Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

A few years ago my thinking was shaped about the process of spiritual formation by James K.A. Smith‘s book, “Desiring the Kingdom.” In it, he explains the role that “liturgies,” not only ecclesial, but personal and “secular” liturgies play in that formation.

For more on that book and its ideas, see: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why

In “Desiring the Kingdom“, and Smith’s related book You Are What You Love, it is clear that he has been highly influenced by Augustine, particularly Augustine’s “Confessions”. The idea of sin as “disordered loves” is particularly Augustinian, as is much of what Smith says about formation, namely that idolatry is more “caught” than “taught”, i.e. idolatry is less of a conscious decision as much as a learned disposition. not so much conscious decisions to believe falsehood, and more like learned dispositions, which is why people’s idolatries often reflect their environments. Since we “practice our way into idolatry,” we need to “practice our way into freedom,” through liberating practices which direct our loves.

I was surprised and excited a few months ago when I saw that Smith was featured in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast, in which he clearly articulated the Christian hope of the gospel while talking about his new book: “On the Road with Saint Augustine“.

In this book, Smith not only details his travels to retrace some of the footsteps of Augustine, who was originally from North Africa, but came to Italy seeking success and influence in the civic realm, only to have the course of his life changed by meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. As a result, Augustine later returned to North Africa where he became a bishop and influential Christian thinker, whose writings played a large part in the Reformation.

Augustine: the Father of Existentialism

Smith’s main point, however, is not to write a biography of Augustine, or a memoir of his travels, but to explain that Augustine is actually the father of modern existentialist thinking.

From Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus to Jack Kerouac, modern and post-modern existentialists who often describe life as “a journey” or “the road”, whether knowingly or unwittingly, got this idea from Augustine who articulated existentialist ideas and used the terminology of life as “a journey” and “the road” way back in the 4th Century.

The great difference, of course, which Smith is eager to point out, is that whereas the modern and post-modern existentialists (like Kerouac in his novel “On the Road”) like to describe “the road” as “home”, and assert that there is no ultimate destination to which the road is leading (i.e. it is only the journey itself which matters, not the destination) – this is not at all what Augustine taught or believed. Augustine asserted that life is a journey with a destination, and it is only in light of this destination that there can be joy and purpose in the journey. Augustine taught that there is indeed a true “home” which awaits us, the “home” that all of us long for and the search for which underlies all of our pursuits and endeavors; thus, “the road” itself is not “home”, and if we expect it to be, our lives will miss the purpose, meaning and significance they are meant to have.

Why you hated the ending of Lost

If you were one of the many people frustrated by the ending of the show Lost a few years back, here’s why it was so frustrating: the ending of Lost was the epitome of post-modern existentialist thinking, which says that it is the only thing that matters in the end is not getting all of your questions answered or understanding the meaning of things, but only the enjoyment of the journey.

The ending scene in which all of the characters come together in the future and hug each other, without answering the many unanswered questions that were posed on and with the island, is meant to communicate the idea that, with these characters, the viewers of the show had enjoyed 6 years of excitement, mystery, and community. These things, the ending insinuated, were the reward and the ultimate purpose, not having all the questions answered.

The ending of Lost was famously frustrating for dedicated viewers. Why? Because built into us (existentially!) is the understanding that there must be a destination, there must by a purpose, there must be a “home” – and that all of our seeking is not actually in vain, but our lives do have a purpose and what we long for does indeed exist.

This is the promise of the entire Bible – from Genesis all the way through Revelation. It is through Jesus Christ that God has provided the way “home” – and it is through Him that we will truly experience the meaning of our existence. This is what Augustine articulated so clearly and compellingly, and yet the modern and post-modern existentialists, while taking elements and motifs of his teachings, missed the ultimate point of both what Augustine taught and life itself.

Summary

In this book, Smith helpfully disseminates some core elements of Augustine’s teachings and connects them to the modern person’s hopes, fears, and dreams in a way that is helpful and hopeful, as he points us to Jesus as the answer to the great riddles.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope you will too!

