Taking a short break

I know service on this blog has been a bit intermittent recently. I had intended to post about Bible deists yesterday, Saturday, but ran out of time to complete it and didn’t get the chance to finish it until this evening, Sunday.

I had been planning a two week break from blogging for my trip to Israel. That has not happened, but I am now taking a break for a few days, and announcing it in advance. Tomorrow morning I leave for the Suffolk coast, about 80 miles north of here in Chelmsford, where I will be staying with some friends who have taken a chalet there. This should be a quiet and peaceful time – although my friends’ 12-year-old son will stop it being boring! The weather looks promising, mostly sunny but without the excessive heat of the last couple of weeks. I expect to be home on Thursday, but I will be busy with other things on Friday, so I may not blog again, or answer comments, for another week or so.

Bible Deists

I have just finished reading Surprised by the Voice of God by Dr Jack Deere, from which I quoted in my posting God is Testing Our Availability. In this book Deere, a pastor and once a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, explains how he moved from the position that God speaks only through the Bible to an expectation that God speaks to his people today, if only they will listen to him.

The chapter which struck me most is called Confessions of a Bible Deist (chapter 17). This relates to some of the themes I explored in my series The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, and especially in Part 6: Conclusions.

For some of you I may need to explain first that a deist is someone who believes that God made the universe but since then has stood back and let it get on on its own. They are perhaps the scoffers of whom Peter prophesied that they would say: “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4, TNIV). It should be clear to all that this is not at all the Christian perspective, although some deists outwardly conform to Christianity. Deism was well known in the 18th century (many of the founding fathers of the USA were deists), and it is still common today. Freemasonry is in fact fundamentally a deistic religion, although its incompatibility with Christianity is made clear only to those who get into it deeply. Deere notes that the 18th century deists worshipped human reason, and it seems to be true today at least that deists give a higher place to human reason than to divine revelation.

Some Christians today, although not quite deists, hold to what is in practice an almost deistic position, that since the days of Jesus and the apostles God has let the world get on on its own, and will intervene again only at the end of time. Some who hold this kind of position are theological liberals. But others are what Deere calls “Bible deists”. Deere describes them as follows (pp. 251-253) (emphasis in all of these quotes is as in the original):

The Bible deists of today worship the Bible. Bible deists have great difficulty separating Christ and the Bible. Unconsciously in their minds the Bible and Christ merge into one entity. Christ cannot speak or be known apart from the Bible. …Bible deists preach and teach the Bible rather than Christ. They do not understand how it is possible to preach the Bible without preaching Christ. Their highest goal is the impartation of biblical knowledge. …

The Bible deist talks a lot about the sufficiency of Scripture. For him [PK: what about her? – but then most Bible deists don’t let women teach Scripture] the sufficiency of Scripture means that the Bible is the only way God speaks to us today. … Although the Bible deist loudly proclaims the sufficiency of Scripture, in reality, he is proclaiming the sufficiency of his own interpretation of the Scripture. Bible deists aren’t alone in this error. …

So it is extremely difficult for Bible deists to concede that they themselves might be presently holding an erronoeus interpretation. They refer to their opponents’ interpretations as “taken out of context,” or as a failure to apply consistent hermeneutical principles. Or, in some cases, where they have little respect for their opponents, they chalk up their opponents’ views to just plain sloppy thinking. …

The Bible deist is so confident in the sufficiency of his interpretation that it is difficult for him to be corrected by experience.

How does Deere know about Bible deists? Because he used to be one, as he admits. (So was I, for my first few years as a Christian before I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit – but that story needs to wait for another time.) Deere notes (pp. 254-255):

I had another motive for being a Bible deist and resisting subjective revelatory experiences. I wanted to preserve the unique authority of the Bible. I was afraid that if any form of divine communication other than the Bible were allowed, we would weaken the Bible’s authority and eventually be led away from the Lord. …

My heart was filled with fear of God – not the biblical fear of God, but a fear of intimacy with him. I wanted a personal relationship with God, but I didn’t want an intimate one. …

So I decided that my primary relationship would be to a book, not to a Person. … With Bible deism, I could be in control.

Deere goes on to say (p. 257):

One of the most serious flaws in Bible deism is the confidence the Bible deist places in his abilities to interpret the Bible. He assumes that the greater his knowledge of the Bible, the more accurate his interpretations are. This follows logically from a hermeneutical axiom the Bible deist often quotes: The Bible is the key to its own interpretation. In other words, the Bible interprets the Bible the best. Wrong! It takes more than the Bible to interpret the Bible.The Author of the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In fact, he is the only reliable interpreter.

And if the Spirit’s illumination is the key to interpreting the Bible, isn’t the Bible deist’s confidence in his own interpretive abilities arrogant and foolhardy? How does one persuade God to illumine the Bible? Does God give illumination to the ones who know Hebrew and Greek the best? To the ones who read and memorize Scripture the most? What if the condition of one’s heart is more important for understanding the Bible than the abilities of one’s mind? Is it possible that the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand Scripture might be given on a basis other than education or mental abilities?

