Category Archives: A Matter of Meaning

Eating Dry Bouillon or Reading the Gospels Wisely?

51I85awIxWL._AA160_I just finished Jonathan Pennington’s, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (currently a steal at only $4.99 in the Kindle edition). I highly recommend this text for gaining a greater appreciation of the role the Gospels should play in one’s reading of the entirety of the canon. Pennington and I differ on our hermeneutical approaches to reading texts, but as a whole, his thesis is outstanding.

I was struck by one of the word pictures at the end of the book he uses to highlight the significance the Gospels should play in our corporate worship:

“A rediscovery of the central role of the Gospels in the church will affect our worship services and preaching…. [M]ost liturgical traditions maintain a special regard for readings and expositions from the Gospels…. But in general, the Gospels have tended to play a lesser role in much of American evangelicalism. There ‘the gospel’ has often been boiled down to ‘justification by faith,’ which is then fed to people in moralism-dusted bouillon cubes on a pilaf of pietism. If indeed the Gospels are significant in the ways I have argued in this chapter, this approach will not do if the church is to thrive. Both in our worship-service Scripture readings and in the content of our preaching, the Gospels themselves must play the dominant role. And when the Gospels are read and preached, they must not be used merely as springboards to other doctrinal ideas. Rather, honoring the narrative form of the Gospels, we must enter into the power and tension of the story and apply this to the lives of believers by focusing on the final Word, Jesus the Christ.”

Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2012): 256; emphasis mine.

Think about the word picture. Endeavor to eat something vastly different. Get a copy of Pennington’s work.


Related Resource: P. T. Smuts, Mark by the Book: A New Multidirectional Method for Understanding the Synoptic Gospels (P&R); I reviewed here.

Gospel Departures recently posted my article, “Gospel Departures,” based on Acts 20:1-12. The article is 700-900 words of an almost 5000-word sermon; each of the points is edited greatly.  I could not include the third point of the sermon in the article. Many thanks to for their kindness.


So often, it is the case that when church leaders make moves from one ministry to another, they leave the way people vacate foreclosed home. Hearts are yanked out. Relationships are fractured. Huge informational and resource holes are left behind.

Sometimes, this kind of destruction seems almost intentional—as if the ministry leader had a singe of vengeance coming off his clothes. It is astounding that some who are in “gospel ministry” never seem to think of leaving in a positive way so that a grace-filled, gospel ministry is set up to prosper long after their departure.

Departures from the local church—God’s house—ought to be gospel departures. Acts 20 illustrates this very different approach to departing. Paul’s example is instructive for church leaders, who—if they must leave because of God’s clear calling—ought to leave in such a way that will make the ministry enjoyable for people being left behind as well as for those who will eventually serve in their place.

1.     Gospel Departures should be an encouraging fellowship and elude fighting (20:1-6).

Realizing that this might be his last time seeing all of the disciples he made on the three missionary journeys, Paul makes the gospel version of a farewell tour. He calls together the disciples, encourages them (v.1), then he departs. He does the same all over Macedonia, “speaking many words of encouragement” (v.2). Comforting, exhorting, or strengthening the believers was very important at this point. Paul’s was focused on building, making sure the churches he planted were growing, healthy, strong, and hopeful in Christ. In this way he could be assured that they would continue in the gospel.

When a plot from the Jews comes up, Paul changes his travel plans so as to avoid a conflict with the Jews. The hostility of his enemies is growing fiercer in the Acts narrative. They are ready to do away with Paul. But rather than taking them head on, Paul goes back to Macedonia. Why? At that point, it was more important to make sure the gospel was firmly established in the churches than to battle his enemies. His goal was to have the gospel advance further so that Europe could eventually be reached.

Paul also had traveling with him men whom he could encourage (20:4). Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, was fond of saying that this was Paul’s discipleship group. Paul poured into them so that these places would have an ongoing vibrant work when he was in Rome. He took time to just enjoy the Feast of Unleavened Bread with the people at Philippi before continuing his journey.

One of the things I have noticed by shepherding many public school teachers is that when their time of retirement comes, they often avoid a departing celebration. Instead, they say to their co-workers, “No thanks. I just want to get my stuff and go.” After 35 or more years on the job, they have become disgusted or wearied by their experiences or changes to their schools. So if they simply can leave, someone else can pick up their duties and train those who follow.

In switching Gospel ministries, whether leaving to run another small group, or no longer playing a lead role in a youth ministry, we cannot simply leave. We must take time to encourage those in whom we have invested our time—not magnifying ourselves, but emphasizing the importance of Christ’s death and of our resurrection hope, of our assurance before God in judgment and of the Holy Spirit’s sufficiency to give power to continue the ministry without us.

2.     Gospel Departures should make the last Sunday(s) about life and the Word of God rather than death and worry (20:7-12).

Luke is particular to indicate that this long episode took place in Troas on “the first day of the week” (v.7). On this Sunday, Paul spoke at extreme length because he intended to depart the next day. He reasons and dialogues, prolonging his speech until midnight in order to get in as much gospel truth as he could before departing.

In the room, as Paul is preaching even longer than I have ever preached, there is a boy named Eutychus who is being overcome by the heat and haze of the oil lamps and the length of Paul’s discussion. So this small boy sits in a window, maybe to get some fresh air, and falls out of the window two stories (what Greeks called the third story) to his death.

This seems anything but “fortunate,” which is the meaning of Eutychus’s name. This is the last time this group will see Paul, and now stuck in their memory will be the tragic death of a child! For most, this tragic death would have brought ministry to a standstill. But for Paul this was an opportunity to display the power of the gospel.

In the same prophetic manner that Elijah threw himself onto the widow’s dead son in First Kings 17, Paul runs down from the second floor, throws himself on the boy, put his arms around him and says, “Don’t be alarmed. He is alive!” (v.10). Paul shows the resurrection power of Christ by raising this boy back to life. Rather than people being alarmed or worried about the events, they were greatly comforted.

Paul then was able to share a fellowship meal with the people of Troas. He also continuedpreaching until daybreak—five or six more hours! He gave great exposition of “the faith once delivered” so that the people of Troas would be firm in what they had been taught and believed. His last Sunday’s focus was the Word of God.

Often, a going away event for an office employee can turn into a “roast” in which jests and pranks are meant to lighten the occasion of departure. While the business world is an appropriate place for roasting, such is not always the case with the church. For Paul, and for us, final words ought not be jokes or trivialities, but weighty, Christ-centered dialogue with clear explanation of the goal of God in the gospel. As the people of God, let us endeavor to make all our departures from the local church gospel departures.

Eric C. Redmond is Executive Pastoral Assistant and Bible Professor in Residence at New Canaan Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He blogs at “A Man from Issachar.” You can follow him on Twitter @EricCRedmond.

When Hope is Shipwrecked

735262-3x2-340x227The kind people at posted my article, “When Hope is Shipwrecked,” concerning Acts 27:39ff.