“Anything” and “All Things”?

In Romans 8:32, Paul poses the rhetorical question:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

In the Gospels, we read these words from Jesus:

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

John 14:13-14

Does “anything” really mean anything? Does “all things” really mean all things?

What if I ask for a dinosaur?  What if I ask for Abraham Lincoln to be raised from the dead? 

You might say those would be ridiculous requests, but don’t they fall under the umbrella of “all things” and “anything”?

What about the times I’ve prayed for things, and I did not get them? Why did I not get them? Did I pray wrong? Or did God break His promise?

In the Bible, there were people who prayed, and their prayers were not answered – or at least not in the way they originally hoped they would be. Joseph was beaten up and thrown in a pit, then sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37), and we’re told in Genesis 42, that when this was happening, Joseph was crying out and begging for mercy and to be rescued. Paul prayed three times earnestly that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12), but God refused to remove it, because He wanted to use that pain in Paul’s life to shape him.

Apparently, God reserves the right to say no to some of our requests. 

Another interesting Biblical text to consider is James 5:2-3, which says:

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

Two things are interesting about this passage: 1) we are told that we sometimes don’t have because we fail to ask. The implication is: ask – and you will receive. However, 2) we are told that sometimes we do ask and God doesn’t give us what we ask for, NOT because we fail to pray in Jesus’ name, but because we ask for wrong things with wrong motives, and therefore God chooses not to give it. 

So then why does God say that He will give us “anything” we ask for, and that He will give us “all things”?

Consider Psalm 84:11:

For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.

In Jesus, we have been made righteous, and we have been given the Spirit of God to empower us to walk uprightly. We’re told that God does not withhold “any GOOD thing” from the righteous, those who walk uprightly. God is committed to giving us that which is good for us. Thus, if God chooses not to give you something you ask for, you can rest assured that in His loving omniscience, He knows that thing would not actually be good for you, or perhaps it wouldn’t be good for you right now in light of what He wants to do.

What we have in God, therefore, is a Father, not a genie – and that is immeasurably better!

Is the Term “Evangelical” One We Should Embrace or Avoid?

man wearing black crew neck shirt reading book

In a recent post, I reviewed Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossiblein which he takes aim at “biblicism,” which he claims is particularly prevalent amongst evangelical Christians.

This brings up an important question: What exactly is an “evangelical”?

Popular Usage

Recently a friend from church approached me before service one Sunday morning. He pointed out an article in the New York Times about evangelicalism in America, and asked what exactly an evangelical is, and whether our church was evangelical.

Another friend recently posted online about two Christian leaders who had written a book about their support for a particular political issue, and my friend’s comment was that the divide between evangelicals and Jesus is widening all the time.

Obviously my friend is speaking of evangelicals as if they are a single, united group of people, who for the most part do not only hold certain religious beliefs, but also certain political and social positions.

Again, it begs the question: what exactly is an “evangelical”?

Origin of the Term

The word “evangelical” means “of the gospel” or “about the gospel.” It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means a proclamation of good news.

See also: The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us About the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The gospel, which is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and what He has done in order to save us, redeem us, and reconcile us to God, is the core message of Christianity. Thus, an “evangelical Christian” simply means: a Christian who is about the gospel, or a gospel Christian.

Co-Opting of the Term

Since the gospel is the core message of Christianity, one would assume that all Christians would be people who are about the gospel! Unfortunately, some political groups have attempted to co-opt the term evangelical to give the impression that theologically conservative Christians all agree with particular political, social, and economic positions and support certain political parties.

This has led some Christians to feel that they should abandon the term evangelical, as they feel it is no longer helpful in identifying them because the term may be associated in some people’s minds with certain political positions, thus creating an unnecessary barrier for some in approaching Christianity.

So what is an evangelical?

