You Know This…

You may not know this, but my wife, Kanon Simmons, has started her own blog called “You Know This….” You can find it at www.kanonsimmons.blogspot.com.

The major point of her blog is to talk about natural law. But before you start yawning, I assure you that it is actually interesting, both her blog and the topic. Natural law refers to the the knowledge of right and wrong that naturally exists in every person, even if they have never heard of the Bible.

It used to be that everyone simply recognized that natural law existed. People assumed that everyone knew that certain things were right and certain things were wrong. For instance, everyone knows that murder is wrong. You don’t have to convince me that murder is wrong, I just know it. This innate knowledge of right and wrong is what the founders of our country referred to when they said, “we hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Today the notion that everyone naturally knows that certain things are right or wrong has fallen under suspicion. There are actually some people who suggest that the only reason we think murder is wrong is because we have been taught that it is wrong by our culture. In their minds murder may be wrong for you, but you can’t say that it is wrong for everyone.

I am really excited that Kanon is going to start blogging about natural law. The topic is fun and I think her writing is fun. I hope you read her blog along with me. I am confident it will help us become better thinkers about ethics, politics, and Christian living.

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Speaking of Outlines

Its one thing to encourage you to outline, another thing entirely to actually do it. Let me show you how I went about outlining the beginning of Romans. However, before I dive in, I must admit that outlining a book is a bit of a circular process. It’s a bit like the way I do math… guess and check. I’ll explain why it’s like guess and check as I go.

Start with the Big Picture
My first step is to read the whole book and try to get an idea of what the main point is. If you are reading to find the main point you will naturally make a rudimentary outline in your head. You may not have it broken down into Roman numerals yet, but finding the main point means that you recognize, to some extent, what is the central truth the author is arguing for and what are sub-points that either demonstrate or refer back to the main point in some way.

Fortunately, I already wrote a post which explains what I think the main point of Romans is. I believe the primary reason Paul wrote Romans was to teach the Gentiles, and the Jews for that matter, what the gospel is, particularly how God is able to save the nations while remaining just and true to his promises to Israel, with the hopes that understanding how the gospel works will lead to a greater sense of unity between the Gentile and Jewish believers in Rome. Hopefully I will find that the letter is structured in a way to coincides with what I believe to be the main point. If not, then my check didn’t work out and I will have to reconsider what the main point is.

Let the Letter be Your Guide
Right off the bat I know that because I am reading a letter I can expect my outline to look a certain way. Almost every letter in the New Testament follows the same form. They each begin with an opening greeting or salutation, followed by the body of the letter, and concluded with some sort of final greetings and words of encouragement. As you might expect, the body is the most significant part of the letter because it is the part that the author lays out his primary argument. However, you can often find significant information that either prepares or concludes his argument in the opening and conclusion.

Because a letter is almost always structured this way, you can typically expect your outline to contain only 3 Roman Numerals.  For Romans it will look like this:

I. Introduction (1:1-17)
II. Body (1:18-15:13)
III. Conclusion (15:14-16:27)

Trusting Your Translation
One thing you might not know is that our original Greek manuscripts are missing some of the most important reading tools; paragraphs and punctuation. In fact, they don’t even include spaces between the letters. Times were tight back then and you didn’t want to waste paper with needless things like spaces, commas, and periods. Entire blank lines for a new paragraph would have been considered the peak of frivolity.

Luckily we live in the lap of luxury today and our publishers always include spaces and punctuation and almost always include paragraphs (The New American Study Bible does not show paragraphs in the typical sense but they do bold the verse number when they think a new paragraph has started). While we have to remember that the punctuation and paragraph markers are not part of the original text, we can and should thankfully take advantage of the benefit they offer the modern reader. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to compare several translations to see if they ever disagree on these important tools.

An outline should almost always follow the paragraph structure. For instance, if you have three paragraphs, you will have three bullets in your outline. The only thing left for you decide is how these bullets are related and how you should summarize them in a catchy way that you can remember. I am using the ESV Bible which breaks Romans 1:1-17 into three paragraphs (1-8, 9-15, 16-17). This is how I organized them.

I. Introduction
    A. Address Line and Introductions (1-7)
    B. Greetings (8-15)
    C. The Preview (16-17)

Check Your Work
As I said, making an outline is a bit circular so you basically have to use a guess and check method. By circular I mean; you have to know what the letter is about to make an outline but if you don’t have an outline you don’t really know what the letter is about so you guess and check. I read the letter and guess, then make an outline, and then check.

The introduction is probably the hardest part to guess and check because the author won’t necessarily address his main point in the introduction. However, you will often find it alluded to. Fortunately, in Romans it is not simply alluded to, but strongly foreshadowed by the introduction.

A. Address Line and Introductions (1:1-7)
Paul begins his efforts to provide a basis for positive Jew/Gentile interaction as early as the address line. He explains that he is set apart for the gospel which will be the ultimate basis for a positive relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Further, he begins by appealing to the Jewish Scriptures and Patriarchs. However, he reveals that the gospel bridges the Jew/Gentile gap by showing that the very Christ who descended from David has sent him to bring out the obedience of faith of all the nations.

