Creative Redemption

Ideology, Identity, and Idolatry

Staunch conservatives (in the political/economic/social sense) will find affirmation of their views as they read the Bible. This reality would seem to suggest that those who believe the Bible should be conservatives – except for the fact that staunch liberals will also find affirmation of their views as they read the Bible.

Which group gets it right, and which group gets it wrong? I would suggest that each group both gets it right and gets it wrong.

I base this conclusion primarily on two factors. In this post I will address the first briefly and focus more on the second. In what sense do conservatives and liberals both get it right? Conservatives will legitimately see an emphasis on order, tradition, responsibility, and morality in the Bible. Liberals, on the other hand, will legitimately see an emphasis on justice (especially for the weakest members), compassion, and the dangers of getting stuck in tradition.

The legitimacy of these core values for each group points to the reason that both groups get it wrong. The values they latch on to are true, but they comprise only part of the picture.

We all develop biases toward any group or ideology with which we identify ourselves. To use a relatively trivial example, observe devoted fans of a team when that team plays a bitter rival. Fans tend to see their team as good and the opponent (as well as their fans) as evil. They see almost any ruling against their team by the officials as a bad call (perhaps the game is even fixed!). The same applies to ideological “teams.”

The groups/ideologies with which we identify shape our identity. We strongly value and protect our identity, leading us to hold to our biases equally strongly because so much is at stake. As a result, these biases incline our minds toward embracing information favorable to our identity and ignoring or rationalizing information that calls our chosen identity into question.

To complicate the situation even more, the very process that produces these biases also blinds us to them because it occurs largely on the unconscious level. As a result, we righteously reject any charge of bias because we do not consciously see it, even while others can see our biases as clearly as we can see them in the examples below.

Scripture regularly presents to us individuals and groups that have become blissfully ignorant of their blind spots. How easily we see King Saul’s disobedience to God’s command regarding the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 when he he spares the Amalekites’ king and the best of the spoil. Despite the obvious physical evidence to the contrary, Saul sincerely sees himself as obedient to God’s command to destroy everything. The majority of the Israelites who opposed the prophets were also confident they were living within God’s will, as were the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus.

We tend to demonize and distance ourselves from such sinners, but Scripture surely uses them to warn us of the same tendencies in ourselves. Saul and the Pharisees in particular reflect the blindness to truth that challenges an identity in which people have become deeply invested. We all possess these self-serving blind spots to some degree.

Ideologies such as conservatism and liberalism are not dangerous because they are all wrong, but because they are not altogether right. They reflect human attempts to define reality, so loyalty to them endangers loyalty to the kingdom of God. I hear Christians expressing more passion for conservatism or liberalism or Americanism than for the kingdom values that transcend all such human categories.

The essential danger of idolatry lies in its function as a distorted lens through which we see God. As a result, it reduces him to something that serves our beliefs and values and goals. For this reason, we need to avoid the limiting, bias-inducing power of any identification other than Jesus himself. Scripture even warns us regarding that most treasured source of human identity: the family. If we do not practice this vigilance, our other identifications will shape our view of God rather than the other way around.

On Listening to People with whom I Disagree

A recent book by Alan Gregerman carries the title, The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation, and Success. The author argues that, with all due respect to our usual circle of friends and family, we significantly shortchange our potential if we do not engage, learn from, and collaborate with “strangers,” that is, those who differ from us.

I agree with this basic premise, and even though the book focuses more on personal and professional growth, profound implications for the Christian and the church exist as well.

Before I turn to the reasons for Christians to listen to those who differ from us more broadly, let me mention a personal motivation for addressing this idea. The 140-character limit in Twitter creates a number of challenges. Thoughts expressed in this format resemble proverbs in their brevity. Like proverbs, these thoughts do not possess the luxury of larger context, leaving them open to interpretation (and misinterpretation).

Another danger accompanies such snippets when they originate from an outside source. Someone viewing the post might consider the one being quoted suspect in some way, and thus overly identify this concern with the one posting the quote. At a minimum, the one posting the quote “should have known better than to have cited such a disreputable person.”