Defining Evangelicalism

Theologian and historian Mark Noll says: “the groups and individuals making up the postwar evangelical movement unite on little except profession of a high view of scripture and the need for divine assistance in salvation.” [1]

Another definition states that evangelicalism is “a transdenominational movement that has sought to transcend its differences in order to work together toward certain common activities and goals, particularly evangelism, world missions, and ministries of mercy and justice.” [2]

Nathan Hatch explains that evangelicals cannot be spoken of as if they are one united group of people who all share the same core beliefs, nor is there one leader who represents or speaks on behalf of evangelicals as a whole. He states, “In truth, there is no such thing as one evangelicalism. [It is made up of] extremely diverse coalitions dominated by scores of self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders.” [3]

Thus, for my friend to say that “evangelicals are moving farther away from Jesus every day” is to suppose that certain leaders speak on behalf of a movement which is united in both their theological and political views, which is absolutely not true. Nevertheless, many people obviously hold this opinion, partly because of “self-appointed” leaders who act as if they do speak on behalf of evangelicals as a whole, which is the reason why many Christians are considering whether it would be best to distance themselves from this descriptor.

Not an American Movement

One of the problems with associating the term evangelical with Christians who hold certain political positions is that it fails to recognize that evangelicalism is a worldwide movement, not an American one, and evangelicals around the world hold a wide variety of positions on social and economic issues. Even in the United States, evangelicals are not united in their political views or affiliations.

Should We Embrace It or Avoid It?

Words are only helpful until they are not. Furthermore, the helpfulness of words depends on context, because in different contexts, the same words can be associated with different things. If a word carries a lot of baggage in a particular context, it might be better to find a different word.

For example, in Hungary, where I pastored for several years, the word evangéliumi (literally: of the gospel) was a helpful and positive term which gave people a sense of who we were and what we were about. In England, where I have done my theological education, the term evangelical does not carry heavy political connotations, and is therefore helpful in describing a certain kind of Christian who is active in their faith, takes the Bible seriously, and is engaged socially. John Stott, an Anglican, is remembered in England as the face of the Evangelical Alliance, a group of churches that works together beyond denominational lines to further the gospel.

In the United States some Christians, including myself, have opted for using alternative monikers, such as “Gospel-Centered,” which retains the idea of being focused on the gospel, while not using a term which has come to be associated with many things other than the gospel in American society. As I often say: as a Christian, the only controversy I want to be known for is the controversy of the gospel.

Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible

Recently I finished reading The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.

Content

When approaching the book, it is important to note that Smith is neither an evangelical nor has he been trained as an academic theologian. He is a sociologist and a professor at Notre Dame University; his writing is scholarly and well-informed, but his purpose is writing this book is to critique a certain tendency which he perceives to be a problem amongst evangelicals. This problem is something he calls “biblicism” – which is basically making the Bible the end-all, be-all source of not only theology, but practical living (including things such as diet, finance, etc.).

Smith’s biggest contention is that biblicism leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which basically means that the Bible can be used to justify several positions which may stand in conflict to one another.

He then asserts that “biblicists” are using the Bible in a way it was never intended to be used, and suggests instead that the Bible should be read through a Christological hermeneutic lens, i.e. that the Bible exists not to be a handbook for everything in life, but for the sole purpose of pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the Christological hermeneutic might seem quite obvious, Smith goes on to state that as a result of this Christo-centric view of Scripture, we therefore do not need to consider all parts of Scripture as equally inspired by God, nor applicable to the modern person. Thus, whatever is written in the New Testament, for example, such as household codes and practical rules for life, does not need to be heeded by the modern person in so much as it does not point to Christ and the saving work of God through Him.

Ultimately, Christian Smith’s biggest assertion is that Jesus himself, rather than the Bible, is what should be considered the “rule of faith,” i.e. the measuring rod by which all things are judged. What is important about his point is that he says that texts and words of the Bible itself should be judged by this rule (Jesus Christ himself), and those parts set aside, which do not align with this “rule.”

