Eucharist: when Fundamentalists fail to read Scripture literally


I love old hymns. They are so often full of such deep theology.  I love the eucharist, I need the grace that this sacrament transmits. A couple of us had a stimulating Facebook conversation about the riches of those old hymns. For me “old” here means before the invention of printing, not the 18th and 19th centuries ;)  I said in passing that two of my all-time favourites are Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” and Fortunatus’ hymn of the same name – perhaps it is no accident that they start with the same exhortation Aquinas seems to have shared my delight in Fortunatus’ fine hymn. My liking for Aquinas hymn, though, shocked my interlocutor, unused (as they were) to high-church Baptists.

Actually I am more shocked by all those low-church Baptists, who persist in praying lengthily over the bread and wine carefully informing God, and through him the assembled people, that whatever Jesus may have meant by the simple words “this is my body given for you” he did not mean them to be taken seriously, let alone literally.

It’s funny how these words, so important in our regular celebration of the story of Jesus (I’d say “worship” but today worship means singing I’m told), are read paradoxically differently by “Fundamentalists” and Catholics. Catholics read the Bible (at least these words) over-literally. For it seems quite clear to me that, whatever Jesus meant, he did not intend to be understood literally. Just imagine his disciples’ reactions: “But the law forbids us to consume blood!” (Lev 17:14) On the other hand for my Fundamentalist friends, not only did Jesus not mean these words literally (however keen they would be to read other words – like the “days” in Gen 1 – literally), he hardly meant them at all! (Though for such low Baptists Jesus words about remembering seem for some reason to be less overlooked. Perhaps because they hold to the doctrine of the real absence of the risen Christ they are keen that communion should remember Jesus’ death.)

“This is my body, broken for you.” surely means, in some sense (though not a literal one), that the bread of the eucharist is the broken body of the Son of God who died for us. If we can believe in two-a-penny miracles, like healings and gems or gold teeth from heaven, what is so hard about the promise of the real presence of Jesus in the bread of the Lord’s Supper?

Excluding people from the Church

Photo by unaesthetic

food-23453_1280A couple of issues recently have raised the question of when and why Christians might exclude others from the Church.

One issue arose when I was to address a combined churches group (in an overseas context) and one or two influential people looked at my 5 minute Bible site and (as far as I can tell without actually listening to the “offending” podcast) decided that I sounded as if I might deny the (according to their understanding) biblical truth that hell is a place of eternal horrible punishment. If true, this for them would exclude me from speaking in such a setting. So, is denying the doctrine that hell is eternal horrible punishment, or alternatively holding that view, a good and proper reason to exclude someone from the Church? I can understand that either might be sufficient reason for someone to cease to have desire to fellowship with the person who holds the view. But should that lack of desire for fellowship translate into exclusion for Church?

The other issue concerns attitudes to homosexuality, and in particular to the marrying of homosexual couples, some among NZ Baptists today certainly see a difference of opinion on this issue as grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of NZ Baptist churches, if perhaps not from the Church.

In both cases the potential excluder sees the issue as the “offender” being unfaithful to Scripture. In both cases the “offender” claims that their understanding of Scripture is different. In one case the disagreement is around the meaning of words and whether certain phrases are to be understood as literal or metaphorical, in the other case (while this sort of issue is in play) the main issue is more around the relative priority of different aspects of the teaching of Scripture and ways our social setting differs from the original contexts of Scripture.

My take is that neither issue is sufficient grounds for exclusion from the Church, and that the second (at least) ought not to be grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of Baptist churches in NZ. So, what sort of issue might give such grounds?

Asking the question in reverse, i.e. on what grounds do we include people in the fellowship of the church. We include people in the fellowship of communion, very commonly in NZ Baptist churches, by an invitation like “those who love the Lord Jesus Christ and seek to be his true disciples”. If that is sufficient grounds for inclusion in Communion, why is it not sufficient grounds for inclusion in the Church? Or what is the Church except the community of those who share communion in Christ?

