Matthew 28:11-15 contains the report of an alternate theory about the resurrection. Because Matthew is a believer it is told in a way that speaks of conspiracy theories and bribery. I’m not dismissing the authority of scripture when I say that we see evidence here of Matthew’s defensiveness. I do think believers get it into their heads (our heads) that certain things are true on out terms and anyone who has a different perspective is up to no good.
May 18-May 24
May 25-May 31
1 Corinthians 15:3–8
2 Corinthians 4:1–15
June 1-June 7
2 Corinthians 5:11–21
1 Peter 1:13–25
The internet has given a handful of people unprecedented power to correct the mistakes of the rest of us. I’m not immune. I once did a blog-post trying to rebuff people who refer to praise and worship songs as “7/11” songs. Sometimes, though, our efforts to correct people’s mistakes can reveal more problems in our own thinking than it corrects in others.
For Example, Ben Irwin recently blogged about five bible verses the rest of us tend to misuse. He’s right enough, I suppose, in his assessment but I think he reveals his own blind spots in the process.
We misuse Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper . . .” He implies that those who display this verse on Christian inspirational posters are probably thinking that it refers to “bad hair days, corporate ladders, or financial success.” He explains that Jeremiah was addressing people who were facing an exile that would last 70 years. What we mean by reciting the text today is not what it meant when it was written.
Two responses—first, my 22 years in ministry have taught me one thing about people: they are more complex than they appear. I have learned that many people going through pain I simply cannot fathom. Jeremiah 29:11 may be keeping a suicidal teenager afloat, or a man who’s been out of work for six months “keeping on keeping on”, or motivating a diabetic to get into shape. Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t address a high school context, a labor-market context, or a medical context. But, if you think that God doesn’t care about depressed teenagers, out-of-work laborers, or diabetics, then we’re probably talking about two different understandings of who God is. I don’t think God minds their “misuse” of the text if it keeps them moving forward and faithful. I think Christians need to get out of the business of assuming we know what’s going through people’s minds because we think we know what’s going on in their lives. Just as “That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.” So also, people quoting that verse may not mean what you think they mean either.
Second, all texts are taken out of context. All biblical texts had a time and place being addressed. No biblical text was specifically addressed to 21st Century, middle-class America, except maybe John 17:20-23 (probably not that one either but, I was reaching). If the Bible is going to speak to us today, we have to strive for dynamic analogies between our day and the day addressed by the text. Exegesis—striving to understand what a text meant when it was written, to whom it was written, by whom it was written—is essential but not complete. The Bible becomes the Word of God as we seek to go from understanding its context and content to our context. By the way, the Bible itself reveals this. Later texts in the Old Testament reach back to retrieve earlier traditional elements and do so without insisting upon exact quotation or accurate contextualization. New Testament writers also quote the Old Testament and do so without following the rules of exegesis. (great treatment of this in Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith). Exegesis opens up and sharpens application but does not settle it.
Irwin said we misuse Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” And then he corrected our translation saying “. . . a better translation is ‘In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.’” The problem is, “in all things God” is not necessarily a better translation. Ancient manuscripts were copied and recopied by hand until at least the invention of the printing press in the 1500s. The diversity between Greek copies of any text are complex enough that some biblical scholars devote their entire careers to sorting out what are the most likely original versions of texts verse by verse. They are called text critics and they have what I would regard as the dirtiest job in biblical scholarship. Bruce Metzger, a respected text critic, explains that indeed the grammatical construction that makes God the subject of the sentence (i.e., ho Theos in the nominative) does appear in some manuscripts. The committee that edited the United Bible Society Greek New Testament (4th edition) regarded them as less likely to be original than the texts that had “all” (panta in the nominative case) as the original. So, it could be translated, “In all things God works for good . . .”as the NIV translates it but, that’s not a definitively better translation. Translation is tricky business. Be careful about claiming that something is better translated one way rather than another.
Irwin seems to have a problem with prosperity gospel preachers who misuse Luke 11:9 or athletes who quote Philippians 4:13. I agree with him that we too easily grab on to texts assuming that they mean that God can be conscripted into our agendas. The people who do it manipulatively to line their pockets anger me also. But, self-interest creeps into everything. The difficulty is the binary that he continues to thrust: People use a text to mean X but the original author meant Y. I think a better way to understand this process of allowing scripture to become to word of God is seeing it more as an essay test rather than a multiple choice. One thing I learned doing essay tests was that if I kept writing about it, I’d likely land on an acceptable answer or weary my professor into giving me at least partial credit. Multiple choice questions are either right or wrong. I can sense that Irwin is fed up with people who have clearly misused a passage. They keep choosing “A—it’s all good things for me and bad things for you” when they should be considering “B—It’s more complicated than it looks;” OR “C—There’s a word of warning.” Or “D—probably shouldn’t touch this text with a ten foot pole.” What I see happening, though, is that we have frightened increasing numbers of people away from scripture by over-correcting their interpretation of scripture. Maybe what we need is a new paradigm that teaches people that all interpretations are partial, contextual, and made by people “prone to wander.” And that those interpretations are good and necessary. Perhaps we should teach people that the right interpretation isn’t the one that ends the discussion but the one that continues to look, listen, study and discern. I’m not sure I would love scripture nearly as much had Ephesians 2:10 not gotten me through the 8thgrade in one piece. The whole of Ephesians 2 and Ephesians itself and the Deutero-Pauline literature is far more complex than I realized at that point. But, I continue to believe God spoke through that one verse to that one 13 year old kid. I think many people need to be able to find just one passage of scripture that they can hang their hearts on for a while before they can gather the motivation to study the rest of scripture and work to study it rightly.