The Beauty of a Seed – God’s Folly of Extravagant Grace

Extravagance.  Without caution, the sower throws the seed wherever it may fall.  Extravagance is the only word that I can think of to describe the scene of the sower.  Slinging the seed without caution, without calculation.  There is an extravagance in that act.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is sown.  The seed doesn’t always take root.  Yet, the sower casts the seed in anticipation of the harvest.  Extravagance is a good word.

Grace is a good word as well.  Unmerited gift.  Like that sower of the seed, God’s “seed” is cast wherever it might fall, regardless of the soil it might find.  Not every soil, not every life, will allow the seed to grow.  Some will immediately close their ears to the message of God’s coming Kingdom that is even now taking root among us.  The seed is never tilled into the soil and thus never takes root.  Others will receive it with joy, yet will quickly fade away with pressure (tribulation/ trial) or “the chase” (persecution).  Like the sun withering a shallow-rooted plant, the pressure of the world conforms such people back into its mold.  Still others will begin to grow but become choked by the cares of the world, by riches and their desire for things other than the Kingdom.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is cast out as a gift.  It is a gift that can be rejected, to be sure, but a gift nonetheless.

Such extravagance, such grace, seems to fail so often to produce the harvest.  It fails to take root.  It flounders under anxiety and fear.  If only the sower had been more cautious to sow in soil more hospitable, more selective in the task of sowing good seed in good soil.  Yet, that has never been the way of the sower.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of the Gardener.  Though the seed seems to be an overwhelming failure, yet the Sower is not deterred.  Almost imperceptibly, the seed finds good soil and takes root.  It springs forth in abundance: 30, 60, even 100 times.  The extravagant nature of the sower is imaged in the extravagant nature of the harvest.  It is abundant, full, and overflowing.  The seeming failure of the seed and the sower is proved to be wisdom rather than folly, hope rather than despair.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of God.

Such is the nature of Jesus – that Good Seed of the Kingdom of God.  The cross was folly, it was extravagant.  It appears to be failure of the greatest magnitude: the death of a criminal.  Yet, the Seed was thrown into the soil of Creation.  Although it appeared to be wasted extravagance, yet the resurrection unleashed the power of the abundant harvest, which has produced fruit beyond the imagination.  Jesus’ words to his disciples scatter them like seed back into the world: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Freely we have received, freely we must give that same grace that was lavished upon us.  Sling the seed upon whatever soil you might find and watch what God might do as the seed finds good soil.  Yet, even if our sowing seems in vain, fling God’s grace, which cannot be exhausted, as faithful sowers anticipating the harvest – even if we don’t get to see its fruit now.

Ephesians 1 – Resurrection, New Creation, and the Church

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

Paul identifies himself as the author of this letter to the Ephesian Church (in Asia Minor).  He also identifies himself as an apostle, which means “sent one.”  In other words, Paul is saying that he is an ambassador on behalf of Christ Jesus, called and empowered to do so by the “will of God.

          He addresses his audience in Ephesus, calling them “saints” and “faithful in Christ Jesus.”  The title of saints indicates the calling of this community of faith – to be holy.  The word for “saint” is rooted in the same word for “holy.”  Holiness is connected to the idea of being “faithful in Jesus Christ.”  This goes beyond simple obedience but aims at the heart of our obedience.  One may adhere to the Law perfectly and yet fail to fulfill the Law (think Pharisees, for example).  Sanctification (saint), the process of becoming holy (becoming like God, restored to the image of God), is right actions lived out of the overflow for love of God (holy love). 

This is also why Wesley will say that holiness is not the absence of sin.  This obedience is not about sinless perfection.  Rather, holiness is about perfection in the sense that we are fulfilling our purpose, even if our performance is not perfect. 

A mother planted flowers one Spring.  She had cultivated the ground and worked hard on getting the flowers in the soil.  Her young son came home from school, walked in the backyard, came back inside with a hand full of those same planted flowers with the dirt still clinging to the roots.  He handed them to his mom, saying, “I love you, momma, and I picked these for you.”  She graciously received the flowers and put them in a vase with water.  The mom understood that it was an act done in love, even if it did uproot her hard work. 

In a similar fashion, our sanctification does not mean that we won’t mess up, but that everything we do, even our mistakes, are derived out of a deep sense of love.  Thus, even while we might be holy, we are never done confessing our sins to God or to each other.  Why is it so difficult for us to confess our sins?


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul finishes his greeting by giving a blessing to the community.  What would it look like to extend God’s blessing to each other?  What would that mean for our relationships with one another?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

Paul begins the body of his letter with praise for God and what has been given to us through Jesus Christ, that is, “every spiritual blessing.”  Before challenging and encouraging the community, before addressing the issues facing the Church, Paul draws the community’s attention to God’s character and nature.  God is one who gives abundantly and generously – EVERY spiritual blessing.  God is not stingy.  God does not withhold any part of God from the Church.  If the Church’s character is to reflect God’s character, it will look like an abundant blessing to others.  Are we really a blessing to others or do we expect others to bless us? 

just as he chose us in Christ[b] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I’m sure the issue of election and predestination will come up here.  Here’s some quick thoughts.  God created everything to be a reflection of God, especially humanity.  Obviously, what God desired is only temporarily realized until sin enters the world.  God’s will is, at the very least, resisted.  So, just because God wills something does not then mean that Creation cannot choose differently.  There is potentially an element of free will at work in God’s election.

