Monday, June 29, 2015

A Missional Hermeneutic Applied to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15): Part Two

Here is the rest of the essay on the Prodigal son in Luke 15. Read Part One

The Rhetorical Affect of Luke 15

Luke has carefully crafted this chapter. As noted in our first post, Jesus is in conflict with religious authorities. The religious authorities were deeply offended by Jesus’ fellowship with persons thought to be outside the community and unworthy of concern.

Jesus responds with three stories about lost items: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and ostensibly a lost son.

The first two stories served to draw in Jesus’ audience (the Pharisees and scribes) by using images and ideas that would have resonated with them. The rhetorical affect of the stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin would have been: OK Jesus – I am with you. I would have done the same thing. What shepherd would not go after a lost member of the flock? What woman would not seek diligently to recover 1/10th of the family’s savings? Moreover, it would not be unusual to celebrate the recovery of these items.

Jesus however does push the envelope in these two initial stories by comparing the human reaction to the recoveries to God’s response to the restoration of a sinner into God’s family:

Luke 15:7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Luke 15:10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Thus, these two shorter stories prepare the reader for the climax of the passage – the story of two sons (vv. 11-32).

A Father’s Extraordinary Love
If the stories of the lost sheep and lost coin drew in Jesus’ audience, the story of the two sons would have challenged them deeply. It is this final story that emphasizes God’s heart for the lost.
This story shows that a heart for the lost calls for extraordinary measures and pushes the envelope regarding social norms of acceptable behavior. This is particularly true for the Father.

Most of us are struck by the boorish behavior of both sons. Both the younger and older dishonor their father in many ways. The younger asks for his inheritance early (“Father, I wish you were dead.”) and squanders away ½ of the resources that his father spend a lifetime building. He then has the audacity to return home empty handed. The older brother also dishonors his father in his angry response to the celebration that his father holds in honor of his younger brother’s return to the family. These acts of dishonor were very serious in the honor-shame culture of the 1st century Mediterranean world. Each of these was humiliating to the father. But this is part of the power of this text. The father refuses to be limited in his actions by the honor-shame system of his day. In fact, the father’s own actions subvert the system by bringing additional dishonor on himself. The father grants the younger son his wish and gives him the inheritance. He readily welcomes back this same son. The happy scene of the father running to embrace his wayward child may be a Norman Rockwell moment for the Western world, but this was actually a scene of dishonor for the father. It was not honorable for a man of the father’s social position to run to greet anyone especially someone who had brought such dishonor to the family.

Why does the father embrace acts of dishonor? It is to make the point that the father was willing to do what it takes to bring reconciliation to his son. This points us to the heart of God. The father acted out of compassion—so does God. Compassion is the motivation that drives the mission of God.

A lost son or daughter can return to God because God desires this to happen and creates an ethos in which reconciliation is possible.

Yet, the father in the story also is willing to lose face for the sake of the older son who is angry over his father’s generosity and forgiveness of the younger son. The father leaves his party to pursue the older son who has stormed out in protest (and whose actions have brought shame on his father). The father pleads with his elder son to join the celebration. This is a final word to the religious people of Jesus’ day and of ours. It is a word of grace and charity. It is the same call as given to the younger son—“Come home!” It is a call to align with the heart of God.

How far are we willing to go to extend the Gospel to lost persons?
Are we willing to lose face if it means many sons and daughters being reconciled to God?
How would our lives be different if we aligned ourselves with the heart of God?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Missional Hermeneutic Applied to a Prodigal Son

The Church of Jesus Christ in North America is slowly awakening to the reality that the 21st century represents a watershed moment. Alex McManus, innovative leader, has observed poignantly, “The Western world has lost its faith in the shadow of church steeples.” The truth of this statement is self-evident as populations continue to rise while the influence of the communities of faith declines.

In response to this morass, leaders have responded by talking about the need for “missional churches.” I wholeheartedly agree with this solution as it resonates with the revealed heart of God in the Scriptures, but the problem remains in how to create a missional ethos within both new communities of faith and also within existing communities. Without substance, a call for a missional ethos can merely be another program or trendy buzzword.

It is my belief that the movement toward a missional ethos must be propelled by a missional hermeneutic that unleashes God’s people to become a missional community that reflects God’s character in the world. What is a missional hermeneutic? I have discussed various aspects of this elsewhere, but let’s suffice it to say that a missional hermeneutic is one that focuses on the Scripture’s call to conversion. There are two loci for a message of conversion: first, the Scriptures call God’s people to reconvert and recommit to God’s Creational intentions for humanity (mission, holiness, and authentic community), and second, the Scriptures invite outsiders to become insiders by becoming part of the people of God as they seek to serve as a missional community that reflects and embodies God’s character in the world. In other words, the desired response to any reading, teaching, or preaching of God’s word is conversion – nothing more and nothing less.

