Questions and Answers … about Scripture

Questions and Answers … about Scripture

I’m writing a short book about what Christians believe by doing an exposition of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. This is a beautiful Baptist confession that’s the basis for the GARBC Articles of Faith, and the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message 2000, among others. My audience is the ordinary, interested Christian. I explain the Confession by asking a series of questions of each Article. Here’s the first section …

Article 1

We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction;[1] that it has God for its author, salvation for its end,[2] and truth without any mixture of error for its matter;[3] that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us;[4] and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true centre of Christian union,[5] and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.[6]

1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1

1.1. What does it mean that the men who wrote the Scriptures were “divinely inspired?”

The Apostle Paul said all scripture was “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), which means He gives it life, animates it, creates it. It means the Holy Spirit guided the authors to write just what He wanted, down to the level of individual word choice, while still retaining each author’s unique personality, style, and voice. God makes us as we are—shaping us from birth, molding our personalities and gifts. This means when He used, say, the Apostle John or Moses to write scripture, He was using special people He’d been preparing for a long time. The Apostle Peter explained spoken prophecy a similar way when he wrote that the Holy Spirit “led” people to speak for God (2 Peter 1:21).

So, this isn’t dictation, as if God seized the Apostle Peter’s hand and guided him like a robot, the way the rat Remy directed the hapless boy Linguini to cook, in the movie Ratatouille. Instead, it seemed to be an almost unconscious partnership, where God provided thoughts and impressions to people, who wrote what He wanted them to write, which is what He’d planned all along.[7] The Holy Spirit worked on people’s hearts and minds, moving them to remember and understand God’s truth, and to record it as He wanted.[8] This is why Luke tells us the Holy Spirit spoke through David (Acts 1:16), and the Apostle Peter referred to the Book of Deuteronomy and said, “God spoke long ago through his holy prophets,” (Acts 3:21).

1.2. In what way is Scripture a “perfect treasure” for us?

Because it has everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). A long time ago, one Baptist theologian wrote “[t]he Bible is the collection of writings which explains to him the life he has found in Christ.”[9] Like a fantasy epic, it slowly unfolds the true story of reality. It tells us how creation began, who we are, why we’re here, what’s wrong in this world, what’s wrong with us, how we find hope, and how this world will end. In this way, it’s a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction.

It is important to note that scripture does nothing in and of itself—it’s simply a vehicle for God to work. In order for this “perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” to work on us, we need a divine encounter + the message of the scripture + an honest reception and acknowledgment by a believing heart. In other words, the bible isn’t an IKEA instruction manual. You can’t read John 3, do what it says by rote, and “be all good.”

There must be an initial divine encounter. God must confront you for salvation in the person of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. He then confronts you for growth as you grow in the faith and read the scripture, applying the message to your life, enabling your heart to receive and be instructed by that message.  

1.3. What does it mean that the Bible has “salvation for its end”?

It means the Bible’s purpose is to tell us about the salvation God offers through Jesus Christ. There are many ways to sum up the Bible’s message. But, the basic “story” is that God is choosing and rescuing a special people to be with Him forever in His future kingdom community. Why is God saving or “rescuing” people? John 3:16 doesn’t exist for its own sake—it’s in aid of something more … something like a kingdom community. Revelation 21-22 shows us this.

Here is one way to picture the Bible’s story of “salvation for community” as an eight-episode mini-series:

1.4. Truth without any mixture of error? Is the Bible without error?

Solomon said God’s words were “tried and true, a shield for those who take refuge in Him,” (Prov 30:5). His promises are pure (Ps 12:6). The first thing to know about God’s word is that it’s true (Ps 119:160). Jesus said His word is truth (Jn 17:17). The Apostle Paul declared that God must be true, even if every person on earth is a liar (Rom 3:4).

Some Christians prefer to say the Scriptures have no errors and are therefore “inerrant.” But, as the passages above suggest, it’s more helpful to say the Scriptures are totally truthful in all they affirm, and are therefore His safe and reliable guide for His adopted children. This is more helpful because you’re framing it in a positive manner. You could say your child is “never bad.” But, it’s better to say “Peter is a nice, sweet boy.” It’s the same way with God’s word—it’s totally truthful and reliable.

The Scriptures came to us from many writers over 1,500 years. Each book came from the unique personality of its writer, each book uses the culture of its own time as the vehicle for revelation, and the writers used very different genres or styles.[10] This means we must take very good care to be sure we’re understanding it correctly, according to those personalities, cultures, and genre.[11]

For example, regarding personality, the Apostle Paul was a very educated man, which is why he wrote the Letter to the Romans and Peter did not. On culture, you’ll find it difficult to understand the prophet Hosea’s thunderous denunciation of the Northern Kingdom unless you know that he wrote it during Jeroboam II’s reign, when that kingdom was at its secular and economic zenith. When it comes to genre, if you understand that, say, Zechariah and Revelation were written in an apocalyptic style that’s intended to paint large, abstract pictures with startling imagery using figures that made sense to their own authors, in their own time … then you won’t spend time “decoding” the color of horses (Zech 1:7-17) or looking for a woman on top of a seven-headed monster (Rev 17:3f).  

The problem is when people confuse their interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself. If you do that, when you find someone who has a different interpretation, you might say, “he doesn’t believe the Bible!” Maybe. Or, maybe not! You must always remember two things; (1) your interpretation is not always the same thing as the Bible, and (2) some questions are really hard, and scriptural evidence may indicate more than one reasonable conclusion.

Finally, remember that the scriptures aren’t an encyclopedia, a geology book, or an astronomy text. They’re a collection of books which tell us how we got here, what went wrong, how God can rescue us, and what His plans are. God could have given us inspired texts about biology, physics, chemistry, and more. But, He didn’t. He gave us revelation that is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” which has “salvation for its end.” Evaluate its total truthfulness in that light.  “We must let the Bible tell us its own story and not hold it to false standards and tests.”[12]

1.5. What are the principles by which God will judge us all, one day?

There are two great questions every person will face: (1) have you repented and believed the Gospel, and if so, (2) have you served Christ with your life since your conversion?

You can think of the first question as a screening process—those who do not pledge loyalty to Christ don’t get the second question. The first question determines eternal destiny. The second question is about your faithfulness as Christ’s servant during the rest of your earthly life—your life will show what’s in your heart (Mt 12:33-35, 15:16-20, 16:24-25).

Jesus was clear about the first question. He told people to repent and believe His good news (Mk 1:15). His Gospel was about more than individual salvation; it was the promise to bring justice to a new society and liberate the oppressed (Isa 11:1-12; esp. v.4; Ps 72:4), to kill the wicked (Isa 11:4), to reverse the curse of the Fall (Isa 35:5-6; Mt 11:2-6)—all on the condition of loyalty, allegiance, of faith. It was the promise to fix this world and to fix each of us—everyone who comes for rescue. If you don’t believe the Son, God’s angry judgment remains on you (Jn 3:36).

The second great principle is about what a Christians builds atop the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:10-15). You’re a Christian—now what? What kind of “house” are you building on that foundation; a cheap one or a quality one? Do you use the cheapest materials, like wood, grass or hay? Or, do you use the finest ones—gold, silver, precious stones?

Christians often want to know what these “gold, silver, and precious stones” are! This isn’t the place to make a list, but surely things like (1) reading God’s word, (2) prayer, (3) a life of repentance, (4) a thirst for God to gradually change your heart, mind, and life to reflect Christ’s image, (5) membership in and service to your church community, and (6) sharing the Good News (which can take a whole lot of forms) must be on the list.

The scriptures tell us about all of this, in so many ways. It reveals these two great principles by which Christ will judge us.

1.6. What does it mean that the Bible is the “true center of Christian union?”

Christians can theoretically be on the same page, because we have the same book. The Apostle Paul said, “I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose,” (1 Cor 1:10). How do we overcome rivalries? By bowing down, together, under the authority of God through the scriptures. By evaluating our denominational traditions and habits through the filter of the Word.

In another place, Paul wrote this:

… make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

Ephesians 4:3-6

How can Christians from different traditions not see themselves as enemies, but as family? How to preserve unity? By remembering that we’re each part of one body, because God called us by the same hope. There is one, triune Lord to love, one faith in Christ to confess, one baptism by the Spirit that changes our hearts, and one God the Father of us all. Where do we learn about all this, so we can be brought back to these truths? In the scriptures. This is why the Bible is the true center of Christian union. It’s the reference point for all matters of faith and life.

The question inevitably comes—why, then, are there so many Christian denominations? Well, because we disagree about interpretations of that faith and life. These are inter-family disputes that don’t change the fact that all true Christians are family. It’s a sad thing that some believers forget that.

The next question—who is a true Christian? How do we know who is inside the family, so we know with whom we ought to seek union? If a person has repented, believed the Gospel, and has Christian fruit in her life as a mark of the new birth, then she is a Christian.  

1.7. Says who? The Bible as the “supreme standard.”

Teachers are good. Pastors are called by God. Books are a blessing. But, the only infallible source of authority for the Christian life are the scriptures. This is why the bible is the “supreme standard” by which you measure anything else.


[1] 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; 2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Sam. 23:2; Acts 1:16; 3:21; John 10:35; Luke 16:29–31; Psa. 119:111; Rom. 3:1. 2.

[2] 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 1:10–12; Acts 11:14; Rom. 1:16; Mark 16:16; John 5:38, 39.

[3] Prov. 30:5, 6; John 17:17; Rev. 22:18, 19; Rom. 3:4.

[4] Rom. 2:12; John 12:47, 48; 1 Cor. 4:3, 4; Luke 10:10–16; 12:47, 48.

[5] Phil. 3:6; Eph. 4:3–6; Phil. 2:1, 2; 1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Pet. 4:11.

[6] 1 John 4:1; Isa. 8:20; 1 Thess. 5:21; 2 Cor. 13:5; Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:6; Jude 3:5; Eph. 6:17; Psa. 119:59, 60; Phil. 1:9–11.

[7] See Augustus H. Strong’s discussion of the “dynamic theory” of scriptural inspiration, in Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), pp. 196, 211f. 

[8] Alvah Hovey, Manual of Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Silver, Burdett and Co., 1900), p. 63.  

[9] Edgar Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression (Philadelphia: Roger Williams Press, 1917), p. 153.

[10] For more on this, see especially Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 201-214. For specific principles at the intersection of science and scripture, see Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 17-117, 347-351.

[11] Donald Bloesch wrote, “The truthfulness of the Bible resides in the divine author of Scripture who speaks in and through the words of human authors, who ipso facto reflect the limitations and ambiguities of their cultural and historical milieu,” (Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 37).

[12] Mullins, Christian Religion, p. 153. Blosech makes a similar point, “The biblical text is entirely truthful; when it is seen in relation to its divine center, God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ,” (Holy Scripture, p. 37).

Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

At the end of Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, he makes a curious statement (Acts 13:38-39). It’s hard to figure out what he means. There’s no way a translation can be neutral, here. You have to interpret stuff to make it coherent. What does Paul say? I’ll quote the Common English Bible for a good, representative translation–pay attention to the areas I underline, because that’s where the question marks are:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, know this: Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn’t be put in right relationship with God through Moses’ Law, through Jesus everyone who believes is put in right relationship with God

Acts 13:38-39, Common English Bible

The two questions are this:

  1. What do the two words mean that the CEB translated as “be put in right relationship with God?” Your English version probably has “justified” or “made righteous.” What do they mean, in this context?
  2. Next, what exactly is Paul referring to when he refers to “Moses’ law”?

These questions don’t have obvious answers. I’ll briefly explain why and provide my own conclusions, in reverse order.