I also wonder what Paul, in the light of his comments about the relative merits of theological truth and salvation, in relation to the issue of food offered to idols (1 Cor 8, esp. vv.1-2), would say.

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons -
"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - (edited)

“Starsinthesky” by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – (edited)

I confess, I have never really read the famous “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”, the idea of defining the authority of Scripture in terms of lack of error in propositional statements strikes me as so wrong headed that I have never been really tempted to start. However a friend on Facebook showed me a post that linked to a copy of the statement.

Now I’m really puzzled. Article 12 reads:

Article XII.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

The first part of “WE DENY” seems to claim that the Bible (regardless of the intentions of its human authors?) can be used to learn about scientific questions – I assume this means things like the age of the universe/earth, how species came to be etc… and not that somewhere in Scripture Boyles Law is taught.

OK… but the second part seems to claim that whatever Science may with high degree of confidence assert cannot be used to “overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood”. Which seems to imply that those passages of the Bible that teach about creation and flood are exempt from the first statement?

Is there (even a twisted sort of) logic here, or is the statement just daft? In either case why do so many American, and American influenced, religious people find the statement helpful?

Please, these are serious questions and I just do not understand, so help me!

How odd of God, or the LORD works in mysterious ways

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Offering a course, and preparing the material and then having no students enroll is not an outcome any teacher desires.Add in the bonus that the course was being offered is about 19h and 55mins from home, and the situation seems set to categorise as a disaster. However, that would neglect events around the time when we were waiting on tenterhooks to see if students would enroll. During the waiting the prospect of a series for Swarga (a local Christian TV station) began to be seriously aired. The series will use the material I prepared for the NZ Baptist articles each month in 2014. This is material I am really keen to make more accessible and useful in church contexts. By shrinking our holiday a little and with hasty preparation while Barbara (she has a chock full class) I should be able to record six half hour programs before we leave.

In conversation with the principal and the academic dean today another project has been added for after I return to NZ. I will prepare an enlarged version of the articles with more practical examples and fuller explanations which people here will take and adapt to the local context. This localised English version could also be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. The material would then form a basis for introductory courses in practical hermeneutics for some of the programs here. This too is so exciting.

The LORD does indeed work in mysterious ways, and from time to time enlivens our staid lives with rollercoaster rides.

Reading the Bible Faithfully (as seen on TV?)


book-623163Well this has been a roller-coaster of a 24hr day.

First it seemed that 1 Samuel and the delights of biblical story-telling were so unattractive, or I am, that there might be no students for my class (the journey is worth it though, as Barbara has a big class for her teaching about dealing with adolescents – I guess some human issues are really cross-cultural in this globally franchised world). Then there was the possibility of doing a series for Swarga TV using the Reading the Bible Faithfully material.

That is a possibility that really excites me! Encouraging people to read the Scriptures well, faithfully to the ancient meaning, yet attentive to contemporary application is fun and rewarding. To do it via TV and video with a professional crew, lighting, two cameras etc. is a dream (possibly) coming true! That it seems likely that they would be willing to either let me use the video or to make it accessible online, opens possibilities of it being useful in NZ as well.

So when, this morning under the monsoon rain, it became final that there were no students interested in 1 Samuel, the rest of today was spent preparing the first few sessions. This evening an email came to say that the studio is fully booked while I am in Colombo, but that there is a day free when we are meant to be at the beach. (Enjoying a few days rest before heading home, in a plush resort no less!)

Barbara understands how much this project means to me, so she is willing to curtail our restful time on the beach… so, currently the plan is to spend Mon 21st trying to record 12 sessions of 22 mins each. All before heading south in the middle of the afternoon… Please if you are the praying sort (as they say, but really – as they also say – “there are no atheists in foxholes”, in extremity prayer comes naturally to us all) please ask that somehow this may all work for the best!

