Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why and How To Use Biblical Commentaries

Last week I had a conversation with a gentleman about reading and understanding the Bible. In the course of our talk he made a comment that he didn't put any stock in commentaries. I wish I could say that this was the first time I had heard someone make such a statement, but it wasn't. Sadly, I have talked with several folks who have a "me and my Bible" approach to study, meaning they pick up the Bible, interpret it for themselves, and believe that it means whatever they understand it to mean. Their line of reasoning is that God wrote the Bible to communicate with people for all time, so it just can't be all that complicated.

Some people are skeptical of scholars and commentaries in the same way I am skeptical of used car salesmen and contractors going door-to-door. The prejudice seems to run that these learned types are trying to take away our time-honored understandings of Scripture and baffle us with BS (that's Bible Study if you are easily offended). These well-meaning people fail to realize that any time they talk with someone else about the Bible, hear a sermon or a Sunday school lesson on a particular passage they are listening to commentary. Commentaries are merely a person's reflections on a book of the Bible. The best ones present sound exegetical proofs for their inferences and subsequent case for interpretation. Commentaries are conversation partners we invite into our dialogue.

Other Christians have the opposite problem. Rather than engage in a conversation with several informed voices, they read one or two commentaries and take everything they have to say as God's honest truth without doing any of their own study. No interpretation of Scripture outside of the Bible is inspired, so we can't afford to hand off our brain to another interpreter. So, what is the proper way to use commentaries in the service of Biblical interpretation? Read two or more only after you have conducted your own study.

My mentor, Dr. David Bauer, always teaches his students to inductively study the Bible, looking to such things as key terms and definitions, book survey, immediate and broader book context, word usage, NT and OT usage, etc. before they ever pick up a commentary. However, reading a few commentaries is an important part of interpretation because without other scholars weighing in on a subject it can be quite easy to see what you want to see in a particular passage. The scripture doesn't belong to you or me--it belongs to the Church, and it is in the community of faith that we should interpret it.

If you are new to reading commentaries and are not sure how to get started, you should know a few things. There are several types of commentaries aimed at different levels of learning. There are devotional commentaries, which illustrate the scholar's interpretation but offer few to no proofs along the way. These can be edifying (or even good for sermon helps) but they aren't helpful for a student engaged in deep study. You need to be able to understand how the commentator got there. Commentaries of this type would be Matthew Henry's Commentary or N.T. Wright's "New Testament For Everyone" series.

Then there are exegetical commentaries, which build a case for an interpretation from the text using such things as original languages, grammar, context, historical background, etc. There are numerous types of these with various levels of technicality. Some are easily read by a lay person while some are difficult for an academic. Personally, I use the IVP New Testament series, Tyndale New Testament series, Word Biblical Commentaries, New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) and New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT), and New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC) to name a few. If you want further help in selecting good study resources, I highly recommend Dr. Bauer's An Annotated Guide to Resources For Ministry.

Once you find some that work for you, don't feel the need to read them like regular books. They are reference tools. A good one will be laid out in such a way that you can dip in at the points in the conversation where you are interested or need clarity.

Please let me know if this has been helpful to you or if you have any thoughts or questions.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Getting Rid of Negative Thoughts

Unless your name is Pollyanna, you have probably had some days and nights where negative thoughts took over and darkened your mood. I'm not just talking about waking up on the wrong side of the bed and having a bad morning. I'm talking about a long-term funk.

A few weeks ago I started feeling a bit down-in-the-mouth with no clear reason. My wife would ask me what was wrong, but I could not articulate the problem. No one thing seemed to be the culprit. After ten or twelve days of this nonsense I sat down with my journal and decided to do a "brain dump" of everything negative that I could think might be a factor. I wrote a paragraph: gray weather, lack of exercise, bad eating habits, a few frustrations at the church, some disappointments on a couple of projects...

Then I wrote a heading--Blessings--and began to note some of the things for which I was grateful. My dad had my sister and me do this when we were kids. Before I knew it I had quite a list of blessings and my mood had improved.

Every time I do this exercise I can hear my dad singing "Count Your Blessings" in  the background.
"Count your many blessing name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done..."

This is a useful way to get our minds out of a cycle of negativity. Why do our minds move towards entropy? Why do worry, bitterness, frustration, and guilt crop up more frequently than peace, contentment, and hope? And misery loves company, so the cycle continues, spiraling down, down, down until we're depressed. The negative thoughts bounce off each other and echo in our minds with increasing intensity until we no longer know the source. Writing helps us sort things out.

But is this the best way to maintain a positive outlook on life? Is this the type of exercise that Paul was advocating in his letters, particularly in the letter to the Philippians? "Rejoice in the blessings always..." That is not what it says, but rather, "Rejoice in the Lord always." Do you see the difference? Blessings and circumstances can change--just read Job. Jesus does not.