For example, over the past year I have read from Richard Rohr’s works fairly extensively. On several occasions I have posted quotes from him on Twitter (linking also to Facebook). For those who don’t know him, Rohr is a popular but controversial Catholic priest and teacher. I don’t believe I have ever read anyone from whom I derived such equal measures of insightful inspiration (mostly in the area of spirituality) and significant disagreement.

As an academic, I have been trained to examine sources critically. This practice challenges the researcher to find and appropriate what is valuable while rejecting that which fails to meet the standard. The quality of discernment required for this practice understandably leaves room for disagreement.

While the critical approach forever remains an inexact science, the alternative necessitates the appointment (or self-appointment) of some individual or group to determine which sources are “safe” and which are “dangerous.” This judgment typically implies that the former merit implicit trust across the board while the latter should be avoided altogether. This approach saves time and mental energy for many, but it obviously carries its own dangers, not the least of which is the narrowed field of vision it imposes.

Christians need to listen to “strangers,” therefore, because they potentially have much to teach us. We should not be surprised by this assertion. The Bible’s claim that we are all created in the image of God suggests that someone who has never seen a Bible possesses capacity for insight into the truth. The Bible’s claim that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God suggests that the most devout student of the Bible will not possess perfect understanding.

Christians also need to listen to “strangers” because we need to understand them if we are to fulfill our calling from God toward them. The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our “sympathetic” high priest because of the great lengths to which he went to identify with us. A much smaller gap exists between us and our neighbors, but it remains a gap we are called to close in order to carry out our priestly ministry and to perpetuate Jesus’ incarnational presence.

One final thought: At times I find it easier to listen to Richard Rohr and other differing voices than those whose backgrounds and basic beliefs more closely resemble my own. Why? These are the times when the “strangers” reflect a transparency about their own limitations in understanding and a refusal to take themselves too seriously, while my friends sound so harsh, so confident of their monopoly on the truth, so predictable in their responses to every event. The latter stance suggests to me fear and insecurity rather than the fruit of advanced wisdom. 

What’s In a Name?

In Matthew 1 the angel reassures Joseph about the child Mary is carrying, although the news that the child “is from the Holy Spirit” surely raised a whole new set of questions. In verse 23 the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.”

A couple of biblical curiosities regarding the name Jesus may help us appreciate why its significance extends beyond what we usually recognize. First, let’s consider Hebrews 4:8 in the King James Version:

“For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.”

This verse seems to make no sense to a careful reader who recognizes the contrast in the passage between the rest promised to the Israelites in Canaan and the greater rest provided by Jesus. The confusion arises from the fact that the name Jesus comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua. I know of no other English translation that translates the name “Jesus” rather than “Joshua” in Hebrews 4:8.

This peculiarity of the KJV, however, reminds us that the name Jesus/Joshua means “Yahweh saves.” The Old Testament use of “save/salvation” focuses on rescue or deliverance. Psalm 80 provides a good example of this broader meaning. In the midst of calls for God to save, the psalm also appeals to God to “return” to them, to “restore” them, and to “revive” them. Salvation, in other words, refers not only to a deliverance “from” something, but also “back to” something.

The second curiosity about the name Jesus comes from within Matthew 1. Just after the command to name the child Jesus, Matthew connects Jesus’ birth to Isaiah 7 and the child who is to be called Immanuel (“God With Us”). Why would Matthew tie the name Jesus to a passage referring to a child with a different name?

Jesus certainly fits the bill of “God With Us,” but Matthew also takes into account the larger context of Isaiah and the nature of the divine presence. The promised sign of Immanuel comes in the context of a faithless king, Ahaz, who turns to Assyria for help rather than to God. How does the promise of God’s presence overcome such unbelief, and what does the salvation God’s presence brings look like?

Isaiah 7 helps prepare the way for one of the most famous messianic promises in Isaiah, the “Suffering Servant” in chapters 52-53. To fully appreciate the Suffering Servant, however, we must go back to 41:8, where God speaks of Israel as his servant. God goes on to describe Israel as a blind and deaf servant, frustrated with the failure to bring God’s salvation to the earth. As the servant theme moves toward its climax in chapters 52-53, it shifts from Israel as servant to the servant who acts on behalf of Israel, and ultimately on behalf of all nations.

