Blaming God

I came across an interesting story this morning.

Steve Johnson, a receiver for the Buffalo Bills, dropped a pass that may have cost his team the game yesterday. However, the dropped pass isn’t the interesting part. What makes this interesting is that he blames the dropped pass on God. He commented about it on his twitter account saying:

I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…

Read the whole story and a great commentary on Johnson’s tweet here. Not a Good Sequence: NFL Receiver Drops the Pass then Trash Talks God
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A Cotton Patch Thanksgiving

A few days ago I suggested making your own version of the Bible to help you gain a fresh perspective of the text.  In 1968, Clarence Jordan made his own translation called the Cotton Patch Version.  His version attempts to put the New Testament into words fit for a Georgia farmer.  He explains the motivation for his translation:

Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Gospel: Pauls EpistlesPerhaps the main reason, though, is that the major portion of my life has been spent on a farm in southwest Georgia where I have struggled for a meaningful expression of my discipleship to Jesus Christ.  With my companions along the dusty rows of cotton, corn and peanuts, the Word of Life has often come alive with encouragement, rebuke, correction and insight… I have longed to share God’s word with [these companions].  So in making a translation, I have kept in mind the little people of great faith who want to do better in their discipleship but have been hindered by big words they don’t understand or by ancient concepts they don’t grasp.

Here are a couple of passages from the Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles to get us ready for thanksgiving.

2 Atlanta (2 Corinthians 9:10-15)

Well then he who supplies the farmer with seed will also provide you with bread to eat.  What’s more, he will multiply what you plant and increase your harvest of justice.  When you are so blessed in every way, and generously share with everybody, it just sends a prayer of thanksgiving through our whole being.  Because you know, this worshipful act of sharing is not only overflowing to meet the needs of the needy Christians, but is also resulting in an outburst of thankful praise to God.  By the convincing evidence of this offering you are glorifying God in matching belief in Christ’s gospel with obedience and with generous sharing with them and others.  And they will pray for you, being drawn to you by God’s overwhelming favor in you.  Thank God for his gift that’s simply out of this world.

1 Timothy 4:1-5

The Spirit definitely tells us that as time moves on some people will twist Christianity out of shape.  They’ll go wild over misguided preachers and books of distinguished devils.  With their consciences branded with a hot iron, they hypocritically preach what isn’t so.  They teach that it is wrong to marry, and to eat certain foods which God made for believers and others who have an understanding of the truth to eat with humble gratitude.  For all of God’s creation is good, and nothing we gratefully accept is forbidden, since it is made kosher by God’s work and intervention.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Bumper Sticker Hermeneutics

I finally saw it.  I was driving to work today when I pulled up behind a car with the bumper sticker I have heard so much about.  “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” 

I first ran across the statement in a book I read this summer called The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight.  The author was lamenting that though this is a common motto, the evidence suggests that most Christians don’t see God’s words as settled.  His claim is that this bumper sticker implies two things, to which he replies with the third

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible1. We believe everything the Bible says, therefore…
2. We practice everything the Bible says.
3.  Hogwash!

His problem though, isn’t so much that Christians are hypocrites or engage in sinful living, but that they seem to pick and choose which parts of the Bible they “believe and practice.”  He complains that Christians claim to believe and practice everything in the Bible but don’t observe the sabbath, don’t believe in tithing, don’t practice foot washing, and don’t follow a host of other things that the Bible prescribes.

Interestingly, rather than calling everyone back to a universal following of the Bible, he suggests that we need to develop the skill of discernment to decide how to take an ancient text and live it out in a modern context.  He describes this as the local church’s responsibility “to discern how best to live out the gospel in its day and in its way.”

Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of wiggle room for the church to mess things up.  If how we live out the Bible changes with every generation and every culture, then how can we know we are getting it right?  The truth is, we may not know for sure, but if we just invest a little bit of time we can probably get close.

I firmly believe that the best way to gain confidence that you are reading the Bible right is to start by looking for meaning before moving to significance.  That is, analyze the text as a historian before you start to apply it.  Remember that meaning is the author’s intended message, and is rooted in history with the original author.  The first task of the Bible reader is to find this historical, authorially intended, meaning.  This is not always an easy task.  But with a little bit of work, we can usually be confident that we understand what the author is saying.

Only after we find the meaning can we move to significance.  Only then can we ask how do we live the gospel out in our day and in our way.  This task can be just as difficult as the first, in fact, it is often much more difficult.  However, the better we do our jobs as historians, the easier it will be to ask how the Bible’s authors would live in our day and in our way.

With this in mind, perhaps we should revise the bumper sticker.  One t-shirt designer has already made an attempt.  It says

God said it.
I interpreted it as best I could in light of all the filters imposed by my upbringing and culture, which I try to control but you can never do a perfect job.
That doesn’t exactly settle it but it does give me enough of a platform to base my values and decisions on.

