"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

Scapegoating. It’s a favorite political activity these days. You identify a particular group of people and blame them for some or all of the nation’s woes. Right now it seems that teachers, public service unions, immigrants, and the police are particularly popular ones. A few years ago “welfare mothers” were popular but that seems to have passed.

The term “scapegoat” comes from the Bible and it is an apt one for what politicians and pundits are doing. The story is in Leviticus 16 and it has to do with dealing with the national sins of the people of Israel. As part of this, two goats were selected. One was sacrificed and the other was the “scapegoat”. The priest would confess the national sins of Israel over the goat, and then it would be led into the wilderness, “bearing” those sins.

The idea is one of making a particular person or persons responsible for the sins or problems of a nation and then sending them into the “wilderness”–socially ostracizing them in some way, treating them as a lesser class of human beings.

It trades on this haunting awareness that nations aren’t what they think they ought to be, that there is something wrong with us. Instead of acknowledging that the problem really is with all of us, in all of the complexity that involves, scapegoats make life simple. For example, one candidate said if he were king, not president, he would abolish teachers lounges.

It’s interesting that we scapegoat the people we trust to teach our children. I suspect most people, when asked, actually think their own children’s teachers do a pretty good job, it is just those “other” teachers. Is what we are dealing with an awareness that our schools, our children are not turning out as we would want them to, which may be a far more complex problem than just our teachers? Could this not also involve school leadership, education funding, media usage, and parents themselves? But that’s complicated, and may put the spotlight on us. Let’s just blame the teachers.

One of the reasons scapegoating works is that you can always find an individual example because, among a group of people, there will always be one. And thus the whole group is suspect, a specious form of logic at best.

I, for one, think this is far from a harmless activity. It can have consequences that impact the liberty, livelihood, and even life itself of people. Nurtured over time, it can even become genocidal as was the case with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Tell a lie long enough, loud enough, repeatedly enough and people will believe it to be true and you can use it to incite people to action.

Scapegoating is playing God. Only God could designate scapegoats in the Bible, and there were only two in all of history–the scapegoat of Leviticus, and his own Son, who bore the sins of all humanity. Christians believe that this was enough to deal with individual sins and national sins. No more are needed.

Every country has its problems, but it seems to me that we need the genius and efforts of all our people, and even the industry of those who want to make their home in our country, to address these. A culture of blame and scapegoating will prevent us from seeing the truths about ourselves that may be the real first step to progress. Let’s leave scapegoating to biblical times and to God who may know better about these things.

Review: Words of Life

Words of LifeWords of Life by Timothy Ward. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: This book is a Reformed treatment of the doctrine of scripture that begins from a study of scripture’s teaching about itself, moves to a Trinitarian theology of scripture and finally explores the classical affirmations about scripture. Another significant aspect of this book is its incorporation of “speech-act” theory which Ward uses to delineate the relationship of God and the Bible.

Many Reformed treatments of the doctrine of scripture begin with assertions concerning the necessity, sufficiency, clarity, and authority of the Bible. Timothy Ward gets there in the end but pursue a different approach from what I’ve typically seen. He begins by discussing the question of the relationship between God and the Bible, and the issue of how we speak of the Bible as “The Word of God” while lapsing neither into bibliolatry nor elevating the Bible to be a fourth member of the Godhead.

He then begins by looking at scripture’s own account of itself as reflecting the “speech act” of God for the salvation of his people. He summarizes this as follows:

“God chooses to present himself to us, and to act upon us, in and through human words that have their origin in him, and that he identifies as his own. When we encounter those words, God is acting in relation to us, supremely in his making a covenant promise to us. God identifies himself with his act of promising in such a way that for us to encounter God’s promise is itself to encounter God. The supreme form in which God comes to encounter us in his covenant promise is through the words of the Bible as a whole. Therefore to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God in action” (p.48).

