Tag Archives: interpretation

Was the Reformation a Mistake?

Today we celebrate (mourn, think about, reflect upon, take your pick) the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. With this momentous event upon us, 517yithbnpl-_sx326_bo1204203200_numerous people have turned their attention to the various historical and contemporary implications of the Reformation. You can see this in the number of books, articles, and blogs that have been devoted to treating either the background of the Reformation, Reformers, and Protestant-Catholic relations.

Among those books these stick out to me as being really interesting:

Biblical Authority after Babel – Vanhoozer 

The End of Protestantism – Peter Leithart

Reformation Theology – Matthew Barrett

The Five Solas Series – Various Authors 

But there is another book that recently caught my eye. A book that was written by a Roman Catholic theologian whom a lot of protestants really like: Matthew Levering (Professor at Mundelein Seminary). Levering, just published a book with one of the foremost evangelical publishers, Zondervan. It’s titled Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbliblical. If that doesn’t catch your eye then maybe the fact that it includes a Protestant response by Kevin Vanhoozer will!

Enough about the background of the book. What is this Roman Catholic theologian’s answer? Was the Reformation a mistake? According to Levering – Yes and No.

No, because the Reformation has reminded the Church of things that have been neglected by Roman Catholics, namely, love for Scripture, the authority of God’s word, salvation by God’s grace, gospel, preaching, Bible study, and personal faith and relationship with Christ. (16) Levering is grateful for these thigns. However, in another sense, he does in fact believe the Reformation was a mistake. How was it a mistake? Well he says, the Reformation was built on a mistaken assumption that Catholic views of Scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, Justification, etc. are unbliblical. In light of this he attempts to show that Catholic doctrine is in fact not unbliblical (note he doesn’t say biblical, rather he says not unbiblical).

In order to make his case, he argues that catholic doctrine is based upon biblically warranted modes of reasoning about biblically revealed realities. (21) Essentially this “biblically warranted mode of reasoning” is a way of thinking about the bible and its truths in a communal and liturgical way. Or to put it in a slightly different way,

The reasoning prescribed by the Bible for interpreting biblical texts is hierarchically and liturgically contextualized, in the sense that the Spirit communicates the word of Christ to the people of God who are gathered for worship by “the apostles and elders,” and by those like Timothy whom the apostles (whose testimony to the gospel of Christ remains uniquely authoritative) appointed as their successors. (24)

To put it more plainly, when we think about doctrine, we must come to the text of Scripture and read it through the lens of tradition. Tradition tells us what the text means and what the text is about. To read Scripture outside of this “biblically warranted mode of reasoning” is a wrongheaded way of reading the text.

Given his definition of biblically warranted modes of reasoning, he proceeds to treat the scriptural background of numerous Roman catholic doctrines, including Scripture, Mary, the seven sacraments, justification, purgatory, saints and the papacy. The result is essentially him saying “well, scripture doesn’t exactly teach purgagatory or the papacy, etc.; but through the mode of reasoning we apply to the text, the doctrines are not unbiblical.”

If protestants are not convinced by his conclusions, according to Levering himself, that is okay! He isn’t trying to convince them to accept Catholic doctrine. Rather he simply wants to show them that Catholics aren’t unbiblical in their thinking. I will leave it to you, the reader of this blog, to pick up the book and decide whether you are convinced by him.

However, I do want to throw in my two cents…

Not being unbiblical is not enough. We aim to say what scripture explicitly and implicitly teaches, nothing more and nothing less.


Tradition is not a second source of revelation – it is a helpful external guide.

Both of these are at least in part two of principles we reflect upon on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Anyone who holds to these principles simply won’t be able to buy into Levering’s account, and thus won’t be able to say that Levering’s account of a “not unbiblical” account of Roman Catholic doctrine is adequate.

All in all, despite this criticism, I do have to commend Levering for writing this book. At the very least, it will dispel caricatures that some protestants have about Roman Catholics, namely that they simply make stuff up as they go or that they don’t care about the Bible. That, it seems to me, is a worthwhile result.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.


Book Review – Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook by Herbert Bateman IV

Over the years I have really come to appreciate all sorts of interpretive handbooks. One of my favorite is the “Handbook on the… prophets, historical books, wisdom books, etc.” series published by Baker Academic. But recently I was given a review copy of the General Letters volume of the “Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis” series. If the rest of the series is as good as this volume, it will soon become one of my favorite handbook series as well.

Interpreting the General Letters by Herbert Bateman IV, professor at the Cyber-Center for Biblical Studies, provides the reader with a step by step approach for analyzing and communicating the general letters.