What is Moses’ law in Acts 13:38-39?

How is Paul seeing “Moses’ law,” here? There seem to be at least three options:

  1. If Paul is taken literally, then there was no salvation before Christ. If true, then Abraham wasn’t justified—but that is false (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3)—Old Covenant saints were justified by faith. This option is incorrect.
  2. If Paul is obliquely referring to the perversion of the law under which so many Jews groaned (cf. his own experience—Rom 7—that the law was the vehicle for righteousness), then it could make sense because Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands and taught a correct view of it (R.J. Knowling, Acts, in Expositor’s Greek Testament, p. 297; F.F. Bruce, Acts, in NICNT, pp. 278-279; Simon Kistemaker, Acts, p. 488; John Calvin, Acts, p. 572).
  3. Or, if Paul is referring Jesus making the final atonement and granting perfect peace in heart and mind (Schnabel, Acts, in ZECNT, p. 584), this could also make sense.

The second sense seems to be best because, as Bruce notes, that’s the way Paul frames the matter in his epistles! This is perhaps the most difficult bit of Paul’s argument to follow in Romans and Galatians. Paul generally didn’t argue against the Old Covenant law as it really was. Instead, he argued against the perverted form of it that was common in his day. Unless you get that, I don’t believe you’ll get his discussions of the law v. gospel in his epistles. This has been the source of endless confusion among both pastors and church members. The law was never a vehicle for becoming righteous. It was a prescribed code to regulate an existing saving relationship, and to bring awareness of your own sinfulness–so you’ll embrace the Messiah when he comes to fulfill the law’s demands in your place. Your children don’t do their chores in order to become part of your family. They do their chores because they already are part of your family, and are simply meeting obligations of that relationship.

So, I believe we should assume both that (1) Luke captured the sense of Paul’s words correctly (contra. C. K. Barrett, Acts, in ICC, 1:650), and (2) that Paul was consistent in the way he framed the law and the Gospel when he spoke to Jewish audiences. When he said Jesus could free them from the sins which the Mosaic Law couldn’t, he was in essence saying “you were taught you’d be made righteous by following the law, but you can’t do it right, and your sins always remind you of that! But, guess what? Anyone who believes in Jesus is set free from that never-ending treadmill of failure, that unending quest to earn salvation!”

What do those two words mean?

Look at your bible. What can Jesus do, that Moses’ law (properly understood) could not do? English translations vary. Here are some different usages (I paraphrase the sense but keep their word choices):

  1. ESV, NASB, RSV: Moses’ law couldn’t free you, but Jesus will free you.
  2. ISV: Moses’ law couldn’t justify you, but Jesus will justify and free you.
  3. NLT: Jesus will make you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  4. NET, KJV, Jay Adams, CSB: Jesus can justify you, but Moses’ law could not.
  5. NEB, REB: Jesus can acquit you, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  6. NIV: Jesus will set you free, which is a justification Moses’ law couldn’t achieve.
  7. Phillips: Jesus can absolve you, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t set you free.
  8. CEB: Jesus will put you into right relationship with God, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t put you into right relationship with God.
  9. N.T. Wright: Jesus can set you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t set you right (the same sense as CEB, above, but with different words).

As far as what on earth δικαιωθῆναι and δικαιοῦται mean (our two words), the most logical sense is “freedom” from the perversion of the law that Judaism too often championed. That is, freedom from the error that Moses’ law was a vehicle for salvation. That idea is wrong; it was never a means of “being made right” before God. Rather, it was the prescribed shape for one’s already existing relationship with God by faith in the promised Messiah! This is the same “freedom” Paul championed in Romans and Galatians.

I believe that, in his conclusion at Acts 13:38-39, Paul is calling them to believe in Jesus as Messiah and obliquely pushing against their false idea of salvation at the same time. He doesn’t stop to explain why their perverted view of Moses’ law was wrong. He assumes they hold this wrong view (he’s speaking during a synagogue service!), and that assumption is behind his statement that Jesus can free them from the weight of perfection they assume they must meet, according to their wrong view of Moses’ law.

As far as translation goes, here are my thoughts:

  1. You must strike a balance between translation and exposition. That is, if your translation veers off too far into explaining what it means, then you’ve lost your balance. That means a translation has to be willing to leave some ambiguity on difficult subjects, or it won’t be a translation. That’s why commentaries and sermons exist–to explain and apply.
  2. The renderings “justify” and “made righteous” are of little value. They communicate nothing to unbelievers. I think we ought to freshen the concepts up by setting these words aside, and choosing words that actually communicate.
  3. There are two good options for translating these words. First, it could carry the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).
  4. If you choose the sense of acquittal, you mean that Moses’ law could never do that for you, but Jesus can. But, the Bible doesn’t teach that Moses’ law was ever meant to do that, so you’ll have to assume that Paul is implicitly referring to the wrong version of Moses’ law that was common at the time. This is possible.
  5. If you go for the “freedom from *****” scenario, you’re basically saying the same thing, but you’re framing it more as a welcome escape from an impossible burden–“I can’t follow the law perfectly, so I’m always gonna be a failure, so how do I escape this unending cycle!?” So, Paul says, “freedom is here, and it’s in Christ!”

With either option, you have to assume a great deal about what Paul means when he speaks about Moses’ law. You can only get that from his epistles, primarily Galatians and Romans. This isn’t the place to “prove” a position on that score, so I’ll simply conclude with that. My answers to the two initial questions are:

  1. Both words give the sense of “freedom or release from a claim or obligation that no longer has any hold.”
  2. When Paul refers to Moses’ law, he means the wrongheaded interpretation of Moses’ law that was common at the time–that the law was a vehicle for achieving a right relationship with God.

After all that, here is my translation of Acts 13:38-39:

γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί ὅτι διὰ τούτου ὑμῖν ἄφεσις ἁμαρτιῶν καταγγέλλεται καὶ ἀπὸ πάντων ὧν οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε ἐν νόμῳ Μωϋσέως δικαιωθῆναι ἐν τούτῳ πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων δικαιοῦται

So, understand this,[1] brothers and sisters: forgiveness of sins is announced to you right now,[2] through[3] Jesus,[4] and[5] from all those sins from which you weren’t able to be set free[6] by Moses’ law—by Jesus[7] everyone who believes is set free!


[1] This is very odd grammar. In γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν, there seems to be an implied imperative subject (which could be rendered as “let this”), of which γνωστὸν is the predicate nominative. The result is something like “Therefore, let this be known to you …” I made it more colloquial.

[2] I take καταγγέλλεται to be a descriptive present, picturing an event unfolding at the time of speaking. The wording “right now” tries to capture that flavor. It’s very tempting to ditch the passive voice and render it as a present (e.g. CEB), but I resisted the urge.  

[3] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[4] Jesus is the pronoun’s antecedent.  

[5] This is καὶ, in an additive sense (cf. Tyndale; N.T. Wright, Kingdom New Testament). It could be ascensive (Barrett, Acts, 1:650), but I decided it was best as additive.  

[6] δικαιωθῆναι is a simple infinitive, complementing οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε. The word here, commonly translated “righteous,” carries the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).

[7] I take ἐν τούτῳ to be depicting personal agency (“by/through Jesus”), but it could be the object of the verb (“everyone who believes in Jesus,” cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:651).

A kingdom without borders

A kingdom without borders

This Sunday, I preached on Epiphany, which is when the Church around the world celebrates the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, often in the person of the magi who came from the East to worship the Christ child in Bethlehem. This precious event shows us that God’s kingdom is one without borders, where anyone who thirsts for righteousness can enter in.

Here, I’ll provide the sermon, along with the introduction and concluding exhortation.

Same song, different day

Picture three scenes. They have very different contexts, but they each have something in common. Try to figure out what that is:

Scene 1: A.D. 57:[1] Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, charged with bringing Gentiles into the inner courtyard (Acts 21:27-36)—this “crime” doesn’t exist in the Old Covenant!

Scene 2: A resolution from the Clarendon Baptist Church, in Alcolu, SC, in October 1957, in the wake of cultural backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education decision:[2]

We believe that integration is contrary to God’s purposes for the races, because: (1) God made men different races and ordained the basic differences between races; (2) Race has a purpose in the Divine plan, each race having a unique purpose and distinctive mission in God’s plan; (3) God meant for people of different races to maintain their race purity and racial indentity [sic] and seek the highest development of their racial group. God has determined “the bounds of their habitation

Scene 3: Post 9/11 America. Conservative evangelical Christians ramped up their anti-Muslim rhetoric.[3] You hear repeated statements about how Islam is bloodthirsty, a religion of hate. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared Muhammad was a “demon-possessed pedophile.” A church member gave me a book that argued that the antichrist will be a Muslim. There arose a cottage industry of evangelical charlatans who claimed they were former terrorists who knew “the truth” about Islam. I heard a missionary’s wife refer angrily to Muslims as “bastards of Islam.

What do these three scenes have in common?

The urge to exclude people “not like us” (whatever that “us” might be, it doesn’t matter what) from God’s kingdom—implicitly or explicitly:

  • Scene 1. There is no biblical warrant for a physical barrier between Court of Gentiles and the temple proper.
  • Scene 2. No biblical warrant for segregation in God’s family based on race.[4]
  • Scene 3. The implicit (and often explicit) message was, “Muslims are dangerous, Muslims will kill you, and President Obama is likely a Muslim who wants to impose sharia law.”

What does God say about this urge, this tendency of ours, that’s common to every culture? Who can join God’s kingdom?

Our passage today, from Matthew 2:1-12, tells us all about that. We’ll tackle it in two movements–(1) the foreigners arrive in Jerusalem, and (2) the foreigners arrive in Bethlehem.

Greek translation nerdiness

I translated two portions of the passage. I put that info here, just because I can’t think of another place they ought to go. If you know Koine Greek, and you’re interested in my translation and my syntax notes, then read on. Otherwise, skip this section.

Matthew 2:1-2 translation

Now, after[5] this Jesus[6] was born in Judean[7] Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King—listen to this, now![8]astrological scholars [9] from the East arrived in Jerusalem. They were asking everyone, [10] “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?[11] We[12] saw his star from[13] the East and we’ve come to worship him!”[14]

Matthew 2:9-11 translation

Now, after they heard from the king, they went out—and look![15]the star they’d seen in the East led them onward, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When[16] they saw the star, they rejoiced with an unspeakable joy.[17] They went[18] into the house and saw the child with Mary,  his mother, and they fell on their knees[19] and worshiped[20] the boy. Then, they opened up their strongboxes and presented the child with gifts[21]—gold, worship incense,[22] and fragrant ointment.

Exhortation

Why did God bring these Eastern scholars to Bethlehem, that night?[23] Because the angels made the same announcement to them, that they made to the shepherds up to two years before, at the same time—it just took them nearly two years to get there!

Contrast that with what passed for the “Jewish nation,” at the seat of power in Jerusalem:

  • a dying, homicidal king—with delusions of grandeur!—who hatches a plan to kill the Messiah
  • scribes who are the worst example of civil servants = they can tell the scholars how to find the Messiah, but can’t be bothered to worship Him themselves![24]

Why did nobody else follow that star that dark night outside Jerusalem, to see what it meant? It’s possible these scholars from the East will rise up in judgment with the Queen of Sheba and the people of Nineveh (Mt 12:41-42)—because they believed when they had so little revelation. But the folks who ought to have known best … didn’t believe a word of it, or were too occupied with their lives to care

What is God teaching us?

  • That His kingdom has never had nationalist borders—it’s always been open to anyone who worships and obeys Christ. 
  • That sometimes the people who “know God” don’t Him at all.