Finally, Smith closes the book with a lengthy epilogue in which he complains about those who have not agreed with his claims.

Critique

I agree with Christian Smith’s assertion that some people look to the Bible to be something which God never intended it to be (e.g. “The Daniel Diet” or as a guide for investment practices), and I believe he rightly disassembles the views underlying these practices. However, where the Bible does speak to practical issues of life, it would be foolish to write those off as uninspired, or pick-and-choose based on some arbitrary sense of what you perceive to be really about Jesus.

While Smith repeatedly asserts that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem, he gives insufficient rationale for why it is a problem. Simply repeating something loudly is not a convincing argument. He fails to explain why it is a problem that the Bible can be interpreted in multiple ways using theological and canonical reasoning.

I would argue that the Bible was inspired by God with a degree of ambiguity on certain topics by design! On the most important topics (primary theological issues), the Bible speaks without ambiguity, but on secondary issues, there is often, what I believe to be an intended ability and possibility for pluralistic interpretations. The purpose of this? As Smith rightly says: the Bible is not intended to be handbook, or a manual for life, as much as something which trains us how to think and act in a dynamic relationship with God. It is designed in such a way that we must continually be reading it and studying it, as well as engaging with others, as to its interpretation and application for one’s contemporary setting and circumstances. This is by no means to say that there is an infinite horizon of possibilities of interpretation; there are certainly boundaries for interpretation which are defined within the Scriptures themselves (canonical reasoning), but within these boundaries, sometimes there can be multiple options for interpretation and application – and I believe this is by design, and is not the problem which Smith claims it is.

See also: Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

The Key Issue

Where I disagree most with Christian Smith is in regard to what constitutes the “rule of faith.” His claim that Jesus is the rule of faith might sound nice at the outset, but it is wrought with difficulties.

First of all, who defines who Jesus is? How do we know who Jesus is, what He is about, or what He thinks or stands for? Those things are passed down for us through tradition, but guess how: through the canon of Scripture! It is through Scripture, which is the recorded, preserved, and affirmed record of apostolic tradition, that we know anything about Jesus.

Furthermore, and very importantly: the Scriptures of the Bible were the “rule of faith” that was used by the church fathers in determining doctrine at the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Conclusion

The Bible Made Impossible was a roller-coaster ride. Some of Smith’s points are excellent, and deserve attention by Christians today, whereas some of his other points seemed either half-baked or completely misguided.

I’m glad I read it, but I would only recommend it to those with a keen ability to “spit out the seeds” and think critically and question what might seem at face-value to be a convincing argument.

Rhode Island & Walden Pond: How They Shaped the Way Americans Think About Church

person sitting on bench under tree

It has been said that there are two men who did more to shape the American psyche and culture than anyone else:

#1: Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode Island

Roger Williams moved from England to Boston in the 1600’s to be part of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts

The Puritans’ goal was to create a pure church, free from politics, corruption, and compromise.

Roger Williams loved this idea… the only thing was: after a while he noticed some things in the church there in Boston that he didn’t really like. Things such as how baptisms were carried out, and how the church was managed.

So, do you know what he did?   He left.

Roger moved down south of Boston and established his own colony, with its own church, in what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

But then, guess what happened… After a while, Roger found some things he didn’t like about this new church, and some of the people there (the very church he himself had founded!). And so, Roger Williams left that church as well, and established another church nearby.

And then he left that church too…

Every church he started, he eventually left – because he found things he didn’t like… and they never completely matched his vision for what a perfect church should be, which is particularly interesting since he was the leader of these churches.

Roger Williams ended up alone, still having faith, but completely withdrawn from Christian community.

#2: Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a writer, who famously encouraged us to “march to the beat of our own drum.”

He lived in a hut, next to Walden Pond, and would write about going for walks in the forest alone.