Bitzer was a Banker

There is a certain pressure that comes with being a seminary student.  At every holiday you are the one who is supposed to pray.  And even worse, at every Bible study you are supposed to be the expert.  The problem is that expert status doesn’t come with a degree.  You can only become an expert in the Bible if you read it; read it often and read it well.  And the truth is, seminary students don’t have a corner on the Bible knowledge market.  Even if you never go to seminary, you can study the Bible and become the resident expert in your church, small group, and family.

Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical MinistryIn John Piper’s book, Brothers, We are not Professionals, he tells the story of a man who took this to heart.  Heinrich Bitzer was a German banker who was committed to the study of the Bible in the original languages.  Even though he was not a “professional Christian,” he took the time to learn Hebrew and Greek.  He even wrote a daily devotional called Light on the Path, which had excerpts from the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament and a devotional thought to go with them.

Piper quotes Bitzer as saying:

The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology!  And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry.

I understand that not every Christian will be able to learn Greek and Hebrew, but I think it would be awesome if more did.  Imagine a church where the people, not just the pastors, were excited about learning to read the Bible in the original languages.  A church like this would be an exciting, and challenging, place to be.

It’s not so much the original languages that I think are pressing  (though I would love to see a church offer Greek and Hebrew to people who were interested in learning).  Instead, just think how exciting it would be if normal people, not just pastors, decided to become the experts on the Bible.  Normal people like Heinrich Bitzer, who even though he was just a banker, committed himself to studying and knowing the Bible.  I imagine that many churches would look quite different if we had a few more Bitzers.

Connecting Scripture with Scripture

Holy Bible Holman Christian Standard Bible: Red-Letter Text EditionA couple of years ago I purchased a copy of the Holman Christian Standard Bible.  I have come to really appreciate the translation for several reasons.  One of my favorite features is that in the New Testament, Old Testament quotes and allusions are printed in bold font.  It is a visual reminder of how integrated the entire message of the Bible is.  The New Testament authors knew the Old Testament and they quote it with such frequency that you can tell they expected their readers to know it too.

Another tool that can help us see how verses are related to other verses in the Bible is a cross reference.  This tool, which is located in the center column of my HCSB, lists several other verses which have similar wording as the verse you are considering.  Typically, a Bible only provides an abbreviated list of these cross references.  That’s  because, according to Chris Harrison, there are over 63,000 cross references.  This means that the Bible comments on itself, alludes to itself, or borrows its own wording over 63,000 times.  What astounding unity!

If numbers aren’t your thing, perhaps you will find a visual representation more moving.  The picture below, created by Chris Harrison and Christoph Römhild, uses computer graphing technology to draw an arc connecting each cross reference.  The result is an amazing rainbow depicting the astounding degree of interconectedness of the Scripture.  It is a beautiful reminder of the unified message of our Bible.

The Value of Multiple Translations

“It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt.  Well, something else it breeds is ignorance.  The moment you come to a passage of Scripture and say, ‘Oh, I know this one already,’ you’re in trouble.”
Howard Hendricks, Living by the Book, 67.
As someone who grew up going to church, went to a Christian school, and is currently in seminary, that is a hard quote to read.  But, if I am honest, I think it’s true.  It can be very easy to read the Bible, and simply gloss over some text that I think I already know.  However, if I take a little extra time, I often find out that I don’t know the text quite as well as I think.
Here are a couple of tips to help you revisit a passage that you are already familiar with.
1.  It may help to read a different translation of the Bible.  Every translation is an interpretation.  So read several interpretations and ask how they are different.  For instance, look at the difference between these three interpretations of Romans 3:19-20.  Each one has a different translation strategy, so each one interprets the text in a slightly different way.
  • The English Standard Version – This version claims to be an essentially literal translation and it seeks to provide a word for word translation whenever possible.
    • Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law,  so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
  • The New Living Translation – This translation seeks to transmit the thought process of the original Greek text in accurate, yet contemporary terminology.
    • Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God.  For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.
  • The Arthur S Way Translation – S. Way was a pastor who translated Paul’s letters in 1906.  He stated that his goal was to make the argument of the author clear by adding certain links necessary for the English reader.
    • Everybody knows that all the denunciations of the Mosaic Law are of course addressed to Jews, as being the only persons amenable to the Law.  Every murmur is consequently hushed, and all humanity finds itself subject still to God’s jurisdiction.  For, when humanity is tried at His bar, the verdict of innocence will not depend on the question whether they have in every case fulfilled the requirements of the Mosaic Law.  In fact, the real function of that Law is but to awaken the human conscience in relation to sin.

2.  After reading the text in several translations, try to make your own interpretation.  Rewrite the text in your own words, or better yet, as if you are writing to a new audience.  Perhaps you will want to write a translation to a real audience, like a youth group.  If you are feeling particularly creative, try a more outlandish audience like elves or snowmen.  Regardless of the audience you choose, as you try to communicate the author’s message in a fresh way, you will stretch your mind, your understanding of the text will grow, and you will have fun doing it.