Such a hermeneutic allows old texts to regain their old vigor. When Scripture comes to life, God’s people are propelled into the world as God’s witnesses.

Let’s look at a familiar story that may have lost its poignancy for many due to misreading its missional intent. The story is the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15. If you have been around a community of faith for any length of time, you have likely heard scores of sermons based on the power story of redemption of a lost son who returns home and experiences a profound reconciliation with a father who is quick to forgive and celebrate his return. Many of us have found ourselves in this story, but let me suggest that most of us have only scratched the surface of this powerful narrative. A careful reading of Luke 15 serves as an effective test case and illustration of the power of a missional reading.

First, let us make three observations about the context of Luke 15.

Jesus is responding to the challenge of religious authorities to his mission.
The narrative frame for Luke 15 is found in vv. 1-2. The narrator informs us that outsiders were coming to Jesus to listen to his message. Who were these outsiders? They were tax collectors and sinners, i.e., persons believed to be outside of God’s covenant community and unworthy for fellowship. Yet profoundly, these are the sorts of persons with whom Jesus routinely interacted. The religious leaders and Bible scholars of Jesus’ day were taking exception to this. They were offended that Jesus was engaging these lost persons.

Luke 15 as a whole is about the missional heart of God
In response to this fundamental opposition to his work, Jesus tells a series of stories about lost things—a sheep (vv. 4-7), a coin (vv. 8-10), and a son (vv. 11-24). Each story is a portrait of God’s heart for the lost. In each story, there is an emphasis on celebration. There is a party thrown in celebration of each lost item’s being found. Vv. 7 and 10 emphasize the joy in heaven for the salvation of every lost person. Each story has a character representing God who focuses outward on the lost. My great-grandmother used to say, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Most of our churches agree with such conventional wisdom. Yet the heart of God is like a man who leaves 99 sheep to find one lost sheep or a woman with 9 coins who focuses on finding one.

This however is the heart of the good news of the Gospel—God longs for the salvation of all people. He desires to restore relationships with lost people. This has been true in Scripture since God’s poignant call in the Garden of Eden, “Adam, where are you?”

This is no way downplays the destructiveness or ultimate consequences of sin. But it is a clarion call to God’s people to gain God’s heart for the lost and to be willing to embrace and accept the outsider as a person for whom Jesus Christ went to the cross. This involves a willingness to be open up the community to receive such persons into authentic fellowship.

The Climax of Luke 15 is not the story of the Prodigal Son, but the story of the Older Brother
God’s desire to celebrate the return of a lost son is the source of the conflict in the epilogue of the Prodigal Son (vv. 25-32). In fact, based on the overall context of Luke 15, the conflict between the Father and the Older Son is no mere epilogue—it is the heart of the message of Luke 15. The older son represents the religious authorities with whom Jesus is in conflict in 15:1-2.

Notice that there is no ending. Jesus leaves his audience hanging. What did the older son do? Did he join the party? This narrative invites us as readers to work out the ending for ourselves.

Read the rest

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Reading Psalms 146-150

Pss 146-150 serve as a climactic symphony of praise to the LORD. The praise of God’s people is a bold and daring reminder to the nations that the LORD is indeed king. The journey through the Psalter is a difficult one. In the Psalms, we encounter the good and bad of life. There are celebrations of God’s abundance and laments over the perceived absence of God. There are liturgies for giving thanks and historical retellings of the failings of God’s people. There are praises for God’s reign and confessions of sin.
The Psalter however does not end in ambiguity. The life of faith has a destination and the faithful will reach it: the constant and perpetual praise of the Lord. Through the journey, God has showed himself trustworthy and faithful. God has called God’s people to serve as ambassadors to the nations and the end of the Psalter demonstrates that this mission will succeed. If the introduction to the Psalter (Pss 1-2) opened with an invitation to the nations: Blessed are all who seek refuge in him (2:12b), the Psalter concludes with an exhortation to worship: Let everything that has breath praise the LORD (150:6).
Is your life marked by obedient praise of God? How would you live differently  if you anticipated history reaching its climax in a chorus of praise to the LORD?
© 2015 Brian D. Russell

Friday, June 19, 2015

Reading the Bible Missionally: Essays on the Method and Practice of Missional Hermeneutics

I've collected some of my best essays in one place. For those interested in my work, I finished a book on missional hermeneutics. It will be published by Wipf and Stock and should be available in late 15 or early 16. I'll keep you updated. It will be called (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World. 