What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
~ Langston Hughes, “A Dream Deferred”

Many answers to Langston Hughes’s questions came during the Civil Rights movement. When a dream was deferred there were protest marches on one hand, and the Blank Panther Party on the other. For some it meant sit-ins at lunch counters; for others it meant starting riots in Watts. The delayed dream of equally accessible educational, social, occupational, and economic opportunities shriveled up for many in the post Jim-Crow generation of African Americans. However, for some it exploded.

No one likes coming to the edge of a new day only to have someone put up a sign that says, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” When struggles have been insurmountable and a ray of sunshine finally breaks through, if something steals that sunshine, you can expect the downtrodden to do every desperate, hope-recovering thing – from occupying Wall St. to turning on one’s own fellow soldiers in war.

There is another course the believer can take when earthly expectations go up and down – when your hope shipwrecks. It is a course that goes right through Calvary.

Paul is headed toward Rome. He has death threats behind him in Jerusalem, a trial before Caesar ahead of him, and raging seas between the two cities. After fourteen days out at sea, being blown 470 miles off course, and not seeing the sun or stars for a very long time, many of the passengers on Paul’s ship have lost hope of seeing land again. The travelers probably would have written last notes to their families if there had been any chance the letters would have been found. Something changes, however, in the last episode of their journey: Land is sighted!

So the passengers do what people with a new last hope do—they throw everything into this hope: They cut their anchors and they hoist the mainsail to catch the wind. If another storm wind or current comes, they have no way of slowing or steering the ship. No matter! For,when hope issighted, we will make eager plans even without full information (Acts 27:39-40). This is the nature of unredeemed hope: we act immediately on it because there seem to be no other answers.

When one feels hopeless, it is easy to put hope in something new and shiny without any research, prayer, or seeking of wisdom. The default button asks, “Well, what else do you want me to do? Do you want me to keep suffering?”

Acting quickly on the first sign of new hope without getting all information often lies blind unnecessary cosmetic surgery, lost of virginity, committing adultery with an co-worker, or taking stupid peer-pressure dares. “This is my last opportunity for love, or for acceptance,” someone says. Yet it simply is the first sign of a new hope that one can see.

All goes well at sea until the travelers strike a reef—literally “the place of two seas,” or a place where a sandbar built up between two currents (41). The bow of the ship is stuck in such a manner that it cannot be lodged free. The currents behind the ship are so strong that the rear of the storm-battered ship actually is being broken up (41). There is potential for the prisoners to use the ship’s demise as an opportunity to escape.

The soldiers decide that it would be better to say the prisoners were killed than that they escaped. So they intend to kill all of them, because when hope is shipwrecked, we make panic plans to save our hides (27:41-42).

Think about typical panic responses—the “What else am I going to do now?” response:

·         Now that my grandkids’ father (or mother) has walked out;

·         Now that I spent all my money trying to start this business and I have nothing to show for it;

·         Now that I can’t make the team because I am injured;

·         Now that my court case is lost;

·         Now that my insurance (or unemployment) has run out.

One of the great things about having one’s trust in Jesus is that he has given the Holy Spirit as another Comforter to guide believers and assure them of their true hope. Everything is not the end of the world for us.

Paul finds favor in the sight of his centurion guard. Because of Paul, the centurion saves the whole crew. He stops and thinks long enough to come up with a plan contrary to that of the men under his command. Thus the original hope of getting safely to landis salvaged it is because someone makes rescue plans that focus on the Gospel (27:43-44).

In the narrative Paul represents the Gospel servant. The centurion’s hope might not be in Christ, but his actions do save the one to whom Christ said, “you will preach the Gospel in Rome” in Acts 23:11.

The Gospel and the sovereignty of God are visibly tied together in this passage as in all of Scripture. The Gospel depends upon Joseph going to Egypt so that God can save his family, to which Joseph says, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good!” The Gospel depends upon the Jews killing the Holy and Righteous One according to the foreknowledge of God, and then God raising him from the dead (Acts 2:23). The Gospel getting to Rome rests upon God’s faithfulness to his word to Paul, including that not one life will be lost and that only the ship will be destroyed (Acts 27:22-24). God’s good hand in the lives of those who have trusted Christ provides all the hope one needs when it seems that earthly hopes have been shipwrecked.

Eric C. Redmond is Executive Pastoral Assistant and Bible Professor in Residence at New Canaan Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He blogs at “A Man from Issachar.”


Authors, Texts, and Meanings: Hermeneutics Interview with Elliott E. Johnson, Part 2

Dr. Elliott E. Johnson is Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary.  He has given a career of study to biblical and philosophical hermeneutics and Bible Exposition.  He has been a member of his church since the mid-1960’s, and there he has given himself to more than 40 years of discipling men, and training teachers to understand the Scriptures and teach it to others.  Over two decades ago he authored Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Zondervan), in order to explain the workings of the art and science of interpretation.  He graciously has agreed to an interview related to current discussion in hermeneutics.  (I am posting the interview intermittently rather than in its entirety immediately. You can read Part 1 here. Part 3 of the interview will ask, “In what sense is the Old Testament ‘messianic?’”)


3.  You still seem to make great use of the theory, method, and distinctions made by E. D. Hirsch in his seminal work, Validity in Interpretation – a text that is 45 years old.  However, evangelical theories of interpretation seemed to have expanded upon or altogether abandoned Hirsch’s ideas.  Do you think Hirsch’s ideas are as important today as they were in 1967?

The proposal of E. D. Hirsch remains an essential source for two reasons:

First, his consideration of interpretation has been molded by the goal of validation.  Validation seeks to weigh the merit of a given interpretation in distinction from other disparate interpretations.  Disparity involves more than merely difference in interpretations, but two interpretations that are mutually incompatible.  But both cannot be true at the same time.  This theory of validation is predicated on a view of how language communicates meaning.

This approach to a hermeneutical goal is compatible with the literal tradition.  This goal is thus shared with the Reformation and its proposal to interpretation of the Bible.  A literal handling of the text is probably correct as distinct from an allegorical interpretation.  Literal follows the norms of historical and grammatical interpretation.

Hirsch’s approach shares this goal, but pursues the task in a more comprehensive fashion.  It is also compatible with the approach of Anthony Scalia in his OriginalistTextualist interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America.

The second reason Hirsch is a necessary source is his view on how language communicates meaning.  His view is theory driven and has probably influenced the evangelical world least.  Few are willing to consider the philosophical reasoning.

At the outset, let’s consider Hirsch’s contentions:  “Verbal meaning is a willed type” (Validity, 51).  In his explanation, “the determining and sharability of verbal meaning resides in its being a type.  The particular type that it is resides in the author’s determining will.”

To follow Hirsch’s contention concerning language and verbal meaning, one must understand the philosophical theory of type/token distinction in viewing reality.  That theory sees language and reality in “the contrast between category and a member of that category.  An individual or token is said to exemplify a type:  it possesses the property that characterizes that type.  In philosophy, this distinction is often in linguistic expressions . . .(language) but it can be applied also to objects, properties, and states of affairs (reality).”  This view of linguistic expressions in relation to reality matches the biblical account in which God spoke and creation came into existence.