B. Greetings (1:8-15)
The second section consists primarily of greetings. However, Paul again hints at his overarching purpose of reconciliation through the gospel. He explains that just as it is his ambition to preach the gospel in Rome, it is also his responsibility to preach the Gospel to all gentiles: Greek or barbarian, wise or foolish. He is already eroding any possibility that they would consider themselves worthy of the gospel, but instead forcing them to realize that they are simply a small fraction of the larger church of God.

C. The Preview to his Argument (1:16-17)
The third section lays out Paul’s goal in the clearest terms yet. He is planning to demonstrate exactly how the gospel works to bring the Jew and the Gentile into the same salvation. Both the Jew and the Gentile are saved not because of their own worthiness or righteousness, but simply because of the righteousness of God. And the righteousness of God is given, as will be explained more fully in chapters 3, 4, and 5, to all those who have faith in Christ.

 So far it checks out. We will definitely have to revisit the main point and outline again once we get to the body. But for know we can at least move forward with a pretty good idea of what to look for in the next section.

The Value of an Outline

Several years ago I remember giving advice to a college student about how to read his Bible that I thought might be borderline scandalous. Today, however, I am even more convinced that it is good advice. If you really want to understand the Bible when you read it, spend time memorizing the outline of the book before you bother memorizing individual verses.

This is especially important when you are trying to work through one of the New Testament letters. Most of these letters consist of one primary argument which is supported by many smaller points. However, when you read the letter a few verses at a time, or even a chapter at a time, it becomes almost impossible not to miss the forest for the trees.

The way to beat this challenge is to learn the book as a whole before spending too much time learning the individual parts. If you know the whole you will find that the parts make more sense and become much easier to remember. Most importantly, knowing the whole helps you answer the most important question for interpreting the Bible, “why did the author choose to include this part in his letter?”

Bonhoeffer on American Seminary Students

I know that I have been on a bit of a hiatus, I blame getting married for that. Hopefully now that the wedding is over and we are getting settled in, I will have a little more time for the important things in life… like blogging.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyOne of the new joys in my life has been the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We started reading it on our honeymoon and have found that he is beginning to dominate our conversations. Last night on our way home from small group we were contemplating life and we seriously asked, “What would Bonhoeffer Do?”

In case you aren’t familiar with who he is, let me provide you with a short summary. He was raised in post WW1 Germany by a rather affluent and particularly brilliant family. By his late 20’s he was a theologian and pastor in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer was one of the few theologians and pastors in Germany who took a daring stand against Hitler and his regime. This stand ultimately leads him to attempt to assassinate Hitler. The attempt fails and he is executed for treason shortly before the end of WW2.

His story is fascinating. I recommend that everyone pick up a copy of the book and read it, but especially if you are a seminary student or theologian. It is really interesting to see the development of theology during the 20th century and realize just how close in history we are to many of the legendary (perhaps notorious) men of Christian scholarship.

But let me give you fair warning. As an American reader you should brace yourself for a healthy dose of embarrassment. After graduating Summe Cum Laude with his Doctorate from the University of Berlin (he was only 21 at the time) he traveled to the United States to take classes at Union Seminary in New York. Before ever setting out he was skeptical of what America had to offer theologically. Metaxas claims, “American seminaries seemed to him more like vocational schools than actual seminaries.”

When he gets to America he found that we didn’t even live up to his very low expectations. He wrote his superintendent saying:

There is no theology here… They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students – on average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.

He continued his criticisms saying:

the lack of seriousness with which the students here speak of God and the world is, to say the least, extremely surprising… Over here one can hardly imagine the innocence with which people on the brink of their ministry, or some of them already in it, ask questions in the seminar for practical theology – for example, whether one should really preach Christ. In the end, with some idealism and a bit of cunning, we will be finished even with this – that is their sort of mood.

The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of secularization of Christianity in America. Its criticism is directed essentially against the fundamentalists and to a certain extent also against the radical humanists in Chicago; it is healthy and necessary. But there is no sound basis which one can rebuild after demolition. It is carried away with the general collapse. A seminary in which it can come about that a large number of students laugh out loud in a public lecture at the quoting of a passage from Luther’s De servo arbitrio on sin and forgiveness because it seems to them to be comic has evidently completely forgotten what Christian theology by its very nature stands for.

That, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, basically summed up the state of Christianity in America during the 1930’s. But make no mistake, it wasn’t the theological failures that eroded Bonhoeffer’s respect for the American seminary, but their failure to think. Many of the things being taught at Union originated from some of his professors at the University of Berlin, whom he greatly respected in spite of disagreeing with their positions. Instead, Bonhoeffer’s problem with American Christianity is that American’s were completely unequipped to really think about the issues. Instead we were simply reciting, and often poorly reciting, words, phrases and ideas that someone else had said without really taking the time to understand and investigate them. This is why he lamented that America’s deconstruction of Christianity lacked the basis to rebuild.

The last 80 years has in many ways brought about significant change in the state of the church in America. We have begun to fight many of the problems that seemed so apparent to Bonhoeffer. The civil rights movement began an attack on the racism that was so prevalent in Bonhoeffer’s day. Movements such as the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention took major strides to fight off increasingly liberal teaching.

At the same time I wonder how much progress we have truly made. I fear that one of our greatest weaknesses remains our undisciplined minds. Bonhoeffer characterized our thinking like this; “they can talk a blue streak with no substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.” That is, we know what we believe but few of us know why we believe it. The church today must take seriously its call in 2 Timothy 2:15 to “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”