Reading the Bible Missionally: A Short Guide A Methodology for applying a missional hermeneutic

What is a Missional Hermeneutic? A broad introduction to the current scholarly conversation.

Bibliography for the Study of Missional Hermeneutics. An up-to-date guide to published resources


Crafting a Missional Ethos through the Study of Scripture

The Importance of a Missional Reading: Implications for Christ Followers Thinking through how reading the Bible missionally affects our Christian practice

Implementing a Missional Hermeneutic: Practicing Missional Community 

Implementing a Missional Hermeneutic: Understanding Your Context

Implenting a Missional Hermeneutic: Missional Holiness

From Maintenance to Missional: Transitioning Established Churches into Kingdom Outposts



Monday, June 15, 2015

Invitation to Hearing the Scriptural Story

William Shakespeare, in “As You Like It” composed these famous lines:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

These words remind us that our lives are part of a larger story that being written each day. What does this story look like? Our internet connected world flashes a multitude of competing stories and images at us at a break net speed. All seek to draw us into to their narrative web. What story or stories shape us? What images and visions propel forward in our lives.

I often begin seminars and classes on the Bible by asking this question: What novel, short story, film, or movie best represents your life as you currently see yourself? When I’ve done this in small groups, I received some interesting answers over the years. Many of us resonate with underdog stories of courage and overcoming odds, romantic tales of love, or the deeds and adventures of super heroes. Yet there is One Story above all others that  beckons for our lives. It is the Bible. As we seek to advance God’s kingdom in the early decades of the 21st century, we must re-engage the Story so that we can live as the missional people that God created us to be.

In the Preface to his sermons, John Wesley wrote these words:
I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, -- the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a person of one book]. [1]
In other words, the Bible is the one story to which each of us needs to listen. Scripture desires to transform us. God uses his Word through the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and shape us.

The Bible is the story of God’s relentless love for all creation. It’s narrative traces God’s desire to redeem a lost humanity and heal a broken creation.  When we read Scripture, we encounter the Creator God who invites us to participate with him as He advances his mission to bring restoration, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, peace, hope, and love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible, God reveals his character, his purposes, and his plans so that we may live as the people whom God created for us to be.

As we seek to advance God’s kingdom in our day, let us realign with God by immersing ourselves anew in the Scriptural story.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

Brian's recent group study resource Invitation with companion DVD offers a 10 week overview of the Scriptural story with a goal of forming readers in the core biblical truths of mission, community, and holiness and unleashing them into the world to live as a missional community that embodies and reflects God's character for the world.

[1]Preface to Sermons

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Faithfulness to Scripture and Church Renewal

 The Scriptures mark out a path that guides and leads us to God’s future. In our day, as we sense acutely the new challenges presented to the work of the Gospel, followers of Jesus must hold to the practice faithfulness to God’s word as a key habit to cultivate and embody. Such a way of life will serve as the fuel for revitalizing existing communities of faith and for the launching of new ones.

The Trust Issue
Most of us resonate with a high view of Scripture. We are committed to biblical authority. Yet faithfulness to Scripture is more than a doctrinal confession. It is a way of life marked by a deep trust in God’s Word. Trust is the fundamental starting point for living into God’s future. Trust is lived out in faithful obedience to the guiding vision of the Bible.

Faithfulness to God’s word means trusting at a deep level that God has our best interests at heart so that we are willing to realign our lives with Scripture daily. Reading the Scripture faithfully keeps God as the constant subject of our lives.

In Genesis 3:1, the serpent opens his dialogue with Eve in the garden by asking, “Did God really say…?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes the sublime observation that this discussion was the first conversation about God.[1] With a subtle turn of a phrase, the serpent shifts God from being the subject to being the object. When God becomes an object, we run the risk of substituting God-talk, some naïve theology, a political ideology (of the left or right), or even the work of church renewal for a vital moment-by-moment relationship with God. When we remain open to a daily encounter with our Living Lord, the Scriptures will continually astonish us and draw up deeper into the world that God desires to create. Thus, before moving forward in any work of God, we must settle the trust issue.

A continual realignment with Scripture is necessary because God’s mission is a movement rather than some static entity or institution. Jesus’ call was to follow him into the world to make disciples and to serve as visible witnesses to different kind of world—the Kingdom of God.