A Theory of Meaning – What is verbal meaning?

Hirsch offered an answer with a fresh perspective.  “Verbal meaning is a willed type.”  It is willed because an author intended to communicate a message by what he says.  This message is a type-meaning because his view of language usage is conceived in a type/token pattern.  The written text formed from what the author has in mind, takes the shape of the token with all the particular meanings.  At the same time, the author has in mind the message he wants to communicate.  That is the type of meaning.  That awareness of the type of meaning, either consciously or intuitively, guides the writing of the token expressing the sequence of meanings in the text.

As an example, I want to talk to you about an apple tree in my yard, which has produced large, juicy delicious apples for as long as I can remember.  The message talks about “my tree.”  That’s the subject of the type-meaning.  It is shared with other language speakers and determines what I want to talk about.  The type of message may be “my tree is special.”  What makes that tree special is the type of what I want to say about the tree.  That is the complement of the message which is also shared by the language written in the text and is determined by what in particular I write in the text.  The type of message is the identity of what the author wants to communicate.

This model introduced by Hirsch of a type/token pattern of meaning which an author entertains as he communicates, has appeared in other considerations of verbal meaning.

G. B. Caird speaks of the cognitive use of language and identifies three roles of language that correspond to type of meaning.

First, a language type involves a classification of what an author means, that can be arranged in a taxonomy of related meanings.  This taxonomy involves a comparison of language meanings both in level of generality and in relation of common types of meaning at the same level.  So an apple tree is a type of tree or a tree is a type of plant life.  At the same time, tree can be compared to and distinguished from a bush, a vegetable or a flower.  All these are tokens of a type of plant life and express the types of the same level of meaning.

While the classification and comparison can occur with words in reference to subject matter, texts can be classified and compared as literary genre.  While the taxonomy is not precise, yet the cognitive use of language in textual types is still helpful in interpretation.  Literary genre involves different types of compositions, identified by the convention used to communicate (as narrative-history, epistles, or hymns, etc.) while all genre do not include the same cognitive usage, they all include some cognitive usage.

Second, a type-message also involves a generalization.  This sense of type-meaning as message, functions as a working hypothesis by which the interpreter seeks to make sense of every meaning in the token.  The written text as a token is an instance and example of the type of meaning communicated in a message.  The message is inferred from the reading of the text in answer to two questions:

What is the author talking about?  (The subject of the text.)

What does he say about the subject?  (The complement of the text.)

These questions are answered from the reading of the text in the context of the historical occasion and the historical audience to whom the message is addressed.

I want to complete the illustration of the central point Hirsch made before we proceed.  I want you to know about my special tree.  The tree is a real token-reference in my yard.  Examining that tree for yourself is not to get to know my verbal meaning.  That examination is certainly one way to get to know about the tree, but it is not to get to know my verbal meaning about my tree.  That involves reading my token-text which communicates that my tree is special, which is a type-meaning.  That meaning is shared because we both use the language skills we have developed.  That shared meaning is determined by the language used – a tree is a living plant with an elongated single stem.  That type meaning tree is not all that I have in mind, but still it is what I have in mind as I speak.

Of course, I can say more about what makes my tree special – a description of the size and taste of the apples, a report of my memories from past years, or reflect upon the beauty of the foliage, etc.  This is what makes my tree special.  The statements are still communicating at the type level rather than somehow giving access to all that I have in mind.  Now what you know comes closer to what I have in mind, but language can never give expression to all the meanings I have in mind.  Language is an essential, but limited vehicle of communication.

“An expression is a linguistic type and can be used over and over (many manuscripts can be classified as essays), whereas token of a type can be produced once (one manuscript), though it may be reproduced (copied.”  (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 818, 819)

Thus, this type/token view of reality can be applied both to the use of language (as Hirsch does) and to the world of reality about which language speaks.

In a philosophy of language, three questions about communication must be considered.  Since the answers vary, each answer is based on a theory.

Thus, there are three levels of meaning to be considered in interpretation of a literary unit:

  • The willed type of meaning
  • The literary type meaning
  • The text using words/grammar

All three levels of meanings are studied in hermeneutics, but when identifying the verbal meaning of a text, it is the level of the author’s willed type meaning.  The shape of the author’s meaning is the message he willed to communicate.  It is both specific in terms of words developing the text, yet the meaning is exemplary of a willed-type meaning.

The second level of meaning is the literary-type meaning.  In the Bible, this concerns revelation authored by God, literary genre, and historical occasion authored by the human writers.  The interpreter reads the text at the third level of the words, but as he reads, he is asking himself what broader categories does the writer and God intend to frame the message.

A theory of reference – To what and to whom does the text refer? 

Informative and cognitive types of language intend to refer directly to the world about which it speaks or thinks.  Performative types of statements speak about an author or an audience also in a direct fashion.  In either case, the statements refer directly to the author or refer to an audience addressed.  Further, performative type of statements refer to the performance intended.

A theory of truth – Is this text true?

We will adhere to a correspondence theory of truth.  Within that theory, an informative or a cognitive message is true when the author’s intent as expressed in the text to inform or to reason corresponds to reality.  The level of correspondence is not an issue when considering truthfulness since only God has a complete knowledge of reality to which the text has reference.

On the other hand, a performative intent is true, if the author who spoke performs the action to which he committed himself in the text.  This is a promise which is true when the author keeps his word.  In the Bible, these promises ultimately refer to God and keeping his Word may take generations before they are finally realized.

The other type of performative statement is law.  Laws are not true in the sense that they correspond to reality and false when they do not.  Rather God’s laws correspond to what is righteous, just, and good (Rom. 7:13).  When mankind’s response under the claim of the law fails to correspond to what the law demands, mankind is truly exposed to be a sinner.  They rebel against what is righteous, just, and good.

So how does language communicate meaning?  It doesn’t communicate the meaning somehow existing in the world of reality to which it refers.  If the author were to say, “This is a comfortable chair,” the reader would not need to have sat in the chair or even seen the chair to know what he meant.  Nor would the reader need to have in mind all that the author had in mind.

Rather, the meaning is shared at the willed-type level of the language.  “This” means that the author has a particular chair in mind.  It may be one chair in distinction to others, but unless the author says more, it can’t be known whether “this” is used in a comparative fashion.

“Is” is a word of identification, which has reference to a particular chair.

“Comfortable” describes an experience found when someone sits down.  The particular way that it is comfortable is not known from the language.  But the reader shares an understanding at a type level, knowing the vocabulary and having had experiences of comfort when being seated.

“Chair” is also know at a type level in distinction to other pieces of furniture.  As a type, it is distinct from a table, a bench, a stool, or a sofa, etc.  And thus what is shared is determinate at that level of type.  It is not a table, etc.

Thus the language is used by an author to communicate his willed type meaning.