What does God want us to do with what He’s saying—how can this make us more like Christ?

  • The church must accept anyone … if they come to worship and obey Christ. The shape of truth application depends on context. In Jesus’ cultural context, it meant non-Jews could actually be part of God’s family.
  • In a 2022 American context, it could mean many things. Think of a type of person (a cultural “other,” a true believer) with whom you’d be “uncomfortable” worshiping God on a Sunday morning, and then resolve to shove your discomfort aside.
  • Gentiles in Israel, black Christians in white churches, Muslims in American churches—who will be the next?

Epiphany teaches us that the only borders around God’s kingdom should be:

  • do I believe Christ is Lord and King?
  • have I bowed before Him in worship?   

And now, here is the sermon:


[1] My date here is from F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 475.

[2] Quoted in J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Support White Supremacy (New York: Oxford, 2021), p. 45.

[3] See Laurie Goldstein, “Seeing Islam as ‘Evil’ Faith, Evangelicals Seek Converts,” in New York Times. 27 May 2003. https://nyti.ms/3HO1M0A. “Evangelicals have always believed that all other religions are wrong, but what is notable now is the vituperation.” See also FBFI Resolution 02.02 “Concerning Islam.”

[4] On the sociological role of this issue as early as the antebellum era, Mark Noll has written: “It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, anti-traditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, that proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources,” (The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 34).

[5] The participle γεννηθέντος is temporal.

[6] The article with Jesus in Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ anaphoric. John Broadus notes, “Literally, the Jesus, the one just mentioned; ‘this Jesus’ would be too strong a rendering, but it may help to show the close connection,” (Gospel of Matthew, in American Commentary, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 15).

[7] A subjective genitive. There is more than one Bethlehem in the ancient world; e.g. Bethlehem of Zebulun (Josh 19:15). This “Judean Bethlehem” simply clarifies where Jesus was born.

[8] The particle ἰδοὺ is meant to draw attention to what follows. It’s a deliberate interjection to arrest the reader’s attention (BDAG, p. 468). Most EVV don’t translate it, which I think is a mistake. It might not make for smooth literature per se, but it’s what Matthew wrote, and we need to do something to catch the reader’s ear, in the same way.

[9] The terms “wise men” and “magi” communicate nothing. The term has its origins in the court magicians of the East (e.g. in the Babylon of Daniel’s era) who were experts in astrology, interpretations of dreams and visions, and other occult arts (BDAG, p. 608, 1). Later, into the NT era, the term broadened and referred to refer to a wide variety of men interested in dreams, magic, books, astrology, etc. (Carson, Matthew, p. 85).

It’s this last sense that fits best, here. “Matthew is probably using the word in a more general sense for the learned court advisers of Mesopotamia or Persian whose work involved studying ancient and sacred texts, as well as watching for movements of planets and stars that might be interpreted as divine messages,” (Mark Krause, “Wise Men, Magi,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016). The term could also refer to actual sorcerers or occultists, like the pre-conversion Simon (Acts 8) or the unfortunate Elymas (Acts 13). That is not likely, here.

So, I went with astrological scholars, because of the influence of the star. I could shorten it to “astrologers,” but that makes them sound a bit like New Age kooks.

[10] The participle λέγοντες is present-tense, and the context suggests they were asking repeatedly. Herod only “heard this,” they didn’t ask him directly. Herod sought them out. He could only have heard about their quest if they’d been asking many people, repeatedly. So, I translated this with an iterative flavor. It is attendant circumstance, contra. Quralles (EGGNT, Mt 2:1), whose preference for a purpose participle here would lead to an over-translated mess.

[11] A more literal rendering would be: “where is the one who was born king of the Jews?” (ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων). The participle is the subject (Christ), and “king” is a predicate nominative, denoting an attribute the infant had from birth.  

[12] I dropped the explanatory γὰρ completely. 

[13] The preposition is spatial. 

[14] On “worship,” see the discussion at v. 9. Why hadn’t Jerusalem and Bethlehem embraced the boy as the Messiah, in light of the shepherd’s testimonies (cf. Lk 2:17-18)? It’d been two years, after all! Probably for the same reason some Christians today are extremely skeptical at reports that God still performs miracles. For example, few people have heard about Ed Wilkenson and his son, Brad, whom God miraculously healed of an atrial septal defect, with two holes in his heart. The boy and his father prayed for deliverance, and even had special intercession from their church, but all seemed hopeless as the boy went in for surgery. They determined the holes had disappeared, which had not been the case on x-rays done just the day before. The doctors were flabbergasted, and had no explanation. Brad is still fine, is now an adult, and played baseball later that same week. There was no surgery. See the account, with footnotes from personal interviews and review of medical documentation, in Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 1:430-432.

What were these ramblings from these loser shepherds, anyway? Meh. Where’s the video evidence!? Away with them!

[15] Again, we have the particle of interjection, and it must be translated. “[L]ooking up to heaven as

they set out on their journey, they once more behold their heavenly guide,” (A.B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in Expositors Greek Testament (6th ed.), ed. W. Robertson Nicole (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p. 73.

[16] ἰδόντες is an adverbial, temporal participle, contra. Charles Quarles, who believes it is causal (Matthew, in EGGNT, Mt 2:10).  

[17] A literal translation would read something like “they were filled with very great joy” (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα). The verb is passive, which is curious. It’s well-nigh impossible to replicate a passive sense of ἐχάρησαν, so in English we do an end-run around by changing the verb to something like “were filled,” or we drop the passive sense and do “they rejoiced.”

[18] ἐλθόντες is an attendant circumstance, following along after the exquisite joy they felt when they at last reached their destination, contra, Quarles (EGGNT, Mt 2:10), who thinks it’s temporal.  

[19] Πεσόντες is also attendant circumstance. 

[20] The word means “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure,” (BDAG, p. 882; see also Abbott-Smith, p. 386). It could refer to reverence and submission to a human authority figure with no implication of deity (cf. Mt 20:20). However, the context here is worship to the child as the Messianic King—this is their self-proclaimed mission (Mt 2:2), and Herod and his court know it (Mt 2:3-8). One could quibble whether worship to Christ as divine is in view, or merely as “the king.” Most EVV use “worship,” except for the NEB, REB (“paid homage”) and the CEB (“honored him”). Broadus preferred “do homage,” because the scholars appeared to only honor him as king, not as deity (Matthew, p. 18).

[21] The three gifts which follow are accusatives of apposition, explaining what these gifts are—hence the em-dash.

[22] Λίβανον is a balsamic gum from the Boswellia sacra tree, native to southern Arabia and northern Somaliland. When the material hardened, it produced exquisite resin which was typically used for burning incense in religious ceremonies—including temple liturgy (e.g. Ex 30:34; see James Knox, “Frankincense, in Lexham Bible Dictionary). It is better to render it as “pure incense” or something similar; cf. Jay Adams, John Phillips = “incense,” and Julian Anderson = “fine, sweet-smelling incense.”

[23] I believe we have a solid circumstantial to argue that (1) angels announced the Savior’s birth to these Eastern scholars at the same time as they did to the shepherds in the field (cf. Lk 2:8-20), (2) that they followed the star to find the boy, (3) the star acted as a divine GPS and was not a natural phenomenon, and (4) they just now arrived after perhaps two years journey, to worship the boy. This accounts for (1) how they found out about Christ’s birth, and (2) why their knowledge (i.e. a newborn king of the Jews, born somewhere near Jerusalem) comports so well with the announcement the angels made to the shepherds.

Speculation regarding the star is generally absurd, and Broadus sums it up rather well (for the argument seems to have advanced nowhere since his day!): “Taking Matthew’s language according to its obvious import, we have to set aside the above explanations, and to regard the appearance as miraculous; conjecture as to its nature will then be to no profit. The supernatural is easily admitted here, since there were so many miracles connected with the Saviour’s birth, and the visit of the Magi was an event of great moral significance, fit to be the occasion of a miracle,” (Matthew, p. 17).

[24] Broadus: “The scribes should be a warning to all religious teachers, in the pulpit, the Sunday-school, the family; they told others where to find the Saviour, but did not go to him themselves,” (Matthew, p. 21).

Edgar Mullins’ Axioms and 2022 America

Edgar Mullins’ Axioms and 2022 America

Edgar Mullins was the fourth president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I recently finished his classic The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908). His is a refreshingly simple exposition of Baptist Christianity. I’ll provide a sketch of Mullin’s position here, and note some of its implications and possible rebukes for modern Baptists in 2022 America.

Kingdom Principles and Polity

Mullins begins by presenting four principles for the Kingdom of God as guardrails for a biblical polity. They are:

Figure 1.

Christianity is not about rote obedience, but a relationship between God and man. Because God is our Father, that personal relationship shapes how we respond to His laws—not as frightened slaves, but as obedient sons and daughters. “Those in the kingdom call God Father, and those who call God Father are swayed and molded by the laws which are of the essence of the kingdom.”[1] All this presupposes we can know God, He can communicate and we can understand Him—revelation is possible. That revelation is in Christ, through the Scriptures:

The soul cannot thrive on abstract notions about God, just as a bird cannot fly in a vacuum, or a tree root itself in a bank of mist, or as a vine cannot climb a moonbeam. Christ made the idea of God concrete. Christ is God’s message to man. It is at this point that the authoritativeness and regulative value of the Scriptures come into view. The Scriptures alone enable us to maintain contact with the Christ of history.[2]

This all implies a revelation and a response, without the interposition of priests or efficacious sacraments. Christianity is a personal religion which asks for our faith:

Not faith in the sense of blind acceptance of hidden mysteries; not implicit faith in the sense of acceptance of the total body of teachings of an infallible church, but faith in the biblical sense of an intelligent response to the revelation of truth from person to person. This faith arouses the entire being, the intellect, the emotions, the will, and the moral nature.[3]

Polity matters, because the way we organize ourselves based on this common faith betrays what we think about the kingdom. After all, the church is “the social expression of the spiritual experiences common to a number of individuals.”[4] So, the church must mirror the kingdom—and the kingdom is characterized by God’s Fatherhood, Christ as the only mediator, individual and independent capacity for God, and personal relationships. “The local church is like a leaf on the tree of the kingdom of God. As such it must reproduce in its own measure the outlines of the kingdom.”[5]

Mullins distills seven implications, or “laws” which he declared “must be respected in any and every ecclesiastical polity which can in any sense lay claim to biblical warrant …”[6]

Figure 2.

The reader can consult Mullins for more detail. Relevant implications are (1) there is no caste system in the church, (2) Scripture is the vehicle for sanctification, not sacraments, (3) a church cannot interpose between the Christian and his Father, (4) dogmatism about a particular form of worship is fallacious,[7] (5) and “nothing is more terrible in Christ’s teachings than his arraignment of merely ceremonial righteousness and empty orthodoxy.”[8]

This all leads to Mullins’ point—soul competency is the controlling principle of the Baptist faith. Everything else is a spoke around the soul competency hub. It is the sugar that sweetens the espresso. The leaven that makes the bread rise. Choose whichever metaphor you fancy—soul competency is “the thing.” It’s “the comprehensive truth” that encapsulates (1) the intellectual freedom of the Renaissance, (2) the principle of individualism, and (3) the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith.[9]

Mullins explained:

The competency of the regenerated individual implies that at bottom his competency is derived from the indwelling Christ. Man’s capacity for self-government in religion is nothing more than the authority of Christ exerted in and through the inner life of believers, with the understanding always, of course, that he regulates that inner life in accordance with his revealed word …[10]

Individualism is the watchword. Because man has free intellect, because he is personally accountable, then his salvation, his relationship with God, his faith community, his sanctification—all of it coalesces around soul competency:

The biblical significance of the Baptists is the right of private interpretation and obedience to the Scriptures. The significance of the Baptists in relation to the individual is soul freedom. The ecclesiastical significance of the Baptists is a regenerated church-membership and the equality and priesthood of believers. The political significance of the Baptists is the separation of Church and State.[11]

Thus, we come to Mullins’ axioms of religion, which are his apologetic for the Baptist expression of Christianity:[12]

Figure 3.

