Thursday, August 20, 2015

Message to Beginning Seminarians

Welcome to graduate school! If you want to be successful here, you need to know a few things about how seminary works.

First, this is school, not Sunday school or church. We do what we can to help you in your spiritual development. We have chapel. We have faculty advisee prayer groups. We have a course in Reformed spirituality. But you are responsible for your spiritual development, as a man and, as it applies, as a husband and father. We faculty can help, but we aren’t mind readers. If you need help, ask for it.

Second, classes are not exercises in test-preparation. Be aware that tests and examinations can cover anything that the professor covered in class, as well as whatever was in the required reading that he might not have covered in class. It is your responsibility to learn the material presented. If the professor is specific about what will be on tests, he is being kind. It is not in his job description to do so.

Third, you are no longer in college. In college, you might have gotten away without preparing for class, because the professor covered everything in his lecture. Some of your classes here will be like that. But some will not. Some will require that you have worked through the material ahead of time; that you have mastered it, and can discuss it in an intelligent fashion. Make it your aim to do that for every class, as a man studying to show himself approved.

Fourth, learn to listen and take notes. Most of you will want to use your computers to take notes. You are sufficiently fast typists that you can get down every word. But if you do that, all you are doing is taking dictation. Try taking notes with a pencil and paper. Listen carefully to what the professor, and other students in discussion, are saying. Write down the salient points and also what will help your remember the significance of those salient points. You will find that careful listening and note-taking are hard mental work. Then, after class review your notes. Make additional notes that will put everything in context. For some of your classes, your professor will distribute relatively detailed lecture outlines. Do not think of the lecture outline as a substitute for note-taking. Make your own notes and use the outline as a help to remembering.

Fifth, learn to use the Seminary style sheet and the resources given there. Learning to use proper academic style in writing papers is no more than common courtesy, and is part of the culture of an academic institution.

Finally, please do not think of seminary training as a series of hoops through which you must jump before you can get to the real work of the ministry. If that is your opinion, I ask you to drop out now. Seminary is introducing you to the tools of ministry and training you in their use. After seminary you will still have much to learn that can only be learned by practice. But at least you will have the tools you need, and you will know how to use them.

Again, welcome to seminary, and may God bless you in your studies.  

(Suggested by:

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A Well-Ordered Church, William Boekestein and Daniel R. Hyde

In our day in the US, the church is thought little of, even by many Christians. Oh, they attend church but probably not with any regularity. In a recent study, for example, regular church attendance was defined as three times in eight weeks. In other words, a regular attender attended church less than half of the time. This fact, more than any other, indicates the low view of the church held and practiced by many Christians.

This book is an attempt to address that problem. It is a non-technical work on ecclesiology, the study of the church. Underlying the book is the view expressed in the title of a nineteenth century work by Stuart Robinson: The Church of God An Essential Element of the Gospel. The book is divided into four parts: the church’s identity, its authority, its ecumenicity, and its activity.

As to the church’s identity, the church belongs to Christ. He is its head, and in him the church finds its unity. As to the church’s authority, it comes from the Bible to the church through Christ’s appointed officers. As to the church’s ecumenicity, there is an internal ecumenicity, which is expressed in the mutual edification of churches within a denomination. There is also an external ecumenicity, in which churches of different denominations work together for the sake of the gospel. The activity of the church is multiform, including teaching, worship, witnessing, and discipline.

The book presents a standard Reformed view of the church. This is seen in two primary ways: first, in its references to the Scriptures as the basis for all principles regarding the church; and second, in its frequent reference to Reformed doctrinal confessions and catechisms. Each chapter is accompanied with questions for discussion and additional reading. There is an additional bibliography at the end of the book. Most of the additional reading material is non-technical, and easily understood by the average church member.

No one will agree with everything presented here. But the reader who is interested not only in the “what” of the church, and not only in the “why” of the church, but in his own relation to the church will find this a stimulating aid to his thinking about the church.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Modern English Versions and the Greek New Testament

Some of us remember the days before the internet and Google, when a new software program came with an immense user’s manual. If you have ever seen any of these in a used bookstore, you probably noticed that it was relatively unused. The problem with those manuals is that they really were unusable. The indices were usually poorly done and the text was written by the people who wrote the program. Between “geek speak” and making gratuitous assumptions about what the computer illiterate user actually knew, the manuals provided more frustration than clarification to the user.

