Doodle: Interpretation versus Information

LibraryA few weeks ago, after the men’s Bible study that I am involved in, someone asked me what study notes and material I received at Bible college. We have been reading through Romans and anyone who has read it carefully will be familiar with the occasional confounding phrase, even passage. Therefore the question is understandable. Furthermore, I remember being in awe of Bible teachers as a young Christian in my teens and assuming that with enough commentaries I would be able to do what they did. However after an honours in theology and just over five years in local church ministry I was able to answer this man’s question quite differently to how I might have ten years ago. While there is no denying my library has grown in that time, while my savings have shrunk, what I have learnt formally and in my day-to-day Christian life is that reading and understanding the Bible has less to do with information and more to do with interpretation. Let me explain.

At college we did have courses on specific books of the Bible: Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, Romans, and Ephesians. But, as you might picked up from that list, many books were excluded, even though I lived on campus as a full-time student. You might also have noticed from the list above that seemingly more important books, if one can make such a distinction, were omitted: Genesis, Isaiah,  John’s Gospel, and Revelation. But the value of the book studies we did, along with other more general courses, was that we were taught principles for interpretation, tools for faithful reading. What are those? Simply put, we were equipped to read biblical texts carefully, in context, and by considering things like genre and original or authorial purpose. For example, in our course on Ezekiel we learnt tools for understanding Ezekiel that can be applied to all Old Testament prophecy. Sadly, such an approach is all but lost in many churches today where Bible verses are treated like the sayings of Confucius, explaining the vast theological confusion that currently reigns.

In his useful, compendious, free, and excitingly titled essay New Testament Hermeneutics, G. K. Beale provides a few questions that might further help you understand what I mean by interpreting the meaning of a text:
1. Does the meaning reached fit with the larger context?
2. Is it in harmony with rest of biblical revelation?
3. How well does it illuminate the rest of the passage?
4. How does it compare with other commentators’ interpretations?

What you will notice from Beale’s questions is that commentaries are only mentioned in the last. The preceding questions deal with reading the passage in its context (historically and in the biblical storyline), making use of clearer passages in Scripture, and considering a passage or verse within its immediate surroundings. How you read the Bible is in some ways more important than what you read about the Bible. In the same way that you do not pick up a novel, open up to a page at random and read a couple of sentences believing that that is what the novel is about, we should not treat Scripture as a repository of unrelated but inspiring sentences. Meaning is determined by close reading, knowing the context, and comparing your interpretation with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.

HermeneuticsIn conclusion, if these disparate thoughts can actually be brought together, the Christian faith is not housed in a body of work or library but in the living text, God’s inspired words. We benefit immensely by reading scholars who have sought to correctly interpret the Bible throughout history, we even learn as we study those who interpreted it incorrectly. But at the end of the day we must meet God in his Word, as he addresses us in his text. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself, rebuke his people, and reach those who do not know him.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry and Jesus’ Humanity

 

Jesus If you share a similar Christian tradition to me then I am sure you that have heard comments akin to these about the Holy Spirit, “He is the shy member of the Trinity. He points away from himself and to Jesus. Spirit-filled ministry is Jesus-focused ministry,” and so on. But, developing a point made by Colin Gunton, this narrow, “under-determination of the person of the Holy Spirit,” does not only fail to appreciate Scripture’s presentation of the Spirit but also makes it difficult to give proper dogmatic weighting to Jesus’ humanity. Thus Gunton called the doctrine of the Holy Spirit “the Achilles’ heel of Western theology.” In this post my aim is to convince you that greater significance must be laid on the work of the Spirit if we are to appreciate the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Last year I posted on Christ’s temptation in Matthew 4 and suggested that the Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness and partnered him as he faced Satan (Matthew 4:1). This close tie between the Spirit and Jesus is apparent throughout Matthew’s narrative: as the earliest creeds state, Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (1:18); John the Baptist foretold that Jesus’ ministry would be inseparable from the Spirit’s (3:11); when Jesus is baptised we are told that the Spirit rests on him (3:16). So when Isaiah 42 is quoted, in Matthew 12:17-18, “Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him,” we ought to understand the Spirit to be, borrowing a phrase from Gordon Fee, “God’s empowering presence.” Immediately following that quotation we read Jesus’ stern rebuke of the Pharisees, who were blaspheming the “Spirit of God” (12:28, 31) by attributing the Spirit’s work through Jesus to Satan (12:26-27). Jesus’ ministry, his miracles and his mission, was inseparable from the Holy Spirit’s ministry.