The book is divided up into several sections:

  • Two chapters on “background” material to the general letters.
  • A chapter on the theology of the general letters
  • Two chapters on how to interpret the general letters using exegetical methods
  • Two chapters on communicating the general letters through expository writing and preaching
  • A chapter on other sources that can aid the interpreter in the exegetical task
  • An appendix with an annotated selection of NT Commentaries

Especially strong are the first few chapters which provide the background necessary for interpreting these texts. One interesting point that Bateman makes in this section is that Jude is actually written to address the issue of Jewish rebellion that permeated all of Judea and that it was not actually written to repudiate false teachers. In other words Jude is a political text. This was quite a surprising interpretation of Jude. Nevertheless it is an interpretation that is worthwhile thinking about.

Also, another strong part of the text is Bateman’s step by step instructions for moving from clausal analysis to preaching on a Sunday morning. Following his step by step instructions can be tedious and time consuming, but eventually those steps will become second nature for the preacher/teacher. Nevertheless, it was helpful to see those steps clearly explicated.

Overall this handbook for interpretation will be a valuable addition to any pastor, teacher, or student’s library. It is certainly a book that I will recommend to the students in my General Letter’s class. Also, I really look forward to reading the other volumes in this series.

(Note: I received the book for free from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.)

Some Thoughts on Colossians: Colossians 1 and the Old Testament

Colossians is full of allusions to the Old Testament. For instance Colossians 2:2-3 makes an allusion to Daniel 2 as well as to Proverbs 2:3-6. Colossians 3:9-10 makes allusions to Genesis 1 and Genesis 3. Finally Colossians 4:5 alludes to Daniel 2. This week I would like to take up another allusion that Paul makes. In Colossians 1:3-8 the Paul alludes to one of the most important OT passages, Genesis 1 (specifically 1:28). By alluding to Genesis 1:28 Paul shows that the spread of the Gospel is the fulfillment of God’s original intentions for the creation of humanity.

Paul says that the Colossians have heard of this hope in the gospel that has come to them by way of Epaphras. He says that just as this hope that they would be transformed into the image of God and that they would know the ressurection from the dead has come to them, it is also going throughout the rest of the world. In fact this word of truth, this hope is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world through the proclamation of the gospel.

At first glance, we might read this fact that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world just as it was growing and bearing fruit in Colosse as a metaphor for how the gospel is spreading. The reference to growing in Colossians 1:6 is a reference to the gospel going out to everyone regardless or sex, race, or social status. Secondly the reference to bearing fruit is a reference to the gospel’s effectiveness when it is proclaimed as well as the blessings that the gospel brings. Just like the parable of the sower in Mark 4, the gospel is effective. Also the gospel is bearing fruit: converts and lives filled with good fruit i.e. obedience. Although all of these might be true of this passage, I don’t think that this is the main thrust of what Paul is trying to say.

Notice the similarities between Genesis 1:28 and Colossians 1:6. In Colossians 1:6 we see the words “all the world,” “bearing fruit,” and “increasing.” In Genesis 1:28 we see the words “increase,” “multiply,” and “all the earth.” These linguistic similarities establsih a connection between the pasages. Now notice what Adam is called to do in Genesis. Adam was a “priest-king.” As the priest-king Adam was to be fruitful and multiply over the earth. However, Adam’s purpose was not merely to procreate so that the world might be filled. Adam was created to extend the boundaries of the garden. As the garden’s caretaker Adam had the task of cultivating the garden in such a way that God’s creation would glorify him.

Thus God’s ultimate goal in creating Adam was to “magnify his glory throughout the earth by means of faithful image bearers.”

By alluding to Genesis 1:28 in Colossians 1:6 Paul reveals how he sees the Colossian church taking part in God’s plans. The church at Colosse is spreading the gospel and thus working out humanity’s vocation of working for God so that God’s glory would fill all the earth. The Colossian church is taking part in both God’s plans to redeem all of creation and God’s origninal intentions for humanity.

Paul says that in proclaiming the gospel we are being what we were created to be.

If in proclaiming the gospel we are being what God created us to be, then when we are not proclaiming the gospel we are being less that fully human.

Paul’s creational theology as expressed in Colossians claims that to truly be a part of the new creation, and to be fully human we are to be glory extenders. Thus we must ask ourselves, if we are not extending God’s temple, and by extension his kingdom, in some way or another are we truly living as a part of the new creation?

Here are some questions to discuss as you consider the passage this week:

  • How are you fulfilling the task of “expanding the garden” or “expanding God’s glory in this world?”
  • Are there any other implications (aside from evangelism) in viewing mission in light of humanity’s original task in the garden?

How To Read the Bible (I’m Not Being Snarky!)