Modern English versions, in relation to the Greek text of the New Testament, are somewhat like those old user manuals. They tend to assume too much, and hence give the ordinary reader too little information. For example, the Preface to the ESV makes the following statement: “The ESV is based on … the Greek text in the 1993 editions of the Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed.) , published by the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), edited by Nestle and Aland.… in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 27th edition.”  The Greek texts referred to here are the NAET of my prior post. Similar statements are found in the prefaces of other modern English versions. The problem is that, while accurate, it is full of “geek-speak” and thus of relatively little use to the ordinary reader of the New Testament. It does not, for example, note the existence of MT and TR texts. Granted, the NAET is currently something of a consensus text among New Testament scholars, but a significant minority support for an MT probably should merit some recognition. In my estimation, the Preface to the New King James Version is much more informative and more “user-friendly” for the ordinary reader.

The other point at which most modern English versions under-serve their readers is in the textual notes. For the most part, the notes themselves are clear enough, but the rationale behind them is unclear. So, for example, 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in the NIV reads, “the man of lawlessness.” There is a textual note that says, “Some manuscripts sin.” In other words, some manuscripts have “man of sin” instead of “man of lawlessness.” The ESV has the same note. The NASB (1995) has “lawlessness” but no textual note, as does the NLT. What the various versions do not make clear is why in some cases there is a note, whereas in other cases there is not. One might think that the idea is to have a note whenever there is a difference between the NAET and the MT or TR, but that is not supported by the evidence. For example, in regard to one of the most notorious passages in the New Testament (1 John 5:7), the NIV and the NASB (1995) both have a note explaining the “missing” verse, the ESV and NLT do not.

On this issue, my philosophy is “less is more.” The modern English version indicates its textual preference in the preface. The reader should assume that the translation reflects that textual preference. In that case, textual notes are unnecessary, unless there is a case where the translation differs from its preferred text. Then there should be merely a note indicating that the translators have preferred a different reading. As it is, most of the textual notes serve merely to confuse the reader.

Next: The New Testament text and the Westminster Confession.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Removing Verses from the Bible

What do the following verses have in common: Matthew 17:21; 18:16; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; Luke 17:36; 23:17; Acts 8:37? That’s right. They are all verses that the "heretical new translations" have removed from your Bibles. Those “heretical” bibles include the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV. This assertion showed up in my Facebook newsfeed from a Facebook friend who wondered about it, because he had looked those verses up, and sure enough they were missing from the Bible he was using.

First, this is just an old scam from KJV-Only folks that want to stir up people against any translation but the KJV. But the real question is, why are these verses “missing” from most modern versions? The answer is: textual criticism. (Warning: the following discussion is simplified.)

Translations of the New Testament are based on printed texts that are collations (detailed comparisons) of ancient manuscripts. The manuscripts that we have of the New Testament originated in the period between the early second century and the late Middle Ages. These are copies of copies at least. Any time a text is copied, errors will occur. Such things as misspellings, mishearings (some manuscripts were copied by scribes from a manuscript that was read to them), accidental skipping of lines and words, “corrections” supplied by the copyist, and other issues accrue in the copies. New Testament scholars, in working to determine what the New Testament originally said, need to get behind these copies to what the original read. They do this by comparing manuscripts, and evaluating diverse readings on the basis of generally accepted principles. The result is the modern printed Greek New Testament.

There are, at present, essentially three modern printed Greek New Testaments: the Textus Receptus (TR), the Majority Text (MT), and the Nestle-Aland Eclectic Text (NAET). The TR is the text that lies behind the King James Version of the Bible. It was based on a relatively small number of Greek manuscripts. In the four centuries since then many more manuscripts have been recovered.

The MT and the NAET are both modern (20th-21st century) printed texts. They both use a large number of manuscripts that were not available to those who developed the TR. The main difference between the MT and the NAET is the set of principles used to compare and evaluate differing readings in the manuscripts.