          God’s deep desire for all Creation is to be “holy and blameless in love.”  It is a gift which God gives all the opportunity to receive “to become children of God.”  God desires to adopt us as God’s children.  But, because God is Love, and love always has an element of freedom, God does not force the Creation or us to receive this gift.  We can, and have, rejected this invitation.  Now, that was the plan from the beginning, but this verse also hints at something new.  It has been offered (again?) through the Beloved, which is Christ Jesus.  God has made his appeal through Jesus to us to become children of God.  This is a Love that pursues us doggedly, as C. S. Lewis calls God: “The Hound of Heaven.” 


In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

It is through the “Beloved” that God is doing this holy work of reconciliation.  To “redeem” is to literally “ransom.”  We have to be careful with this metaphor, because if we push the metaphor too far we will do damage.  But, essentially, this idea of redeeming underlines the impossible situation that we needed to be delivered from.  Sin was a prison from which we had no key.  Christ unlocked our prison to set us free.

          This redemption is made possible “through his blood.”  That’s another way of saying “through Jesus’ very life.”  Forgiveness of our trespasses is possible through the “riches of his grace.”  Mercy is God’s gift.  Jesus exhales his “spirit” or “breath” on the cross, exhaling his very life back into the Creation.  His blood seeps into the soil of Creation.  His body is buried in the ground like a seed.  The entirety of Jesus’ life and death is the means of our life and reconciliation.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Jesus is the Word (Logos of John 1) through whom the world is created.  Logos (Word) is the Greek word from which we derive “logic.”  Jesus is the key to understanding the purpose (telos = goal, also telos = perfection, we are talking holiness here) of God’s good Creation.  What was a mystery is unfolded, unveiled in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The plan “for the fullness of time” (Kairos = God’s timing, not Chronos = chronological timing).  This plan is to “gather up all things in him (Jesus), things in heaven and things on earth.” 

          This is a powerful reminder that God is not simply destroying the Creation at the end of time.  That which is in Christ Jesus is a “new creation.”  In other words, it is through Jesus that all of Creation is redeemed, restored, and renewed!  Not only that.  Jesus also gathers up things in heaven as well.  In other words, as Revelation will announce toward the end of the vision. 

Revelation 21:1-3 reads:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them”

          In this way, God will be all in all.  In a miraculous way, Love and Life win.  There will be no place in all the Creation in which God will not say, “This is mine.  It is good.”  Jesus is the first seed of the New Creation.  Furthermore, Jesus is also the first fruits of the New Creation.  In other words, Jesus is the means by which New Creation is created and Jesus is the substance of that New Creation.


11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

As mentioned, Christ is the seed of New Creation.  As we participate in his life, so we also participate in the New Creation.  We are made part of the New Creation.  We are made new creations.  None of this is accomplished through our own power but through the power of Jesus.  It is through Jesus that we receive this inheritance, which was God’s purpose all along.

          The purpose of this does not stop with our receiving the blessing.  But, as it was with Abraham’s blessing, we are blessed to be a blessing.  This inheritance is given to us as we “set our hope on Christ” with outcome resulting in “living for the praise of his glory.”  Holiness does not draw attention to us; it draws others’ focus and gaze toward God.  And what is the glory of God?  According to St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is [humanity] fully alive.”  So, in many ways, holiness is reciprocal.  We glorify God by reflecting God character and nature of holy love.  As we reflect God’s character we are fully alive and fully human, which means we are glorifying God.

13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

This seed of New Creation is planted in us through the life of the Spirit in us.  In other words, God resides in us (the Creation), thus connecting God’s Life with our life.  The Spirit in Genesis 1 is the primary agent of God’s creating work.  The Spirit (Hebrew = ruach, pronounced ru-awk) is also the Breath of God by which life is imbued in the Creation.  This same Spirit is given as a “deposit” or “pledge” of that inheritance in the New Creation. 

The Spirit continues to work in us the power of the Resurrection and the Life of New Creation.  But, this redemption is not simply personal salvation and redemption.  It is redemption of God’s holy people together – again, “to the praise of his glory.”  Redemption is both personal and social holiness.  As John Wesley would say, “You cannot have personal holiness without social holiness.”

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.

The only way Paul would have heard of their “faith” is if it was being lived out in tangible ways – faith in action – demonstrated as “love toward all the saints.”  It likely reaches out to those outside the Church as well.  People may know where we are located on a map, but do they know us because of our “faith in action?”

17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Now, holiness is essentially rooted in relationship to God.  Paul prays that the community will be given wisdom and revelation.  Wisdom is understanding how to live well in any given situation.  Revelation is God’s Self-revelation to the world.  God makes God’s Self known to us.  Paul prays that we will both see God and God at work in the world and that we might faithfully respond and live wisely.  This is an ongoing process “as you come to know him.”  In other words, there is never a point in time where we cease to learn, grow, and deepen our relationship with God.  If we think we have God figured out, that is a time to be cautious and prayerful.  God tends to break out of those boxes we construct.  Rather, this is a continuous seeking after God and developing that relationship with God.  “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.”