The second part of the book then looks at the relationship of each person in the Trinity to scripture. This is then followed by a chapter on the doctrine of scripture under the headings of necessity, sufficiency, clarity and authority. Laid out this way, these qualities are informed by and follow as implications of the idea of scripture as the speech action of God. Particularly helpful here was the author’s discussion of what clarity does and does not imply.

The final chapter considers the Bible in the life of Christians. Ward has some trenchant remarks differentiating sola scriptura from a more contemporary version in evangelicalism of solo scriptura. He also addresses the role of the Christian community in relation to scripture and the particular dynamic that occurs when scripture is read and exposited in which the Spirit-given scripture, the Spirit informed and empowered preacher, and the Spirit indwelt congregation come together and God’s people indeed hear a word from God, and not simply human teaching.

This book is an exposition of a Reformed view of scripture at its best. The author draws heavily on Calvin, Turretin, Warfield, and Bavinck while addressing contemporary criticisms and using contemporary approaches to give a fresh account of the doctrine of scripture. Often, contemporary critics of the Reformed view knock down a “straw man” version of this doctrine. I would suggest it would be far more constructive to engage this account. At a personal level, reading this book nourished my enthusiasm for reading the scriptures alone and together with others, and for the preaching of these “words of life.”

Review: Can We Still Believe the Bible?

Can we still believe the Bible

Summary: an apologetic work on biblical scholarship refuting current “debunkers” of the Bible

There is a cottage industry that has developed around “debunking” the Bible. It goes something like this:

  • The Bible we have is hopelessly corrupted, having been copied and re-copied and this is evident in the numerous discrepancies in the extant manuscripts.
  • The Bible we have was the result of a political power move that suppressed other books that proclaimed a different, more “gnostic” Christianity. Finally these books are getting the attention they deserve.
  • With so many translations of the Bible, how can we trust any of them?
  • Given all these issues and various apparent discrepancies, can we possibly believe in an inerrant Bible?
  • Some of the passages of scripture that purport to be narrative history are either unhistorical or plain fiction.
  • Then there are all those miracles, similar to those in other mythical books. Isn’t the Bible simply another mythical work?

Clothed in the authority of “biblical scholarship” these contentions insinuate doubt in the minds of many believing people who base their beliefs and the way they live on what they find in these scriptures.

Craig Blomberg, an accomplished Biblical scholar answers each of these contentions, arguing that such contentions distort the evidence of biblical scholarship, concluding with a resounding “yes” to the question in this book’s title.

For example, he argues that the manuscript evidence actually argues for the high probability that the text of the scripture we have is very close to what was written. Discrepancies between manuscripts don’t affect any fundamental teaching of Christian faith and most are simply minor copying errors.

Those supposedly “suppressed” books? They were known but never enjoyed the significant level of support from various church communities as did most of the canonical books. Also, the books that are being argued for typically were written a century or more later (with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas) than the canonical works.

All those translations? Actually, the standard versions all reflect the careful work of translation committees and actually read remarkably similarly. Except for those originating in sectarian groups, any of these can be profitably read. The main difference in translations tends to be around differing approaches that either focus more on word for word translation of more for accuracy of meaning in the language of the translation.

Most interesting are the next two chapters discussing whether it is possible to hold to a position of inerrancy and whether some “narratives” are unhistorical and what this means for our ideas of inerrancy. And here, Blomberg becomes more explicit about the reality that he is not simply arguing for a believable Bible against the debunkers, but also that it is possible to affirm inerrancy without dismissing serious scholarly claims and questions–for example about the possibility that Job may not be historical (Blomberg does not contend this but allows that those who hold this are not denying inerrancy). Blomberg thinks these rigid positions (far more rigid than the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy which Blomberg uses as a benchmark) are in fact harmful to evangelicalism in creating the kind of “all or nothing” stance that leads those who can’t affirm all to go to the other extreme of affirming nothing (as he thinks has happened to scholars like Bart Ehrman).