Third, Hirsch’s model of interpretation is necessary because it is compatible with other theories of verbal meaning.  The study of literary genre recognizes the meaning at a type level known by conventions of composition.  In addition, speech-act theory speaks of different ways or types of language usage.  One of the conventions of literary genre is language usage.

Thus Hirsch’s theory of communication and interpretation is necessary because it naturally incorporates valuable theories.  Hirsch’s theory thus provides a comprehensive theory by which other theories can be included or disregarded.

Fourth, perhaps the most helpful role of Hirsch’s theory for biblical interpreters is that can naturally incorporate both divine and human authorship.  To disregard the divine author, the meaning understood as communicated can be distorted.  This seems to be the case in radical critical studies.

Nicolas Wolterstorff (Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflection on the Claim that God Speaks) demonstrates that a type/token medium of language suits a dual authorship.  However, his view of dual authorship is different that B. B. Warfield’s view of inspiration and revelation.  We will adopt Warfield’s view featuring the miracle of inspiration which results in a text that has both divine and human authorship.

Wolterstorff posits the thesis that God speaks by adopting a human composition and sharing the meaning expressed by the human author.  On the other hand, adopting the Warfield model of inspiration, the divine and human authorship share the meaning of the text at the type level of meaning.  This could explain a shared authorship of the text.

Then, the divine author has in mind and fully intends all the particular meanings of the textual sense and in reference to the world of reality.  On the other hand, the human author has in mind enough to compose the text, but may not have in mind all that God intends.  The meaning of the text is recognized at the type level and may by exegesis share the meaning at the token level.  The progress of revelation may provide a basis for the exegesis of God’s fully intended meaning (Gal. 3:16).



Authors, Texts, and Meanings: Hermeneutics Interview with Elliott E. Johnson, Part 1

Dr. Elliott E. Johnson is Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary.  He has given a career of study to biblical and philosophical hermeneutics and Bible Exposition.  He has been a member of his church since the mid-1960’s, and there he has given himself to more than 40 years of discipling men, and training teachers to understand the Scriptures and teach it to others.  Over two decades ago he authored Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Zondervan), in order to explain the workings of the art and science of interpretation.  He graciously has agreed to an interview related to current discussion in hermeneutics.  (I will post the interview intermittently rather than in its entirety immediately.)

1. Dr. Johnson, thank you for taking time for this interview.  Explain where your love for hermeneutics and Bible exposition began.

I graduated from a program in engineering at Northwestern University with a sense of a call to ministry, but very little exposure to the Scripture.  In addition, I had grown up in a church denomination that was emotion driven, and in the years since its revivalistic beginnings, it had been in decline in spiritual fervor.  Was there any normative authority to maintain stability?  And this was combined with my own personal spiritual struggles.  Was there no one or nothing to help me?

At that point I began attending another church which impressed me with two characteristics:  living Biblical sermons and men and women who gave evidence in their lives of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  I began to grow as a Christian as I completed the program in engineering.  As I read the Bible on my own, more and more fresh ideas struck me in a small group Bible study.  Nonetheless, I had so many questions that weren’t yet answered.  As I arrived at graduation I came to two conclusions:

  • I was called to some form of ministry, and
  • I needed to learn the Bible

The next really big step came in the realization that I needed the combination of personal Bible study as well as study at the hands of others in classes or in commentaries.  The personal side of the study really exploded.  I suppose part of the influence came from the technical education.  Ideas like:

  • It is more important to know how to find an answer than to have all the answers
  • In order to grasp the meaning of a part of the design, that part must be seen as a component of the whole

These ideas and others directed my interest toward hermeneutics and exposition of biblical texts.  Hermeneutics considers the strategies for reaching valid conclusions about textual meanings.  While this study considers any text (general hermeneutics), more commonly the study is limited to biblical texts (sacred hermeneutics).  Yet it remains to ask, “And how does sacred hermeneutics differ from general hermeneutics?”

Exposition is the unfolding of the meanings of biblical texts, but the task is more completely accomplished when the component texts are recognized as parts of a whole text.  The metaphor of “unfolding” presents the image of a whole, a closed envelope that is opened portion by portion.  Then the whole is recognized as a combination of all the parts that have been unfolded.  At the outset, the whole was seen as a compact folded up whole.  Exposition is the unfolding.

These considerations grasped my imagination in the years that followed.  It has been an adventure that guided the development of my personal growth in Christ, as well as development of a ministry of Bible teaching.  If this is your calling, let’s talk about aspects of the journey along the road to becoming a bible expositor.

2. What do you mean by “meaning” and “exegesis” in the task of hermeneutics?

Two important terms need to be defined:  “meaning” and “exegesis.”

Meaning is the stuff hermeneutics is working with.  It is an abstract term and thus hard to get your mind around.  So here goes:  Meaning is what a person is conscious of or is in search of.  The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines the verb, to mean, and the noun, meaning.

The verb, mean, is to have in mind, as a purpose, intention;

Or, mean is to intend to convey, show, or indicate.

In both definitions, we use language.  Commonly language is used to think or to communicate.  Thus, hermeneutics limits the considerations to verbal meaning.

The noun, meaning, is related to the three basic components in verbal communication:  Author, Text, Interpretation.

The author defines verbal meaning; it is the thing one intends to convey by language.

The text determines and shares what is meant; it is the thing that is conveyed or signified by language—the purport.

The interpretation decodes the language to recognize what is meant; it is the sense in which something is understood.

So verbal meaning is what the author intended to communicate as he composed the text.

Exegesis is like exposition, but with a narrower focus.  Both terms refer to tasks of interpretation of a verbal text, and both terms refer to tasks of unfolding meanings which the author intended to communicate as he expressed it in the text.  The focus needs to be both in the particulars in the text and on the larger segments of literary composition as well as the text as a whole.  Exposition focuses on these larger segments while exegesis unfolds the component meanings of individual texts.  Such careful readings of texts are essential in biblical interpretation where individual statements of revelation are often critical to the message communicated.


When You Are Wronged – Psalm 26

Today posted my, “When You Are Wronged,” a brief look at Psalm 26. I am grateful for their ministry and graciousness toward me.


Vindication is something we all desire, because injustices are committed toward us in this life. On a lesser scale it could be a simple spat between spouses in which the one accuses the other of moving an item, when the other has evidence of things being very different. On a larger scale it could be that family promises were not kept, or lies and cover-ups had the wrong person thrown out of school, found innocent a criminal who harmed your loved one, or cost you an unwarranted demotion at work.

In Psalm 26, one reads, “Vindicate Me, O Lord.” The word translated as “vindication” has judgmentat its core. David is praying, “Judge me, O Lord. Look at the wicked and me, see that I have lived a life of integrity and depended on you without wavering.” David’s prayer reveals three things:

1.      When you call for vindication, make sure integrity is your foundation (1-3).

The basis by which David cries for vindication makes no reference to the wrongdoing of anyone else. David starts (and he will end) in the mirror. “Lord, I have integrity; I am wholly dependent on you.”