          This is the means by which “the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened.”  John 1 comes to mind.  Jesus is the Wisdom (Logos) of God and the Light of God in the world.  To see the world and ourselves and God correctly with our hearts requires that we are connected with Jesus.  Jesus gives Light and Wisdom by which everything in our lives and world is ordered and given context.  This Wisdom and Light is the foundation of our hope to which we have been called.  It is not “hope” as in wishful thinking.  Rather, it is the “hope” that inspires (inspires – as the Spirit breathes into us) us to move forward as parts of God’s New Creation.  It is also the “glorious riches of our inheritance among the saints.”  In this merciful movement toward Creation’s redemption we begin to see and understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”  God’s power does not violate God’s holy love.  It is the fulfillment of God’s holy love.

20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

The power of God is demonstrated in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.  Death’s dominion is undermined.  Death is put to death.  All “rule and authority and power and dominion” that act as agents of Death are put in final notice that their reign is abolished.  Resurrection and Ascension is the enthronement of God as King over all.  The enthronement of Jesus over heaven and earth is the fulfillment of the Lord’s Prayer: “May Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  We tend to think of heaven as a place apart from earth.  But, where Jesus is, there heaven and earth are wed.  Heaven is the place where God’s reign is enacted in totality.  With Jesus being seated at the right hand of God (the place of power/authority), God’s reign is established in full, both in heaven and on earth.

          Dr. Tim Crutcher states it this way: “Easter Sunday is not just about the resurrection of Christ as the anchor of our hope for new life. It is God’s decisive declaration that God will deal with all death-bringing realities in only life-bringing ways. God does not fight death with more death, hate with more hate, dark with more darkness. Death does its worst, and God brings life. Hate has full rein, and God offers love in return. Darkness rules and God says, “Let there be light.” As resurrection people, let us be daily living reminders of this reality.”

22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Resurrection power is also something that is given to the Church, through Jesus.  As Eugene Peterson tells us, we are called to “practice resurrection.”  In other words, even the world around us still lives as if Death reigns, we are called to live as those who have received God’s resurrection power.  Which is to say, that we are called to live and act differently than a world bent on Death.  We are to live as ambassadors of God’s mercy, bringing life to others, to the Creation.  We are called to spread the seeds of New Creation in the soil of our world. 

The Church is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.”  That is an incredibly awesome responsibility and gift.  It is also incredible power to live out, to practice resurrection.  God equips and empowers us to live as new creatures now, not just in the future.  As Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  Resurrection is not about preserving our lives but in giving our lives away, even as Jesus demonstrated on the Cross.  Death is a defeated foe.  Life is swallowing up Death.  What are some practical ways we can practice resurrection in our community?

Ephesians 1:3-6 Considered: Chosen and Destined

Here’s the text from Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.


This text is a contentious battleground for many within Christian circles.  The tension revolves around the issue of predestination and free will.  More than that, it’s about the way God uses power.  Or, to say it another way, what kind of power is it that God wields?

The predestination camp, if I can call it that,  argument goes something like this.  Even before God created the heavens and the earth (i.e., “the foundation of the world”), God ordained/predestined those who would be saved and those that would not.  In other words, God’s grace is reserved for those that He has chosen to save.  The others are just clay vessels made for destruction.  The whole idea revolves around God’s power – omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.  This scenario posits that if God has predestined something, and God knows the future, and God cannot lie, then it would seem that the creature really has no say in whether or not they receive God’s grace.  Of course, there are more nuanced arguments from this camp, but I’m wrestling with this basic tenet: God predestines some for salvation

Here’s a basic problem with this idea.  If God chooses those He would save before there is sin (i.e., “before the foundations of the world”), then sin is actually a creation of God.  If God is all-powerful, why didn’t God’s predestination work prior to sin with Adam and Eve?  If it didn’t work, does that mean, since we don’t have free will in this scenario, that God wills us to sin?  And, if God wills us to sin, then isn’t God the Creator of sin?  If God creates sin then sin is actually good and to be lauded.

However, this is not the scriptural testimony.  Scripture tells us that God is good and abhors sin.  Sin is not something God has created.  Rather, to quote C. S. Lewis, sin is the absence of the good, even as darkness is the absence of light.  It is not something that exists, per se.  But, sin is known by that which is absent, namely God’s goodness.  For God to choose for some to choose sin (that which is not God) would be for God to choose that which is not God as well.  In so many ways, this violates God’s simplicity – which is to say that God will not choose something that contradicts God’s character and nature, holy love.

Free will helps us navigate this issue.  I’m aware of issues with free will, but the concept as a whole helps us comprehend this text in a more holistic light.  First, predestination can be seen as God’s love-infused hope for His Creation.  This was the purpose from the beginning, the Creation would “holy and blameless before Him in love.”  I now have a young daughter.  My hope for her is that she will grow up to live this out as well.  Everything that I do for her is to aid in this development.  But, it could be the case that she rejects my hopes for her and wanders toward other things.  If our relationships naturally give space for free will, then it would seem odd that we have no free will.  And, indeed, it would suggest that God has created a deceptive world (another theological problem!).

The issue is one of power for those in the free will camp, just like the predestination camp.  The biggest distinction is the manner in which God uses such power.  For the predestination camp, it is about power that maintains God’s holiness as distinct separation from the Creation.  For the free will camp, God’s power is manifested as holy love, which allows the creature to freely accept or reject God’s love.  (True love requires response, which can easily be rejected.  If there is inability to respond, then it is not love.)

