Today is “Halloween” for many, but as evangelical believers, we should remember this as “Reformation Day:” Five hundred and one years ago today, an obscure monk began a revolution, that shook the religious complacency of his day to the very core. Are you a part of that revolution today?
Monthly Archives: October 2018
Several churches in our community have been working through Explore God, a series of questions that seek to spark conversations about God. This past week’s question has been: “Is the Bible Reliable?” Lurking behind this question is often a different question, “Should we really take the Bible literally?”
My typical response is to ask a person, “What do you mean by literally?” Often, to take something “literally” means to read something in a very “plain” sense way. But “plain” according to whom?
Often the pushback I get is that the Bible is simply just a matter of one’s own interpretation. “That is just your interpretation, so why should I believe what you think about the Bible?”
Here is the problem with that: It concedes the point that getting at the “plain” sense of the Bible is at least sometimes easier said than done. But it does not follow that Bible interpretation is always simply up for grabs, and therefore the Bible is necessarily unreliable.
What we need to be able to do is to understand the original context in which a particular text was written. It is the purpose and meaning that the original author had in mind, and not our own context, that should govern the interpretation of the Bible. As a result, the possibilities of how to interpret a text are necessarily limited to a certain range of potential meanings: a singular sense for a very clear text, and multiple senses for a difficult text. But with hard work and study, we can come to even a much clearer understanding of the most difficult texts.
Here is a good example of a difficult text, that cause some people to question the reliability of the Bible:
- For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40 ESV).
Here Jesus is drawing upon the story of Jonah and the great fish to explain His future crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. A plain, supposedly “literal” reading of the text reveals a problem. If you take “three days and three nights” in a “plain” sense, it gives you 72 hours. But the standard understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that He died on Good Friday and then rose on Sunday, about a 36 hour time period. Measured in hours, that timing is way off!
Well, there you go. The Bible is wrong here, and therefore is unreliable, and can not be trusted…. But is that a correct interpretation?
Now, there are folks who go to great lengths to show that the traditional interpretation of Jesus dying on Friday has been miscalculated by the church. Some contend that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. Others contend that Jesus was crucified on Thursday. Sure, you can pull all sorts of evidence together to try to support one of these alternative views, to make the “three days and three nights” work, as a way to defend and prove that the Bible is “literally true.”
But what if you are not convinced?
There is a much simpler solution to consider: Some scholars, like Andreas Köstenberger, suggest that we have evidence to demonstrate that the phrase “three days and three nights” is actually an old Semitic idiomatic expression, that is simply unfamiliar to modern English readers. Any portion of a 24-hour period of time could constitute “a day and a night.” So if Jesus died on a Friday and then rose from the grave on Sunday, that would give you “three days and three nights:” part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday. Just because this idiom would be unusual to us does not rule out the possibility that Jesus and/or the biblical writers would have known about such idioms, or metaphors, and used them freely in the Bible.
In other words, when the original Scriptural writer employed so-called “literal” language to describe something, without metaphor or embellishment, we today should cling to interpreting the Bible in the same manner. But when the writer does intentionally use metaphorical or figurative language, to express God’s truth in Scripture, we should cling to interpreting the Bible, again, in the same manner, as in the original.
So, to say that “the Bible is reliable,” is not just a pious excuse for appealing to one’s own interpretation of the Bible. We can appeal to the evidence to build a strong case that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is indeed reliable…. and therefore, trustworthy.
Some say that the Bible is unreliable, because they argue that the copying process of the New Testament had so many errors, that we really do not know what the original New Testament even said! The following clip from the documentary “Fragments of Truth,” shows that such claims are wildly exaggerated, as one learns the story of one famous, 3rd century New Testament fragment, P45, which was discovered in Egypt, and currently now on display in Dublin, Ireland (Go here for a critical, yet fair review of the documentary).
Dr. Bill Mounce, a leading English Bible translator, for the ESV and NIV, makes the point that many people, including many Christians, misuse the word “literal” when it comes to describing Bible translations (see the following 7-minute video). For an in-depth look at what Dr. Mounce is saying, listen to this talk he gave recently at Liberty University (you will need to adjust your audio level).
The Gospel Coalition has a bunch of interesting videos that explore this common objection, “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Don Carson, Al Mohler, Robert Smith Jr., Ligon Duncan, and a panel discussion, with Russell Moore, Mika Edmondson, and Ligon Duncan).
To end off this blog series on Christian Zionism, I want to offer the following parable.
My wife is a gourmet cook. She is fantastic. Not only that, she loves to cook. I love to eat her cooking, so we have a mutual appreciation thing going on.
One of my favorite foods is a juicy cheeseburger. I typically order one, if the restaurant has a good burger, much to my wife’s chagrin and concern over proper diet.
But let us say that one day, my wife calls me up at work and says that she is promising to fix me a nice, juicy cheeseburger for dinner. Now, I have had a long, hard day, so the expectation of this future meal sounds very inviting. Furthermore, she has now promised to fix me such a burger. So far, so good.
In this blog post series on Christian Zionism, I have tried to cover a vast amount of material, highlighting the most significant, while still trying my best to hear all sides in the debate. At this point, I can only make a tentative conclusion. The Bible is a big book after all, and so as long as the Lord tarries, I hope to keep studying and keep learning the truths as expressed in His Word.
I would hope to think that we as Christians can have robust conversations amongst ourselves on the topic of Zionism, in a spirit of “agreeing to disagree.” As long as we seek after the truth as found in God’s Word, we stand on good ground. My hope is that these blog posts have helped to move the conversation along. If you think I have something wrong, please let me know so that I can learn from you.
So here is my attempt to make a conclusion, however tentative it may be.
“If the Jews are Abraham’s descendants, then we would expect them to have a state of their own. But what do we see? We see them living among us scattered and despised….”1
“If the Jews were ever to reestablish themselves in the Holy Land, [I] would be the first to go there and have [myself] circumcised.” 2
— Martin Luther
In Martin Luther’s day, the Jews were dispersed all over Europe and parts of Asia. The sense of the Jews being different from everybody else eventually fed into the horrors of pogroms in later centuries. Luther’s frustration, that his Jewish neighbors seemed so resistant to his evangelistic efforts, finally sent the pious advocate of Reformation theology into an odd rage against the rabbis, in his old age.
But what would Martin Luther think today, considering the events that have taken place in the Middle East over the last century? Would he scowl and double-down on his discontent with the Jews? Would he eat his own words, and make the journey to the Middle East, and take the surgical knife upon himself? Would he judge the legitimacy of such a nation state based on how well she treated her neighbors? Or would he be more cautious, and puzzle more… and even marvel… over why so many of these dispersed peoples have made it back to their ancestral land?