Most New Testament scholars today (including theologically conservative scholars) hold that the NAET is the closest to the original New Testament. Some modern scholars (mostly theologically conservative) hold that the MT is closest to the original. Almost no one holds that the TR is the closest to the original.

All modern versions of the New Testament, except for the New King James Version, are based (with some variation) on the NAET. In the judgment of the editors of the NAET, the verses in the list above were later additions to the text of the New Testament. In other words, the modern versions are not removing verses from the Bible; the TR was adding verses to the Bible.

I’ll have more to say in a later post.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Making Sense of Kings

For many people, the Books of Kings are two of the most confusing books in the Old Testament, for the simple reason that the historian is telling two stories at once. Here are some clues to helping make sense of it all.

First, get the big picture. The two books easily divide into three sections. The first section is the reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11). The second section is the period of the Divided Kingdom, down to the fall of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 12-2 Kgs 17). The third section is the story of Judah, from the end of the northern kingdom until the Babylonian Exile. Another big picture item is the story of Elijah and Elisha, which covers most of the material from 1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 8.

Second, get the names straight. The northern kingdom is Israel. The southern kingdom is Judah. The first king of Israel is Jeroboam. The first king of Judah is Rehoboam. Later on there is a second Jeroboam in Israel. There are two kings named Jehoram (also spelled Joram), one in Israel and one in Judah. They rule about the same time. There are also two kings named Jehoash (or Joash), one in Israel and one in Judah. They also reign about the same time. Then there is a King Azariah in Judah, but he is known as Uzziah in 2 Chronicles and in Isaiah 6.

Third, notice how the historian tells the story. He begins (after the split) with Israel, telling the story of Jeroboam. After the death of Jeroboam, he tells the story of the kings of Judah until he reaches past the end of Jeroboam’s reign. Then he shifts back to Israel. It is the back-and-forth nature of the narrative that loses most people.

Fourth, the order of the story is as follows, identifying the king, the nation (I for Israel, J for Judah), and the length of his reign: Jeroboam (I, 22 years); Rehoboam (J, 17 years); Abijam (J, 3 years); Asa (J, 41 years); Nadab (I, 2 years); Baasha (I, 24 years); Elah (I, 2 years); Zimri (I, 1 week); Omri (I, 12 years); Ahab (I, 22 years); Jehoshaphat (J, 25 years). At this point, we have arrived at the end of 1 Kings. 

Ahaziah (I, 2 years); Jehoram (I, 12 years); Jehoram (J, 8 years); Ahaziah (J, 1 year); Jehu (I, 28 years); Athaliah (J, six years, a usurper); Joash (J, 40 years); Jehoahaz (I, 17 years); Jehoash (I, 16 years); Amaziah (J, 29 years); Jeroboam II (I, 41 years); Azariah (J, 52 years); Zechariah (I, 6 months); Shallum (I, 1 month); Menahem (I, 10 years); Pekahiah (I, 2 years); Pekah (I, 20 years); Jotham (J, 16 years); Ahaz (J, 16 years); Hoshea (I, 9 years). At this point, the nation of Israel is destroyed by Assyria.

After the end of Israel, the story is straightforward, because there is only one nation to deal with. The rest of the kings of Judah are as follows: Hezekiah (29 years); Manasseh (55 years); Amon (2 years); Josiah (31 years); Jehoahaz (3 months, then taken captive to Egypt); Jehoiakim (11 years); Jehoiachin (3 months, then taken captive to Babylon); Zedekiah (11 years). At that point, Judah was destroyed, bringing the period of the monarchy to an end as well as ending the narrative of the Books of Kings.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?

I can hear the answer now: Same way I read any book, one word after another.

I just re-read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism and it got me thinking about how we read our Bibles. He makes a distinction between reading for use and reading to receive. Since he is dealing with literature, he’s really making the distinction between reading literature for the sake of the literature (reading to receive) and reading for some other purpose, such as learning truths about life, or learning a worldview (reading for use).

In some sense the Bible is literature. But I fear that most Christians never read it as such. They read it for use, to use Lewis’s category. They read it in bits and pieces. They read selected verses that they’ve drawn together with the help of a concordance so that they can do word studies, or investigate particular doctrines. That’s not necessarily bad. It is an application of Paul’s statement about “all Scripture” in 2 Tim 3:16ff. But the end result of such an approach can be that the Bible is never really seen as anything more than a mine of doctrinal or practical nuggets: verses that can be committed to memory for some memory plan, or pulled out in case of need, like the lists of recommended verses for different counseling situations.