The question that is appropriate to ask at this point is whether or not we believe God set the Creation up for failure.  Or, perhaps, the Creation (via humanity) rejected God’s love.  Yet, in God’s love God did not give up on the Creation but sought to redeem it.  St. Irenaeus of Lyon has a beautiful way of summarizing this picture.  God in Christ Jesus became everything that we are so that through Christ Jesus we might become everything that God is by His very nature.  Or, to put it in the words of Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”


An insightful lecture on the issues surrounding God’s will trumping human will is given by Eleonore Stump at the Los Angeles Theology Conference:  The lecture reflects on atonement and Eucharist.  Some of her framework is enlightening for thinking through this issue of free will.

Biblical Interpretation: Learning the Language

Language, at the best of times, is difficult.  Rarely, if ever, do words have a singular meaning.  Rather, there is a cloud of meaning that surrounds each word.  Metaphors, puns, euphamisms (“feet” in Hebrew sometimes refers to male genitalia), and a variety of other uses for words detail the vast array in which we use words.  In order to understand what is being said, it takes an act of interpretation.  In fact, every encounter with language requires some kind of interpretation.  Sometimes we get it right, other times we are off the mark.

A friend of mine spent a year living and ministering in Ireland.  One of the first Sundays in church, her group was going to someone’s home for lunch and she was invited.  She didn’t know where the place was, so she asked one of the elderly gentleman if she could “get a ride.”  He blushed and said, “Oh, no, dear, I don’t think you want that.”  Someone later informed her that she had accidentally propositioned the man for sex and that she should next time ask for “a lift.”  Even though they were using the same words, the meaning of those words were vastly different!  Communication is difficult work!

In a normal conversation, it is easy to ask for clarification or correction in order to gain a better understanding of another’s point of view.  But, when it comes to the task of biblical interpretation, we don’t have that luxury.  We are centuries removed from the lives of the writers.  We live in a different time, culture, and epoch.  We speak different languages, live differently, and own a different way of conceptualizing the world.  Interpretation is rarely a straight forward act when it comes to interpreting the scriptures.

To make it even more complex, the language of the scriptures is not any more concrete than is our language.  In fact, any single word generally has a cloud of possible meaning through which we must sift.  Sometimes there is a narrow meaning of a word.  Other times it may employ several of the meaning simultaneously.  One great example of this is the word “love.”  We translate three different Greek words into our English word “love.”  Each of those Greek words (agape, phileo, and eros) range in meaning from unconditional love, to brotherly love, to erotic love.  And, yet, we choose to translate it with one word in English.  And, to make it more complicated, our English word of “love” can mean multiple things as well (I love my wife, I love football, I love my dog).  Needless to say, biblical interpretation must be entered into cautiously and humbly, recognizing that is not simply a matter of reading a passage and just “figuring out” as we discuss it in a group.

On occasion, you might hear a preacher or a teacher in the Church say that they are only preaching God’s Word or reading the “plain meaning of the text” or keeping with the literal sense of God’s Word.  In such moments, it might be beneficial to ask “plain according to who?”  Even trying to establish a literal meaning of every text is troublesome.  In essence, when we seek to do this we confuse truth with fact.  If we desire to establish a literal reading of every passage, then we would also have to say that thornbushes and trees talk and have kings (Gideon’s son).  Few of us would be willing to stake our lives on saying this is true.  Instead, we instinctively read this as a parable.  Thus, even those that try to establish a literal, factual account of every word pick and choose which passages this actually applies.

The very act of reading is an interpretive act.  When reading, one must assess the text and read accordingly.  Is the person in the text speaking as narrator or as a character?  Is the person mad, sad, happy, perplexed, bewildered, hurt, grumpy, sick, healthy, timid, bold, or otherwise?  Should the passage be understood as poetry, songs, instructions, narrative, law code, or apocalyptic kinds of literature?  How should I read that material appropriately?  After all, do we read newspapers, comics, blogs, and eulogies in the same manner?  Of course not.  Each requires nuance.  It is little wonder then that the Church can often be quite divided about how to understand what we are reading, even when reading the same texts!

Most of the time when we are interpreting a conversation or texts, we use guides that help us determine meaning.  Much of this work is intuitive; we do it naturally without thinking much about what or why we are doing it.  We use body language, context, tone of voice, prior experiences, knowledge, and logic to communicate with others, both receiving and giving messages.  Shared culture, values, and voices of authority also help us share communication with each other.

Although we are not able to use all of these things in interpreting scriptural texts, we can use some of these same methods (i.e., not able to hear the tone of voice of the author but we can sometimes determine the context).  As such, seeking understanding of the scriptures is not a futile task.  In fact, because God desires to make God’s Self known to us (revelation), interpretation is a hopeful, hope-filled task.

An initial thought is important as we begin: language’s content and context are equally important.  One way to think about this idea is found in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a German philosopher.  He writes, “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”  Language is only comprehensible out of the situation that gives rise to it.  Language is both content and context.  If we don’t know or can’t find the life situation for those words, we will often supply it out of necessity.  This is also where the possibility for misinterpretation resides.  It is both words that compose sentences and the grammar and setting that give interpretive clues to the meaning of those words.