Notice in Matthew 1 that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” Jesus comes to Israel not just to provide forgiveness for their sins, but also to rescue them from the power of their sins that has frustrated them as servants of the Lord with a mission in the world.

The opening verse of the classic 18th century hymn, “Rock of Ages,” by Augustus Montague Toplady acknowledges this larger dimension of Jesus’ salvation:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From Thy wounded side which flowed,

Be of sin the double cure;

Save from wrath and make me pure.

What a marvelous gift is the forgiveness of our sins! Yet forgiveness of sin does not exhaust the meaning of salvation from sin. To limit it to forgiveness misses a vital dimension of Jesus’ role as Savior. Not only does it reduce his work in our eyes to a self-focused “get-out-of-jail” card, but it also dangerously distracts us from sin’s power over our lives and minimizes our role as a redeemed people in God’s larger purpose.

Forgiveness of sin suggests an end in itself; salvation from sin points us to deliverance for something better. It frees us from sin’s power to drag us back down to the world’s pattern of fearing and judging and condemning and hating. It sets us free to be servants of the Lord who follow the path of Jesus in the fullest sense of that name. Sin alienates us not only from God, but also from ourselves, from one another, and from the creation. Salvation sets us on the path to restored relationships across the board.

Now that’s really good news!

Beware the Trap of “Special” People

“Well, isn’t that special?!” We didn’t find it hard to catch the sarcasm when Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” uttered her trademark line on SNL. In general we use the word “special” with a fair degree of ambiguity. Special education, for example, applies equally to children struggling with learning disabilities and those classified as gifted.

Similarly, we tend to view both the worst of sinners and the most virtuous as special, or exceptional. Doing so, however, can yield serious spiritual dangers for us on both ends of the spectrum.

On the negative side, consider how we tend to view the Bible’s portrayal of the fickle Israelites or the unbelieving Pharisees or Jesus’ clueless disciples. Through them the Bible challenges us to humbly consider our own resistance to God’s revelation. Instead, don’t we more often dismiss them by demonizing them as pure evil or bumbling failures?

The Pharisees actually illustrate this danger. According to Jesus, the Pharisees honor the burial sites of the prophets and claim they would not have participated in shedding their blood, yet their treatment of him links them to past persecutors of the righteous (Matthew 23:29-32). Similarly, Jesus’ opening sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, in which he links the residents of his hometown to those in the unbelieving days of Elijah, turns these pious villagers into a mob intent on murder.

On the positive side, we also tend to attribute the success of those who stand out from the crowd to some inherent quality or advantage. This pattern applies to “genius” in intellect, artistry, and athletics (in spite of Malcolm Gladwell’s proposals in Outliers). We follow the same pattern with “spiritual giants.”

Dallas Willard’s penetrating essay, “Living in the Vision of God” (The Great Omission), addresses the way followers in a movement tend to lose the vision of the founder. Part of the problem, Willard says, is the followers’ “assumption that the founder or leader is ‘unusual’ or ‘abnormally gifted’ to relieve themselves of the burden of genuinely being like him or her.”

The danger of viewing others as “special,” therefore, lies in the disconnect it creates between us and them. To set the wicked and unbelieving apart for our judgment allows us to retain a smug sense of superiority that makes us more vulnerable to the same failings.

On the other hand, to place on a pedestal those in whom and through whom God is evidently working carries an equal but opposite danger. Honoring them – or even envying them – might seem to reflect humility, but in reality it keeps us from being open to God’s work in and through us.

Willard acknowledges the existence of servants of God who are marked by something special. He insists, however, that what sets them apart is their openness to the vision of God, not some quality unavailable to the rest of us. If such servants (or those who desire to follow them) shift the focus from sustaining the vision of God to sustaining the results of the vision by their own strength, they lose access to that which is special.

Perhaps we would do well to paraphrase Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler: “Call no one special but God.”

Why Sin Goes Beyond Rule-Breaking

Sit up straight, eat your vegetables, do your homework, use ten sources for your paper. Don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t text and drive, don’t plagiarize.

