Reflections following the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation

Just to venture some thoughts freshly stimulated by the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation held over the past couple of days at Laidlaw College in Auckland New Zealand. I was only able to attend the second day, but nevertheless have come away with fresh insights and questions, and a delight to be a part of the conversation. Daniel Kirk has offered some of his own thoughts at Storied Theology, and presented a paper which I unfortunately was not present for but hear was very helpful.

At the close of the colloquium Joel B. Green noted how it was the first colloquium on biblical studies to begin with prayer that he had attended in a very long time. This was both a shock and saddening, but at the same time indicated the ‘life’ that was present at this colloquium and showed that what took place was actually carried out in the Spirit of TI itself.

Some thoughts…

  • What we need is study of the Biblical documents in line with their nature as confessional documents intended to proclaim, teach and shape lives. Perhaps recapturing the Bible as a personal confession (within a wider social,  geographical, and historical confession), rather than “someone elses mail”, will assist us in doing biblical studies that can more directly speak to the church.
  • Sometimes those who advocate Theological Interpretation seem to be saying that we need to set aside the ‘historical critical’ questions biblical scholars have been taking to the text and replace these with theological questions. But in my humble opinion the many questions asked of the texts–whether concerned with sources, historicity, literary features, etc.–are all legitimate. Can we not ask questions concerning the theology of the texts as well as all these and more?
  • As someone who is entering into the realm of teaching within the context of a Bible college, and who has been interested in the form and function of theological education for some time, I often ponder the pros and cons of the division between Biblical studies and Theology. Does the departmental split need to stand? Or does this need rethinking? While we do not want to collapse one into the other, I think we need to reconfigure their relationship. How we should do so is of course the big question.
    • My thought experiment is to retain the distinction in departments but to not associate lecturers with either one. So while retaining OT, NT, and Theology departments, gone will be NT and OT professors, and professors of Theology. Room would still need to made for particular specializations within each field, but these would be all determinative for what one teaches, researchs, and publishes on. Possible? Im not sure…

Confessions of a Young Student of Scripture

A mentor of mine has long stressed that there is a problem with academic study of theology/Bible that results in a mass of “head-knowledge” that has not been “experienced” as “heart-knowledge.” Essentially, one can learn a lot about God without ever knowing the reality of this in ones life. Such knowledge is fruitless and ultimately counts for nothing.

I grant the concern, and there is a depth of knowledge that only comes with personal acquaintance. But I would say that the problem is not inherent in academic study of the Scriptures. Rather the danger arises when we start to think that having an intellectual grasp of the truth is the goal and so fail to press on to embody and experience the reality. It also becomes a danger when we become so consumed and focused on gathering truth that we give little time to follow its lead. The truth, we might need reminding, is a person we must come to know and serve.

Still, knowledge of the truth beyond our “experience” of the reality may very well keep us from the danger of heresy. It also means that we have the means to rightly interpret our experiences when they come about, after all, “experience” is constituted both by what comes to us through our senses and how we make sense of it with our mind; there is an irreducible element of interpretation in experience.

Furthermore, we need to be subject specific. For example, growing in familiarity and understanding of Colossians so that one can receive from it in no way requires immediate or subsequent experience of the theological realities it refers to, even while these would deepen our understanding. An understanding of the text brings us to engage the realities it speaks of.

Now for my confessions of those dangers I have at times succumbed to.

I have often read, studied and written, only for the benefit of others, to prepare my mind for teaching by gaining the necessary knowledge so that I can competently and helpfully assist them in their discipleship. My error; not seeking to prepare my heart by learning for my own discipleship.

I have at times become so focused on interpreting the Scriptures correctly that I have given little time to seeking the realities they point to.

I have often got lost in the aesthetic appeal of a theological system, hermeneutical program, or exegetical and historical details, when the point of such in-depth research was to ensure that I was rightly grasping the simplicity of the gospel.

What confessions do you have to make?

In answer to suffering

Many of us have this nagging question: How can we believe in a loving God when the world God created is pervaded by suffering, evil, pain, brokenness, injustice?

We ask this as interpreters of Scripture and as theologians, seeking to form coherent picture of God’s character and his ways in the world . We ask this as those who have seen the suffering in the world, the evil that constantly deals out death and destruction, and through empathy have felt the pain and grief of others. We ask this as those who are experiencing pain and loss ourselves, asking God, ‘why?’ We have ask this as those who seek to discredit belief in a loving God.

Its not a question that we should silence or ignore, and we should certainly not bury any doubts that it creates.  I have asked this question as a believer in the love of God. I have sought answers to this question because of the apparent theological problem it creates for my own understanding of God. I have sought answers to this question for those for whom it is an obstacle for belief in a loving God. In these cases the question came to me from others, it was something I read and heard.

