Bibliology bits 3: context, instructions, and design

biblicalbooksThis post continues from prior ones in which I briefly discussed books and literature types, and then canons and versions.

On contextS
A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared that the primary teaching pastor at his church had recently committed what I consider a major instructional infraction:

While delivering a message on how to study the Bible, historical and cultural contexts were treated at some length, but no attention at all was given to a book-level, paragraph-level, or even “verse”-level look at the literary context.  

What passed for “literary context” was really only a nod to the historical setting in which the document was originally penned.


Let it be noted here that the friend referenced above has a terminal degree in NT biblical studies, and the teaching pastor, of approximately the same age, is well down the road toward his own doctorate in Hebrew and OT.  What the one knows and understands about overall emphasis in text study should also be what other knows and understands.  And the latter very well may know and understand it.  The problem is that he missed a golden opportunity as a public teacher to emphasize literary context!

It makes sense that literary context should be considered primary in biblical studies.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and theological studies may undergird and will be of great interest, but what is actually in the text is more fundamental—and almost always a more objective enterprise.  Pursuit of the literary context should therefore be considered ahead of the pursuit of other contexts.  I might put rhetorical and discourse analysis methods in a tool bucket (along with selected reference tools) to be used as part of contextually aware studies.  Knowledge of the syntax of the original language is indispensable.  (Personally, I have only enough grasp of Greek syntax to know how important it is.)  There is always more to learn about the words and sentences and “paragraphs.”  The point here is that intensified contextual awareness is fundamental when seeking to understand a document.

On instructionS
The number of instructions (reputedly 613) in the Hebrew Torah is daunting.  The number of superimposed rabbinic teachings (Talmud, etc.) is positively dizzying.

It doesn’t surprise me that Christians would fall into the habit of looking at the “New Law” in the same legal terms, but it does surprise me that any of us would defend that habit explicitly.  In the words of Danny Gamble, a neighborhood boy from my childhood, “What are ya—dumb or sump’n?”  (He was talking about my family’s habit of praying before meals.  His rude-yet-innocent comment speaks much better to stupid human tricks such as creating a new legalism.)

There are matters on which God has spoken, of course.

There are also matters about which people wish God had instructed.

And there are quite a few matters about which people claim God instructed us—but the supposed instruction sometimes turns out to be trumped-up, or even bogus.

I won’t specify things I think fall into any of these three categories, because I might get in trouble with some people I respect.  🙂

On design
The structure and design of biblical documents is typically overlooked.  This post (from a year and a half ago) laments the tendency of very good, otherwise spiritually minded people to ignore text design in favor of what turns out to be a faux devotional vantage point.

Even when structure is to some extent in view, it is rarely understood and applied very thoroughly in local churches.  We may affirm that (literary) context is king, but even those public teachers who pay lip service to context will rarely spend appropriate time dealing with its significance.

Here are a few examples/comments:

The structure of Psalm 119 famously involves an acrostic design (based on Hebrew letters).  The literary structure is obvious, aiding understanding of this piece’s origin and possible its intent.

The structure of Paul’s brief letter to Philemon is clear, making the thrust of the message quite impossible to ignore in Greek, although it rarely if ever shows itself in English Bibles or in Bible classes.  Although richly provocative clues reside in the Greek, if more disciples would merely take more time with the English, truly studying this document instead of dismissing it as a nice story about a former slave, the document would speak volumes.  Loudly.

I’m somewhat acquainted with the structure of both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, but I would have to say that it’s required many years and great opportunities to come to understand only a little of their design.  In other words, the structure of a more lengthy document requires deeper, more extended experience.  I am currently engaged in Matthew studies.  Every step of the way, I learn something that enhances my understanding of this text.

Knowing how these documents are put together—how they are designed—is key in coming to understand their emphases.

There is so much more.  The Bible is a lifelong pursuit but must not be seen as an end in itself.  To conclude this series on perhaps a lighter note, I think I’ll soon post a survey about word frequency, i.e., “how many times is X word found in the NT?”