As soon as we commit to movement, we run the risk of getting off course. As long as we remain faithfully rooted in Scripture, we have access to God’s cosmic GPS navigational system. Scripture serves as the guiding voice to keep us aligned and on course. In times when we find ourselves off course, the Scriptures will call us to realign ourselves with the values and message of the Cross.

The work of church renewal and the planting of new communities is challenging and often leads us into uncharted waters. As disciples of Jesus, we must learn to rely on and trust the Scriptures to lead us to our destination just as much as we rely on GPS equipment for our treks to unknown places in our daily lives. Apart from the Scriptures as our eternal GPS navigational system, we are left only with the folly of self-reliance or trust in the collective wisdom of the very lost world that God desires to send us into for the work of his mission.

Lived Out in a Believing Community
The message of Scripture is lived out in community. Faithfulness to God’s Word involves serving as a missional community. As we seek renewal and revitalization in our day by reengaging the Scripture, we will find ourselves shaped as individuals but drawn together into communities formed by the Scriptures.

Newbigin writes,
How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.[2]

Paul describes the purpose of such a community in Philippians 2:15-16, “so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”

Communities that are soaked in and shaped by Scripture serve as clues. They shine brightly as the stars painted on the sky on the blackest night. Paul’s simile is an apt one for our day. We are called to be stars, but resist our tendencies to see this as some individual call. Since ancient times stars have naturally been grouped into clusters and constellations that tell of deep mysteries. When we as Christ’s Church live faithfully in accordance with the Scriptures in the work of church renewal and planting, we will collectively speak to the world the Gospel story in all of its abundance.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

[1]Creation and Fall, 111.
[2]Lesslie Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989), 227.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reading Israel's Wisdom Literature Missionally

Israel’s Wisdom traditions (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) connect God’s people to the wider world’s interest and reflection on the nature of the good life. Wisdom literature is a common feature of the ancient Near East.[1] Like creation stories and flood narratives, wisdom was a transcultural phenomenon. There are extant extra-biblical Wisdom texts from Syria–Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. In fact, Israel’s Wisdom traditions draw from the well of this wider pool of wisdom. For example, in the Book of Proverbs, most scholars believe that “The Words of the Wise” (Prov 22:17—24:22) show the direct influence of an Egyptian text called Instruction of Amenemope.[2]
Of course, Israel’s Wisdom traditions are not mere imitations of older material. Instead, Israel’s wisdom offers a distinct perspective for God’s people. Wisdom literature serves to guide God’s people on how to live well and prosper in the world. A successful life is one that fulfills God’s will and mission. For God’s people, the foundation for wisdom is a resolute commitment to the Creator God, the LORD. The good life flows from a correct positioning of the self in relationship to the Creator God. This is the core biblical distinctive. Iconic texts such as Proverbs 1:7 “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline” and Ecclesiastes 11:13 “Fear God and keep his commands for this is all that humanity must do” summarize the key takeaways for the wise. Wisdom must be rooted in recognition of the Creator God as the source of all wisdom. Wisdom points to God, and a life rooted in God is the epitome of the good life. Thus, it follows that an unwise person is one who lives foolishly, i.e., failing to follow the wise instruction that comes from God.
A missional reading of wisdom traditions immediately sees the value of Israel’s wisdom. Wisdom is not only an ancient practice, but collections of the sayings of the wise as well as a burgeoning literature of success continues to this day. The Bible’s wisdom literature invites God’s people to interact with a world hungry for insight on how to make it through life, but to do this by listening to worldly wisdom through God-centered and Bible-centered lenses. God’s people have the opportunity to become the “go to” experts on living well.[3]
           A missional reading of the wisdom literature also sketches out an understanding of missional holiness. Wisdom is worldly in the sense that it teaches its readers how to live in this world. Life skills shaped by God are crucial. Living lives of excellence, ethical purity, virtue, and purpose serve as a potent witness to the watching world. The apostle Paul will remind Christ followers in Philippi that their true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), but this does not mean that God’s people are supposed to live lives detached from the surrounding culture. It simply means that God’s people are to live distinctively for God within the cultures of their day. Biblical wisdom is God’s gift to God’s people to guide them in this critical practice.

[1]Wisdom remains popular in the modern world. A simple perusal of any social media platform will reveal a flood of quotations about personal development, leadership, and the good life.
[2]E.g., Clifford, Proverbs, 17–19 and 199–216.
[3] 21st century missional communities are taking this possibility seriously by teaching life skills. Churches are helping people learn to manage finances and live debt free. They offer recovery ministries for people dealing with life traumas such as divorce and addiction.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Quotations about the Book of Psalms by Significant Christian Interpreters

One of my great joys as a reader of the Bible and professor of Biblical studies is to ponder and enjoy the Psalms. I’m in the process of preparing a study of Psalms 1-41 for an upcoming volume in Seedbed’s OneBook series. As I begin writing, I pulled out some of my notes. Here are a collection of quotations from significant Christian interpreters of the Psalms about the richness of these biblical prayers.