Dove of the Holy SpiritThere are, in my opinion, at least three reasons we often fail to clearly articulate this biblical truth. Firstly, Driscoll, in Doctrine, writes, “All of the major creeds compiled during the early church…overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular.” Jesus’ life was not merely ‘God striding across the earth’ (Käsemann), but a window into the remarkable potential for Spirit-empowered humanity. The second reason, linked to the previous point, is most preachers’ penchant to view every miracle Jesus does as evidence of his divinity. When we do this we overlook Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit (as well as the Father) throughout his life. Thirdly, in discussions about Jesus’ temptation our default position is: because Jesus was God he could not possibly have yielded to Satan’s seductive promises. However, that position, in my opinion, makes the temptation no more than a stage drama. Instead, we should recognise that Jesus was truly tempted but also empowered to stay his course by the Holy Spirit.

Returning to our starting point, one can now hopefully see how underappreciating the Holy Spirit’s role throughout Jesus’ life can result in an overemphasis of Jesus’ divinity, at the expense of his humanity. On the other hand, when we fully appreciate God’s empowering presence then, as Gerald Hawthorne writes, in The Presence and the Power, we rightly see Jesus as the archetype of what is possible in a human life, characterised by total dependence on the Spirit of God. In an old post I compared Jesus’ temptation with our own and concluded that when the Christian is tempted they are empowered by the same Spirit who bolstered Jesus’ resolve. By way of conclusion, a proper appraisal of Jesus’ humanity does at least two things: it (1) affirms the biblical emphasis on and importance of the Spirit in all of God’s work, and (2) reassures us in our struggle with sin and temptation of the Spirit’s presence and power.

Who is the Son of God?

Son of GodNot a bad question if you live in the first century. Most Christians today will tell you without hesitating that the answer to that question is Jesus. What’s interesting is the diversity of meaning once held by a title that today has so singular a meaning. Even though in the Old Testament no individual ever addresses God as “Father”, the reality is that the term existed before the incarnation (and was sometimes used of ‘incarnate’ pagan gods). The question is, if we were to ask a Jew in the first century BC who the son of God was, what would s/he tell you?

Adam

The easiest answer to comprehend or accept for us 21st century Christians is probably the idea that Adam was understood to be the son of God. Consider Luke 3:38, the end of Jesus’ genealogy. Having listed off the various sons of sons through David, Abraham and Noah we come to the last father: Adam. Except Adam is not the last Father. Because we read that Adam is in fact, “the son of God”. The surprise here is not that Adam is the Son of God, but that Jesus is and that Jesus is a son like no other (see Luke 3:22)!

AngelAngels

In Job 1:6 we read that “the day came when the sons of God presented themselves before YHWH and the Adversary was with them” and as we continue reading we realise that we are watching a scene unfold in the throneroom of heaven and these sons of God must be angels with Satan/the Adversary, the angelic being, among them. The NET Notes on this verse are illuminating,

They are not actually “sons” of Elohim; the idiom is a poetic way of describing their nature and relationship to God. The phrase indicates their supernatural nature, and their submission to God as the sovereign Lord. It may be classified as a genitive that expresses how individuals belong to a certain class or type, i.e., the supernatural (GKC 418 §128.v). In the pagan literature, especially of Ugarit, “the sons of God” refers to the lesser gods or deities of the pantheon.

In his Study Bible, John Macarthur claims that sons of God are “identified elsewhere almost exclusively as angels” and cites the three occurrences from Job. This is, however, an overstatement. Job is the only clear biblical presentation of this usage. Nevertheless, to an ancient Israelite “sons of God” could be an angelic reference.

Israel

Perhaps one of the surprising answers to the question posed is that the nation of Israel is understood to be the son of God. In Exodus 4:22 YHWH is telling Moses how the plagues will play out and it culminates in the instruction to tell Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” and on that basis, Israel should be freed to worship. The final plague, the death of the firstborn is, therefore, justified on the basis of aspect of Israel’s identity “since you have refused to let him [my son] go, I will surely kill your son, your firstborn!” (Exodus 4:23).

Likewise Jeremiah 31 expresses the same understanding of Israel’s identity. The images are mixed among the picture of Israel as a virgin but in 31:9 we read,

I will bring them back praying prayers of repentance.
I will lead them besides streams of water,
along smooth paths where they will never stumble.
I will do this because I am Israel’s father;
Ephraim is my firstborn son.