Inkblots from Philippians

The following verses or partial verses from Philippians have in my experience been used in isolation from their literary context(s).  There are many of these “offenders” in Philippians!  The ones in bold are those I think could stand as “poster children” for the disease of “inkblotitis” (Dr. Greg Fay’s term).

Although I rarely use the NIV on this blog, its largely familiar wordings will serve illustratively here.  As you scan these, please consider how easy it is to think you understand of what they “mean” apart from the surrounding thoughts in their full context.

Chapter 1

I thank my God every time I remember you.

18b  The important thing is that . . . Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.[1]

Chapter 2

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: [2]

12b  continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. [3]

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, [4]

17a But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering . . . [5]

Chapter 3

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.

10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12b-14  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. . . . 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

18-19  For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. [6]

Chapter 4

2b  be of the same mind in the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [7]

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

[1] 1:27 may be a “verse” that, when ripped from its context, hasn’t actually strayed too far from its original import in its current-day application.

[2] Here, I am passing over the famed 2:6-11 passage, although it, too, is frequently understood outside its Philippians context.  This text is considered by most scholars to be some type of ancient ode or hymn (whether originally sung or not, whether original with Paul or not) text.  Its exalted poetry is legendary, and it stands on its own to some extent, although it is imbued with additional/different meaning when seen within the contextual shape of Philippians.

[3] Here’s an exceptionally convicting bit of non-exegetical, personal history:  I once spoke a message—translated on the spot into another language, even—that forced a separate theology onto this passage, ignoring its own context altogether. The theology I was “pushing” was a good one, I’m convinced, but nonetheless was a theology unrelated to this particular context.

[4] Oh, the numbers of parents who have quoted this one to their grumbling children!

[5] I know a song, “Would You Be Poured Out Like Wine,” that came from this, but the rest of its words had nothing directly to do with Philippians, insofar as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, the song might have mixed two contexts, since it used the specific word “wine,” which is not used here.  Perhaps a little latitude for the songwriter who knew that the word “drink” doesn’t sing all that well?  Or perhaps the songwriter was leaning on historical rather than literary context (I’m not at all sure), understanding that wine was what was used in the “poured drink offering”?

[6] True confession:  I quasi-intentionally take this one out of context myself, and probably will continue to do so.  Although recognizing that these words find their most valid illumination within the context of Philippians, I feel that they succinctly state an important concept that all Christians would do well to take in.

[7] It might not do much harm to take this one out of context.  In suggesting that, I would lean a little on the “anything” and “every” language:  perhaps this is duly taken as more broadly applicable.  Yet its original meaning is to be found within the context of the letter to the Philippians.


Reprise: quality in study methodology (2 of 2)

A recent post on “quality” and “better methods” prompted a thoughtful challenge.  Here, I responded in general terms about the nature of, and impulses behind, contextually aware, high-quality (for me) Bible study.  Today I want to spend some time with specific commentary on the Rick Warren methods.

There are other things
I first want to acknowledge that activities other than Bible study are important and can result in growth, better feelings, and other positives.  Some of these other thoughts and experiences have great value.  I haven’t dealt, for instance, with prayer, worship, or mutually accountable “discipling” relationships.  Here, I intend only to be addressing Bible study methods—and those, only in summary fashion.

Yet a text orientation is crucial
To “live out faith capably” is a wonderful aim, and I appreciate that crystallization.  My position is that rationally based standards must exist as we try to hone in on the role Bible study plays in the living out of faith.

The best standards and methods I’ve seen lean heavily on literary context and historical context (in that order).  I suppose that, in using the expression “the best . . . I’ve seen,” I am again putting myself in the position of one who can judwpid-img_20151023_090040_001.jpgge what is better than something else.  In this case, I’ll own that with only a tiny bit of embarrassment.  It appears self-evident to me—and I doubt seriously that anyone reading this far will disagree in concept—that a) contextually aware study is inherently better than b) study that moves easily and non-judiciously in and among various documents, bodies of texts (e.g., the entire Bible) and theologies.  Sadly, most Bible studies seem to head in the (b) direction, whereas the practice ought to be brought into alignment with the conceptual, mental assent.

Premise:  Any “study method” that doesn’t at least attempt to base its substance and conclusions in one textual document isn’t as viable as one that does.