Thoreau expressed a very powerful theme for Americans: we take care of ourselves, we work for ourselves, we answer to ourselves — and when it comes to church, we do that for ourselves too.

Thoreau shaped American culture by putting the self at the heart of the American psyche.

His biographer put it this way:  Henry David Thoreau “stands as the most powerful example…of the American mentality of: self-trust, self-reverence, or self-reliance.”

But here’s the thing:  if you look at Thoreau’s life, you don’t find a happy person. He struggled to engage in long-term, meaningful relationships with others, and at the end of his life he had no friends.

Rugged Individualism + Personal Religion = Selling Us Short

The “rugged individualism” of Thoreau plus the “personal religion” of Roger Williams shapes American culture to this day.

Like fish in water, it is hard for us to imagine things any other way, but thankfully God’s Word gives us God’s vision for what the Body of Christ, the gathered, redeemed People of God, AKA: the Church is intended to be and called to be. And when understood, it becomes clear that our culture of rugged individualism + personal religion is selling us short. God has something better for us!

See the article: A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It 

I love this quote from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:

We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.

This Sunday at White Fields Church in Longmont, we will continue our Vision series by looking at God’s vision for the church. If you are in the area, we would love to have you join us!

For more on this, check out the book: A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together by Scot McKnight

Calvary Live Schedule Change

sound speaker radio microphone

Switching from Mondays to Fridays

Starting this week (January 24, 2020), I will be hosting the Calvary Live call-in show on GraceFM on Fridays from 4:00-5:00 PM Mountain Time.

Calvary Live is a show where listeners can call in with questions about the Bible, theology, and Christian living, as well as with prayer requests.

The program airs on 89.7 FM along the northern Front Range (Cheyenne, WY to Castle Rock, CO) and on 101.7 in Colorado Springs. It is also syndicated on Hope FM (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland) and Truth FM (Tennessee).

Calvary Live also airs live online at gracefm.com, and we regularly have listeners from all over the US and abroad.

Join me on Fridays on Calvary Live! Call in at (303-690-3000) or text (720-336-0897).

Book Review: A Framework for Understanding Poverty

A Framework for Understanding Poverty 5th edition 9781938248016 1938248015This book: A Framework for Understanding Poverty, was recommended to me by Aaron Campbell, who pastors a church in urban Philadelphia: https://antiochphilly.org

While the book is written primarily for educators to understand and help students in poverty, the research and principles outlined in the book have a much broader application.

Poverty is a Theological Issue

Poverty is not only a political and economic issue, for Christians it is also a theological issue. What the Bible has to say on the topic of poverty goes far beyond the statement that “the poor you will always have with you.” (Mark 14:17)

Taken on its own, this statement of Jesus is often used to say that poverty isn’t something that we as Christians need to care about, since we will never succeed in eradicating it prior to the return of Jesus. However, taking a broader look at the Bible reveals that God has a lot to say about poverty.

For example, the books of the minor prophets, particularly Amos, chastise the people of God for not caring for the poor, and even exploiting them. See Amos: Faith that Works.

Amos is not alone in this message, however. We can say that poverty is a result of the fall, i.e. sin in the world. Like sickness, it is a symptom of the present fallen human condition which Jesus will ultimately make right.

Going all the way back to the Law of Moses and throughout the prophets, the message is that God’s people are to watch out for what is called “the quartet of the vulnerable,” i.e. the most vulnerable people in society, who in their case were: widows, orphans, sojourners, and the poor. Provisions were made in the Law of Moses to prevent systemic poverty and to provide for the needs of those who wound up in poverty as a result of their own choices.

Poverty is a Lack of Access to Resources

Ruby Payne describes poverty as a lack of access to resources. She explains that poverty is relative to location, but that there are certain behavioral patterns which characterize those in poverty which are true across cultures and national boundaries. Interestingly, to prove this, the author did research not only in urban settings in the United States, but also rural settings and internationally, including in Hungary and Slovakia, places I am very familiar with from having lived in North-East Hungary, near the border with Slovakia. I recognized some of the characteristic behaviors she described both in people I worked with in Eastern Europe, as well as in my own family of origin.

