Tag Archives: Revelation

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

MelanchthonIn her The Roots of the Reformation Gillian Evans devoted many pages detailing the recovery of the biblical languages by the Renaissance and Christian humanists which played a decisive role in the Reformation. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) claimed that Hebraei bibunt fontem, Graeci rivos, Latini paludes—“the Hebrews drank from the spring, the Greeks from a river, the Latins from a swamp” (Evans, Roots, 264).

For a thousand years Western Christianity had relied on the Latin Vulgate and the numerous commentaries and glosses that had arisen around that translation. Copyist errors, traditional and philosophical interpretations, and certain translational decisions by Jerome in the fourth century all muddied the waters of biblical interpretation. Hence the humanist and Reformation cry, Ad fontes!—“Back to the sources!”

One of the Reformers, Philipp Melanchthon insisted that learning the biblical languages was essential:

Led by the Holy Spirit, but accompanied by humanist studies, one should proceed to theology . . . but since the Bible is written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek—as Latinists we drink from the stream of both—we must learn these languages, unless we want to be “silent persons” (Evans, 264).

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Likewise Martin Luther, according to biographer Scott Hendrix:

Erasmus need not have worried that Protestant reformers would destroy good scholarship. All the leading reformers were trained in the classics and most had earned advanced degrees. They had no intention of abolishing the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, since the knowledge of those languages helped to make the reformation possible. Writing to a familiar supporter in 1523 Luther emphasized that point:

“Do not worry that we Germans are becoming more barbarous than ever before or that our theology causes a decline in learning. Certain people are often afraid when there is nothing to fear. I am convinced that without humanist studies untainted theology cannot exist, and that has proven true. When humanist studies declined and lay prostrate, theology was also neglected and lay in ruin. There has never been a great revelation of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning, as if these were the forerunners of theology as John the Baptist was for Christ” (Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 169).

Luther’s final sentence is well worth considering. I have often repeated to my students a comment my former Greek professor made to me: “If you can learn to read the Scriptures in the original languages you will gain 20-25% additional insight into the text.”

A Sermon on Sundays – Matthew 13:53-58

Brown, Nathan & MelissaIt has been a pretty busy couple of weeks, so I apologise for the lack of posts. I have just had the privilege of preaching at Church at: Collective, a relatively new church plant in Hawthorn, Victoria. Although I had to suffer the indignity of going to Hawthorn (think Dockers 2014; Eagles 2015), it is a blessed church, with a wonderful sense of God’s presence in the worship and Lord’s Supper, and rich community amongst the folk there. Pastors Nathan and Melissa (pictured) and their team are providing rich and substantial ministry for the congregation and people in their district. The church has been working its way each Sunday through Matthew’s gospel, and so my appointed text was the little story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, at the end of the chapter on parables. Here is an outline of my  very first message in Melbourne…

1. Jesus Goes Home
The parables of Matthew 13 paint a vibrant picture of the coming and way of the kingdom. Its coming is inevitable, irresistible and progressive, but it is not necessarily easily. The kingdom faces resistance, opposition, and rejection.

Jesus’ reception in his hometown is surprising: those who know him best reject his ministry. In a series of seven questions bookended with “where does he get this stuff?” his friends and neighbours conclude he is no one special, perhaps even a fraud. And they were offended at him. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus has pronounced blessing upon those who are not offended with him (11:6). Why were they offended? Why did they refuse to believe? Perhaps their doubts arose when they started considering all these common-place questions, contrasting what they have heard about Jesus with the everyday “facts” of who they “knew” him to be.

2. Reasons for Doubt
a) Some people doubt because they do not have sufficient background and simply cannot believe. They need first to be inducted into the life, knowledge and tradition of the community so they are prepared by the Holy Spirit to believe;

b) Some people doubt on account of the “family” of Jesus—just like in this passage. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

c) Some people’s doubt is experiential—unanswered prayer, difficulties of life and unmet expectations have left them wounded or disillusioned.

d) Some people’s doubts are moral: they resist the call and the claim of the kingdom.

e) Some people’s doubts are intellectual: the enigma of evil challenges their confidence in the goodness or even existence of God; or the prevalence of scientific naturalism seems to provide explanation enough of the world with the result that God is not needed.

Moments or periods of doubt are quite normal in the Christian life, and may even be the proof of an underlying faith, that in one’s hearts of hearts, one actually believes. Nonetheless doubt is a serious threat for like a wound, doubt can fester into unbelief which is a hardness of heart and a refusal to trust God. In our text tonight, that is just what has happened.

3. Revelation (Matthew 11:25-28)

Although each kind of doubt may require a different response, in each case what is most required is an experience or deeper appropriation of revelation—something easier said than done. Revelation of God is not something we control but something we receive. It is, however, something for which we might pray, both for ourselves and for others. Earlier in his gospel Matthew speaks of the revelation of God given to those who are children (Matthew 11:25-28). This text shows first, that revelation has an aspect of divine sovereignty; it also insists that whosoever will respond to Jesus’ call may come. Unbelief is not inevitable: we may come. Second, the text also shows that God remains hidden, even in his revelation. The treasure of the gospel always comes clothed in an earthen vessel (Bruner). The glory of God was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. When the people of Nazareth stumbled over Jesus’ apparent humanity, they were not open to receive the knowledge of his divinity.