The last post in this series of posts on hermeneutics was titled: How to Read Your Bible (or How You Actually Read the Bible), I must admit that that the title was a bit snarky. You probably thought I was going to tell you about ways to read your bible but I fooled you and showed you how you actually read your Bible. I’m sorry about that. This time I will actually outline a few methods for reading the Bible. There are at least three rather obvious places where we can find meaning in the text of the Bible. When you read you probably find yourself engaging in trying to find meaning in all three” locations” Here are the three:

  1. Behind the Text
  2. In the Text
  3. In front of the Text

Behind the Text

  • This way of approaching the texts attempts to locate the meaning especially in history. This has been the dominant approach in biblical studies for centuries. When reading this way the reader attempts to isolate the historically intended, correct meaning of the text. It attempts to inquire into the historical situation/background of the text. It places a majority of its emphasis on what is going on during the actual writing of the text. This type of reading makes use of other discipleins like “Historical Criticism,” “Extracannonical Jewish Text Studies,” and “Classics.” The key word for this type of reading is “History.”

In the Text

  • In the text methods (obviously) attempt to focus on the text itself, its form, its structure, its consistency, etc.  Many times this sort of reading will make use of other disciplines like “rhetorical criticsm” or “Genre Analysis” or “Linguistics.” The in the text reading” is where we might locate the blooming discipline of “new testatment use of the old.” This discipline fits into this way of reading scripture because it focuses on how some texts make use of other texts. This type of reading (new testament use of the old) makes use of intercannonical liteary themes. Thus it limits itself to the study of the text itself. The key word for this type of reading is “Literature.”

In Front of the Text

  • This way of reading scripture takes very seriously the questions, “who is doing the reading?” This method emphasizes the fact that the reader is not an empty receptacle for meaning, rather as the reader engages with the text, the reader contributes (baggage) to his/her reading of the text. In-front-of-the-text readings do not pretend to be neutral, rather they recognize that all our readings come from a particular vantage point, that is, there is no “view from nowhere.” This way of reading scripture makes use of other disciplines like “Feminist Criticism,” “African American Criticism,” and “Latino/a Criticism.” Interpretation for the sake of Christian Ethics might also fall into this sort of reading, namely because Christian Ethics is about the response of the reader and his/her understanding of the text. The key word for this type of reading is “Response.”

This was just a really short outline of three ways we approach scripture. Although professional scholars usually engage primarily in one of these methods (N.T. Wright would be considered “Behind the Text” and Walter Bruggeman would be considered “In the Text”) the truth is that when we read scripture we actually end up using all three methods. When reading a tough passage you probably have asked yourself:

  1. What did this passage mean to them 1000’s of years ago?
  2. What is the “big picture” truth?
  3. What does it mean for me today?

In a rough way these three questions parallel the three methods outlined above. So in one sense you are a biblical scholar engaging in complicated hermeneutical methods!

How to Read Your Bible (or How You Actually Read the Bible)

Today I want to continue our (unofficial) mini-series on hermeneutics. I never intended to start a series on interpreting the Bible but I guess thats what ended up happening. Last time we kicked off the series by looking at the parable in Luke 15:11-32. In doing this we saw how our different vantage points lead us to say different (although responsible) things about a text. The fact that there is a good amount of leeway for what makes a responsible interpretation led us to claim that interpretation is an art with certain sensibilities, and not exactly a science with a prescriptive method. Today we turn to two different ways to read a text, also Kevin Vanhoozer helps us consider the reader’s role in interpreting texts.

In Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation Kevin Vanhoozer sets the stage for understanding the role of the reader in New Testament interpretation. He helpfully points out that

“Reading is not merely a matter of perception but also of production; the reader does not discover so much as create meaning.” (13)

At first glance there seems to be something that’s off putting about thinking that the reader creates meaning with the text. In fact this quote might horrify some of you. (You might even think I am off my rocker and have bought into some sort or relativism.) Usually we think that we have to draw out the texts meaning by using objective, scientific methods. However the truth is that there are certain elements that prevent us from being capable of giving an objective reading of the text. The reader always brings some baggage to the text, whether that is the place of the reader, the gender of the reader, or the race of the reader. (This is exactly what we saw in our last post: That’s Not in the Text!!! )

Taking into account that the reader cannot be neutral to the text, the reader is faced with two options to make meaning, Vanhoozer lays them out as: the relationship of “reader-respect” and “reader-resistance.”

There is no way around it…. you bring your social, cultural, economic baggage to your interpretation. So when you read, you allow your “baggage” to create what you take to be your meaning. So you are left with two options:

  1. You can approach the text respectfully, that is, you can try to allow the text to speak to you on its own terms.
  2. You can resist the text, that is, you can push back against what the text is saying because it doesn’t fit your cultural paradigms.

So how do you read the scriptures? Are you a respectful reader or a resistant reader?