Boosting literacy by 1000%

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)
Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Five years ago I linked to a post by Chris Rollston The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet:Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus the URL has changed,but the post is really interesting. I still have no desire to differ from Chris’ expert view his “story” is fascinating and largely convincing. Yet I still think he misrepresents the impact of his evidence on the rise of literacy due to the invention of the alphabet. One quote highlights the issue, and in it Rollston highlights some earlier silly claims:

Some have suggested that with the invention of the alphabet, literacy rates rapidly became quite high, with both elites and non-elites writing and reading (note: these two skills are related, but quite different). For example, during the middle of the twentieth century, W.F. Albright stated that “since the forms of the letters are very simple, the 22-letter alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student and in a week or two by the dullest.” And he proceeded to affirm that he did “not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in various parts of Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges” (Albright 1960, 123). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, R. Hess made similar statements. For example, regarding ancient Israel, he states that there is “continually increasing evidence for a wide variety of people from all walks of life who could read and write.” In addition, he states that he believes “the whole picture is consistent with a variety of [literate] classes and groups, not merely a few elites” (Hess 2006, passim 342-345).

But the literacy estimates Rollston quotes show that for prealphabetic societies literacy rates were about 1%:

for Egypt, literacy rates are often estimated to be at ca. one-percent or lower, and confined to elites (see Baines and Eyre,1983, 65-96; note that even at Deir el-Medina it is elites that are writing). For Mesopotamia, Larsen believes that one-percent is also a reasonable figure (see Larsen, 1989, 121-148, esp. 134).

Yet for societies using alphabetic scripts the estimates he quotes are between five and fifteen percent:

Rather, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the population was not literate. Note, for example, that W. Harris (1989, 114, 267, 22) has argued that literacy rates in Attica were probably ca. five percent to ten percent and those in Italy were probably below fifteen percent (note: within this volume [passim], Harris has cogently critiqued those that have proposed high(er) rates of literacy).

Taking, as an approximation, the middle of this range, the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, from 1% to 10%. This is an increase in literacy of 1000%, an imporessive achievement.  An increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (half this increase or a factor of five or 500%), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.

At 1% literacy few rural people would have easy access to someone who was literate, at 10% it is likely that within a few hours walk most would. Thus his own figures suggest that the alphabet would produce a true social revolution. Clearly not producing a modern writing based culture, but nevertheless bringing text and textuality into the realm of experience of ordinary people as well as elites.

Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)


On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

Wise advice for Christians reading Scripture

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

As Peter Enns gets towards the end of the journey in his little book he moves beyond the strict topic to some wonderful advice for Christians reading the Bible, and how we should relate to other Christians who perhaps disagree with our interpretation. It is applicable to the global church, so to my current context about to teach to students from a wealth of different cultures none of them mine, but also to the local churches as NZ Baptists move towards an annual assembly with a contentious issue on the floor. For both I pray:

  • Humility on the part of scholars to be sensitive to how others will hear them and on the part of those
    whose preconceptions are being challenged.
  • Love that assumes the best of brothers and sisters in Christ. not that looks for any difference of
    opinion as an excuse to go on the attack.
  • Patience to know that no person or tradition is beyond correction. and therefore no one should jump
    to conclusions about another’s motives.1
  1. Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, 164 []

Inspiration and Incarnation


For the Introduction to the Old Testament I am teaching at APTS one of the set books students must read is:

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

I do not intend to do a thorough review of this book here, not least because one of the assessments asks the students to  review it ;) But I do want to venture a few comments, and may add more as I read further.

First some general remarks: The book is clearly and simply written, Enns has taken trouble to make the material accessible to beginners. Yet his topic is useful to students further on in their serious study of Scripture. It shows some signs of haste in production, alongside the times when I am delighted by how well Enns has expressed some idea there are many places where it seems to me his expression has been careless and a more careful editing (by Enns or by his editor(s) could have strengthened his delivery of his message. Overall the “delighted” sections well outnumber and outweigh the “I wish he’d taken more care” ones. This is a book that would have been ideal for a proper electronic edition that enabled readers to question such places and enabled Enns to edit and improve the text!

