Theology with Rough Edges

Systematic theology is intended as a helpful exercise. It helps us make sense of complicated ideas. It helps us to articulate some of the thinking that has taken place over the centuries. Yet, no matter how well we categorize our thoughts, it remains that God revealed his news to us through the complicated stories of saints and sinners. Since we are removed by time from these events, it is sometimes tempting to remove the news from the original contexts in an effort to understand it more accurately.

This can result in a topics approach to theology that can be helpful yet is still artificial. We can state with some confidence that the bible does not take a topics approach. It is a collection of experiences that tell how salvation entered history and the different ways it looked at different periods of the history. On account of that, the bible cannot be interpreted faithfully in a vacuum. It is not intended to be read in laboratory conditions. The fact remains we will be most faithful when our theology continues to have some rough edges.

Let the Text Speak

I have a friend who has worked as a chef. He especially enjoys pork and working with pork. This prompts him to talk a lot about pork (which quite frankly, just makes me hungry). Some of his conversation is about the ways that some try to prepare pork. Many of these recipes disappoint him and fall short of expectations because they cover the natural goodness that pork brings on its own. In response to this he likes to say “Let the pork speak!”

I have a similar feeling about the biblical text. It is savory and aromatic and flavorful on its own. Yet, we often cover it with our own flavors and smells to the point that it is no longer recognizable. In response to that I say “Let the text speak!”

Read the Psalms for Life

In Read the Bible for Life, Donald Guthrie and David Howard hold a conversation that may be helpful for us when reading the Psalms. The following quote serves as an introduction to their discussion. “These are human words praising God, or lamenting some event or situation, or even questioning God in a reverent way. So the psalms draw us in because we recognize in them our own experiences and feelings, and they, in a sense, express for us those feelings about God or to God.”

We do not want to forget, as with other parts of the bible, that the Psalms were also “crafted in specific cultural contexts.” Most of the psalms were written “for a corporate context, to be quoted or sung in large group settings.” In fact, they refer to these psalms as hymns. The titles will sometimes include lines like “for the choirmaster, with stringed instruments.” These are psalms “that praise God for who He is and how He has revealed Himself in the world, and they are done in a corporate setting.” In contrast, some psalms are more individual, “where David or someone is speaking in the first person.” These they label as “thanksgiving psalms.”

The conversation turns from psalms of thanksgiving to psalms of lament. “Laments are the psalms where David or the other psalmists are pouring out their hearts to God, being honest about the fact that life, at times, stinks!” These psalms become important for us and are able to “open up new avenues of approaching God in times of great stress and sadness in our lives.” This may, in fact be the genius of the psalms. “They are balanced, encouraging us to be honest about how hard life can be but also encouraging us to hope in God.” The psalmist knows struggle. We know struggle. The psalms of lament give voice to our struggles.

The conversation then turns to the imprecatory psalms. It is important to put these in context with a core promise that God has made with His people. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” So in these psalms the psalmist is saying “God, I am your person. Your enemies are persecuting me, but I believe your promises. Do something!” So in some ways these psalms become “a confession that God will be faithful to His promises, faithful to His people, and faithful to His own agenda.” (For the record, these are sung at the top of one’s voice without need of a choirmaster. Instead of strings, a sword appears to be the instrument of choice).

The psalmists put feelings into words. This makes poetry an appropriate means of expression. And important for us to remember “if we are going to read the psalms well.” He describes similar situations as a kind of “newspaper account” in narrative but exaggerated metaphor in the psalms. It is not unusual for psalms to use graphic language or exaggeration to express feeling.

Other psalms are labeled as royal/messianic psalms. These do not primarily express emotion, instead they let us in on what God has planned for the world. A “big, cosmic-sized picture of God in control and bringing all things to His desired end is an important aspect of the worldview represented by the psalms.” These psalms emphasize “God’s appointed king as His coworker in ruling God’s people.” These become for us “songs of worship, celebrating what God has accomplished in Christ.” Let us sing.

To Obey or Not to Obey?

Some friends and I have been reading The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. In a chapter subtitled “What Do We Do and What Do We Not Do in the Bible?” he looks at Leviticus 19 and asks how we know what to pick and what not to pick when we read the chapter. It is a good question. He includes an exercise where he asks others to vote on what commands from the chapter are important to obey and which are not. No matter the results, one thing we likely agree on is that Leviticus is no less Word of God than other books of the bible.

