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Posts Tagged ‘historical context’


I’ve said it before, I’m glad Sinclair Ferguson retired.

I miss listening to his sermons, so I wish he hadn’t retired too. But his retirement has meant a steadier stream of great books. One of those books is From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4

This is not a new book such much as a revised and expanded version of Handle with Care! which was released in 1982. It was written to fulfill a commitment he’d made to provide a book on the Trinity. Unable to prepare that manuscript, they were willing to receive Handle with Care! Hopefully we will see that book on the Trinity some day.

In some ways, From the Mouth of God reminds me of Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word. They cover much of the same territory. Their styles are different due, in part, to differences in age and cultural background. Both are very good books and worth reading. Both are relatively short and accessible to lay people. I intend you use both in the teacher training, and officer training, that I am in the process creating and revising respectively.

As you might realize from the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections: trusting the Bible, reading the Bible and applying the Bible. The middle section is the longest. Unfortunately the section on application is the shortest. As one who can struggle with this aspect of sermon preparation, I would have liked this to be explored more thoroughly.

His opening chapter It Is Written covers the Bible as God’s self-revelation. He brings our depravity as expressed in a darkened understanding into the equation. Ferguson uses passages like Hebrews 1 to affirm that the Bible is historical, verbal, progressive and cumulative, and Christ-centered. He discusses the dual authorship of Scripture as an expression of the doctrine of concurrence. He also covers the doctrine of accommodation, that God speaks in such a way that we can understand. The second chapter, Getting It Together, focuses on questions of the canon. This includes the OT canon and Jesus’ view of that canon. He addresses inerrancy and infallibility, as well as finality. Inerrancy is often misunderstood. For instance, it includes the lies of men. It accurately reports those lies in some historical accounts. Faithfully communicating those falsehoods and errors does not mean the Bible itself errs.

He wraps up the first section with Is It God’s Word?, which evaluates the claims of Scripture to be God’s word. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also illumines the Scriptures for us. We see the depth of our dependence upon the work of the Spirit in knowing God.

Ferguson opens the section on reading the Bible with an example of how not to read it: allegory. Christians have struggled with how to read, and therefore understand, the Bible. The priest of my youth told us “Don’t read the Bible, you’ll get it wrong.” And many do. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t Do-It-Yourself. We have a responsibility, and need, to read the Bible for ourselves. We aren’t saved by implicit belief in what the priest or pastor knows & believes. We must explicitly believe saving truths, and we know them through the Scriptures.

Explaining Paul’s statements, Ferguson discusses rightly handling the Word of God, thinking in the hopes the God grants understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). He then turns to the Westminster Confession of Faith to explain some principles for interpretation. He contrasts this with the medieval church’s 5-fold interpretation.

In Keys, he notes the 5 keys to interpreting Scripture: context, Christ, the unfolding drama, and gospel grammar. These keys help us by helping us grasp the historical and literary context, the redemptive-historical context, its connection with Christ and reminding us that the indicatives (facts) of the gospel precede the imperatives (commands) so we live by grace. In Prose, Poetry, Wisdom, and Prophecy focuses on the different literary genres in the Old Testament. He briefly provides the basics needed to understand each of these genres. He includes brief examples of how to interpret each. Similarly in Gospels, Epistles, and Visions Ferguson looks at the genres in the New Testament. In For Example, he interprets the book of Ruth. He repeats one of the keys he noted earlier: “in reading Old Testament narrative we must always have in mind the way in which the promise of Genesis 3:15 unfolds in terms of God’s covenant promise working out through deep conflict to establish his kingdom in Christ.”

Ferguson moves to application with What’s the Use?. Here he returns to 2 Timothy 3 to help us understand the use of the Scriptures in making us wise for salvation. This chapter will find its way into my officer training.

In Seed Needs Soil he addresses the condition of hearts that hear the gospel. This is one of the few places I disagree with Ferguson. It is a minor disagreement. I believe the parable is told to explain the different reactions to the ministry of the Word for the disciples. I don’t think it is meant for us to be self-reflective as if we could prepare our hearts. Still, he does a good job explaining the nature of those hearts.