That may be part of the explanation for why many sermons on the psalms seem to completely miss the psalm itself. The preacher has, instead of seeing it as a literary whole, seen it as a series of doctrinal assertions. It may also explain why many Christians have a hard time reading the Bible. They’ve been taught that they need to read it for use. But as they begin to read it, they realize that the only parts they understand are the handful of verses they’ve memorized. Even the Sunday school stories they learned are a lot more complicated than they remember them to be: there’s a lot more to Noah than a big boat, or to David than the battle with Goliath. And don’t even mention the prophets.

Another part of the difficulty is that the Bible isn’t written at a fifth-grade level. Yet folks seem to think that they ought to be able to understand it the first time through. I’ve been reading it regularly for over forty years and there are parts that only now I think I am beginning to get a real handle on.

So try this the next time you read the Bible. First, lower your expectations. There’s a lot you’re not going to understand. There’s even a lot you’re not going to like. Second, get a Bible without the chapter and verse divisions. When was the last time you read a piece of literature that had page-long chapters subdivided into verses? Then just read it. Read it for its own sake. Read it receptively. Read it the way you would listen to a friend tell you a story. You listen because you want to hear, not because you think what he says is going to change your life, or teach you something you didn’t know before. The Bible will do that, because it’s God’s word. But if you read it just because you think you must, you’re missing out on the joy of it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Study Bibles

On my desk at home I have the following study Bibles, in no particular order: the NLT Study Bible, the NKJV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition), the CEB Study Bible, and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. In my office at school I have at least the following (there may be more, but since I’m not there right now, I’ll probably miss some): the 1599 Geneva Bible, the Harper-Collins Study Bible (1st and 2nd editions), and the Apologetics Study Bible. In the past I have also owned the NIV Study Bible, the Open Bible, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, and no doubt others. In addition, there are dozens more study Bibles on the market, some for general use, and many intended for niche markets.

There are two strengths to study Bibles. First, they all include helps to understanding the message of the Bible. These usually include introductions to the books of the Bible, a concordance, maps, timelines, additional theological notes, and brief running comments on the biblical text. In that sense, they are a mini-library for biblical study. For ordinary Christian folks, who have neither the time, the training, nor the patience to labor through larger commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, and other reference works, these Bibles can be an immense help for working through what is often a puzzling book.

Second, because of the helps the reader can often be directed away from dangerous misunderstandings of the Bible that are promulgated by various cults. Or the reader may misread something, due to a failure to understand the language. Study Bibles can generally help the reader avoid these kinds of mistakes.

But study Bibles also have shortcomings. In order to keep the size of the Bible within a reasonable scope (the ESV Study Bible really pushes the envelope here, at almost 2,800 pages) something has to give. Generally what is lost is commentary on the text itself. Comments on difficult passages are often the first to suffer in this regard. Comments can be terse to the point of being incomprehensible. The comments are usually written by specialists on the various books of the Bible, who sometimes do not have a good sense of what the ordinary reader needs. In that sense, it can be like the old computer “help” manuals. They were written by the people who wrote the programs, so they did not understand the needs of the computer-illiterate user.

Second, study Bibles can interfere with actually reading the Bible. Having the text of the Bible surrounded with cross-references, commentary, devotional paragraphs, and theological notes easily distracts the reader from actual reading. They are Bibles, as the name says, for study, not for reading.
Do I recommend study Bibles? Yes, for study. My current preferences are for the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. The former is a significant improvement over its previous edition, with better and clearer commentary, as well as improved additional materials. The latter, while being somewhat hobbled by the KJV, is a very fine resource for family worship.

However, in addition to a study Bible, I also recommend a reading Bible. My preference here is for the ESV Reader’s Bible. Until you begin to read a Bible such as this one, you will not realize how distracting verse numbers, chapter divisions, and textual notes can be to the progress of your reading. It is much easier to read continuously without those distractions, and that continuous reading helps the reader to get a good grasp of the big picture of the Bible.