I could quote a lot more of this, but better still you should read the book. I will summarise just one more section. Deere looks at the story of the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, and concludes (pp. 263-264):

During dinner, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ ” (vv. 31-32). God supernaturally “opened” the disciples’ eyes to recognize Jesus. He wasn’t making dumb people smart. He was letting these two disciples see who the Lord Jesus really was. …Unless the Lord Jesus opens our eyes, we will never really see him. The disciples used the same word whenever they said that Jesus “opened the Scriptures to us.” Unless Jesus opens the Scriptures, we will miss much of their truth. We can read and memorize the Bible without Jesus. We can teach the Bible without him. But our hearts will never burn with passion until he becomes our teacher and enters into the interpretive process with us.

Now it seems to me that Bible deists include both those who use the fundamentalist approach to the Bible and those who use the scholarly approach. What they have in common is that they reject the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying the Bible to contemporary life. Some of them are cessationists, as defined in The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 6: Conclusions, but there may be others who accept some gifts of the Holy Spirit but do not in practice accept that he speaks today to guide in the interpretation of Scripture.

It seems to me that Bible deists are missing out on a huge amount of what it means to be a Christian. For it seems that, while they may assert that the have a relationship with God, they are missing out on the real benefits of such a relationship, the intimacy in which we not only speak to God but hear him speaking to us. Well, that is the theme of a lot of the rest of Deere’s book. I am sad for what Bible deists miss out on for themselves. But they can also do real harm to others, for as Deere writes at the end of this chapter (p. 268):

When someone thinks they have mastered the Bible, or mastered it relative to others in their circle, they inevitably become corrupted through the pride of knowledge. Remember, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). … Instead of operating as the sword of the Spirit, the Bible in the hands of the Bible deist becomes the bludgeon of the bully. They use the authority gained by their superior knowledge of the Bible to bully the less knowledgeable.

To this I would add only that sometimes this supposedly superior knowledge of the Bible is in fact very superficial, of the fundamentalist kind in which verses are wrenched out of context. Even where lip service is paid to Hebrew and Greek it is clear that the interpretation is in fact dependent on a misleading English translation.

Let me finish with the following from Deere, which is more or less the end of his book (p. 358):

Somewhere along the way, though, the church has encouraged a silent divorce between the Word and the Spirit. Divorces are painful, both for the children and the parents. One parent usually gets custody of the children, and the other only gets to visit occasionally. It breaks the hearts of the parents, and the children are usually worse off because of the arrangement. Many in the church today are content to live with only one parent. They live with the Word, and the Spirit only has limited visiting rights. He just gets to see and touch the kids once in a while. Some of his kids don’t even recognize him any more. Some have become afraid of him. Others in the church live with the Spirit and only allow the Word sporadic visits. The Spirit doesn’t want to raise the kids without the Word. He can see how unruly they’re becoming, but he won’t force them to do what they must choose with their hearts.So the church has become a divided family growing up with separate parents. One set of kids is proud of their education, and the other set of kids is proud of their freedom. Both think they’re better than the other.

The parents are brokenhearted. Because unlike most divorces, they didn’t choose this divorce. Their kids did. And the Word and the Spirit have had to both honor and endure that choice.

God is Testing Our Availability

I wrote the following to the other members of the team with whom I was going to Israel. I now want to share it (slightly edited) more widely:

I just came across the following in Surprised by the Voice of God by Jack Deere, p.312. I hope it helps anyone who may be confused about the cancellation of our Israel trip:

If we want a deep friendship with God, it is important to cultivate a state of mind where we view all of our time as God’s time, a state of mind where we are totally available to him. It is necessary to do this because God speaks to us at the most inconvenient times. Sometimes he even lets his favorite servants spend time, energy and money in organizing a mission journey. Then he waits until they get in the middle of that journey and forbids them to engage in ministry. Paul and his friends made plans to minister in Asia, but God wanted them in Europe (Acts 16:6-10). He let them “waste” time, money, and energy before he redirected them there.

It seems to me that God almost delights in speaking to us at the most inconvenient times in order to test our availability. …

I am also reminded of how God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and then at the last moment told him not to. He is testing our availability to him for whatever he would call us to do. Whatever happened, it was not an accident.

Appeals to Authorities

My change of plans has left me with unexpected time to blog this week. But the blogosphere seems quiet, no doubt because of vacations as well as the drought and record high temperatures (despite some unscientific doubts at the Daily Duck) here in England and also, I understand, in much of the USA. Actually as I have been writing this a thunderstorm has brought our first noticeable rain since May, but then moved on.

So I have turned to the southern hemisphere, where it is winter – not quite as far south as the Antarctic, where Suzanne’s post to Better Bibles Blog certainly does not belong, but to Tim Bulkeley’s SansBlogue from New Zealand. It turns out that Tim has been suffering from winter blues like flu, but he has recovered enough to make an interesting posting on the role of “authority” in scholarship – see also my comment on this posting.