His last chapter focuses on miracles. He sees the biblical accounts differing from others in not being sensational but rather confirming the power of God over “the gods” and confirming the messianic character of Christ and his people and encouraging belief. Of course the paramount miracle central to all is the resurrection.

It was something of a surprise that Blomberg would defend the language of inerrancy. He is one of the few scholars of late who tries to argue inerrancy while engaging critical scholarship. This is tougher to do because it begs the question of apparent errors that other approaches around the terms infallible or trustworthy have to deal with only by implication. I actually found this, particularly as Blomberg framed it, refreshing.

This book is most useful for the student or thoughtful Christian who encounters these debunking efforts, and for apologists in providing the basic outlines of a response based in good, if evangelically based, scholarship. For those who wish to go further, the notes provide extensive additional scholarly sources.

I suspect that Blomberg will be dismissed by more liberal scholarship and attacked by conservatives. I admire his willingness to let the chips fall where they may in this effort to provide a thoughtful work for those facing the debunkers’ challenges. He models an approach that embraces both orthodoxy and engaged biblical scholarship.


Review: Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture

RevelationI have more than one friend who grew up in an evangelical or mainline Protestant background who has converted to Roman Catholicism. For many, this has been a thoughtful decision carefully taken. One of the reasons some take this step is the focus of Protestants on personal interpretation of the scripture, the belief that each believer is capable of understanding the scriptures unmediated by the church, pastors, church doctrine and tradition, among other things. They see diverse interpretations in many cases and Christians justifying almost anything on the basis of their reading of scripture and unchallengeable because they claim “the Bible tells us so.”

Others in the stream of the churches of the Reformation appeal to Sola Scriptura, the authority of the Bible alone, and the distortions or even contradictions they observe in the traditions of the church. They join Martin Luther in appealing to the scriptures alone, saying “Here I stand.”

Matthew Levering, who currently teaches theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois was educated in a Protestant seminary (Duke) yet embraces and articulates a Catholic theology of the relation of scripture and church in how God has revealed the Christian message. What I found most helpful was his thoughtful engagement with a range of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theologians in an exploration that argues both the inspiration and authority of the biblical text and while also contending for the crucial role of the church in clarifying and mediating our understanding of the Word of God we find in the scriptures. We encounter N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Alexander Schememann, as well as von Balthasar and Ratzinger in the pages of this book.


Matthew Levering

Levering begins by discussing the nature of the Church as a missional community founded by the Son and the Spirit, countering the individualism of the post-Reformation church. He moves on to explore the importance of the Church’s liturgy as the context in which the Gospel message of scripture is proclaimed. The hierarchy of the priesthood has been an important in maintaining a unity in our understanding of revealed truth. The Church’s councils and creeds are especially illustrative of this importance. Church councils such as Nicaea clarified the shared understanding of scripture on such important issues as the Trinity and the nature of Christ as fully God and fully human, resolving the contested interpretations of scripture around these issues.

Levering takes on the role of tradition in the transmission of Gospel revelation through the generations and argues against those who see these traditions sometimes in conflict with themselves, believing in the continued work of the Spirit to guide the Church. He contends, along with John Henry Newman, for the development of doctrinal understanding through the history of the church and, against many post-modern approaches, for the possibility of propositional truth, that God reveals God’s self in cognitively understandable terms.

His last chapters articulate a high view of scripture’s overall trustworthiness, arguing against those who would differentiate between errant and inerrant portions. He concludes with a surprising chapter supporting the contribution of Greek philosophy to the Christian understanding of God.

There was much here I appreciated. I too find troubling personal biblical interpretation gone amuck. I think it is undeniable that the Church has played a crucial role in articulating our gospel faith, drawing on the scriptures. Similarly, there is a recognition of the work of the Spirit of God at work in continuing to develop our understand of the testimony of the scriptures.

At the same time, I think there is much more to be engaged in a discussion of tradition and the magisterium.  What is to be done when traditions are distorted and the hierarchy is not filled with the Spirit and is advancing what can only be construed as the traditions of humans, particularly at the expense of the Word of God? Is the Church to simply wait for however many centuries it takes for the Lord of the church to right things?

