Thursday, January 27, 2011

When the Word of God Isn't the Word of God: The Danger of Taking Texts Out of Contexts (Part III)

Formulating an Answer
                After a rather long discussion, I think we are finally ready to answer the question “when does the word of God cease to be the word of God?” 

1) When the passage is stripped of the intent that God created it for. In other words, when someone preaches a text and it is used for a purpose other than what God designated for it. I hate when people quote me out of context because yes, those are my words, but in another sense, no those aren’t my words. I never would have used those words that way. 

This is entirely different than when we reapply the words to our modern context. Our applications need to be faithful to the original intent. Passages on redemption should speak to redemption today. Passages on sin need to speak to sin today. Passages on cultural issues prevalent back then need to find close approximations to cultural issues today. 

2) When the passages original historical setting is ignored. This is similar to the above problem yet with a slight twist. When a passage is ripped out of its historical context, what we are really doing is taking a step closer to reader-response criticism as pastors. We do not stand above the author or beside the author but below the author and its situation. We are in constant dialogue with him. We say, “I see the situation that you wrote that in. It is similar to ours in ______________.” We do not say, “I see the situation you wrote that in. Now I am going to take your text and apply it to this unrelated issue instead.” That violates the intent of the author and I believe, violates a basic principle of communication that is divinely built into our system of communication.

3) When words are taken out of context and filled with foreign meanings, the text ceases to be the word of God. In other words, when pastors say that dunamis is where we get dynamite from (a true statement) and then say Paul meant that the gospel has explosive power (which is impossible since dynamite was not invented yet), it ceases to be a God given word. Why? Because the word never meant that and the pastor is reading his own material into the text. If the text does not say that, it is not the word of God.

4) When the pastor states something false, it is not the word of God. Regardless of how harmless it might seem to use a word fallacy like the one listed above, it is nevertheless untrue. And as a word that is untrue, it is not the word of God. While the intent of the pastor might be sincere and it is not necessarily a sin to make a mistake (I have made plenty so I hope it isn’t!) like that, it is still not the word of God. We cannot expect sloppy preaching or false statements to be honored by God, regardless of our sincerity.

5) When the pastor preaches thoughts unrelated to the text and therefore violates the basic principles of interpretation, or misleads the congregation (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to believe that his statements are connected to the text, we are no longer dealing with a preacher who is preaching the word of God. To say that God is neither Calvinist nor Arminian because of Joshua 5:13-15 is not a spirit inspired statement because it isn’t related to the word of God in Joshua 5:13-15. We have become so removed from the spirit and intent of the text at this point, I would encourage that pastor to just stop and say, “The remainder of the time we will use to discuss my thoughts on Calvinism and Arminianism.”

6) When we apply scripture that is not for us to us, the text ceases to be the word of God. The interesting thing about words is that they are FOR specific people. When those words are applied to another person outside of its original audience, they may carry significance for me, but they are not words FOR me. For instance, someone might write me a love song. Those words are for me. Someone else years later might hear that same song and apply those words to themselves and find special meaning in it. That is great…but those words still were not meant for them.

This point might land me in some trouble, but I mean this sincerely: if the text was not written for us, to apply it to ourselves might carry comfort and joy and significance for us personally, but it is not because God is behind it. A biblical example: Jeremiah 1:5 carries great theological truth. God knows us and formed us all. However, I cannot say with certainty I was consecrated from the womb and I know I was not appointed a prophet to the nations. Those words were written about Jeremiah—not me. So I can apply some great truths from this text but I cannot apply this text verbatim to me. To do so violates the nature of the text and, as a result, the text ceases to be God’s word to us today.

Another example: applying passages that were meant for Israel to us today. It is just bad hermeneutics to do that. I realize that many people’s life verse is Jeremiah 29:11. Again, great truths can be gleaned about the nature of God. But the text was not written for us. These promises cannot be claimed by us. To claim that these promises do apply to us is false (so see point #4 above).