She began the book by dispelling many myths about poverty, such as that poverty is the result of laziness, or that it is limited to minority populations or urban areas. She then went on to describe some of the hardships those in generational poverty (two or more generations) face which often prevent them from escaping. Generational poverty can have damaging effects on the brain, as the constant struggle for survival and the presence of different kinds of predators can prevent the development of skills which are needed for the kinds of success in life which allows someone to escape poverty.

Understanding poverty as a lack of resources is important, because it means – as Payne states – that poverty is not mostly about not having money. It is most significantly about relationships.

The Importance of Faith Communities in Relieving Poverty

Payne states that the most important factor that can help those in poverty is for them to be part of a faith community. This is both because of the spiritual resources which provide hope, or “a future story” as Payne calls it, as well as the social and supportive aspects. This is part of the reason why Paul the Apostle is able to say that though he had no money, in Christ he was rich. For more on this, see the recent message I gave on this topic: The Soul Felt Its Worth

May we as the people of God have the heart of God towards those who are weak and vulnerable in our society, and may we act of His hands and feet!

I found this book very insightful, and I recommend it for anyone looking for a balanced and research-backed approach to understanding this important issue.

 

 

What Did John Calvin Mean By, “We must remember that Satan has his miracles too”?

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In a recent post titled If Satan Has Been Defeated, Why Is He Still “Prowling Around”?, we looked at how Satan is not God’s counterpart, and certainly not his equal. How then can someone like John Calvin, who has a high view of God’s sovereignty and power, say that “Satan has his miracles too?

Calvin was referring to Matthew 24:24 – where, in his Olivet Discourse, Jesus states that during a time to come of great tribulation, “false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

The Context of Calvin’s Statement: A Response to Roman Catholic Criticisms About a Lack of Miracles in the Reformation

This statement is only part of a bigger statement by John Calvin. It is found in the “Prefatory Address to the King of France,” at the beginning of Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this section, Calvin is responding to Roman Catholic criticisms of the Reformation, one of which was that the Reformation lacked miracles, which they said proved that the Reformation was not a legitimate, apostolic, work of God.

In his response, Calvin said that the immediate purpose of a miracle like healing was to bring relief to the individual, but the ultimate purpose was to prove that the apostolic preaching was true. Calvin then argues that the Reformation is not a new revelation, but rather the reaffirmation of the original apostolic preaching, therefore it does not necessitate miracles to confirm its validity.

Calvin then takes it one step further by suggesting that many of the supposed miracles reported by the Roman Catholic Church may not be from God, but may instead be of the sort talked about by Jesus in Matthew 24:24, i.e. performed by false prophets by the power of Satan to lead people astray and deceive them.

Interestingly however, Calvin does not disavow miracles entirely, but suggests that there were actually miracles that accompanied the Reformation. He then makes the concluding point that the test of miracles should be what they cause you to worship and trust in. Any miracle which causes you to trust in false doctrines or turn away from the Word of God, he says, are suspect in their origin.

This final point is a good one; you might remember that in Exodus, Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do replicate some of the miracles which Moses performed. The effect of these miracles was to cause people not to listen to God and repent, but to trust in false gods. I have witnessed a similar phenomenon amongst people in some circles today who seek signs and wonders; sometimes the signs they seek cause them to trust in things other than God, His Word, and the gospel.

You can read a larger excerpt of what Calvin wrote here, but here are some highlights:

In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.

But the mark of sound doctrine given by our Savior himself is its tendency to promote the glory not of men, but of God (John 7:18; 8:50). Our Savior having declared this to be test of doctrine, we are in error if we regard as miraculous, works which are used for any other purpose than to magnify the name of God.