In my series on the scholarly and fundamentalist approaches to the Bible, I criticised (in the scholarly rather than the negative sense of the word) the way in which fundamentalist Christians appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture”, claiming that this is sufficient to settle disputed issues and implying that proper scholarly study of the matter is unnecessary.

Tim’s posting reminds me of another technique which is often used by fundamentalist Christians, as well as by others who are not fundamentalist or even Christian. That is to quote from their favourite authorities, and presume that what they said is the last word on the matter in question. The authorities which Christians cite are very often their favourite preachers from the present or the past. For example, those in some Christian traditions might cite John Piper and CH Spurgeon – both favourites of Adrian Warnock although Adrian is not as guilty as some of using them as authorities. Those in other traditions might cite their favourite Reformer or the Church Fathers.

This method of arguing was normal in the Hellenistic and Roman world and in mediaeval Europe, where few people dared to think for themselves. But during the Renaissance period western thinkers regained the confidence that they could think as well as ancients like Plato and Aristotle and to question their conclusions. As part of this movement the Reformers realised that they could think as well as the Church Fathers and interpret the Bible for themselves. Perhaps, like modern scholars, they relied too much on their own intellect and not enough on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but at least they broke the old pattern of thinking that Christian teaching must always be based on the authority of some teacher of a previous generation. They did not of course reject the teaching of the Fathers and the mediaeval Schoolmen completely, but they accepted only what they found to conform to their own interpretations of the Bible.

For the Reformers did not reject authority completely, but they accepted only the authority of God and of Jesus Christ, as revealed and presented in the Bible. Thus their principle was sola Scriptura, only Scripture as an authority for Christian belief and practice.

But it seems that some Christians today have returned to the mediaeval method of citing others as authorities rather than having the confidence to think for themselves. Now this is understandable when those who cite authorities consider themselves to ignorant and uneducated, and when the authorities they cite are proper scholars – and not just popular preachers, or authors who claim to be scholarly but whose argumentation is in fact on the level of advertising copy. And it is of course proper to cite those to whose work we refer, as sources of information rather than as authorities. But is dependence on authorities the proper Christian way of thinking?

As I commented on Tim’s blog,

because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

Mark 1:22 (TNIV©)

The teachers of the law, or “scribes”, endlessly quoted other authorities, as is seen in the Talmud which is full of rabbis citing earlier rabbis. But Jesus cut through their verbiage with his repeated “Truly I tell you“, citing no authority but his own. And this had far more impact on the crowds. Could it be that our own preaching and evangelism have less impact than they might because we rely on other authorities rather than on the authority which has been given to us as Christians?

For Jesus has given authority to us who believe in him. Explicitly, he gave his disciples – not just the twelve apostles but the 72 (or 70) representing all believers – authority over evil spirits and all the powers of Satan (Luke 10:17-19). Implicitly, he has also given authority to teach in his name, for on the basis of the authority which he has himself he commanded believers to do this (Matthew 28:18-20). Our teaching does not have to depend on any authority other than that of Jesus and the Bible. (It should not be done independently of the church, but its content does not come under the authority of church leaders, compare Galatians 2:6-14 where Paul opposes the recognised church leaders.)

As the apostle John wrote to ordinary believers,

the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.

1 John 2:20,27 (TNIV©)

Thus we all have in our hands

the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:17 (TNIV©)

3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (TNIV©)

Let us not rely on how others in the past have wielded this weapon, the Word. But let us first protect ourselves with the rest of armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-16) and then go out, as the Spirit leads and under the authority only of Christ, to win the world for him!

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 6: Conclusions

At last I am bringing this series (part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5) to a conclusion.

In part 1 I looked at how Al Mohler rejected the scholarly position on women’s leadership in the church apparently because he was persuaded by a fundamentalist appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture“, on a matter where the biblical teaching, if properly understood, is in fact far from clear. In part 2 I looked further at this fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and showed how this method is fundamentally flawed and could in fact be used to give supposedly biblical support to almost any teaching.

In parts 3, 4 and 5 I looked at the scholarly approach to understanding and applying the Bible, as taught at evangelical Bible schools. By using this approach I explained why the Bible, at least at Titus 1:6, should not in fact be taken as prohibiting women elders.

Now it should be clear that I have a lot more sympathy with the scholarly approach to the Bible than I do with the fundamentalist one. But I also have some serious reservations about the scholarly approach.

I mentioned in part 5 how the cessationist position, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are no longer in operation, can be used to negate any applicability today of any biblical command. But ironically the whole scholarly approach to the Bible is based on cessationist assumptions, and usually the fundamentalist approach also is, because both ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying Scripture. (Some interpreters follow the fundamentalist approach and claim to do so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; this is likely to be even more dangerous than attributing a fundamentalist interpretation to one’s own intelligence.) Even Gordon Fee, who is not a cessationist, carefully avoids any suggestion, in chapters 3 and 4 of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, that the Holy Spirit has any part in the exegesis or application of the New Testament letters. Presumably this is because any appeal to the Holy Spirit would immediately lead to his book being rejected by the scholarly establishment as well as by cessationist readers.