Diodore of Tarsus:
He opens the prologue to his commentary on the psalms by quoting 2 Tim 3:16 and writing: One would not be mistaken in applying this whole encominium of Holy Scripture to the book of the holy Psalms. For it teaches righteousness gently and reasonably to those who wish to learn, it reproves the rash carefully and without roughness, and it corrects whatever unfortunate mistakes are made, either by accident or by our own choices.  

Martin Luther:
Where does one find finer words of joy than in the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself. There you see what at fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of all his blessings. On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God! So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for your fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them. 

Athanasius (Letter to Marcellinius)
…these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. 

Thomas Merton:
the Psalms bring our hearts and minds into the presence of the living God.” (Bread in the Wilderness, 13)

The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is ‘young.’ In the Psalms, we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection…for the Psalms are the songs of men who knew who God was…. For God has willed to make Himself known to us in the mystery of the Psalms. (Praying the Psalms, 7-8)

John Calvin:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, 'An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;' for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which [our] minds are wont to be agitated. (Commentary on the Psalms

John Wesley
 "We have now before us one of the choicest parts of the Old Testament, wherein there is so much of Christ and his gospel, as well as of God and his law, that it has been called the summary of both Testaments. The history of Israel, which we were long upon, instructed us in the knowledge of God. The book of Job gave us profitable disputations, concerning God and his providence. But this book brings us into the sanctuary, draws us off from converse with men, with the philosophers or disputers of this world, and directs us into communion with God. It is called, the Psalms, in Hebrew Tehillim, which properly signifies Psalms of praise, because many of them are such; but Psalms is a more general word, meaning all poetical compositions, fitted to be sung. St. Peter styles it, The book of Psalms. It is a collection of Psalms, of all the Psalms that were divinely inspired, composed at several times, on several occasions, and here put together, without any dependence on each other. Thus they were preserved from being scattered and lost, and kept in readiness for the service of the church. One of these is expressly said to be the prayer of Moses. That some of them were penned by Asaph is intimated in 2 Chronicles 29.30, where they are said to praise the Lord, in the words of David and Asaph, who is there called a seer or prophet. And some of the Psalms seem to have been penned long after, at the time of the captivity in Babylon. But the far greater part were wrote by David, who was raised up for establishing the ordinance of singing Psalms in the church of God, as Moses and Aaron were for setting the ordinance of sacrifice. Theirs indeed is superseded, but this [book of Psalms] will remain, 'till it be swallowed up in the songs of eternity. There is little in the book of Psalms of the ceremonial law. But the moral law is all along magnified, and made honourable. And Christ the foundation, corner, and top - stone of all religion, is here clearly spoken of; both his sufferings, with the glory that should follow, and the kingdom he would set up in the world." (preface to the book of Psalms in Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
When read only occasionally, these prayers are too overwhelming in design and power and tend to turn us back to more palatable fare. But whoever has begun to pray the Psalter seriously and regularly and say: ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, and fire which I find in the Psalter. Anything else tastes too cold and too hard. (Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, 11)

Walter Brueggemann:
The Psalms not only propose and constitute a world; they intend also to unmake, deconstruct, and unmask other worlds which seduce and endanger…. In fact, they articulate a counter-world, offered as a subversive alternative to the dominant, easily available worlds that are ever present in and tempting for Israel. The dominant, easily available world endlessly seducing Israel is one-generational, devoid of covenanting, morally indifferent, monologically closed, and politically indifferent. These Psalms voice a counter-world that practices exactly what the dominant world resists and denies. In its liturgic recital over a long period of time, Israel regularly enacted and embraced this counter-world as its true home. (Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity, and the Making of History (Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation); 26 and 28)

Monday, June 1, 2015

Key Questions to Ponder When Interpreting a Biblical Text

In the previous post: Reading Scripture Wisely and Well, I covered steps for analyzing a text carefully through a close reading. Here are a set of questions that can help you in the process:

1) Have I prayed for the Spirit’s guidance and direction? Ask God to astonish you with the text?

2) Do I understand the geographical and /or cultural references in this passage?

3) How does our text function within the wider argument in the book? What's going on in the context? How does this text fit into what comes before it and after it?

4) What are the key words and phrases in the text? How are these words and phrases used elsewhere by our author? 