Rules – some people view them as providing reassuring order and stability, and others see them as creating stifling restrictions. In reality, rules play a necessary role in essentially every area of life, but they also possess inherent limitations.

One of the biggest limitations regarding rules derives from their inability to cover adequately any area of significant complexity. For example, a marriage relationship cannot be reduced to a list of rules. A second major limitation relates to the first. An excessive focus on rules can cause them to become an end in themselves, drawing attention away from the bigger picture they were intended to serve. Think of some of Jesus’ charges against the Pharisees, such as tithing herbs to the neglect of weightier matters of the law, or dedicating something to God and thus neglecting to care for their parents.

The Bible contains many rules, of course, and not just in the Old Testament. The most common word for these rules in the Old Testament is torah, normally translated “law,” but more literally meaning “instruction.” Both testaments contain plenty of instruction, most notably due to the perspective found in the following proverb:

There is a way that appears to be right,

  but in the end it leads to death.

            –Proverbs 14:12

Due to this deficiency, the Old Testament praises the law highly, sometimes even effusively (see, for example, Psalm 19; 119; Deuteronomy 1-11). Both Jesus and Paul, despite their legitimate conflicts with the Pharisees over the law, make it clear that the law is good when approached properly.

These general observations about rules serve to introduce an exploration of the meaning and nature of sin in the Bible. The common tendency to reduce sin to the violation of rules can trivialize the biblical notion of sin. In addition, it distorts our understanding of how we combat sin in our lives and in the world.

I plan to explore the more substantive aspects of sin according to the Bible, with a goal of understanding better the roots of the human “problem,” as well as the path by which we draw closer to God’s will for our lives.

Throwing Out the Poor with the Bath Water

The old expression “throwing the baby out with the bath water” refers to getting rid of something good or fundamental in the process of trying to get rid of something bad. Perhaps the saying does not apply perfectly to the plight of the poor at present, but it addresses one significant aspect of it.

On a public policy level, helping the poor, like other important issues, has fallen victim to the partisan divide that makes meaningful dialogue among our political leaders virtually impossible. Liberal policies have proven ineffective in alleviating poverty at best, and counterproductive at worst. Conservative alternatives suggest that improving the overall economy will solve the problem of poverty for anyone willing to work. Such an approach both ignores the truth about who are the major beneficiaries of an improved economy and suffers from a shortsighted view of the nature and causes of poverty.

Difficult economic times make government aid programs inviting targets for cost cutting. While many of these programs contain serious flaws, simply reducing or eliminating them carries devastating consequences for many of our poorer neighbors, at least in the short term. The many Christians who support such cost cutting must not take the consequent impact on the poor lightly.

One could certainly argue that any attempt to alleviate poverty through government programs will inevitably come up short for a variety of reasons. The magnitude of the problem in a country like the U.S., however, not to mention the worldwide situation, requires the mobilization of vast resources. At least at present, government involvement in assisting the poor remains vital, even with its shortcomings.

To throw out the poor with the bath water of flawed public policies will surely not escape the notice of the God who promises to hear the cries of the poor. Christians who try to hide behind the abuses of those who play the system because “those who don’t work shouldn’t eat” need to remember at least two things. First, “the system” bears a great deal of responsibility for the current problem. Second, attempts to toss out the cheaters will literally toss out babies and children as well.

In the longer term, my hope is that the church will build on growing insights into healthier ways to help the poor and model a better way forward. I personally have little confidence in government’s ability to do more than minimize some of the consequences of poverty. Churches and Christian organizations have frequently done little better in addressing the root causes of poverty. Increasingly, however, this situation is changing. A tremendous opportunity thus exists for the church to bear witness to the kind of redemption God intends as it walks alongside its poorer neighbors day after day and year after year.

In the meantime, we may have little choice but to: 1)Advocate for the best of the flawed government policy options for the poor; and 2)Step up efforts to address the deeper issues of poverty and combat the counterproductive effects of shortsighted programs.



The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Conclusion)

 As we wrap up this exploration of “the fear of the Lord” in the Bible, let’s recall a couple of key observations from the first two segments. First, both the Old and New Testaments affirm fearing God as a virtue. Second, the Old Testament ties fearing God closely to loving God, as well as other surprising elements such as finding forgiveness, refuge, and hope in him.