God’s revelation, whether in Christ, Scripture or the proclamation of the church, works in a similar way: it comes clothed in the weakness of humanity. If we stumble or become offended at this human weakness, we will miss the revelation God gives of himself to us.

4. Faith
And Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief (cf. Mark 6:6). According to Frederick Bruner, “Faith is the ordinary way to Jesus’ help. When faith is not present…not much happens” (2:62). The corollary is also true: where faith is present, it just may be that we will see and experience the saving presence and power of God. Faith occurs in the hearts of those who hear the word of the kingdom, receive it gladly, and understand it. It is amongst those that the word of the kingdom brings forth fruit.

And so Jesus says, “Come.” Will you come? Will you trust? Will you trust on the authority and confidence of others who have gone before you? Will you open your heart to Christ?

Migliore on Revelation & Scripture

Daniel MiglioreThe narratives of Scripture are not simply interesting stories to inform, entertain, or edify us. They aim to engage, liberate, convert, and transform us. Their purpose is to tell what God has done for us and to invite us to enter into the new freedom that is ours in Christ. They make truth claims about God and about the world in relation to God, and they call for our personal response. Only as these narratives of the activity of God intersect our own lives, personally and corporately, opening us to a new relationship to God, a new identity, a new life, and a new mission, do they become for us genuine media of the revelation of God (Faith Seeking Understanding 3rd edition, 39).

Daniel Migliore’s chapter on revelation is a study in theological clarity. He defines revelation as God’s self-disclosure in Christ narrated in Scripture. He models revelation as analogous to interpersonal communication, whereby another may become known to us through the persistent patterns seen in their activity, through their promises, and the story in which their character is narrated. Scripture plays an essential and irreplaceable role in communicating divine revelation, while in and of itself Scripture is not revelation but witnesses to the revelation given in God’s redemptive activity in Israel and Christ.

In the citation above, some of Migliore’s commitments are evident. Scripture aims at human liberation and transformation, announcing the redemptive work of God on behalf of all. Yet God’s activity calls for personal response; revelation has both an objective and subjective aspect. Scripture becomes a medium of revelation as it intersects and opens our lives in and through the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Revelation must come to fulfilment otherwise it is not revelation proper, for revelation is not simply the provision of information. Revelation is salvific and transformative, conferring a new identity, life and mission.

Yet Migliore also insists that “the biblical narrative of God’s self-disclosure is an unfinished narrative. It remains open…” (39, original emphasis). Is Migliore saying that Scripture is unfinished, that revelation also is unfinished, that new revelation might be given in the present age that has equal authority to that given in Scripture, or which may even surpass Scripture? He does not say so. He does say that God “continues to work by the Holy Spirit to illuminate and complete the narrative.” His intent is to honour the divine freedom, insisting that God’s self-revelation never becomes our “fixed possession.”

The role of Scripture as a means of revelation is central, and calls for free human response.

On the one hand, there can be no reception of the revelation of God in Christ apart from attentive and trustful reading and hearing of the witness of Scripture in company with other members of the people of God. Only in the context of faith, prayer, proclamation, sacramental life, and service of the church does the transforming power of Jesus Christ attested by Scripture become effective for us. On the other hand, there is always a need for critical appropriation of the revelation of God in Christ as mediated to us by Scripture and the proclamation and life of the church (43).

Migliore insists that the people of God be “active and responsible recipients” of revelation, practising legitimate interpretation informed by a christological hermeneutic. Perhaps most important for Migliore is “the new freedom in Christ” which is to guide all interpretation of Scripture in order to “resist every form of bondage, including those that may be supported by certain elements of Scripture and church teaching.” So important is this hermeneutical lens that in his chapter on the authority of Scripture he insists that,

A major task of theology today is to recover a liberative understanding of the authority of Scripture. Toward this end I will contend that the authority of Scripture has to be understood in relation to its central content and its particular function within the community of faith. Scripture is the unique and irreplaceable witness to the liberating and reconciling activity of God in the history of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ (46).

But this function and power of Scripture can never simply be assumed:

Revelation can never be considered our possession, something we can take for granted. It is an event for which the church must continually pray: “Come, Holy Spirit! Speak once again to your people through your Word” (44).

A Psalm for Sunday – Psalm 11

bird-in-handRead Psalm 11

Although only seven short verses, this psalm speaks powerfully to those facing crises or danger, for it was written in response to some kind of threat and danger. “In the Lord I take refuge; How can you say to my soul, ‘Flee as a bird to your mountain’” (v. 1).

We cannot know who this person or these people are who counsel flight, although we get some reason as to why they do so in verses two and three: the very foundations of society are being destroyed, and the wicked seem to be in the ascendancy. Although they slink about in darkness, they are armed and ready to shoot at the upright and bring them down. It seems there is nothing the upright can do in these circumstances except flee. Perhaps the counsel to flee comes from those concerned for the welfare of the psalmist. Perhaps it comes as a cynical admonition from those who sneer at his faith and think his defeat is imminent and irreversible. Either way, it is the counsel of despair: “Give up! Flee! Take cover! Save yourself; run for your life; seek safety elsewhere and let the city go to the dogs: there is nothing you can do.”

