned the famine. The group was ethnically, racially, socioeconomically and religiously diverse. The “famine-forgetters,” as Powell calls them, had only one thing in common: they were from the United States.

Later, Powell had the opportunity to try the experiment again, this time outside the United States. In St. Petersburg, Russia, he gathered fifty participants to read and retell the prodigal son story. This time an overwhelming forty-two of the fifty participants mentioned the famine. Why? Just seventy years before, 670,000 people had died of starvation after a Nazi German siege of the capital city began a three-year famine. Famine was very much a part of the history and imagination of the Russian participants in Powell’s exercise. Based solely on cultural location, people from America and Russia disagreed about what they considered the crucial details of the story.

Americans tend to treat the mention of the famine as an unnecessary plot device. Sure, we think: the famine makes matters worse for the young son. He’s already penniless, and now there’s no food to buy even if he did have money. But he has already committed his sin, so it goes without being said for us that the main issue in the story is his wastefulness, not the famine. This is evident from our traditional title for the story: the parable of the prodigal (“wasteful”) son. We apply the story, then, as a lesson about willful rebellion and repentance. The boy is guilty, morally, of disrespecting his father and squandering his inheritance. He must now ask for forgiveness.

Christians in other parts of the world understand the story differently. In cultures more familiar with famine, like Russia, readers consider the boy’s spending less important than the famine. The application of the story has less to do with willful rebellion and more to do with God’s faithfulness to deliver his people from hopeless situations. The boy’s problem is not that he is wasteful but that he is lost.

Our goal in this book is not, first and foremost, to argue which interpretation of a biblical story like this one is correct. Our goal is to raise this question: if our cultural context and assumptions can cause us to overlook a famine, what else do we fail to notice?

• E. Randolph Richards;Brandon J. O’Brien.
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

Bible Week: Quotes about the Bible – Peter Enns

Quotes about the Bible
#1 — Peter Enns

The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.

The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was.

The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago.

Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so.

A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.

This is the Bible we have, the Bible where God meets us.

• Peter Enns
The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

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