Some consider the notion of fearing God objectionable, but we don’t have to begin with subjective responses. The Bible simultaneously commends fearing God and raises its own issues with the surface appearance of what fearing God means. In other words, we have a problem if we understand “the fear of the Lord” as being afraid of God, because the Bible points us in a different direction.

What’s Wrong with Fear?

What, we might ask, is the problem with fear in the first place? On the one hand, fear plays a valuable role in protecting us from very real dangers. In so doing, it steers us away from paths that lead to painful consequences.

On the other hand, fear tends to serve as a short-term and self-focused motivator, which greatly limits its usefulness. The fight-or-flight instinct that fear triggers can save us in situations of physical threat, but it harms us by shutting down our capacity for skills such as reasoning and empathy in less life-threatening contexts.

In addition to fight and flight, fear can also cause us to freeze. The third servant in the parable of the talents took his large amount of money and buried it because he feared the master’s wrath should he lose it. Ironically, it was this fearful response that exposed him to the anger of his master.

Fear also hinders meaningful relationships. After the first sin, Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God due to their fear (Genesis 3:8-10). Their sin was serious, but God had to draw them out before their relationship could move forward. When we are afraid of someone, the way of avoidance is understandable, but it allows no room for restoration of the relationship. The fear of the Lord, on the other hand, draws us to him.

Whereas passages like Deuteronomy 6 and 10 connect the love and fear of God, John contrasts them:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.                                    –1 John 4:16b-18

Notice that John does not identify the object of fear in this passage. He does connect it, however, with judgment and punishment. This concern sounds much like that of the servant in the parable of the talents, whose self-oriented “feelings” of fear led him not to please his master, but to disappoint and anger him.

A Definition?

In the end, it is difficult to provide a simple definition of “the fear of the Lord” in the Bible. It is easier to say what it is not. In seeking a positive definition we must acknowledge that the gap between God and humanity, due both to his incomparable nature as Creator in general (see Isaiah 40:10-26) and his holiness in contrast to our sinfulness (see Isaiah 6:1-5), underlies the fear of the Lord. Yet this fear also forms an appropriate response to his forgiveness and the hope he provides, as we have seen.

In the end, we should understand the fear of the Lord in a way that calls us not to run from him in terror, but to approach him humbly and gratefully. We stand in awe of his power and holiness, but also of his patience and mercy. We surrender our attempts at self-justification to his gracious provision. We submit our puny power and goals and wisdom to his will. For this reason, the fear of the Lord is “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27).




The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, we saw that the Old Testament, rather than contrasting the fear of God with the love of God, closely connects them (along with obeying the commandments). This connection, in conjunction with other factors we are about to explore, makes it difficult to reduce “the fear of the Lord” to being afraid of God.

Look to the Parallels

Most of the instances of “the fear of the Lord” in the Old Testament appear in the poetic writings, especially Psalms and Proverbs. One of the key features of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, in which two lines are closely tied together. For example:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

                        –Psalm 19:1

In this verse, the second line restates the first. Another common type of parallelism contrasts the two lines, as with the following:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

                        –Psalm 1:6

When a poetic text speaks of “the fear of the Lord” (or comparable language), that with which it is compared or contrasted should prove highly instructive as to how the biblical writers understood the meaning of fearing God.

Consider these examples:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,

but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

                        — Proverbs 1:7

Do not be wise in your own eyes;

fear the Lord and depart from evil.

                        — Proverbs 3:7

But with you there is forgiveness;

therefore you are feared.

                        — Psalm 130:4

How abundant are the good things

that you have stored up for those who fear you,

that you bestow in the sight of all,

on those who take refuge in you.

                        — Psalm 31:19

The Lord delights in those who fear him,

who put their hope in his unfailing love.

                        — Psalm 147:11

Blessed are those who fear the Lord,

who find great delight in his commands.

                        — Psalm 112:1

To parallel “the fear of the Lord” with a spirit of humility and openness to instruction is helpful but not particularly surprising. More striking, however, is its connection with God’s nature as one who forgives (Wouldn’t God be more fearsome if he was unforgiving?), who provides a source of refuge, whose unfailing love inspires hope, and whose commands bring delight.