5) If I am working on a New Testament text: What Old Testament texts are alluded to or quoted? How does the OT passage illuminate the meaning of the text I am interpreting? For OT texts: Are there quotations or allusions to other texts in the OT? If so, how do the texts illuminate one another? Is there a NT appropriation of my text? How does the NT author understand the OT text?

6) How is my passage structured? How does the structure of the passage contribute to its meaning? Does the passage flow logically? How does the story flow spacialy? How do the characters function within the story?

7) For those with facility in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek: What nuances are present in the syntax and the word order of the original language that are ambiguous or not explicit in the modern translations? Pay particular attention to verbal aspect and force of prepositions. 

8) What are the major interpretive issues present in this text? How are these resolved in the major English translations?

9) What are the possible ways that we may misread the text based on the English text?

10) What is the genre of my text (narrative, parable, discursive, prophetic, apocalyptic)? How does the genre affect my understanding of the passage?

11) What does this text assume to be true? How do these assumptions affect our reading of the text?
12) What elements in the text may be offensive in our contemporary context? What issues raised will be difficult for insiders? What issues in the text will be difficult for outsiders? What are the obvious objections that one could raise to the claims of the text? In what ways does the text answer these objections?

Interested in a bible study resource that builds on these sorts of questions and seeks to guide its users to read the Bible carefully while also emphasizing mission, community, and holiness? Check out my book and dvd study Invitation. It is available through Seedbed. You can see a sample and media interviews here.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell 


Reading Scripture Wisely and Well: Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in Its Scriptural Context