Among the places where I have been saying “Amen” and singing (in my heart for my voice is not up to the task) praise to God for what he is saying – which seems to me so far (I am at p.102/172) to do for big picture practical biblical hermeneutics what Duval and Hays1 for small scale practical hermeneutics – that is, codify and explain the sort of practice and understanding most/many trained Bible readers have been doing (sometimes unconsciously) for years in useful and clear ways that a beginner can access, or help a more experienced student to develop.

My takeaway gem so far:

[t]here is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things Just shouldn’t happen. And. if they do. they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research. and if you’re patient enough. you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others.however (including myself). such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is.rather. to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament. it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?2

Now there’s an important and potentially most productive question for everyone who desires to take the Bible seriously as Scripture. Especially it is a useful question for those of us in traditions that make the Bible the authority for faith and practice!

  1. J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word : A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI.: Zondervan, 2001 and in a shorter version: J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word : Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI: Zondervan, 2008. []
  2. Enns, 102. []

Bibliophilia: the pastors’ besetting sin?

Too many books?

This networked socially-mediated world is fascinating. Despite all the shallowness (e.g. people “liking” a post that speaks of mass deaths of Rohingya refugees while knowing little of the horrific facts of their tragedy), I also get to see deeper inside friends and colleagues.

Some (of my friends at least) are grammar nazis, determined to keep us all on the linguistic straight and narrow. Many are incensed or delighted (or more often both in opposing turns) at the latest issue. But I discern a worrying trend among pastors and Bible teachers. Bibliophilia gone mad.

Pastors have always been bibliophiles, or at least have been since the adoption of moveable type (in the Guttenberg revolution) reduced the price of books. When I was a trainee pastor (back in the 1970s) we compared libraries, and eagerly debated which were the essential commentaries to buy on this or that Bible book.

The advent of e-texts and computer Bible software has, in some ways, had little overt impact as yet. Many pastors are innately conservative, and prefer the pleasures of a print book to the cheaper but less conspicuous e-texts. Many still brag about the physical endowment of their libraries. Size sometimes is everything!

Yet waiting on the margins is a slowly growing colossus. Top of the range deluxe Bible software (like Logos or Accordance) the array of reference works and secondary literature one can acquire for Logos is mind-blowing. Everything from the Patristic writers in original languages or translation to the latest “Christian classic”, alongside lexicons “for Africa” (as they say).

And there’s the rub, these goodies are NOT for Africa, or any other place that is poor but still perhaps (despite this fact) in need of the gospel and of good preaching. They resource only the rich and comfortable of the world. Still, forget the poor for a moment, there are base packages for everyone, for Baptists they range all the way up to the magnificent “Baptist diamond” package at just US$3,449.95 (don’t be put off by the price, it includes more than 2,500 “resources” and you can pay on the never never, just 24 payments of US$148.75 per month). Perhaps you are not a “platinum pastor”, you can always settle for three steps down and the measly “Silver” (at just US$999.95 it still has 700 resources to enliven and enrich your preaching, and it to can be acquired on tick, 18 payments of US$60.55 per month).

Pity about all the good those dollars could have done to support Christians were life is less good than here! Still they are used to hardship, they’ll cope. There is no choice, my congregation demands top notch preaching, and so I NEED those “resources”…

Well no, you don’t! Unless you are doing academic research for publication in esoteric journals the free Bible software STEP Bible has all the Bible texts and links to original languages (that probably you have not actually learned) that you need. It’s easy to use, and what’s more will not demand that you “upgrade” your hardware every couple of years like the “top notch” software does.

Commentaries? True STEP has no built in scholarly commentaries. But there are plenty available on Google books (as long as you can stand not having the “very best” in every case, but can settle for mere “jolly good scholarship”). Just think the $100 (or more?) you save on this not quite so essential Bible software might train a pastor, provide clean water for a village…

Why not explore STEP, it has more Bible study goodies than Calvin, Augustine, Paul or your favourite theologian or evangelist could begin to dream. Search Google Books for “commentary BIBLE BOOKNAME” with “preview available” under search tools/any books.