The content aspect of language we are typically familiar with.  This requires being familiar with the words, sentences, and structure of a passage.  Are the verbs present or past tense?  Is the passage poetic, metaphor, law code, lineage list?  Are there certain words that repeat (i.e., Jonah’s book emphasizes everything that is “great”)?  Are there any odd details that seem out of place?  How does that shape the passage?  The words and structures matter in significant ways.  For instance, John 1:14 says that the Word “dwelled” among us.  The word translated “dwell” is also the word used for “tabernacle.”  Now, Jesus is connected with the wilderness journey of Exodus, suggesting what his purpose is, because of one small word!

When teaching from a passage there are three contexts that one must keep in mind: canonical context, original audience context, and our contemporary context.  There is the biblical, canonical context.  What book does this passage come from?  How does it interact with the previous and following passages?  Are there other books of the bible that challenge this passage?  One of the things that we are sometimes prone to do is called proof-texting.  Proof-texting takes a snippet of scripture out of its context.

A great example is Jeremiah 29:11.  We likely can quote it because we put it all over home décor.  It’s true that God promises blessings in this passage, but we lose a sense of the whole thought when we don’t read the rest of the passage.  Here’s Jeremiah 29:10, “This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.’”  This is not an immediate fulfillment of promise.  And, it is only completed AFTER judgment.  The context matters.

Another context is the life situation of the community that received these letters or books.  What was happening in the community?  What were their struggles and strengths?  What cultural factors help us understand the passage?  For example, Romans 12 tells the church to repay evil with good.  In so doing, they will “heap burning coals” on the heads of their enemies.  In our culture, retribution and getting even are applauded.  As such, some have read this to mean that repaying evil with good is merely another way to get even, get back, get ahead.

However, in that particular culture, it was difficult to start your home fire if it went out.  The easiest way to re-start your home fire was by borrowing already burning coals.  In transporting those coals, people would carry buckets on their head with the live coals inside so that the heat rose without burning themselves.  So, it’s likely that the author of Romans means to say something like: “Repaying evil deeds with good might re-kindle the fire in the other person’s heart, drawing them once again to God.”  Content and context cannot be separated.

As teachers and preachers, we must also be aware of our own context.  Because we live in a different time and culture, not every aspect of the scriptures will be easily applicable.  Here is where we can use a “tethered imagination.”  We must remain faithful and true to the intent of the text while finding appropriate application for our community.  We have to be aware of our biases and convictions and how that shapes our understanding of texts.  This is no easy job and must be done with sincere care and prayer.  Prophetic words must be matched with priestly care.

One fine example of this in practice is Eugene Peterson’s writings.  Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness is a book weaving its way through Jonah in order to talk about the pastoral vocation.  Peterson takes some liberties with the scriptural text by applying it to today’s pastoral situation.  Yet, simultaneously, he takes Jonah seriously and helps us get a better sense of the book’s intent, perhaps.

Now that we have thought about the content and context of language, I’d like to consider tools for interpretation.  Albert Outler, a John Wesley scholar, noted the means by which John Wesley did scriptural interpretation, using four guides for such interpretation: scripture, experience, reason, and tradition.  This is sometimes referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and sometimes the Wesleyan Hermeneutical Circle.  I think a more helpful way of understanding how these four pieces work together is by conceiving of it as a spiral (Wesley’s Hermeneutical Spiral).  The work of interpretation is never complete.  There is always something more that can be gained a second time going through those texts.  As such, the spiral gets tighter but never ends.

Scripture and our experience make up the data that we work with in interpretation.  Scripture testifies to God’s revelation.  Experience articulates life.  These two things are the poles which we are constantly going between.  In order for something to be true, it must make sense in both of these arenas.  Experience and Scripture cannot be contradictory if they are both held to be authorities of Truth.  Knowledge arises at the intersection between these two realities.  That doesn’t always mean that we interpret correctly, but it does mean that theology is a practical matter and all practical matters are theological in nature.  In other words, there is no true sacred and secular divide for both arenas are the place where God acts.

Tradition and Reason are not sources of data from which we build our knowledge.  Rather, they are tools that help us navigate between Scripture and Experience.  Reason and Tradition can be implemented in poor ways, but we use them regardless.  The question is whether we are using these tools well.

Reason is our ability to put things together, providing a framework for understanding.  Reason synthesizes what is gained from Scripture and experience.  A prime example is the early Church’s affirmation of the Trinity.  Deuteronomy 6 told them that God is One.  Yet, Jesus came and was surely God, but also spoke to the Father and then sends the Spirit after he ascends.  God is One yet God is Three.  Thus, the only logical option is to say that God is Triune.  But, because Trinity is so far outside of our experience, our logic is limited.  It can only go so far and should be aware of its boundaries.

Tradition can also be a helpful tool.  It can be right or wrong, but either way we can learn from the past.  It is a conversation between students past and present, disciples along the way.  We learn and build on that faith handed down to us from the apostles.  The benefits of tradition is that it is a way of affirming that our beliefs are not just our own but is established upon a history that has demonstrated its truth in the lives and experiences of others.  If we ignore the past, we are likely to repeat those things that are harmful and neglect those things which might be for our benefit.

A helpful example has been studying Luther and Wesley.  Luther affirmed the ministry of the Word.  As Protestants, we come from a strong heritage affirming the ministry of the Word.  But, a side-effect has been the neglect of the Lord’s Table.  Wesley told his followers to take communion as often as they could for it is a means of grace.  Holding these both in tension (which Wesley did), can be helpful in our ministry of Word and Table, as the Lord taught us, in communal worship.