Soul Competency or Bust

Baptists should agree, in principle, that the State mustn’t force religion on its subjects. The civic axiom (above), which Mullins labeled “Religio-Civic,” means “the State has no ecclesiastical and the Church no civic function.”[13] This rule “has never parted company” with Baptist doctrine[14]—“there has never been a time in their history” when Baptist have capitulated on that score.[15] Toleration is different than liberty—they are “poles apart.”[16] Freedom means men are left alone to worship (or not) as they see fit.

What of the idea that government exists for moral ends? Mullins summarizes that argument:

If the government is for moral ends it is closely akin to religion in its function and purpose. Religion indeed is the best instrument for the realization and accomplishment of moral ends. Hence Church and State should be one, with the church subordinate as a part of the larger whole.[17]

To leap forward to 2022, should government promote or discourage abortion? A psychological basis for gender identity? Governments make and enforce criminal law, and those laws presuppose moral values—but whose values?

Mullins dismisses the very idea that Church and government ought to coalesce for moral values. “Americans do not deny that the ends for which government exists are moral, but they do deny that those ends are religious.”[18] The two spheres are different, and they cannot formally touch. Mullins acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution is “grounded in essential moral principles,” and that government “is the expression of moral relations which necessarily exist in human society and created by God.”[19] However, that doesn’t mean the Church has a role to play in legislating that morality.

It does not follow, however, that because an institution is the expression of moral relations in one sphere that it is meant to promote moral ends in all spheres. Church and State might in a perfect society coalesce into one; but meantime their functions must be kept separate.[20]

Each body has its specialization, and it ought to remain that way. The Church deals with souls, and the government with laws. The church is a voluntary society, and once the church becomes the government it becomes coercive—it is no longer voluntary.[21] So, for example:

  1. Religious educational institutions must never accept funds from the government—it would be a “flagrant violation.”[22]
  2. Compulsory bible reading in school is wrong, because Baptists “respect the consciences of all others.”[23]

Mullins, writing in a bygone age, admits that schools have a duty to instill moral values but insists that morality can be taught without reference to religion “within certain limits.” He reasons, “[m]oral teaching is not objectionable even to atheists.”[24]

Questions for 2022 America

If we follow Mullins, as he wrote in 1908, these are but a few of the implications:

  1. Baptists must not advocate for Christianity as an established religion. This kneecaps the ethos of at least 80 years of patriotically infused Christian expression in certain corners of American evangelicalism.
  2. Baptists cannot advocate for explicitly Christian morality. It is unjust to force religious values on other people—else they would not be free.
  3. Baptist churches and schools must never accept Federal funds. It is doubtful many such institutions would survive. Churches which accepted government monies during the pandemic are in grave error.
  4. Baptists must stop all efforts to teach creationism in public schools.
  5. Baptist must cease all textbook wars and critical race theory fights with local school boards.

In short, Baptists must largely withdraw from public advocacy for Christian values. I’m not saying this. I’m saying Edgar Mullins said this.

And yet, Mullins also wrote that changing circumstances always force Christians to dig into Scriptures and find what had been there all along, to address current threats:

Christianity is like a knife of many blades and other devices to be used in turn as need arises. There is this difference however. In Christianity many of the blades are concealed from view until new emergencies bring to light their presence and use. Every interpretation of Scripture assumes, or should assume, the divinely adapted fitness of Scripture to human need. History reacts upon and explains exegesis in many ways, just as the growth of a tree reveals what was lying potent in the seed, and as the progress of a building sheds light on the preliminary plans of the architect. Thus we are slowly obtaining an exposition of our exegesis.[25]

So, in 2022 America, is the Baptist principle of soul liberty in the civic sphere outmoded? Can Mullins be laid to rest on a dusty shelf; a quaint relic from a more innocent age? If the implications I noted are correct (and perhaps they aren’t), then how should that force convictional Baptists to re-evaluate their stance vis-à-vis the State?

Kevin Bauder, in a modern treatise on Baptist polity, has advanced far beyond Mullins because he lives in a modern context. He suggests Baptists appeal to “natural order”, and not the scriptures. “When they enter the public square … they are obligated to justify civil laws by some appeal to natural order. This takes hard thinking and careful argument. That failure to do this thinking and to make these arguments is a species of intellectual laziness.”[26] He explains “[t]he New Testament never charges Christ’s church with the duty of establishing righteousness through legislation …” The existence of a natural order means common decency is possible, and “Christians are not obligated to impose more than that level of decency within the public square.”[27]

Bauder does not specify whether he refers to natural law, or a general call to “the way things are.” It is likely the former. Is such a tactic still persuasive and effective, in our 2022 context? Is that tactic “not enough?”

Baptists have framed soul competency in opposition to a State church, yet Mullins wrote during a time when, as George Marsden notes, America still blessed an emerging secularism with Christian symbolism.[28] A Christian ethos was “the State,” in a manner of speaking. The “convictional glue”[29] of society is no longer “Christian,” but something else entirely. Because the foe now is not an imposed flavor of “Christianity,” but a religion altogether different, does the soul competency wine need a new wineskin?

It is clear Baptists have a “complicated” relationship with soul competency, the State, and moral legislation. Baptist individuals, churches, and institutions which follow partisan political impulses in 2022 America are acting less like Baptists, and more like Americans. To a Baptist, that can’t be a good thing.


[1] Edgar Mullins, The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), p. 29.

[2] Ibid, p. 30.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid, p. 35.  

[5] Ibid, p. 36.  

[6] Ibid, p. 38.  

[7] Regarding the “freedom of worship” law, which Mullins labeled “Worship: Freedom of intercourse between the Father in heaven and the child,” he explained, “[t]his excludes of course the limiting of acceptable worship to particular places, or through human mediators, or by means of physical appliances,” (Ibid, p. 38).

[8] Ibid, p. 41.  

[9] Ibid, p. 57.  

[10] Ibid, p. 55.

[11] Ibid, pp. 56-57.  

[12] “These six simple propositions are as six branches from that one trunk of New Testament teaching. Let us come, then, to the axioms …” (Ibid, p. 73).

[13] Ibid, p. 185.  

[14] Ibid, p. 188.  

[15] Ibid, p. 189.  

[16] Ibid, p. 49.

[17] Ibid, p. 193.  

[18] Ibid, p. 194.  

[19] Ibid, p. 195.  

[20] Ibid, p. 195.

[21] “The Church is a voluntary organization, the State compels obedience. One organization is temporal, the other spiritual. Their views as to penal offenses may be quite different, that being wrong and punishable in the Church which the State cannot afford to notice. The direct allegiance in the Church is to God, in the State it is to law and government. One is for the protection of life and property, the other for the promotion of spiritual life. An established religion, moreover, subverts the principle of equal rights and equal privileges to all which is a part of our organic law. Both on its political and on its religious side the doctrine of the separation of Church and State holds good. Civil liberty and soul liberty alike forbid their union,” (Ibid, p. 196).

[22] Ibid, p. 197.  

[23] Ibid, p. 197.  

[24] Ibid, p. 198.

[25] Ibid, p. 13.

[26] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), p. 141.

[27] Ibid, p. 141.  

[28] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2006), p. 49.

[29] “Every culture and society exudes a certain convictional glue, an undergirding outlook on life and reality that preserves its cohesiveness. When that adhesive bond deteriorates, the sense of shared community tends to come apart at the seams,” (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 44.

What I Read in 2021

What I Read in 2021

I read 68 non-fiction books in 2021. Most were social history and the rest were theology. This year was marked by (1) a broadening of my own horizons about the church’s mission and its responsibility to society, (2) a realization that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is not a trustworthy organization, (3) a deeper exploration of the more unpleasant side of American evangelicalism, and (4) a study of American social history and its nexus to American evangelicalism over the past 100 years.

My top six

I don’t chose these because they’re “the best.” I chose them because they influenced me the most, or made me think deeply. Too many people (pastors and theologians) only read the same people, saying the same things, in the same way. The conclusions are foregone. Why bother? Don’t read your 800th book on justification by faith written by a guy from the same Reformed sub-culture that produced the other 799 books you read. Break out of the bubble, man!

So, here are my top six for 2021:

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse. A very, very good book about the origins of the Religious Right. This was a watershed book for me. Perhaps the best book I read in 2021.

At heart this book seeks to challenge Americans’ assumptions about the basic relationship between religion and politics in their nation’s history. For decades now, liberals and conservatives have been locked in an intractable struggle over an ostensibly simple question: Is the United States a Christian nation? This debate, largely focused on endless parsing of the intent of the founding fathers, has ultimately generated more heat than light. Like most scholars, I believe the historical record is fairly clear about the founding generation’s preference for what Thomas Jefferson memorably described as a wall of separation between church and state, a belief the founders spelled out repeatedly in public statements and private correspondence.

This scholarly consensus, though, has done little to shift popular opinion. If anything, the country has more tightly embraced religion in the public sphere and in political culture in recent decades. And so this book begins with a different premise. It sets aside the question of whether the founders intended America to be a Christian nation and instead asks why so many contemporary Americans came to believe that this country has been and always should be a Christian nation.

One Nation Under God, KL 240

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein. This is a truly essential book. The preface and the first chapter will always stay with me. Here’s an excerpt:

It is hard, now, to grasp just how profoundly the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted between 1964 and today. Think of a senator winning the Democratic nomination in the year 2000 whose positions included halving the military budget, socializing the medical system, re-regulating the communications and electrical industries, establishing a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, and equalizing funding for all schools regardless of property valuations—and who promised to fire Alan Greenspan, counseled withdrawal from the World Trade Organization, and, for good measure, spoke warmly of adolescent sexual experimentation. He would lose in a landslide. He would be relegated to the ash heap of history. But if the precedent of 1964 were repeated, two years later the country would begin electing dozens of men and women just like him. And not many decades later, Republicans would have to proclaim softer versions of these positions just to get taken seriously for their party’s nomination. The analogy wouldn’t be exaggerating what has happened since 1964 too much. It might even be underplaying it …

Before the Storm, KL 83.

And one more:

Scratch a conservative today—a think-tank bookworm at Washington’s Heritage Foundation or Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation (the people whose studies and position papers blazed the trails for ending welfare as we know it, for the school voucher movement, for the discussion over privatizing Social Security) ; a door-knocking church lady pressing pamphlets into her neighbors’ palms about partial-birth abortion; the owner of a small or large business sitting across the table from a lobbyist plotting strategy on how to decimate corporate tax rates; an organizer of a training center for aspiring conservative activists or journalists; Republican precinct workers, fund-raisers, county chairs, state chairs, presidential candidates, congressmen, senators, even a Supreme Court justice—and the story comes out. How it all began for them: in the Goldwater campaign.

It was something more than just finding ideological soul mates. It was learning how to act: how letters got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break, how to print a bumper sticker and how to pry one off with a razor blade; how to put together a network whose force exceeded the sum of its parts by orders of magnitude; how to talk to a reporter, how to picket, and how, if need be, to infiltrate—how to make the anger boiling inside you ennobling, productive, powerful, instead of embittering. How to feel bigger than yourself. It was something beyond the week, the year, the campaign, even the decade; it was a cause. You lost in 1964. But something remained after 1964: a movement. An army. An army that could lose a battle, suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more. Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?—that was how William F. Buckley entitled an anthology of conservative writings in 1970. Later that year, his brother won a Senate seat from New York with the backing of the state’s Conservative Party. The dream was walking. Maybe it wasn’t even just an army. Maybe it was a moral majority.