The Hebrew terms behind “heart” and “mind” are words for “kidneys” and “heart.” In the Hebrew mind, the kidneys (or innards) were the organ driving us in the way we would describe the “heart” of emotions and motive, and the “heart” was more what we would describe as the place of thinking and will. David says in effect, “Look at my heart and mind with your all-penetrating eyes and see that I am whole and holy.”

Typically, when we pray for vindication, we act like children on the schoolyard who have been hurt and run to the teacher: “He hit me! Get him!” “She called me a bad name! Take her recess away! Do it in front of me so I can have the satisfaction of seeing her humbled!”

In that cry to the authority we want three things: Judgment that sets the scales right, vengeance against the enemy, and a public display that we are right. David wants a fourth thing: Judgment of the one requesting vindication. To make that call of vindication, you must know that you yourself are a person of integrity before God and not just correct in the current situation.

2.      When you claim your own justification, you should be prepared to meet strict standards of Divine evaluation (4-8).

David offers four areas of life for God to judge. First he offers truth (26:4). Men of falsehood (vanity) are not part of his company. Neither does he keep company with “hypocrites”—people who keep their activities covered so others cannot see what they are doing. David is saying that he keeps the 9th Commandment’s prohibition against false witness.

Second, David offers righteousness (26:5). When evildoers gathered for their form of “worship” (for “assembly” is a cultic term related to worship), David had complete disdain for their dishonoring authority, murdering, adultery, and stealing. He keeps the 5th-8th and 10th Commandments.

Third, David offers purity in worship (26:6). David thinks of integrity in terms of the 1st through 4thCommandments—those that deal with loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. He understands that love for our neighbor flows from our love for God. You cannot be a person of integrity – wholeness before God, and not simply before men – if you treat everyone decently but do not acknowledge God’s standards for coming to God. No idolater or atheist could pray, “Vindicate me” to God and hope for anything short of his wrath for all eternity, for the judgment would reveal wickedness even in the motives of his service toward humanity.

Fourth, David offers himself as a devoted worshipper (26:8). David is a Sabbath-keeper who loves God! It is not the house of the Lord that David loves, but the resident of the house—God and his glory! “Measure me by this,” says David!

This poses a dilemma for all of us: Not one of us perfectly keeps the Commandments. We stand without hope of vindication before our enemies, because we cannot say, “Lord, get them but ignore me,” for this would not be just for a holy God.

What hope is there for we who need both vindication and the righteousness that God requires?

3.      When you cry out for separation, remember that it is the Lord’s grace that brings redemption (9-12).

God will sweep away the souls of sinners, including the bloodthirsty, who can be manipulated by bribes and have evil devices to carry out their schemes. They can threaten your life, but their own lives are at stake before the Almighty Judge and King.

David, even as one claiming to have absolute integrity, still knows that he will be found short and could be swept away into the torrents of eternal damnation. So he makes pleas to avoid the judgment of the wicked: “Redeem me and be gracious to me”

God is not under obligation to rescue David, and he ultimately cannot present his integrity as sufficient to avoid the wrath of a perfect God. So what is David’s hope? God, by your grace, redeem me! This is exactly what God does for us in Christ.

Christ comes in the perfect righteousness of God: Complete in truth, righteousness, purity in worship, and devotion in worship to God. God condemned Christ in place of our condemnation, crucifying him to his death on the Cross.

God offers us eternal life through Christ’s righteousness as the only one righteous enough to beat death, as demonstrated in his resurrection from the dead. God offers to redeem us by grace—a gift to us, not something we earn. We receive this gift by believing in Christ. When, therefore, we are in need of vindication, we keep trusting this same Christ.

Eric C. Redmond is Executive Pastoral Assistant and Bible Professor in Residence at New Canaan Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @EricCRedmond

A Necessary Tweak of Greg’s Beale Thoughts on Exegesis of the Old Testament

Recently WTSBOOKS interviewed Dr. Greg Beale in conjunction with the release of Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. The interview asks Dr. Beale a few questions related to the interpretation of the text.

I appreciate Dr. Greg Beale’s grounding of interpretation in the inspiration of the words of the writers of Scripture. However, he conflates two ideas that should remain separate in order for us to interpret the text faithfully.

1.  Divine Inspiration – by which Beale means revelation, for he is speaking of the broadening of what the author and the Lord are saying through the speaker – and understanding the interpretation of what has been spoken are vastly different concepts. Even knowing that one is speaking, “Thus saith the Lord,” would not necessarily mean that the author would have known his words would go beyond the immediate historical context. One can see this if one appeals to a text like the death of the man of God in 1 Kings 13 rather than a more obviously prophetic passage like the construction of the Tabernacle Exodus 25. The passage on the man of God warned the generation reading 1 and 2 Kings of the authority of the word of the Lord even in the life of one called by God. One does not immediately think that this passage typifies Jesus always doing his Father’s will (cf. Jn. 8:28; 12:49; 14:10) and yet being brought to death by the word of the Lord (Jn. 17:4; cf. Isa. 53:10), does he? Yet with the Tabernacle passage, one has a textual clue that there is more to the instructions than simply earthly blueprints because there is a “pattern” involved (Ex 25:9, 40; cf. Heb. 8:5; 9:23; 10:1).

2.  “Context” for spoken words is different than for written words. That is, the words on a page are limited by all of the words around them. The additional, unexpressed mental thoughts of the author that were not communicated in the words do not matter to our task as exegetes, for as readers we have no access to them. We only have access to what is written on the page. If Beale, by intention, means more than “the author’s central idea in the narrow historical context and additional later revelation unknown but suspected by the author,” then I cannot know this, for this is all Beale’s words reveal to the readers of the interview. If he also means by intention, “the author’s effectual hope in the life of the believer and the purposes for which he wrote in response to a historical catalyst,” I cannot know this for it does not come through in the interview. It would be unfair (and illogical) to say that I missed Beale’s “central idea expressed in the text” because I missed Beale’s “effectual hope for the believer.” When E. D. Hirsch spoke of author’s intention, he meant “the author’s central idea in the narrow historical context as able to be discerned by willed verbal meaning and literary clues.” But Beale speaks of a different intention when he says “larger than even he understood,” for he is then speaking of “additional later revelation unknown but suspected on the basis of inspiration.” The two are not the same and should not be confused even though they both fly under a banner of “intention.”