I also wish Levering would have talked more about the appropriate use of the scriptures by individuals. Certainly since Vatican II the study of the Bible by the laity has been encouraged. And countless generations of Christians have advanced in their spiritual lives through personal reading and study of the Bible. It seems to me that a place for mutual engagement between Protestants and Catholics would be to explore the relation between our individual and communal reading of scripture and to what degree should we subject our personal readings to the understanding of scripture in the wider community.

Levering’s book is a thoughtful contribution to this basic question of how the Church hears and understands God’s word revealed to us in the scriptures. It is Catholic without being anti-Protestant. It is both a book of clarity and conviction and yet an irenic engagement with those who don’t identify as Roman Catholics.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free in e-book format from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A God, A Rulebook, or Trustworthy Testimony

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

What am I talking about? The Bible, the Christian scriptures.

Some people treat the Bible as if it was the fourth member of the Godhead. Sometimes, it seems we are more zealous to defend a notion of what the Bible is than we are for God’s glory, God’s reputation in the world.

I think many view the Bible as a book of rules. Do these things and you will go to heaven. Don’t do these things and God will get you. Let the people into our community who keep the rules. Exclude the ones who don’t. Study hard so you know the rules. If you are creative, figure out ways to extend the rules to every situation, even ones never envisioned by the rules. Exclude those who don’t agree with your creative interpretations. Congratulate yourself on your diligence in study and rule-keeping. You are one of God’s star pupils.

Of course, that is only good if you are good at study and rule-keeping and many of us are honest enough to admit that we are not. So, should we just pack it in since we are in a mess with God anyway? I think that is how a number of people feel.

This Sunday, our church looked at John 5:19-46 together. Verses 39 and 40 suggest a very different reason for the scriptures:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,  yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Jesus is proposing that the Bible is neither God nor a rule book but rather testimony about himself that can be trusted. The central idea of the Bible is to help people find life through trusting and following Jesus. The Pharisees, who were great at battling for the Bible and devising ingenious rule-keeping strategies were missing the point. In fact they were so caught up in these things that they were refusing something better, real life, being connected to the God who made them through his Son who had come to them.

But, you say, there really are a lot of rules in the Bible. It sure looks like a rule book in places. What’s that all about? There are two ways to answer this. One is that the rules really reflect what God is like and what we need to be like to live with Him. They tell us we need God to do something both to wipe the slate clean from all the ways we break the rules, and to deal with our propensity to do the opposite of what God wants for us. That something is Jesus and the life he gives means both forgiveness for what we’ve done and the power to increasingly live differently.

The second answer is that the instructions and commands we find, especially those given by Jesus and in the New Testament are not rules but tell us how we might most faithfully and joyfully enter into the life Jesus has for us. They teach us how to love God and each other and to experience wholeness in our own selves.

There’s a good deal more that can be said about all this so if you have questions, leave them in the comments and let’s talk!

The real deal that I want to come back to is that the most important thing to look for when reading the Bible is how it points us toward Jesus. Earlier in the passage we see this is the Jesus who claims equality with the Father and to have been entrusted with the Father’s authority both to give life and to judge (verses 19-27). If that’s true, then there is no one more important to know!

So, if you are spiritually seeking, then it seems one of the most important questions you can ask as you read the Bible is, how does this testify to Jesus and what is this telling me about him? In some sense, all of the Bible does this, but I would suggest for newbie Bible readers that the gospels do this most clearly.

And for those who are Christ-followers, how are we viewing the Bible? Have we gotten caught up in some form of Bible wars? Are we congratulating ourselves on how well we keep the rules, or how much we know about the Bible? Or are we not paying much attention at all to what it says, depending on sermons to do that for us? What John says is that this book tells us who Jesus is and how we can find abundant life as we get to know and follow him better and better.