Before the Storm, KL 127-136. Emphases added.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr. See my review. See also my article critiquing the often vicious pushback she and Kristen Du Mez continue to receive from white, male theologians associated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

For me, Barr’s book is more than the sum of its parts. I believe her attempts to tie the inerrancy movement to “patriarchy,” and her failure to define “patriarchy” anywhere in the book were mistakes. Yet, it’s value to me is that it was an introduction to critiques of complementarianism. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

For all my adult life, I had served in ministry with my husband, remaining in complementarian churches even as I grew more and more skeptical that “biblical womanhood” as we had been taught matched what the Bible taught. I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it. So I stayed in the system, and I stayed silent.

I stayed silent when a woman who worked at a Southern Baptist church and attended seminary alongside my husband was paid less by that church because she wasn’t ordained. Ironically, the reason she wasn’t ordained was because the church was Southern Baptist.

I stayed silent when a newly married woman whose job carried the family insurance quit that job after attending a retreat with women from our church—a retreat that featured a hardline complementarian speaker who convinced this woman that her proper place was in the home. Her decision, from what I heard, caused tension within the family, including financial. She stopped coming to church. I have no idea what happened to her.

I stayed silent when, after our pastor preached a sermon on gender roles, a married couple gave their testimony. The wife encouraged women to verbally agree to what their husbands suggested, even if they really disagreed. God would honor their submission.

I stayed silent when I wasn’t allowed to teach youth Sunday school because the class included teenage boys. I led discussions with special permission when no one else was available.

I stayed silent.

It wasn’t until that Sunday, three months after the worst had happened, that I realized the hard truth. By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women.

And the hardest truth of all was that I bore greater responsibility than most in our church because I had known that complementarian theology was wrong.

Making of Biblical Womanhood, pp. 3-5

A Manual for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. He is the best preaching teacher working in the United States, today. You need his books.

Christianity and the Social Crisis Walter by Walter Rauschenbusch. This might be one of the most paradigm-shifting books I’ve ever read. Very convicting and very good criticism of the “just preach the Gospel” flavor of Christianity. There are clear affinities here with the liberation theologies from Latin American that came to the fore about 50 years later. Though Rauschenbusch is hetero-orthodox in some places, he is a must-read. Your teachers and theological gate-keepers may tell you to stay away from him and his “social gospel.” Ignore that advice. Chew the meat and spit out the bones. There are some big bones, here. But, there’s also a lot of meat. Read it.

As long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin. Those who believe in a better social order are often told that they do not know the sinfulness of the human heart. They could justly retort the charge on the men of the evangelical school. When the latter deal with public wrongs, they often exhibit a curious unfamiliarity with the forms which sin assumes there, and sometimes reverently bow before one of the devil’s spider-webs, praising it as one of the mighty works of God.

Regeneration includes that a man must pass under the domination of the spirit of Christ, so that he will judge of life as Christ would judge of it. That means a revaluation of social values. Things that are now “exalted among men” must become “an abomination” to him because they are built on wrong and misery. Unless a man finds his judgment at least on some fundamental questions in opposition to the current ideas of the age, he is still a child of this world and has not “tasted the powers of the coming age.” He will have to repent and believe if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense of the world.

Christianity and the Social Crisis, p. 88

The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town by Brian Alexander. One of the best books I read in 2021. Sobering. Eye-opening. Engaging. It provides a snapshot of America’s “health care system” through the prism of a small, private, rural hospital in Bryan, Ohio.

A lot had changed in Bryan, though you couldn’t tell at first glance. From his office high up on the hospital’s fourth floor, Ennen could see across High Street to the white water tower with the big blue BRYAN on it, the letters leaning forward as if to announce that the “Fountain City” had momentum. He could see the Spangler Candy Company plant—the Dum Dums lollipop people—sprawled below the water tower. The company had been there for over a hundred years. He could see the railroad tracks beyond and the freight cars headed east and west, day and night, and the trees in their winter nakedness and the flat farm fields to the north, raked by the wind that never seemed to stop. If, as a boy, he had walked up to the top of the county courthouse and looked out of the tower, the picture would have been the same.

Bryan didn’t look different, but it was. Up High Street toward Main, and on the other side of Main, there was the trouble. There were about 36,800 preternaturally homogenous people spread over Williams County’s 421 square miles of tiny villages, fields, and lakes, but there could be as much as eight years’ difference in average life expectancy from one part of the county to the next, and even from one part of tiny Bryan to the next.

Such disparities played out in Ennen’s hospital every day. It was playing out three floors below him right then. He’d attended Bryan High with Marc Tingle. Their paths were already diverging as teenagers, and would diverge even more over the coming decades, until the village contractor with the dentures and the bad heart found himself dying in the CEO’s hospital.

As it happened, what was true in Williams County was true all over America, including places with huge healthcare systems and giant universities with medical schools. America had spent a century arguing about medical care but had not settled a thing. After all that time, all that arguing, and all that money, America was sick, and getting sicker and dying earlier with every passing year. Ennen and his shop were supposed to do something about that, but what—especially when the hospital was struggling to stay afloat? And what had created those differences in the first place? Could a hospital, even a financially secure one, intervene in any meaningful way? In many cases, CHWC was a Band-Aid station, though not the kind its local detractors implied. It was a battlefield clinic in an amorphous and mutating social and economic war that was killing people.

The weapons used against the people CHWC cared for were as deadly as any disease: Both the Ohio and the federal minimum wages were less than they were forty years before, after adjusting for inflation. Pensions had disappeared. Unions had been driven out of workplaces. As they were, wages fell and more of the nation’s wealth flowed to its richest people. Consolidated industries and financial engineers ruled the lives of employees. And as inequality spiked, health insurance evolved into an unaffordable, often useless racket. The hospital took in the casualties, patched them up, and released them back into what had become a one-sided conflict.

The Hospital, pp. 8-10

The rest of ’em

This doesn’t mean these books aren’t good. I enjoyed most of them, liked many, and loved some. Here they are:

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Du Mez. A giant sledgehammer to the knees of the conservative evangelical sub-culture. A great book. Don’t listen to the gatekeepers who tell you it’s dangerous or wrong, or who say “yeah, but …” There are not “buts.” Buy it. Read it. Don’t be like these Christians.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll. An informative monograph on the interpretive morass that resulted when competing cultural narratives used the scriptures to justify their positions. I need to read it again.

The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative by Steve Mathewson. See my review. I didn’t like this book.

The Christian and Social Responsibility by Charles Ryrie. I remember think this book was interesting, but I remember next to nothing about it. Make of that what you will! Ryrie advocates that the church eschew social issues and focus on the Gospel. It’s short. If you come from a white, conservative evangelical background, Ryrie is likely where you’re coming from.

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson. Entertaining. It was cotton-candy history. Light survey on key themes with “lessons” for today. Nothing deep. Just enough to make you feel a little morally superior for having read it!

The History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500 by Kenneth Latourette. Masterful. Fascinating. A real tour de force, if you’re into history. Latourette was a true Renaissance man in the Christian history field. I read this book slowly, in the evenings, over perhaps four months. It gave me great appreciation for Christian traditions not my own, and broadened my horizons along that line in many intangible ways.

A fundamentalist I am familiar with dismissed Latourette as “a liberal,” which means Latourette wasn’t precisely the same flavor of Christian as he. Well, I say that’s a good thing! Latourette’s text used to be the standard Christian history survey at many seminaries, but has largely been displaced by Justo Gonzalez (and others). Well worth reading.

Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement by Gustaf Aulen. Ground breaking. Paradigm shattering. I had never seriously considered the Christus Victor theory of atonement before, though I believed it. I think it complements penal, substitutionary atonement quite well. I preached the 2021 Easter sermon on Christus Victor.

A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War by James P. Byrd. An eye-opening study of the ways both sides used (and twisted) Scripture to make it say what suited their purposes, during the Civil War. This is a grave cautionary tale for leaders today who wish to use God’s word to magically justify their own position, seemingly oblivious to the need for any introspection. Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible is a case in point.

Divorce and Remarriage in the Church by David Instone-Brewer. Very helpful study that conludes Christians may indeed divorce, under certain circumstances. I used it extensively when I wrote my long position statement on Christian divorce, earlier this year.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea. Indispensible. Evangelicals must read this book. They’ll recognize a lot.

The Minister as Diagnostician by Paul Pruyser. An interesting little book. I purchased it to give me some insight for counseling. I thought it was helpful.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mills. Very, very interesting. Mills essentially says everyone ought to be allowed to do anything he wishes, unless it infringes on someone else’s liberty. An enlightening discussion on political theory … and a cautionary tale about how folks consider morality and the public square without a revelation from God.

As One Without Authority by Fred Craddock. A good book on preaching.

Solving Marriage Problems by Jay Adams. Helpful. Adams is always to the point and full of good counseling advice for pastors.

What Happens When We Worship by Jonathan Cruse. An unhelpful book by a neo-Puritan. It drips with venom, contempt, and scorn for anyone who isn’t like him. Read my review.

Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation by Allan Ross. A good overview of worship throughout the Scriptures.

Protestant Biblical Interpretation (3rd) by Bernard Ramm. Very good discussion on hermeneutics.

The Problem of the Old Testament by Duane Garrett. An outstanding book. Garrett’s discussion of a via media between covenant theology and dispensationalism as regards the relationship of Israel and the Church was groundbreaking, for me.

Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Defense by David Hanies and Andrew Fulford. It is what it says. I wrote an article after reading this little book.

Without Precedent by Joel Paul. A biography of John Marshall.

Stalin: Breaker of Nations by Robert Conquest. A great biography of a truly evil man.

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Ron Perlstein. Perhaps the most stunning work of history I’ve ever read. This was my entree to Perlstein’s quartet history of the modern conservative movement.

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976 – 1980 by Rick Perlstein. The same.

With Reverence and Awe by D.G. Hart and John Meuther. A truly awful book written by neo-Puritan, worship fundamentalists who disdain anyone who isn’t like them. The most wretched book on worship I’ve ever read. I considered burning it after reading, because I got the impression the authors would gladly do the same to me. I wrote an article on a related topic.

Worship in Song by Scott Aniol. A helpful perspective on worship.

The Conservative Church by David DeBruyn. Meh.

Anatomy of Hymnody by Austin Lovelace. I understood nothing the author said. Literally nothing.

With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America by William Martin. A great history of the Religious Right. Outstanding work.

The Gospel-Driven Church by Jared Wilson. A good book. Wilson’s target appears to be younger pastors who are disillusioned with the shallow, hipster version of attractional Christianity. That isn’t me, but I still appreciated his book.

Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell. Probably the most helpful book on worship a pastor can own.

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic (1789 – 1815) by Gordon Wood. Part of the Oxford History of the United States series. A good book.

Engaging with God by David Peterson. A very, very good book on worship that goes beyond arguments about the regulative or normative principles.

Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Very powerful little book.

From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race by J. Daniel Hays. An eye-opening and revolutionary look at what the bible says about race. Moses’ second wife was black!

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. This is a very provocative little book that will challenge any Christian. McKnight’s burden is to make us realize that we all read the Scriptures through our own interpretive lenses, and we ought to know that, admit it, and account for it so we can read the Bible the right way. He has a long discussion on women in ministry, as an example of how we often do this. McKnight is an egalitarian, and that may offend some readers.