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; the link at this point is to the current edition at Amazon.co.uk.

But, whereas scholars and fundamentalists ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture, the Bible itself teaches that this is the key to how it can be understood today. It is clear from the gospels that neither the scribes and Pharisees for all their scholarship, nor Jesus’ disciples before the Resurrection despite having Jesus with them for three years, had a clue about how to interpret the Old Testament Scriptures properly. It was only after the Resurrection, for example on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35), that the Scriptures started to open up to the disciples. But Jesus promised that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, TNIV). Fifty days later the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), and the apostles seem to have been filled immediately not only with boldness but also with a completely new level of understanding and application of the Old Testament Scriptures. In a similar vein, Paul taught:

7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

    “What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
    and what no human mind has conceived—
    these things God has prepared for those who love him” —

10 for God has revealed them to us by his Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:7-10 (TNIV©)

Now I recognise that there is some validity in the cessationist counter-argument that John 16:13 was spoken to the 11 apostles, some of whom under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote the New Testament books; and that what was unclear before Pentecost was the Old Testament, which has now been made clear to Christian believers through the New Testament which is clear.

But can the Bible, even the basic Gospel message, really be understood today apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Paul did not teach this, but he wrote:

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

2 Corinthians 4:3-4 (TNIV©)

Thus he implies that the same veil which prevented the Israelites from understanding the Law of Moses (3:13-16) prevents unbelievers from understanding the Gospel. But, Paul taught, only the Holy Spirit can take away this veil and reveal the meaning of the Scriptures to those who come to believe:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:14 (TNIV©)

But concerning those who thought that they could understand the things of God through their own studies apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where are the wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

1 Corinthians 1:18-21 (TNIV©)

So where does this leave us? Does it imply that each individual Christian can claim the authority of the Holy Spirit for their own interpretation of Scripture, however invalid it may be from a scholarly viewpoint? Surely not! Does it imply that the church can interpret and apply the Scriptures under the guidance of the Spirit? In principle, I would say “yes”, but unfortunately the actions of church leaders through the centuries show that there is no guarantee that the church, in any form visible on earth, is in fact being guided by the Spirit.

It seems to me that the scholarly approach does have value in providing an exegetical and hermeneutical framework within which to evaluate any claim to guidance by the Spirit. Thus I would reject any such claim if it contradicted the teaching of Scripture as discovered by the scholarly approach. There is also a lot of room within the hermeneutical approach taken by Fee, and described in part 5 of this series, for the Holy Spirit to guide the church and individual believers. This is particularly true of matters which may be culturally relative.

To apply this to the issue of women in leadership in the church and Titus 1:6, I would come to the following tentative conclusions. Paul may well have expected Titus to appoint only men as elders, within the specific cultural situation in Crete. But he did not lay down a clear teaching for every situation that only men could be elders. This is therefore a matter on which believers and churches need to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And on such matters this guidance is not necessarily the same for all. I would thus accept it as valid for any one church or church grouping to decide to accept or reject women elders, or pastors or priests, as guided by the Holy Spirit within their specific cultural context. But churches and individuals should not claim that their decision on this is absolutely morally binding on all people or churches for all time. They should certainly not allow this to be a barrier to fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters who have taken a different position on this matter.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 5: Scholarly Application

I introduced this series by looking at Al Mohler’s change of mind. In part 2 I described the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and in part 3 and part 4 I looked at the first of the two main stages of the scholarly approach, exegesis. In this part I am moving on to the second main stage, application.

I will start by continuing the quotation which I started in part 4 from Think Again about Church Leaders (1 Timothy 2:8-3:16) by Bruce Fleming, now from p.88 and concerning “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2:

The instructions in the Bible apply to all people in all
cultures. However, in my work as a missionary
professor I came across three different, distinct and
mutually exclusive interpretations of this phrase in 3:2:

In the United States I heard:

No divorced and remarried man may be an
overseer – one may have only “one wife.”

In France I heard:

Bachelors may not be overseers because they
are not “husbands” and do not have “one wife.”

In Africa I heard:

No polygamist may be an overseer because
one must have only “one wife,” not many.

When the original meaning of verse 2 is understood
as a comment on being a “faithful spouse,” it applies to
all marriage situations wherever one may live. Single
persons may be overseers. If married, either husbands
or wives may be overseers, but in married life they must
be a “faithful spouse.”

This is a good illustration of how the same exegesis of a passage, as meaning literally “husband of one wife”, can lead to different applications. Fleming seems to consider that his alternative exegesis, “faithful spouse”, solves the application issue. Well, maybe it does in this particular case, but the problem is not solved in principle.

Study of the principles of how a Bible passage (or any other text) may be applied today is known as hermeneutics. And this is a very complex field of study. All I can do here is to outline some of the issues which relate to Titus 1:6 and its near parallel 1 Timothy 3:2.