Theologian Leslie Newbigin was once asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. He replied, "I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead." That is a powerful statement. Optimism or pessimism have to do with the state of things in our world. Are they improving or going to improve or are they declining with no hope of recovery? Neither. Christ is risen.

What in creation does that mean? Not creation but New Creation. Two verses of Scripture will help me illustrate how I understand this. First, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come" (ESV). Except that isn't what the Greek technically says. It says, "Therefore, if anyone [is] in Christ a new creation. The old things have passed away; Behold! has emerged the new." The Greek doesn't indicate that the person is new, but rather that in Christ they live in a new creation...a new creation that is emerging. It is not fully here, but it will be one day.

The second passage that speaks to this issue is five chapters later in 2 Corinthians 10: 5. Paul writes, "We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of  God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (ESV emphasis mine). The context of the passage indicates that we don't wage war through physical means but through ideas and truth. We are to take every thought captive--that means our own fallen and sinful thoughts too. We make them captive to Christ Jesus because, as the verse in chapter five shows, those who are in Christ have a new creation. The rules have changed. Christ has risen. Death has been reversed. The ultimate consequence of the fall has been stripped of its power and now we can have eternal life in relationship with God. Everything else is peanuts compared with that.

So when we find ourselves depressed it does us good to think on positive things, but those positive things shouldn't simply be the material or circumstantial blessings that God has given us. Rather we should look to the blessing we have in Christ. "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" (Ephesians 1:3 ESV). Through Him we have New Creation. We need not choose between optimism or pessimism--the victory has already been won.

So when you find yourself dwelling on negative thoughts, fix your eyes upon Christ "and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace" (Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, Helen Howarth Lemmel).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Apologizing For the Gospel

It seems that everyone is entitled to their opinion these days, even if their opinion is crass, disrespectful, unpatriotic, ignorant, or down-right devoid of objective proof. Scientific naturalism is touted with religious zeal as the answer to all of life's problems, while moral relativism is being championed with equal fervor. Somehow these two worldviews seem to be tag-teaming Christianity to shut us up. Naturalism likes to proclaim "facts" that eliminate God while relativism states that there are no absolutes. All opinions are equally valid unless, of course, your opinion is exclusive. This truth claim is self-refuting, but so many people in our culture, including those inside of a Christian worldview, are so unschooled in basic logic that truth claims like this often go unchallenged or become outright accepted. Thus, many Christians give away ground and apologize for the exclusivity of the Gospel.

Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary
Everyone may be entitled to their own opinions, but not all opinions are equally valid. An opinion is simply a person's interpretation of a particular matter. Opinions are subjective. But objective truth still exists, and our opinions only hold water insofar as they comport with reality. Imagine that you see a person standing atop a 20 story building who is about to walk off the ledge, and you say, "Get away from the edge! You will fall to your death." The person cheerfully states, "Oh, I won't die. The law of gravity doesn't apply to me. As a matter of opinion, I doubt whether or not gravity is even real." Who do you think would be right? They may be entitled to their opinion, but their opinion would be dead wrong.

Christianity is not based on subjective truth claims. We may have experiential reasons for holding onto our faith. The apostle Paul had such a starting point for his beliefs on the Damascus Road, but his subjective experience never stood alone. However, so many Christians that I have talked with retreat into subjective reasons for their faith in Christ without having objective backing. "You ask me how I know He lives...He lives within my heart," as the old song goes. Or more recently, "God's not dead. He's surely alive. He's living on the inside, roaring like a lion..." "Heaven is for real" because some person had a vision, near death experience, or the like. Don't hear me saying that these reasons are wrong or invalid, they are just not very useful for interacting with skeptics. 

We need to be able to apologize for our belief in the Gospel--not in the English sense of the word but in the Greek sense. The branch of Christian study dedicated to offering reasons for our faith and defending it is called apologetics. Apologetics has nothing to do with being sorry for our beliefs or opinions. It comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning 1.) A speech of defense, defense, reply 2.) The act of making a defense. Peter exhorts all believers to this when he writes, "...always being ready to [apologia] to anyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you..." (1 Peter 3:15 NASB).

As long as we lean on opinions and subjective reasoning we will constantly be lashing out in anger or apologizing for our beliefs in the face of a belligerent world. We need not apologize for the exclusive claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, rather we need to apologia for the hope that we have. We need to be able to go further than "how I know" into "and here is how you can know as well."

If you have not examined the evidence for Christ, then I greatly encourage you to listen to the apostle Peter and do so. Faith is not against reason. Our faith is reasonable.

If you need a good starting point, I recommend  The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel or Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

10 Ways To Build Your Intellectual Muscles

Photo by Georg Holderied Via
I don't know about you but I have Intellectual Envy. Not in a sinful sort of way but in a "what in the world would it take me to learn and grow and write and think like that person!?" sort of way. I read writers like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Lewis, Chesterton, and N.T. Wright (to name a very few), wanting to know if there is a remote chance that I could learn to be a deep and seasoned thinker too. Are some people just born with "it"? Is it a false hope to aspire to join the company of such learned thinkers?