It bears stating here that the Bible is a library, not a single book per se.  No matter the particular vantage point re:  “inspiration,”¹ it must be acknowledged that the Bible is a collection of documents, not a single document.  It follows that “context” must properly be thought of as residing in the particular book/document one is studying, not the collection called “Bible.”

With the above premise in view, although not confining myself to it, I’d like to address some of . . .

Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods

  1. The Devotional Method
  2. The Chapter Summary Method
  3. The Character Quality Method
  4. The Thematic Method
  5. The Biographical Method
  6. The Topical Method
  7. The Word Study Method
  8. The Book Background Method
  9. The Book Survey Method
  10. The Chapter Analysis Method
  11. The Book Synthesis Method
  12. The Verse-by-Verse Analysis Method

Based on general experience with Christianese and with many public teachers through the years, I could have pretty safely claimed that #1 and #6 are not really “Bible study” methods at all.  After skimming a bit, I stand on that presumption.

I didn’t know exactly what #3 and #4 referred to, but they were questionable, so I looked them up. . . .

#3 (“character quality”) turns out not to be a study method per se.  Rather, it majors in devotion and “personal application” as does #1.  While this might provide intriguing and valid insights, here’s a guiding truism:  we all need more thorough, contextual study before jumping in to “apply” our “take-aways.”

Neither is #4 (thematic) viable as a “study method”—not for anyone with less experience than I have, anyway.  I wouldn’t trust myself with it very often at all.  It jumps around in different texts, and that is always dangerous.  Any purported method that makes application prior to coming to a solid understanding of a discrete text is likely very well intentioned and may well lead to benefit, but such constitutes a thematic or theological thought train, not Bible study, and the resulting applications might turn out to be less than valid.

I would assert that several of the 12 “methods” should not be viewed as stand-alone methods but instead should be considered and employed together.  When combined, they could in fact constitute a holistic, relatively effective, viable Bible study methodology.

#10 (chapter analysis) appears pretty good to me, and if I were ever “forced” (not that that would or could happen in my case!) to use Warren’s book, I might point to #10 as a basis, complimenting it with material from many of the other methods and being careful not to allow chapter divisions always to determine the limits of a section.

Method #s 8 (book background, including archaeology, geology, history, and culture) and 12 (verse-by-verse, observations, personal paraphrase) could well supplement #10, as long as the cross-reference part of the latter is either ignored or used extremely carefully.

#4 (“themes” in scripture) starts with the investigative “friends” who, what, where, when, why, and how . . . but it goes awry when it shows a wide-open field for investigation.  Step #1 is “choose a theme.”  Step #2 is “list all the verses you want to study.”  (And here, my wife is cringing, when I read the draft of this post aloud to her!)  The “personal application” a few steps down the road will be compromised if the student has not limited his study to a theme in a specific document or smaller context.  #5 (biographical) approaches the investigation of a Bible character similarly, but I find this method more likely than #4 to bear good fruit, insofar as it goes—namely, because the student will likely be dwelling in single texts for longer periods of time as s/he tries to glean insights into a Bible character.

#9 (book survey) and #11 (book synthesis) have good merits and probably ought to be combined.  Comprehension of the book-level context is oh-so-significant, and perhaps especially so when the book/document is possible to read in one sitting and/or isn’t composed of multiple, major sections that potentially complicate the literary aspect of the whole.

In my case, method #2 (chapter summary) was the one being used in a small group.  This method is rather insidious:  it combines a few generally good ideals (contents, caption, crucial words, challenges, and central lesson) with some horrible ones (“cross references” and “Christ seen”), leading to a false sense of security.

My recent experience (and this was to an extent a function of the leader’s choice) of #2 was more or less confined to one aspect of that method—a sub-method that produced marginal results.  When a “Bible study” ends up consisting in people going around the room saying, “Well, I liked the word _______” because the word seemed like a crucial word, or because they just wanted to be different from the last person, I twitch.  Every other person might turn out to be onto something noteworthy, but students must recognize the inherent credibility of a source (human or otherwise) with real knowledge of the text.  The ensuing discussion must be shaped knowledgeably, rather than a scene in which everyone gloms on amicably to all comments as though they have equal value.