This is precisely what the psalmist refuses to do: “In the Lord I take refuge.” This bold statement recalls the promise of 2:12 that those who seek refuge in the Lord shall be blessed, even if the nations rage, and the “man of the earth” continues to enact terror (10:18).

What can the psalmist see that his counsellors cannot? “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (v. 4). The psalmist is convinced that God is still on the throne, that God reigns, and so the events of earth are not beyond divine sovereignty and providence. God is neither absent nor uninvolved, but tests humanity, weighing the deeds both of the righteous and the wicked. Further, the psalmist believes that God exercises judgement, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous (vv. 6-7). This judgement is  still future for the psalmist, but it is not necessarily eschatological (a judgement beyond the grave), but may in fact be historical. The wicked will in this life get their “just deserts,” while the righteous will receive God’s favour and be vindicated (cf. Craigie). It is possible, however, that the final phrase of the psalm, “the upright will behold his face,” may be understood in terms of the beatific vision promised to God’s people in the New Testament (see, for example, Revelation 22: 4).Archer

Ultimately, then, the psalmist’s confidence is based upon faith. He trusts God because he trusts that the reality of God is more sure and more certain than the disintegrating chaos that surrounds him. This faith has several crucial aspects, which reflect the theological worldview of the ancient Hebrew people:

  1. First, God is utterly supreme, the transcendent ruler, lord and judge of all humanity;
  2. This God is moral, dwelling in his holy temple; he loves righteousness and so hates the one who loves violence (v. 5). The moral nature of God undergirds his activity as judge;
  3. In contrast to God, humanity is morally corrupt, and remains accountable to God who tests all people (vv. 4-5). Yet the possibility of being found among the righteous remains, and those who trust in God and practise righteousness will find that they are sheltered by God, and will “see” God’s face (v. 7);
  4. Judgement is certain, and there is a firm hope that ultimately, justice will be done, with the righteous being vindicated and blessed;
  5. How did the ancient Israelites know all this? By a conviction that this God had revealed himself to Israel throughout her history, and had called Israel into a covenant relationship with God. This knowledge and hope, assurance, courage, and moral vision are grounded in God’s revelation of himself and his will to his elect people.

The central question of the psalm is that put to the psalmist in verse three: if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The psalmist seems to ignore the question, and instead directs his attention to the Lord who is in his holy temple (v. 4). Craigie (133) notes that this hints at the immanence of God: God is not simply transcendent and sovereignly powerful, but also present to comfort, help and support. There is no dualism here, no division of heaven and earth into separate compartments and spheres of rule. God’s throne is in heaven; God dwells in his temple. The same God is lord over all things, sovereignly powerful and yet close enough to shelter those who trust in him.

But is the psalmist evading the question? Perhaps not. For the psalmist, the Lord himself is the true foundation, the only foundation, an indestructible foundation upon which he can build his life and in whom he can trust. Social and cultural foundations may falter, people fail, institutions fade, and civilisations fall, but God remains steadfast. God himself and God alone is our only foundation—an unseen and intangible foundation, but no less real for all that.

What can the righteous do? They can do what the psalmist did: trust more deeply in God, and refuse to abandon their post. If we assume Davidic authorship of the psalm, we find here a leadership that refuses to capitulate in the face of desperate crisis. We find here a righteousness that refuses to hand over the city  to the wicked. We find here a profound vision of faith in the sovereign goodness, presence and power of God—the true foundation upon which a life, a leader, and a city may be built. David stays because David trusts.

A Latin Poem & Natural Theology

the-name-of-the-roseI came across this in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (15):

“My good Adso,” my master said, “during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. Alanus de Insulis said that
      omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum
and he was thinking of the endless array of symbols with which God, through His creatures speaks to us of the eternal life. But the universe is even more talkative than Alanus thought, and it speaks not only of the ultimate things (which it does always in an obscure fashion) but also of closer things, and then it speaks quite clearly.”

This little Latin poem is half of the first stanza of a longer medieval work. The whole stanza is:
      Omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum:
      nostrae vitae, nostrae mortis,
      nostri status, nostrae sortis
      fidele signaculum,

which translates roughly as:

     All the world’s creatures
     As a book and a picture
     Are to us as a mirror;
     in it our life, our death,
     our present condition and our passing
     are faithfully signified.

The poem derives from twelfth century Christian theologian and neo-Platonist philosopher Alain de Lille, and makes the simple point that observation of the natural world can inform understanding of our own life. But it does so only up to a point. This poem is like the book of Ecclesiastes: it can see the reality and inevitability of death, but cannot see resurrection. This is the limitation of all forms of natural theology: it requires the revelation given in Jesus and attested in Scripture if it is to speak the truth of our existence. Umberto Eco rightly suggests that God indeed speaks to us through created things of the eternal life, but only obscurely.

See Psalm 19.