Finally, some simple suggestions that can make a major impact in our interpretation and teaching.  Begin with prayer.  We need the Spirit’s illumination and wisdom.  After you have selected your passage, read the entirety of that passage’s book.  Know how that passage fits in with the rest.  Read the passage itself several times very slowly, marking interesting details.  Do word studies that give you a sense of the purpose of the passage.  Ask questions of the passage: what time of day or night, who are the characters in this passage, what are they doing, where are they going, where are they located now, what is their socio-economic setting?  Determine what kind of literature this passage is and the literature style (i.e., letter, law, psalm) of the book.  How do those shape each other?

Next, think about that passage in light of the entirety of scripture.  Where does it fit in the overall narrative?  It’s helpful to know that John’s Gospel requires knowledge of Genesis, Luke requires knowledge of Isaiah, Matthew requires knowledge of Exodus, 1 Samuel requires knowledge of Deuteronomy and Judges, etc.  What books are important for helping us understand this passage?  What books might contradict or challenge this passage?

Next, study the contexts.  Read up on the culture and history of that surrounding time period.  What was happening?  Why does that matter?  Does Paul’s Roman imprisonment change the tenor of Philippians?  Does knowing about the Maccabean revolt shed light on Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem before he was betrayed?  Allow the framework of that time period to become your framework more and more.

Communication requires community.  Read commentators, theologians, pastors.  Read past and present voices.  Converse with them and allow them to help shape the message.  Were you on the same page with them?  If not, is there something you are missing?  Have conversations with trusted partners in ministry and life that can help shed light on those passages as well.  It will help you begin communicating your own thoughts on the passage as well.

Lastly, prayerful seek throughout the process where your people are at.  How might they hear this passage?  What struggles face them?  What joys are part of their life?  What is the best way to faithfully, lovingly communicate this so that it impacts their lives and experience of God as well?  Who would they identify with in the passage?  Is there someone else they need to identify with?  How is the narrative forming in their own lives and can I help them take notice of that?

“Preaching with Variety” by Jeffery Arthurs

The bibliographical citations are from reputable resources.  Arthurs uses ideas from several well-known preachers and theologians: Thom Long, Fred Craddock, David Buttrick, Robert Alter, and C. S. Lewis, to name a few.  Although Arthurs does quote Elizabeth Achtemeier, his sources are scantly filled by women or minorities.  This is a real drawback to the book in terms of holistic styles of preaching.

God is the “Great Communicator.”  Scripture is the means by which God communicates with us.  Within Scripture there is a variety of genres and literature types.  If God uses variety, then there is a good reason for us to use variety in our sermons as well.  The variety of literature also provides for a variety of responses in the audience.  Through these various modes of communication, we are able to look at the facets of reality.

Preaching with variety also involves preaching in the vernacular of our congregations.  If we cannot communicate in culturally appropriate ways, it may be difficult for our audience to receive the messages we send.  In our present context, we need to engage the visual senses.  Likewise, personal experience and participation is expected in our sermons.  Although sermons are auditory and oral events, we must find ways to include a holistic experience that engages the entire person.  Long-term learning best occurs in this environment.

The contents of the book are separated into several genres: psalms, narrative, parables, proverbs, epistles, and apocalyptic literature.  Each of these forms communicates in a different fashion, whether through song, story, metaphor, or logical progression.  Each form has its own peculiar way of communicating.  Sermons in some way should mimic the intention of the genre.  In this way, the impact of the genre might also be upheld.  Fred Craddock states, “Let doxologies be shared doxologically, narratives narratively, polemics polemically, and parables parabolically.  In other words, biblical preaching ought to be biblical” (166).

This might include making a brief statement to summarize your sermons over a Proverb.  Or, it might include singing or responsive readings in the sermon of particular Psalms.  Perhaps, instead, they would be poetic in describing God’s activity.  Apocalyptic might use symbols, hymns, and doxologies to convey its contents of God’s victory.  Story might be woven throughout a sermon to help the audience identify with the characters of a narrative.  Dialogue and discourse might be implemented to convey an epistle’s meaning.  The impact of the genre, rather than its exact form, is a vehicle for transporting meaning from the text to the audience.

Overall, I thought this book was extremely helpful in understanding the Biblical genres and how their forms might be implemented in a sermon.  Although we do not have to be slaves to the genres, they provide some very creative frameworks from which to construct your sermon.  And, in doing so, one can potentially keep some of the intentions of the text for the contemporary audience.

Reading the Good Book Well: A Guide to Biblical Interpretation by Jerry Camery-Hogatt

This is a very good introductory text for biblical interpretation and exegesis.  Camery-Hoggatt outlines the way we naturally interpret things in our daily lives.  Language is naturally ambiguous and it takes a number of clues for us to sift through to properly understand what we are reading.  Scripture is no different, except that we don’t always have all of the cultural clues handy for us to make a correct interpretation.  The author describes the process for making better interpretations of the texts we are reading.  This is a very easy read, engaging, and even humorous at moments.  Overall, this is a fair text for establishing foundations and boundaries for our interpretation of the Bible.  I would definitely recommend it for an introductory class on Biblical interpretation.