And it becomes us to remember that Satan has his miracles, which, although they are tricks rather than true wonders, are still such as to delude the ignorant and unwary. Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles, and miracles of an astonishing description have given support to idolatry: these, however, do not make us converts to the superstitions either of magicians or idolaters.

But our opponents tell us that their miracles are wrought not by idols, not by sorcerers, not by false prophets, but by saints: as if we did not know it to be one of Satan’s wiles to transform himself “into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).

We, then, have no lack of miracles, sure miracles, that cannot be gainsaid; but those to which our opponents lay claim are mere delusions of Satan, inasmuch as they draw off the people from the true worship of God to vanity.

Source: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, cited in: The Reformation’s Lack of Miracles: A Response by John Calvin

Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

white ballpoint pen on book pages

In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew explains how different aspects of Jesus’ life fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, upon examinations, some of these prophecies bring up interesting questions.

Yesterday I addressed one such question: Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth? – based on Matthew’s claim in 2:23 that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.

The Issues: Authorial Intent and Multiple Meanings

Another verse in Matthew chapter 2 brings up a different issue: In Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew describes the flight to Egypt, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for several years because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. (See also: Advent Meditations: Jesus Was a Refugee) In Matthew 2:15, Matthew says that when Jesus returned from Egypt, it was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Here’s why this is interesting: When Hosea wrote these words, he was speaking of Israel as God’s “son” whom he brought out of Egypt in the Exodus. Hosea’s intention was not to speak of the Messiah. However, what Matthew is saying, assumedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that even though Hosea’s intent was merely to refer to Israel, he was also writing (by the inspiration of the Spirit) about the Son of God, i.e. the Messiah, whom we now know to be Jesus of Nazareth – even though he did not realize it at the time.

Furthermore, this means that there are two meanings and interpretations of this passage which are both correct: historically it speaks about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and prophetically it foretells that the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a time.

Polysemy and Multivalence

There are several Old Testament prophecies which are used in the Old Testament in this way: while they have a historical meaning, which corresponds to the authorial intent of the original writer, they also have a prophetic meaning, which the author was unaware of, which found (or still will find) its fulfillment in the future.

For example, several passages in the prophetic books warn of an exile which is to come, but then conclude with a promise of the regathering of the people of both Israel and Judah to the land, as well as a time of peace and prosperity to follow. The return of the people to the land was fulfilled in the time following the Babylonian exile. It could also be said that this was fulfilled again through the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, both of these were only partial fulfillments, since the ultimate fulfillment of promised kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness will only see its complete fulfillment after the return of Jesus.

What this means is that many biblical texts are polysemic and multivalent. 

  • Polysemic: “multiple meanings”
  • Multivalence: “many appeals or values”

Scholars of textual hermeneutics, like Paul Ricoeur and Hans G. Gadamer explain the polysemy of biblical texts by saying that, unlike scientific formulas and computer codes, the texts of Scripture sometimes contain “surpluses of meaning.” [1]

This is why some texts in the Bible are not entirely controlled in their interpretation by their original human writers (i.e. authorial intent). The Hosea passage cited in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this. What is notable here is that the different meanings do not contradict each other.

John Goldingay explains, “An element of polyvalence or irreducible ambiguity characterizes parts of scripture.” [2]

Thus, Scripture cannot be used to say anything we want it to, but we would be contradicting Scripture itself to claim that there can only be one correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture. What is important is that the different interpretations do not have contradictory meanings.

Above all, this should leave us in awe of the rich complexity and beauty of the Word of God, and it should leave us all the more convinced of its divine inspiration.

Multivalence and Multivocality

Multivalence means different appeals or values, and Multivocality means that Scripture speaks to different listeners in different voices that say different (but, again, not conflicting) things.