The following essay describes the attitudes and steps for reading the Bible carefully with an eye to teaching and preaching for both Christ followers and seekers.
  1. Pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is vital for engaging the Scriptures. My working assumption is that the Bible is inspired by God, preserved by God, and illuminated by God. Thus, we must pray for God's guidance. Moreover, let us pray that God may astonish us anew with the riches of the text.
  2. Assume the posture of a servant before the text. Do not read the text with the goal of mastering it. Read the text in the hope that it will master you.
  3. Read slowly. Take your time. This is particularly true for familiar passages. One of the causes of poor interpretation is the assumption that the reader already knows the meaning of the biblical text. Reflect on the genre of the passage. Is the text a narrative, a genealogy, prophesy, poetry, a parable, or discursive literature? If you have the ability to study the text in the original languages, do it. Reading the text in Greek or Hebrew forces the reader to slow down naturally. Regardless, ponder the words and phrases used by the author. In the popular imagination and practice, interpreting Scripture is a matter of flipping back and forth to other parts of the Bible in order to understand what a given text is saying.[1] Resist this. Stay put within the confines of the text you are studying. Describe it. Dissect it. Notice how the individual words are connected together into a tapestry. Paraphrase it. Analyze it. Observe recurring words, phrases, ideas, and themes. Break it into its logical or thematic units. Reflect on how the narrative or author’s thinking progresses. Don’t give up. Commit yourself to being like Jacob who refused to let go of God until he received a blessing. Biblical interpretation does not really begin until you have engaged the text in a process of careful and sustained reading and reflection. The process will be generative in terms of insights and the framing of new questions. The wise interpreter continually captures insights and observations through careful note-taking.
  4. Ask questions of the text. Engaged reading involves much more than note-taking. Over time I have discovered that the best interpreters of the Scripture were those men and women who asked the most penetrating questions. The process of reading the text carefully and recording a series of observations and questions is the secret to engaging the Bible at a deep level.[2] In many ways, biblical interpretation is nothing more and nothing less than the answering of interpretive questions that the reader asks about the text. Observations lead to questions, and questions guide the interpreter to new insights. Ask questions that engage the text at three levels: Definition, Function, and Implications. Definitional questions attempt to gain a full description of the content of the text (“What’s here?” “What is the precise and specific meaning of each element that is present?”). Functional questions focus on the “So what?” of the issue. Implicational questions attempt to probe beneath the surface to ferret out the deep meaning. Let me offer an example. If we are studying Exodus 19:4-6, we will encounter a phrase that is unique in the Old Testament. In verse 6, we find, “…you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The twin noun phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” are critical for the interpretation of this text. Regarding the phrases, we may ask the following definitional questions: What is the precise and specific meaning of the phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation”? What is the relationship between these two phrases? Definitional questions are followed by functional ones: Why are these particular phrases being used here? What is their significance? Finally we end with implicational questions: What are the full implications of our findings for understanding the theology and assumptions of Exodus 19:4-6? What does Exodus 19:4-6 assume to be true?
  5. Read multiple translations. I recommend that interpreters use at least three different translations during the process of close reading. Make sure that you choose translations from different translational families. For example, little is gained by comparing the KJV with the NKJV. Avoid paraphrases. At minimum, the deployment of multiple translations will serve as a guard against a simple misunderstanding of the English. But more importantly, comparing translations will guide you to the seams that exist between translations. By seams, I mean those places where the exegetical difficulties present in the original show up in the form of tensions between translations that otherwise remain hidden underneath the uniformity of a given English translation. Look specifically for substantive differences between translations. Make sure that you understand the interpretive options presented by the different translations. Ask: How do the differences in translation change the meaning of the passage? For example, Genesis 1:1 reads classically in the KJV, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In some modern translations, v. 1 is understood as a clause dependent on the verse or verses that follow. The NRSV is representative of newer translational approaches, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,….”[3] At stake here are questions of the biblical understanding of cosmology and its relationship to its ancient near eastern context.[4] Reflect on the ways that the differences in translation seem to resolve interpretive issues.
  6. Reflect on the meaning of individual words. A couple of warnings: a) Don’t assume that you understand the meaning of words. When in doubt, always spend the time in word study. b) Don’t abuse the principal of “Scripture interprets Scripture” in defining words. It is folly to cite the meaning of a term used by one author when we are studying the writing of another. A classic example is the definition of faith. The writer of the Hebrews explicitly describes faith (Grk: pistis) in this manner: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Without a doubt, this is one of the clearest definitions of pistis in the Bible, but it is methodologically problematic to accept this as the definition of pistis in every other context. Words have meanings in relationship to the other words around them. Moreover, each biblical author may emphasize a different nuance of a word’s meaning. c) Don’t mistake common English definitions for a word for the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew term. For example, the Great Commandment or Shema contains a number of words that can be misinterpreted in translation. Deuteronomy 6:5, which reads in English translation, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Popular interpretations read these common English terms through a matrix more in line with Greek psychology and modern romantic sentiment than with Deuteronomy’s own ancient context. Study of the Hebrew (and cognate) usage suggests that “love” is in fact a covenant term exhorting committed obedience. “Heart” focuses on the center of human volition and rationality and not on the center of emotions. “Soul” is not the spiritual aspect or the “authentic” core of a human person, but instead Hebrew nephesh is descriptive of the totality of a person including the physical body. “Strength” is really better translated “everything else” or even “and then some” as it functions to intensify the seriousness and totality of the call to love God. Moreover, rather than suggesting three parallel spheres or attributes of loving God, “heart,” “soul,” and “strength” form a concentric structure that emphasizes to a superlative degree the whole-person commitment involved in “loving the LORD.”[5]
  7. Read each passage in its broader book context. We have used two metaphors for talking about reading the Scripture at different levels. We’ve emphasized the necessity of both an eagle’s eye view of the Scriptures and a ground level analysis of individual passages. Individual books serve as the middle ground.[6] This involves more work for the interpreter, but the payoff is immense. First, look for connections. Take time to look for other places in the same book where the author deploys the same words and phrases (or close synonyms). Such repetitions or recurrences are often purposeful and can lead to substantive insights. For example, in Philippians 3:1-16 Paul offers his own life as an example for the Philippian believers to emulate (3:17). When he is describing the zeal of his pre-Christ following life in 3:6, he boast that he was a “persecutor of the church.”[7] In 3:7-11 Paul recounts the dramatic transformation that he experienced through knowing Christ. This transformation moved Paul from a person rooted and secure in a righteousness derived from his own credentials and accomplishments to a person rooted in a righteousness through Jesus the Messiah.  In 3:16 Paul articulates a moment-by-moment orientation to life through Jesus by writing, “I am pressing on continually toward the goal to win the prize of the upward calling of God in Messiah Jesus.” The phrase “pressing on” is the same Greek word typically translated “persecute” in 3:6. Observing this connect offers a real insight into the transformation of Paul. Paul, as a Christ follower is no less zealous in his faith than he was as a Pharisee. But Paul has undergone a radical reorientation. His compass point has shifted to the Risen Jesus. Paul surrendered his pre-Christian rubric of a righteousness rooted in his own abilities and accomplishments for the ultimate prize—knowing Messiah Jesus. When knowing Jesus became Paul’s primary focus, Paul’s gifts and graces became a means of glorifying and honoring Jesus rather than a means of boasting of himself to others. Second, it is vital to make sure that we understand a discrete text’s function within the broader book. What contribution does our text play in the wider contours of the book? What would be lost or gained without it? How does it relate to the passages that precede and follow it? For example, Matthew 4:17 begins a major section of Matthew’s Gospel.[8] Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing the in-breaking new age of God’s saving reign, and by exhorting his hearers to realign themselves continually in light of the Kingdom. This verse serves as a general programmatic statement for understanding 4:17—16:20. To understand fully every discrete section requires that the reader reflect on how it informs a way of life in line with the Kingdom of heaven and that one realign one’s life in conformity to the vision of the text. In 8:1–17 Jesus models boundary-breaking acts of ministry with outsiders. This is no mere report of Jesus’ historical acts. It serves as a paradigm for shaping present and future followers of Jesus to live out the ethos of the kingdom of heaven.
  8. Read each passage within its broader canonical context. Texts do not exist in isolation from other texts. There are often multiple conversations taking place within the Bible between texts. In particular, it is vital to recognize and explore the ways in which the texts that we are studying stand in dialogue with other texts written before or after. For example, in its majestic praise of God, Psalm 8 looks back on the creation of humanity and God’s granting of dominion in Genesis 1:26–31 as a profound basis for worshipping God. As we interpret Psalm 8 it is vital to catch its connection back to Genesis and reflect on the way that Genesis informs our understanding of Psalm 8 (and vice versa). But there is more to Psalm 8. The writer to the Hebrews in chapter 2 verses 5–9 quotes Psalm 8:4–6 in part of his proclamation of the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. Thus, in understanding the meaning of Psalm 8 within its canonical context it is important to read it in conversation with both Genesis 1 and Hebrews 2. Likewise, this is also the case with a reading of Genesis 1 or Hebrews 2. However, not every biblical text will have explicit links to other passages as is the case with Psalm 8.
  9. Establish a research agenda to engage secondary resources. Thus far, we have described the process of engaging a biblical text first hand through the practice of close reading. The best close readings do not provide the final word on a text. As suggested, many of our best observations raise additional questions. Some questions can be answered through the close reading process, but others will require the use of the fruits of biblical scholarship. After you have pondered over the text using your own observation skills, ask yourself: What are the key questions that remain unanswered that I need to resolve in order to understand this passage of Scripture? At this point, the wise interpreter will turn to resources such as Bible dictionaries, atlases, theological word books, grammar and syntax texts, journal articles, and commentaries. 
  10. Use the best resources at your disposal. In the age of information, Internet search engines can quickly inundate an interpreter with more data than one could process in a lifetime. Biblical interpreters must learn to read all reference material critically. We must also eschew the tyranny of the available and commit ourselves to using the finest resources so that we are engaging the finest exegetical minds and not merely dialoging with those resources that make it onto the first screen pages of web searches. In general, such a commitment involves resisting popular authors and the latest fads for the commentaries and articles written by biblical scholars and for works by the classic interpreters of the past (early Church Fathers, the Reformers, John Wesley among others). It is critically important to use up-to-date Bible dictionaries and atlases so that one has access to the most recent discoveries as our understanding of the socio-historical background of the world of the Bible grows annually. Given the missional reality in which we find ourselves, we need to deploy the best and most penetrating resources in order to engage the text at the level that we need in our day.