What I learned was an uncomfortable but incredibly intriguing truth: Every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture. In less appreciated terms, I’ll put it this way: Everyone picks and chooses. I know this sounds out of the box and off the wall for many, but no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, it’s true. We pick and choose. (It’s easier for us to hear “we adopt and adapt,” but the two expressions amount to the same thing.) I believe many of us want to know why we pick and choose. Even more importantly, many of us want to know how to do this in a way that honors God and embraces the Bible as God’s Word for all times.

The Blue Parakeet, p. 13

A Vision for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. Buy it. Read it. Do it.

“Theology of the Pentateuch” by Eugene Merrill, in Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, edited by Roy Zuck. An extremely good, insightful discussion.

Introducing Liberation Theology by Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff. Short, accessible, thought-provoking introduction to a very important topic. There is much to learn, here.

How to Preach the Psalms by Kenneth Langley. A good little book.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David M. Potter. If you want to know the context that lead to the Civil War, then you need this book.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of a Nation by Rick Perlstein. Slower moving than Perlstein’s other books in the quartet. He paints a very dark, very bleak picture of America in the early 1970s.

White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin Kruse. A horrifying, eye-opening look at a very evil issue. One of the best books I read in 2021. Christians should be shocked.

The Second Founding: How Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner. To paraphrase Gandalf the Grey, “I have no memory of this book.” I remember nothing about it, but I do know I read it.

The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson by Bernard Bailyn. I’ve felt sorry for poor Hutchinson ever since I tread about how a mob destroyed his home, way back in my community college days. This is a good biography of a staid, intelligent civil servant who found himself outdone by events he couldn’t understand.

Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke. Very interesting reading.

Christian Democracy: Principles and Policy-making. A position paper on the Christian Democrat philosophy, from Germany. This is the brand of political philosophy I most align with. The American version of this perspective is the American Solidarity Party.

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal by George Packer. A thoughtful book. It’s four-fold taxonomy of the spectrum of “different America’s” is very good. I will use it as a framework for some time to come. If you want to read a short book about “how we got to where we are” in America, you can’t do better than this. This is not a partisan screed.

10 Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald Whitney. It’s a classic for a reason. I will use it for a book study at church, in 2022.

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller. The most helpful, balanced boo on marriage I’ve seen. I use this for marriage studies in a variety of contexts.

Leadership in Christian Ministry by James Means. A good, older book on pastoral leadership. Good reminders, in here.

Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship by Swee Hong Lim & Lester Ruth. A great, short history of a topic that’s controversial in some circles.

Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents by Matthew A. Sutton. It’s what it sounds like. A good, short overview of the Religious Right by Sutton, followed by well-chosen and enlightening primary source documents on various aspects of the movement. A great resource.

The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life 1870-1920 by Jeffrey P. Straub. If you want a good primer on the context for the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, this book will do it. A good book.

O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church by Robert G. Rayburn. A wonderful book; right up there with Bryan Chapell’s book.

Thoughtful Christianity: Alvah Hovey and the Problem of Authority within the Context of Nineteenth-Century Northern Baptists by Matthew C. Shrader. A thoughtful and engaging history of a towering, very influential but rarely studied Baptist leader in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook by Mark Futato. Read this today, for an upcoming DMin class. Very basic. Read something very similar at seminary, years ago. Probably why I found it so unhelpful. Not bad, just really “ho, hum.” Like a flat, warm Diet Coke. Not author’s fault. It’s just basic.

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. A sobering look at the hard-core edge of the American complementarian spectrum. I believe the CMBW-flavor of compartmentarianism is hetero-orthodox at points, and that Christian patriarchy is even more troubling.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town by Brian Alexander. If you want to understand the hopelessness that pervades too many small towns in America, this is the book to read. The description:

In 1947, Forbes magazine declared Lancaster, Ohio the epitome of the all-American town. Today it is damaged, discouraged, and fighting for its future. In Glass House, journalist Brian Alexander uses the story of one town to show how seeds sown 35 years ago have sprouted to give us Trumpism, inequality, and an eroding national cohesion.

The Anchor Hocking Glass Company, once the world’s largest maker of glass tableware, was the base on which Lancaster’s society was built. As Glass House unfolds, bankruptcy looms. With access to the company and its leaders, and Lancaster’s citizens, Alexander shows how financial engineering took hold in the 1980s, accelerated in the 21st Century, and wrecked the company. We follow CEO Sam Solomon, an African-American leading the nearly all-white town’s biggest private employer, as he tries to rescue the company from the New York private equity firm that hired him. Meanwhile, Alexander goes behind the scenes, entwined with the lives of residents as they wrestle with heroin, politics, high-interest lenders, low wage jobs, technology, and the new demands of American life: people like Brian Gossett, the fourth generation to work at Anchor Hocking; Joe Piccolo, first-time director of the annual music festival who discovers the town relies on him, and it, for salvation; Jason Roach, who police believed may have been Lancaster’s biggest drug dealer; and Eric Brown, a local football hero-turned-cop who comes to realize that he can never arrest Lancaster’s real problems.

Preaching with Variety by Jeffrey Arthurs. It was ok.

Interpreting the Parables (2nd ed.) by Craig Blomberg. Outstanding guide. I am persuaded the parables are allegory.

The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes by Derek Kidner. Disappointing.

The Parables of Jesus by Dwight Pentecost. If you’re a dispensationalist who wants eisigetical comfort food, this book is for you.

Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass. An exhaustive, dictionary-like resource on the parables.

Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. Buy it. Read it. Do it.

Afraid of the mirror? On evangelicals and wagon-circling

Afraid of the mirror? On evangelicals and wagon-circling

Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr both published important books, recently. They’re both well-credentialed historians. They’re both conservative Christians. They’ve both drawn the negative attention of a particular group of conservative, male, Christian theologians. They call Du Mez and Barr (along with some other folks) “wolves.” They say these women are a threat. They say they’re paving the slippery slope to ruin. They’re undermining scripture–putting lived experiences, feelings, and sociology in the driver’s seat. The bible is denigrated! To arms!

What’s the problem? I’ll briefly introduce the two books, look at some examples of culture driving bible interpretation, take a look at the alarmist response to Barr and Du Mez from some quarters, then offer some brief analysis.

The women who wrote the books that started this great war

Kristin Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation argues that “evangelicalism” is less a set of doctrinal commitments (like, say, the Bebbington quadrilateral) than a sociological or cultural phenomenon with its own values, mores, and gatekeepers. And, this sub-culture sometimes has little to do with scripture itself. Her focus is a particular framework for masculinity, with John Wayne as the archetype. She writes:

Although foundational to white evangelical identity, race rarely acts as an independent variable. For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity. Many Americans who now identify as evangelicals are identifying with this operational theology—one that is Republican in its politics and traditionalist in its values. This God-and-country faith is championed by those who regularly attend evangelical churches, and by those who do not. It creates affinities across denominational, regional, and socioeconomic differences, even as it divides Americans—and American Christians—into those who embrace these values, and those who do not. In this way, conservative white evangelicalism has become a polarizing force in American politics and society.

White evangelicalism has such an expansive reach in large part because of the culture it has created, the culture that it sells. Over the past half century or so, evangelicals have produced and consumed a vast quantity of religious products: Christian books and magazines, CCM (“Christian contemporary music”), Christian radio and television, feature films, ministry conferences, blogs, T-shirts, and home decor. Many evangelicals who would be hard pressed to articulate even the most basic tenets of evangelical theology have nonetheless been immersed in this evangelical popular culture. They’ve raised children with the help of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio programs or grown up watching VeggieTales cartoons. They rocked out to Amy Grant or the Newsboys or DC Talk. They learned about purity before they learned about sex, and they have a silver ring to prove it. They watched The Passion of the Christ, Soul Surfer, or the latest Kirk Cameron film with their youth group. They attended Promise Keepers with guys from church and read Wild at Heart in small groups. They’ve learned more from Pat Robertson, John Piper, Joyce Meyer, and The Gospel Coalition than they have from their pastor’s Sunday sermons.

Jesus and John Wayne, pp. 6-7

She continues, in her introduction:

Contemporary white evangelicalism in America, then, is not the inevitable outworking of “biblical literalism,” nor is it the only possible interpretation of the historic Christian faith; the history of American Christianity itself is filled with voices of resistance and signs of paths not taken. It is, rather, a historical and a cultural movement, forged over time by individuals and organizations with varied motivations—the desire to discern God’s will, to bring order to uncertain times, and, for many, to extend their own power.

Ibid, p. 14.

It’s fair to say that these are fightin’ words, to some Christians.

Beth Allison Barr, in her volume The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, takes aim at a complementarian understanding of gender roles. I reviewed her book, earlier this year. She is a medieval historian, and mines history to suggest culture is driving a particular interpretation of gender roles that marginalizes women:

This was my understanding of biblical womanhood: God designed women primarily to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers. God designed men to lead in the home as husbands and fathers, as well as in church as pastors, elders, and deacons. I believed that this gender hierarchy was divinely ordained. Elisabeth Elliot famously wrote that femininity receives. Women surrender, help, and respond while husbands provide, protect, and initiate. A biblical woman is a submissive woman.

This was my world for more than forty years.

Until, one day, it wasn’t.

Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 2.

Barr continues:

You see, I knew that complementarian theology—biblical womanhood—was wrong. I knew that it was based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog, as Ben Witherington once commented—meaning that cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context. So much textual and historical evidence counters the complementarian model of biblical womanhood and the theology behind it. Sometimes I am dumbfounded that this is a battle we are still fighting.

As a historian, I also knew that women have been fighting against oppression from the beginning of civilization. I knew that biblical womanhood, rather than looking like the freedom offered by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, looks much more like the non-Christian systems of female oppression that I teach my students about when we discuss the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Greece. As Christians we are called to be different from the world. Yet in our treatment of women, we often look just like everyone else. Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression. I can’t think of anything less Christlike than hierarchies like these.

Ibid, pp. 6-7

Culture does drive interpretation, at some level

Both Du Mez and Barr are using history, in complementary ways (pun intended), to say something like, “don’t you see that cultural forces you don’t even acknowledge are shaping what you believe ‘the bible says,’ even right now?

This is not a revolutionary concept. It’s a good insight. We learn from history, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Here are a few examples:

Peter and Cornelius

In Acts 10:28-29, the Apostle Peter visits a Roman soldier’s home, in Caeserea. The man’s name is Cornelius. Peter is there because God, in a vision, told him to go. Cornelius and his assembled guests (Gentiles, all) are waiting. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.

He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”

Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home.[1] You wanted them OUT.

And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, said what he said to this eager audience. He’s supposed to preach the Gospel (and he eventually does; cf. Acts 10:34-35), but what a bizarre and cruel way to start a conversation!

Why did Peter act this way, when Jesus so clearly did not (cf. Mt 8:5-12; cp. Isa 42:1-9)? Simple. His culture was driving his interpretation.

Augustine and Ambrose

The other day, as I studied to teach through Psalm 114, I saw that both Ambrose and his spiritual son, Augustine, interpreted that lovely passage to be about Christian baptism (see especially vv. 3-4). I hate to break it to you … but that passage has nothing to do with baptism. It’s about God’s power. His authority. He’s the one who indwells His people, who are His kingdom, rule and dominion. He’s so powerful that the Red Sea flees, the Jordan pulls a U-turn, and the mountains and hills quake!

Why would Ambrose and Augustine butcher this text into … an apology for Christian baptism? Simple. They believed in baptismal regeneration, like most Christians did in the ante and post-nicene period. Their culture warped their interpretation.