Some might say, well is not all scripture not written for us? Are not all passages context specific? Well yes and no. Romans 15:4 reminds that “whatever was written in former days was written four instruction, that through endurance through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” A few points can be gleaned from this: all scripture can be used for our instruction, for endurance and for encouragement. But this does not mean we can directly apply every text to ourselves.
Also, some scripture was written for our continued benefit and need today. So in a very real sense, while we are not the original audience and so we cannot say it was written to us, God allows many passages today to be for us anyway. The New Testament promises of God are for us.

So a basic rule of thumb is this: if the text was not written for us, we can glean great spiritual truths from those texts and not violate the intent of the text and so still be preaching the word of God. However, when we apply directly to ourselves texts that were not written for us, we violate the word of God and it ceases to be the word of God.

7) When a sermon violates the trajectory of the story of redemption. In essence, when we retroject New Testament principles into the Old Testament without first establishing the context of the Old Testament, we violate the intention of the author. I did this a number of years ago as I was preaching the book of Ecclesiastes for the first time. I attempted to always include Christ into every single line of thought. Now I believe Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, but I think Ecclesiastes needs to be heard on its own terms before we jump immediately to Christ.

We can also see this when we preach pure ethics out of texts that have little to do with ethics. So for instance, John MacArthur gives the example of his failure in preaching a sermon on not presuming upon God from 2 Samuel 7, which is clearly about the future Davidic King. He violated the basic trajectory of the redemptive history. In other words, he missed the overarching point.

So in short, when does the word of God cease to be the word of God? It ceases to be the word of God when the words written down are used in such a way as to violate the intent of the author (God) and so are stripped of any real resemblance of what he would have wanted to say.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When the Word of God Isn't the Word of God: The Danger of Taking Texts Out of Contexts (Part II)

New Testament Case Studies
A few case studies from the New Testament help us formulate a solid answer.
Philippians 1:15-18.

           Some might use this text as an example of why it does not ultimately matter what is preached; God can use it all. However, I find this to be against what the text is actually saying here. Notice Paul says that they are PREACHING CHRIST. That is, they are faithful to the Gospel. In fact, Paul himself notes that He is in prison for defending the Gospel. In other words, content matters. What did not matter as much was the intent of the preacher (note: this is a huge difference from the prophets in Jeremiah’s day—these guys had lousy intent and lousy preaching to boot). Many good preachers probably have really terrible intentions. Intent, while vital, is less important than content in preaching (although, to be honest, Paul in other places emphasizes the intent of the heart to great degrees). Or if we were to phrase it differently: you can be a really good preacher and a really lousy Christian.
Paul could rejoice in their message (though not their intent) because the Gospel was being advanced faithfully and accurately. In the end, God alone judges the heart. It is our responsibility now, however, to judge the message.
Acts 18:24-28

             This is a treasure trove of information concerning preaching. “Scriptures” is used twice in four verses. So is the word “accurately”. I think something important is about to be emphasized here! Apollos is described a few ways: 1) eloquent, 2) competent in the Scriptures 3) instructed in the way of the Lord 4) fervent in spirit 5) speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus but 6) he knew only the baptism of John.
This is quite the picture of a preacher! He is both passionate and educated (but to a point)! He was speaking boldly in the synagogue and clearly making an impact. However, rather than saying “Well, he has got it up to a point. He is pretty competent,” Pricilla and Aquila take him and explain to him the way of God more accurately. Don’t miss this: he was accurate—but not quite accurate enough…and it mattered enough that they pulled Apollos to the side and said, “Listen to a bit more teaching.” From there, he was commissioned and refuted the Jews from the Scriptures.

Doctrinal precision is essential. Sloppy exegesis was a concern back then and it should be a concern for us now as well.  However, I wonder how many preachers we have who are likely theologically sound but exegetically suspect? Eventually, exegetical sloppiness will produce theological sloppiness. I deal with this constantly in youth ministry. Never underestimate the ability of the congregation to formulate their own theology in light of the gaps in your own teaching.