He concludes with Speaking Practically, which is about how to implement the material you have read. He discusses the role of discipline to develop a routine, and a method for reading the Bible. We have to actually read the Bible, consistently and repeatedly, to bear great fruit. Each of the first 5 years or so that I was a Christian (until I went to seminary) I read the Bible through once a year. I gained a good working knowledge of the Bible as a result. Unfortunately it was the NIV, and many key phrases in my head don’t match up with the ESV. Even after 20 years in ministry, while reading the Bible for my own devotion I continue to see new connections points (I just read Exodus 22:28, noting its connection to NT texts about honoring the king).

Though Ferguson is done, the book isn’t. He includes two brief appendices. The first is John Murray on The Guidance of the Holy Spirit, and John Newton’s letter on Divine Guidance.

This is a good book that leaves you wanting more. I recommend it for all those interested in teaching others, and people interested in why they should trust the Scriptures and how to read them.

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Our women’s ministry is called WOW- Women of the Word, indicating our desires for them to be women in whom the Word of Christ dwells richly. So when Crossway sent me a copy of Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin (ebook), I was a little intrigued.

Last year I brought our men through Bible Study so they would learn how to study and teach the Bible. WOW is much shorter, and seeks to address things from a woman’s perspective (lots of illustrations I wouldn’t understand) while also offering some warnings against “feminizing” it. She does want them to remember it was written to both men and women.

Overall I thought it was a good book to help women dig deeper into the Scriptures. She was quite clear, succinct (I could learn from this) and interesting (probably more so if I were a woman and was familiar with things like rhumba tights). Her study plan is really about depth and she makes some wise warnings about how this all takes time. Her goal is for women to use this method in their personal study or when studying a book of the Bible as a group.

She starts with what she calls a series of “turn arounds” or ways in which she was reading things wrong and needing to begin reading them. She also realized that the Bible is primarily about God (and secondarily about us), the mind matters because it transforms the heart. These are two important things to know or you will make the Bible into a self-help book meant to make you feel good. This is the ever-present danger of therapeutic moral deism.

“But our insecurities, fears, and doubts can never be banished by knowledge of who we are. They can only be banished by the knowledge of ‘I am.'”

Her second chapter is “The Case for Biblical Literacy”. She wants women to develop a working knowledge of the whole Bible, how it all fits together, instead of a patchwork understanding (similar to one developed by children’s SS lessons and a steady diet of topical preaching).

“Sound Bible study transforms the heart by training the mind and it places God at the center of the story. But sound Bible stud does more than that- it leaves the student with a better understanding of the Bible than she had when we started. Stated another way, sound Bible study increases Bible literacy.”

She lays out a few bad methods. In the Xanax approach, you are looking to take away bad feelings, and look for just the right passage. It makes the Bible about you instead of to you. There is the Pinball approach in which you bounce around like a pinball without any thought to the context and purpose (and therefore the meaning) of a text. There is the Magic 8 Ball approach where we simply look for what to do in a crisis rather than learning who we are to be in Christ. The Holy Spirit transforms us.

Bible literacy, she rightly argues, keeps us from falling into error. If we know the whole of Scripture we can notice if someone is abusing a part of Scripture. We will also be better prepared to answer the charges of our critics. Bible literacy is not developed overnight. It takes time to read for both breadth (devotionally) and depth (study). It takes reading the whole Bible repeatedly to see patterns, references and allusions to other passages. It takes years, and in our microwave society most people don’t want to invest that kind of time unless they grasp how important it is. Perhaps I’m weird, but no one told me to do this. I just did it.

Her plan or method is to study with the 5 P’s: Purpose, Perspective, Patience, Process and Prayer. Much of what she lays out is what a pastor regularly does in sermon preparation minus the crafting of said sermon.

Purpose is important. It is about understanding the purpose of the Scriptures AND the purpose of that particular portion of Scripture. As a whole the Bible is about redemption, a redemption story. Particular passages are stories of redemption within the story of redemption. They progressively reveal God’s greatness and the greatness of His plan. We begin to look for how each text fits into the whole text instead of viewing it as an isolated, independent text.

Perspective is asking questions of the text to understand its purpose which will help you understand its meaning in due time. This is the process of understanding the historical and cultural context of the particular book. We want to see it, as best we can, as the original audience did instead of just putting our 21st century American presuppositions and experience on the text. We did much of this in English class as we studied literature. Who wrote it? When? Why? To whom was it written? What genre or style?