Going Deeper Question: How do you think about the Bible, and how are you interacting with it?

Reading the Bible without a Net

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I work with graduate students who not only read books but read books and articles about the books, study manuscripts of the book, deconstruct the book, study books in original translations, and more. And I find this is what they want to do with the Bible. They want to get the best commentaries out of the library, understand what the text says and means in the original languages, understand the origins of the text and more.

I have no quibble with this per se’. Having attended seminary and learning something of biblical exegesis (though I by no means consider myself a biblical scholar in the professional sense), I seek to do the same when I’m in a formal teaching setting and have (or make) the time to do this work. Often, this work does contribute to enriching my understanding. I do value learning from those past and present who have worked in the same text and discovering whether my ideas are totally out to lunch.

But I also think that all of this sometimes becomes a “net” that may distract us from developing the “high wire” artistry of reading the scriptures well.  Furthermore, it seems to me that it develops a culture of “the expert” that says that only those who can read in the original languages can unlock the “secret code” of the Bible to us.

What I want to propose is that more fundamental than all this is simply bringing the practices of reading well to the Bible. My experience has been that there are scholars who read the scriptures poorly in spite of their scholarship (as well as those who read it well) and uneducated people who read well. So what goes into reading well:

  • Attentiveness to the text and to the literary art within it. The Bible, like any other book, conveys ideas through story, poetry, discourse and other genres and uses various literary cues to point us to meaning including repeated words, the climax of a story, the ordering of ideas, contrasts and comparisons, and figures of speech. When we read anything attentively, we pay attention to these sorts of things.
  • A willingness to suspend our judgment as far as this is possible while listening to the text and living within the story or poetry or discourse. Often this involves multiple readings and the use of imagination.
  • An awareness of the context of what is written. Outside sources can help, but often the most important contextual clues for any work can be found within the work if we are observant. One thing that is a good practice with any book is to skim first, then read closely. With the Bible, this can be a general skim of the whole to get a sense of the big story, or a skim of the particular book in which one is studying.
  • An openness to the text that involves a willingness to be engaged and transformed by what we encounter. When we are hostile, indifferent, or distrustful, it seems that our assumptions are those of suspicion rather than presuming the best.
  • Christians also believes that God provides illumination as we study scripture (and other things as well). It seems to me that it is not wrong to ask for this and to believe that if God is there, God wants to communicate meaningfully and intelligibly with us.

As I write this, I realize that this kind of reading requires mental effort. It is different from simply allowing a text to wash over me or have someone tell me what it says. I suspect that some of what motivates resorting to the “nets” of original languages and commentaries is that we buy the notion that this is a mysterious book that only experts can understand. I also suspect that sometimes, we are looking for a sure fire short cut to understanding. Actually, to really do the biblical scholarship thing right is itself a long-haul proposition and a little learning here may also be a dangerous thing. I can’t believe how many really bad readings of scripture I’ve heard that were prefaced by “the original Greek says.”

Most scholars of great literature will come back to the idea that whatever else you read, you must read and re-read these great texts and soak yourself in them. They are deep and rich with meaning that doesn’t yield itself to a quick, casual glance. And so it has been with my experience with the Bible. When I began reading it, there was much I didn’t get. But there were compelling stories, especially the various encounters Jesus had with people, poetry that gave voice to my longings for God, and instructions in the letters of Paul, John, and others that made sense.

Many who follow this blog are good readers. You know what it takes to read well. Whether you are a reader of the Bible or not, I hope you will do some reading “without a net”. And if you have the time, definitely use the resources of other scholars to enrich your reading. I just hope you won’t spend all your time in the net!



Review: Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers

Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers
Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers by Simon Vibert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was attracted by the idea of this book. Study great preachers to look for the qualities that define the greatness of their preaching. Vibert starts with the greatest of all, Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount. He then explores the work of twelve others, ranging from Tim Keller to John Piper to Nicky Gumbel to Mark Dever and even Mark Driscoll (obviously before some of the controversies surrounding his ministry).