Rev. A. T. Holmes

In 1851, an Alabama minister named Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote an essay on the topic of the duties of Christian masters towards slaves (“The Duties of Christian Masters,” ca. 1851, in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South―A Brief History with Documents, ed. Paul Finkelman (Boston: St. Martins, 2003), pp. 96-107). He wrote it for a contest sponsored by the Alabama Baptist Convention. This was in the antebellum South, of course, where slavery reigned. His tone was condescending and paternalistic–blacks are ignorant, inferior, simple. Masters have a “Christian duty” to “show them the way,” as it were. Slaves were property in “our” care. God will judge us if we fail to do our duty, Holmes declared!

The good Reverend painted a whitewashed, fictional portrait–a tissue of lies:

A kind word, a pleasant look, a little arrangement for his comfort, assures him that there is one who cares for him; and, notwithstanding he goes forth to his daily labor, and toils at his daily task, his heart is light, his song is cheerful, and he seeks his humble couch at night, in the happy consciousness that his master is his friend.”

Duties of Christian Masters, in Defending Slavery, p. 103.

This is a Gone With the Wind-level, air-brushed plantation fantasy! Slaves must be taught the master is the protector, so they’d be less likely to run away. Masters must set the Christian example―souls are at stake! Indeed, slavery is the vehicle for evangelism: “Christian master, entered the dark cabin of thy servant, and with the lamp of truth in thy hand, light up his yet darker soul with the knowledge of him, whom to know is life eternal …” (Ibid, p. 103).

One is very tempted to see a parallel between the slave with the “dark cabin” and the “darker soul” with his dark skin, and the white master who wields the “lamp of truth.” Are these allusions an accident? I doubt it.

Rev. Holmes won $200 from the Alabama Baptist Convention for this essay. How could a Christian man actually believe this? Simple. His culture.

For more on the slavery issue and biblical interpretation, see especially Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), and James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: OUP, 2021).

Capitalism or bust?

Deuteronomy is an oft-neglected book. That’s too bad, because there’s some important stuff there. God tells us that debt must be reset and wiped out every seven years, and that this magic date is fixed and repetitive. If a covenant brother or sister is in need, you must loan to him. Is the “reset date” only 14 months away? Too bad. Is it true that you’ll never collect the money back from the guy in 14 months, if you loan to him? Yes, but too bad (Deut 15:1-6).

That’s not fair, you say! Well, God says fair ain’t got nothing to do with it. He knows you’re tempted to refuse the loan for those very reasons (Deut 15:9), and he says “[y]ou shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging …” (Deut 15:10).

What does this reveal about God’s heart for his future kingdom society? A few things come to mind:

  1. God does not like vast economic disparity.
  2. He takes the side of the poor. He doesn’t penalize the rich, per se, but puts a floor in place to stop the poor from falling and falling, and falling some more.
  3. This suggests an economic system which encourages vast wealth disparity, either by design or by default, does not reflect kingdom values.

These observations should raise the eyebrows of a conservative Christian steeped in the doctrines of the Moral Majority, Reagan-era GOP. If that’s you, then you’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of the government. They’re up to no good. They need to get outta the way. After all, the most terrifying thing in the world is to be told, “Hi! I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” You’ve seen the Reagan quotes on Facebook, usually shared by people 50 or older. George Packer, writing about this particular version of America, notes:

The majority of Americans who elected Reagan president did not vote for the destruction of the blue-collar workforce, or the rise of a new plutocracy, or legislation rigged in favor of organized money. They weren’t told that Free America would break their unions and starve their social programs, or that it would change antitrust policy to bring a new age of monopoly, concentrating financial power and strangling competition, making Walmart, Citigroup, Google, and Amazon the J. P. Morgan and Standard Oil of a second Gilded Age. They had never heard of Charles and David Koch—heirs to a family oil business, libertarian billionaires, who would pour money into the lobbies and propaganda machines and political campaigns of Free America on behalf of corporate power and fossil fuels. Freedom sealed a deal between elected officials and business executives: campaign contributions in exchange for tax cuts and corporate welfare.

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), pp. 65-66.

Over a century ago, Walter Rausenbusch described the plight of the average factory workers who comprised his flock, in the heyday of the industrial revolution:

The fear of losing his job is the workman’s chief incentive to work. Our entire industrial life, for employer and employee, is a reign of fear. The average workingman’s family is only a few weeks removed from destitution. The dread of want is always over them, and that is worse than brief times of actual want. It is often said in defence of the wages system that while the workman does not share in the hope of profit, neither is he troubled by the danger of loss; he gets his wage even if the shop is running at a loss. Not for any length of time. His form of risk is the danger of being out of work when work grows slack, and when his job is gone, all his resources are gone.

Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan & Co, 1907; reprint), p. 61.

He railed, not so much against individual cases of social and economic misery, but at the system that produced it:

The officers of the hospitals and the officers of the street railway company were not bad men. Their point of view and their habits of mind are entirely comprehensible. I feel no certainty that I should not act in the same way if I had been in their place long enough. But the impression remained that our social machinery is almost as blindly cruel as its steel machinery, and that it runs over the life of a poor man with scarcely a quiver.

Ibid, pp. 63-64

Why does this matter? Think Amazon. They know their workers are too often badly-educated and have little power. Amazon can force them to accept low wages because they have fewer options. Think Wal-Mart. Think the gig economy. This is all still true. Should Christians champion an economic system that abets a system that makes rich people very rich, and some people very poor?

You may be tempted to respond with a GOP talking point. Fair enough. Read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, and consider what God’s values are, regarding economics. Then look to Reagan, then back at Moses. Is there a disparity? What does that mean?

Rauschenbush declared:

Regeneration includes that a man must pass under the domination of the spirit of Christ, so that he will judge of life as Christ would judge of it. That means a revaluation of social values. Things that are now “exalted among men” must become “an abomination” to him because they are built on wrong and misery. Unless a man finds his judgment at least on some fundamental questions in opposition to the current ideas of the age, he is still a child of this world and has not “tasted the powers of the coming age.” He will have to repent and believe if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense of the world.

Ibid, p. 88.

Why is this short discussion likely to irritate some people? Simple. Your culture has conditioned you to default to Reaganomics. You can read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, but you don’t see it. You don’t hear it. It’s mute, to you. You might even invent reasons why it can’t really mean that, or say it doesn’t apply to the New Covenant, etc. You might also turn to Wayne Grudem, who wrote a long book titled Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) that somehow manages to dovetail quite well with the GOP platform (“[t]he Bible’s teaching on the role of government gives support to the idea of a free market rather than socialism or communism,” p. 275).

But … does the bible really advocate a free-market economy, a la Reagan? Or, is that your culture talking? As you consider the cattle-like operations of the Wal-Mart and Amazon worker, I offer one more salvo from Rauschenbusch, then I’ll leave it: “The preventible decimation of the people is social murder,” (Ibid, p. 62).

When evangelicals attack

I say all that to say that the history Du Mez and Barr are doing need not be a threat. Culture does impact interpretation! If you know it, acknowledge it, you can correct for it. You can adjust. Yet, some conservative male theologians think these women are a threat.

In the Fall 2021 edition of Eikon, the journal of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, one author declared these two women (among others) “all share a dangerous approach to theology via the disciplines of sociology and history.” If culture really does impact interpretation, our author fears the end result is that we won’t be able to be sure we know anything at all! The author fears Du Mez and Barr are the road to the fast train to apostasy–“their methodological approach makes such an outcome inevitable.”

In the latest issue of 9Marks Journal, its editor, Jonathan Leeman, sounds a similar alarm:

Postmodernism’s heavy emphasis on the role of interpretation is, quite simply, too heavy. It tempts Christians to believe that the Bible cannot be objectively understood, or that we cannot articulate objectively true doctrines, or that everything we might say about the Bible warrants suspicions because it only reveals our cultural context and sinful self-interest.

Cultural forces do exist, Leeman allows, but “the Bible alone is the norming norm.” He worries Christians will read Barr and Du Mez and unwittingly forsake the Bible as the structural foundation for reality, in favor of lived experiences and feelings:

Denny Burk, a Southern Baptist theologian and President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, echoed Leeman in an exchange with Du Mez:

Burk then queried Du Mez repeatedly on her views on LGBTQ issues, which he sees as a corollary to her (to his eyes, at least) compromised view of scripture regarding gender roles. Du Mez replied with a short article in which she acknowledged she is re-thinking her stand on these issues. Burk then declared his suspicions were confirmed! According to one account, Burk, Leeman, Kevin DeYoung (who has also written a critique of Barr’s book), and Andy Naselli (who wrote a critical review of another book questioning certain gender role presuppositions) regularly text one another, wondering how they can “handle” these women. They see themselves as righteous gatekeepers, protecting a naive and vulnerable flock from danger with their terrible, swift theological swords. His truth is marching on!

Du Mez is wrong to re-consider the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics. Indeed, it’s interesting that the saints whom God protects from the tribulation during the last days have two distinguishing characteristics: (1) they’re not sexually immoral (whatever Revelation 14:4 means, this interpretation is surely a top contender), and (2) they follow Jesus wherever He goes. But, the LGBTQ issue has nothing to do with Du Mez’s scholarship on the evangelical theory of masculinity! Consider this–I enjoy Rick Atkinson’s history books. I’ve no idea what he thinks of sexual ethics. If he approved of LGBTQ, must I now throw his books away? Should we all burn our copies of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history of the Reformation? Absurd! Why, then, is Du Mez so uniquely “dangerous”?

This is the odd part. We learn from people with whom we disagree all the time. If I only read books authored by my particular flavor of Christian, on any subject, then I wouldn’t be reading much. Why are gender roles and masculinity such a unique threat?

  1. Why is it ok to quote John Calvin, who would have had Burk and Leeman trundled out of Geneva for believing in believer’s baptism, but “dangerous” to learn from Du Mez and Barr?
  2. Why is it fine to admire Huldrych Zwingli for his reforms in Zurich, during the Swiss Reformation, when he had Felix Manz murdered (by drowning) for holding to believer’s baptism? Does not my endorsement of Zwingli lead Christians to murder their theological opponents?
  3. Why should we quote from Augustine’s Confessions or City of God, when the man held to baptismal regeneration? Is this not “dangerous?” Shall I burn the copy of Confessions in the church library, lest someone be led astray by this wolf? The Gospel is at stake!

Critics may reply that these doctrinal differences were textual, not sociological. That would miss the point. Every convictional Christian looks to the text. The issue is whether we’re willing to account for our own biases and context, so we can interpret it correctly. Calvin, Zwingli, and Augustine held to the particular positions I just mentioned, in part, because of their peculiar context–their culture. Church historians recognize that. Consider the state-church context in which Zwingli and Calvin operated, then consider poor Felix Manz! And yet … I doubt the Bible Presbyterians across the street from the Baptist church where I pastor are hatching plans to bind me in chains and toss me into the Puget Sound! Why not? Because that ain’t how we do things, today.

So, I ask again, why are Du Mez and Barr so uniquely “dangerous” to a confab of conservative, American, male theologians? I’m not sure. But, I suspect their culture has something to do with it.


[1] On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.

A ho-hum book on the psalms

A ho-hum book on the psalms

Psalms, Psalms and Psalms!

Mark Furtado’s Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook is part of a larger series from Kregel titled “Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis.” Because, the editor proclaims, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting Scripture,”[1] the series covers all the Old Covenant genres in different books. Paradoxically, the editor then enforced an identical six-part structure on each author, for each handbook.[2] One-size-fits-all, indeed!