Canon and Creed by Robert Jensen

The canon and creed do not become formalized until after several generations of disciples following Jesus and the apostolic witness.  The Church was constituted by the “rule of faith” governing over the life and faith of the early Christians.  Only after some distance between the original apostles and the inheritors of the faith did it become a necessary process to engage.  It became a matter of preserving that which was fundamentally and foundationally appropriate to Christian faith.  Both the canon and creeds arise from this need to develop such resources for the faith community.

The early Christian Church already had a body of literature for Scripture.  What we now call the “Old Testament” was not simply taken over by the community.  Rather, its functional use as Scripture within the community from the beginning is noted within New Testament texts, such as Jesus saying that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  The use of the Old Testament is derived from the conviction that Jesus indeed fulfills the covenantal promises and the Law found within the Old Testament.  In addition, the early Church perceived itself to be the faithful recipient of God’s continued call, given first to Israel, through Christ Jesus.  And, in fact, it is that very narrative that undergirds the Church’s theology and self-understanding found within the New Testament writings.

However, the task of interpretation remaining faithful to the regula fidei is still an issue.  The creeds serve as a tool for underlining and reminding the Church of the essentials of the faith.  In some ways, they provide boundaries of interpretation.  Yet, the creeds do not stand over and above the Scriptures.  Scripture too plays a role for the creed by filling out the fuller story of faith that is outlined in the creed.  Canon needs creed and creed needs canon.  They provide a mutually authoritative role for the community of faith.

Jensen also notes the importance of Church episcopacy.  Namely, that is to say that the faith is apostolic, handed down from generation to generation of believer in a faithful manner.  Although we cannot claim original apostolic authority for ourselves, we can find comfort that we have been taught in the faithful tradition handed down from the teachings of the apostles themselves.  Jensen shows concern about the lack of episcopacy within the Protestant tradition, which certainly is a valid concern.  However, based upon his premise that it is not the words of the text that provide the authority of canon and creed, but it is the Word, which is Christ risen, enlivened by the Spirit in those whom believe.  If that is the case, then it would make sense that the Spirit is not limited by Church structure, one way or the other, to make the Word known.

Essentially, the creed and canon are authoritative resources for the community because they arise out of the community of faith.  They are the dialogue of tradition that has formed out of the rule of faith.  It is a communal reflection on the essentials of the faith used to navigate the uncharted waters of theology and life, wherever that might take us.  They arose from a need to preserve and extend the faith for others.  Moreover, creed and canon formed in a similar manner and in approximately the same amount of time.  Thus, they played a dialogical role in discussing and discerning, via the rule of faith, what life should look like together as the community of believers.

Inspiration and Authority by Paul J. Achtemeier

The Christian community has always affirmed the inspiration and authority of Scripture for the community of believers.  However, the Christian community has not come to a consensus regarding the nature of that inspiration and authority.  In this paper we will explore several common perceptions on divine inspiration and authority of Scripture.  In the final analysis, I will provide my own viewpoints about inspiration and authority.

There are essentially three ways, with various nuances, in which to view the composition of the Bible.  First, some believe that Scripture is entirely God’s work.  In other words, Scripture is literally God’s Word that He both inspired and had transcribed.  This is usually labeled the conservative position.  Counter to that position, liberals tend to ascribe the texts of Scripture to the work of human ingenuity.  There may be some manner of inspiration on God’s part, but the work of Scripture is largely attributable to humans.  Both the liberal and conservative positions find it difficult to converse on a similar plane with one another.  Each position perceives a threat from the other position.  However, there is a third viewpoint that merges both the conservative and liberal agenda.  “Dynamic authorship” portrays Scripture as both divinely inspired and humanly crafted.  This viewpoint maintains that God’s inspiration occurs through and is not hindered by human creativity and authorship.

Paul J. Achtemeier points out that there are two traditional viewpoints for the locus and mode of inspiration.  One side attributes inspiration to the authors while the other camp places inspiration in the actual words found in Scripture.  There is a predicament with both of these positions.  We do not have access to either!  All authors of Scripture are deceased and none of the original ancient manuscripts have been found.  The manuscripts we do have are incomplete, damaged, and copies of copies of copies that have layers of editing or “corrections”.  Furthermore, those texts are translated into other languages that often use different words to convey similar meanings.  For instance, the English language uses the word love to replace several Greek words that have slightly different meanings.  Most of us only have access to translations (which are numerous) of those copies.  At the very least, both of these positions are problematic for asserting and maintaining the inspiration of our contemporary Scriptures.

Achtemeier suggests a third viewpoint that allows inspiration to continue beyond these other two loci.  “That position would want to affirm that what is inspired is to be understood not exclusively of the person, though he or she of course shared in the inspiration, nor solely of the words written down, though they too were not unaffected by the power of God’s Spirit.  Rather, the content of Scripture, the thoughts that the authors sought to convey in the words they chose, is the locus of inspiration” (10).  So, not having access to the authors or the original words does not threaten the inspiration of Scripture.

The classic liberal position emphasizes the human hand in the construction of the Scriptures.  The proponents of the liberal position point to the discrepancies and conflicting narratives that occur throughout Scripture.  For instance, Genesis 1 and 2 have conflicting timelines for creation.  They are mutually exclusive.  If Scripture is dictated by God, wouldn’t He know the correct timeline?  These anomalies are not secluded to the Old Testament alone.  For instance, the rough timeline of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospels is also in conflict.  From a chronological standpoint, these stories do not mesh.