A great example of this is the teaching on “once saved always saved.” I believe in the perseverance of the saints over and against “eternal security.” Why? Because doctrinally, it conveys more although the outcome, logically, is the same. Eternal security says, “you make a profession of Christ and you are saved forever.” Perseverance of the saints says, “If you are truly a believer, you will in fact persist until the end.” Perhaps it is a tautology, but I find it effective and useful to convey the thinking. So what is the big deal?
The big deal is that many people I meet with say, “I don’t have to be a goodie goodie to go heaven! God will accept me the way I am.” Now I can assure you that they are NOT hearing that from the pulpit. However, they are not hearing perseverance of the saints either. They are hearing eternal security and the pastor does not elaborate more than that. Perhaps the pastor goes on to describe the great power of God to hold on to us and God’s great love. Both are true. But rest assured that many within the congregation already have formulated a theology—I can do whatever I want, live however I want and I am just fine.

Now the pastor may go back to deal with this particular issue much later after he sees how his congregation is acting. Yet I have noticed that rarely will they connect the dots in their theology if the sermons are spaced out. They will hear “God loves you and will keep you” and that goes into a nice box. They will hear, “God cannot tolerate sin” and put that into a nice box. But come up with a consistent theology? Rarely.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

When the Word of God Isn't the Word of God: The Danger of Taking Texts Out of Contexts (Part I)


                I suppose my reflections on taking a passage of scripture out of context flows from a few recent issues on my mind. First, the recent book I reviewed, Chazown, cited Revelation 3 blatantly out of context. Sadly, this is a common occurrence—I heard the same exact sermon preached my freshman year at Toccoa Falls College. Second, I have recently graduated from North Greenville University where several famous speakers came and preached in chapel. Two in particular have huge mega-churches and one a growing evangelistic ministry that is quite predominant in the Carolinas. Yet those three men all had one thing in common: they preached sermons that ripped passages out of context. Nevertheless, students responded positively and all would (mostly) agree that they were the more interesting chapels. Third, one of the major leaders of NAMB came and spoke at North Greenville for missions week my senior year. Every single text he preached from violated the principles of hermeneutics we used. Again, however, students were drawn in and many made commitments to missions. Fourth, I have heard the keyword fallacy of “dunimos being explosive like dynamite, so Paul is saying the Gospel has the power and force of dynamite” used at least three or four times in the past six months. Each time, I see people in the congregation nodding their head and each time I realize that the fallacy is connecting with the people.

                In the past, when I saw violations like the ones listed above I stated, “I know it is a violation of hermeneutics, and I certainly want to avoid doing that, but God can and does use our mistakes to advance the Gospel. Therefore, while I am saddened that that happened, I rejoice in the results.”  This week, I feel like I have been pushed over the edge. I was teaching the nature of the word of God to my students in Sunday school last week and a few verses in particular stood out—Jeremiah 23:26-29:

“How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies and, prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”

                A few things to notice here:
1) God is setting up a distinguishing mark between false prophets and real prophets: those who declare his word faithfully.
2) The mark of faithfulness is set up in terms of negation—those who are NOT faithful are ones who prophesy lies, and the deceit of their own heart.
3) These prophets have absolutely nothing in common with the real prophets of God who proclaim God’s word faithfully.
4) God’s words alone are like fire and like a hammer.
5) If you go on to read verses 29ff., you see God chastising the prophets who claim to be speaking in his name but are, in fact,  leading people astray by their lies and recklessness.
6) These prophets were neither sent nor charged and as a result, do not profit the people at all (v. 32).
7) So in actuality, these prophets who were claiming to speak in the name of the Lord were attracting large crowds and yet not profiting the people at all.
Resisting the urge to make direct comparisons to what I see routinely happen in the pulpit, I will start by saying where I do not think direct connections can be made.
1) Preachers who preach out of context are not indicted in this text. Preachers and prophets, while sharing similar roles, are dissimilar enough (and some may argue prophets as in the OT do not even exist). Therefore, a direct correspondence cannot be made.
2) These were prophets who were claiming to have a word from the Lord, but were blatantly lying. I am quite sure most of the preachers I saw were not lying nor under a curse of God.
3) These prophets were not called. I believe that many preachers I see who take the Bible out of context are called.
4) The nature of Jeremiah’s charge against the prophets does not rest on taking a passage out of context. Rather, these prophets had no word to begin with. They were fakes and liars. Therefore, the thrust of Jeremiah’s charge is not on taking a passage out of context for there were no words from God to take out of context.