Furtato explains the nature of the psalm genre, offers some suggestions for considering the psalms as a unified literary work, principles for interpretation, and instruction on how to interpret and proclaim the text, and an example of what it all looks like, in practice. The editor envisions the work as a textbook for graduate-level exegesis courses.[3]

Furtato wants you to understand Hebrew poetry to interpret it better. He wants us to “see” the psalms in their original context. He wants us to understand the different genres of psalmody, so we are not prone to wander into exegetical fantasy. He also wants us to preach “with clarity and conviction.”[4]

Is it Worth it?

Furtato’s book is ho-hum. It does its job as a graduate-level introduction the same way a Geo Metro gets you to and from work. In seminary, my professor assigned C. Hassell Bullock’s Encountering the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), which covered the same ground. I prefer Bullock, but perhaps that is just nostalgia.

Furtato sometimes spends time discussing matters that are less than helpful:

  • Parallelism. He states C.S. Lewis personifies an “old way” which sees the second cola as saying the same thing, with different words. Furtato demurs and suggests parallelism is when the second cola says “something similar … but with a difference.”[5] This is a rather underwhelming revelation.
  • Following patterns. Furtato likes patterns. He spends time discussing linear, parallel, and symmetrical patterns.[6] I have never gotten much out of these distinctions―they are about as helpful as talks on verbal aspect theory in Koine Greek. This may well be my own failing, but I do not believe these technical notes help to accurately interpret a psalm. 
  • Purpose. He claims the psalm’s purpose, as wisdom literature, is to instruct us about happiness and holiness.[7] This is a startling reductionism―Furtato has flattened the psalms into a stale pancake. What about teaching us how to lament? How to be honest with God when the world is dark? How to cry out in pain when our lives are ruined? To bear the burden of sadness, and yet still hope? As an umbrella category, “happiness” is inadequate.

Reflection and Interaction

My remarks here are a continuation of those in the preceding section. Furtato has not written a poor book. In the classic movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s father (“the Old Man”) sips champagne on Christmas morning and remarks to his wife, “This champagne isn’t bad! It’s not good, either …” That is Furtato’s book. It is a Kia Forte. Utilitarian. It does its job. It is not sexy.

  • Headings. He spends three pages discussing the historicity of the psalm headings, all to declare they are not meaningful.[8] This is not helpful.
  • Textual criticism. Furtato is brave to discuss textual criticism in the span of four pages.[9] He should not have tried. This is not a discipline that can help a pastor in his day-to-day activities―certainly not in preaching! Leave the textual criticism to the Old and New Testament introduction classes.

I will park at Psalm 13 for a moment, because Furtato used it to illustrate outlining.[10] He says the psalm is about “how to deal with distressing situations in your life.” His three “points” are to (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. Furtato butchers this psalm. He rips out its soul.

The psalm tells us David has lost hope.[11] God has forgotten him. More than that, God has deliberately turned His back on him! David is lost. He cries out, but only has his own counsel to keep. Sorrow fills his heart day and night. Enemies are exalted over him. Implicit, but not said, is that God has allowed this to happen―but why? How many of us feel that way? Neglected? Abandoned? Betrayed? Victims of injustice that God has somehow allowed to happen? Is He not good? Why, then, do I suffer? This is raw honesty. The kind of honesty that makes you, in the solitude of your drive home, ask aloud, “What the hell is going on!? Answer me, God! Please!”

How Furtato managed to smash this Psalm into his outline, I do not know. But, his practical interpretive skills are weak in this example. It is disappointing when an author marshals everything he has discussed into practical reality and the result is … a ho-hum, stale, boring three-point outline that flattens Psalm 13 into (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. It does not reflect well on the book.


[1] Mark Furtato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), p. 13.

[2] Ibid, p. 14. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 17. 

[5] Ibid, p. 38. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 49-53. 

[7] Ibid, pp. 59-71. 

[8] Ibid pp. 119-122. 

[9] Ibid, pp. 125-129.

[10] Ibid, pp. 203-204. 

[11] Due to space constraints, my comments only follow the highpoints of Psalm 13:1-3.

Good book on preaching the psalms

Good book on preaching the psalms

In his splendid book, How to Preach the Psalms, Kenneth Langley’s burden is not to teach you how to interpret the psalms. Plenty of folks have already done that. Nor is it about exegesis―there are already far too many guides to what Abraham Kuruvilla maligns as a “hermeneutic of excavation.”[1] Instead, Langley’s aim is to help pastors preach the psalms as the literary treasures they are.[2]

Langley explains that, early in his ministry, he avoided preaching the psalms. They were too raw. Too emotional. Perhaps even unsuited to preaching.[3] When he tried his hand at the genre, he felt like a failure. It was flat. Stale. Cold. Something was missing. “I had been faithful to the meaning of the Psalms, but their emotion, imagination, and aesthetic appeal never quite made it into the sermon. I had not captured the poetic essence of these texts.”[4]

It is this disconnect that Langley seeks to bridge. It is a well-earned cliché that newly-minted seminary graduates will be poor preachers for several years. We may be able to discuss verbal aspect theory vs. traditional tense form. We might point with pride to our dense syntax analysis of Psalm 1. But, can we communicate truth as the psalm presents it? Or, do we deliver stale, scholastic ice for 45 minutes? “Many preachers have felt the force of this argument. We remember with embarrassment sucking the juice out of a psalm and then preaching a shriveled rind of a sermon.”[5]

Langley divides his suggestions into seven categories encompassing 14 “strategies:”

Figure 1. Langley’s strategies for preaching psalms

Buy the Book

Each strategy is very practical; there are no ivory towers here. In style and feel, this little book greatly resembles H.B. Charles’ On Preaching.[6] The chapters are short, the advice punchy, the content extraordinarily practical.

I see two reasons why Langley’s book is needed more than ever. The first is that pastors, like many people, read less than they used to. I am skeptical one can “teach” a feel for genre, style, mood, tone, or the implicit force of a text. This knowledge only comes from years of reading fiction, history, biography, prose, poetry―from reading a lot. Aside from a curious mania for Narnia and Tolkien (both massively overrated!), too many Christians read far too little. This means their interpretive abilities are often stunted. It also means pastors may give lip-service to tone and implicit feel,while happily crushing a psalm into a didactic mold. “This sucks the life out of a poem.”[7] But, if we consciously stop, think, and make the poem real to us, there is hope we can go beyond a deductive outline.

The reason why Langley’s little book is so valuable is that it teaches pastors to interpret, frame and present poetry differently. “The psalms do not open their treasures to preachers who insist on treating them like epistles or theological arguments.”[8] This is the great tragedy―because so few of us can escape this trap. We want to excuse away Job 23, and we are uncomfortable with the raw emotion of Psalm 109. We are addicted to the “audiobook commentary” style of preaching championed by John MacArthur, who not only epitomizes the “hermeneutic of excavation,” but actually built the excavator.

Using the Book

I will illustrate this book’s usefulness by relating some anecdotes from a recent sermon I did on Psalm 113. I preach through the psalms on Wednesday evenings. We meet in people’s homes, not in the building, which means this is a cozy, intimate setting―sitting in a circle on chairs and couches, with a cat or two purring in someone’s lap. These sermonettes usually last 15 minutes, give or take.

Strategy 3 tells me to follow the logic of the psalm. I followed Fred Craddock’s advice and did not declare “the point” of the psalm at the beginning and then deductively “prove it.” I quickly advanced through vv.1-3, which is a plain vanilla declaration of praise to God. I did not linger to explain why we ought to praise Him. If I had done that, I would have robbed the psalmist, because he was about to do that for me.

The setup is in vv.4-6, which emphasizes how “high” and mighty God is. Above the nations. Above the heavens. Seated on high, gazing down on little people like us, far below. If I had read Langley before 11 November 2021, I would have stressed the gulf between heaven and earth forcefully so as to make people think, “Well, He’s too important for the likes of me and my problems!”  

The mind-blowing moment is in vv.7-9, where we see that, despite His great heights, God cares. He cares enough to notice and help the most powerless, most vulnerable people in society. There is no partiality or favoritism. The God who is so high loves to stoop so low, for His people. Now, when the psalmist repeats His command to “praise the Lord,” it really means something. The psalm is precious because it shows us that the God of Isaiah 6 cares about you― especially you.

Strategy 4 tells me to re-narrative the psalm. Christians in 2021 cannot really connect with the “poor” and the “barren woman” in the way the psalmist intended. These are the most powerless people, the most vulnerable. Who are these people, in today’s society? What about that fellow in your church who works an unskilled job for a multi-billion corporation, makes little money, is in poor health, and is in debt? He is exploited by a billion-dollar juggernaut for pathetic wages, in constant fear of losing his position to other poor unskilled workers. He is disposable, and the corporation knows it. He is the product of a cultural system that has locked him into a cycle of poverty.[9] He is the powerless believer, crushed by forces he cannot understand.

Yet, God looks down from the commanding heights, raises him from the dust and sits him alongside princes. He cares about him. He really cares. Of course, the Torah does not envision crushing debt and poverty lasting longer than seven years (Deut 15:1-11), but real life is cruel. There is perhaps a subtle rebuke here to the wickedness of a society that permanently crushes its most vulnerable members. “The preventable decimation of the people is social murder.”[10]

In this fashion, Langley’s strategies can make a psalm sing. He can help you communicate reality in Psalm 113, rather than another stale lecture about providence. It is an excellent book.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, A Manual for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), p. 7. “[W]e preachers are consumed with what is best labeled a ‘hermeneutic of excavation’ and have been trained to shovel up loads of dirt, boulders, potsherds, arrowheads, and fishhooks. We dump it all on our desks. Everything in the text, it seems, is equally important and crucial, and there is hardly any discriminating inference or integration that leads to an understanding of what the author is doing—the theology of the pericope. Like cows at pasture, we munch on every available blade of grass, and commentaries abundantly furnish those pieces of herbage for our consumption.”

[2] Langley observed, “It seems to me that what preachers need is more of what Tom Long did in Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Fortress, 1989) and Jeffrey Arthurs did in Preaching with Variety (Kregel, 2007). Long steered preachers in the direction of genre-sensitive preaching ‘based on the relatively simple idea that the literary dynamics of a biblical text can and should be important factors in the preacher’s navigation of the distance between text and sermon.’ His chapter on Psalms is the seed from which the present book has grown …” (Kenneth Langley, How to Preach the Psalms (Dallas: Fontes, 2021), p. 13).

[3] “I was almost prepared to agree with Donald Gowan that the psalms do not want to be preached, that they are speech directed toward God and do not adapt well to speech directed toward the church,” (Langley, Psalms, p. 15).

[4] Ibid, p. 15.  

[5] Ibid, p. 16.  

[6] H.B. Charles, Jr. On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 2014).  

[7] Langley, Psalms, p. 46.  

[8] Ibid, p. 51.  

[9] Walter Rauschenbusch writes, “Our national optimism and conceit ought not to blind us longer to the fact. Single cases of unhappiness are inevitable in our frail human life; but when there are millions of them, all running along well-defined grooves, reducible to certain laws, then this misery is not an individual, but a social matter, due to causes in the structure of our society and curable only by social reconstruction,” (Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan, 1907; reprint: CrossReach, n.d.), p. 63).

[10] Ibid, p. 62.  

Thinking about Israel and the Church

Thinking about Israel and the Church

Here are some slides about a difficult topic. You shouldn’t mistake this presentation as a definitive assessment, or even fully representative of major positions. There are too many nuances, even within the same circles, to capture here. But still, these slides do a credible job of laying out some broad guardrails to think about this issue. I present three different options, and devote several slides to each one (check the headings).

Here you are …