The plan of each chapter is a brief personal profile of the person, a digest version of an exemplary sermon with side notes on what makes it exemplary, followed by a summary of the particular qualities of excellence evident in this person. What is striking are both some commonalities and the differences. Common to all seems to be a faithfulness to scripture and a passion for the glory of God as well as an ability to connect personally through story and pastoral awareness of one’s audience. But there are unique lessons to be learned from each as well. For Keller, it is to anticipate objections, to read thoroughly and widely, to create intrigue, and to preach for a verdict. For Vaughn Roberts, it is careful interaction with the biblical text, a clear and memorable sermon structure, an economy of words, and a commitment to mentor the next generation of preachers. For David Cook, it is to be genuinely interested in people, to apply the sermon first to oneself, and to enter the congregation’s world before drawing them into the world of the text.

Vibert’s conclusion summarizes these qualities and then poses a really interesting question, “wherein lies the power of good preaching?” Is it in the Word of God, is it in the Holy Spirit, is it in the person of the preacher submitted to God? In the end, Vibert argues that the answer is “yes”, that it is an “intermarriage” of all three that can be observed in scripture, church history, and in great preaching in our own day.

I both preach on occasion and have been involved in the training of younger ministry colleagues in preaching so I found much of interest that confirmed my own convictions. There was a significant glaring omission that I could not overlook–the absence of women or non-white exemplars such as Isaac Canales or Ajith Fernando or Ken Fong, and many others. It seems that the unspoken assumption is that excellence in preaching can only be attained by Anglo men. The author does not address this omission other than it may reflect the result of a survey among ministry peers. This lack of cross-cultural awareness is disturbing and undermines the otherwise worthy ideal of this book.

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Review: Theology of the Cross

Theology of the Cross
Theology of the Cross by Charles B. Cousar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was prepared to have a “so-so” reaction to this book, which I found in a bookstore bargain bin. That wasn’t helped when I found that the writer was only going to deal with those Pauline texts accepted by mainline scholars (leaving out epistles like Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals). Instead, I found this a profoundly helpful book in reflecting on the theology of the cross. In a sentence, what made it so was that Cousar stayed close to the biblical texts from which he was developing this biblical theology of the cross. And as a result, he reminded me of how the cross turns everything upside down.

After surveying the field of research including Kasemann’s work, he begins by considering the cross and our theology of God. He observes that we often simply “infinitize” the attributes of God. Instead, he considers the impact of the cross in revealing the righteousness and love of God in God’s willingness to enter the human condition.

He then moves to the question of human sinfulness and how the cross addresses this and explores the different theories of atonement as well as the elements of participation in Christ’s death found in Romans 6 and the idea of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2. I would differ with his approach here which seems to hold all on a par. I still believe that the idea of substitution is foundational to making sense of everything else. That, however, is a long discussion and Cousar reminds us that the images of salvation in Paul’s writing are diverse and show us indeed how great Christ’s saving work is.

Chapter 3 considers death and resurrection, and particularly how these two are intertwined in so much of Paul’s writing–together as God’s saving work, our promise for the future, and as a reality in our lives, both dying in Christ and experiencing his resurrection power.

Chapters 4 and 5 shift focus to the significance of the cross in Christian experience. Chapter 4 explores how the death of Christ forms a new people, providing a basis for unity and holiness across our various cultural identifiers. Chapter 5 goes deeper into the experience of identifying with the death of Christ in our experience of weakness and suffering, which the author sees as a major challenge for the North American church, even while this is a comfort to the church in many parts of the world.

His concluding chapter recapitulates the themes of the book, arguing for the centrality of the cross in Christian theology, how this shapes our ideas of God, the church, and the experience of God’s grace and final victory.

This book is part of Fortress Press’s Overtures to Biblical Theology series. I’ve been impressed with each of the volumes I’ve read. This was no exception.

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