 However, that said, I do see some interesting points of contact:
1) These prophets were quite convinced they were doing the right thing and probably hearing from the Lord. However, they were terribly, terribly mistaken. I fear that many in the pulpit today think they are doing the right thing but are not, in fact, hearing from the Lord.
2) The response of the crowd is no indication that your message is being Spirit led or is making an impact that is desirable. In other words, a passage taken out of context that causes a great stir, does not necessarily profit the congregation itself; rather, it may be for other reasons that there was a response.
3) Notice that it is only when God’s word is spoken faithfully that it acts like a fire and a hammer. This would seem to indicate that faithfulness to what God actually said is essential.
4) It is possible (and highly likely) that you will lead people astray, like the false prophets, by unfaithfully proclaiming God’s word. Just because you open the Bible does not mean that the words that follow will be faithful to what God actually meant. 

                I have seen many pastors open their Bibles, read a few verses, and then proceed for the next thirty minutes to rant and rave about various issues that could (I suppose) be loosely linked to their text. They claim they are being Biblical. It strikes me as not really preaching the word of God. It seems too similar to what the prophets were doing—proclaiming their thoughts. I have heard preachers who preach a sermon straight from the text but do not really bring out points that pertain TO the text. People hail them as being biblical. All they are really doing is eisegesis. 

This raises the simple question: when does the word of God stop being the word of God?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Chazown" Book Review

Chazown by Craig Groeschel is a difficult book to review in some respects. The book itself contains 75 short chapters, each lasting about two to three pages. He covers material as diverse as money issues to health, all in an attempt to answer one simple question: Do you know what your vision is?

The reason for the difficulty in reviewing Groeschel's book is that it feels as if Groeschel attempts to cover too much ground in too short of space. Many times the reader is left wanting so much more and so much more could be said. Instead, some of the chapters come across as superficial and weak. A good example of this is seen his chapters on one's relationship with God. They cover a mere 12 pages. Yet is this not logically the most important area in one's life? Is this not the most essential aspect of finding vision for one's life?

Groeschel's interpretation of particular passages is also suspect. For example, in his chapters "The Accidental Disciple" and "What's Your Temperature" Groeschel adopts a rather dubious interpretation of Revelation 3:15-16 by insisting that the passage refers to Christians being hot for Christ or cold to Christ. Virtually every major commentator on Revelation acknowledges that this is what the passage is NOT saying. However, Groeschel builds two entire chapters around his interpretation of this text.

However, Groeschel's book also succeeds in connecting with the reader. His examples and stories are both memorable and encouraging. There were many times throughout the book where I was encouraged to pursue a life of greater vision. Also, Groeschel's common line that "many people will end up somewhere, but few will end up somewhere on purpose", is a valid point that encourages intentional living.

In the end, however, Groeschel's book fails to do something very important: magnify God. It is an almost exclusively man-driven theology. While encouraging at points, it is also very shallow. Christianity is in crisis in the 21st century. Rampant shallowness has devastated the church and left her without a voice within the culture. Groeschel's book fails to provide anything of substance and, inevitably, will fail to really produce Christians that will impact the culture as well.

Thanks to Multnomah Publishing for providing a review copy of this book.