3.  In his illustration of enjoying Bach, the listening student, when asked, “Does he like other composers like Vivaldi,” would have been correct to say, “I do not know, for Dr. Beale did not say anything about other composers, neither did he speak of enjoying classic compositions as a whole or of other composers while speaking of enjoying Bach.” The student has no clues in the context to indicate that Beale’s verbal meaning goes beyond “Bach” to “other composers.” No one could fault the student for not knowing Beale’s unexpressed idea(s).  However, imagine if the student were reading a paragraph by Dr. Beale that said, “Summer is great! I get uninterrupted time to enjoy my downloads of the Westminster Brass, London Symphony Orchestra, and Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra playing the great masters of history. Ah, there’s nothing I enjoy more in the summer than sitting on the patio, sipping lemonade, and listening to Bach. Listening to the grand symphonies of the Western musical canon rescues my mind from the torture of having to hear Carl Trueman play his rock music around the WTS campus.” Then if someone asked, “Does Dr. Beale also like Vivaldi, or only Bach,” the student could have said, “I suspect he does like Vivaldi, for he likes Bach and ‘the great masters.’” If Beale does not express his intention, it cannot be interpreted, even if it is in his head. He wants the intention in his head to be something that we access in the process of exegesis. However, we cannot because exegesis focuses on ideas expressed (which are limited by the words around them), not unexpressed mental ruminations (which could go on forever). The only ideas upon which we can do exegesis are those expressed by the words in the text, not unexpressed ideas. The resurrection of Christ in Psalm 16 is an expressed idea because “not see corruption” is something that could not refer to David (as Peter notes in Acts 2:29-31, of which Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. provides good exegesis). However, the equal access of Gentiles and Jews as fellow heirs in Christ is not an expressed idea in the Old Testament (Eph. 3:6). It cannot be gained by exegesis, even though it is the Lord’s express purpose (intention) throughout Old Testament Redemptive History to include the Gentiles in redemption with the Jews as one new man.

In the full interview, WTSBOOKS asks Beale,

You express your own position as situated “on the side of those who affirm that the NT uses the OT in line with the original contextual meaning.” (Handbook, p. 13). What do you mean when you speak of “original contextual meaning”? How does this differ—if at all—from strict adherence to a grammatical-historical approach?

If Beale’s answer to the interview questions means something other than, “One’s exegesis of the Old Testament text must factor in that – as the Old Testament authors understood – the spoken/written revelation, as divinely inspired, has thicker intentions that go beyond narrow historical context of the original speaking author, as illustrated by a modern example related to listening to ‘Bach,’” he did not adequately express that as his intended meaning so as to give us access to it.

It is not that intentions are “thicker” and need to be unpacked. Instead, the definitions of “intention” are many, and they need to be expressed. I would recommend Elliott E. Johnson’s Expository Hermeneutics for more on how the written paragraph is the smallest context of interpretation for willed verbal meaning in a text.

When Despair is Our Only Song

Kindly, posted my article, “When Despair is Our Only Song.” The article focuses on Psalm 88 and its unique place in the canon to speak to those in great despair. As Calvin writes in his introduction to the commentary on the psalm, Calvin writes,

This psalm contains very grievous lamentations, poured forth by its inspired penman when under very severe affliction, and almost at the point of despair. But he, at the same time, whilst struggling with sorrow, declares the invincible steadfastness of his faith; which he displayed in calling upon God to deliver him, even when he was in the, deep darkness of death…. We should rather rest assured that the Spirit of God, by the mouth of Heman, has here furnished us with a form of prayer for encouraging all the afflicted who are, as it were, on the brink of despair to come to himself.

I am limited to 700 words, so in this article I could not do justice to this psalm as a 60-minute, Sunday morning sermon would do. Yet I hope the article encourages many.

See Heart Aflame for more of Calvin’s thoughts on Psalms (also @ Amazon).


When Despair is Our Only Song

Two weeks ago I received a phone call from a lady who had found my cell phone number via the Internet. She relayed that she has been experiencing great financial difficulty and relationship problems for close to a decade. She had hoped and prayed for breakthroughs and victories. She also had sought the Lord for more contentment and given much thanks for her difficulties. However, the pain now had become too much for her—too prolonged of a season. Her question to me was, “Is it true that it is God’s will for me to go through this trial?” I could hear her sobs as we were on the phone.

Her pain is not unique to believers. I have seen utter despair in the lives of people who have lost family members in sudden, tragic deaths; I encounter such hopelessness when fairy-tale marriages devolve into horror-story court proceedings. Almost inevitably, a believer experiencing the silence of God questions his own faith, or the goodness of the God who rules over such earthly evils.

At times of great hopelessness and despair, I like to direct people to Psalm 88. It is a song for a soul “full of troubles” (v.3) – the only psalm that does not contain a note of hope. It teaches the faithful at least three great truths about walking with the Lord through the most difficult times of life.

1. When despair is our only song, we should cry out to the God who saves us (vv. 1-7). 

The singer of this song, Heman, knows the Lord as Savior—the “God of [his] salvation” (v. 1). The depth of his despair is not a litmus test of the reality of his salvation. To the Lord he cries out earnestly of his hopelessness (v. 2)

The psalmist’s troubles are fierce. He is to the point of feeling that he is near death (vv. 3-5). Providentially, the writer’s experiences find their origin in the Lord, if for no other reason than the Lord’s decision not to intervene in his life (vv. 6-7). The God of salvation is overwhelming the psalmist with waves of troubles. Yet he cries out day and night to the Lord, for the Lord who is putting him in the pit remains his only hope.

2. When despair is our only song, we might question God’s power beyond the grave (vv. 8-12). 

God’s dealings make Heman a “horror” to his friends (v. 8). The author is so saddened that he cannot escape despair. Nevertheless, the Lord remains silent to the cries of the struggling saint (v. 9). So the hopeless one raises a series of questions for the Lord (vv. 10-12). The essence of the questioning is, “If you do not bring me out of my troubles, and I die as a result, can I know your glory beyond the grave?”

The question is legitimate, for if God cannot save in this life, there is no hope for him to save in the afterlife. Instead, “Abaddon” will swallow our bodies and souls after we have despaired of life. Surely one understands why Heman’s eye – like my caller’s eye – “[grew] dim through sorrow” (v. 8).

3. When despair is our only song, God still might leave us alone in the darkness of our pain (vv. 13-18). 

The desperate situation of Heman does not stop him from praying (v. 13). Also true, however, is that his continual prayer does not end is trial. Now an adult, the writer has experienced this pain since his youth (v. 15)!  Certainly one would expect the Lord, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy,” to say “enough is enough.” Instead, the Lord assaults the worshipper such that he is only surrounded continually by being alone in his despair and absent of friends.

Thus, it would appear that living with prolonged despair or hopelessness can be a real experience for a believer as wise and sincere as Heman (cf. 1 Kgs. 4:31). The Lord – Heman’s Lord – can and does leave his own in experiences in which they despair of life itself. He can and does remain silent to cries when life is so bad that even our friends desert us. Still he invites us to come to him asking, seeking, and knocking for answers to our prayers, and to pray to him without ceasing, confidently, for grace and help in our times of need (cf. Mt. 7:7; 1 Thess. 5:17; Heb. 4:16).

Our God can offer this invitation in his goodness because he has experienced the very despair we experience. Christ, who had perfect fellowship with the Father, (unlike the fellowship we have that is marred by our sins), was cut off from fellowship with the Father on the Cross. In three short hours Christ experienced more distance from the Father than we could experience if the Lord prolonged our despair from our youth into late adulthood (cf. Mt. 27:45). The Lord’s friends too deserted him, and he embraced the dark pain of the sins of humankind alone. For Christ and for us, God has done wonders beyond the grave by raising Christ from the dead. That same God can do wondrous things when despair is our only song. Psalm 88 reminds us that he has heard that song before from Heman and the choirs of Israel, and he will hear it from many whom he will save.