Kevin Vanhoozer: Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Kevin Vanhoozer: Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

That’s Not in the Text!!!

Recently I have been doing some thinking about how our contexts affect our reading of Scripture. In doing my own little case study of how this plays out in “real life” I came across three different interpretations of Luke 15:11-32: one by Donald Juel, one by N.T. Wright, and finally one by Allan Powell.

This parable (Luke 15:11-32), provides an interesting example of how:

One’s social location can affect how one interprets a text.

Lets start off by looking at Juel’s interpretation.

Juel sees this parable as ultimately being a parable about the older brother and titles it “The Lament of a Responsible Child.” He thinks this is an appropriate interpretation because it makes sense of the grumbling of the Pharisees towards Jesus about his eating with sinners. Thus it seems as though Juel might be reading this as a parable about having a legalistic attitude.

Wright on the other hand attempts to understand the parable in light of a 1st century Jewish framework. He says that fresh on the minds of Jews at the time would be concepts of exile and restoration. Thus the audience would have heard this as a parable about Israel; Israel (the lost son) has finally returned from exile.

Finally Allan Powell presents various interpretations each explicitly within their location. Powell doesn’t really interpret it himself but rather he shows how our social location affects the interpretation. He gives the parable to various groups of interpeters: First he gives it to 12 American seminary students then he tells them recount it from memory. These students emphasized his wasteful attitude towards the money the father had given him. Then he gave the parable to some Russians. The Russians saw the parable as about the younger brother’s foolishness. Finally he gave it so some Africans. The Africans saw the sin as being in the society that didn’t help the brother.

Upon reading all of these interpretations, initially I thought, “yes that made sense, I can see how they got that interpretation.” Not once did I think,

“That is not in the text!!!”

I believe that all of the readings could be defended primarily because they make use of the context. Juel makes use of the narrative elements around the parable. Wright makes use of what he takes to be the historical context. Powell points out that the Africans (as well as the Russians and Americans) try to take seriously their own context. None of these readers are being irresponsible with their interpretation; they all back their readings with evidence why theirs is right. All of the readers are being responsible with the text to a certain extent. However, because there are so many ways to be responsible with the text: literary context, historical context, reader’s context it is difficult to say what constitutes a correct reading. Thus it is probably better to say that some readings are better than others; in saying this we must remember that interpretation is an art with certain sensibilities, and not a science with a prescriptive method.

Prodigal Son

Interpreting the History of American Evangelicalism: 2 Lenses (Part 1)

It has been said that one of the themes in the history of evangelicalism is that energetic populist or democratic new movements eventually become more middle class and staid. One might seek to interpret the history of American Christianity in light of this lens (the democratization of American Christianity). However there are other primary lenses for interpreting American Christianity for instance one might interpret American Christianity in light of theological principles (such as how God works), doctrines, intellectual or interpretive assumptions that shape use of the Bible, practices, moral standards and concerns, leadership, personalities of leaders, zeal and organization for evangelism and missions, responses to the challenges of the surrounding culture, effective use of media, or other factors.

In this brief series of posts I would like to examine the history of American Christianity through two lenses: 1-the lens of democratization and 2-the lens of doctrinal disputes. Today we begin with the democratization of American Christianity.


In his book The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch argues that the central force behind evangelicalism has been its democratic or populist orientation. This populist orientation is manifested in three different ways. The first way he sees the populist spirit played out is in the fact that evangelicals consider individual religious experiences of utmost importance. The second way is in lack of a firm distinction between clergy and laity. During the rise of evangelicalism ordinary people began to distrust their established leaders and sought out to shape their own faith according to their own likings and to choose their own leaders. The third way is the way that evangelicalism has always been led by populist, charismatic leaders with big dreams to change the world, for instance Francis Asbury and Charles Finney.

Although Evangelicalism prior to the civil war was a populist religion, eventually it shifted towards becoming more middle class, to the point where it eventually became the established form of religion among the American people. Hatch points out that in the South Baptists and Methodists became the established forms of religion. As they became more established, middle and upper-class citizens sought to join these churches, in turn these churches sought to dampen populist tendencies so that they might find respectability among its new members and society at large. The way this played out was in the adoption of middle-class methods of ministry and in the establishment of institutions of higher education.

One character that sticks out in this shift from populist to established is Charles Finney. Finney bridged both cultures, and introduced the indigenous methods of popular evangelism to the middle class. But he also brought middle class interests to populist religion; he brought along with him middle class ways of preaching and an interest in orthodox theology that up to this point had not been a major interest for many evangelicals.

This pattern of being populist and democratic to becoming more middle class and staid is a pattern that can be seen through the history of evangelicalism. In the next post I would like to briefly look at two movements within evangelicalism that display this pattern.