Another problem that the liberal position wants to point out is the pre-scientific ideas that are propagated which contemporary science dismisses with ease.  The idea that the sun revolved around the earth was considered true for many centuries.  The Bible was even used to promote this idea.  Galileo’s discovery of heliocentricity did not meet open arms in the religious community because it “contradicted” the Bible, although we now know Galileo was correct.  If God had written down the Scriptures or spoke them verbatim to a scribe, would He have made such a mistake?  Such evidence bolsters the liberal camp’s position.  “What all of this means is that the Scriptures have been conditioned by the culture within which they originated in the same way that all other writings are so affected” (30).

Thus, the liberal position effectively demonstrates the human hand involved within Scripture.  However, with such evidence of discrepancies we must inevitably ask how we can be certain that Scripture holds authority and inspiration about trans-sensory realities when they are incorrect about sensory realities.  The conservatives point to this as a tremendous shortcoming from their opponents’ standpoint.

The conservative position tries “to show that Scripture contains no factual errors, i.e., statements that fail to conform to the external reality we know.  On the admission of conservatives themselves, any single statement of such nature would invalidate the idea of the inerrant inspiration of Scripture” (47).  The conservative position is often embarrassed by such inconsistencies within Scripture.  However, errors in a testimony do not negate the entire validity of a testimony.  In life, we are often quite comfortable with an individual’s story, despite knowing that not all the facts are accounted for or are entirely accurate.  Despite embellishment or neglect or ignorance, we are comfortable with understanding the “general truth” of a person’s story.   So, we need not have an errorless document for it to contain Truth.

Undaunted, the conservatives try to harmonize those passages that “seem” to be in conflict.  “Most attempts at harmonizing, and they are as numerous as the discrepancies within Scripture, are attempts therefore to show how discrepancies could be accounted for it the event to which they point could be constructed in a certain way” (54).  This creates another problem.  You have to go outside of the Scriptures to perform this task.  This conservative method of interpretation effectively demonstrates these passages are not “inerrant, since none of them know what really happened” (55).  Unfortunately, many people that discover this position to be inadequate leave their faith.  Since conservatives assert that the Bible is God’s Truth without error, many assume there must be no truth when error is found within its pages.

My understanding of the nature of biblical inspiration has changed as a result of ideas we have discussed.  Previously, before starting my theological studies, I would have classified myself as a conservative in some fashion.  The historical veracity of Scripture was essential to my faith.  When my historical understandings were challenged, my faith was assaulted.  Although I had journeyed quite a ways from literalist thinking in the past two years, this class has helped me to better affirm the human role in the composition of Scripture without compromising a high view of Scripture.

Achtemeier suggests that God is a Being of continuous revelation, not simply in past history.  He writes:

It becomes clear that to understand the varied witness in Scripture as the result of continuing attempts to fathom God’s will for new times is to understand the Bible as the product of a living attempt, never ended, to determine the kind of future into which the God of Israel and of the church is leading his people.  To understand Scripture in that way, rather than as a timeless deposit of the will of God that never changes, is to recognize that the task of interpreting God’s will for a new time is never finished (76).

We see Jesus operate in this way throughout the Gospels.  He re-interprets the Law and prophets and even re-interprets the role of the Messiah.

The development of the canon is a great example of this.  There were many texts from which to pick and choose.  It was the community of believers over time that not only developed these texts but officially recognized their inspiration and authority for the community.  “Church and Scripture grew up alongside each other – the traditions shaping the life of the church, and the church interpreting and reshaping the traditions in the light of its own proclamation of those traditions” (78).

Achetmeier believes that it is “tradition, situation, and respondent” that is the locus of inspiration.  I believe that this formula for inspiration and authority is adequate.  Achtemeier summarizes, “The final form is the culmination of a process of growth of Scripture that began with the primal event that shaped the community of faith and that has continued through the process of forming and reforming the tradition on the part of faithful respondents to new situations confronting that community” (119).

Critical methodologies can be quite useful in helping us to understand tradition and situations found within the text.  They help the contemporary community of believers to be as well informed as possible about the context of the Scriptures.  And, seeking to know Scripture well is especially beneficial if God is continually revealing Himself rather than simply having left behind an historical record of His revelation.  Critical methodologies help us to reflect on the myriad facets of Scripture, whether historical, literary, or grammatically.  They help us to appreciate the depth and beauty of Scripture.  And, when employed properly, they help us to encounter the text so that we may grow closer to God.

Brevard Childs’ Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture was exceptionally beneficial in shaping my understanding of Scripture.  Child’s canonical criticism gives a handle for interpreting Scripture holistically rather than independently from its canonical setting.  The interpretation of Scripture must be found to be cohesive (not necessarily harmonized) with its other parts.  It is the final form of our Scripture that is most important, not the individual parts that have been edited or redacted (although this can give us insight into an author’s emphasis).

Both Childs and Achtemeier provided a foundational block for understanding the locus and mode of inspiration.  We only have access to the final canonical form of Scripture.  If God can use it to reveal Himself today, then inspiration does not ultimately lie in original texts or authors, but in the traditions, situations, and respondents found throughout the tenor of Scripture and throughout the history of God’s people.  We shape our Scripture and the Scripture shape us.  And, most importantly, God’s Spirit breathes life through the whole process.


Works Cited

Achtemeier, Paul J. Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture.

Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.