Eric C. Redmond is Executive Pastoral Assistant and Bible Professor in Residence at New Canaan Baptist Church , Washington, DC.

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 6

From Tom Ascol’s blog, reprinted by permission:

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 6

[Part 1 of this series]

[Part 2 of this series]
[Part 3 of this series]
Could W.A. Criswell have signed this statement?
[Part 4 of this series]
[Part 5 of this series]

Article Three: The Atonement of Christ

We affirm that the penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.

We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith. We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will. We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.
Psalm 22:1-31; Isaiah 53:1-12; John 12:32, 14:6; Acts 10:39-43; Acts 16:30-32; Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10-14; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:13-20; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:12-15, 24-28; 10:1-18; I John 1:7; 2:2

I appreciate the claims of exclusivity and efficacy that are made for the atonement in this article along with its affirmation of penal substitution. I also agree with the first sentence of the denial. No one is saved without responding (to the gospel) with repentance and faith. Beyond these points of agreement, however, I find some of the language confusing and imprecise and simply disagree with authors on what actually happened on the cross.

The positive affirmation makes two claims for the penal substitution of Christ: 1) it is “the only available…sacrifice for the sins of every person” and 2) it is “the only…effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.” The exclusivity of Christ as the only Savior that anyone in the world has available is an important point to express in this day of ideological pluralism and theological inclusivism. Acts 4:12 and 1 Timothy 2:5-6 plainly teach this. But the authors clearly mean to say more than this.

By coupling “effective” with “available” the article affirms that Christ has effectively provided a penal, substitutionary atonement for “the sins of every person.” In other words, this statement affirms universal atonement–that Christ actually paid for the sins of every person. The first sentence of the denial shows how the signers avoid actual universalism (the belief that everyone will be saved) because it states that the effective sacrifice (atonement) will not result in salvation “without a person’s free response of repentance and faith.” While I am glad for this rejection of universalism, I am left wondering what exactly is the nature of the atonement’s efficacy. In what sense is the penal substitution of Christ an “effective sacrifice for the sins of every person” if it does not effectively (actually) save? Would you call a mission “effective” that did not accomplish what it claimed to accomplish? I wouldn’t. I would say its effectiveness was limited by the response of the people for whom it was intended.

The debate over the extent of the atonement has a long history among evangelical Christians. The Baptist Faith and Message allows room for both the Calvinistic and Arminian view of atonement when it states in article II that “in His substitutionary death on the cross He [Jesus] made provision for the redemption of men from sin.” I have no illusions that in this forum I will convince the proponents of universal atonement that what Christ accomplished on the cross was objective, definite and intended actually to save particular sinners rather than merely make salvation possible for all sinners. What I would like to point out, however, is that everyone “limits”or particularizes the atonement in some way, unless true universalism is affirmed. Either the atoning work of Jesus is limited in its scope–that is, intended only for particular people–or it is limited in its efficacy–that is, not able to save the very people for whom it was intended.

The framers of this document have plainly declared themselves to be in the latter camp. While asserting that the death of Christ is “an effective sacrifice for every sin of every person” they go on to deny that it actually saves every sinner. They have a purportedly “effective” sacrifice that does not actually save some of the people for whom it was made. Their view of Christ’s atonement limits its power.

In John 10:11 Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for his sheep.” He later says to the Jews who were around him, “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock” (John 10:26). In John 6:38-39 Jesus says that He came to do the Father’s will, “and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” All that Jesus was entrusted to do–including his atoning work on the cross–was to be effectually accomplished. The question must be asked then, “Did Jesus do the Father’s will?” “Was He successful in his mission?” I believe that he was and that this is exactly what he meant when he said from the cross, “It is finished!”

Wisdom from Spurgeon on this point might be helpful. In his sermon entitled, “Particular Redemption” (#181), he made the following remarks.

All Christians hold that Christ died to redeem, but all Christians do not teach the same Redemption! We differ as to the nature of Atonement and as to the design of Redemption. For instance, the Arminian holds that Christ, when He died, did not die with an intent to save any particular person. And they teach that Christ’s death does not, in itself, secure beyond doubt the salvation of any man living. They believe that Christ died to make the salvation of all men possible, or that by the doing of something else, any  man who pleases may attain unto eternal life! Consequently, they are obliged to hold that if man’s will would not give way and voluntarily surrender to Divine Grace, then Christ’s Atonement would be worthless! They hold that there was no particularity and specialty in the death of Christ. Christ died, according to them, as much for Judas in Hell as for Peter who mounted to Heaven! They believe that for those who are consigned to eternal fire, there was as true and real a Redemption made as for those who now stand before the Throne of the Most High! Now we believe no such thing! We hold that Christ, when He died, had an objective in view and that objective will most assuredly and beyond a doubt, be accomplished! We measure the design of Christ’s death by the effect of it. If anyone asks us, “What did Christ design to do by His death?” We answer that question by asking him another—“What has Christ done, or what will Christ do by His death?” We declare that the measure of the effect of Christ’s love is the measure of the design of it! We cannot so belie our reason as to think that the intention of Almighty God could be frustrated or that the design of so great a thing as the Atonement can by any way whatever, be missed of. We hold—we are not afraid to say what we believe—that Christ came into this world with the intention of saving “a multitude which no man can number.” And we believe that as the result of this, every person for whom He died must, beyond the shadow of a doubt, be cleansed from sin and stand, washed in His blood, before the Father’s Throne. We do not believe that Christ made any effectual Atonement for those who are forever damned! We dare not think that the blood of Christ was ever shed with the intention of saving those whom God foreknew would never be saved—and some of whom were even in Hell when Christ, according to some men’s account, died to save them!…

Now, beloved, when you hear any one laughing or jeering at a limited atonement, you may tell him this. General atonement is like a great wide bridge with only half an arch; it does not go across the stream: it only professes to go half way; it does not secure the salvation of anybody. Now, I had rather put my foot upon a bridge as narrow as Hungerford, which went all the way across, than on a bridge that was as wide as the world, if it did not go all the way across the stream.

While the authors of the document do not want to be described as Arminians, and I want to honor that desire, their view of the atonement does have more in common with Arminianism (as Spurgeon illustrates) than with the understanding of the churches and leaders who founded the Southern Baptist Convention in1845.

The second sentence of the denial highlights two of the issues that are a recurring problem for me in this document: “We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will.” First, beyond the whole of “Article Eight: The Free Will of Man,” the entire document seems to be more concerned to protect the integrity of man’s free will than to defend the glory of God. In fact, one will search in vain for any reference to the glory of God in the Preamble or articles. Obviously, this does not mean that the authors and signers have no regard for the glory of God but it does suggest how out of alignment with the great emphasis of Scripture their thinking is at this point.