Patience remembers that digging deep takes time and effort. It is applying the concept of delayed gratification to Bible study. We remember that our efforts have a cumulative effect. We will have to be patient with ourselves. We will fail. We will find reasons to not study on a particular day. We will discover we have grossly misunderstood texts. We will have to be patient with the process, refusing to take short cuts. There will be patience with our circumstances which may present hindrances to study. There will be plenty of reasons for patience.

“Could it be that feeling lost is one way God humbles us when we come to his Word, knowing that in due time he will exalt our understanding?”

Process is the main portion of the larger plan. This is the nitty-gritty. She wants women to own the text through lots of hard work. Owning it means understanding its original meaning, attempting to interpret it and then make application from it. She wants you to read it repeatedly so you notice the flow of the argument or story (depending on the genre). She wants you to break out the colored pencils/pens (on a copy of the text) to note verb tenses (yes, they matter), subjects and all that grammar jazz. Yes, she wants you to outline the passage and put notes in the margin of that copy of the text. She wants you to compare different translations and see why they differ (when they do). She wants you to crack open a dictionary to understand words that are used that you don’t commonly use. Yes, this is hard work and not always exciting but if we want to understand a text’s original meaning (what it says) it is necessary work.

We then move to interpretation or what the text means. She wants you to hold off on the commentaries until you develop your own interpretation. I’ve seen others say the same thing. Generally that is a good idea. But sometimes you do struggle with “what it says”. Commentaries aren’t just interpretations, but also help us get what it says because sometimes the text is hard to discern, or parts of it. It is important to read 2-3 commentaries so you don’t fall into a cult of personality (“well, Bultmann says” repeated ad nauseum). There is more hard work here: looking at cross references, paraphrasing and just plain thinking. Yes, sometimes you just sit there and think (also known as meditating on the Word of God).

Once you know what it says, and what it means you can ask how it applies. What am I to believe about God? What am I to believe about myself? What does God call me to do in dependence upon Him? This takes thinking about the text, myself and my circumstances.

Prayer is a short chapter. The point is we are to pray all through the process, knowing that we need the Spirit’s help to illuminate the Scriptures so we can understand the Word, ourselves and our circumstances (yes, I’m adding a little Frame to her thoughts).

She then has a chapter in which she demonstrates her process using James 1. This way you can see it in action and have a better idea of what she has been talking about. The book concludes with some encouragement for teachers in how to bring the fruit of this into a group setting, and then a call to seek God. The purpose of all this is to know God, not just gather information.

This is a good introduction. I would quibble with some of the books she recommends because of the theological commitments and method of interpretation used which I think distorts the Scriptures. Yes, I’m talking Dispensationalism. I’m not saying she is a dispensationalist particularly since focusing on the whole story is more of a covenantal perspective of Scripture (which focuses on the unity of Scripture). Just one of those weird things that passes through my mind.

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I think what really stood out to me was the recommendation of D.A. Carson found on the front cover.

“If you are a high schooler, read this book carefully and thoroughly, and then loan it to your parents.”

The book he was referring to was Bible Study: A Student’s Guide by Jon Nielson. Nielson’s goal was to equip & encourage students to study the Bible. What I’ve found in over a decade of pastoral ministry is that too few people in the pews know how to study the Bible. This means that many churches are failing to train students, their SS teachers or small group leaders how to study the Bible. It is easy to hand them a study guide, we use those, but not train them how to do it.

As our men’s ministry considered what to study this year, they chose to study this book. Many of them felt a proper conviction that they needed to better understand how to study the Bible to better lead their wives and family.

There is the background for why he wrote the book, and why I read it. Now, how is the book?

Nielson starts with a number of truths concerning the Bible that need to be grasped as we begin to study the Bible. He starts with the doctrine that “The Bible is God Speaking”. He tackles the doctrine of Inspiration. If we don’t believe that the Bible is the Word of God (He spoke it), we have no compelling reason to read and study the Bible. It is just an interesting story and confusing moral advice. But if God is speaking…. that changes everything. So he explains dual authorship and inspiration in an understandable way, and then gets into the implications of what we believe. He stands opposed to the post-modern notions of deconstructionism and for authorial intent as fundamental to meaning.  Since the Bible is God speaking, our goal in studying it is to hear God speaking to us through the Scriptures.

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