It would be possible to substitute “love” for “fear” in these last few parallels. In fact, this substitution would probably make more sense to a contemporary reader. The fact that this is the case reaffirms the close association between loving God and fearing God in the Bible.

A brief examination of these parallels further demonstrates that defining “the fear of the Lord” as being afraid of God does not fit the biblical evidence. Interestingly, some words of Jesus in the New Testament appear to challenge this conclusion.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

                        –Matthew 10:28

Notice, however, the words that immediately follow:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

                        –Matthew 10:29-31

Jesus is attempting to encourage disciples who fear sharing the same kind of persecution directed toward him. He does so through a touching reference to “your

Father’s care.” As in this passage, the call to fear God is actually a means of removing fear. Since the call not to fear is the most frequent command in the Bible, it would be surprising if “the fear of the Lord” were to mean, “be afraid of God.”

Next: Some closing thoughts on the limitations of fear.

The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Part 1)

Am I supposed to fear God or love God? Is this an either/or proposition, and if not, what does it mean to fear God? Many Christians have been led to think that they should resolve this tension through the following dangerously oversimplified contrast: the Old Testament calls for believers in God to fear him, whereas the New Testament calls for a response of love instead.

One problem with this “solution” is that the New Testament also appeals to “the fear of the Lord” several times (see Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:17; 2:17-18; Revelation 19:5). In addition, the greatest command, to love God with all one’s being, appears in Deuteronomy 6, a passage we will consider below.

The main problem, however, remains our view of what the problem is in the first place.  We tend to view the fear of God as a negative, whereas the Bible views it in a highly positive way. The wisdom writers in the Old Testament, in particular, view it as the essential foundation to wisdom (see, for example, Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7).

Let’s begin, however, by going back to Deuteronomy 6, where verse 4 exhorts Israel to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength. In the opening verses of the chapter, however, Moses precedes that exhortation with these words:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.

Notice that this passage not only places fearing God in close proximity to the call to love God wholeheartedly, but it also places fearing God in an interesting relationship to the commands of God. We often consider fear as a motive for obeying God, because if we don’t keep his commands we will be punished. In Deuteronomy 6:1-2, however, the commands are given “so that” we may fear him “by keeping” his commands.

 Another significant passage from Deuteronomy ties together loving God, fearing him, and keeping his commandments:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

                   –Deuteronomy 10:12-13

At a minimum, passages such as these demonstrate that fearing God and loving him are seen in the Bible as non-contradictory. When we bring obeying his commands into the mix as well, we are beginning to make progress toward a healthier understanding of the fear of the Lord (as well as the love of the Lord). Rather than contrasting these ideas, the Bible ties them closely together. In fact, one could argue that the various phrases in Deuteronomy 10:12-13 are essentially saying the same thing in different ways.

Another observation may prove helpful in this connection. Our first reaction to words like “fear” and “love” is to think of them as emotions. We struggle, therefore, when we are called to “fear” God or to “love” our enemies. Those feelings may seem inappropriate (especially the latter). Furthermore, how can we feel something as a result of a command?

On the subject of loving our enemies, consider the language of Exodus 23:4-5:

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.

These verses describe love of enemy, but they do not use the word “love.” They command us to behave in a certain way toward an enemy, not to feel a certain way. This perspective is true in general in the Bible. It might sound hypocritical to us because we don’t think we should do something if we are not “sincere.” Hypocrisy has to do with motive and intent. If we have the proper motive and intent, we do not have to feel warmth for others in order to act lovingly toward them. An increase in loving feelings typically comes as a result of loving actions, not the other way around.

 Next: Positive associations with fearing God in the Bible and an attempt at a definition of “the fear of the Lord.”

The Bible Is Not Flat!

The earth is not flat, but the massive data affirming this reality has not deterred members of the Flat Earth Society. The Bible is not flat either, but this reality has not deterred many from reading it that way. What does a “flat” reading of the Bible mean, and why is it a problem?