The first thing which needs to be established is whether the text has any kind of authority today. Christians accept the New Testament as in some sense the foundation document of the church, but there are many different views on how far it is authoritative today. I take the evangelical position that what is explicitly taught in the Bible is authoritative for Christians today, and that anything in it which is intended to be a normative or binding rule for Christians should be obeyed – although I would not take the stronger position that the Bible is inerrant on all matters of fact. Some scholars argue (and with some good reasons) that the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not in fact written by the Apostle Paul and so should be seen as less authoritative than other parts of the New Testament. While I would not be dogmatic about authorship, I accept these books as part of the Bible and so authoritative regardless of authorship. Where in this series I write “Paul”, this should be understood as “Paul or whoever actually wrote this letter”.

It is then necessary to establish whether the rules laid down in these letters are to be understood as normative for the church today. At this point I need to lay to rest one argument. Christians who hold the cessationist position, that the gifts of the Spirit ceased to operate in the church at the end of the apostolic period or when the canon of the Bible was closed, apparently argue that certain commands of the apostle Paul, such as “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1, TNIV) and “be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39, TNIV) no longer apply to the church today. Concerning these passages, Adrian Warnock writes to cessationists:

Why, on the one hand, are we at liberty to ignore Paul’s clear commands to the Corinthians … when, on the other hand, we are expected to accept all of his other commands to local churches as applying to us today? If these two commands do not apply to us, which other of Paul’s commands also do not apply? How are we then meant to decide which of Paul’s commands we are going to obey and which we are going to ignore?

Perhaps someone could argue that Paul didn’t allow women elders while spiritual gifts were in operation, because they were not equipped to direct these gifts, but there is no reason to continue this prohibition in the post-apostolic era. With this kind of argument cessationism can be used to negate any biblical command. But, as I am not a cessationist, I will assume that there is no time limit on any biblical command.

But there is a more difficult issue here. Should Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus about elders and overseers be understood as applicable only to the recipients’ specific situations, in Ephesus and Crete respectively? Here the issue becomes very complex. Paul’s original intention in writing may have been only for the specific situations. But the letters were preserved by the church and incorporated into the Bible on the understanding that this was authoritative teaching for all situations, not just the specific one which Paul addressed.

At this point I turn again to Gordon Fee, and to chapter 4 of the excellent book which he wrote together with Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (the link is to the edition which I have, which is not the latest). Fee sets out two rules for proper hermeneutics, in the context of the New Testament letters:

a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers (p.64).

Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them (p.65).

Fee warns that we must be very careful with extending applications into areas beyond comparable contexts. But he does accept that even where there is no directly comparable modern context there may be a principle which can be applied to

genuinely comparable situations (p.68).

Fee then turns to the problem of cultural relativity. He notes that some Christians do not seem to recognise cultural relativity but

argue for a wholesale adoption of first-century culture as the divine norm (p.71).

My own take on this is that whereas many Muslims take this approach, with the 7th century Arabian culture of Mohammed as the norm, in practice the culture which Christians take as normative is something from the 19th or early 20th century, which they read back into the New Testament. As an example, I would cite John Piper’s Vision of Biblical Complementarity, discussed on the Better Bibles Blog; it seems to me that Piper is not so much Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as recovering Victorian manhood and womanhood. But my position is the same as Fee’s, that

there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture… the recognition of a degree of cultural relativity is a valid hermeneutical procedure (p.71).

Fee notes that there are basic lists of sins concerning which the New Testament witness is consistent and unambiguous, and that these prohibitions should be considered applicable to all. But in other matters such as women’s ministry and the retention of wealth there is more variation, and this suggests that these are cultural rather than moral matters. He also writes that

The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position (p.73).

Thus slavery is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context, but this does not imply that it is normative for Christians.

On these principles Fee argues that the prohibition on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 may be culturally relative and so applicable only to Timothy’s specific situation (p.75).

But I think it would be much harder for him to argue the same about “husband of one wife” in Titus 1:6 and 1 Timothy 3:2,12. For this condition for church leadership is repeated in several places in relation to differently named church offices and without any restriction to specific contexts. So I would conclude that this phrase is applicable to church leaders today, and without restriction to specific named offices. But it can only be applied today in accordance with its meaning as determined by good exegesis.

As I have previously concluded, Paul’s teaching at this point is not about the gender of church leaders but about their sexual activity. Titus 1:6 did not mean to Paul or Titus that women must not be elders, so it cannot mean the same to us today. What it does mean today is what it meant to Titus, that married male elders must be faithful to their wives – and by extension to genuinely comparable situations, it may also mean that married female elders must be faithful to their husbands, and that single and widowed elders must be celibate. At least, this is the conclusion to which I am led by the scholarly approach to the Bible.

This concludes my discussion of this scholarly approach, but I do have some more, possibly surprising, things to say about approaches to the Bible in part 6: Conclusions.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 4: Exegesis of Titus 1:6

After the introduction to this series which looked at Al Mohler’s change of mind, in part 2 I described the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and in part 3 I started on the scholarly approach. This scholarly approach can be divided into exegesis (understanding the text) and application. In this part I will apply the principles of exegesis to Titus 1:6, and especially to the phrase sometimes translated “husband of one wife”. In the next part I will move on to how this may be applied in the modern world.

