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Imitating God in Christ

The concept of imitation has fallen on hard times in recent years, with many Christian thinkers expressing concerns about the implied legalism/moralism of trying to “live like David” or “be like Ruth.” Should we really respond to the difficulties of the Christian life by giving people ideal examples that we must strive to emulate? Where’s the grace?

9780830827107According to Jason Hood, though, the concept of imitation is a biblical one that we desperately need to rediscover today. In his Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (IVP 2013), Hood offers a biblical theology of imitation, one that emphasizes both grace (the Christian life always begins with what God has done for us) and vocation (the Christian life is also one of human action expressed in response to God’s grace). And he does so in a way that is compelling, readable, and thorough. This is a terrific book for anyone wanting to think more deeply about what it means to imitate God as one of his image bearers in the world.

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Imitate Me

I occasionally joke about wanting some groupies, or maybe a few minions. People who think I’m so cool that they follow me around all day and try to be just like me. But the real upside, of course, is their willingness to run errands and facilitate my various plots to take over the world.

Kopf 2 26h

In more serious moments, though, I realize how arrogant that sounds. We’re all deeply flawed people. Who in their right mind would be so self-aggrandizing as to think that others should strive to be just like them? Even thinking that probably demonstrates that you’re not worth following, doesn’t it?

Imitate me. The height of arrogance.

Yet that’s exactly what Paul says multiple times in his various letters (e.g. 1 Cor 4:16; Eph. 5:1). Where does he get off trying to make us into his little groupies? If we’re going to understand what Paul means when he says “Imitate me,” we need to keep the following things in mind.

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Retelling Gospel Stories

first time we saw him

Have you ever read one of the stories in the gospels, either one that was about Jesus or one of the parables told by Jesus, and been…well…bored? If you’re like me, you’ve heard those same stories so many times that they’re like an old blanket: more comforting than interesting.

What would it be like to go back and once again hear those stories for the first time?

That’s what Matt Mikalatos is trying to help us do in The First Time We Saw Him: Awakening to the Wonder of Jesus (Baker, 2014). As he explains in the introduction, the book comes from his own experience of knowing lots of facts about the Bible, but realizing that his muted responses to the gospel stories were radically different from those who were hearing those stories for the first time.

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On the Need to Write Something “New”

I am sure that this is true in many disciplines, but one of the challenges of doing research in Bible and theology is that it seems like all the good stuff has already been said. Every now and then someone comes along with a truly unique idea or way of approaching an issue, and they usually end up being the people we study for the next few decades. The rest of us? Not so much.

typewriter (500x332)

How do you write something “new” on topics that people have been studying for thousands of years? And should that even be our primary focus?

Maybe the issue isn’t whether your writing/research is new in the sense that you’re saying something no one has ever said before, which would raise some interesting questions of its own. Maybe the kind of newness that we should pursue is that fact that you’re the one saying it.

In her advice to writers, Anne Lamott has this to say about the issue:

“Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”  (Bird by Bird, 181)

Does your research offer anything “new”? It does, at the very least, because it’s your research, your writing, your perspective on whatever it is you are studying. That’s never been done before. Indeed, it can’t have been done before, because no one can do that except you.

[This is part of our Back to School: Tips from the Writers Guild series, focusing on things we can learn from professional authors about what it takes to thrive as a student in today's world.]

Why Do Animals Suffer When They’ve Done Nothing Wrong

Many theologians have claimed that all the suffering that we see in the world around us is a result of the fall. In the Garden, there was perfect peace. After the fall, suffering and death were introduced, not just for humans but for all of creation.

But does this really make sense?

death before the fallIn his new book Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP, 2014), Ronald Osborn says no. That answer results from an overly literal reading of the Creation/Fall narratives, and it fails to account for the fact that animal predation, and the corresponding death and suffering of animals, seems to be part of the natural order (e.g. lions look like they have been painfully devouring gazelles from the very beginning).

With this book, Osborn joins a growing list of scholars dealing with the problem of animal suffering from a biblical perspective. In just the last few years we have Michael Murray’s Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (OUP, 2008), Nicola Creegan’s Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (OUP, 2013), and Andrew Linzey’s Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics (OUP, 2009), among others. So clearly this is a question whose time has come. But has Osborn done the question justice? That’s what remains to be seen.

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Being More Gracious than Jesus

What should we do with the seemingly impossible demands of the Sermon on the Mount? The lofty character of the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:2-12), the expectation of pure attitudes and not simply moral actions (Mt. 5:21-47), the impossible ideal of divine perfection (Mt. 5:48). What do we do with all these demands and commands? Should we ignore them, explain them away, embrace them with all their implied perfectionism, or something else entirely?

Nobody's Perfect Concept

This is the question that Scot McKnight wrestles with at the beginning of his excellent new commentary Sermon on the Mount (Zondervan, 2013). Like all the volumes in The Story of God Bible Commentary, McKnight’s book focuses on connecting the truth of the text with the everyday world in which we all live. And he starts strong with this book, quickly raising some good questions for those who want to place the “demands” of the Sermon inside a broader framework of grace. Although he’s clearly sympathetic to this approach, he’s aware that it can come with some major drawbacks.