My first Bible was a King James Version. I’m old enough that in my early years few alternatives existed, but not so old that the language of the KJV matched the language of my daily life. My issue here, however, is not with the archaic way the KJV speaks (which was appropriate, of course, for the time when it was written), but with another factor more relevant to the question above.

Many Bible students realize that today’s chapter and verse divisions in the Bible were not part of the original text. The chapter divisions were added in the 13th century, and verses in the 16th century. The KJV, unlike more recent versions, presents the text of the biblical books as a series of chapters, each containing a string of seemingly free-standing verses. In books like Psalms, the reader observes no indication that this portion of the Bible is written as poetry. In narrative texts, one finds no paragraph divisions.

Although subsequent Bible versions have improved the formatting of the text, the historic influence of the King James Version may have contributed to an unfortunate legacy of approaching the Bible more like a dictionary than what it is in reality: a collection of diverse literary works. To use the Bible as if it were a repository of answers to be looked up by chapter and verse creates a dangerous pattern that lies at the heart of a flat reading. Such a reading ultimately does more damage than the belief in a flat earth. (Ironically, this approach to the Bible has probably contributed to the belief in a flat earth, just as it contributed to the belief that the earth is the center of our solar system.)

Perhaps the best way to elucidate the meaning and danger of a flat view of Scripture is by describing some areas to which we must be sensitive if we are going to avoid this danger and read the Bible more appropriately.


Genre refers to a category that reflects common characteristics. In the realm of music, for example, classical, bluegrass, blues, and hip hop describe different genres. A straight news story represents a different genre with different rules than an editorial. When we encounter familiar literary genres like these, we tend to change gears instinctively as we read.

Not only does the Bible use some less familiar genres, such as law, wisdom, and apocalyptic, but even some of the more familiar ones, like narrative, operate differently at times from our equivalents. Most seriously, we fail too often even to consider the issue of genre when we read the Bible. We cite a proverb or a passage from Revelation or Romans as if they all convey truth in the same way.

To read the Bible as if it consists of a single shapeless genre results in a flat reading that obscures many nuances of God’s revelation.


Two aspects of context carry relevance for the way we read the Bible. The first is literary context, which refers to the relationship of a given verse or passage to the text around it. This context extends all the way from the immediately surrounding verses to all of Scripture. We have all heard people protest that their words were “taken out of context.” The words of the Bible have often suffered this fate.

A second dimension of context deals with the time, place, language, and circumstances into which God revealed himself. He has not given us a collection of timeless truths, but words delivered to people in particular times and places. In so doing, God met them where they were. This gracious and necessary approach, sometimes called contextualization, requires those of us from different times and places to recognize that the Bible was not written directly to us.

To read the Bible as if a given passage can be understood and applied apart from its surrounding literary and cultural context results in a flat reading that obscures many boundaries of God’s revelation.


The way we read the Bible shapes our theology, which is simply our understanding of the larger message of the Bible. The more extensively and appropriately we read the Bible, the healthier should be our theology. Interpretation of particular passages and our theology ideally will interrelate with one another in a positive way. Our biases and blind spots, however, hinder this process.

As we grow in theological understanding (which involves our life response to the text as well as our intellectual study), we come to appreciate some important dimensions of the Bible. We recognize progressive revelation, the way in which God’s will is revealed with increasingly clarity as it comes to its fulfillment in Jesus (see Matthew 5:17-18; Hebrews 1:1-2). We also find certain emphases that give different weight to aspects of God’s revelation (see Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:34-40; 23:23).

Another issue with which our developing theology confronts us is the tensions that exist within Scripture. We wrestle, for example, with divine sovereignty and human free will, or the staggering love of God and his judgment. We often seem to be more eager to resolve these tensions (because they make us uncomfortable) than is the Bible itself. Unfortunately to resolve them to our satisfaction flattens the more complex texture of Scripture.

To read the Bible as if every passage or issue addressed carries equal weight and every tension is a problem to be resolved results in a flat reading that obscures the complexity of God’s revelation.

Avoiding a flat reading of the Bible will not resolve every interpretive disagreement, but it will put us on a much healthier path, one that respects the way God chose to shape his revelation to us.

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