The first of the principles of exegesis which I outlined in part 3 is to get an overview of the whole document. For this I have just read the entire book of Titus, in my current favourite translation, TNIV. (At this point I am glad that I didn’t choose a verse from Acts as my example!) I can then look at the communication situation: the apostle Paul is writing to encourage and instruct his long term associate Titus, who he has left in charge of the Christian mission in Crete.

I then need to find a self-contained unit for exegesis. This is important because it avoids looking at a verse or two out of context. Clearly 1:6 is not a self-contained unit. It is in fact part of a unit 1:5-9 concerning appointment of elders, which is clearly separate from the preceding formal greeting, and is distinguished from what follows by an abrupt change of subject matter. I have read through this passage in the Greek and in the Good News Bible, the New Living Translation, and The Message (which leaves out “husband of one wife” completely!) I won’t attempt my own version of the passage, although that would help with the exegetical process.

There are a number of questions which could be formulated about this passage, such as the relationship between “overseer” (or “bishop”) in verse 7 and “elder” in verse 5. But for the purpose of this exercise I will concentrate on the one question: what did Paul mean by “husband of one wife”?

I was surprised to find “establish the text” so far down the list of principles which I summarised in part 3. I would in fact have preferred to do this at the beginning, or at least as soon as I had identified the passage. In this case, there are no textual variants which are relevant to “husband of one wife”.

The small section we are focusing on consists of just three words in Greek, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ mias gunaikos anēr, “(of) one woman/wife man/husband”. Perhaps two of these three words need word studies: ἀνήρ anēr (genitive ἀνδρός andros, as in “polyandry” and “androgynous”), meaning “man” or “husband”, and γυνή gunē (genitive γυναικός gunaikos, as in “gynaecology” and again “androgynous”), meaning “woman” or “wife”. At this point I will not do detailed word studies, but I will note that whereas ἀνήρ anēr most commonly means “man” as opposed to “woman”, it can also mean “human being” as opposed to “god” or “adult” as opposed to “youth”. This is clear from the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon of classical Greek: in this 19th century lexicon (the link is to a 1940 revision) the gloss for sense A.II, “man, opp. god“, was written at a time when “man” was used routinely in a gender generic sense. However, it does seem clear that in this case, where ἀνήρ anēr and γυνή gunē are used together, that the senses of the words being used here are “husband” and “wife”. But see what I write below about Deiss’ research into this phrase.

At this point I will skip the use of other reference books. While in general this is a good principle for exegesis, it is not so helpful in a case like this on which there is such controversy. As for relationships between words and between larger units, I will simply note that these three words form one item in a short list of complements of “anyone is”, within a conditional clause which appears to be laying down conditions for anyone to be appointed as an elder.

I now move on to looking at parallel passages using the same expression. As I noted in part 2, the same expression occurs in 1 Timothy 3:2,12, and a similar expression but with “husband” and “wife” reversed in 1 Timothy 5:9. In 1 Timothy 3:2 this expression is a similar condition for someone to be an overseer or “bishop”, and in 3:12 (where it occurs in the plural) it is a condition for deacons; the expression in 5:9 is a condition for a widow to be enrolled.

These parallel uses do tend to restrict how the expression can be understood. For example, 5:9 rules out a strictly present understanding: the widow must be someone who was “wife of one husband” before she became a widow, and so it is reasonable to argue that “husband of one wife” cannot exclude widowers from being elders, overseers or deacons.

More controversially, as I noted in part 2, according to Romans 16:1 the woman Phoebe was a deacon, and indeed the most natural interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11 is also a reference to women deacons. In this case, “husband of one wife” in 3:12 cannot be understood as a rule applicable everywhere allowing only men to be deacons. And as the phrase surely has the same meaning in 3:2 and Titus 1:6 these verses cannot be understood as forbidding any women from being overseers or elders; for precisely the same condition is applied to all three, or two, types of Christian ministry.

Now I have not come to any definite conclusion on the vexed issue of whether this phrase should be understood as “husband of one wife” in the sense of not being polygamous, or “faithful to his wife” as in TNIV; nor whether it should be understood as forbidding unmarried elders (although I have ruled out a prohibition on widowed elders). My own preference is for understanding the phrase as requiring the elder to avoid any kind of sexual activity outside a monogamous marriage. But I don’t claim to have justified this fully.

I have however cast serious doubt on whether this verse can be understood as restricting eldership to men. I have three strictly exegetical reasons for this, quite apart from the application issues which I will move on to in the next part. The first reason is as above, that the same condition is applied to deacons but there do seem to have been women deacons.

The second reason is that the point which Paul was making here was not about gender but about sexual activity. Paul may have assumed that Titus would appoint only men, as was perhaps culturally appropriate (compare 2:6 where his grounds for requiring women to “be subject to their husbands” is to be culturally sensitive, “so that no-one will malign the word of God” (TNIV)). But it is unlikely that he was intending to teach two separate things in this one three word phrase – that is not how language works. And the positive point which he was making is clearly related to sexual activity. Now there is some value in looking at the biblical authors’ presuppositions as well as at their direct teaching. But, as I will consider further when I look at application, it is dangerous to take the apostle’s presuppositions as normative for the church today.