While we still preach the importance of being holy and of not spreading slander, the rest of the chapter we seem to dismiss. We do not keep the Sabbath. We do not harvest only a portion of crops. We do not worry about planting two kinds of seed. We do not worry about garments made of two kinds of material. We do not worry about eating medium rare meat. We do not worry about cutting the hair at the sides of our head or trimming our beards. We do not think that tattoos are sinful. We do not think it is sin to stay seated when old folks walk into the room.

McKnight is correct to point out that Moses is not just giving suggestions for students who would like to live as he does. These are commands that are rooted in the holiness of God. Yet, we dismiss most of the commands found in Leviticus 19. So, McKnight concludes (rationally I must say) that either we are wrong in our dismissal of these commands or we have categories that help us to know what to apply in our lives and what not to. We tell ourselves that these commands are from a bygone era. Or that these commands are part of some Old Testament code or levitical code or holiness code or a ceremonial code but not a code for us. What we would like is to have a code that reveals what we must obey, what is unnecessary and what is not even recommended.

McKnight goes on to note that “smack-dab in the middle of this chapter” we find “love your neighbor as yourself.” Somehow we know, probably because of what Jesus said, that this command is applicable to us today. McKnight asks some pretty good questions and sums them up with; “Essentially the church has always taught that the times have changed and we have learned from New Testament patterns of discernment what to do and what not to do.”

Something that may be worth saying about the laws in Leviticus and elsewhere is that the bible is more than laws and that each law is connected to a particular context. Something that I think McKnight does brilliantly is ask the questions that many have asked quietly. By putting these questions out there it validates the questions of others and reminds us that it is ok to wrestle with the words from God. To my friends who have been trying to get me to read McKnight for some time, I should have listened to you sooner.

Preaching and Hermeneutics

In Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation, John W. Wright is concerned that many North American sermons simply affirm the narratives that already shape the lives of North Americans. I fear that he is right. Too many sermons resemble more the language of individualistic, therapeutic, and personal fulfillment than the corporate concerns of the biblical narrative. Too many sermons presuppose that the way things are is the only way things can be. Part of the problem as he sees it, is the separation of hermeneutics from homiletics.

His book devotes a chapter to the topic “Homiletics as Biblical Hermeneutics.” There Wright talks about the distance that some have placed between preaching and “the intellectually rigorous realms of academic biblical interpretation, church history, and theology.” He goes on to share his experience that “only trained specialists have the expertise to determine the meaning of a biblical text.” If those things are true, then all that is left for preachers is to “artfully supply the rhetorical packaging of the specialist’s previous work.”

I cannot claim to share this experience. Perhaps this is determined by who introduces one to biblical interpretation and proclamation. (A thank you to those who introduced me to these disciplines). Yet, I am glad that he addresses the issue and am glad for his effort to place preaching in the discussion with hermeneutics. This makes perfect sense to me as I can’t help but see a connection between the two disciplines. Certainly, it is accurate to say that they are compatible and even necessary for one another. Yet, the fact remains, in some circles preaching is viewed as a lesser discipline than hermeneutics and exegesis.

Wright rightly claims that this has not always been this way. He credits the separation to the last three centuries of Western history. (If you are interested in his review of that history involving Schleiermacher, Heidegger, and Gadamer read chapter one of the book). To illustrate how things were not always this way, he includes the example that John Wesley’s sermons were used as the doctrinal standards of the early Methodist societies.

Wright insists that “Homiletics is not the poor country cousin of academic biblical interpretation. Homiletics is professional biblical scholarships older sibling, opening the biblical text to its hearers afresh and anew.” He claims that preaching is “the most concrete practice of theological hermeneutics” and that “interpretation happens when a text breaks into the history of an individual or group. A text is always heard within a specific, concrete situation.” Statements like these insert preaching right into the middle of the hermeneutical conversation.

The proposal that “preaching represents interpretation par excellence” sparks my interest. The fact is, things like exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics should be working together. In a real sense, preachers are on the front line of biblical interpretation. Interpretation should be encouraging homiletics. Preaching should be connected with hermeneutics. Hermeneuts are us.