Some people are surely born more adept at learning than others, but even if you are of average intelligence there are some things you can do to sharpen the knife. I know that I want to do everything I can to increase my mental capacity in the service of God. But how? This question has put me on task to researching ways to build intellectual muscles, and, while there are surely many more, here are some sure-fired ways to get started.

1. Prayer.

James 1:5 states, "If anyone lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
Jesus promises us that if we ask, seek, and knock then we shall receive, find, and have open doors (Matt. 7:7-8)

2. Read. Read. Read.

--Reading just a little each day may decrease your risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to some recent studies.  
-- A recent poll found that 27% of Americans didn't read a single book last year. If you read 20+ books in a year, then you are within the top 20% of readers in the US.

--Read a variety of authors in a field. I know some people who are so obsessed with a certain author that they lock in their heels on an issue without bothering to see what others have to say on the topic. Nothing could be worse for mental growth. Beware of the sound of one hand clapping!
--Read old books and new. C.S. Lewis said, "It is a good  rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself  another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read on  old one to every three new ones" (from the preface to On the Incarnation).

--Read authors with whom you expect to disagree. It's easy to read someone who thinks like you or believes the way you do, but real intellectuals "keep their friends close and their enemies closer" as it were. If you want to interact with the world of ideas then you will need to read those voices contrary to your own.

3. Evaluate what you read or watch.

There is a difference between passive and active/critical learning. Learn to question books or TV, analyse them, and weigh the evidence. Just because it's labeled "history" or "science" doesn't mean that it is fact. Learn to look for signs of careful scholarship and basic presuppositions.

4. Teach or explain something to a beginner or child.

It's amazing how your mind engages when you suddenly have to simplify complicated, abstract, or even commonplace items and occurrences for beginners or children. See if you can simplify things to their basic level without becoming reductionistic.
5. Practice integrated reasoning.
According to the book Make Your Brain Smarter, by Sandra Bond Chapman and Shelly Kirkland, integrated reasoning develops a stronger frontal lobe. Integrated reasoning is looking for ways to connect what you are learning to your life. Interestingly enough, it seems that Bible studies have encouraged this for years.

6. Experience "Meaning Threat."

 Do you know that frustrating feeling when what you are reading, seeing or experiencing makes no sense? That is what researchers are calling "meaning threat." Researcher Travis Proulx from the University of California at Santa Barbara says that when you experience it your brain goes into overdrive. During their research, Proulx and his college, had people read stories by Kafka and watch David Lynch movies before taking tests. They found that the people who had tried to make sense of nearly incoherent material, were almost twice as accurate when taking tests.1  You can simulate "meaning threat" by reading bizarre stories or even going through culture shock--anything that pushes you to make sense of your situation.

7. Learn to ask more and more pointed questions.

My mentor Dr. David Bauer once told me that "the key to having profound insights is in examining the details." How do you get to those details? Ask more pointed questions. Ask questions of everything.

Little children are naturally curious. As we get older, we become more confident in our knowledge and begin to assume that we have more answers. But what if we could begin to ask who, what, when, where, how, why, what is the significance? For instance: Who made this fruit cake? What exactly is in this fruit cake? When was this cake made and when am I really going to eat this? Where can I throw this fruit cake away without Aunt Margaret finding out? How am I going to reply when she asks me how I liked this disgusting brick of liquor-filled Skittles? Why did she buy this for me in the first place? What is the significance of giving someone a nasty cake that no one eats?
You get the drift.

8. Take a stroll

By stroll I mean something different than just a jog with your headphones in and listening to a podcast or pop song. I really mean a walk for the sake of being out of doors, breathing fresh air, and taking notice of the world around you. Men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien loved country walks and they did alright for themselves.

The fact is the human mind can only take so much input. If we don't take time out of our schedules to reflect on the information that we are receiving, we won't properly digest it and turn it into productive insights. Walking is a great way to step back from lectures, books, sermons, and podcasts. Take this time to process. It also benefits your health.

9. Puzzles, riddles, codes.

Back in the day before Candy Crush Saga and Angry BirdsThe Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory stole all of our time, people had things called brains and they kept them sharp with word games, puzzles, riddles, and the like. When was the last time you played a game of chess, go, or sudoku? How about a crossword puzzle? Cracking a secret code can be a very stimulating experience. These types of exercises help your memory, improve you deductive ability, and can help us learn to concentrate (a sorely need skill these days).

10. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

We tend to become like those with whom we spend our time, so it's important for an intellectual novice to join the company of brighter minds. This is a great way to kill complacency and push yourself towards excellence. If you look around your group of friends and realize that you are the top thinker, then it's time to find a sharper cohort.

There you have ten ways to improve your intellectual muscles, which of course will benefit your mind for Christ as well. Please leave a comment and share tricks and tips that you have found helpful. I would love to hear from you.