In Bible study, a democratic paradigm isn’t always best.  Neither is a monarchy, yet those who have some capabilities of digging into the text and interpreting based on sound exegetical principles ought to be given credence and opportunity.  Those with mere opinions deserve to be heard—with the aim of across-the-board senses of value and belonging . . . but often, their opinions, views, and take-aways need shaping and honing, so they will ultimately line up with what may actually be read—when one is reading contextually, that is—in the texts.

Personal note to Steve:  I deeply appreciate your challenge and your asking for more thoughts.  (And more thoughts you have received!)   My two-part response surely seems even stronger than the original post, but I have at least intended to acknowledge some value in methods I don’t personally gravitate to.  In all this, I have actually been assuming that you and I would see about 80-90% of this eye to eye, but I could be wrong.  I have written mostly for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts and scruples, and more, for less experienced readers.

How about this—I’ll give you the last word if you want to respond with another comment.  Rebuttal is totally OK.  Or, if you want to write a guest post, I’m all ears.  I suppose I might respond briefly, for the record, if in fact it turns out that I disagree much, but I promise not to argue specific points further!

¹ Statements about scripture that use the word “inerrancy” are suspect.  Some folks that claim to believe in “inerrancy” haven’t thought or studied enough to be using the word, and others seem merely to have had the wool pulled over their eyes by past dogmatics.  Views of inspiration that claim what the ancient documents claim (and no more) turn out to be “higher” views than some traditional, dogmatic views based on wispy notions of inerrancy.

Logos screen shot

Standing alone

Heigh-ho, the derry-o . . .
The cheese stands alone.


from “The Farmer in the Dell”

For a melancholy introvert, standing alone is no uncommon experience.  Among the areas in which I feel increasingly alone is the study of scripture.

In biblical studies, I am coming to know (read that as an intentional use of the imperfect  tense/aspect — I am not in a perfected state of having arrived at the end!) a little more than “just enough to get you in trouble.”  I don’t know how to use all the tools I have available, and sometimes I take the wrong exit ramp or stop at the wrong rest stop in exegetical study, but I am as confident as one can be that I’m on the right road.  It is a lonely highway. . . .

Recently, during Bible class, a very good man (A)

made a very un-good statement. (B)

His statement (C)

reflects the bad ideas (B’)

of lots of other good people out there who read their Bibles.  (A’)

The statement was something like this, in part:  “I’m not very much into the ‘structure’ of Paul’s letters.  I think verses X-Z stand alone.”  And in one fell swoop — and I really don’t think he intended to do this — he undercut the very idea of the importance of literary context.

The indented layout of the five blue lines above shows chiastic arrangement.  Because of my acquaintance with chiasms and my interest in biblical exegesis, and because I felt like using it as an emphatic illustration, I composed that little chiasm (in all of one minute).  It’s cathartic for me, in a way.

This type of arrangement is quite common in ancient texts.  Scholars sometimes disagree on the particulars, but nary a scholar worth his salt denies the prevalence or significance of such things in the rhetorical thought-patterns of the ancients.  In terms of structure, the “text” above is actually very much like something that might be found in a gospel or in one of Paul’s letters.  The emphasis in such a section of text is in the middle—in this case, the statement made by my sibling.  My intent, then, in communicating through the chiastic structure above, is to focus attention on the statement itself, not on the person.  Secondary and tertiary emphases may also be presentsuch as the relationship of bad statements and bad ideas (B and B’ lines).

Anyway, back to the statement itself. . . .  I took it as an expression of some lack of understanding, or maybe some frustration with being confronted with new emphases on context and purposeful literary analysis in Bible study.

The thing is, the statement that “verses X-Z stand alone” was flat wrong, insofar as it went.

The intent of my brother’s heart was completely fine; he was just off-base in suggesting that we might get just as much from a short section by letting it stand alone.

In the course of reading, studying, and coming to understand a literary document, nothing stands alone.

But the cheese and I do stand alone far too often, I think.  Maybe we are limburger.