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The Least Popular Books of the Bible

Thanks to information from BibleGateway.com, here’s an infographic from The Overview Bible Project on the 10 least popular books in the Bible. Most of these aren’t terribly surprising, especially the fact that the list is dominated by the Minor Prophets. But besides the surprising inclusion of Jonah on the list, it’s too bad not to see more love for Zephaniah and Jude at least.

least-popular-books-of-the-bible.infographic.png.pagespeed.ce.Sd_VQ0NxZm

The Holy Spirit in Scripture (Wheaton Theology Conference 1)

Vector doveWheaton’s annual theology conference opened yesterday, focusing this year on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Since this is my first time at the conference, I was interested to see how things would go. And so far, I’m quite impressed. (A few people are live tweeting from the conference. Follow #WTC14 if you want to follow along.)

I don’t know that I’ll have time to comment on each of the papers, though they have all been interesting in their own way. But I will highlight the ones I found most compelling. And I’ll start where the conference did, with an impressive paper from Sandra Richter on “The Holy Spirit in Scripture.”

Despite the fact that she only had a couple of weeks to put the paper together after one of the other presenters backed out for health reasons, she nailed it. Covering everything the Bible says about the Spirit in 45 min is impossible. But highlighting some of the most important ideas in a truly engaging way while synthesizing biblical and theological insights? Apparently that can be done.

It’s hard to select just a couple of favorite insights from the paper, but I’ll try. Most importantly, the paper focused on the Spirit as God’s “presence” with his people in creation. She traced that from God’s presence in creation, through his presence in Israel and the temple, to his presence in the incarnate Christ, and then his presence in the church, and the ultimate, eschatological restoration of God’s full presence with his people in his creation at the end of days.

Richter helpfully spent considerable time on the Spirit in Gen 1-2. Discussions of biblical pneumatology routinely skip over most of Genesis after a suitably cursory comment about the Spirit “moving/hovering/brooding/whatevering” over the waters in 1:2. But Richter rightfully took some time to talk about the role of the Spirit in the creation of the world and the formation of God’s people. And in the process she gave us one of the best lines of the day: “The Holy Spirit is what makes us image rather than merely animate.”

Of course, “Peter, you rock!” after summarizing Peter’s Pentecost sermon was pretty fabulous as well.

And a line that I’ll be using regularly came when discussing the meaning of ruach in the Old Testament. After a quick summary of the word’s tremendously diverse range of meanings, Richter refused to try and pin down one “core” meaning of the word that would serve as the basis for her biblical presentation, which is something that many do when talking about the Spirit in the OT. Instead, she commented, “Good exegesis demands more than lexicography.” The same is true for theology. Defining terms is important but ultimately inadequate.

And you have to love a biblical studies paper that concludes by having everyone stand and read Epiphanius’ Creed!

In the end, it was the perfect way to begin a conference on the Holy Spirit. The paper was both delightful and insightful, and it’s not easy to accomplish both of those in the same paper.

We Won’t Solve Biblical Literacy with Bible Trivia

For some time now, people have been rightly concerned about the trajectory of biblical literacy. Talking to those who have been teaching Bible/theology for many years, they all say that one of the greatest challenges they face is that people just don’t know the Bible like they used to. So they spend far more time teaching basic biblical literacy and consequently less time building on that foundation.

And it’s a real problem, one that affects people’s ability to understand the whole scope of what the Bible has to say, how that relates to individual stories and verses, and how all of it connects to the challenging issues that people face every day.

But it’s a problem that we will not solve by mastering Bible trivia.

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

I had a conversation a while back with someone who was a little frustrated after hearing a Bible teacher lament the decline of biblical literacy. The teacher had asked the study group a few questions, and after no one seemed the know the answers, made several comments about the state of the church and lack of attention to solid Bible teaching. But the person I was talking to was frustrated and confused because she had grown up in a church with solid Bible teaching and did not consider herself to be biblically illiterate. So what was going on?

The problem was that the teacher was focused more on mastery of Bible trivia than real biblical literacy. For example, one of the questions he asked was which gospel is the only one to record the parable of the workers in the vineyard (the one where they all get paid the same). I can’t remember all of the other questions, but they were along the same lines. For this teacher, failing to know details like this means that you don’t really know your Bible.

I have at least three problems with this.

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When God Introduces Himself

nametag (300x300)What’s your name? That seems like a relatively simple question. If someone asks, you probably have a ready answer. Maybe you have a few nicknames that complicate things a bit, but generally this is not one of the more challenging questions you’ll face today.

But when Moses asked God for his name, he got a little more than he bargained for.

In Exodus 3:14-15, we find a fascinating exchange between Moses and God about God’s proper name. Moses is about to go speak to the people in Egypt, and he wants to know what to tell them if they ask for God’s name. And this is God’s response.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”* And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD,’ the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

So Moses asks for God’s name, and he gets three different responses? What’s going on here?

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