Christian Smith illustrates this by compiling a list of different lessons and applications which can be faithfully gleaned from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:

  • Christians would do well to “get out of their comfort zones” in order to preach the gospel to those who are culturally different or who live in foreign lands, but are “ripe for the harvest”
  • A person who drinks of “the living water” that Jesus offers will never again “thirst” for the unsatisfying “waters” of “the world”
  • Jesus knows every detail about our personal lives, and loves us enough to confront us with hard questions in order to lead us to repentance
  • Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and still loves us and stands ready to forgive us
  • An effective strategy for evangelism is to build relationships, ask questions, and point people to Jesus
  • Those who have truly encountered Jesus and repented will naturally respond by telling others, i.e. evangelizing
  • The fact that Jesus was physically tired shows that he was fully human
  • The fact that the woman left her water jar to go and tell people in town about Jesus models the kind of priorities we ought to have in regard to possessions and the mission of God
  • By speaking to this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals that he has come as the Savior of people from all the nations
  • Jesus’ reply to his disciples about hunger and food shows us the proper outlook on doing God’s will and God’s work [3]

Again, this is not to say that we can make Scripture say whatever we want; we certainly cannot. Yet any of these above messages – and more – would be faithful interpretations and applications of this text.

Considering Inspirational Intent

We must not only consider authorial intent, we must also consider the intent of the inspirer: God. To do this, we consider canonical, or biblical theology: i.e. the message and narrative of the Bible as a whole.

This is what Matthew is doing  in several instances where he re-interprets Old Testament passages and applies them to Jesus; he is considering the grand narrative and message of the Bible as a whole, as a story which – in all of its “sub-stories” – is about Jesus. He applies a Christo-centric hermeneutic, in other words; one that he likely learned from Jesus himself after the resurrection when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

May God help us to understand, interpret, and apply His Word faithfully and accurately – according to His intent!

Celebrating Saint Nicholas

December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

Whereas Americans tend to say that Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve to deliver presents, for Europeans Saint Nick brings chocolate and some gifts on December 6.

“The Real Santa is Dead”

One of my American friends once told me that they don’t do Santa Claus, because they like to keep fairy tales out of their faith. That’s a fair point. However, when it comes to Saint Nicholas, we would do well to not lose the legacy of the historical person as we throw out the proverbial bath water.

To that end, my wife and I have always taken the approach with our kids of telling them about the real Saint Nick: the pastor and theologian who loved and cared for the poor in his community.

We explain to them that the reason there are so many Santas in malls and at events is because Saint Nicholas was such a wonderful person that people want to keep his memory and legacy alive, and they do that by dressing up in that red costume with the beard.

This led to a funny episode once, when we were waiting in line to have our picture taken with a mall Santa, and my son – 5 years old at the time – started talking to another kid in line and told him, “Did you know that the real Santa is dead?!” Needless to say, the kid was surprised and concerned to hear this news!

The Real Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right: no North Pole nor reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches.

His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas dedicated his entire inheritance to assisting the sick, needy and suffering.

He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.

Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.

As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.

Homoousios or Homoiousios

The discussion at the Council of Nicaea was summarized by which word to use in describing Jesus’ nature: whether he was homoousios (of the “same substance” as God) or homoiousios (of a “similar substance” as God).

At the the Council of Nicaea, bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the Arian controversy which advocated for the term homoiousios, denying Jesus’ full deity. This view, which is also held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was deemed heretical by the council of bishops based on examination of the Scriptures, which teach that Jesus is Immanuel (God with us), and is true God of true God.

The debate got very heated, and at one point Nicholas reportedly got so upset with he deemed to be blasphemy, that he slapped an Arian.

This is the real Saint Nick: Palm trees and white sand beaches, defender of the faith, and slapper of heretics.

Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6.

Where the Tradition of Gift Giving Comes From

Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is that of a poor man who had three daughters of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves.

After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house at night, leaving them three anonymous gifts: bags of gold, which he tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping.

The story goes that they found the gold in their shoes when they awoke, which is the reason for the tradition in Europe that Saint Nicholas leaves chocolate in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology, and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.