But this question has also emerged freshly for myself, having observed suffering and pain from a distance, mediated through television screens and depicted in film, and having heard of and experienced evil and brokenness closer to home. Human brokeness, suffering, and unrepentant evil, are causes for both anger and sorrow. At every moment countless people are suffering immeasurably; physically and emotionally, millions live in fear, millions are abused, exploited, killed. Yet in living our own sometimes blissful lives, we can often get so caught up in the persuit of our own happiness that we ignore the brokenness of the lives around us. Charles Durham expresses this matter well :

Of course this life here is not all battle, blood and sorrow. The colours and sounds of the earth are very sweet… Human relationships bring satisfaction and pleasure beyond words. There are times when I feel that I never want to leave this place, no matter how beautiful and good heaven may be. But on the other hand, when I see more clearly the suffering of the race… then the other side of the picture comes flooding in upon me. I realize that we have deep enjoyment only when we are successful in forgetting that even in our best moments countless others are suffering immeasurably.[1]

But for the Christian, these are not only a cause for grief but also for longing, and give rise to another question: ’Why, Lord, have you not returned to put this to an end? Why does it continue for millenia?’

What is there to do in answer to this question? I am compelled to do two things. I am compelled to pray. Along with the first generation of Christians, “come, O Lord.” A righting or wrongs and an end to suffering and evil is what God has promised and this is what God will deliver. And I am compelled to not live my life either ignoring this plight or offering only sympathy. I am going to do something about it.

So lets ask the question and attempt to answer it, but lets not forget that it is only an intellectual problem because it is first a very real practical problem. Even if we cannot solve the intellectual conundrum, we can still be those who embody God’s love–the love we have seen in Jesus–in and amongst suffering and against evil and injustice.


[1] Charles Durham, Temptation (Scipture Unioin, 1984), 157

Unsettling Grace

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this statement:

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

I read this today and it hit me. I was struck with a renewed realisation of the extent and impact of God’s plan for me and with this a feeling of fear; this troubles me. It troubles me because it means that all those things I truly value and hold precious, all those habits and dispositions, ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are rooted deep within me but which do not reflect God are going to have to go, and I know it will be a painful experience doing so. But at the same time I feel tremendous sense of joy which has lead me to pray exactly for this. Joy because what I cannot accomplish by myself, what I have come to long for even though that which I already am works against, God promises to do within me; God is going to form me into someone truly good.

The reality that Bonhoeffer points to is so powerful that we need to allow it to resound within. God calls us to himself in order that we may die to ourselves, to all our ways, all those things that we hold precious and value, but that do not reflect him. And while we could hope for nothing more in this life than for the one who set the stars in the sky and the world into motion, the very Creator of the universe to make ourselves his project, if we truly realize the extent of his intentions for us, then we should fear, we shoud feel uncomfortable. God’s claim on us is nothing short of death, and death is comprehensive and painful.

And yet we should still, as Paul puts it, let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts (Colossians 3.15). God’s work within us is truly an unsettling grace, but it is grace. We are to put to death the old self so that we be clothed in the new self renewed in his image. Again, what more could we hope for!

Come Lord Jesus

Last night I watched Gangs of New York. And while I found it a well-crafted and engaging movie, it was filled with corruption, greed, dispassion, and violence. The closing scenes brought me nothing but grief as they showcased the violence that stains our history and pervades our world, the way that self-interest can leave so many victims in its wake.

It had me praying once more, come Lord Jesus. I do not want to live my life with a blind eye to the world’s pain, I cannot believe that this world is “alright”, that we have things “sorted” or “under control”. Evil is something which I have been largely fortunate not to be beaton down by. Nevertheless I thank the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for this, and long for his coming.

Jesus and Your gospel

The question ‘what is the Gospel according to the NT?’ is one which I have been asking for a long time now. I’m interested primarily because I want to answer this question, ‘what is the Gospel that we should be sharing, announcing, and celebrating?’ So here is something to think about in reference to these.

What part does Jesus play in your understanding of ‘the good news’? I’ve thought of three basics ways that Jesus is often related to the Gospel as it has been communicated in writing and speech:

  • The Gospel is a message about Jesus,
  • The Gospel is a message that includes Jesus,
  • The Gospel is a reiteration of Jesus’ own ‘gospel’ (Mark 1.15).


Dogs, Cats, and Congregations

There are so many different leadership models and so many different congregational dynamics in the Church. On the way home from work today I saw a slogan on the license plate of a car:

“Dogs have owners, but cats have staff”

I had the usual response, ‘that so true!’, and then somehow this got me thinking about church, and how the dynamics experienced between people and these pets reflect some of the ways congregations relate to their leaders.

There are congregations who are like cats — the leaders are there to serve them on the their terms. Some congregations can be very controlling, setting very specific expectations for the leadership, effectively becoming the real leaders themselves and those with the official title become simply the puppets. They then provide no real leadership at all.

And then there are congregations who are more like dogs — they are made to serve the vision of the leader(s), who sets very specific expectations for them. In these churches, the congregation can be under very tight control, control which is maintained through almost every aspect of ‘church life’.

Neither of these scenarios is helpful but both are all too real. What then is the role(s) of “leaders” within a church? I leave you with this to ponder…