So in addition to Adam and angelic beings, Israel is also on occasion referred to as God’s son.

Kings

As we read the Old Testament we discover one further somewhat unexpected referent of “son of God”. While the Psalms are littered with this sort of reference the most evocative reference is surely 2 Samuel 7 in which YHWH promises David in verse 12,

When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom.

But most significantly verse 14,

I will become his father and he will become my son.

So the King of Israel, God’s king for God’s people could also be referred to as the son of God.

Caesar

Finally, one important factor that we would be remiss to overlook is the fact that first century Israel was under Roman occupation. This meant that the idea of who the son of God was did not stem only from Jewish tradition but also from the Graeco-Roman context. NT Wright puts it beautifully in his Simply Jesus saying that Octavian, having won the power struggle,

He declared that his adoptive father, Julius, had indeed become divine; this meant that he, Augustus Octavian Caesar, was now officially ‘son of god’, ‘son of the divine Julius’.

Wright continues, describing a coin on his desk engraved with a depiction of Tiberius,

On the front, encircling Tiberius’s portrait, is the abbreviated title: AUGUSTUS TI CAESAE DIVI AUG F, short for, AUGUSTUS TIBERIUS CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS, “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”. On the reverse is a picture of Tiberius dressed as a priest, with the title Pontifex Maximus. It was a coin like this one that they showed to Jesus of Nazareth, a day or two after he had ridden into Jerusalem, when they asked him whether or not they should pay tribute to Caesar.

In other words in the first century, one important answer to the question, “who is the son of god?” was certainly, “Caesar”.

Nephilim & the sons of God (Genesis 6)

NephilimNow when we reach Genesis 6 and we read in verse 2 that, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose,” we need to figure out who the sons of God are. Especially since the passage continues with one of the most enigmatic biblical references, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days … when the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children.” So the question “who were the Nephilim” is entwined with the question of who the sons of God were.

MacArthur explains Nephilim by the etymological root of the term as “fallen ones” and therefore also explains sons of God as fallen angels (he cites Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4,5 – neither of which are clearly about this passage let alone use parallel terms). It is doesn’t make much sense to think of angelic beings and humans reproducing.

Another popular explanation is that the sons of God are the ‘godly’ line of Seth – as opposed to the godless line of Cain. Of course, this use of the term is entirely unattested. Diving into such a view also suffers the theological belly flop of producing sinless people after the fall.

To interpret the sons of God as kings, however, parallels its later usage and makes pretty good sense of the text. We find that the mighty men, men of renown, are their descendants. What we often forget is that the primary measure of leadership today has nothing to do with physical strength because today brain normally beats brawn. In the ancient world, however, this would not have been the case. So if the sons of God were kings they would have probably been tough guys, probably bearing the genetic material to produce “men of renown”. The one thing left unsolved by this explanation is the reason for the term “Nephilim” but since the meaning “fallen ones” is basically a guess, I don’t think it’s a major loss to say we’ve lost the significance of the term.

So there you have it, the simplest and neatest (and most Ockham’s Razorly) explanation of the sons of God in Genesis 6 is that sons of God refers to kings and the Nephilim are their big children. There is, however, something far more exciting that we find by tracing the uses of sons of God.

The Son of God in Biblical Theology

Golden Icon: Jesus crucifiedWhile there is diversity to the term “son of God”, within the diversity there is something quite spectacular going on with this elusive character. You see ultimately Christians have forgotten all these other usages in favour of one much later usage: Jesus.

The cool thing about Jesus being the son of God is that he is the second Adam. That’s important because in Adam all die and in Christ all are made alive. So Jesus needs to be the son of God like that.

Another cool thing is that Jesus being the son of God lines up pretty neatly with his representative headship over the people of God. Calling Israel the son of God is kind of like calling Jesus the son of God because the significance of the designation is in the special calling and relationship with God.

Similarly, calling a king the “son of God” had to do with the king’s position of headship over God’s people. In the case of Jesus, Jesus as the true king of Israel is again in this sense the “son of God”.

Jesus completes each of these meanings by bringing them to fulfilment in himself. He is the true Adam who never sins, the true Israel who never rebels and the true king of God’s kingdom who leads rightly. Jesus walks righteously with God and earns his headship and our righteousness, qualifying him as the son of God. But he is more than any of these shadows because Jesus is, in all his fullness, ultimately God the Son.