My third reason for not interpreting this verse as prohibiting women elders is based on a something apparently written by the French biblical scholar Lucien Deiss. (Thanks to Ruud Vermeij for reminding me about this and providing some links.) In Think Again about Church Leaders (1 Timothy 2:8-3:16), page 87 of this online edition, Bruce Fleming writes, on 1 Timothy 3:2:

The second qualification in the list deals with the overseer’s married life. Careful research has shown that this qualification means that whether one is a husband or a wife it is important to be a “faithful spouse.” It requires that an overseer, if married, be faithful and be “a one-spouse kind of person.”According to Lucien Deiss (notes to the French Bible, the TOB, Edition Intégrale, p. 646, note a), this Greek phrase was used in Asia Minor, on both Jewish and pagan gravestone inscriptions, to designate a woman or a man, who was faithful to his or her spouse in a way characterized by “a particularly fervent conjugal love.”

When I read Deiss’ comment about how this phrase was used on ancient grave inscriptions in Turkey, where Paul and Timothy ministered, I confirmed it with him myself, reaching him by telephone in Vaucresson, France.

Some might find this insight into 1 Timothy 3:2 surprising because modern versions of the Bible translate this Greek phrase as – “husband of one wife” – making this qualification appear to be restricted to men only! Instead, rightly understood, this qualification is about faithfulness in marriage by a Christian spouse. It is not saying that oversight is “for men only.”

I regret that I have not been able to confirm what Deiss wrote or the inscriptions reported by him. But it does seem clear that this scholar has written this, and in a Bible edition, TOB, Edition Intégrale, produced jointly by the Société Biblique Française (French Bible Society) which should ensure proper scholarly standards.

I thus conclude that from an exegetical point of view (and quite apart from the issue of application today) it cannot be maintained that Paul was setting for Titus a condition that the elders he appointed must be male.

In part 5: Scholarly Application I will look at the scholarly principles of how this passage might be applied within the church today.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 3: Principles of Scholarly Exegesis

I introduced this series with a look at how Al Mohler became a complementarian, and then in the second part I looked at “the husband of one wife” in Titus 1:6 (RSV) from the fundamentalist approach. I will now continue by looking at how to take a more scholarly approach to this phrase.

At this point I will remind you all that in the 1980s I studied theology to MA level at a school, London Bible College (now London School of Theology), which is committed to an evangelical position but also to a scholarly approach to the Bible. As such it is similar to Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary referred to in Part 1 of this series – or at least to how that seminary was in the 1980s (Mohler also quotes a report that now “Baptist schools increasingly are being ‘forced to sacrifice their intellectual integrity to ensure the flow of funds,'” and I might wonder whether under Mohler’s presidency SBTS has been forced to abandon its former scholarly approach to gender issues and instead teach the intellectually flawed works of Grudem et al about this). Later I taught biblical exegesis at the European Training Programme of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International. What I write here is based on what I learned at LBC and taught at ETP, as expanded by myself.

A proper scholarly approach to a Bible passage requires two distinct stages. The first, known as exegesis, is to understand what the original author was trying to say to his or her original audience. Only when this has been clearly established should the interpreter move on the next stage, application to a present day situation. In this part of the series I will look only at exegesis, and will move on to application in a future part.

Gordon Fee has defined exegesis as follows:

Exegesis… answers the question, What did the Biblical author mean? It has to do both with what he said (the content itself), and why he said it at any given point (the literary context). Furthermore, exegesis is primarily concerned with intentionality: What did the author intend his original readers to understand? (New Testament Exegesis, p.21)

The essential steps in doing exegesis are first to identify the problems, then to find out the facts about these problems, then to make the right choices. The following step by step procedure for exegesis is adapted from Fee’s New Testament Exegesis:

1. Get an overview of the whole document: survey the literary setting of the passage.

2. Examine the communication situation: survey the historical setting of the whole document:

  • Who is the author?
  • Who are the recipients?
  • What is the relationship between them?
  • Where did the recipients live?
  • What historical situation occasioned this writing?

3. Examine the validity of treating the passage as a unit: try to be sure that the passage you have chosen for exegesis is a genuine, self-contained unit.

4. Study and compare different translations of the passage; in particular compare a fairly literal translation (or the original text itself), with a meaning-based modern translation. Look at other translations to see if there are any major differences of interpretation. Comparing translations in this way will alert you to places in the text where it is possible to interpret the meaning in more than one way, or to further implications or nuances of meaning, which might otherwise be overlooked. Try to re-express the meaning of the passage in your own words.

5. Formulate questions listing the points that need to be investigated. This should include a listing of points where the meaning is unclear to you and of any alternative interpretations.

6. Establish the text: are there any alternative textual readings in the passage which affect the meaning of the text? If so, examine the evidence in support of each alternative reading.

7. Identify words for which word studies need to be made and make these word studies, using help from lexicon, concordance and commentaries.