I cannot imagine the Apostle Paul submitting for public review his understanding of salvation while failing to emphasize, much less mention, the glory of the God who saves. A cursory reading of his symphony on salvation by grace in Ephesians 1:4-14 underscores this.

He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace…7 In him we have redemption through his blood…11 [and] have been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory…[and we have been] 13 sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…14 to the praise of his glory” (emphasis added).

The second recurring concern that I have with the document is what seems to be a confusing of categories and imprecise language. For example, where in Scripture do we read of God ever “imposing or withholding” atonement from someone? “God put [Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:25). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). These two verses are representative of the whole New Testament’s teaching that the atoning work of Jesus on the cross is finished. It happened. It is the accomplishment of salvation.

I could possibly understand speaking of God “imposing or withholding” salvation, or even more specifically, forgiveness, from someone. Paul even entertains the prospect that God might withhold repentance from some who oppose the ministry of the gospel in the church (2 Timothy 2:25). But to use such language when speaking of the atonement is confusing. It does, however, highlight one reason that I believe theological discussion in general and regarding salvation in particular can be difficult to engage profitably. We need to have a careful definition of terms and make sure that we are reading out of the same dictionary. To the degree that we can do that with biblical, theological and historical terminology, mutual understanding will be promoted.

Deconstructive Reading of “Obama, Gay Marriage and the Black Church Vote”

In the article, “Obama, Gay Marriage, and the Black Church Vote,” the second paragraph includes these words:

Therefore, while your daughters could not image their friends’ same-sex union parents being treated differently, you, as their father, would have the responsibility to tell them that their friends’ parents participate in immoral acts, although they might be otherwise nice people. This should not be difficult for you to share with your girls, for we suspect you teach them something similar about their friends’ parents who commit adultery, and about the subtle racism of some tax-paying Americans.

However, before one of my kind, Ivy League-educated friends read over the first draft of the article for content editing, the second paragraph originally read this way (with bold added so that I might emphasize the differences for you):

Therefore, while your daughters could not image their friends’ same-sex union parents being treated differently, you, as their father, would have the responsibility to tell them that their friends’ parents participate in immoral acts, although they might be otherwise nice people. This should not be difficult for you to share with your girls, for we suspect you teach them something similar about the subtle racism of some tax-paying Americans, and about the terrorist ideals of Al Qaeda fathers who play fútbol with their sons before they kiss them and tuck them in bed each night.

Upon reading the reference to Al Qaeda fathers, my friend wrote me these words of caution:

This paragraph I think takes things in a wrong direction. I come to the end and think…wait, this pastor thinks gay people are like Al Qaeda terrorists? Basically, they want to destroy America? I think that will not help your readers take this seriously…. I mean, parents who are Christians should be the first to say, yes, we don’t agree with how they are living, but we interact with those who do not know Christ all the time. How do we do that in a way that is faithful, loving, and truthful? And, we ourselves are the ones who can see how far short of the biblical standards for chastity and fidelity we fall. (Honestly, I am just thinking of people in your church or my church who might struggle and fight same sex attraction and this just alienates them completely and gives them no gospel hope.)

I am grateful for my friend’s sensitivity to the way the culture might (mis)read words. I know that my friend fully understood my words and their intent, and that my friend was playing the role of a common reader. However, it amazes me how people potentially could miss the nature and objects of comparison in an accessible piece of writing.

In the paragraph, I am describing the President’s fatherly task of making distinctions – for his daughters – between outwardly good-appearing parents and some not-so-good-actions of these same individuals. The comparison is between the content of what the President should teach about parents in same-sex unions and fathers who are members of Al Qaeda. That is, parents in same-sex unions can be cordial, hardworking, faithful, neighborly, self-sacrificing, and attentive to their children’s every need. They can be outstanding citizens, professional role models, philanthropists, and people who participate in crime-prevention activities in their own communities. Nevertheless, this does not mean that all of their other activities are things of which we would approve, as holds true for all heterosexual parents too.

In the same way, if we set aside images of terrorists living in cave-like compounds in the mountains of Afghanistan, we might be able to imagine a well-groomed, Eastern, business professional who runs a small business in an Arab state, but is a member of Al Qaeda. When he closes his shop for the day, he goes home and eats dinner with his family while watching Al Jazeera. He helps his son and daughter finish their eleventh-grade calculus homework, and then dad and children go outside to kick the fútbol around with a few friends living on the same street. Afterwards they come inside and have a lively discussion about the coming 2012 Olympics, and then the children each take turns showering before bed. The dad kisses both children goodnight as the children turn in for the evening.

Once dad has put the children to sleep, he leaves his house to meet with other men like him who help fund the activities of those who carry out terrorist acts. The words they use to speak of the US and their allies are angry, bitter, venomous, and vengeful, as the men assemble around a gambling table in their version of a smoke-filled war room. The dad and his friends curse Obama and his Jesus—the god of America and the West. They vow to bring down every US drone, to burn the White House with fire, and to shoot Air Force One out of the sky with weapons made in American factories. The dad in our story leaves the meeting with both a wide smile and the hope of an Al Qaeda victory, and he goes home to enjoy his wife (who has equal hatred for the US and its friends). The next morning he sends his children to school well prepared for their day, and opens his shop to offer his business with fairness and kindness toward all of his customers.

While this story is fictional, it could very well represent the lifestyle of a member or supporter of Al Qaeda. If it does, and that man lives and works in Lanham, MD rather than in an Arab state, and he is later convicted of plotting terrorism against the US, would it be wrong of me, as a father, to say to my children that their eleventh grade friends’ father, although a nice man with whom they enjoyed playing soccer on our street after school, is also vile man who participated in evil activities? No, for I would be making a good and important distinction, and one that also is truthful.

If I next said to my children that something similar holds true for two other neighboring parents of another eleventh grade friend – parents in a same-sex union – would my children understand me to be saying that homosexual activity is akin to terrorism? Or would my children understand me to be saying that seemingly nice people – like Mr. and Mr. Homosexual Dads, and Mr. Terrorist Dad – can participate in wrong acts?

Pedophiles appear to be innocent elementary school custodial workers or English teachers. Homegrown spies, who sell US secrets to our enemies, live in nice homes in gated communities. Illegal dog-fighting participants can be sports icons; identity thieves and adulterers can coach little league baseball teams. A university president can be found to dabble in telephone sex. Even the eventual First Black President (as opposed to the First Gay President), played his saxophone on late night television, but later was found to be guilty of committing inappropriate acts with one of his interns; he is a nice guy, but he still committed wrong acts.

I used exaggeration in my initial comparison so that the reader would understand that making distinctions between people’s decent public works and their wicked private works is a normal part of good parental instruction, even for the President of the United States. Unfortunately, we have so deconstructed our ability to read that we miss the point of simple analogies.

Oh, and yes: The comparison between the Presidents of the two firsts intends to exemplify what this article is about—how we read texts. Most anything else on this Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, and E. D. Hirsch, have said already.


Resources (above)

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read A Book, rev. ed., Touchstone, 1972.

E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, Yale University Press, 1967.