[1]This is a profound misappropriation and misunderstanding of the dictum: “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Of course this is true. But the principal assumes that one has already carefully studied a text within its original context and found its meaning elusive. Only then does the interpreter turn to other passages where the meaning may be clearer and instructive for understanding our first text.
[2]I have been formed immeasurably through Inductive Bible Study as taught at Asbury Theological Seminary. Seminal texts include: Robert Traina, Methodical Bible Study; David L. Thompson, Bible Study that Works; and Robert A. Traina and David R. Bauer, Inductive Bible Study:A Descriptive Guide to the Study of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2010).
[3]The NRSV lists two additional alternatives in footnotes: “When God began to create…” and “In the beginning God created….”
[4]For discussion of the four principal ways on construing Gen 1:1-3, see Terence E. Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 35
[5]See the masterful exegetical study of the manifold issues present in the text by S. Dean McBride, “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5” Interpretation 27 (1973): 273-306.
[6]There is another intermediate level as well: corpus context. Books written by the same authors or redacted by the same community function in a way similar to book context in terms of helping to understand smaller passages and themes. For example, a passage in Galatians serves a role in the book of Galatians, but it also contributes to our understanding of Paul’s other letters. The same would be true of passages in Luke-Acts, John and John’s Letters, Ezra-Nehemiah, the Pentateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History.
[7]Grk dioko
[8]David R. Bauer, The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Library of New Testament Studies: 31; Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 1989).