8. Use the bible itself and commentaries and other reference books to look for help in answering the questions you have listed. Through studying commentaries you may also be alerted to further questions that need to be considered.

9. Analyse relationships between words and between larger units, such as clauses, sentences, paragraphs.

10. Study other passages of scripture which may be relevant because

  • they give teaching on the same topic, or
  • (for the Gospels, Kings/Chronicles etc.) they are parallel passages, or
  • they use similar words or expressions and may throw light on the meaning of that expression.

11. Make a decision on those points where alternative interpretations are possible.

12. Make a new version of the passage in your own language expressing the meaning clearly and explicitly.

As this part is already getting rather long, I will leave it here, and in part 4: Exegesis of Titus 1:6 apply these principles to that verse.

TNIV at Bible Gateway

(Reposted from the Better Bibles Blog)

Today’s New International Version (TNIV) is now available as one of the many online Bible versions at Bible Gateway. This version has been added in the last week or so. I put in a request for it to be added on 27th June. On 11th July received a reply that it would be added in about a week. I am pleased to report that this did in fact happen. Thank you to all at Bible Gateway for being responsive to this request from a user – which was actually prompted not by anything to do with this blog but by the developers of the shortly to be unveiled new version of my own church’s website.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 2: The Fundamentalist Approach

In Part 1 of this series I looked at how Al Mohler became a complementarian, and in doing so apparently rejected the scholarly arguments which were dominant at his seminary on the basis of a fundamentalist appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture“.

In this part I will look at the fundamentalist approach to studying the Bible, and prepare the way for describing what I see as the proper scholarly approach. I will do this in the context of what must have been one of the Bible passages which Mohler studied before becoming complementarian. On this blog I have previously looked at 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and so on this occasion I will look at another passage, in fact just a short phrase, which is translated very literally “the husband of one wife” in RSV, but less literally “faithful to his wife” in TNIV. This phrase is found in Titus 1:6, where it refers to elders, and in 1 Timothy 3:2,12 referring to “bishops” or overseers and to deacons respectively. As Lingamish notes in his original discussion of this phrase, in 1 Timothy 5:9 there is an opposite phrase translated “the wife of one husband” in RSV and “faithful to her husband” in TNIV. I will concentrate on Titus 1:6 because it is here that the phrase is applied to elders or presbyters, and most Christian traditions seem to understand modern pastors or priests as in some equivalent to biblical elders.

So let’s start by looking at Titus 1:6 from the fundamentalist approach to the Bible. On this approach, it is indeed a simple matter. This verse gives some conditions for anyone to be appointed as an elder, and one of these is that an elder must be “the husband of one wife“. As a husband must be male, the implication is very simple: elders must be male. And, from the same approach to 1 Timothy 3:2,12, “bishops” and deacons must also be male. I am sure that it was in passages like this that Carl Henry found “the clear teaching of Scripture” about which he challenged Al Mohler.

It is interesting, however, that not many traditions also take the position, equally clear from this verse on this method of interpretation, that “bishops”, elders and deacons must be married. It is also interesting that this interpretation when applied to deacons contradicts another Bible passage, Romans 16:1, where Paul writes approvingly of Phoebe, a woman deacon. Yes, “deacon” (TNIV) is the correct translation here, not “deaconess” (RSV), nor “servant” (NIV, ESV), for she is described with the same grammatically masculine Greek word used for “deacon” in 1 Timothy.

This illustrates the weakness of the fundamentalist approach to Scripture. It can be highly selective; an interpreter can choose to give great importance to small phrases, even the tiniest grammatical details, which support the position which he or (more rarely!) she supports, while ignoring the main teaching point of the passage in question. It can also be highly ingenious in finding excuses to dismiss other passages which seem to be contradictory – while rejecting similar attempts to dismiss the original interpretation as “deny[ing] the clear teaching of Scripture“. In the case of Romans 16:1, the ingenious attempt to dismiss “the clear teaching of Scripture” that Phoebe was a deacon has even been written into several Bible translations. A further weakness of fundamentalist Bible interpretation, not seen so clearly in this example, is that fundamentalists often take verses entirely out of their original context.

In fact, it is possible to support almost any position on any issue of current controversy in the church with this kind of interpretation of Scripture. (Yes, I could even put together an argument for gay bishops if I wanted to!) An interpreter can take a verse of two out of context, selectively latch on to small points within those verses, and use them as support for any teaching they might choose to promote. They then use their ingenuity to reinterpret any verses which might seem to contradict their position. And when anyone tries to disagree with them, they resort to ad hominem arguments like “how … could [you] possibly deny the clear teaching of Scripture on this question[?]“, sometimes even hinting that someone who doesn’t accept their argument might not be saved.

I wish this were a caricature of fundamentalists, but unfortunately I have seen far too many arguments which are just like this, not just on the blogosphere but even in works which people like Mohler claim to be scholarly.

In part 3: Principles of Scholarly Exegesis I will, by way of contrast, start to look at the proper scholarly way of interpreting the phrase in Titus 1:6.